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Korg Oasys: On Tour with Tony Banks and Genesis

Published: Monday 13 August 2007

Korg Oasys News: The keyboardist and pianist of Genesis, Tony Banks, explains to Thomas James (Korg UK) why he's using Korg's flagship workstation on the latest Genesis tour.

“Most people think I’m still using the old instruments, which really is a good thing!” laughs Tony. The task of recreating the sounds from songs written using generation after generation of equipment has not been a simple one and Tony originally intended to recreate his old sounds using virtual instruments running from a dedicated rack-mounted computer, but eventually decided that the Oasys – offering a selection of different synthesis types within the one box – was a better option.

“It is something of a coincidence that I happened to come across it at this particular time,” continues Tony. “I was looking at something to power my virtual instruments and went as far as buying the hardware, but when I started fiddling around with Oasys I realised that I didn’t need the other system.”

“A lot of people do the same thing using computers but I trust the Oasys more and it is much easier because it’s a complete system. I find that the trouble with virtual instruments is the latency. Sequencing is fine but when you are actually trying to build up an idea they are not terrifically user friendly.”

“So an instrument that has it all in is easier and obviously you can plonk your own sounds in as well. For example, I’ve loaded in, what we call, ‘the elephant sample’ from the start of ‘No Son Of Mine’. Simple things like that are so easy to do. I’ll probably move all my samples across eventually.”

On stage, the Oasys provides almost all the sounds originally created using analogue synthsizers other pre-digital gear. “Everything that pre-dates 1980 is almost exclusively done on the Oasys and it’s been fantastic for that,” Tony insists. “We do a long medley starting with ‘In The Cage’, passing through lots of instrumental passages and ending with ‘Afterglow’, and every sound in that is from the Oasys. I don’t have any of those keyboards anymore and wouldn’t want to tour with them. It’s got a great piano, organ, strings and voices, plus all the monophonic synthesizers I used in the old days.”

“I hate saying this when I have plenty of shows still to do, but it has been remarkably reliable. We have two of them on tour and the great thing about it is that you can swap the disk across and it’s absolutely the same. That is really useful. For the Live Earth gig, for example, I hired one, plugged our sounds in – perfect!”

Tony’s live setup employs three keyboards, two of which are merely controllers, setup to play the sounds stored in the Oasys. For each song, the relevant sounds are split between the three, enabling Tony to instantly access whatever he needs without too many button presses. “I just use about 30 or 35 user presets to represent all the different songs and set it up so that the splits are appropriate for each song. For example, for ‘In The Cage’, which has about seven or eight sounds, three of them can be played on the Oasys itself, the lead is played remotely from a little sprung keyboard sat on top and then I have two types of organ on the third.”

So far, Tony has shied away from using the large touch screen and real-time controls live, preferring to prepare everything beforehand so that he can concentrate fully on performing. “When programming I use the screen a lot and I think the ways the pages are done is pretty good. But since I got the keyboard I’ve been in tour rehearsal mode so that’s really what I‘ve used it for and I don’t want to fiddle with controllers or touch my setup on stage. I get it sorted in rehearsal so I only have to press a button for it to go to the song with every parameter setup correctly. If I need two touches on the same sound then I just set up two different presets. There are 16 different sounds in each Combi so that works fine.”

Although the powerful KARMA technology, incorporated within the Oasys, is not a key area of interest for Tony, he has still found a use for it on the tour. “In a piece called ‘Duke’s Travels’ there’s this massive arpeggiating synthesizer sound which I originally created using the Arp Quadra, and to replicate that I used KARMA. But I’m really using the Oasys for its sounds and versatility. It is very versatile in that it allows you to use a multitude of independent effects on all the different sounds and combine them in various ways. I like being able to load a program with all its effects, which are sometimes very important. You may want to change them but when you bring in a sound without its effects it can sound very nude, so that’s a useful function.”

To ensure the Oasys sits at the summit of the keyboard workstation market, Korg have paid particular attention to the standard of audio playback, ensuring that it is of the highest quality, as Tony has experienced. “The technical jargon doesn’t mean much to me,” he laughs, “all I know is that all frequencies are taken care of and it has a very nice sound. You can tell from listening to things like the strings.”

A few of Tony’s older Korg keyboards are still in service, playing back vital sounds which he has yet to replace using the Oasys. “I use a Wavestation SR for a couple of specific pad sounds, particularly on ‘No Son Of Mine’ and ‘Hold On My Heart’ from ‘We Can’t Dance’. Having a few pieces of outboard is not a problem but I’m sure there are very similar sounds buried on the Oasys.”

“Everybody ends up with favourite sounds and there was one string sounds on the Korg 01W I used to use for a lot of writing. It wasn’t necessarily the most fantastic string sound but it just had such a nice quality to it and was very playable. For the songs we are doing at the moment I didn’t need to replacing many of those sounds but if I want a generic pad I use the Oasys. Some string samples are just great for writing so I’m looking forward to using the OASYS like that.”

“I think the Oasys organ sounds are really good and it’s great to have a keyboard that gives you the same kind of rich quality as the original Hammonds. The Leslie effects on it are good too. I love slow Leslie sounds and you can definitely get that, and obviously you don’t have to mic it up! So, for me, that side of it works really well.”

When it comes to replicating sounds from the past, Tony has some strong views on what is important and what’s not. “In the old days I used the organ because it was our only alternative to a piano – it wasn’t because I loved the organ! That’s also true of things like the Arp Pro Soloist sounds – we only used them because that was all we had. And I never really liked the Mellotron! It has a nostalgic quality but it isn’t a great sound. To me, a real string sample is vastly better. If I can make a sound that is similar but has more quality, or whatever it is I’m looking for, then I’m very happy to do that.”

“So when I go back to old songs I don’t necessarily recreate the sound. Where I feel that it was a crucial part of the song I get it sounding as authentic as possible and I think the audience wants to hear organs, pianos and Mellotron-style strings and voices.”

“But it is the spirit of the sounds, as much as anything, which you’ve got to get back. For example, getting the right amount of portamento on some of the early songs is very important. All you need is the right saw-tooth wave and portamento and you’ve got 90 percent of your sound! They weren’t subtle sounds and I suppose that’s what I’m after.”

“You couldn’t really write parts on machines like the Mellotron because they weren’t particularly sophisticated. You tended to just put you hand on a chord and play so I play the Oasys emulations it in the same way. If I want to play something really fast I choose a synthesizer or organ sound with a hard attack. For most of the solos I’m using the equivalent of the old Arp sound I used in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Of all the sound creation tools the Oasys has to offer, it is its ability to use several completely different types of synthesis simultaneously which has excited Tony the most. “It is great to be able to combine quite distinct synthesis forms within one instrument,” he explains. “I liked the Arp Quadra because it had four synths together which made you try things you wouldn’t otherwise consider. I’ve always been a great believer in leaving things to chance, but the more you use outboard and computer-based stuff, the more you have to think in advance, so it’s harder to let things just happen. I don’t yet know how good OASYS is for that but I’m hopeful because it’s all mixed in. When I’ve have found time to start playing with the sounds I’ve realised that certain sound combinations work well. It’s an instrument I’ve already explored a great deal more than I ever explored the 01W, for example.”

“I’ve never used a programmer; I’ve always done it myself because that’s part of the fun. On things like the Sequential Prophet, for example, I’d create every sound from scratch or modify presets, but the Yamaha DX7 and the Synclavier changed the way I thought because they were desperately difficult to program, and I started relying on presets to a greater degree. In the old days I’d put a Pianet through a fuzzbox and a wah and try everything I could, so I get embarrassed by the fact that we sometimes only really explore a small percentage of an instrument’s potential.”

“But I have found that with the Oasys I have got back into modifying the sounds much more and that’s part of the creative process. If I want to go back to the ADSR way of thinking then it’s all in there and that is great when I’m trying to create old Arp-type sounds. Then, if I want to go for exotic morphing sounds that go on forever, I can do that too. When I get back into writing mode I think I’ll be using it a lot!”

Article Source: Korg UK Website. Interview by Thomas James.

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