Replacing hardware

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Richard Barbieri has been Porcupine Tree's keyboard/synthesizer player for the last 12 years. What started as a studio/home project has now developed into a successful touring band with major label releases and a worldwide profile.

Richard's musical career started at the age of 17 when he joined the band Japan. During the early eighties the band achieved commercial and critical success culminating in the groundbreaking album "Tin Drum" which stayed in the album charts for a year. The album sessions involved Richard in his most intense period of analogue synthesizer programming.

More recently, Richard began to leave the "comfort zone" of his analogue synthesizers in favour of exploring the potential offered by digital synthesizers. His debut solo album "Things Buried" was released in 2005.

With Reason now forming a key component in his live performance setup, Stephanie Sobey-Jones caught up with Richard during the European leg of Porcupine Tree's recent "Arriving Somewhere" tour.

Reason on the road with Richard Barbieri

How would you describe your musical role within Porcupine Tree?

Hopefully I add something a little different in terms of sound and electronics to the normal keyboard approach within most rock bands. I play anything from chordal and melodic parts through to the more abstract electronic and textural atmospherics. I'm not averse to the odd Hammond or Mellotron parts though.

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How is Reason integrated into your current live setup?

I'm running Reason on a G4 Powerbook, which is controlled either by an M-Audio Radium 49 midi keyboard, or by the new Roland SH 201. This goes through a MOTU 828 mk2 to my mixing desk. My hardware live setup includes a Roland V Synth, Access Virus Indigo 2, Roland SH201 and Roland JV 2080. Everything goes through a Mackie VLZ mixer.

What were the main reasons for making changes to your setup?

The main change has been leaving behind the Prophet 5. I've used this synth for the last 25 years but it had finally become too unstable. Even with a great technician who maintained all my analogue gear, it was proving too risky to take on long tours. Generally I decided a while back to leave the "comfort zone" of my analogues and started trying to get new and interesting sounds with digital synthesizers. The more subtractive software synths I tried, the more I realized that there wasn't that much difference in character between them - not as much as the variables between analogues anyway.

As I've been programming quite complex synths since I was a teenager, I reckoned that all I needed was some interesting and flexible instruments within one stable program, then it wouldn't be too hard to program all my sounds within that and simplify the live performance process.

Which particular Reason modules are you currently using?

I'm using the Subtractor and Malström and these are sounding great, especially through the Scream 4 distortion. I think that's my favourite rack within Reason. I can pretty much program up all the synth sounds I need and then create an FX path to include unison, delays, reverbs and distortion. I've now been able to bypass all the hardware FX which were really noisy, due to power supply issues, causing some problems with live recordings.

The samplers have proved useful as well, not just for FX and textures, but for some great sounding electric pianos, organs and mellotrons. I now program up a project per song with all the instruments I need and the correct bpm, so all the synth LFO rates and delay FX are accurate.

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Have you encountered any difficulties working with Reason in a live situation?

This is the first tour that I have used it on, but no problems so far. The lead lines are still slightly thin and I really want to able to combine two or three Subtractors together. I think this can be done in the Reason 3 Combinator, so when I get that I can perfect the live patches.

It's great being able to have as many complex FX chains as you need and have multiple mixer setups without any strain on the computer's CPU. With Porcupine Tree I don't do much improvising on stage, it's more a case of performing the material that has been recorded as faithfully as possible. So it's important for me to have all the sounds ready, in order, with all the appropriate FX and levels.

For this current tour, have you made any musical changes to the keyboard parts in "Deadwing" songs, since incorporating Reason in your setup?

The Reason synths have replaced most of the Prophet 5 parts and I now switch from older modules to the Reason samplers for more realistic strings and electric pianos. Something I've been working on for the more ambient intros is to create a song in Reason and build up textures and melodies in real time within, say, a 16 bar loop. This allows me to improvise a little. We've been using a couple of these pieces as introduction and intermission music at the concerts.

How do you think working with Reason might influence the creation of keyboard lines in new Porcupine Tree material?

The added features in version 3 are really going to make a difference. The Combinator is going to allow me to set up quite complex patches and applications. A compressor/limiter will be useful, especially during the recording process. I'm also interested to hear the new acoustic piano samples. After the tour I'll have some time to get into this and I hope to use the added features for the remaining recording sessions of the new album. It integrates really smoothly with Digital Performer and it's now my starting point for recording and creating new tracks.

Published: October 2006

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Richard Barbieri started his musical career with the group Japan in 1976. After five Japan albums, the band split up in 1983, and Barbieri continued with contributing to David Sylvian's solo albums, to later join the band Porcupine Tree. With six albums on Warner Brothers and a grammy nomination he now also works on film scores, writes articles on synthesis and has just released his first solo album.

Photos by Diana Nitschke