Roger O'Donnell: The Truth from the Voyager

Find out how keyboardist Roger O'Donnell created the ethereal songs for The Truth in Me the old-fashioned way: one track at a time with a monophonic analog synthesizer.
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Find out how keyboardist Roger O'Donnell created the ethereal songs for The Truth in Me the old-fashioned way: one track at a time with a monophonic analog synthesizer.

Although Cure veteran Roger O'Donnell can use any synth he wants, the recent Moog documentary inspired him to focus on just one—the Moog Voyager—for his latest solo project, The Truth in Me (99 X Out of Ten: 2006). The result is a collection of songs that shows the sensuous and moody side of the Voyager.

The tracks have a relaxed, Eno-ish quality to them, which is accentuated by Erin Lang's whispery, childlike vocals. In this exclusive interview, O'Donnell talks about synth programming, songwriting, and his collaboration with Lang.

Where did you get the idea to do the project entirely on the Moog Voyager?
It started when I was talking to Moog about being an affiliated artist. They told me that there were some people making a film about Bob Moog, and they were looking for people to contribute to the soundtrack. I, of course, jumped at the chance.

So I thought, "What would be the best way of writing a tribute to Bob?" I thought back to my early days when I didn't have much gear, and there were no samplers around, and I would create everything using synthesizers: bass lines, drums, strings, everything. I thought a cool thing to do would be to try and compose a song entirely on the Voyager.

I was surprised by the result. It had been a long time since I had a synthesizer as usable as the Voyager. So stable, and also so emotional and so rewarding. It came quite easily, that first song. They used it in a very special part of the film where Bob is talking about spirituality and I was really moved by that.

Later I was helping with some of the promotion around the film, and over dinner, the producer, Ryan Page, said that he thought that the song was really important to electronic music in developing new ideas and that I should write an entire album using that concept. At the time I was working on an album of my own with orthodox instrumentation—a real band kind of vibe—but I thought, "Why don't I try to do something on my own like this and try and make the Voyager work for an entire album?"

I was also inspired by Björk's album Medulla, where she just used her voice. That inspired me to think of the Voyager as my voice. It worked: I started on the first song, and they just kept coming. They didn't sound alike. They had, obviously, a certain feel to them, a certain coloration. But I thought that each song had its own identity.

The main thing for me was that I could get emotion out of it, and make it feel organic, and not make it try and sound like another instrument—to make it sound like a Voyager, and just get everything that I could out of it.

Did you program your own sounds from scratch?
I didn't start with any presets: I would start from scratch. Every day I would go into the studio with the idea of writing a new song based on finding a new sound. Or not necessarily that formulaic. I would just go in to the studio and start working with the Voyager and I would find a cool sound and think "That would make this melody work." Or the melody would present itself.

Did you program the Voyager's x-y pad as part of any patches?
I've tried it from time to time, but I've never used it. I'm old-school, I guess, because my left hand always falls on the wheels. And I have to be able to add vibrato. So there's nothing left to touch the x-y pad.

Did you use MIDI tracks to play these into MOTU Digital Performer, or did you play them in using a click?
I used a click. When I started writing the first song for the soundtrack, it's obvious, but it hadn't crossed my mind that the Voyager isn't multitimbral. I originally thought, "Okay, I'll play this line in using MIDI, then I'll find another sound to see if it works on top of this one." But of course you can't do that: it's one sound, one note at a time.

It's very much like a destructive process. I would find a sound, record it, and then move on to another sound. I used MIDI only on one track. It was a song I'd written previously using a piano, "This Grey Morning," and I really wanted those chords in there. So I recorded the MIDI, then recorded the Moog one part at a time. Once I had that, I brought it back in through the Moog's filter again and did all kinds of tricky things with it. That's the only song where I really altered the sound.

On the beginning and end of "This Is a Story," did you process drum tracks through the filter, or are those Voyager percussion sounds?
Those are Voyager percussion sounds. They're just white noise sculpted into the shape of a kick drum. Every sound, apart from the vocals, is from the Voyager.

Were the tracks recorded in your own studio?
Yes. We did all the recording in my home studio, then we went to Germany to mix it with Mario Thaler.

I've never really paid much attention to mics and preamps, being a keyboard player. We did the scratch vocals when we were working them out, and I thought I'd better get some better mics. One of the guys from Focusrite came down to my studio and brought some preamps. And I bought a matched pair of Blue Bluebird mics from him, because I thought it would be nice to record the piano with them later, as well.

Where did you meet Erin Lang and when did you start working with her?
I met her a few years ago when I was in Toronto on tour with the Cure. She played me some of her songs, and I really loved her voice. So we started writing together. Actually, it's more writing apart: she would write her own songs and give them to me, and I would arrange them and produce them. We've been working together for a few years now.

When it came to putting vocals on this album, I thought her voice would fit. It really works well with the synths.

On this particular project, did you write together?
No. I have very specific ideas of how things have to be. I find it quite difficult to work with other people. When I hear a song, I hear a part and that's it. I can't really change it. So, I wrote the melody lines and the words. But she arranged the harmonies.

Did you do any external processing with effects, like Moogerfooger pedals, when it was time to mix down?
There is a wah-wah pedal on the last track, ". . .And So I Closed My Eyes." That was a nod to Jimi Hendrix, who was a big influence on me when I first started playing. I used the MuRF pedal on that one track.

Initially we mixed it through Mario's vintage Neve desk, with all kinds of outboard analog effects. But because of the way I'd recorded it, and because I didn't have very good levels, we ended up with tons of hiss. We tried to run it through a dehisser, and it wasn't until it was mastered that I realized that we'd destroyed the record. The dehisser was eating through the upper frequencies and the frequencies that cross through it. This beautiful analog sweep would become a staircase up and down, with all these digital artifacts around it.

So we took it back and mixed it entirely in [Apple] Logic, with internal processing using plug-ins. I think we ended up with a much purer sound. And then I mastered it with Guy Davie at the Exchange in London.

I particularly like the vocoder-like sound you got in ". . .And So I Closed My Eyes." Is that the wah-wah?
Yeah, it's a Roland distortion wah-wah pedal.

Are you planning to do any of these pieces live?
I'm trying to work out how to do it live. I've been working with Ableton Live, using the recorded loops.

I noticed on your blog page that you talked about releasing the individual tracks as Apple Loops. Do you still plan to do that?
Yeah. I started the other day and got two songs done. It's quite a laborious process getting good crossover loop points. And Erin's not really sure she wants me to give her vocals away. She's still very self-conscious about people hearing her singing without anything. But I think it's an open concept to give the loops away.

I did a very limited-release solo album in the mid-'90s, which was really a MIDI nightmare, if you listen to it now. But I made all the MIDI files available for that. It just allows people to see somewhat into your creative process and see how you make music.

And it would be great to hear what people could do with the loops: use them in their own songs, remix mine, or whatever. There will be a request area on my Web site, so if somebody wants them, then they can just make a request through the Web site and I can mail them out. It won't be a commercial thing.

Are you going to make your Voyager patches available?
You know the biggest regret I've got from making the album is that I didn't save the presets as I was going along. It was such stream-of-consciousness, capturing the moment, that I couldn't stop for that two seconds to save the presets. And I'm kicking myself now, because I'm trying to re-create them for live performances.

When you find the sounds for the first time, it's easy because you're not looking for anything: they find you. If you go back and try and re-create them, I'm finding it to be virtually impossible. Some of the sounds, I don't even know where to start. I would've made them available, because I think that's really cool as well.

Do you care to describe the soundscapes that follow the last song on the CD? I was listening while looking at your Web site, and then I suddenly realized that you were doing the dishes.
[Laughs.] There was a Jack Bruce album in the early '70s. And at the end of the record he stopped singing, and you can hear him pour himself a glass of water and drink it. And I thought, "That is just really cool."

In a sense, my album doesn't really have any physical space in it, because it all exists inside the Voyager. It's not coming out through an amplifier in the studio and being miked. So, I wanted to somehow humanize it and give it some space, and just make it down-to-Earth.

The elapse of time between the end of the album and the hidden sound effect is me walking from my studio back into the kitchen. I open the door, the birds are singing, I put the kettle on, turn the radio on, make a cup of tea, the cat's crying, and then the whole thing ends with the pips that come on the hour, as you'd know if you lived in England. It's me making a cup of tea and sitting down, supposedly, at the end of the record.

The funny thing is that if I listen to the album now, and I'm in my office and I just leave it running, I hear the door open and I think, "Wait a minute. Somebody's gotten in the fridge." And the cats freak out when they hear it.

What's behind the title, The Truth in Me?
It just presented itself. This is me, musically. Where I am right now. I'm not trying to be commercial. I'm not trying to make it listenable. Every influence I have ever had comes out in that record.

People have said it sounds a bit naive and it sounds a bit open—kind of fake spiritual or something like that. It's not. It's just really the truth.

The record has a moody quality to it - almost brooding. Is it the sound palette that the Moog gives you, or is there something else going on?
I think it was a French philosopher who said, "Happiness writes white on the page." If you write happy music, it's not as engaging somehow. I think the darker emotion is more interesting.

I tried to write a couple of happy songs on there [laughs]. The working title for the album was Sunny. Then the lyrics turned out to be about breakup, or when you get to the end of a relationship and somebody's like "I thought I knew you. What happened to that nice person I met two years ago." So it turns miserable in the end.

But happy music comes and goes, doesn't it? Whereas music with a darker emotion has a much stronger effect. You can make the Moog sound like anything. I like to keep it dark and emotional.

Did you ever say to yourself, "The Moog is great, but if only I could get the sound from keyboard 'x' that I'm hearing"?
No, I never once thought that. I knew I had a box of paints that had yellow through blue, and that was it. I never felt restricted. I never thought I wanted it to sound like anything else. It suggested and fulfilled its own end.

What's your next project? No doubt you have something else you are working on.
I was seriously considering doing something 180 degrees different: an album of piano and cello. One of my best friends—he lives in Toronto—is a very fine cellist. He's got a rock sensibility, and he can play in time to a click, and he's in tune. I thought it would be really nice to do something totally different from this album.

But then I realized that if I've piqued people's interest in the instrument, and the sound, and that genre, it would be kind of traitorous to turn on them and not continue that journey with that instrument. So I think the next record will be a development of this sound. It won't be restricted: I certainly won't have the rules that I won't use any other instrument. I'll bring in other instruments and collaborate with other people.

More information about Roger O'Donnell and his music can be found at O'Donnell's new label is 99X/10.