Meeting of the modulars: Node live at the RCM10 April 2015
Despite their chosen name, Node don’t get together very often. In fact, if you weren’t standing on the concourse of Paddington Station in 1995, you won’t have heard them play live before.
That incarnation of the band and unusual (to say the least) concert followed the 1995 release of Node the album on Deviant Records, and featured legendary producer Flood, and composers Ed Buller and David Bessell, academic composer and audio researcher. The band performed on rare and vintage analogue synthesisers , and their music recalls the ‘Berlin School’ of Tangerine Dream and suchlike of the mid-’70s: dense textures and bubbling sequencer lines. (Full disclosure – the writer’s very favourite type of music.)
In February, Node were back after a 20-year break, with Mel Wesson replacing Gary Stout from the original 1995 line-up. The landmark concert Node Live took place in the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall at the Royal College of Music in London in late February. The band delivered a talk to students on the ins and outs (as iut were) of analogue synths ahead of that evening’s soundcheck and gig.
Mel Wesson (pictured right) spoke to PSNEurope in a precious few minutes of gig-day downtime. Wesson is a programmer and musician who, among other things, collaborates with soundtrack composers to produce ambient and atmospheric landscapes for the movies. Originally a programmer and session musician, Wesson says he’s not a synth collector per se – he just “bought the tools for the job as his clients required them”. He has a working relationship with Hans Zimmer that stretches back to a time when, as 20-year-olds, they would be “programming a [SCI] Prophet 5 together, then we’d run off to do music for a cornflakes ad or something!”
(You can hear Wesson’s audio fingerprints and a recording of his then unnamed baby daughter on the hidden track Deep Freeze at the end of the 1997 Verve album Urban Hymns.)
Wesson first met Flood 30 years ago when the young Mark Ellis was an engineer at London’s legendary Trident Studios. Before this, as it transpires, both men were present at the Tangerine Dream performance at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in 1975, a gig that would form the backbone of the German synth pioneers’ first live album, the landmark Ricochet.
“Flood got in touch to say he was putting the Node thing back together, and did I want to come down and jam with them?” reveals Wesson. The first sessions in Flood’s Battery studio in north London were held in December 2011, but it wouldn’t be until the middle of 2014 that the second Node album (Node 2, no less) saw the light of day via Ian Boddy’s ‘ambient electronica’ DiN label.
“We always had to put our schedules down so we could do this,” says Wesson. “It’s purely for fun, and to work without any restraints or constraints from directors or film companies. The only financial restraints are ones we’ve set ourselves, because it’s costing a lot to put this on!
It’s a fair observation to suggest that no other collective of musicians working today would be capable of putting a project of this scale together. Certainly, the gig represents the largest collection of modular systems gathered together in one place outside of the NAMM Show.
“This is a way to express ourselves and remind ourselves of a music without the music business” is how Wesson describes it. Indeed, in the talk for RCM students, Flood says, “Analogue synths are a good reflection of the human individual.”
Wesson’s modular stack, downstage right, is typical of the instruments at the gig. On the bottom is a Moog 3C from 1969, “The classic Moog with the 901 oscillators. How one tiny module can make such a vast noise is phenomenal.” Above that is a cabinet of “interfaces, attenuators, mixers and clock interfaces” made my Moon Module of Germany. “For me, the most interesting is what’s on top: the PPG 300, an analogue system from about 1974.” Elsewhere in his assemblage you’ll find a PPG Wave 2 synth, an EMS VCS3, a Minimoog and more. That’s just a taste of the tens of thousands of pounds worth of synthesiser heaven sitting on the RCM stage.
“The biggest problem with us four individuals is the difficulty in getting everything to talk to each other. There are many different clockable devices here. So we have MTC [MIDI Timecode] coming from a laptop (hidden in the wings), and we read that clock using MIDI interfaces converting to Gate/CV controllers, and break that down into 8s and 16s and so on.”
As Wesson returns to tune and tweak his kit with the three other analogue aficionados, PSNEurope grabs a word with the PA department. “Our aim is to be invisible,” says Waq of Mustt Audio, supplier of the Flare Audio rig for the evening (pictured right). “We are there to transfer the music from the musicians, as it should be! I come from a studio background so I understand the pain musicians go through.”
Waq was already running Yellow Arts studio in Sheffield when he started Mustt Audio, back in 2004, providing sound for bands, orchestras and DJ events. Jarvis Cocker is a friend and customer. (The name ‘Mustt’ comes from a Qawwali word which translates as ‘overwhelmed, as if by music or poetry’.)
He explains how the nascent Flare brand came to his attention., “I’ve used a lot of audio systems, a lot of them were great, but I still didn’t have that satisfaction of bridging the gap between the sound in the studio and the sound on stage,” he says. “We were on a tour and we brought in a monitor engineer who mentioned Flare. That’s how it started.”
Waq eventually ventured south to hear a Flare system at a club event in Brighton. “The first system, the Stealth Array – I’d never heard HF like it!” Mustt has been a Flare user since and – full disclosure here – has worked for the company since November 2014.
Two X2A (frontfills) and four X5A cabinets provide the 390-capacity Amaryllis Hall with mid-high definition coverage, while six flat-panel bass units (SB21Cs) deliver the full and controllable bass needed for the dense textural soundscapes generated by the quartet.
Originally, only two X5As were on the rider, but than FOH engineer Steev Toth decided to start the gig with the sound of the band emanating from the back of the hall, then sweeping ‘down and to the front’ as the music pulsed and grew. Hence, two more X5As were added (Mustt brought spare kit!) along with Flare S1 studio monitors and X0 boxes (featuring a 4” driver in a compact point source cab) to complete the effect. Because of the scope of Node’s visual set up, it was important that sightlines were not interrupted by speaker stacks. Flare Audio’s slim profile but powerful speaker system was an ideal choice.
Lab.gruppen PLM amps with Lake processing provide the juice for the night. At set up, Waq noted that during the set up there was “a little dip in the low mid EQ to accommodate for room modes, but that’s it.” He recommended a Soundcraft Vi1 for Toth, because the FOH man wanted “an analogue-style set up where he can just walk up and use it in five minutes”.
The mix is surprisingly troublefree. There are four pairs of stereo ins, one from each musician, as each is responsible for his own mix on stage, executed with individual compact Mackie mixers. Toth also sends a monitor mix back to each of the four – no additional desk needed here – who listen back on their own monitors.
“It’s such a great spectacle on stage, the idea is to make the PA invisible. This is something we love to do: so you can get immersed in the sounds.”
After the event and two hours of dark, pulsing explorations into deep and rhythmic textures – all rather reminiscent of Tangerine Dream c1977, it should be noted (and welcomed by this writer!) – Wesson will comment: “We wanted to hear everything from those old synths, the highs, the lows, each uninvited rattle and hum… Flare gave us a truly dynamic sound, a perfect match for our ancient technology.”
Back to Waq: he comments that the reduced size of the Flare speakers means they are great for stacking and touring too. “The speakers’ rear rejection courtesy of the Vortex Technology, means a really clean stage sound – the monitors can be a lower output – it’s a lot more of a pleasant experience for the artist.
The X2s on the stage: they look more like power supplies than speakers. “Nothing [Flare make] looks like a speaker. Even Mel from the band and pointed at them and said, what’s that? Someone else said, what are you doing putting a flightcase up there?”