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A conversation with Bryan Bell - Stories about using synthesizers in the days before MIDI (and LONG before plug-ins)

One of the most interesting characters I have met in the musical instrument industry is Bryan Bell. He was born in New Orleans. His father, Norman Bell, was a composer, conductor, and educator whose specialty was choral conducting. His father's career allowed Bryan to learn both music and technical theater at an early age.

Bryan Bell

He has tried to maintain two tracks in his life, science and music. He learned to play piano and guitar at an early age and he built his first sound system at the age of 15 using components like Voice of the Theater (now Altec Lansing) speakers and Shure columns. He worked as an assistant engineer on his first professional recordings at age 12. His first custom project was an invention that allowed one to trigger different colored lights with micro switches mounted under each key of an acoustic piano keyboard mechanism. He built it in 1969 for a nightclub in New Orleans and the rig was eventually bought by the Vanilla Fudge, who were passing through on tour. That was in 1969 and Yes folks. This is 15 years before MIDI.

The same year, with a mentor, he built his own electric car using a steamship starter motor as the main engine, a two speed tractor transmission, a roto tiller engine for the generator back up, and twenty 90 pound lead acid missile batteries. It all went into an old English Ford that he found in a junkyard. He says: "I used to drive it to high school and charge it because it ran up the electrical bill too much to charge it at my parents' home. The car took as much power in a day that my parent's home used in a month.".

He played in a band, but he was also the one who put together the sound system for his and other bands. One thing led to another, but in a distinctly non-linear manner. Bryan's first national professional gig started when he was given the opportunity to consult and mix house the seminal fusion band, Mahavishnu Orchestra:

Conversations with Bryan are never dull. I had intended to write about what it was like to take computer systems on the road in the early days, but he has a million stories and after a few of them I'm thinking maybe I'll save some for another day….

How did you manage to get involved with so many things?

I would find and offer to apprentice to mentors who were willing to be generous with their time to teach a kid to do what they did. I am a firm believer that the old-school "Guild" method of learning from apprentice to journeyman to master was underrated - so I put myself into those situations and I still do it to this day.

How did you get the Mahavishnu gig?

I had become a Sri Chinmoy disciple and given up on the corporate world. I had gotten married and woke up one morning and realized I wasn't playing music, and I wasn't racing cars (Ed. another story for another day), and I wasn't going to college, and I said "something's wrong here.".

Right about the same time I had met Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. through Carlos Santana who I had met at one of Sri Chinmoy's centers. They were both Sri Chinmoy disciples as well. John asked me what I wanted to do and I said "be a nuclear physicist." He said: "There are no cool gigs in nuclear physics, you will either make weapons of mass destruction or work on power plants, or teach other people how to build weapons and power plants." Suddenly faced with no clear path to my future I asked John what he thought I should do. John liked the fact that I was a technologist and a guitar player who understood his music; so he took a chance and asked me to mix house for his band.

What was your first experience with a synthesizer?

It was during the time that I worked for McLaughlin. Somewhere around 1974-75 he hired Bob Easton from 360 Systems to build a pitch to voltage converter, and with Bob Moog's help they cobbled together 6 Minimoogs, one for each string.

John McLaughlin's first guitar synth.

Swapan Leo Hoarty (another Chinmoy disciple) was John's electronics engineer and did all the custom work on a guitar that was custom built by Gibson. Everything was analog using Control Voltages (CVs for pitch) Gates (for note length) and S-Triggers. I was there helping to solder the day Leo put it all together in the racks so that John could tour with it. We used a road case that could be folded shut with three Minimoogs in each half. There was a separate pedal board case, which in addition to other effects had one-volume pedal to control all six synthesizers and one pitch bend control doing the same. The synths all had to be warmed up ahead of each show and we consumed a lot of power.

Did you have any problems?

My first tour mixing sound with the Mahavishnu Orchestra was in 1975 supporting the Inner Worlds album with Stu Goldberg (keyboards) Narada Michael Walden (drums), and Ralphe Armstrong (bass) we had a mains voltage problem. One of our first gigs was at an affluent high school in Greenwich, CT. with the Brecker Brothers opening. We put up the lights at the opening of the set and the band gear's voltage dropped from 120 to 100. The Minimoogs went totally south, completely crazy… And that's how I met Bob Moog. The next day I was on the phone with him and he later sent us a daughter board with voltage correction circuitry. It ultimately became an add-on to solve the pitch stabilization issue for the MiniMoog.

How did you transition to working with Herbie Hancock?

I was mixing the Mahavishnu Orchestra in some New England ice rink/basketball arena where they were opening for the Headhunters. It was the Thrust band with Herbie, Mike Clark (drums), Paul Jackson (bass) and Bennie Maupin (woodwinds). I got a call on the walkie talkie that Mr. Hancock wanted to see me. I went down two flights of stairs to find him in his dressing room. He was chanting and I waited until he was finished. He said that he really liked the balance he was hearing (from two flights down) and that if I ever needed a job to call him. So when the Mahavishnu tour ended and John went to play acoustic guitar solo out of the country for a while, I went unannounced to Herbie's house in LA and knocked on the door. He answered it himself so I said: "I'm Bryan Bell and you told me that if I ever needed a job I should call you, so here I am." And he said: "I don't remember!" I had noticed a Ford Cobra in his driveway so I said; "Can we at least go for a ride." He said it's not running right now." I said: "Well, I'm a mechanic- I used to own race cars. Do you have any tools?".

Ford Cobra (not in Herbie's driveway).

It didn't take long to figure out that the problem was a leaky fuel line so I cut a couple of inches off the line and reconnected it and it fired right up. Herbie said: "Oh wait it's coming back now. You did sound for John and you don't mind fixing my car… Why don't you stick around for a few weeks." I ended up staying for eight years and fifteen albums…".

What was his rig when you started working with him?

He had two ARP Odysseys and an ARP String Ensemble. (Note: Check out GForce plug-ins. They have emulated both ARP devices.).

ARP String Ensemble.

ARP Odyssey.

One Odyssey was set for a solo sound and the other was set for a bass sound. Since everything was manually programmed and there was no onboard memory we used china markers on the surfaces of the synths so that we could get back to the sounds. I had to make sure that the right one was in the right place on the correct keyboard stand every night.

He also had the Fender Rhodes 88 and Hohner Clavinet that have become part of his signature funk sound. The Rhodes Herbie owned was really special. It had a custom insert loop for effects installed by Harold Rhodes so Herbie could insert studio quality effects into the signal path and have the effected sound come out of the Rhodes preamp and stage speakers. We had to do a lot because of all the noise problems. For example, Herbie liked to have his clavinet sitting on top of the Rhodes so he could switch between them easily, but the clavinet's power supply created more hum inside the Rhodes (because of the 88 pickups) so we had to do a lot of custom shielding work and even taking power supplies out of the units. We didn't have spares, so if something broke I had to fix it right away.

When I started with Herbie at the Headhunters touring point in 1975, Herbie's keyboard system had been developed by his former team. Over the next few years Herbie acquired more instruments and we began a major project to integrate the instruments together.

Sennheiser Vocoder.

Back cover of Herbie Hancock's
"Sunlight" album.

By the time we got to the album Sunlight, the Sennheiser Vocoder was part of the rig along with the keyboards depicted below in the picture from the back of the Sunlight album cover. Also there was the introduction of instruments that were microprocessor based such as the Prophet 5 and drum machines and my design ideas were being incorporated in Herbie's systems.

We actually toured the big set up for several albums. Herbie wanted to dance while he played, but there were no portable keyboards at the time, so I built one. I took the keys out of a Minimoog and built a container for it. There was Vocoder switching, a CS-80 ribbon controller for the pitch bend, a Moog Source pitch ribbon and custom and knobs to switches to control the modulation source, source, depth and speed. Herbie could control all the horsepower from the front of the stage. It was really heavy but Herbie could do amazing things with this controller.

How did the rig evolve over time?

Herbie and rig Circa 1983.

Herbie is very gifted technically. He was an engineering student for his first two years in college. In fact he thought he was going to be an engineer and then all of sudden the jazz gigs started getting bigger than the college gigs.

Basically he would say "I want to do this" and it would be my job to make it happen. We did a two-year project to build a complete multivendor interface – An analog version of MIDI – 5 years before MIDI. Herbie owned just about every synthesizer in the world. This was pre-Fairlight and Synclavier when we started. We had control over the keyboard, the tuning, the octave stretch (how many volts per octave) plus offset for pitch up and down as well as control for the triggering system. Moogs needed an S-Trigger. Arps wanted a positive trigger. Oberheims just needed a Gate. There was no standard so I created my own matrix. Think of it as hardware drivers for each instrument and on the controller side you could just output a CV and Gate. We built a patch bay of 16 outputs to any of the instrument inputs based on the Emu 4060 keyboard, which was sixteen polyphonic voices with a sequencer. During this time we added a couple of Prophet 5s and an Oberheim 8-Voice. We also replaced my early "chopped MiniMoog" keyboard with the Wayne Yentis Clavitar and later Clavitron portable controllers as they each became available.

When we finally finished the system it had three custom 32x32 patch bays; one for control voltage, one for gate, and one for audio so we could patch effects into the loops. I even made my own parallel version of SCSI so we could have direct access to each synthesizer's memory to quickly load into the computer and then back into the device. I built a 16-bit Zilog Z8000 (most popular of the early processors for music devices) custom computer to handle the heavy lifting. Most of the early computer synths were based on the 8 bit Z80 chip from the same company so it was easy to interface the mothership computer with the instruments.

How did the multivendor interface project get started?

So in 1979 I had made the decision to build this interface and we were going to standardize everything. We wanted to make the STUDIO a single instrument and we were going to make each instrument in the studio more like a driver and the whole studio would be the object of the work.

We wanted to create patches where the right hand of the keyboard was an Oberheim and the left hand was a Prophet. We wanted to be able to create a patch to have 2 Minimoogs and a 2600 patched into a Mesa Boogie with a fuzz tone. Each of these sounds would be a single object, like "Solo Guitar". It would encompass the portable keyboard being switched to 3 voice modules being switched to an effects processor and an amp and even switching mics on and off in the PA. We had directs and switching so we could mute mics and mute channels in the system, so the concept was that the tape machine, the video recorder, the mixing console, the controllers and the voices were an instrument. It was Herbie's palette. It wasn't; "We're going to play Moog now." It was "We're going to play music now." And use the entire arsenal as an instrument. All of the patches could be saved and we streamlined them during performances.

So we decided to do this and I called up Bob Moog and said, "Remember me - I used to work for John McLaughlin and now I work for Herbie Hancock. He said: "Herbie, I love Herbie!" I told him that I wanted to find a way to connect my MiniMoogs to my Oberheim. He said, "Buy more Moogs" and hung up.

You're kidding…?

I thought that's OK I'll call Tom Oberheim, so I called him and said: "Remember me - I used to work for John McLaughlin and now I work for Herbie Hancock. He said: "Herbie, I love Herbie!" So I told him about my plan and he said: "I'll void your warranty" and hung up. The multivendor approach just did not work for either of them, but because of the EMU 4060 keyboard and some early work by Jim Alcivar with Ronnie Montrose I knew it was something we could do. The whole notion of separating voices from controllers we were doing 5 years before MIDI.

E-mu 4060 Ad.

I called E-mu and bought one of the 4060 keyboards with built-in sequencer and tape storage. The 4060 was only the keyboard that came with their super system called the Audity, and it came with a tape drive (We chose to not purchase the Audity voice modules). Tape loading was simply too slow for Herbie's studio and touring demands, so I made a custom order with Scott Wedge to integrate the first hard drive on a synth. It was a 5MB IBM hard drive, which cost many thousands of dollars and came with a wire wrap kit so you could build your own connector and a Motorola programming language guide so you could write your own drivers. It weighed 10 pounds and was the size of a shoebox! I also asked him to modify the code so I could have ten additional jump subroutine launch points so I could include my own software routines for the keyboard. It was an excellent add-on.

The 4060 and several other music products (the Prophet 5, the Linn 9000 and the E-mu SP12 drum machine to name a few) were based on the Zilog Z-80, which was an 8-bit processor. I found out that there was a 16-bit Z8000 available. I was sure that a 16-bit processor would be needed for all the parallel memory moves we would need to make. So I called Zilog and told them I worked for Herbie Hancock and needed to buy some. They told me sorry, but the Air Force has all the production units, they cost $1000 each, and there is a 1 year backlog of orders. All we have is samples for military subcontractors. So I hung up and called back on a different phone. I told them that I was a B-1 subcontractor and I needed a sample. They ended up sending me a couple for free the next day.

And then automate the patching

Bryan Bell with a section of the Hancock
patchbay 1983 (SoftTalk magazine).

I had an epiphany one morning when we were working in the studio. We were setting all of these things up. We had one panel with the 16 voices coming from the 4060 and we had the rack that came off the portable Minimoog and another rack that came off the portable keyboard. We made it so we could get the Oberheim Keyboard voices out and the Prophet voices out. And then we had another rack facing it with all the inputs. There was one panel that represented the 5 inputs to the Prophet, 8 inputs to the OB8, Minimoog #1, Minimoog #1, Odyssey # 1, Odyssey # 2, 2600 #1, etc. The outputs and inputs would change all the time so I thought to myself I'm just going to be patching stuff all day long. I really don't want to do that so that's when I started to imagine the automated patch bay so that Herbie could do it himself using an Apple 2 as the user interface.

How many people did you have working with you on the overall project?

I was the architect and main designer for the overall system and created the functional specifications for all of the devices and modifications. We had several key people play huge roles in creating custom components or doing modifications. Michael Larner (who later helped with development of the Studio 5 at Opcode) helped the code for the Z8000 system. John Viera did the Prophet 5 modifications, control voltage and Gate system matrix, clock divider and the first keyboard switching matrix for the vocoder. Keith Lofstrom (a genius chip designer and multi-patent holder) helped with the circuit design for the automated patchbay. We had a custom fabricator spin off from Tektronix fabricating the boards for the patch bays. Herbie paid for everything - none of the custom work was donated or done for endorsement deals. Will Alexander handled the Oberheim modifications. I also wrote all of the Apple 2 code, a portion of the Z8000 code and the Emu custom code. We had a system that included controller automated mixing. We got hold of the first SMPTE code readers for music so we could sync with video. Herbie could control everything using a lightpen on an Apple II.

What was the biggest problem that you encountered in working with the system?

The interfaces were very static sensitive and everything had to be powered up and powered down in a certain sequence. So if you had a static incident or you had a power up sequence error you could actually blow op-amps in the interfaces. Because we had to buffer everything. You couldn't just send voltages into a Prophet 5. We had to build a card with 5 op-amps to protect the Prophet 5 and those cards would blow up sometimes. I carried hundreds of buffer chips in static free tubes with me because they would blow so often.

We worked with the companies whenever we could, like Emu, Sequential Circuits, Moog, Oberheim and also the big Japanese firms like Yamaha, Roland and Korg to improve the products and provide input from Herbie and me. One of my first relationships was with Will Alexander, who modified the Oberheims for us (Note: Will went on to work for Keith Emerson and is currently the keyboard tech with Chuck Leavell with the Rolling Stones). We knew what we wanted and I got a real Oberheim guy to do it so I wouldn't damage their machines.

How did you end up working for Herbie for so long?

For me, the attraction of working with people like Herbie was the fact that they were willing to; a) learn something new and, b) make something new. Also he was one of the greatest living player/composers in the world. If he could visualize the role a device would play and it currently did not exist he would find the people to help him create it. I was very fortunate to be able to visualize some of those things with him and then build the team to create and implement them. Herbie was not afraid of a new frontier whether it was technical or musical. One of my favorite stories about Herbie was when he was moving from the funk band to Rockit. I said; "You know critics are not going to like what you are doing now with Rockit". He said; "Bryan, I am SO over this! My mother is still mad that I left the symphony to play jazz. Everyone was pissed when I left jazz and did Mwandishi and then when I did the Headhunters. I simply have to do what I have to do and I hope that enough people will figure it out eventually.".

He has done this so many times in the past and he's still doing it….

Any final thoughts?

When I think back about what my career is it's about working for artists who are making a difference and my contribution was bringing the technology to make it better. When I first started out I met John and Herbie by luck and they happened to be in Miles Davis' bands. I thought they were the GUYS, so I sought out other people in those Miles bands whenever I could to help amplify their creativity. The first 10 years of my career I was able to work with other Miles alumni like, Weather Report, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Chick Corea Return to Forever, and others. It was awesome to experience each of those Miles guys after they had moved into the role of Leader of their own bands and to play a role to make cool technology to help them even do more.

As far as technology in music today, we always thought that it would become miniaturized over the years. In the 70s Herbie and I use to joke that someday we would make records on a laptop. Now Herbie's synth rig is a laptop, interface, two controllers and a Receptor and he often listens to multi-tracks masters on his laptop while traveling. It is nice to reflect and think that Herbie and I had some impact on helping bring that reality into existence.

Note: If some of the features that Bryan designed into Herbie and John's systems sounds pretty basic, consider the fact that this was happening in the late 70s and very early 80s. The MIDI Spec wasn't published until 1983 and deployment of MIDI instruments took a few more years! Today most of the benefits that Bryan designed into rigs like Herbie's are part of the computer's operating system and taken for granted by most users. Like many pioneers Bryan has some scars to show for his efforts, but also lots of great stories. He is now working on a book.

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