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Sound creation on the Nord Lead A1 – Interview with Richard Barbieri
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Sound creation on the Nord Lead A1 – Interview with Richard Barbieri

Musician, composer and sound designer Richard Barbieri is probably best known for his work with pioneering eighties band Japan, whose classic albums include Quiet Life and Tin Drum.

After Japan split in 1983, Richard continued with solo projects and then reunited with the band in 1989 on their acclaimed Rain Tree Crow album. As well as continuing with his own solo albums, he has also been a long term member of the progressive rock band Porcupine Tree, helmed by Steve Wilson and featuring legendary drummer, Gavin Harrison. He has also teamed up with Marillion vocalist/songwriter Steve Hogarth for both the ‘h band’ and solo projects. Richard’s most recent album of work, ‘Under A Spell’ was released early in 2021.

Richard kindly agreed to contribute to Sound Technology’s Sound Creation series, revealing some of the programming methods he uses on his Nord Lead A1 to produce some of his unique sounds. By his own admission, he is not a technical player. His considerable skill is manipulating synthesisers in unusual ways to produce innovative sound designs that encapsulate movement, textures and ambiences. Approaching synthesisers in this way, shows that you do not have to be a dextrous player in order to produce beautiful and complex music.

Richard’s tutorials highlight the versatility of the Lead A1 and demonstrates that it is quite capable of creating some incredibly diverse sounds. The Lead A1 is a traditional analogue modelling synthesiser and does not use samples so, everything you hear has been created just by editing the controls on the front panel.

If you own a Lead A1, then there is a bank of sounds created by Richard that you can download for free to your keyboard here.

While we were filming, we took the opportunity for a quick interview with Richard:

What first got you into playing/programming synthesizers?

Having a lack of conventional keyboard technique and no real understanding of music theory, I fortunately found a way to be creative using synthesisers. The controls became more important than the keys and I focused more on programming sounds than worrying about my playing ability. Brian Eno was a big inspiration for me at the time.

Given how expensive they were, back in the day, what was the first synthesiser you bought. And, did you stick to one synth or did you build up a collection?

My first was a MicroMoog mono synth and I used that, among others on the first 3 Japan albums. It’s a great synth with a number of routing possibilities. Very flexible. A few more analogue synths followed and I still have most of them in good working order

What instruments did you use whilst you were playing in Japan?

During the Japan period my synths were the Roland System 700 Lab series semi modular, the MicroMoog and the Oberheim OBX. I started using the Prophet 5 on the last Japan tours, but from 1983 onwards I’d say that synth has probably been on every recording I’ve been involved with. It was the first analogue polysynth that could store patches and this revolutionised live performances for me since I used so many different sounds on the record and could now reproduce those live. I recently acquired the new Prophet 5 rev 4.

You have quite an extensive back catalogue of music, both solo projects and collaborations - namely Porcupine Tree and Steve Hogarth. How did those come about and were you given free reign to create your own sounds for those bands?

I'm always given free reign to create sounds and parts. Apart from the two bands I have been a member of (Japan & Porcupine Tree) I’ve made collaborative albums with Steve Hogarth (Marillion), Tim Bowness (No Man), Steve Jansen, Mick Karn, David Sylvian and recently released my fourth solo album. One naturally gets drawn into working with other artists that you find interesting. I’ve never been a session player and don’t have that mentality so when working on other people's material, I’m free to do my own thing and that’s the reason people ask me to be involved.

Do you have any favourite sounds that you have created over the years?

I think the intro sound to the Japan track “Ghosts” is pretty special and I’ve never quite managed to replicate it. That song was a top 5 hit and it was quite weird hearing an odd track like that played on the radio every hour or so. I’m pretty proud of the sounds I achieved on the “Tin Drum” album in general.

What are the prime functions you look for when purchasing a synthesizer?

I think I’ve found things I like in virtually every synth I’ve ever tried but I’ve a preference for a good design and layout, so that you can program up sounds and ideas very quickly. I like it to be tactile. I'm not really into loads of pages and menus. Having all the controls easily accessible is important. Plus of course the quality and character of the waveforms.

Are there any of your tracks from recent albums where we could hear the Lead A1 in action?

I used the A1 for lead lines and FX on the title track of my recent solo album “Under A Spell” And on some very new recordings that will surface in 2022.

Are there any new projects in the pipeline that you are able to talk about?

No. By that I mean there are, but I can’t talk about them yet :)

“I hope this has been of interest to you. We’re all different in our approaches to how we make sounds and how we compose music. But, if you have a synth that offers you a lot of programming possibilities, like the Lead A1, then that really helps in getting you to a place quicker and speeds up the creative process”. - Richard Barbieri

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