J.J. Jeczalik: An Interview with the Fairlight Master
The Art of Noise programmer takes Matt Anniss through his career with the synthesizer
J.J. Jeczalik is one of the world’s foremost experts of the Fairlight synthesizer. As a freelancer, Jeczalik was in the studio with artists as diverse as Yes, Paul McCartney and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, but it was his work as the co-founder of the Art of Noise that he is perhaps best known. His pioneering approach with the unique machine helped create some of the most indelible moments in ’80s pop music. In this interview conducted for our recent exploration of the Fairlight, Jeczalik talks about the machine’s role in his career.
How did you first come across the Fairlight CMI?
I first came across it when Geoff Downes bought one. He was, at that time, the new keyboard player joining Yes, replacing Rick Wakeman. Prior to that, he’d been in the Buggles with Trevor. I started working for them, and suddenly they became part of Yes and Geoff built this huge keyboard rig. I think we had about 17 keyboards on it, and he acquired this new thing called the Fairlight CMI. That would have been about 1979.
I’m guessing previously you’d been programming other analog synthesizers, modular stuff, rather than a computer. How easy or difficult was it to get to grips with to begin with?
I’d like to be able to say that I’ve spent many hours over a hot soldering iron and oscillators, and so on and so forth, but I came into this as a complete newbie. I was interested in becoming a drummer, and Richard James Burgess, who was the drummer of Landscape, said to me, “Don’t become a drummer. You should learn to type. Computing is where it’s going to be at.”
This must’ve been 1978. This was a pivotal statement, and so I started getting interested in keyboards, by which I mean QWERTY keyboards, because back then, they were quite a rare beast in themselves, and started fooling around learning to type, so I came in to the Fairlight from a completely unmusic avenue. I just knew that it was a significant beast. But I had no prior programming and knowledge at all.
Page R transformed the whole machine.
To begin with, were you mainly using the Music Control Language?
Yes, you’re talking about MCL. MCL was rather an ingenious control line musical note generating system, and by control line, those of us who are old enough to remember DOS know that you had to type in every single bit of a command, using slashes, colons, semicolons, and any number of other keyboard inputs, to create an event. What you were creating with MCL was a note event. There was no iteration in it, so you couldn’t go “play C1 for a beat.” You had to put all the rests in. You had to pretty much do the ADSR, so you had to tell it what note, what velocity, what the sustain was and what the release was, for each individual event, but you couldn’t then iterate that and go “just repeat,” like you can do with a drag and drop. It was all command lines, so if you wanted to do a bass drum on fours, you had to type in every single event.
That must have been incredibly long-winded.
It took many, many hours of programming, and to be honest with you, I wasn’t terribly happy with the outcome, but the guy I was working with was thrilled that we were using the latest technology.
Did things improve with the advent of Page R and the sequencing program?
Page R transformed the whole machine. Page R is essentially an 8-track monophonic sequencer, but you could copy and paste a bar, not by dragging and dropping, but by typing the command. That was a lot easier than MCL, so you’d just go bar one, bar two, repeat, and it would do it for you very quickly.
Did you use the light pen wave form control for altering the sounds?
That was an interesting one, because the light pen was mainly used to communicate with the machine, a bit like a mouse pointer. It was a pointing device, in the strict sense. In fact I know that some people have more recently replaced the light pen with a mouse. It was a way of navigating around the system.
I’ve got to admit that I never got it to work with modifying the wave forms at all. I just couldn’t get on with it. I found that it was too clunky. I talked to several other people who used it, and they couldn’t get any sense out of it either. I saw the power of the machine very quickly, and its ability to sample and playback.
The floppy disks, I think they had a 128kb of RAM on them, so you had nothing in terms of storage.
In modern terms, the memory capacity wasn’t that great. Was it a second of audio that it could hold?
The capacity at the time was at the cutting edge of technology, but you’ve got to remember, this is 8-bit processors. Some of them were 4-bit I think, which were again cutting edge. 16-bit and 32-bit had just not been considered, and if they were, they were way too expensive, so it was 8-bit. The preferred default sample rate was 40 kilohertz I think. It gave you under half a second.
I tended to sample at 14 kilohertz and get about a second-and-a-half out of it. That meant that there was an incredible amount of aliasing and gaps in the sample because it was 8-bit and it was struggling a great deal just to get the sound sampled and then store it. The floppy disks, I think they had a 128kb of RAM on them, so you really had absolutely nothing in terms of storage. That meant you had to work pretty hard to get the sounds to work as individual noises because you didn’t have a lot of time to play with. Each one had to have its own identity and its own shape.
It must have been incredibly time intensive if you were trying to use a lot of samples to make drum noises and then have those in the sequencing page and turning that into a rhythm track. In Page R there were only a certain number of elements that you could have going on.
And, initially, with Page R it had a number value on it, but it didn’t have a BPM number. I think it had a clock number and you had to do a bit of maths to figure out what the approximate BPM was. It would say something like “3,286,” and you would look at it and go, “I have no idea what that is.” Then eventually we had a readout thing that told us what the BPM was and started moving towards a position where you could sync it to time code on the 24 track. In the Art of Noise, we ended up pretty much using no more than four or five tracks at a time. We’d record that, having worked out the arrangement, and then put everything else on top of it live.
We’d play the piano, we’d have percussionists in, we had guitarists, we had any number of people who could play, and without realizing it at the time, what we had was this extraordinary rhythm going underneath. I think it still has a unique groove to it, if you like, because of the way the clocks were working, which was just hammering away underneath.
Gary Langan used to make it sound awesome. Then we’d have these guys and girls come along and play things on top and it sounded incredible. You had an element of the human on top that was grooving a bit on top of a locked down machine sequence.
The Fairlight drums I tended to sample tended to be bigger, loud ones and they sounded pretty bad, but Gary managed to give them a lot of energy by using compression and reverberation and everything. The sounds had a lot of energy, but there wasn’t a lot of sonic detail to them. There was a huge amount of audio left on a track to put other elements in. Boom crack boom crack, there wasn’t really anything there. The way I’d describe it is it’s a bit like using Polaroids. Polaroids give you a very good idea of what was going on, but actually when you look at them in detail, there’s nothing there.
The one thing that’s noticeable about a lot of the Art of Noise records, particularly the earlier ones, is that there’s quite a lot going on and quite a lot of use of odd things as rhythmic elements. The engines starting and that kind of thing. I’m guessing those were all in the Fairlight, and used up and down the keyboard.
Absolutely. There were as a pivotal moment when I was on a McCartney session, and he had some sounds of trombonists on tape which I put into the Fairlight, and he started playing chords on them. He said, “That doesn’t sound like a horn section.” I said, “Paul, it’s not a horn section.” It sounded a bit like a Hoover because it was basically a whole load of trombone samples being looped and played. It sounded terrible. I realized at that moment that expecting the Fairlight to replicate musical instruments was a complete waste of time because it was very good at some and pretty bad at most of the others.
After that, I started looking for really interesting sounds that had an identifiable character. I went independent and ended up working for Trevor Horn. He bought a Fairlight and said, “Take it home, get into it, get some samples together, and I’ll give you a couple days notice and come in and do sessions.” I did that for him for two or three years before we started ended up creating the Art of Noise.
I would be sitting in my house with the Fairlight and a Revox A77 [tape machine]. I became very good at editing quarter inch tape, which is a skill everybody should learn because it’s fiendishly difficult. Half inch is okay, two inches, all right, but quarter inch, my goodness. I had microphones and I would record things as and when I could.
One of the first things I wanted to try and do was people used to ride by on horses every day. I asked if I could record them, so I had the microphone out the window, and I went and had a cup of tea, and then I came back. I was listening to the tape and the horse sound wasn’t very good but then I heard my neighbor’s car go up the hill, stall, and then drive off. That became the car start.
In hindsight, one of the reasons why it sounded so good is that I lived down a little lane in a flat, and it was surrounded by trees and so just by happenstance, the mics were picking up all these multiple reflections from all these trees that made the initial sound really huge because it had the equivalent of, I don’t know, 50 micro delays in it.
I began to realize that the context of the sound that you were sampling was also key. So I got seriously into going into breaker’s yards, tire shops, anywhere where the ambiance started to become part of the sound. Gary was brilliant at turning those into really high impact sounds by whatever knob twiddling as far as I can work out.
How were the samples kept? Was it all floppy disks?
Yeah. I had a huge, huge leather bag. The interesting thing about that was I knew where every single sound was and I knew every single box. It was all in my head, I had no library or anything. Someone would say, “Well, we need this.” And I’d go, “Okay, how about this?” and put a disk in.
About a year ago I got a call from a guy in Bristol and he said that he just got a whole load of disks from a studio, and would I like to come down and go through them with him. So, I went down there and he opened a box and I instantly recognized my handwriting. I don’t think I’d seen those disks since about 1986 and they all worked perfectly. They’d been locked in a cupboard for 30 years.
I’m quite interested in the freelance session work you were doing for Trevor. How did he tend to want you to use the Fairlight?
Early on, it was primarily sampling. I wasn’t generally involved in the sequencing and the tracks. At that point I was coming in and adding a bit of, I don’t know what you’d call it, interest perhaps, a bit of mayhem. In later years, Steve Lipson said to me, “I knew we were in trouble on a session when they said that you were coming in, J.J. You’re always here when we get a bit stuck and needed a way out of something.”
What inspired the Art of Noise?
Well, Gary Langan understood probably better than me the limits and the abysses of the Fairlight. He also understood, having worked with Trevor for a long time, the need for a really solid backing track. In simple terms, bass and drums that enabled you to then put a track on top.
Gary was working on the Yes, 90125 album and had Alan White in the drum room. They had a talkback mic in the ceiling where the studio can hear the drummer, but not the individual sound. Gary realized that the talkback mic was creating the most incredible sound, so he had Alan do some grooves, and he also had him thumping a bass drum, whacking a snare drum, and doing a hi-hat. Eventually he was saying to him, “No, no, no, Alan, I just want the bass drum, the snare, the hi-hat, all individually.”
Then one Friday, we were working and Gary said, “I’ve got all these sounds, do you want to have a play?” We just started playing and we played overnight until Saturday morning, and in effect created “Beat Box (Diversion One),” as it became known. We were just goofing around. We recorded things like finger pops, Gary and I going, “err like that.” There’s a sound that goes, “yenom,” which is us going “money” and just flipped it round, because it amused me. There’s something interesting when you flip sounds round, or you flip them round halfway, or you do weird things with it. I was doing quite a lot of that at the time, so there’s lots of bits and pieces of the library on there.
We played it to Trevor on the Monday, and then he said, “You should get Anne in to put some music on it.” It was a bit brutal, it had no tunes on it to speak of, and then she ended up putting the piano at the end. We were just having a bit of a laugh. That was the combination. Gary and I tended thereafter to do rhythm tracks and they might just be three noises, four noises. Then we’d look at how we might add things to them in terms of overdubs.
I don’t think there are necessarily any other records that were made that were so dominated by the Fairlight. Maybe there were.
Well, the Fairlight was at the core of what we did. It would be safe to say that in the early days we never started a track without the Fairlight, the samples, the ideas, the craziness, everything started there. If you take “Moments in Love” for example, Anne gave me a cassette of the orchestra stab one Friday, and said, “Why don’t we see what this sounds like?” I put it in and I was playing with it over the weekend.
When we started a session on the Monday, she said, “How does that sound?” I loaded it up and I just pressed the keys, ba, ba, ba, ba, and she said, “Okay, that’s brilliant!” And because she’s got perfect pitch, she went, “Right let’s have a pulsing eighth note, put the voice in.” She remembered the melody that I’d played, I have no idea what it was, and that became the track. It started from a sample, it started from a basic melody of mine and then an atmosphere. Then we had discussions about what to do with it. I said, “Let’s make it the longest, most boring track we can.”
I mean, after that people post-rationalized it, and the title helped push it into other areas. But actually what we wanted to do was just drive people mad with it, its repetitiveness. It was a bit of laugh to us, it was a bit laugh that we had a lot of nine bar loops in there that people didn’t spot, but enabled us to create the little stop bars here and there. When you put a stop bar in a track it means you can completely rebuild it. Trevor liked his stops, where you clear everything away, and then rebuild.
Hence how it strips down to just the clicks and then comes back in.
All that was basically just a way of enabling us from getting bored. “Yeah, we have the 16 bars, 32 bars, let’s stop it, let’s put an extra bar in.” Which is unusual. People tended to work in four in terms of bar loops. Put a ninth bar in and then you can add what you like after that, you can just start again. It’s the most brilliant device. We just started doing that and every time we came to a stop bar we did something that made us laugh basically.
As time went along and the Art of Noise story progressed, you left ZTT and went to China Records. Was the Fairlight still an important part of it?
By the time we left ZTT and went China, I’d bought a IIx which was slightly better, and eventually I bought a three. Which had very good sampling quality. The Fairlight was still at the center of what we did, but not uniquely. We would still be kicking around ideas on the Fairlight, but for example “Opus 4” was not created on the Fairlight. I was taking my machine to get fixed at the time.
Anne and Gary started this and just started looping something, but it’s the same attitude. It was finding something looping it, fiddling with it and then generating an atmosphere. We were always trying to generate an atmosphere that provoked interest or provoked boredom, or just provoked. I thought being dull was unacceptable.
The Fairlight enabled people like me, who had no real musical experience or programming experience, to get into creating music.
Those records certainly weren’t dull, and the writing that Paul Morley did that surrounded them was never dull.
Paul’s writing helped encapsulate and focus what we were doing. For example, we started “Moments in Love,” as I mentioned earlier, as a purely instrumental track, and we gave a cassette to Paul. The following week he said, “Let’s call it ‘Moments in Love.’” That moved it into a new area, because we had no title. I can’t remember what the working title was, but it would add another layer of depth and interest to the tune. If it had been called something else, who knows whether it would have the iconic track it became.
People still continue to sample it to this day and/or refer to it. It was an interesting thing because it had no bass drum and it had no snare drum, yet it had this amazing rhythm. I seem to remember that we made a conscious decision originally when we were recording it not to put any drums on. “Let’s just do a drumless track.” That was the thing.
We were probably referencing “I’m Not in Love” from 10CC for the same reasons: because they had the amazing atmosphere and it was pulsing. It was a definite decision. When you say, “Let’s not put any drums in,” you have to think of lots of other ways of doing stuff. That’s where you start going, “Well, how about this?” “No, that’s terrible.” “How about this?” “That’s interesting.”
Gary was very good also at, apart from modifying the sound itself, reverb and echo. He was brilliant. The tracks would start to have a lilt and a mood of their own because of the way he built these echoes on the repeats. All of which, by the way, he used to do manually by hand.
Interestingly, I think one of the issues nowadays with things like Logic is that you can put a delay on a track and it’s perfect. All the stuff that Gary used to do, he used to do with a stopwatch and entirely by ear. So there was always a point where the repeats would start to roll, because they’re all slightly out. It’s an indefinable quality.
In your mind, what was the important contribution the Fairlight made in the development of music?
At the time, the Fairlight was a very expensive and exclusive bit of kit; only people with lots of money could buy it. It tended to operate in the more expensive area of music production, as it was. What happened in time, though, was samples became much more widely available. Sequencers became really quite cheap. That, in effect, democratized the way that we can make music. It meant that lots more people could make great music much cheaper than was ever possible before.
The Fairlight introduced the notion that you could sample and you could sequence and you didn’t have to be an out-and-out musician to use the system. If you spent the time and you had access to the kit, you could get music out of it, which hadn’t been possible before. It was the start of the whole voyage into enabling anybody to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do sonically. I think it enabled people like me, who had no real musical experience or programming experience, to get into creating music. Which hadn’t really been possible before.
I guess it also meant that the programmer became a hugely important person in terms of big studio productions. If you wanted to utilize this far-sighted, pioneering technology, you needed somebody who knew how to use it because your average musician or producer didn’t have the time.
I think that’s right. But if you take someone like Kate Bush, for example, she bought one of the early Fairlights, and I did some programming for her along with Geoff on some of her albums. But she basically decided that she was going to get into it herself. She spent the hundreds of hours necessary and developed her own way of operating with it and her own techniques and it became an instrument for her that she knew everything about. Initially we did some sessions for her, but she quickly got that she could spend some time working it out herself.
If you were hired in for a studio session, it was a pretty bulky thing to take around.
Yeah. I had four cases that used to go in a truck and I used to have a guy who used to come around who’d help me move it into sessions. When you arrived at a session, they knew you were there. It was the equivalent of all your guitar amps and that sort of business. Now, I’ve got my Mac and I can put it all in a laptop. Is it any better? Technically, yes. Does it help make better music? I have no idea.
In the end, the Beatles did everything in four tracks. (They went to eight tracks eventually.) They had great ideas, and were using technology that was very limited, to create fantastic, interesting music.
Is the core idea a good one? That’s it. Look at “Relax”, it’s just a thump, thump, thump, thump, but it’s got a bit of a chorus to it. Is it a good idea? Yeah. Then we managed to work it into something.