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How Frankie gets to Hollywood

Two Tribes — music and micros: Meirion Jones talks to the man who mixes them for Frankie.

WITH FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOODS new album due out in weeks Steve Lipson stares across a mixing desk into the void of a recording studio trying to improve on the great sounds he engineered for Relax and Two Tribes/War.

At the console he strikes a pose worthy of Captain Kirk at the controls of the USS Enterprise but Steve is under no illusions that he is a man with a mission. “I dont want to be Mother Theresa”, he says. “I am the person who is employed to help defraud the public and rightly so — because if the public honestly believe what they see they deserve to be defrauded.

“Frankie are nothing out of the ordinary. Ive read articles which say they dont play on their records. This is a slight twist of the truth. In fact they play on their records then we make what they do better which is a perfectly logical thing to do. Theyre 20 years old — were much older — weve had experience of making records and can make what they do sound a hundred times better. The artist becomes a performer. Hes the guy who fronts the whole thing which is how it should be. If you have a tremendously good group to start with you limit the amount of input your production side can put in.”

Steves fraud factory is Sarm Studios in London. Outside it looks like the shabby derelict warehouses you expect to find at the wrong end of the Portobello Road. The only clue to its true purpose is a couple of fans on the steps in long black and white Relax to shirts. They look like a pair of lost zebras as they wait for a glimpse of their heroes.

Inside, Steve Lipson is busy at the controls of his Sinclavier computer. Apart from the usual Qwerty keyboard and TV screen this has a 20 Megabyte hard disc storage unit — thats 500 times the capacity of a Commodore 64 — and a piano keyboard. Steve uses the Sinclavier mainly as a sampling machine. He can take any noise whether it is a bamboo cane hitting a shopping trolley or somebody hitting a snare drum and then produce a sequence of sounds based on that to create a new instrument.

Steve makes it sound very simple: “some geezer bangs a snare in the air. I get it to sound as wonderful as I can, stick it in the Sinclavier, organise it so that its occupying as little space as possible for maximum effect and then proceed to sequence it. Then it is reverse compiled into script language.”

With his right hand Steve plays a bass line from Relax on the piano keyboard while his left hand on the Qwerty throws it on to screen as script language. On screen, phrases can be edited and repeated — just like word processing with sounds.

Another stab at the keyboard shows the file catalogue for two of the tracks from the new album, Only Star in Heaven and Black Night, White Light. Steve keeps most of the 20 Megabyte memory in use most of the time, making back up copies of any material he does not need immediately so he can free space. It is reassuring to know that even with such expensive equipment things can go wrong. The cartridge machine which should make the back-up copies on to tape is malfunctioning so Steve is having to use floppy discs “and 20 Megabytes is something like 200 discs so its hopeless.”

More and better equipment solves some problems but also creates new ones. “With Relax the problem was we were using an analogue tape recorder. Now were using a digital — big difference.” But on the new album “a lot of the bass sounds were using now are two machines synchronised together which poses a great deal of problems.”

While Steve deals with the technical side producer Trevor Horn is the man with the golden ears who seems to know what the public want to hear. “I am working with the best producer around. I will be working on a track for days and days and Trevor will walk in — hes very good at looking at the overview — and hell say, ‘No this track is rubbish, start again… Trevor signed Frankie goes to Hollywood because he thought they were ridiculous — good singer but absolutely ridiculous. He had two attempts to recording them, both dismal failures. I got recommended to him — its not what you know its who you know — I started engineering and did Relax.”

The phone rings — oh no its Trevor — but this time he is not asking for a track to be scrapped but just for a snare drum to be taken off one of the songs on the new album and replaced with another snare drum and a tambourine. If its a simple part Steve can do that in a matter of minutes. “If its a complicated part it could take me four or five hours. Its easy now but the very first time I did it, it took me a whole day.”

With a virtually unlimited budget for new equipment Steve can afford to dream of tomorrows machines. “You will have an infinite track tape recorder, you will record something and then be able to move it wherever you want to.” But this will require new forms of computer storage — “hard disc is so primitive”.

Steve does not feel that the empires of the big recording studios are under threat from home computer-based systems using converted Commodore 64s and Midi compatible Yamaha CX-5s. “Nothing is going to happen with all that stuff. Midis useful but going to run out shortly. There will be a Midi 2.

“8-bit sounds are unusable — the Fairlights different because it has got a graunch noise of its own. It just lowers the quality of what were going to be hearing. Very few people have got all the gear and then everyone else with their CX-5s and Commodore 64s will be struggling desperately hard with not really a hope in hell, apart from the odd genius.”