FIVE QUESTIONS FOR LESTER BARNES
Lester Barnes is a force to be reckoned with. Having scored over over 650 episodes of television including dramas, documentaries and children's shows, his music has made a gigantic mark on media across the globe and earned him a BAFTA and 4 Emmy Nominations. As a modular enthusiast and collector, Lester has created one of Europe's largest modular racks, which takes up all 4 walls of his London based studio. After spending weeks sampling a set of earth shattering super saw samples with all 114 oscillators at his disposal, he joined forces with Sonixinema to create MONSTA - the first release in our series of libraries from The Community.
Give us a brief history of Lester Barnes - What inspired you at a young age and how did you get your start?
LB: My Father is a jazz pianist and when I was about seven years old he bought home a Moog Prodigy synth to gig with. It blew my tiny brain that this machine could make such cool sounds and I was addicted to electronic music form that moment on. I went on to study piano and sax in London through the formal classical tradition as well as jazz and rock but making music was the thing I most loved and synths were my addiction.
Among your work for documentaries and drama, you’ve become well known for scoring hundreds of episodes of children’s television shows. When starting a large scale project like a television series, what is your process for finding your sound and laying the groundwork needed to create such a huge amount of music?
LB: I have scored quite a lot of cartoons ( will be almost 800 individually scored episodes by this time next year ) but it was never an area of music that I intended to work in ! A cartoon series takes many years to develop and get funded, during those years the composer is often brought in early to start developing the sonic landscape and the musical identity for the show. One of the first parts of an animation production development is guided by a book known affectionately as ’The Animation Bible’ - this is an in-depth document that describes visually and in words what the show is all about, the characters and their personalities, looks, likes, typical movements, environments, ethics and aims of the show, episode ideas, etc it’s an A to Z of what the show is all about. Using this and talking to the producers, I would start to sketch out character themes, musical cues for key areas the show focuses on ( be that a city theme or a desert Island theme, bad guys snooping around theme etc ) - that starts with building a unique template in Logic ( I always start from scratch with a new show and create a template that is unique for that particular show) - calling up instruments that together can start forming the musical identity of a character. Create a few short demos and variations - send them to the producers for comments. This goes on and on until a full set of musical cues is formed. These are just pointers to how the scores will develop and also cement the musical identity with everyone. Once the animatics start to roll out, it’s all hands on deck to get the work done in time!
You were the brains behind the new Community release, MONSTA. Tell us a bit how your passion for modular synthesis developed?
LB: I grew up around mainly digital synths during the late 80’s and 90’s ( DX7s, M1s, D50s … later Roland JDs etc ) - whilst these synths were good, they lacked the analogue sound that I loved and they lacked physical controls to let you grab a dial or slider and instantly change and create your own sounds. I was too young and penniless to be able to jump in and buy the then discarded analogue synths that were being sold off cheap so players could replace them with shinny new digital synths but I stayed avidly reading the music tech magazines and interviews. It was many years later in the late 90s that I dipped my toe in the first small Doepfer modular rack (this was actually a modular vocoder system which I still have ) but this didn’t really have the correct set if modules to get me started with modular synthesis. During these years I’d been in contact with Bob Williams from Analogue Systems, he was a collector of modular gear and one of the worlds big suppliers of vintage modular gear (providing systems for many of great composers, bands an artists ) - He had just developed his own Euro Rack modular range complete with beautiful hand built walnut cabinets - He sent me a few photographs of his new systems in these gorgeous cabinets complete with separate sequencers cabinets … my jaw dropped. I ordered a complete system and Bob came to Soho to set it up with me. That was 1998, before modular really took off. As the years went by, my addiction became more pronounced!
Tell us about your process for such a mind boggling sampling project like MONSTA?
LB: I was looking around the studio and wondered: ‘What would it sound like if I patched all of this gear together into one massive unison monophonic sound? Could it even be done? Every wall in my studio is covered in modular gear supplied with it’s own 100amp mains and 8kWatts of air conditioning for when it’s all powered up - It took three solid days to to patch up 110 VCOs to separate chains of VCFs, VCAs, EGs to output channels and to supply each bank of voices with CV and Gate from my logic session so that when I hit a key… all twenty channels of audio and voltages get to the banks of voices and to the 110 VCOs and we get sound! - I couldn’t believe how huge the sound was. It was gigantic with only half of the VCOs playing!? Later that evening I realised that it would be such a waste to break down the patch having spent so much time making it - so I decided to save it and try to make a sample preset from the it. Two weeks of sampling every chromatic note form A-4 up to C5 with about twenty minutes per note to go around the room and fine tune the VCOs to get just the right amount of drift and madness for each note ( analogue gear drifts a little and with all of those VCOs there was a need to tweak them for each note. ) With four passes per note and 20 channels of Audio per note I ended up with over 5,000 samples but no idea how to make a proper sample instrument - Then Sonixinema came into my life and with your help MONSTA was born. (Modular Oscilator Network System Totally Analogue)
What is it about the sound of MONSTA that you feel makes it stand our from other synth VSTs and sample packs?
LB: Supersaws have been a common mainstay in music and EDM for decades but they traditionally come form digital synths like the Roland JP8000 (which is one of the first to have a supersaw as a waveform choice) There is a big sonic difference between a digital and analogue and when it comes to sounds that need to be full and meaty, analogue gear blows away the digital emulation. It’s a bit like trying to multitrack your own voice to create the impression of a choir, you can layer up loads of multitrack layers but the result will always be a bit sterile as all you’ve done is clone your self. There’s not enough subtle variation in timbre to make it sound right. That’s a very different sound to having 20 individual people each with their own individual quirks that create a glorious choir. Analogue modular synth sounds have a ‘life’ to them. There’s an element of variation and uncertainty that creates colour. The way VCO signal levels hit filters and mixers further changes and warms those sounds, the drift in subtle tuning creates further unique tonal changes too. Four unison french horns sound very different from one horn. Twelve unison french horns sound even bigger. 110 Unison modular VCOs is immense, 440 is Brutal (and Monsta can deliver that ! )
For more information about Lester, visit www.lesterbarnes.com