Key Issues: Roger O’Donnell: Making Music À La Moog - EMusician

Key Issues: Roger O’Donnell: Making Music À La Moog

For a word that started out as someone’s name, “Moog” has entered the lexicon as a synonym for electronic keyboard wizardry. From building and popularizing the Theremin during the ’50s, to introducing a keyboard device that expanded on this concept by allowing the creation of sounds without any real world counterpart, the late Bob Moog’s work led directly to the ability of a single musician to compose and record multi-layered audio productions. In other words, it led to you.
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For a word that started out as someone’s name, “Moog” has entered the lexicon as a synonym for electronic keyboard wizardry. From building and popularizing the Theremin during the ’50s, to introducing a keyboard device that expanded on this concept by allowing the creation of sounds without any real world counterpart, the late Bob Moog’s work led directly to the ability of a single musician to compose and record multi-layered audio productions. In other words, it led to you.

And there is no one more Moogy than Roger O’Donnell. Having served an apprenticeship in a succession of rock bands (Thompson Twins, Psychedelic Furs, The Cure), he’s arrived at poster-child status for the possibilities of the Moog Voyager, the latest and most versatile Moog synthesizer. His new album, Songs from the Silver Box [Great Society], is a tour-deforce that demonstrates the limitless potential for crafting profoundly expressive, emotionally stunning music by sitting at a keyboard, staring into space, and letting your imagination run wild.

COMPOSING VIA LOOPING

“The Voyager is an incredible instrument,” O’Donnel declares. “I compare it to a paint palette: You can mix any color you want, in any kind of time signature. Usually I’ll just be fooling around, I’ll find a sound, and then the sound will suggest the rhythm and the pattern. That’s how each song starts. Then, when I have a groove going, I release the loops, let them play, and play over top of it. For example, take ‘The Prince of Time’ and that plucking sound in the first phrase. I will have played that for maybe a minute or two—maybe more—and then found the best bit of it, cut it out, and looped it. From the discovery of the first sound, it’s a very quick process. I usually have finished the whole song within two or three hours.”

O’Donnell records these performances into Apple Logic (through a MOTU 828 into a Macintosh computer) with a fairly sparse complement of controllers and peripherals: Mackie Control Surface, two 20" Apple Cinema displays, a Mackie Big Knob for monitoring, and Mackie 824 monitors.

RECONCILING THE RIGHT AND LEFT BRAIN

“I think of Logic in the computer as my left hand, and the music goes through the middle of me and out to my right into the Voyager. It’s like one fluid, conjoined organic thing. The song will suggest a slight change in an envelope, tightening the filter slightly, or using a different wave shape; there’s not a distinction between those aspects.”

FORGET THE HOUSEKEEPING, KEEP THE CREATIVITY

“I pay attention to [housekeeping , like setting tempo, levels, and naming tracks] only at the start, because I can’t stop [the creative process]. If I stop it, then I lose the process, lose the creativity. So, yeah, the housekeeping things tend to get overlooked. When the rhythmic part of the song starts, I’m going ‘Okay, yeah, what’s that . . . 90 . . . yeah, 95 beats per minute, that’ll do it.’ All of my songs are either on the ten or the five BPMs.

“Engineers hate it when I give them tracks for remixes, because my levels are all over the place, and sometimes I’ll start before the Voyager’s tuning is stable—the whole track ends up sharp. Creating my music is a very instant thing, but sometimes when it’s all over I wish I had set things up differently at the beginning.”

ON THE “DEMOCRATIZATION” OF MUSIC

“I think it’s great—it allows millions and millions of people to make music—and it just shows the level of creativity in a lot of people is incredibly high. In the old days, when it cost a million pounds to record an album, who could do that? Who could afford a multitrack machine? But now, you can walk into a shop, buy a little setup, and bang out an amazingly good-sounding record. I’m still blown away I can burn a CD—when I started, all I had was a Fender Rhodes!”

On his new disc, O’Donnell worked with Bryan Michael (beats programmer), his partner Erin Lang who sings on three songs, and Australian singer Lenka Kripac, a long-distance collaboration that yielded the infectious “In Your Hands Now.” The title and lyric came from a tossed-off comment of Lang’s: After O’Donnell had finished the instrumental track and was ready to send it off, she commented, “Well, it’s in her hands, now.”

His website, www.rogerodonnell.com, includes detailed discussions of his career, a guided tour of his studio gear, his favorite keyboards, videos of live performances, and even a tasteful, tinkling ringtone.