START VOL. 3 NO. 1 / SUMMER 1988 / PAGE 70
MAKING TRACKS WITH MIDI
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac
By Mard Naman
Fleetwood Mac has been one of the most exciting bands of the last twenty years. Evolving from an English blues band in the 60s to a multi-platinum rock band in the 70s and 80s, "Big Mac" has combined artistic brilliance with commercial success and carved its place in pop history.
The group has seen many changes over the years, but through it all has been the steady beat of English band leader and drummer extraordinaire, Mick Fleetwood. Now for the first time, Mick is leading his band into the wonderful world of Atari-based MIDI. But Mick's decision didn't come easily. In fact, there were doubts and problems that had to be addressed before Mick would make the jump.
"I'm a great stickler for keeping things as natural as possible," says Mick. Over the past few years, Mick had been introduced to drum machines and various MIDI products, but was never interested. "Things weren't natural sounding," he says. That all changed the day Mick met record producer Jimmy Hotz. Hotz is not only a technological wizard; he has also become the Pied Piper of MIDI. From B.B. King to Dave Mason to Mick Fleetwood, Hotz has been able to take skeptical musicians and make them total converts to MIDI.
And Mick might have been the hardest sell of them all. He was not interested in the latest electronic technology and had been known to refer to electronic hardware as "those wretched gadgets." But Hotz changed all that. "I wouldn't be anywhere near this stuff if it weren't for Jimmy," confesses Mick. "He was definitely the right person for me to meet," he adds. "He found a way to make it sound natural and retain the emotion of what I was trying to do. I've learned I can integrate MIDI into my music and really use it in a very human way. I've learned you can apply it to whatever you want. If you want it to sound like a bloody robot, it will. But on the other hand, you can really do some wonderful things with it that are very organic."
The natural sound was crucial to Mick's conversion to MIDI. "To my ear, the sound reproduction is 100%," he says, "Otherwise, I wouldn't be doing it." Hotz says there have been other obstacles that have kept top drummers like Mick away from MIDI, but he has addressed them all. What were they? "One is the lag time in the conversion process," says Hotz. "How fast is your translator? The second is false triggering. You don't want to hit a tom and have your snare triggered. Another is being able to pick up subtleties. These are difficult things, but I've come up with some techniques to deal with them. The drums Mick uses on the road translate the most subtle ideas he could possibly have."
HOW DO I USE THEE?
Fleetwood Mac will be using MIDI technology and the Atari 1040 ST in many ways. Currently, they are putting together a TV special for Showtime, to air later this year. A concert was recorded live at the Cow Palace in San Francisco last year while on tour supporting their latest album, Tango in the Night. To supplement the sounds from that recording, Mick and Jimmy sampled some of Mick's best drum sounds and put those back in the songs. They used the Atari 1040 ST as a sampler and sequencer, with Hybrid Art's ADAP Soundrack System hooked in. They also used the ST as an editor for the many synthesizer sounds they wanted to blend in. The result has been a cleaner, more exciting sound that combines the best of studio and live recording technologies. Says Hotz, "We'll get the best studio-quality kicks, snares and other drum sounds on our live tape."
The band will be touring Europe this spring, and one thing Mick is very excited about is MIDI lighting. Basically, his drumming can actually trigger the lighting changes in the show. Jimmy Hotz is putting the system together for the band and explains, "Every time Mick hits a kick, snare or other drum, the pulse of the music actually triggers the lighting levels."
The advantage of this? "If you're the lighting director, sitting by the sound console 100 feet from the stage, you're hearing a 100 millisecond delay before you punch the lights. Then the lights themselves have certain delays. When you trigger directly from the sound source, it's much more in sync." Here again, the Atari will be used for sequencing. As Mick puts it, "With MIDI lighting, the timing is right on the button. If someone's doing it manually, there's always a time delay from the time you hear the beat and the lighting change."
For their European tour, the band will also have access to sampled sounds for the keyboard and guitar. "We've concentrated on sampling sounds off the last album," says Mick. "Normally, we go on the road and just play the songs with the instruments we've got. This is the first time we're supplementing sounds and it enables us to sound more like the record. I think that's really a big plus and I'm really excited about it."
Another thing Mick is excited about is being able to trigger sounds during his big drum solo. Hotz has actually fitted Mick with a "drum vest" equipped with sensors Mick hits to trigger different sounds. "My drum solo is my vest solo," laughs Mick. "I've got five sensors. Although I could have endless programs, at the moment I use about six." Mick can switch easily from tables to screams to bells--basically whatever he wants to put in there. "I've got human screams, spooky chords on keyboards and other weird stuff. It's a lot of fun."
The sensors are touch- and pressure-sensitive. Mick hits the vest on the different sensors to trigger the sounds. "Basically, I'm beating the hell out of myself," he laughs. "I'm abusing myself in public! I come out from behind the drums and that's essentially what it looks like--I'm beating myself on various parts of the body."
Mick, who delights in being a little off-center, relishes the role. He's especially fond of one unusual maneuver. "I've got one sensor right over my codpiece, which always goes over big with the audience," he says. "For one of the settings, as I hit myself in the crotch, I get the sound of breaking glass!"
MOVING RIGHT ALONG. . .
When Fleetwood Mac returns from their European tour, they plan to go back into the studio almost immediately. They already have most of the songs written. With the departure of Lindsey Buckingham, they are anxious to put out a record with their new band members, Billy Burnett and Rick Vito. One of the things they will do for the next album is sample Stevie Nicks's vocals. Says Hotz, "When the band starts the new record, I'm sure we'll sample her vocals and fly them into choruses."
Hotz already has experience with this. When he worked on B.B. King's latest album, Stevie Nicks sang background vocals on one song, and Jimmy flew them in. Hotz says in the future the band may sample Stevie's background vocals to use in concert. "But," he warns, "if you sample background vocals, you better make sure when you trigger the vocal that the tempo of the song is exactly the same. Otherwise, she starts on time, but she doesn't finish on time."
Mick is particularly looking forward to the sounds MIDI technology will enable him to explore on the next album. "It's real nice having so many options," he says. "I'm looking forward to doing some real weird stuff--like spreading sound around. I've heard what MIDI can do to spread drum sounds, like taking a snare sound from left to right and having it disperse. You'll get to hear it on our next album."
"My main interests are the bass and snare drums. On the next album, I really want to use MIDI to build up layerings of sounds, endless amounts of snare drums piled all together. The power of stacking 12 snare drums together is unbelievable, incredible!"
For Mick Fleetwood, using the new MIDI technology is in line with the band's philosophy to keep evolving. He says, "As a band, we try to keep going forward and to keep getting better at our craft."
It's clear that the Atari ST and MIDI are helping Fleetwood Mac do that.
Mard Naman is a freelance writer who specializes in personality profiles, and is a frequent contributor to START.