Martin Rushent, 33, may be Britain’s hottest young producer. He’s come a long way since the days when he worked as an engineer for such Old Wave groups as Led Zeppelin, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Caught up in the late-Seventies explosion of punk in England, he made a name producing albums for the Stranglers, the Buzzcocks and 999. But when Steve Strange opened the Blitz club downstairs from Rushent’s London office, he became intrigued by the possibilities of synthesized dance music. He has since produced hit LPs for the Human League (Dare), Altered Images (Happy Birthday) and Pete Shelley (Homosapien). Rushent’s rural Berkshire home studio is now a state-of-the-art synth-pop mecca stocked with everything from the smallest Casio computer to a top-of-the-line Fairlight CMI synthesizer – and in between, the invaluable Linn Drum computer and Roland Microcomposer, without which the Human League album would have been inconceivable. On a recent visit to New York, Rushent observed that traditional guitar bands are still big in this country, but he predicted that the computer-music breakthroughs that have already transformed pop in Europe would soon do the same here.
Why have you become such an ardent proponent of synthetic music?
Because it opens up a whole new technique of record making. The possibilities are really endless. I’ve always been a great hater of rock virtuosos – particularly guitarists – who seem to be all speed and no art, no soul, no humanity. The computer or synthesizer is the great leveler. It is no longer necessary to be a virtuoso to make good things. I don’t believe it ever was. I’ve always felt that the great musician was the person with great ideas, not necessarily the person who could play them. I don’t know if Beethoven was a good pianist, but it wasn’t necessary that he should be. He was a wonderful musician. So synthesis is the leveler. This is where everybody who has good ideas and good songs and something to say can actually get a chance to say it. That’s very exciting.
How has the Microcomposer helped you in your work?
I suffer from a problem of not being able to play any instrument particularly well. I can write music, but most bands can’t read it. So in sessions, if I had an idea for a bass line, say, I either had to sing it – and it’s fairly difficult to sing a bass line – or play it. And that’s when the problems started, because some of the lines I could hear in my head were well beyond my capability to play. So when I saw the Microcomposer – which I could program things into and it would play them – it was a wonderful opportunity. And it’s fairly simple. You transfer the notes you want to play – the length, phrasing, dynamics, timing – into a series of numbers. For example, middle C is twenty-four, C-sharp is twenty-five; a bar’s value is 192 time units, so forty-eight is one beat, twenty-four is half a beat and so on.
What does all this portend?
Instruments like the second-generation Fairlight, the Synclavier, the Linn Drum machine – these are going to revolutionize everything. We’re already making records totally synthetically, but when they’re finished, they don’t sound synthetic at all. It opens up a whole new world to us. And I think in a few years, the macho rock guitarist will be as redundant as the biplane. Some traditionalists would argue that synthesized music is cold and calculated, that it lacks spontaneity. It’s no less spontaneous than some of the horrendous experiences I’ve had spending twelve hours in a studio dubbing a guitar solo onto a track. What’s so spontaneous about that?