MIDI can make mediocre musicians sound good, good musicians sound great, and great musicians prolific. Trevor Rabin falls into the third category. He has embraced and derives major benefits from computer technology, but he is still analog when it comes to making music. Even if you are one of a small group that hasn't heard his work with Yes you probably have heard one of his film scores or the NBA theme song.
Trevor Rabin in his studio
His background has been well-documented on Wikipedia and in interviews like this one. In short Trevor grew up in a very creative household. His father was first chair in the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra, and his mother was a piano teacher and a painter. He has studied many kinds of music during his lifetime as his recent and amazingly diverse CD Jacaranda clearly illustrates. Classically trained in all aspects of symphonic music, he used his ears to learn rock and jazz, and then combined all of it to create his own sound.
He has one of the most well-equipped project studios I have ever seen. In addition to a large assortment of outboard gear there is an awesome collection of stringed instruments of all kinds hanging on the wall. He plays them directly or through a collection of amps into Digital Performer running on his Mac. There is "live" room that is largely taken up by an acoustic piano that he keeps mic'ed for piano parts, and a machine room that is full of older Emu samplers and Gigas. For him the computer is a tool to record what he plays.
I came out of the interview thinking that it's a pleasure to meet someone within whom passion, experience, and aptitude are so well matched.
I remember the first tour you did with Yes well. It was a great revival for them...
Yea, and I think one of the useful things is that I wasn't a fan of the band. I didn't dislike them, but I never really listened to them. The first Yes-related album I heard growing up in South Africa was "Six Wives" by Rick Wakeman. I loved that thing. There was one piece I just loved, which was… (plays riff of Rick Wakeman's "Jane Seymore" flawlessly on keyboard)? Years before meeting Rick, I worked it out on the guitar. And it's a lot harder on the guitar. It was quite difficult and when we started touring together on the reunion tour, Chris Squire was worried that Rick and I weren't going to hit it off and I said, "Why not? He seems like a really funny, nice guy." And we did hit it off so well. I mean, we just hung out the whole time. When the tour was finished, he called me and said, "Play on my album.".
So when we were on the Yes tour together, he said, "Instead of me going into that, why don't you start?" And then he would join in. And of course it was hard on guitar, so I would always go (plays same riff on guitar). And then when he came in, he'd be going (plays same riff faster) and I'd be thinking, "Bastard." So we got on really well.
Film scoring is about spotting and very linear, as opposed to writing a song, which is more A-A-B-A. Do you have a different approach when you're writing for film or do you just get some inspiration and say that's going to be a song or a that's a film piece?
When I'm writing, I write very specifically for film, and it takes a completely different hat when it comes to writing songs.
Did you do any film composing before you did any of the pop work?
You know, I did one really bad film called "Death of a Snowman." I had just finished a long course with a brilliant professor, a guy called professor Walter Mony who recently passed away. I spent a number of months with him basically covered all of the music curriculum, if you'd like, but specifically arrangement, orchestration and conducting, and he was brilliant. I'm not the greatest student, but I got what he taught me so I was rearing to go. From that I was doing bits and pieces, a string arrangement for a record, maybe some brass here, and once and a while a full orchestra.
What equipment were you using at the time?
It was long before MIDI, so I had nothing but a pen and paper. I'd sit at the piano and I'd write it all out. The first time I really heard it properly was when the orchestra played it.
You can hear things immediately now, so that's a profound change...
I heard a story about John Williams was starting to score Jaws. He goes to Steven Spielberg and he says, "Okay, here's the shark theme." And on the piano he goes (plays Jaws theme) but it doesn't have the same connotation. I'm paraphrasing very loosely, but apparently Spielberg initially said, "You're kidding?" But he trusted John and the rest is history.
Now when I'm presenting something, it's completely fleshed out and sometimes that's how it stays. For a Bruckheimer movie we recorded the score with a full orchestra at Sony and I thought it sounded really good, but he said, "I prefer the precision of the synth version." I was like, oh my God, there's none of this; there's no dimensions. It sounds fine but it's not the same thing. Unless you're used to hear it, maybe it doesn't sound different. To you and me, it's chalk and cheese.
There was one piece, a beautiful piano piece called "Killarney 1 & 2" on Jacaranda. Was that a miced piano or a plug-in?
It was just boring old stereo, two Neumann '87s, on that acoustic piano and that was it. The difficult part was, I wrote it and the idea came to me…I think we were at a restaurant and I jotted down the idea on a napkin. I wrote out most of it and then I actually started wondering how I was going to play it. So I just started practicing. I always keep my fingers up to a degree but I really had to practice for that one.
Given that your background in classical music, how have you benefited from using a software application like Performer? And is there anything you've felt like you've had to give up?
Performer has been a great help. I think, in general, the problem with any software is that people don't learn the art of writing for orchestra. Now, if you want to do a string part, which has long strings and then going into double stops and stuff like that, you have to use a different sample. You can't just write it out and think of it. You can do that but it's like now I have to change to a different sample and what key switch is it that changes over to another set of samples. So it really slows me down.
I think I've got about every sample known to man to make it sound reasonable. But I just prefer when I hear it from an orchestra, and luckily about 80% of my projects have been with a real orchestra. There have been occasions where we don't have the budget for a huge orchestra and I usually try to talk them into "can we at least get 15 people? 20 people?" Once or twice I've had to do it just on synth. It sounds alright but….
Do you do much interchanging of files with other composers?
I have brought people on to help out, and I think I'm pretty fair with it. I say okay here are the themes. This is the sound. I'll give them a couple of cues. And then the only thing I insist on is that they work on Performer, and I give them all the sounds. And it's worked out pretty favorably. I mean, it's sad that I might be cutting off people that might work great with me because they can only get around on a different piece of software.
Do you write everything out before you play it?
No, just sometimes. Sometimes an idea comes to me on guitar, sometimes piano. Very often I'll hear it, and I'll hear the full orchestration so I know exactly the voicing and which instruments are going to be playing and I'll just record it. And then I'll just get the instruments needed and I'll play it start to finish. At other times, I'll write it out then feed it in.
So, in general, would the tools that you use, quite a few, obviously lots of analog or dedicated hardware I should say…if you could say, "Boy, I'm having a problem with this. I wish somebody would come up with that.".
I think the most important thing would be some form of consistency. In the old days, there was a 24-track machine. All you've got to do is press start. The transport was so ridiculously bad, but it was all the same format. It just meant lining up the machines. Now it's like everything is so different. I feel like I'm in the middle of the ocean without an oar.
Your Dobro playing is all over Jacaranda. Did you start playing that recently?
Oh yeah, I love playing it. It's recent. When I say "recent" in my world I mean the last 15 years. I needed it on a very early film score. A movie I did called "Home Grown" with Billy Bob Thornton. It was an independent, quirky kind of movie, but it needed a Dobro and I started and once I started getting into it, I really worked at it and just love it.
There's a song, "Me and My Boy" and there's a bunch of different sounds, guitar sounds from Dobro to electric sounds and everything. How did you process the various instruments? For example the Dobro, how do you mic it?
Yeah, it's funny because there's really very little processing on it. It's compressed, with very little EQ, and it's just an 87. It's funny because I used to plug it in to a little pre-amp box and it sounded all right until it broke down one day and I had to get the cue done. So I just put a mic up. I started with a 414 and then really got into the Neumann 89. I just find that I put up mics and at the end of the day I think, oh this sounds great. And then when I put the 87 up, it's like, oh well this actually sounds the best.
And then there were some heavy electric sounds. What were those?
You know, the very heavy sound was the biggest piece of crap guitar. I started playing that track on this thing and if you grab it, you'll see, you can feel the quality. It's an Ampeg guitar. You can physically move the pickup up and down on the body of the guitar, and there's different pickups you can plug-in. Someone gave it to me. Actually, Chris Squire's technician gave it to me. He said, "Do you want this?" and I said yeah, I'll try it out.
Imagine a metal company making a guitar...
Yeah, isn't it strange? I used it for the heavy sound in the beginning. I wrote it on acoustic guitar, but then when I started playing that guitar and just feeling it, I played the riff and thought it sounds right for this thing. I've never used it since. Subsequently I think I used a Strat on top of it, but that's pretty much the whole sound.
Do you find yourself going more towards the piano or the guitar for inspiration? Or are they interchangeable at this point?
When I'm writing, usually the piano. When I want to play a solo, it's automatically to the guitar. Although I love soloing on the piano as well.
While you were recording Jacaranda between various film scoring projects how did you keep track of everything?
When I record, and I think this happened from film scoring…you know the old way of recording in the old days where you 'd be doing an album and you'd record stuff and then it comes to the mix, all of the faders come down and you'd start building it up again. I didn't want to do that. I don't have time for that. So once I start something, I save it and it comes up exactly as I'd left it. And so it's really just updating all of the time. I never went and started the mix from scratch.
Do you always finish each musical idea you start or do you compile them over time…?
I can't live like that. I finish things every time.
You do everything inside the computer now?
Everything in the box. Although I have my old quarter-inch mastering. It's just like my teddy bear.
How has your approach to composition arrangement changed from pre-Yes to Yes to film composing to your new CD?
I don't think it's really changed. I mean, the demos that I did for 90125, it was pretty much the same approach to when I did the demos to before meeting the band to how we approached it afterwards. Obviously it was more fun because it was with Chris Squire and Jon. But I don't think my approach has changed a lot. I think it definitely changed when I started doing film, because with Yes I did a small amount of orchestration and the song "Love Will Find a Way" I did that Baroque-y kind of string arrangement. But for film I can really write for a full orchestra and all of the luxuries that come with that at times. So I think just the freedom when I started doing film, my outlook changed a lot and that influenced a lot. Particularly the recording technique as we spoke about, decisions immediately. You know this sound is going to work with that and what I'm coming up with next will work with that and so that's the decision. And if somewhere down the road, the next sound doesn't quite work on top of that, then it'll evolve into something else, but there's no going back.
Do you do your own drums?
I do them all in here on my controller keyboard. The useful thing is I used to be a snare drummer, in the school band, so I know my way around.
And you brought in one of the best, Vinnie Colaiuta, on Jacaranda.
First of all, he's just the nicest guy in the world. I sent a really crummy version of a synth drum track to him and wrote out the part for him, and really just a geography, but he knew it, on "Market Street", and he came in and played it and the normal thing is to say, "Okay well let's do another one." And I thought I really don't need to say that. It was magnificent. So we just did another take and I cut between takes on "Into the Tunnel" but at least on "Market Street" there was a take one and two.
Do you have any desire to play live again?
Yeah. It's funny, I got an award recently, the lifetime achievement award for ASCAP, called the Henry Mancini Award.
Thank you. Although I think if you get old enough, they just give it to you. (Laughs) So ASCAP said well why don't you play, so I got up with my son's band and played "Owner of a Lonely Heart." It was like, I remember this; this is fun. And you're talking about people sitting with white tablecloths and pretty much old geezers, you know. So even that was fun. The idea of playing to this is certainly something I miss.
The world is shifted it seems, from where you'd create an album and then tour to support the sales of the album, whereas now it seems flip flopped. You create the album to support your tour.
It's completely turned around. And just watching my son's band, it's just a completely unrecognizable model. His band is called Grouplove. They are with Atlantic, which is the same record company Yes was with. Their single (Tongue Tied) is platinum and everything is going great and we found out that the head of radio promotion for my son, her first gig at Atlantic was promoting "Owner of a Lonely Heart." They did Letterman recently, and it was fifteen years, I don't know what the date was, but it almost to the date when I did the Letterman show with Yes. A lot of funny stuff.
Do you have something you would call your musical anchor? There's some jazz influence and there's obviously the Dobro stuff. There's heavy flame-throwing guitar. There's crunchy stuff. It's all over the map. What's your core?
You know, I've come to realize that the core, that anchor, is that I like to explore all kinds of different things. And hopefully I have a style or outlook that somehow ties it all together. But clearly on this album, I went in not knowing what the record company was going to be like. I had no preset idea as to how I'm going to promote it or even that I was going to put it out. And certainly the minute that I walked in here, any idea of genre was out the window. It was just play what you want to play and put it together at the end.
Is that your dog on "Gazania" there at the end?
This dog has heard A LOT of music
Yes, it is.