Fully Equipped for War

June 11, 2015
by GForce Software

In 1978 GForce’s Dave Spiers travelled to Los Angeles for the first time. This was in the days before anything resembling decent seat-back entertainment, and the only solace for the tedious 12 hour journey was the in-flight radio where on one channel Jeff Wayne’s “War Of The Worlds” was playing back-to-back for 90 minutes at a time. Dave worked out that if he listened to it 9 times he’d have arrived in the US but somewhere around the 4th listen he must have fallen asleep.

Nonetheless, the album must have ingrained itself on his psyche because when contacted over twenty years later by Jeff Wayne and Gaetan Schurrer during preparations for a live tour of the album, all those motifs and sounds came flooding back immediately.

Everyone we subsequently spoke to about the possibility of this iconic 70s album being taken on tour immediately voiced the same “Dan, Dan Daaaah” from the track “Eve Of The War”, proving that the album is deeply embedded in the psyche of anyone over the age of 35.

With fifteen million albums sold to-date and a star-studded cast including Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott, 70s teen idol David Essex, Moody Blues singer Justin Hayward.

The Narrator

Similarly, the live show with its giant Martian Spaceship, Richard Burton hologram, forty-six piece orchestra and rock band including musical legends such as Chris Spedding (the person who produced the original Sex Pistols demo) and Herbie Flowers (the man behind the bass line on Lou Reed’s Walk On The Wild Side) is also a hugely expensive affair and evidence of Jeff Wayne’s attention to detail that helped make the album such an iconic record.

Projecting The Narrator

Unsurprisingly, the stage show has proved to be a huge success and now in its 30th anniversary, interest in this musical adaptation of HG Wells’ literary classic seems stronger than ever. We took time out at one of the UK gigs to talk to keyboard and Persian Tar player, Gaetan Schurrer, who’s also responsible for Sound Pre-Production and Programming.

Before we get on to the subject of War Of The Worlds, tell us a little of your career background.

Born in France, I moved to London in 1985 to pursue a career in music as everything I listened to and liked came from here! I first worked at Rod Argent’s keyboards shop on Denmark St, and quickly started spending every night after work locked up in the shop playing with all the gear. I learned all I could from playing with all the keyboards, drum machines, sequencers and early software on both Macintosh and Atari computers. I then went for a stint at Sarm Studios working for ZTT with Trevor Horn and Steve Lipson. This was my first studio experience, and coming in as a ‘programmer’ it was quite edifying.

I then ran my own programming room at Music Works Studios in Holloway. This was based around Andy Summer’s Fairlight III that happened to be there while he was touring. Then I got a two-week gig at Jeff Wayne’s. I didn’t know the guy, or what he had done. Being French, I’d never heard of the War of the Worlds. That gig turned into a few years working on, what was going to be, the follow-up to Jeff’s first concept album. Unfortunately politics got in the way of music and it turned into a disaster. By 1992 I had started working with the upcoming DJ Sasha, and started a successful relationship that spanned many years, working on countless remixes, singles and albums. In ’93 I met Paul Heard and Mike Pickering, and ended up programming their next three M-People albums and all their singles. I started being managed by Strongroom Studios, and for many years worked freelance – mostly as a programmer – but also writing, producing and occasionally engineering.

Who is Naughty G and who is Gaetan Schurrer?

They are one and the same. However, the latter never managed to get a record credit spelt correctly, hence the nickname which also happens to be rather appropriate.

I walked into Jeff’s studio, which at the time was like a lab full of keyboards and rackmount gear, featuring a Cadac desk with AudioKinetik automation.

When and how did you meet Jeff Wayne?

In 1987, I got a call from GBC – Jeff Wayne Music’s booking company at the time. They were looking for an Apple Mac programmer, and Argent’s keyboards gave them my number. I walked into Jeff’s studio, which at the time was like a lab full of keyboards and rackmount gear, featuring a Cadac desk with AudioKinetik automation. I was handed a script, which puzzled me to no end. Then Jo Partridge walked in, followed by Jeff. They explained what was going on, but with my limited grasp of the English language at the time, I’m not sure I quite understood everything. However, they were running Performer software (version 1.22 no less lol) which I was familiar with, and with Jo’s help I settled in and got on just fine. As mentioned earlier, that gig turned into five years, so I must’ve been doing something right.

How did you get involved with the War Of The Worlds Stage Tour?

In 2004, I made a deal with Jeff to be involved in rebuilding the complete double-album and mix it anew in both stereo and surround sound. Over a period of six months, the 75(!) 2-inch multi-tracks without track sheets got transferred to ProTools, new track sheets were made, I worked out which tapes were the actual masters and slaves (it was one of the very first 48-track productions in the UK), I resync’d the masters and slaves, edited the multitrack sessions into the album shape (in the 70’s that had been done by splicing the final mixes on 1/4″ tape), then painstakingly went through every single track and part, splitting and cleaning everything up to ready it all for mixing. Over a second period of six months, Gary Langan joined me and we mixed the whole album twice – first in stereo and then in 5.1 surround sound. Also in the same period, I edited the whole content of the Collector’s Edition (four CDs of remixes, out takes and other rarities) with the help of Greg Brookes, Jeff’s archivist at the time.

This was the ground work that paved the way for the making of the stage tour, which I took on in 2005 after the album project was completed.

Given the original album has sold somewhere in the region of 15 million copies, prepping it must have been an epic and daunting job. Can you give us an idea of the process and what was involved?

As per my answer to your previous question, I had a good head start by having rebuilt the whole album in digital form in ProTools, and also by then I knew every single line and note of the music! However, it was initially quite a daunting job, especially since I had little experience in shows of this kind and size, and just about everything was open to interpretation. I guess the start was to work out the band lineup – what was available in numbers within the budgetary constraints. Once we’d worked out we could have 10 musicians, it was down to splitting everything into what could be played and what would need to remain in the backing track. I always knew that we couldn’t play everything, we would need 20-25 people to do that, and half of them would be standing there doing nothing a lot of the time.

Some of the band parts were quite straightforward, like the drums and the bass. These are only layered a few times in the album. The acoustic guitar was a lot of work, because it is layered pretty much throughout, so it was a matter of making sure the most playable part was kept live, while the more esoteric changes such as 12-strings went to the backing track. The electric guitars were interesting, we have two so it’s a mixture of lead and rhythm parts, with a few extra layers in the backing track. The hardest job were the keyboards, because there are so many layered parts with multiple harmonies. I opted to have all the lead lines played, with most harmonies in the backing track for the best live feel, both visually and sonically. They were a number of ‘unplayable parts’, mostly studio sounds that could not be easily recreated in a live environment, and those I mostly sampled and trigger myself during the show.

Once I’d created the band parts, the next job was to create a click track, as we would need to play in sync to the backing track. I took the decision to stick to the original performance timing for the sake of authenticity. It meant spending weeks painstakingly creating a click that reflected every tempo nuance in Jeff’s original score and the way he’d conducted the original recording sessions, but the result was what I hoped for – it sounds completely natural yet follows every speedup and slowdown of the original album precisely. Making the backing tracks was quite an interesting process as well, I tried to keep as much separation as possible in order to keep control at front of house. The audio system also runs the master time code that all video, projection, lights and pyro systems sync to during the show, so that was another area where I put in extra care.

Another aspect of the backing tracks is redundancy: because of the nature of the show, it would be extremely difficult to stop then restart mid show. It would also look and sound dreadful from the audience’s point of view. Because of this, I ended up keeping all the band parts in the backing track, and during the show I have a little mixer next to me that allows me to effectively replace any band member should they stop playing for whatever reason. This has proven useful many times when some of the equipment has failed during performances, and also has proven an invaluable tool during rehearsals: I can play the original 1976 performance to any band member with a query!

Finally, I was also very involved in the creation and proof reading of all the band and orchestra parts, working closely with the copyists, Jeff and the relevant musicians to make sure the parts reflected what was to be played exactly.

What was involved in recreating some of the original sounds?

For the bass it was so easy – Herbie Flowers still plays the very same Fender Jazz Bass he bought in 1959 and played on the original sessions in 1976!! For the electric guitars it was rather interesting, Laurie Wisefield (our 2nd guitarist in the first tour in 2006) and Chris Spedding actually did a lot of amazing work, recreating the album sounds in their Pods. It was challenging as many sounds need major amounts of sustain and feedback, something that is hard to recreate without an amplifier!

Drums were quite straightforward, but percussion was also touch and go: we originally hired in a full concert marimba, vibraphone and xylophone to replicate the album sounds, but quickly found out that their mics were being drown out by the drums. As a result, we instead used a Mallet Kat midi controller, and I programmed the required sounds in a Roland Phantom XR unit.

The keyboards were the real challenge: I knew that Ken ‘Prof’ Freeman had mostly used the Arp Odyssey, his own string machine and later the Yamaha CS80, but now I had to find a way to do this again, and in a live environment, night after night. I knew sampling was not an option, because so much of the sound comes from performing with the knobs and sliders. I also knew that the original instruments could not work, because the Odyssey did not have presets ability and to tour a number of Odysseys and CS80’s would be outrageously expensive and unreliable, if at all possible!

In 2005, I’d already worked a lot with GForce’s Oddity and Arturia’s CS-80V, so I was looking for a way to use those plug-ins. The idea of using computers on stage did not appeal to me, mostly because of reliability issues. Also touring with laptops and all their fragile connections sounded like too much of a gamble to me. This is when I remembered reading about the Muse Receptor, which sole purpose at the time was to enable touring musicians to use plugin technology. I had quite a saga in order to make it all happen, because where GForce were so immensely helpful, others not so! I did make it happen in the end, and finally had Receptors loaded with both Oddity and CS-80V plugins, ready to start recreating Ken’s incredible soundscape.

…the opening horns and main pipes in the Eve Of The War are CS80 sounds, but the ‘rubberbands’ and drones are all Oddity.

Can you give us any particular sounds that come from the Oddity?

Well, it’s like… most of them! Signature sounds like the ‘wheeoos’, for example. Most of the synth pipes, flutes and horns too. Funnily, the opening horns and main pipes in the Eve Of The War are CS80 sounds, but the ‘rubberbands’ and drones are all Oddity.

Being the inventor of the String Machine, Ken Freeman was a huge inspiration to us in terms of VSM development and we understand that he played on the original album. Did you get to work with him during prepping the show?

Indeed. When it came to recreating the original sounds with the plugins, I knew I didn’t stand a chance, even with all my years of programming synths of all shapes and sizes. So I called Ken and asked if he would come to the studio to help me recreate the sounds he’d programmed 29 years earlier(!) Being the gentleman that he is, Ken agreed and came over. I believe we spent about three days reprogramming the sounds I needed for the show.

Ken was unbelievable: I would play him the sound I was after, and within a few minutes, he would have the Oddity sounding exactly like the Odyssey did! He would think about it for a few seconds, remember what it was all about, move a few sliders and there was the sound. Unreal. He later told me that the reason he could remember how to program those sounds was because he had to do them so many times over during the original sessions – there were no presets in those days.

The same was true for the CS80 sounds, although there I had to get a bit creative in my programming too, because Ken used to open the original one up and make mods with his soldering iron! As an example, for the horns of the Eve of the War, Ken made a mod that the plugin could not replicate: he stopped the second bank of oscillators from responding to the Initial Bend slider on the CS80. As a result, one bank played straight while the other had the front bend, creating a much more realistic horn attack. In order to get the same sound, I am running two instances of the CS80V plugin, one playing only the first oscillator bank with the bend on, and the other the second bank without the initial bend. I was also immensely honoured in being instrumental in putting Ken in touch with GForce when they started work on VSM.

What is VSM used for in the show?

The VSM only became fully available with the Receptors last year. In 2006 we had used a Solina with an MXR phaser pedal, and in 2007 I had programmed ‘stringy’ sounds using Spectrasonics’ Atmosphere plug-in. These worked well enough, but lacked the real ‘string machine’ sound. So for the 2009 tour, I was finally able to replace all the string machine sounds with the VSM. I reprogrammed each of them to be as close to the originals as possible, and it was great to be able to program the phaser effects at the same time. I think all those string machine sounds are a thousand times better now with the VSM – so much closer to Ken’s original creations. My only qualm being that I wish it was still called the Analog Retro String Ensemble.

Aside from Ken, the album contained a wealth of great musicians. How many of these also play in the show?

Quite a few! We have Herbie Flowers on bass guitar, Chris Spedding on lead guitar, Justin Hayward and Chris Thompson on vocals, and Jeff Wayne conducting!

The logistics of bringing together a rock band and orchestra is always a challenge. How have you overcome some of these obstacles such as monitoring and syncing everything together?

For monitoring ease, we made a decision early: all in-ears. It does create a gap between what we hear and what the audience hears, but it’s the only way in a show like this. Can you imagine 10 wedges just for the band? Feedback into the orchestra mics? No way. We also have a near-silent stage: the only acoustic instruments are the drums, which are shielded by clear perspex panels, the acoustic guitars, mandolin and tar, and the gong, orchestral bass drum, tambourine and cabasa. As far as sync is concerned, the band and the orchestra all get the click track I created, and we also have bar counters (basically the ProTools big counter) video-distributed to everyone on stage.

Another great innovation is the Music Pads, we can’t even imagine the accordions of music parts paper we would have to deal with otherwise – there are over 1300 bars in act 1 and more than 1500 in act 2! The pads are great, basically they are touch screen displaying the music, and we can scroll by either touching them or hitting a pedal. It’s also really easy to make notes on them, and the orchestra like to draw pretty pictures on their parts too.

How many in the orchestra and how many rock band?

There were 46 players in the strings orchestra of the 1976 Abbey Road session, and we used 48 in 2006 and 46 in 2007. For 2009, we reduced the orchestra to 36 players, which helped the sound as we were able to afford better mics. There are 10 members in the Black Smoke Band.

What do the keyboard rigs consist of?

The first two are identical. They consist of one Muse Research Receptor unit loaded with GForce’s Oddity and VSM, Arturia’s CS80, NI’s Kontakt sampler and a few effects (reverb etc), two CME UF-6 controller keyboards midi-merged into the Receptor, sustain and expression pedals for each keyboard, a volume pedal and a music pad.

The third one differs slightly: the Receptor has the Oddity and VSM plugins, the East-West Colossus library for the Harpsichord and Electric piano sounds, and NI’s Komplete 4 for the acoustic piano and a few other sampled sounds (using Kontakt). This rig also uses a CME UF-8 fully weighted 8-octave midi controller keyboard, sustain and volume pedals and a music pad.

The fourth one – my rig – consists of a DX7 keyboard (used as a controller), and Akai S3200 sampler and a voice box and microphone.

I start doing the martians’ cry ‘Ulla’ as the tripod descends on stage, and that is always entertaining.

What are the show highlights for you?

My tar solo is one of them, I get to stand up! Also in this tune, I go between the tar and the keyboard quite a bit which is always a challenge.Then in the following number, I start doing the martians’ cry ‘Ulla’ as the tripod descends on stage, and that is always entertaining. There are also a bunch of pyros going off at the front, and watching the audience’s reaction is fun.

Then in act2, I really enjoy the Red Weed at the start – we’re engulfed in red light and dry ice, and it’s such an amazing moody composition. In the Spirit of Man it’s great watching the actors, and it’s got my fave guitar solo of the whole album. Brave New World is probably my favourite number – I love this tuner, and I hardly play anything so I get to watch Alexis’s electric performance and sing along with him! Then the curtain calls are always a high, out of 21 shows this year we got 18 standing ovations!

Tell us a little more about that Persian Tar?

The Tar was used on the original sessions for the lead part of Horsell Common and the Heat Ray. When it came to the show, all three guitarists were already busy with other parts, so I said “I’ll do it”. I’d never played a tar before, and I’m no guitarist, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard seeing it’s a single note melody. When I first looked into purchasing one, I found shops online in the States that sold them for $1500-6000. Could not find one in the UK. Then I went on eBay, and found a seller in Turkey who had one for sale. I was the only bidder so won it, for a grand total of $400 including shipping. It took 6 weeks to arrive. When it did, I realised it had come from Tehran, in Iranian Parcel Post!!

So I picked it up, found out that by tuning it to B / F# / B I could play more open strings (better sound) than if tuned to the traditional C / G / C, and at rehearsals got our guitar tech to superglue the frets in place – they’re just pieces of waxed string that can be slid up and down the neck! Then in 2007 we bought a second one as a backup, from the same seller on eBay. When the guitar tech tried to tune the spare, its main skin broke. We did have spare skins, but it took some doing to find a luthier who could do the job properly, and even then that spare has never quite sounded like the first one we bought. After four tours, I’m still playing that original one we bought in 2006, and it’s still going strong. I guess the best thing about the Tar was playing it at the Royal Albert Hall in 2006, just about 3 weeks after picking it up for the first time…

Have you had any disasters and if so can you name one and how you overcame it?

In Glasgow in 2006, Act 2 started but we had no click. Panic set in rather fast, but our tech Ali Viles managed to get himself from FOH to backstage, find the faulty connection box and replace it within about 90 seconds, so we just wing’d it for a while and the audience was none the wiser!

Stuart Sawney…..guitar tech par excellence or purveyor of doom and gloom? Discuss.

Doom is absolutely brilliant. My tar was perfectly in tune for every single show, and that thing is a right bitch – you just touch the tuning peg and it’s a buncha semitones out! Also all the guitarists had nothing but great things to say about Stuart, he’s always there when you need him, super-friendly and always happy to help. The most impressed was my young friend Tom Woodstock, who stood in for Chris Spedding in our last gig in Germany in year. He’d never had a guitar tech before, and was completely balled over. Go Doom go!

We’ve almost talked exclusively about War Of The Worlds but you’re an active musician in other areas too. Can you tell us what’s next on your horizon?

Right now I’m teaching audio post production at Full Sail University in Orlando. I’m in the process of resurrecting a live music project I worked on a few years ago with my partner Barry Jamieson – the Weird Continental Types. I also have a very ambitious entertainment concept in the making, this make take a while to get off the ground but will be the most amazing experience once it’s up. Next year I am going to grab my daughter and go traveling around the world for a few months, and of course we are still planning world domination for the Martians, with possible tours in the USA, Australia and Europe!

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