Thursday, 8 December 2016

Goonhilly Earth Station - synths in space!

Goonhilly Earth Station is the stuff of modern British science and technology legend. When Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, Goonhilly received the signals and got them to the BBC for transmission, so that I could watch them at school explaining all to the headmaster. Ali hit the deck from a monster left from Frazier,  and as a 10 year old kid I felt the blow all the way over in Sheffield, the first time he had ever been on the canvas as a professional - Goonhilly was picking up the satelllite TV relay. Alf Ramsey decided to 'save him for the semi', and Bobby Charlton's golden days were gone in a second half flurry of German goalscoring. Goonhilly beamed over the heartbreak from Mexico for us to to 'enjoy'. Freddie Mercury and Brian May stealing Live Aid from under the noses of the class of 76, thus proving to my eternal punk rocker shame that practising and playing well beats yelling and jumping around - Goonhilly. And The Beatles playing All You Need Is Love to the world in 1967. Goonhilly, again.

What a place, and very fitting that music should be the thing that drew me to Goonhilly for the first time yesterday, when the brave new post-BT management of the Earth Station made the place into a BBC music venue for one day only. This was part of the celebrations of 70 years of Radio 3, the place had been decorated up a storm, and mince pies and mulled wine were made available during the soundcheck, where we met Paula Bolton who is the artist in residence at Goonhilly. She is doing great work to bridge the STEAM gap and expose the creativity of the technical team, emphasising the aesthetic beauty of satellite dishes and old school dot matrix print outs, dropping an artist's eye over the parabolic giants that dominate the local horizon, and making you look at things slightly differently than you did before. Bold management to insert art into this place, and I look forward to them pushing the STEAM agenda in the coming years.

In true BBC tradition, on with the show, hosted by the excellent Sean Rafferty. The music was a joy, start to finish. With a loose space theme - actually, there was no theme at all, but space was mentioned a lot! But with a sort of non-existent space theme, proceedings kicked off in the only way they could, with Also Sprach Zarathustra. Played by the brilliant BBC Concert Orchestra brass players, the piece was augmented and morphed into something else entirely by the utter brilliance of Will Gregory's Moog Ensemble. Filtered resonant noise for the 'Life on Mars' Tympani, massed Moogs and Korgs and Rolands, a pair of wind controllers - Will playing a classic WX7 into a MIDI to gate / CV converter into a weather beaten Model D (as far as I could tell from my sideways view - but I'm not exactly encyclopaedic on Moogs) - transistors and synthetic sawtooths clashing with reality. Analog vs unalog?? And despite the kilowatts of amplification, the brass was louder. A brass ensemble on full blow is a terrifying racket... But it wasn't a contest, it was a celebration, and it was brilliant. The synth team appeared thrice more during the event. Noise Box was hilarious - a MIDI command stream broadcast to maybe 5 of the synths, just rhythmic pulses stripped of melody by the entire synths squad turning off their tuned oscillators. The MIDI was locally gate / CVd into each synth to free up the players to mess with EG release times, cutoff and resonance, and a few of the players were at it freehand, bashing away - no tuned oscillators at all, occasional pitched notes emerging from the clatter and hiss as filters went very resonant, but utterly brilliant, REAL music, from nothing but white noise. Awesome. Then some Switched on Bach, and I couldn't take my eyes off Ruth Wall throughout - she is so tiny, and her fingers flew, and frankly she is awesome. Must see her play the harp now I've seen her Korg-wrangling, and Hazel's no slouch either, no favouritism here, but really, Ruth's fingers - mesmerizing. Another BBC brass mashup closed the show, this time the theme from Vertigo, a perfect synths plus brass piece. I totally love Will's synth band, and since Goldfrapp have produced two of my favourite albums of the last 10 years it was mega special to shake the man's hand and chat with him afterwards.

But it wasn't just a day of synthesizer celebration - we had the Truro Cathedral Boys and Girls Choir, and they were delightful. We had Ruth's fella playing some very minimal piano pieces - like latter day Sparks denuded of Russell, with the caffeine overdose and 'shrew chorus' removed. And a bunch of folks who I would now like to think of as dear old friends, having driven about 2,500 miles to see them 4 times in the last 6 weeks, the glorious Changing Room. Badly mixed- the only BBC faux pas of the day - but we didn't care, they were brilliant as always, and it was the first time we had seen them with both bass and violin. Mercifully my far too loud and way off key 'Row Boys Row' on the first chorus was missed by the BBC audience mic, so you can hear them without my hideous contribution from the audience on the iPlayer for the next 28 days, right here -

Great day. An insight into how valuable the BBC is - all this work for just two hours of broadcast on just one channel - this was a celebration of excellent music, and a festival of proper analog synths. And I have to say, for the first time as I was listening to those things go en masse, I understood why analog purists really don't buy into soft synths. Those things were ferocious. I love the way my Virtual Analog synth sounds, it can do all sorts of stuff a Minimoog can't. But it is so not the real thing.

So I enjoyed myself and learned something important. And shook Will Gregory's hand. Plus a cracking lunch at Amelie's in Porthleven. Yay!


You can all hear what the authentic, expensive Moog Ensemble (10 synths at about £3,000 each!) sounds like on the iPlayer link above, or by watching this -

Here's as close as I can get on a £4 budget. 8 Virtual Analog synths simultaneously executing on a Pi Zero, or 7 and a couple of non-VA synths to make up the numbers, plus 4 echo effects and a reverb, plus a wild and crazy waveform oscilloscope display -