Keyboards and Kayleigh

April 2010

Rock band Marillion’s keyboardist, Mark Kelly, recently chatted to Justin Richards about the evolution of music software, how the internet has changed the music industry and why music piracy is so prevalent.

Mark KellyCan you provide us with a bit of background about yourself?

Going back about 30 years I was an arts student, then quit that and became an electronics student. I’d only been there for a few months before I started playing with a local band just for fun and Marillion were our support act in the local pub and they asked me to join and that was the point where I first considered doing music as an actual career, rather than just for fun. That was 1981, so I quit my electronics course and carried on in music.

I’d always had an interest in electronics - in those days there weren’t many computers around to speak of, certainly nothing like the sort you have around these days. I think the Sinclair ZX81, or something like that, was the only computer I had at that time. But when the Spectrum came out I got one of those. I suppose being a keyboard player, the connection between keyboards, electronics and computers has grown over the years - most keyboards nowadays, when you look inside them, are actually computers.

I think bands like Kraftwerk and Hawkwind were using quite sophisticated keyboards back in the early 70s.

Yes, that’s right, although in those days they were using analogue signal generators, weren’t they, and step sequencer and stuff.

Tell us about the equipment you use.

I guess my two main interests in life have sort of converged and become the same thing!

I’ve graduated more and more into computer-based stuff, although I do use some hardware keyboards. Actually I’m looking at what I’m using right now, and basically they’re just controllers; I’ve got a Korg Karma - it’s the only keyboard I’ve still got, that’s actually a keyboard that generates its own sound, everything else comes from either a PC or a thing that’s called a receptor. It’s a Muse Receptor, it’s made by an American company, but again it’s really just a rack-mounted computer. It’s a Linux machine with Wine, (which is a Windows emulator), on top, so you can run Windows plug-ins and VST plug-ins.

So basically it’s just another computer running virtual instruments now. But it’s in a convenient 19 inch rack so it looks like the sort of rack unit a guitarist or a keyboardist might use on the road and it’s pretty reliable, mainly because it’s got a Linux operating system; having said that these days, if you use XP or even Windows 7, both seem to be good for music.

At what point did you move across from standard keyboards to the more computer based equipment?

Mark KellyI was quite an early adopter of all that stuff, VST instruments, although not so much the sequencers because I’d still rather actually play stuff rather than just sequencing things. Once it became possible to generate sounds that could be played on a keyboard, and you can treat it like a normal instrument, rather than just sitting in front of a computer, that’s when I got interested.

We’re still very much a real band; we have a drummer and all that sort of stuff. Go back twenty years and some people were using sequencers and drum machines and we weren’t,

The software I use is a programme called Forte, which is created by a small American company; it’s like a VST host, it’s for working live really - it doesn’t record or sequence or anything like that, it’s just like a wrapper for the plug-ins and controls all the routing between the keyboards and the plug-ins. So I use that and you can set up screens for different parts of songs or for whole songs and you can load the instrument you want with the sound you want.

At the moment, on here, there’s something called Lounge Lizard by Applied Acoustic, which is an electronic piano module. I use a module by Arturia, basically just an emulator, and a Minimoog, which is pretty realistic. Most of the stuff I have is software versions of instruments I have played and still own, such as the Minimoog; the software version’s a bit more reliable, but I’ve still got my Minimoog. 

I’ve got native instruments, ABSYNTH, B42 Hammond organ emulator, which is really good, FM7, which is really a recreation of something called a DX7, which was an early FM synthesis thing, made by Yamaha back in the early eighties, that was probably my first MIDI keyboard actually. Then we’ve got Guitar Rig, which is sort of like a virtual guitarist rack full of effects and distortion peddles, the sort of stuff a guitarist would normally use but I put the keyboards through it.

And then there’s Kontakt, which is a sampler, MASSIVE, which is a synthesizer, and Pro-53, which is an emulation of Prophet-5, which was made by a company called Sequential Circuits back in the 80s. Also Atmosphere by Spectrasonics - I’ve got quite a few actually! I use all of this live and Ivory is the piano I use - it’s a massive sample piano basically, there’s about three different pianos in there and there’s about 40 Gigs of samples.

What’s the process of putting a album together?

Well, we’ve got a producer, Mike Hunter. He’s working through some stuff for us at the moment. We’ve literally just started writing again. So we’re set up in the studio, only no one’s here yet, except me!

I’ll put a few sounds on my computer and keyboards and we’ll just start jamming and just record it all to a little digital two-track recorder at this stage. It’s a Zoom H4M, it just uses SD cards, so very simple, useable quality. And that’s just to capture the ideas as they happen, like a sketchbook really.

We’ll work on the ideas and then arrange them. At that point it’s just the five of us. And then at some point we’ll get our producer, Mike Hunter, involved and he’ll just comment on what we’re doing or make suggestions - he’ll be listening to things we’ve done, even weeks, months ago and say ‘What about this idea, I liked this, have you thought about doing something with this?’ Using Pro Tools, he’ll even edit stuff together and say ‘look I’ve put these two bits together, what you think?’ It’s a bit like building a collage of bits.

So do you always use Pro Tools?

MarillionFor the recording side of things then yeah, Mac-based Pro Tools seems to be the choice of professionals really. I mean I used to be a Mac person, but I switched over to Windows a long time ago and never went back. I find it quite frustrating – you’ve got a mouse with only one button on it. I know you can press the key and create short cuts; I guess it’s just whatever you get used to! So yeah, in the studio that’s what we use, we use Pro Tools. I personally use Cubase for recording if I’m doing stuff on my own.

It’s different these days from how it used to be. Twenty to twenty five years ago we’d jam, come up with ideas, and arrange them into songs, without having recorded anything. It was a different process. You’d rehearse and then you’d demo it and then record it to tape. And then once you’d done demos you’d go through it again deciding what was going to go on the album and then you’d start recording the album, do the over dubs, mix it and then it would be finished.

Whereas now all those lines are blurred because we could be jamming and recording just a jam, but recording it to master track and that master track could end up being on the finished album. If the ideas we’ve worked on before work, you just use Pro Tools to chop them in and the sorts of edits you can do now in post-production you couldn’t do with tape, so you can now use material that you couldn’t have used 20 years ago because you didn’t have the tools back then. With all the techniques and technology around these days there’s no start and finish point for jamming or writing or demoing, it can all be happening at different times.

How has the internet changed the music industry?

I think there’s been a lot of misunderstanding about the role of the internet, to be honest. There’s been a lot of hype around it regarding how it’s been used generally. Take the Arctic Monkeys – I don’t believe for a minute that they were discovered on the internet. They signed with a major label; it had nothing to do with the internet!

That’s the thing, you get all these people saying ‘we came up through the internet’, but they didn’t. What happened was they started off as a MySpace page with a few hundred or few thousand followers at the most, they got signed to a major label, became huge and then said it was all due to the internet, which is just rubbish.

It’s a shame really that it’s yet to happen, that no one has really cracked it just by using the internet; it would be nice if it did happen. It would be great to say that it had, but look at Lily Allen, she’s signed to EMI. All these bands main successes happened after they’d signed a major record deal. They might have got a bit of a buzz going on the internet, but that’s it really.

With us we had a following, but it came down to two things really. We’d been signed to EMI for eight albums, over 12 years or so, then we left EMI and went to an independent label called Castle - who no longer exists now - and we did three albums with them. But we weren’t earning enough money to be able to take the sort of time we like over writing and recording an album. We were having to make an album a year in order to get the next record company advance so we had enough money to live on.

So it felt like a bit of a treadmill. They then came to us and said they’d like to sign us up for some more albums after we’d finished the three we’d been contracted for and we said we didn’t really want to and I suggested that we use the internet - because really what we wanted was the money - we just wanted some cash - so it was just down to that which got us started on the whole internet thing! I said ‘why don’t we ask the fans?’

We’d seen the power of the internet and the communication that was possible a few years before, back in the early nineties, through our Marillion mailing list. You’d send an email out for fans who subscribe to it and then anybody who wrote an email to the list, their message would then get bounced out to anyone who was on it, or they could receive a digest of all the emails that had been received that day. There was no one moderating it or anything. I think it was just a totally automated email service. We still use an email messaging service, an html one, but back then it was just text only.

You were probably the first band to fund your tours and albums through the internet and social networking?

Someone printed off some examples of the sort of messages from the list for me, this was in 1993, I think. I thought this is really interesting, there are all these people talking about Marillion. So I joined it and was a lurker - I didn’t tell anyone who I really was because it’s quite interesting to hear what people really think of you when they’re unaware you’re there amongst them. Anyway, something happened and I revealed myself - I think someone was talking some rubbish so I thought ‘I have to put this right - something is wrong on the internet and I need to put it right!’

So then of course people would ask me things directly through this mailing list - like when are you going to tour next, that sort of thing. And I explained that at that time we didn’t have a record deal in America and every time we go there we lose money and we can’t really afford the loss and the time. And this person asked ‘how much would a US tour cost?’ and I said ‘well you’re looking at £50 - 60,000 to break even and that’s even with the income from the gigs as well’. And he said ‘why don’t we raise the money for you?’

About a month later they’d raised about $15,000 and I told the rest of the band we might be touring America because I hadn’t even mentioned it to the rest of them at this point! So after about six months they’d raised the $60,000 and we did the tour and it was great and this was all off the back of this fund they’d called ‘The Tour Fund’. So that was the first inkling of what was possible through the internet - all this amazing free communication, which could be of benefit to us.

Hence, when we were looking at not signing this new record deal, I asked the fans on the mailing list what they thought. This was a couple of years later, so the mailing list had grown from about 1,500 people to about 20,000 by then. About 6,000 people responded to our question of – would you pay for a Marillion album in advance if we send it to you once we’ve made it?

Most of them said yes - only a couple of people actually said no - so on that basis we decided we’re not going to sign another record deal, we’ll do it this way instead. And that was our pioneering Marillion model - there was nothing to it really, and now there have been quite a few bands doing similar things.

What do you think of Radiohead’s idea of getting fans to pay for what they thought their album was worth?

I’d actually mentioned it to the band a few years earlier, but they’d thought it was a bit risky. I was talking to Ed O’ Brien about that and how that all worked for them and he was saying ‘well I’m an optimist and I really believed that people would pay what they thought it was worth, but a lot of people didn’t’. I think they were a bit disappointed that people weren’t as generous as they thought they would be.

A friend of mine paid way over the odds for their album, but I know others who paid as little as possible.

Yeah, a lot of people I know paid the minimum price you could pay for the Radiohead album, which was 50p, I think, to cover their costs.

We did a similar thing with a company called Music Glue who had a way of giving away music, but you have a way of tracking what’s happening, whether you’re using Windows Media or MP3, so if someone requests a track through Media Player we know that one of our tracks has been played. You can locate the IP address of the person and get an idea of where the track is being downloaded from and played.

Pop-ups come up on the screen, which say thanks for listening to our music - how about buying some now! We did that as an experiment and there is an option for people to pay and what we found was that the real hard core fans, who’d already bought the album, were paying again because they really believed in the band. But then you’d get other people who paid nothing.

I feel the whole internet and music business problem hasn’t really been solved. People talk about monetising other income streams and that bands will get money from merchandise and ticket sales, but that only helps to an extent. I think it’s still got a fair way to go before it all sorts itself out and we see whose left standing at the end of it.

What’s your opinion on music piracy - have you been affected much?

Yes, we have been affected, but we have been somewhat shielded from it because of the way we do business. We try to keep close contact with the fans - who are happier buying it from us off the website, because they know the money’s going to us. They’re more inclined to pay for it if they know the money is going to us rather than some faceless record company.

No one has any respect for the music industry anymore - people still respect the band and the music they listen to, but they think ‘well why should I buy a CD when I know that hardly any of the proceeds go to the band?’ Everyone knows that bands get ripped off by record companies, it’s part of popular culture. People will always want music, it will always be popular, and most people will be happy to pay for it, it’s just how that happens in the future really.

How important do you think good communication is between bands and their fans?

I think it’s really important - it’s how you add value to what you’re doing. That’s what sets you apart from the mass of music that’s out there, I suppose. People discover a band; they can have contact with the band. If the music means something to them I think it really helps to encourage them to come back for more, to maintain their interest.

I think everyone does it - you hear a song, or buy an album and think that’s really good, but then for some reason five years down the line you haven’t thought about that band again. So if a band’s touring, if you can have regular contact with a band, and they can have regular contact with you, it keeps them in mind and keeps you interested as to when they’re bringing a new album out, as to whether you’ll check it out or not.

So Marillion itself is like a cottage industry?

Well it’s all done from here; we’ve got the studio and the office here; all the merchandise, the CDs and all that stuff, we send it all out from here. So the people who do all that are all in the same building as us. We see them on a daily basis, we talk about stuff - we get nagged a bit to do stuff! There are always new ways of getting involved and interacting more.

Like yesterday I said ‘why don’t we do a podcast where we can pick a track each week and do a sort of commentary over the track? So the band can say things about the track, basically like they do with movies, like a director’s commentary.

Just talking about how the song was made, what the lyrics are about, whatever we can think of, over the song. So we’re always trying to think of new ways of doing interesting stuff. But obviously we still have to concentrate on what we’re here for, which is to make music. The business side of it, however, does sometimes get in the way of the creative side.

You have to be quite business-savvy then?

If you don’t have a business head on, you won’t be around long. It’s important to make sure the money keeps coming in.

What are the biggest challenges the music industry faces at the moment?

I think the record company’s biggest challenge is piracy or perhaps just falling CD sales. That’s partly due to piracy, illegal downloads, changing attitudes and because some people just don’t buy CDs. There’s also changing trends in where people spend their income. If you look at games sales, for instance, in the last ten years they’ve gone from well below CD sales to overtaking it.

There’s something like £2.5 billion a year spent on games, whereas on CDs it’s now below that. Games overtook CDs two or three years ago. So if you accept that people have only got a limited amount of disposable income and more and more of it is going on games then less and less is going to go on music, it’s more understandable.

Is it all doom and gloom though? How’s Marillion fairing?

Ticket sales are up, merchandising sales are up, so for bands, if they position themselves right and their management looks after business and responds to what’s going on, then there’s no reason why they can’t survive. You can’t say the same thing for the major labels - there used to be seven and now there’s four and EMI’s in trouble, so it’s really difficult for them at the moment; that’s life isn’t it?

Can these new technologies help the industry?

People just have to be aware of what’s happening; 100 year ago I’m sure there were lots of blacksmiths, but then along came the car and ... We live in an ever changing world; in ten year’s time people will still want to get about and still want to listen to music, but there are ways in, which could be different from those today. It’s always changing.

With all these new services like Spotify and we7 etc, they’re great - we use Spotify - we don’t get paid any money by them - I just think, let’s see them succeed first and them we’ll go after them for money. At the moment they’re not making any money. It’s a bit like Google; when they started they weren’t making any money and they’re not going to make any money for the first few years. So you’ve got to let these new technologies, these new innovations bed in first.

So do you think sites like Spotify are the future of music?

No, there were times when we thought this was going to change everything. Look at MP3, which is really poor quality – you think, how can that survive, but it’s just everywhere, then there’s things like SACD (super audio CD) came out with surround sound, and you think that’s a great way for music to develop, but they haven’t yet - these new technologies still haven’t grabbed people’s imaginations yet. I mean the last great innovation in music terms was the CD! They became very popular very quickly. I guess MP3s and iPods have now followed on.

What are your predictions for future music software?

In the next few years I wouldn’t be surprised to see a piece of software that could imitate voices properly. So you’d be able to sing a song and ask for it to sound like Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra and it will. Some kind of voice modelling software - I could see that happening in the next five to ten years, definitely. It would be like X-Factor times 10! Famous voices singing people’s favourite songs. I’m not saying that’s a good thing!

Can musicians become over reliant on technology?

There’s so much technology out there that you can use there is a danger that you don’t let your own creativity come through. You can press a button to create something that is instantly gratifying, but at the end of the day, it just sounds like everything else. That’s the hard thing really, for new up and coming players, writers and musicians to try and carve out a niche for themselves, a style for themselves, a sound for themselves really. You’ve got to get through all these layers of technology really.

What’s your view of chart music at the moment?

So much stuff today is made to a very strict formula - that’s the problem. I think if you were to take pretty much any song from the top 40 from the last 10 years and take the vocals off it and play it to somebody they probably wouldn’t be able to identify it! They create a piece of music for so many seconds and repeat it for people to sing over - it’s just so homogenised and samey in terms of the sounds that are used, the chord progressions that are used and the instrumentation that’s used - it’s a bit sad really.

Is there anything that you and Marillion would do differently if you had your time again?

I think were quite happy where we are really - there are flashes of thinking that it would have been great if Kayleigh had been a big hit in America, because it wasn’t. And the whole big Payola scandal that happened, just as it was climbing up the charts, which meant it got dropped by the radio stations, so that didn’t help.

It would have been nice if that had been a hit, but then I think it did its job, we’re still here, we’ve been around for 30 years, we earn a decent living, we get to do what we want, we’ve got our own studio, most bands would kill for that...

Do you have any role models?

I don’t really have any role models as such - I just kind of do my own thing.

Do you enjoy playing computer games yourself and do you have a favourite?

I’ve got a PS3 and a Wii, but I only occasionally play games. I just recently bought a game for the Playstation for the first time in about six months, which was the sequel to the Uncharted Drake’s Fortune - not sure what it’s called, do you know?

Anyway there’s this game called Uncharted - Among Thieves and it’s really well done. The graphics are very impressive, just like a movie really and I enjoy playing that. But that’s quite unusual for me to actually go out and buy a game. I’m not a huge game player - I used to be.

I used to play MUD back in the mid eighties - a text-only multi-user game. I used to play it all night, because it was on the university computer and it was only on from about 6pm to 6am - you’d get on it in the evening and you were still there playing at it four or five in the morning.

How would you categorise Marillion’s music - is it progressive rock?

It depends what you mean by ‘prog’ really. It’s got elements of that in it.

I guess what I mean is that it progresses forward that particular form of music in some way.

But that’s not what most people mean when they use the term ‘prog rock’. They’d say that’s like Spock’s Beard or Dream Theatre or the like.

I guess I’m referring to bands like Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Jethro Tull.

In our days it meant music or soundtracks from the 70s. It’s a bit of a retro label isn’t it? We’ve got elements of prog rock in our music, but there are also some fairly straightforward sounds as well. We’ve got acoustic stuff - in fact we’ve just done an acoustic tour.

What made you decide to go the acoustic route for this last album, Less Is More?

We’d done some acoustic stuff a few year’s back. In 97/98, we’d done an acoustic gig in a restaurant actually, at the Walls restaurant and we put out a fan club CD called ‘Live at the Walls, which turned out to be really popular, but it was just something we did for fun really.

It continued to sell quite well and people seemed to quite like it so we thought there’s obviously a bit of interest in hearing Marillion playing acoustically; we didn’t want to go and make another album straight away, so we decided to do acoustic versions of some of our old songs. It was a way of doing something for the fans, but not having to do another album straight away. That can be a bit daunting sometimes! We just wanted to try something a bit different, that was all.

I noticed it includes a version of one of my favourite tracks - The Space.

Yeah, it’s quite different from that original version actually.

Is that now available in the shops?

Yes it is, we did a deal with a label called ADELE from Germany so you should be able to get it.

Quick questions

Open source or proprietary software?
Open source.

Apple or PC, which do you prefer?
PC. I tend to work more with PCs than Macs these days.

Playstation or Wii?
Playstation.

Blackberry or Smartphone?
Smartphone - if an iPhone counts as one. I’m very happy with it.

Geek or a nerd?
(Laughs) What’s the difference? I’m a geek then, I suppose, but I’m happy with either. Geek rather than nerd, probably!

http://www.marillion.com/

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    David Dyte wrote on 28th Apr 2010

    Great interview! Nice to get some insight into the mass of technology lurking behind the magic...

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  • 2
    Paul Moore wrote on 28th Apr 2010

    Enjoyable read from a great musician. Some great insight into how he creates his music

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  • 3
    Mick Ross I Eng MIET MBCS wrote on 20th May 2010

    I wonder whether Mark Kelly would be willing to give an evening talk to the Peterborough Joint Panel - a group of engineers in Peterborough? Mileage, a meal and overnight stay could be paid for but the PJP couldn't provide a fee. If this is possible, please contact me at the e-mail address I provided. Many thanks,
    Mick Ross I Eng MIET MBCS

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