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E&MM Peter Vettese Interview

By Mike Beecher

The following are Chroma-related excerpts from the article "Computer Musician in Rock," an interview with Peter Vettese (misspelled as "Vetesse" in the magazine) from the September 1983 issue of Electronics & Music Maker. Thanks to ZooTooK for providing a photocopy of the article.

Peter, what has made you turn towards computer-oriented instruments?

I haven't made a conscious effort to actually turn to computer instruments, I haven't done anything like that, I've found through a gradual learning process — that started with an ARP Odyssey and continued through many various analogue monophonics to analogue polyphonics and lately digital synthesizers — that there are many ways in which a computer can help my performance input techniques and means of storing the input, as well as storing prepared sequences. One obvious advantage with something like this instrument here — the Roland MC-202 Microcomposer is that it kind of frees my hands and we can have an absolutely accurate backing track done even within a few seconds.

For a colour version of the picture above, see the ChromaTalk thread Rhodes Chroma Scan with Jethro Tull's Peter John Vettese (September 2009).

The way I do this is by writing the music, discussing the part that I should be playing with Ian [Anderson, of Jethro Tull] and writing music and entering the pitch data, the gate data and the step data, and we'll have an accurate and groovy bass track in the first take!

With instruments like the Rhodes Chroma, the computer aspect of the thing [see for instance Playing the Rhodes Chroma with the Apple II Sequencer], as you know, has changed our thinking away from the volt per octave control and more towards digitally scanned keyboards. Now it's a microprocessor that scans the state of readiness of the synthesizer, which obviously makes operation quicker and more versatile.

The Chroma was designed from the outset to interface to the Apple II and various other micros and it gives me a chance to initially store many programs and recall them in a couple of seconds. As far as live rock work is concerned, I can go through hundreds of programs per night and have them sequenced in order of events from the computer.

So how did you reckon on using an Apple IIe or Commodore 64 or some other computer with your current system on stage?

I started using the Chroma with the Apple II and later updated to the Apple IIe. So the Apple sees 16 independent synthesizers, which means that, along with all the very complete expression devices that are on the Chroma: velocity sensitivity, pressure sensitivity, plus spring loaded modulation levers, I can assign extra control of most functions in a creative way. Any of the input that you have expression wise will be recorded by the Apple II as well as the note playing and sound programming information. So its use is virtually like an 8-track or, with an Expander, a 16-track tape recorder with all the realtime expression that you care to put into a performance retained. You can clock the sequences from an external source and this is important for stage use.

If Ian and I toured this kind of music on tour from this album [perhaps he was talking about Walk Into Light], then we could perhaps clock some of the backing tracks played on the Chroma, using a clock in from a Linn Drum say, playing all the various parts on the album that [I] originally played. But I would still do some of the lines that were important to play live.

You're a creative musician who likes touch sensitive keyboards and things like that and you're having to give away some of that to introduce the computer on stage, because the computer then takes it over at your press of a button and it plays a sequence. So you're giving up part of your playing for that machine, and I wonder how quickly the computer musician will become the all-embracing musician or whether he will always be part of the existing creative player?

Well, my thoughts about the musician and the computer run along these lines. Anybody that says no matter what music they play, if it's classical music, if it's jazz, if it's rock, if it's anything, if they stand on the side lines and say "oh dear, this computer music is taking all the feeling away, it's robbing us of jobs, it's doing this and it's doing that — these people I have no sympathy with. I'm also antagonised by the fact that they just stand back and say "Oh no, definitely not because I play piano," because I was doing a demo of the Chroma in a well-known music shop in London and somebody came up to me and said, "Of course, I play the piano and it's touch and all the rest of it," and that kind of attitude which is just so ridiculously short-sighted. Whether or not you can play keyboards or whether you can' play keyboards, whether you're fantastic or not, the computer and computer related devices are shaping the new developments in music making and anybody that chooses to ignore that, be it at their own peril!

What do you currently use on stage with the Chroma? What are the instruments you are using now?

On the American Tour I didn't have the Chroma at that point, that was ended in November of last year, so I didn't have the Chroma until I got back from America. On the American Tour I used the Yamaha Grand Piano and I had the JP8, OB-Xa, the Promars, CSQ 600 Sequencer, a Roland Vocoder Plus, and all the various peripherals plus my custom-built hand-held monophonic synthesizer for going out front, posing and trying to see if there's any good-looking women in the audience!

So on stage you've got a Chroma keyboard with the Chroma Expander on top?

On the forthcoming efforts I will have a Chroma with an Expander or perhaps I will have a few Chromas with a few Expanders, because as you know the Chroma simply duplicates any of the things — it doesn't increase the polyphony, simply paralleling two different sets of sounds together.

Has the Chroma offered you any real improvements in playing and composing now you've exploited the playing and composing sides?

Yes. First, I feel that the Chroma allows a musician to put his stamp on not only his playing, his style of playing, but also his sound, in other words he not only goes down on record playing the way hopefully that he wants to, but he also comes out sounding the way that he personally wants to.

For instance, although you can spot piano players all over the world, you can spot styles and stuff, it's a piano and it may be wonderfully recorded but it's a piano; and there's such things as wonderful technique and great singing cantabile and all the rest of it, but I can be exactly the way I want sonically and technically by playing the Chroma. The Chroma has made me rethink my playing, where perhaps before when I had my Oberheim, my soloing tended to be of a Jan Hammer type — it would be guitar-type bends and that sort of thing. But the Chroma tends to change my attitude because of the keyboard. I can return to the way I really should be playing which is the way I want to be, sometimes I do pitch bends, other times I'm just playing in a more pianistic type of way.

I think it's a good thing to practice pitch bending, but it is somewhat overused and I notice nowadays that another style that's emerged is to play more saxophone-type phrasings — pitch bends bending from underneath the note instead of bending up to it. And also to do saxophone-type things like the Stevie Winwood thing from 'Arc of a Diver' or sometimes harmonica-type phrasing. I notice too there tends to be another style where synthesiser soul-type lines can develop.

What about the pitch bend wheels themselves. How do you come to terms with Chroma's rather simple sliders? Well, it's a bend lever that looks like a slider, isn't it. Do you find that adequate or do you go for the more horizontal Roland kind of approach?

I don't mind, I quite like the quantifiable pitch bend where you can definitely see that you will bend whole tones or some other interval accurately, because there's nothing worse than guitar players especially bending up and not landing on the notes. It's something very satisfying when they do but diabolically horrible when they don't and if you know there's a passage you are going to play where you want to bend whole tones, it's nice to quantify it, as you can on Roland stuff. Then again, the Chroma allows me to specify most intervals and I need not necessarily have one lever for modulation and one for pitch bend, I can have two different depths of pitch bend and I could have the modulation on the pedal. I could also leave the last thing into the program reachable by the main panel Parameter Slider to be the amount of quantisation of the thing — so I could change it if I wanted to during the course of each specific passage.

Isn't it more likely that the MIDI will be of greater benefit than say a dedicated system like the Chroma which is restricted as far as we know to the Chroma and nothing else?

Well, possibly, I think the MIDI is obviously a wondrous step forward to be able to interface things together and you can layer sounds and stuff like that and you can also clock things properly and what not, but the Chroma has actually gone out on a limb and said that synthesisers and microcomputers will be as one anyway and ultimately I think that research and development will gel in future Chroma products to have a dedicated user instrument with in-built micro capabilities and you won't necessarily have to rely on patching lots of things together in order to do that sort of thing. The MIDI is a great idea but I believe that the way Chroma is going at the moment in terms of their research and development is the right way, as far as I can tell.

Provided it has the expansibility then you're not worried?

That's right. The Chroma can link up to five Expanders. Future Chroma products will not only be able to parallel the Expanders but also to put them in series to increase the polyphony and the amount of programs, and sequences, so I think it's going the right way.

How important then is it to you as a person who writes music down to have VDUs perhaps showing music on stage. Would you like that possibility?

I never like to see bits of music floating about on stage in a band situation, unless of course it's incredibly difficult to remember. I don't like to see that because it's just not nice, I don't like it, the kind of music that Jethro Tull plays it's not so complex as to have music floating about, and I wouldn't ever think of a time where I would have to look to anything to be able to remember something that happened. If I did, then of course we haven't rehearsed properly or I haven't rehearsed properly! But I could see that it would be a good idea to perhaps have something equivalent to an auto cue with music being screened.

On the other hand, as far as the Chroma is concerned, it would be nice to have all parameters displayed, but of course that might be getting away from what the Chroma tried to do in the first place because, even displayed on a screen, it's a kind of analogue way of incrementing various different functions, that you could do with a lightpen or whatever. But the Chroma relies on a slider incrementer for making setting changes, and now Korg use two switched to put things up or down, and even the Synclavier has an incrementer. I quite like the incrementer idea, people might think it's slow, but I quite like its very orderly way of doing things. The new Chroma Polaris just unveiled uses analogue controls for all the things that you would tend to gratuitously twiddle with anyway during a performance, plus assignable controls. I suppose that's the one thing that the Chroma has taken away from the new synthesist is the opportunity to twiddle! But it's still built around the normal synthesiser functions, an oscillator, a filter, an amplifier with assignable envelopes to each of an ADSR variety if you wish.

Do you feel that the algorithms are adequate then within the Chroma as it stands?

Well, the algorithms in the Chroma relating to the various keyboard algorithms and the way that it assigns its oscillators to the notes that you play, I don't feel have been quite fully developed yet. There are some things that I would like to try and sort out for instance, with keyboard algorithms 3 [all channels, polyphonic] and 4 [all channels, monophonic] — well 3 is a note sharing thing, if you play one note all 16 oscillators are in unison but it's not sharing where you can play chords as well — but 4 is completely monophonic with all 16 oscillators on the one note that you play and I would like to be able to change the priorities of that setting, I would like to be able to make it top note, bottom note priority, even with all 16, and also I would like to be able to change things so that it can, for instance, leave the amplifier open all the time when retriggering notes, just simply retrigger the filter instead of having to retrigger the filter and the amplifier every time. It means that you can't do trills, you know, holding a finger down you have to retrigger every time.

How do you choose for example between the Jupiter 8 and the Chroma now, because they both have tremendous potential on the sound making side?

Nowadays I tend to think of 'no contest' because I'm very much enamoured with the way that the Chroma performs and responds to my input. I would say that the plasticy robotic type of clinical approach works well with the JP8 and is very good from that point of view, and of course you can clock the arpeggiator so you can do runs the likes of which would take many years to get together.

I would also never deny that I like the monophonic synthesisers, you will still see a monophonic synthesiser in somebody's set up, I do believe these multiple set-ups ... with keyboards rising, I do believe that kind of things — I'm not so keen on seeing that anymore, I think that's the hankering for days of yore.

Do you have any particular notation that you use now?

At the moment I would think that the best way would probably be a fairly long-hand explanation. For instance, making notes on my sounds is not so difficult with the Chroma as I simply note which group it was, which bunch of programs it is, which numbers I used, whether there's any editing to be done during that, what I edit during that thing. It's a fairly long-hand way of going through things and also I note — I don't know if you saw the sound synthesists memo that's a schematic of the MC 202 panel — the various positions of the sliders in relation to a specific tune.

Before you chose the Chroma, you must have looked at all the current micros, like the Commodore, the Sinclair Spectrum, and looked at maybe the music facilities of those. Did you go through that process?

Well, strangely enough, it kind of worked around the opposite way for me, the first thing that drew me to the Chroma was the fact that it had this keyboard and it had just something about it. It's a flawed instrument but it's gloriously flawed, the way that the Yamaha CS 80 was a gloriously flawed instrument, it just sounded fantastic, invariably it was never in tune anyway, but the Chroma struck me as yes, here's something that's taken up where the CS80 left off. And that's what drew me to it. Then when I found out that it was interfacable to a computer which I knew to be more and more important in the role of the synthesiser player or at least the computer musician, then I got more and more interested in the computer side. So it was the instrument that drew me to the computer, not the computer that drew me to the instrument.

Didn't you find that the editing of the Chroma sequencer as it stands is really a hard job?

Well, yes, it's bloody difficult. The editing of the thing is a drawback. The other thing is it has kind of missed the point in a number of ways, although it's fantastic it's got all these things where it can record all the various dynamic expressive input, but it's kind of got it wrong in a couple of ways — as indeed the Roland MC-202 has got it wrong.

It would have been nice if on both of these instruments the Chroma interfaced to an Apple or whatever micro and the MC-202 had an error correct function the way that the Linn Drum has: it corrected to the nearest 16th, 32nd, 8th, whatever, it would do an error correct so it might encourage slovenly playing but who cares, but it would have been nice if we could have done that error correction. Also, as far as the Chroma is concerned, it would have been nice if firstly we could have had a way of entering information in step time rather than real time because most of the information that you enter into the Chroma via a via performance is of course done in real time, so you will be limited ultimately with this software revision with how good a player you are unless of course you do it a note at a time and do ... 8 track or 16 track multitracking which kind of perhaps defeats the object slightly and also, yes you're quite right, the editing facilities are not fully developed and they would have to find out a way of portraying the appearance of the bar in a more visual way.

Has the Chroma taken you a long time to master?

It's not the kind of instrument one can say "I've mastered this." But all the ballyhoo about the Chroma not being understandable, is ridiculous. There are two independent channels that you can edit, each has eight oscillators A and B. You can turn off the B oscillators whilst you attend to the sound shaping of the A channel eight oscillators, and you can then go on and switch off A, turn on B and do B, and continue the way that you would with any other synthesiser i.e. you assign the envelope generators to the filter if you wish, and envelope shaper to the amplifier, you would find out how much filtering you want, you find out how much resonance you want, you check what kind of tuning you want, and also very importantly with the Chroma, it's virtually a digital version of a modular system where you can change the position of the filters and ring modulators and the amplifiers in relation to the oscillators. So from that point of view it's virtually modular. Of course, the temptation with synthesisers is "Oh wait a minute, I have 120 programs stored so let's have a different program for every millisecond that elapses!" But it's all to do with you musical sensibilities. And, I think the important thing to communicate to people that are hot players and are coming to computer music 'don't be frightened.' You don't have to know everything about how the computer works, you don't have to know the technicalities about a synthesiser too much, I mean, but there are books that will give you a basic insight into synthesis.