Tag: Producer

Tim Curtis, 2019

Tim Curtis, producer, engineer, musician

He started out with a LinnDrum and an Oberheim OB-8 when he was about 12, 13 years. “I still have them. And they still work.” Tim Curtis, producer, musician and tech wizard, has been around the block for many years. Need to get that punchy sound we all love so much? He’s the one you gotta call. Need to get things up and running again? “I fixed-up Prince’s two Fairlights in less than an hour.”

Tim Curtis, 2019

“To me, there’s no such thing as old school or new school. Some prefer working with software and a bunch of plug-ins. Some prefer working with hardware. To me, a table with a flatscreen and a couple of monitors on it; It’s as boring as it can get. The way I’m doing my job hasn’t changed very much. For me, it still works. ” He has a stack of vintage synths and some other fine gear stored in his Blinky Room. His three Fairlights – a Series I, IIx and a III/MFX2 – are set up in his home. “I’ve used the Fairlight on practically everything I’ve worked on.”

‘Look what I’ve won!’

“I was a big fan of bands like Duran Duran. A lot of music of that time period sounded great. I was convinced I could make the same good music if I’d have a Fairlight.” When he was twenty years, he bought his first CMI. But, in order to find one, he had to do some detective work. “Back in 1986, Keyboard Magazine was having this Fairlight give-away contest. A Series IIx; probably the last one, for the later models were already on the market. I entered the contest. Unfortunately, I didn’t win. Somehow, I managed to find out who did. It was a woman called Cherie. Not really into the tech stuff, not a professional keyboard player; just a lucky devil, loving give-away-contests. I think, it was her boyfriend at the time who told me it was sold to a studio in Davenport, Iowa. I called the studio and made arrangements with them to buy it. I never actually spoke to Cherie until a couple years ago. As it turned out, she didn’t have much use for it. She kept it for about a year. Most likely, she’d fire it up, playing the dog barks to her friends on parties. Eventually, she sold it.”

“The studio she sold it to never even set it up.  I got it with about 10 hours on it. “It was July 6, 1990 when I picked it up. I remember it well. It was a three hour drive in my powder blue Ford Escort, no air conditioning. Michael, a friend of mine and my bandmate, was waiting for me at my place. We carried it in, fired it up and figured out how to load sounds. Before that, I had never been in a room with a Fairlight before. I remember listening to the string sounds, thinking: ‘Now I have the power everyone else has…’. It felt pretty awesome.”

Hotline

Back in the early nineties, the Fairlight CMI wan’t considered vintage yet. Just older, yet valid technology. “Information on the instrument wasn’t really available at that time. There was no internet and there were no e-mail groups, and around that time, the original Fairlight company went bankrupt. So, there weren’t many people around knowing about this older technology. I’d spent lots of time trying to find fellow owners to share some knowledge with. That’s how I came into contact with Clive Smith, who knows the machines from the inside out. He did the soundtrack for Liquid Sky, he worked on the Hall & Oats album Big Bam Boom back in the early eighties, just to name a few examples. He was more than happy to share his knowledge with me. I still have the notes I took during our phone calls. I remember having huge phone bills. He answered all my questions, he was very patient. He taught me every bit there is to know about the Fairlight.”

Fixing famous Fairlights

Tim studied the machine in depth, composed a lot on it, and so, the IIx became the main tool in his studio. “There weren’t that many users at that time, for people got more into newer and cheaper alternatives. But there still was a group of Fairlight-users out there who needed to keep them going. So I started a users-group. Suddenly, I was getting phone calls from people who were idols of mine. Like, from the Duran Duran-camp, Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears… When they needed technical support, they’d call me. That was a cool time.” Meanwhile, Tim did a lot of work in the studio, working with lots of bands. And then one day, there was this call from Andrew Brent, the West coast Fairlight technical genius. He started an independent company, handling support for CMI’s in the US. “It was 1996. Prince wanted to get his Fairlights up and running again. Andrew asked if he could pass on my phone number.” Tim got a call from Prince’s Guitar Tech, and a few days later, he arrived at Paisley Park. “Prince had two IIx machines. He wanted to use them again, but they didn’t work anymore, the floppy discs were lost and so were the manuals. I got them up and running again within the hour. For a year or so, I freelanced for Prince, being the keyboard guy. It was a cool time.”
People who closely followed Prince’s career might remember him, moving into another direction around 1996. Tim: “He decided he wanted to do things differently. He fired the band, the maintenance crew; basically everybody who worked in the studio at that time. I didn’t realise it back then, but I think I came in, right after his former staff went home.” After his death in 2016, some studio pictures were released; evidence pictures, taken by police officers. They were all over the internet. Tim: “The Fairlights still were there.”

Defining moment

With his three machines, and the ones he fixes for others, you can say, Tim got himself a home full of Fairlights. “Nowadays, about 30 years later, I’m still doing a lot of Fairlight stuff besides my other studio work. I just fixed one of Stewart Copelands’ old machines, along with two or three others from befriended colleagues.” He adds: “I’m still getting requests for renting out my Series IIx. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s just because it just sounds awesome. People still want that sound, which is a pretty cool thing.”

Obviously, through his Paisley Park-experience, he got noticed. It got him a lot of work in the LA music industry. “But, I think it all started the day I got my first Fairlight, back in 1990. Because of that machine, many doors had opened up for me, giving me the opportunity to work with a lot of good people. That day in that powder blue wagon, picking up that IIx….That was a defining moment in my life.”

Honouring its history

“I guess you could say that I’m kind of a devotee to the CMI as an instrument, without judging it for its technology, or trying to improve it. It seems that 80% of the people who are new to the Fairlight community are interested in having it as some kind of attempt to legitimise themselves – ‘80’s cred or something – to capitalise in on a retro craze. Another 10-15% are trying to ‘modernise’ it instead of appreciating it for what it is. You know, I’ve got a ’69 Pontiac Firebird. If someone should be putting a Tesla engine in it, he should be flogged. Same rule applies here. The over-repeated comments are focusing on how old the technology is. Who cares? It’s not a PC to game on, it’s an instrument that was beautifully designed and crafted; the product of a lot of forward thinking vision and a response to feedback from some of the most creative people in the field. Yes, your iPhone has more computing power. But, who fucking cares? Your iPhone hasn’t been used to create some of the greatest music of our generation. Cheesy as it may sound, the Fairlight CMI, to me, is up there with great instruments such as a Steinway or Stradivarius. With this difference: The CMI was first of a kind and therefore, unique.

J.J. Jeczalik – programmer, producer, musician

Except for the occasional game, he wasn’t really into computers. It was the late ’70’s and some early adopters could see it coming: ‘Computers are the future, you know? Don’t learn to lay drums, learn how to type!’ He ended up becoming keyboard tech for Buggles’ keyboardist Geoff Downes with this brand new beast called the Fairlight CMI. The rest is history…

“I never was that interested in all the tech stuff. I was more interested in what it could do.”

A quick browse through the Discoqs database, or a pair of well trained ears, will tell you there’s a touch of J.J. hidden in dozens of music productions. To begin with, there’s the ZTT-catalogue, including Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Propaganda, ABC and the Duck Rock album by the notorious Malcom McLaren. There’s the excessive list of other artists he worked with, including Paul McCartney, Billy Ocean and the Pet Shop Boys. On top of that: there’s the Art of Noise. They won a Grammy for their rendition of Henry Mancini’s Peter Gunn (featuring Duane Eddy), they helped to revive Tom Jones’ career, their music was featured in several tv and movie productions, but most important: J.J. and his colleagues introduced us to a fresh new way of doing things.

But let’s start at the beginning. J.J. Jeczalik, geography student at Durham University, took a year off, moved to London and found himself a job as the tech guy for prog rock band Landscape. “The bass player had built the band’s PA, and I helped him out. Really nifty. I think during that time, I learnt pretty well how to solder properly.” By that time, he started reading about the possibilities of computer technology. “A friend of mine recommended this book about the future of computers. I remember reading something in the line of ‘By the time of the year 2000, everything will be on the internet.’ I was intrigued by the possibilities of computer technology. It was a new era.”

Through his work with Landscape and Richard James Burgess, who did the drums on Video Killed The Radio Star, he met The Buggles, being Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. And that’s when J.J. got acquainted with his soon-to-be working horse. “At first, we didn’t really know what to do with it. So I just tried and figured it out myself. I did read the manual, but it wasn’t very helpful. It was about muddling through. I think most of us did, back in the day. I remember Blue Weaver, then keyboardist for The Bee Gees, telling the very same thing: just try, and see what it does.” He adds: “There weren’t any platforms or forums, like there are nowadays. I think we’d exchange some user experiences while being at the events hosted by Syco Systems.”

J.J. Jeczalik with CMI, in black and white

“Of course it was great. This expensive machine, the price of a house, and Trevor gave me his to develop it for him.”

The art of noise

And then there was the historical night when J.J. and Gary Langan messed about with the Yes drum loops. “We played it to Trevor. He liked it. He said something in the line of: ‘It needs some more melody.’ So he called in Anne Dudley and she came up with the beautiful chords and musical textures on top of the jumble Gary and I were making. You know, It’s funny: my Art Of Noise colleagues were looking at me like I was the computer wizard. I, in turn, was a bit nervous because I didn’t have any musical skills at all.“

Special artefacts

Often, J.J. was out with his tape recorder, hunting for sounds. “I was living in London at that time. I wanted to record the horses that galloped past my house almost every day. So I asked permission to do so. I recorded the horses, but it didn’t sound as good as I’d hoped for. At the same time, my neighbour was starting her Volkswagen Golf a few times. I played it back and thought it was a great sound. It’s not just the car you’re hearing; it’s the sound of the trees, the space between the houses. Especially when slowed down, you can hear every nuance. The same goes for the tennis court, where I took some recordings. Its sound had very specific characteristics. I’m pretty sure I can recognise which tennis court it was, just by hearing it.” Did the girl next door know her starting car ended up on a hit record? “No, I don’t think so. I never played it to her.”

Anne Dudley, Gary Langan and J.J. Jeczalik – reboot Art of Noise’s In Visible Silence – live at the British Library, March 2018. Credit: Marc Pinder

Aiming for the brain

One might say Art Of Noise is all about happy accidents, imperfections and having fun.And about Vibe, J.J. recalls. “Back then, it was all about ‘Does it have the Vibe?’ To me, it’s that unexplainable process happening in your brain when you’re on to something. That unique sound or atmosphere. It might be something small, but big enough to trigger some kind of response to your brain. I’ve always tried creating something that tricks the brain; something you can’t really identify, but yet sounds familiair. For instance, the word Paranoimia. I wanted to give it just that little twist, to puzzle the brain.”

“I don’t want things to be dull.”

Camilla Pilkingington’s Hey!’ is another example of that extra bit of vibe. “My girlfriend at the time told me she knew this girl at her school, with a beautiful, clear sounding voice. So I went to the school where she was teaching and we made some recordings. The bits where she just tried some phrases and made some mistakes turned out to be the best parts.”

Plenty of Moments

Moments in Love started out with this sample Anne gave me, and I had a great idea for a melody; It kind of dropped from my fingertips. But I couldn’t really remember what I’d played. Anne, having perfect pitch, remembered it and played the notes again. And off we went. Again, having fun with it. The best version is about nine minutes long. And yes, we tried to make it the most boring piece of music possible. Actually, there’s a lot going on in the track, thanks to Gary playing around, adding effects to the percussion parts.” Well, this little nine-bar-loop-tune must have inspired a lot of other recording artists. It has been sliced, dissected slowed down or sped up in more than a hundred songs, mostly hiphop/R’nB. J.J.: “I know it was played during Madonna & Sean Penn’s wedding ceremony, I know it’s been used a couple of times. So, I’m aware of it, but I don’t know all of these songs. The fact that it’s so widely appreciated: I think it’s great!”

Full-time jobs

Aside from being part of the ZTT production team for the first half of the ’80’s, and being part of AON, he was a freelancing Fairlight programmer, remixer and producer. “It was just working, working, working. I did the bits and pieces, and was just having a lot of fun while doing it. Most of the time I had no idea how it would end up on a record.”One of his first jobs as a producer was with the Pet Shop Boys. J.J.:  “Artists like the Pet Shop Boys always renew themselves, looking for different people to work with. When I was asked to work with them, I basically was thinking I’d be making another ZTT kind of record. But it wasn’t that way at all!”

“I used to bring my entire collection of sounds, carrying the floppy disks around in this big brown bag. Mostly I’d just go there, sit down and be like: ‘Ok, let’s play around…’ ” Laughing: “That was me, being a producer back in the ’80’s. Now, I would sit down, ask about the idea and talk it through.”

Second life

After being in the music industry for more than fifteen years, J.J. decided to move into another direction. He became a teacher in IT at two Oxfordshire high schools. His good old Series IIx was collecting dust. “For a long time, it just sat there in my house, this big machine. I wasn’t really doing anything with it. You know, you start to have a family, having other responsibilities… I figured I might just sell it. So I sold it, back in 1995 I think.”

His students didn’t know about his former career. That was until the Internet became commonplace. “It never came up, except at the end of my teaching career, not long before my retirement my students began looking up their teachers: ‘Hey, Mister J, is that you?’ ” By the time he retired, little by little, the music making returned into his life.

For that, he needed to retrieve his personal sound library. “I hooked up with a friend of mine in Bristol. He had some disks stored from 1982. I could tell immediately, from my handwriting, what was on them. Like opening up a file somewhere in my brain. You know, It all comes down to labeling your files properly.“ He also got some help from the members of the Fairlight community on Facebook. “I think I got all of my sounds back right now. It’s nice to have them back.”

Credit: Marc Pinder

Final thoughts

He still loves the instrument, but doesn’t really feel like using it anymore. “The Fairlight, it’s not the easiest piece of equipment to carry around. You need to look after it, be careful with it… They’re not the easiest machines for playing live. I use Macs and soft synths now, for I don’t like to carry heavy stuff around.” Laughing: “You see, I’m a bit of a lazy person, and put everything in a rucksack!”

“But It’s nice to know there are still people out there, caring for these sounds and caring for such old machines like the Fairlight. For me, it was great to work with. And back in the day, it was revolutionary. But to me, it’s all about coming up with ideas and creativity for making the music. You don’t necessarily need a Fairlight for that.”

Dudley Jeczalik Langan reboot Art of Noise's In Visible Silence - live at the British Library, March 2018. Credit: Marc Pinder
Credit: Marc Pinder

 

Links / additional sources: 

The Art of Noise Online https://theartofnoiseonline.com/JJ-Jeczalik.php

WhoSampled.com: https://www.whosampled.com/Art-of-Noise/Moments-in-Love/

The black-and-white photo and the one @ Monsterrat Studio’s, taken from the J.J. Jeczalik Appreciation group on Facebook