Revelation of the Method
As above, so below, wrote magician-philosopher Hermes Trismegistus. It’s the key to all the universe’s mysteries: the macrocosmos is the same as the microcosmos. The Mackrosoft is the same as its microgram doses. A single bar of music from the brothers is as important as their entire catalog; a single beat represents their entire philosophy. See Cheebacabra’s shape-shifting synthesizer masterstroke, Exile in the Woods, and think Marc Moulin’s angular geometry. This is music as fractals played on a Mandelbrot drum set. Menacing, spiraling, salvia-chewing self-transforming machine elves go to work in the studio, and Cheeba plays Tristan Tzara and picks up the pieces. Also see the Mackrosoft’s jazz-funk organic opus, Antonio’s Giraffe, and think Bob James as primordial Ptah. Like a mad Strindberg indulging in alchemy, atomic arranger Aja West flips Sandoz Lab samples into Fibonacci sequences. He codes Headhunters drummer Mike Clark and triggers the cosmic 808 (RIP R. A. Wilson). Finally, see the adepts’ synth-funk ode to their childhood felines, Flash and Snowball, and think Herbie Hancock Gully-jaunting from synth to sensi. Together, Aja and Cheeba create a blood-brother ritual of dynamic interconnectedness, always macking their slew of keys — Minimoog Voyager, Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Roland Juno-60, Korg PolySix, ARP Solina String Ensemble, Yamaha CS-40m, Moog Opus-3, the Cat by Octave, Roland JX-3P, MTI Auto-Orchestra, Ensoniq ASR-10, and the PAiA FatMan.
Halfway between my SoCal post and their Seattle studios, I met the Brothers Mack in an orange room deep below Mt. Shasta to discuss how life imitates clouds.
Where’d the name Mackrosoft come from?
Aja: Growing up in Seattle, mushrooms grew plentifully all over the Microsoft grounds, [where] we’d go to pick them.
And you worked for the Conan O’Brien show?
Aja: I got an internship with Conan O’Brien as the music coordinator. I also worked for the Max Weinberg 7, helping with arrangements. [But then] the World’s Strongest Man tried to lift me in the world’s biggest bowl of chili, for a sketch, and he dropped me.
Ouch. What’s your musical education?
Aja: I don’t read music at all. I got the ASR-10 keyboard real early in the game, influenced by Prince Paul…
Cheeba: We both did the Suzuki School of Music — a real strict Japanese music program.
Aja: We both tried that and hated it.
So, you’re basically self-taught?
Cheeba: I took a few months of piano lessons five years ago in L.A. It was actually really helpful. I learned one scale, and I pretty much use it on everything.
The Mackrosoft albums have amazing horn arrangements, but you’re not writing charts, Aja?
Aja: I can play most instruments, so I’ll record as much as I can first, and leave spaces for soloists. Then I have players come back in and replay the parts. When it comes to horns, I’ll play it in a bad horn sound on the synthesizer [first].
You record with Headhunters drummer Mike Clark and bassist Paul Jackson. Are you looping on Antonio’s Giraffe?
Aja: Absolutely. I did the drums first with Mike Clark. I’d loop everything up and add 808 kicks to punch it up, maybe add another snare, to thicken it, tighten it.
How was recording Fred Wesley?
Aja: Probably the most intense guy I’ve worked with in the studio. You’ll be like, “Can you do a little more of this?” He’s like, “No.” And then it’s like, “Cool.” [laughs]
When did you start collecting synthesizers?
Aja: We were always huge fans of the Knight Rider soundtrack — funky TV show intros like CHiPs, where it’s just sick synths. And we were like, “What makes that shit?” I bought a FatMan kit, because I wanted to figure out how this shit works. I learned what was going on in the inside.
Cheeba: Mike Simpson, one of the Dust Brothers, lent me his MPC for a while. That was my first serious production machine. Once I switched to Pro Tools, I started playing a lot more instruments myself, as well as recording other players. That’s when we started collecting [synths] more.
Aja: And the Dust Brothers had every [synth]. We could figure out what’s what without having to purchase it first.
Cheeba: One of them was addicted to eBay, buying every synth that came on eBay, no matter what condition.
At eighteen, you interned with the Dust Brothers?
Cheeba: Ended up working there for three years. Aja and I did a Fight Club remix. I got to beatbox on tracks. I got to meet musicians and learn a lot about running a record label. Instead of college, I went to the School of Dust.
Reveal your recording method.
Cheeba: For Exile, a lot of that began with a bunch of us on keyboards playing over different beats I looped up. Nothing premeditated — just started jamming. Then it took me a couple years to edit that stuff down to something cool — kept just the ten percent that worked.
Hence the abundance of change-ups?
Cheeba: Exactly. There’s going to be a lot more of that.
Aja: It’s a fine line between making the chaos and making the funk.
Cheeba: Kind of like short-attention-span funk.
You make it work.
Cheeba: The secret to that is in just deleting so much stuff, and that’s a hard thing to do.
Black Market (Columbia) 1976
Weather Report has long been a major inspiration for both of us. Joe Zawinul’s keyboard work is truly unparalleled. Even before his use of analog synths, the aural palette Zawinul had created through the combination of keyboards and effect pedals was astounding. On Black Market, Zawinul dominates on his preferred synth, the ARP 2600, even inversing the keyboard on the title track (the lower he played the notes, the higher the pitch). This is also the only Weather Report album in which saxophonist Wayne Shorter played the Lyricon, the first-ever breath-controlled analog synthesizer. Played like a horn, you could modulate the sound with the strength of your breath or the pressure of your lips on the mouthpiece, creating a very expressive and dynamic result. We regard Weather Report as one of the most innovative and soulful groups of all time.
Plantasia (Homewood) 1976
“It has been proven beyond any doubt that harmonic sound waves affect the growth, flowering and seed yield of plants.” —Dr. T. C. Singh
Plantasia remains one of the most aurally relaxing and pleasing synth adventures to be pressed to wax. This says a lot, being that the album isn’t geared towards human ears but rather indoor plants. Be assured, tracks like “Music to Soothe the Savage Snake Plant” and “Swingin’ Spathiphyllums” will put a grin on you and your greenery’s respective faces. The man laying the root down remains an enigma of sorts, the fantastically creative Canadian composer Mort Garson. Master Garson dropped conceptual keyboard bombs regularly throughout the ’60s and ’70s, including the classic Signs of the Zodiac series, the Satanist Moog epic Black Mass, and the erotic Music for Sensuous Lovers. We love concept albums, and Garson was certainly a genius of the genre.
Stardrive featuring Robert Mason
Stardrive (Columbia) 1974
This is some of the spaciest funk out there! On the back cover, Stardrive describe themselves as “the first rock band on earth to feature a synthesizer as LEAD instrumentÉno tedious blooze guitar. No lisping vocalists. Just Mason and his extra-special, extra-terrestrial machine, zipping through funkafide space like greased lightning.” The machine they refer to is the synthesizer Robert Mason constructed himself because of inadequacies he heard in all existing synths at the time. The result was one of the first polyphonic synths ever created, with sounds truly his own. The compositions are quite tripped out, with tempos and vibes changing several times throughout a song. “Air Sauce” is the standout track for us, alternating between an extremely laid-back groove one minute and an onslaught of heavy drums and aggressive synth stabs the next. Definitely an inspiration for our own music, especially the title track on Exile in the Woods.
In the beginning, there was Switched-On Bach. Performed by Walter Carlos entirely on the Moog Modular system, it was the album that first introduced synthesized music to the masses. It won several Grammy awards, was the first classical album to go platinum, and created a massive demand for more synthesized music. Among the many “switched-on” albums that soon appeared were Switched-On Bacharach, Switched-On Santa, and Switched-On Rock. With super funky versions of “Spinning Wheel” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” Switched-On Rock is the most enjoyable for us today because of the great compositions being Moogified and the addition of live drums into the mix. There’s also a dope breakdown sampled to great effect by the Beastie Boys.
Regarding Feel, George Duke has stated: “The funky side of my nature was really beginning to show.” True indeed. Duke had already established himself as a formidable piano and keys player, both solo and with Frank Zappa, but it wasn’t until Feel that he really let the funk flow. As a synth player, Duke favored the ARP Odyssey, admittingly because of his desire to stand out from other established players who preferred the Moog. Feel features Zappa on guitar under the alias Obdewl’l X, and the Brazilian duo of Airto Moreira and Flora Purim on percussion and voice. This album also launched Duke’s long relationship with engineer Kerry McNabb, who was later immortalized in the super dope “Mr. McFreeze.” We admire how funky George Duke and his beloved “Dukey Stick” have kept it throughout the years, always with a smile on his face.
Greek-born Vangelis, birth name Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou, had a sound and style as unique as his name. He once said, “I function as a channel through which music emerges from the chaos of noise.” Self-taught, with little knowledge of music notation, Vangelis’s preferred style of composing was to play as many different keyboards simultaneously as possible, trying to avoid nonessential overdubs. Consisting primarily of synthesizers and percussion, Spiral is one of Vangelis’s most solid productions, featuring his signature arpeggiated sequences and haunting melodies. Though he preferred to keep it a mystery which synthesizers he used, often covering logos with tape during performances, it’s no secret that he favored the Yamaha CS-80 (a favorite of ours as well). This particular synth is also prevalent throughout Vangelis’s score to the sci-fi classic Blade Runner.
Hancock’s Headhunters and Thrust are pinnacles when it comes to keyboard innovation and are rightly recognized as such, but even loyal fans often overlook this treasure. A friend of ours once told Herbie that Sunlight was their favorite of his albums and he appeared truly shocked. Upon release, the album was much criticized for being too “pop,” and Hancock’s use of a vocoder didn’t sit well with many. Not so for us. Though smoother than his earlier offerings, Herbie represents on all types and brands of synthesizers, including Oberheims, Moogs, ARPs, and Yamahas. The LP features a photo and corresponding diagram of a typical Hancock keyboard setup, making this a valuable document even before hearing the music. For us, Herbie’s use of a vocoder adds an entirely unique and intimate layer to this album.
Jules Verne’s classic novel inspired this labor of love, one that Wakeman financed himself, forcing him to mortgage or sell nearly everything he owned. Recorded live in London, the album and tour required an orchestra, choir, private planes, Shakespearean-trained vocalists, and Wakeman’s signature cape-heavy wardrobe. To fully appreciate the spectacle, we highly recommend checking out the DVD version of the concert, filmed in Australia. The battle between two giant inflatable dinosaurs during a double Moog solo must have felt like the Englishman’s version of Parliament’s famous “Mothership” landing. People have criticized Wakeman and prog-rock in general for being too pretentious, but we always appreciate projects born out of genuine passion (the more synths and keyboards involved, the better).
When it came to funk fusion and synthesizers, musicians in every corner of the world found their own unique sounds and uses for these new swords. As the synthesizer became more affordable and portable, it found its way into every genre: Jamaican dub, African pop, Western European and American jazz, Eastern Bloc funk, and all styles of Latin music. Dale Jacobs and Cobra represent Canada by keeping it slick, smooth, instrumental, and deeply funky. “Scouting Party” and “Computer Samba” bubble with keyboards, as do most of the jams. Cobra feels like an instrumental Steely Dan record on synthesized steroids. When it comes to Canada, along with Joe Vannelli and Mort Garson, Jacobs takes home the analog funk cake.
The Electro Keyboard Orchestra was a Japanese group featuring eight keyboard players, all on Korg synthesizers. Specifically, they’re using two early models, the MiniKorg 700S and the MaxiKorg 800DV, twenty of them shared amongst the group. Though there’s also a super-tight rhythm section, the songs are obviously dominated by the keys. Among the highlights are a cover of Quincy Jones’s “Ironside” theme and a fantastic original, “The Soaring Sea Gull.” With so many different synth layers combining to create melodies and bass grooves, we can only imagine how amazing their live show must have been! The most synth players we’ve recorded simultaneously is a meager six, but we’re doing our best to carry on the tradition of heavy analog funk.
Manzel is heaven for any fan of tight beats and juicy keyboards. His tracks, the drums in particular, are among the most sampled ever, having formed the backbone to numerous hip-hop classics (Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man,” for example). On top of these dope beats is Manzel’s insanely funky keyboard work, predominantly on synths, clavinet, and organ. In 1976, Manzel was a young army Lieutenant from Kentucky when he hooked up with producer Shad O’Shea to record ten instrumental funk tracks. They released two 45 RPM singles on the Fraternity label, neither of which had a major impact at the time. And that was the end of Manzel until hip-hop producers rediscovered his tracks. In 2004, Kenny Dope and Dopebrother Records unearthed all the original Manzel recordings and released them for the first time as a full-length LP (thank you!).
The brilliant mind behind the Parliament keyboard sound, Bernie Worrell, made sure every album was an innovative keyboard outing, but Funkentelechy stands out as extra special. It has a real funk soul and a George Clinton concept to moon boot. The keyboard loaded “Flash Light” was a number one hit for Parliament and an incredibly important track for the funk genre. The song that really turns us out though is “Placebo Syndrome,” which contains one of the most thoughtful synthesizer solos to ever appear on a funk LP. Worrell’s virtuosity is unquestionable, and he manipulates knobs like few others, laying down slinky and sinister lines throughout the course of the record. The title track “Funkentelechy” and “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk” show off Worrell’s more sly and nuanced playing. The interplay on this album between the full horn section, multiple guitars, and Worrell’s intelligent keyboards has always impressed and influenced our output.
Hideki Matsutake and K.I. Capsule
007 Digital Moon (CBS/Sony) 1979
We picked up this album a few years ago at a flea market in Hong Kong. As it states on the backside, “If you don’t listen this album [sic], you can’t enjoy the essence of computer music.” Hideki Matsutake was a longtime pupil of Japanese synth pioneer Tomita and also served as sound programmer for the Yellow Magic Orchestra. 007 Digital Moon is a novelty record of sorts, as are several of the other albums we’re featuring here. The concept this time around is James Bond themes, redone primarily with various Moogs, the Prophet-5, the ARP Odyssey, and a slew of funky effect units, vocoder included. Matsutake delivers crisp, robotic-sounding renditions of such themes as “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Live and Let Die.” This is an often-overlooked LP from a great Japanese player!
Andrew Kazdin and Thomas Z. Shepard perform the classical works of Chabrier, Lecuona, Bizet, and Ravel. Ravel’s “Bolero” fills the entire second side of this LP sliding in around fourteen minutes. As a fan of “Bolero,” the only synthetic version we’ve heard come close is Japanese maestro Tomita’s. This record truly contains nothing but Moog right down to the audience applause. When this album was recorded, Moog synthesizers were only monophonic, forcing the two men to spend hours performing impressive overdubs. Though the “classical music played on Moog” formula has been done multiple times to good effect, we both dig this one for its unique and tasty licks. It also remains funky without drums, which is never an easy task.
New Song with Rick Powell
Shine (New Dawn) 1981
Though not every track is solid, this LP deserves some props, for it gets funkier than just about any other Christian album we’ve heard. The back cover has an array of photos of some very White, scarf-wearing Christians huddled around big analog synth modules. In Rick Powell’s own words: “We tried to include the latest in synthesizers, vocoders, etc….because God deserves our best creativity.” By far, the highlight is “Sing a New Song,” a track that’s loaded with funky analog synth solos, vocoded praises, and crisp drums deep in the pocket. There’s even a religious diss track: “Old Buddha was a man and I’m sure that he meant well, but I pray for his disciples, lest they wind up in hell.” A wild record and a good example of how the synthesizer worked its way into all types of music.
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