Reawakening the Sleeping Giant


Larry Fast breathes new life into Synergy



Interview by Judy Markworth
Reprinted with Permission of Wind and Wire Magazine, July-August 1998 p. 10

The maestro behind Synergy, Larry Fast, is a man whose pioneering efforts have aided in shaping the face of electronic music as we know it today. Composer, producer, engineer, sound and instrument designer, consultant and A&R Representative are just a few of the positions Larry Fast has occupied. He has worked with such diverse musicians as Wendy Carlos, Peter Gabriel, Foreigner, Blue Oyster Cult, Rennaissance and Shadowfax. To this day, he remains actively involved in the bleeding edge of electronic music and computer technology. Here, he talks about the past, his present projects and what the future holds for Synergy.

 How did your career in music begin and what sparked your fascination with electronic music?

That goes back real early. I was one of those kids who wasn't into sports and I was doing things with electricity and later electronics. I also liked what I was listening to on records, and studied piano and violin in grade school so I had this musical side. By the late 60's, technology was to a point that led to the Moog synthesizer and all of the related technologies that came along with that. I found I could really combine these things I was obsessed with - electronics, audio, acoustics and the creation of music. It was a set of devices that gave me the best of both worlds.


Did you attend college for music?

[Laughs] No. I actually have a degree in history. I was on my way to becoming a lawyer when I got sidetracked into all of this. I started working in college radio because that kept me close to music and was sort of an educational ground where I learned about the record industry, distribution, radio, publishing and all the more arcane aspects of what makes the music business work. I really learned the nuts and bolts during those years.

At the same time, I was taking computer science, architecture and electronics so I was getting enough electrical engineering background that I could do what I wanted to do. I knew I wasn't heading towards an engineering major but I wanted to be able to design better circuits for the synthesizers that I was building for myself. I knew that what was happening then was still mostly mainframe computers but it was obvious that there was a lot of very important work going on in that field, so I wanted to learn as much about it as I could. It became sort of a parallel education to what I was supposed to be doing. After I left college, I didn't go to law school and sort of flipped careers. I was building the synthesizers. I already had a small electronic studio. I had actually done a few of the things that appeared on the first Synergy album for a senior composition course. I did go back and start taking music courses but more as a composer and theoretician. Nobody else was really working in electronics then so I was kind of out there by myself. My professor took a little special interest in me.


Because you were into things that few others were trying?

I think it was just relatively new. To me it seemed that it was almost old-hat already but even within the music department, there was very little understanding of what it was. I don't think there were bad feelings, it was just so new that nobody was paying attention to it yet or had the background.


Did it blow your mind when you began seeing things stating that you were one of the pioneers in electronic music?

Yeah! In 1968 or so, I started building some of my things and Switched On Bach had just been released. I figured well, I want to be involved with this but I must be hopelessly behind the four thousand other people that are going to be putting out records like this. As it turned out, it evolved rather slowly. I just assumed that the couple of years lead that Wendy [Carlos] had on me was an insurmountable gap and that I was destined to be a follower and would constantly be trying to play catch up with everybody else.

When I was still in college, one of the first commissions I had was to design some electronic synthesis equipment for Rick Wakeman of Yes when he was just starting out himself. Yes became successful about a year or two before I first got signed and again, that seemed an insurmountable gap. I figured, well he's going to be one of the pioneers and I'll just be relegated to making instruments. The thing that became apparent over time was that there were a lot of fantastically talented keyboardists who weren't approaching synthesis as a full orchestration tool which is what Wendy had done and what I expected to be this huge onslaught of other people doing. That didn't materialize so when I popped in with mine and it caught the public fancy, it just seemed to make me more of a pioneer than I anticipated.


Did you begin to realize the impact that you would have after you were deluged with requests on how you did Electronic Realizations?

Yeah. I knew that I had put in a lot of work and I was proud of the album but it didn't seem that special. I figured anybody can buy this recording equipment. Anybody can go to Bob Moog and order the same stuff. There should be a thousand albums sounding like this. To me it was basically a case of the bleedin' obvious so I just did it. Maybe the mystery to me was why every other keyboardist in the world that I had encountered hadn't done something like this. I was contacted by other artists saying, "Love the way that is." Many of them had far more extensive rigs than I had and yet I was, with my small setup, doing what I was doing. I didn't understand where the gap was. So I think it was just an approach on how to make the equipment work rather than the quantity or even in some cases, the quality of it.


You mentioned that you wondered why people weren't jumping on this technology. In retrospect, have you ever thought maybe your music was ahead of its time now that so many are releasing instrumental electronic music?

I don't want to sound egotistical about it, but I think maybe I had just created my own little back water and it's not so much that I was ahead of the pack but I was paddling my own little canoe on my own little lake. A handful of other people populated those same shores like Wendy Carlos and a few others. Somehow or other, the building developments just came out and ended up in our neighborhood. I guess by being there first, technically yes, you're a pioneer but to be ahead of the time... it's just such a hard thing to define. Being ahead of your time to someone involved in commercial sales in the music industry can be the kiss of death. For an artist, it can be very flattering and engaging to say that yes, you were ahead of your time. But I'm probably to close too the whole thing to. It's hard for me to step back and be as objective about it as I probably should be or could be.


What was the reason for Metropolitan Suite being the last Synergy release to date? Did you feel that you had to give it a rest for awhile?

No, not really. The record label [Jem/Passport] got into trouble. They were eventually taken over and went into bankruptcy. All of my old records were tied up in court for years. It wasn't clear who had the rights to release things. The label wars were quite murky because I wasn't signed like a traditional rock and roll artist. I actually financed the records. I had the ability to prove that I had the cancelled checks for the studio time so they should belong to me, not the record company but it took five years from the time they closed the doors on that business around 1990, until everything finally cleared through the system. It was a bit disheartening. I couldn't say that I was inspired to do something new but it wasn't anything like I've heard of artists who when they encounter legal difficulties going into some kind of horrible depression and not getting out of bed for two years. Nothing like that. I just had other projects going. I had some film soundtracks that I was working on and was producing with some different artists. Then I got caught up in my then-girlfriend, now-wife's company that was dealing with the hearing disabled and that was a nice new challenge for me to get involved in.

The Synergy thing just got pushed more and more off to the side because the businessman side of me said, it really makes sense to get all of the old albums back and then place them before coming out with something new. I was not feeling creatively constrained because I had the film scores and the other things to work on. I just kind of put it on the back burner while dealing with the legal issues and as soon as they cleared, I started the Third Contact label to bring them back out again, one at a time. That took an unexpected turn within the last six months or so. The amount of sales that were being generated was enough to get the interest of a major record label, Polygram Chronicles. I've now made arrangements for them to take over the manufacturing and distribution.


But you will retain the rights?

Yeah. Synergy as a corporation still owns them and the master tapes have always stayed in my possession. Polygram is given an exclusive right to manufacturer for five years or until one of us decides to bail out, basically. We'll see, if sales meet Polygram's expectations, I'm sure they'll be happy to continue selling them. If they don't, then they'll just pop back to Third Contact and we'll go on the way we were. Polygram was able to accelerate the schedule because I was bringing them out one every six to eight months over that first year and a half or so. They've decided to compress it all within 1998 so all nine releases will be out by the end of the year.


Do you view instrumental electronic music as still sort of a novelty? At least in my experience, it seems that many people still aren't aware of its existence.

I'd have to agree with you. I think it exists in so many places that people aren't aware of it but a lot of it has infused the culture through soundtracks and jingles and parts of pop records. Maybe it's more like jazz or classical music. It never got a widespread following, at least in recent years, so its remained in more of an esoteric corner even though those same tools are used in very mainstream cultural music. It's a possibility that it will always be something like jazz or classical where there will be a very dedicated, very loyal, but small following for that core of all electronic instrumental music.


Those who follow it really develop an attachment to it...

Oh yeah, the loyalty is wonderful! I've gotten feedback from the web site telling me of the enjoyment that I have brought to some of the people that are truly devoted to this kind of music. That's a really good feeling because I'm not just doing it for myself. That kind of feedback from people is great! It means that I'm hitting people the way I wanted to.


Which artists have influenced you in the development of your style and where does your inspiration come from as you compose a piece of music?

Boy, that's a tough one. I was brought up on a very strong diet of classical music, concerts and being taken to the opera by my grandparents so I had a fairly good background in that even though sometimes I found it boring and resented it when I was little. It still infused itself into me enough that it became an influence. Kicking and screaming or whatever, it still became an influence.

The big explosion for me was the Beatles. I was already listening to rock and roll radio and rebelling against the classical background and my parent's big band era swing music. I had already made a bit of my break before the Beatles happened but when they came through, that was a life changing experience. It was at that point that I new I had to be doing something in this field but I wasn't sure exactly what. I think that led into the rock side of things. By the time I was a teenager when the psychedelic summer of love was happening in San Francisco, I was starting to pick up a lot of influences from that. By the time the synthesizer revolution started happening with the English progressive rock bands, I was already through the radio business and some of the earliest recording work I'd done.


You're reportedly involved in exploring "cutting edge computer technology". What kinds of things are you working on?

I've been working as a beta tester with a company called Aris Technologies. They have an application called Musicode that's more of a mechanical device for use by the record and publishing businesses and not anything that's going to affect the home consumer initially. The importance of it is that it identifies that the master belongs to a given individual, was created by a given individual and when sales and distribution move over to the Internet, it's a real foundation stone of making that work economically.

Musicode is audio watermarking. It's something that can be embedded into the audio stream and once it's in there, it never comes out. It doesn't effect the music. That was my key. If it had any effect on the sound of the music, I don't care how good it is for economics, I don't want it in there. [Laughs]

They got it to work so that it's extremely durable and effective. It's put on in CD mastering and once it's on there, it identifies that's your song. Now someday, this will mean that there will be LCD or data screens on CD players and even radios so you don't have wait for the DJ to back-announce the songs. There would even be room for additional information if the artist has something to say. But for now, it's something that's really going to be used mostly within the industry in order to make a graceful and sane transition from the way music has been distributed for the past 75 or 100 years to the way I think it will be and should be in the future.

It's really important that if recorded music is no longer going to be coupled to a physical disc and is going to be this thing floating in Cyberspace, that we be able to label it somehow. Somebody puts something up on a web site. Somebody comes and listens to it on RealAudio or Liquid Audio or whatever the technology will be in six months. The site is supposed to be paying a fee back to the performance rights organizations which then pay it back to the composer. Right now, there's somewhere between ten and twelve thousand radio and TV stations in the country and it's a hell of a job to monitor all of that and it's barely adequately done as it is. All of a sudden, I understand there are possibly two to three-hundred thousand music sites so it's impossible to track that with the old methods which were really manual. They would listen to stations and log what was recorded and send in faxes of what station had played what record. You can't do that on the Internet. It's completely impractical and as things move more and more to the Internet, Musicode will be really important so that infobots can go out there and find out what's getting played, who's playing it and make the underlying economics of the thing work.

I'm not one who's greedy and looking to wring every last penny out of every technology but I also know that the foundations of the way the record business and publishing industry have worked over the last hundred years are in real danger of cracking unless something goes in their place. I think it's fair since that's the way [composers] get paid... from people listening to [their music].

Musicode works very well and I'm very impressed with it. The new Synergy reissues coming out on Polygram are the first ones out there to use it. There were a couple of test things done for music that's pre-recorded for jingles and documentaries but mine are the first ones that you can actually go into a record store and buy. I expect they'll be the first of many hundreds of thousands of titles that will have it.


What's the status on a new Synergy release?

There are a lot of ideas that have been coded over these last down years. It wasn't as though I wasn't coming up with anything. I've got maybe ten megabytes of MIDI files that are not finished songs but they're idea snippets. If you know how small a MIDI file can be, that's a lot of material. I've been weeding through it. A lot of it will never see the light of day because only the good stuff is going to get developed but it took me awhile to get it organized. It's sitting there waiting for me to have a clear enough block of time to work on it. I'm now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the reissues because the Games and Audion albums were just turned in to Polygram for manufacturing. Metropolitan Suite and Jupiter Menace are next and then Computer Experiments and Semiconductor. I'm two-thirds of the way done with those.

I'll probably start to create a new album during the latter part of this year and then we'll see where it goes from there. I'm not going to put any date on it and say, "You can expect one in March of 1999, December of 1999 or 2003." I just don't know and there are always other interesting projects that come up. Barring something absolutely extraordinary, I expect and want to be doing more. I'd never intended for there to be this big of a gap. There was actually a pretty big gap before Metropolitan Suite too which was also unanticipated but it was totally different. Peter Gabriel had gotten so successful that we were on the road almost constantly or recording and it just got in the way. I don't know, maybe it was a bad decision at the time but it seemed foolish to give up all of that to take a shot at another Synergy album. I'm hoping within the reasonable future that there will be some new material and I'm very pleased with the little bits I've been working on already so I think everybody is going to like it a lot.