WCRS's Billy Faithfull is Wired For Sound
WCRS's executive creative director embraces chance and celebrates mistakes in his musical pursuits.
With no keyboard to control, the noises one creates with modular synthesisers – vintage tech responsible for those ethereal mid-60s sci-fi sounds – are partially dictated by maths and chance. It’s this random element that Billy Faithfull believes is a crucial part of creativity, and which informs his day job as ECD at WCRS. Tim Cumming learns about his mellifluous meddlings when he joins him for a sound bath in his Limehouse lab
Billy Faithfull pulls back the heavy door to the studio complex on an ill-lit thoroughfare off Commercial Road in Limehouse. Nearby, the former seamen’s mission and dosshouse on Salmon Lane once hosted the exuberant loons of the Situationist International back in 1960. This avant-garde group of artists and politicos would have approved Faithfull’s set-up here, dedicated to his passion for the ultimate in retro futurism, modular synthesisers. A little history: modular synths were invented separately by Robert Moog and Buchla Electronics in the early 1960s, and are the source of all those weird, spacey noises in vintage sci-fi – think Blade Runner and Doctor Who soundtracks (but not the latter’s original theme, famously an analogue cut-and-stick affair).
Above: Billy Faithfull's modular mindset
Faithfull has collected a mix of warm, old-fashioned analogue and newer digital modules, in what resembles the ominous suitcase in film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, all hooked up to his computer system and a pair of high-end speakers set up on the wall above head height. It’s an arrangement that invites hours of creative meddling – hundreds of knobs, sockets, flashing lights and cable connections, without any clear instructions for use.
Luckily, Faithfull is on hand to explain the basics. “The synthesiser is an electrical circuit. At one end are the oscillators that produce a tone at a certain pitch. It’s then routed through a filter and effects, such as a delay or echo, to an amplifier. You can play with all those things and modulate the sound. A modulator synth takes all the elements of a synthesiser and completely separates them. It’s like an old telephone exchange, and you make all the connections”
Which means, without the guide of a keyboard, you can manipulate a mystifyingly vast range of plug-in cable combinations to create extraordinary (and sometimes extraordinarily horrible) sounds, which are able to self-generate, multiply and layer into the kind of ethereal, unending mood music normally heard in Brian Eno’s art installations. That, or head-pounding techno. It’s your choice, or at least it’s supposed to be. It’s not always so controlled – as Faithfull explains, a lot of his music-making “decisions” are actually down to chance.
“Chance and mistakes will happen, as they do in any creative process, and the modular synth is from that world of chance operations."
The WCRS executive creative director is coming to the end of a sabbatical, much of which has been spent creating tracks in this very room. For him it has been a laboratory, a retreat, a workshop and a meditation room. It all makes for an incredibly relaxing retreat from the outside world, the working world, the to-do world. To be here is to be modular. That is, to create from basic principles sounds that have not previously existed on Earth, but only in the mind and in this equipment, the ghost in the machine that gently reverberates in the speakers.
As Faithfull talks me through the technical background to his passion, all the while he’s ducking and diving around his kit, plugging in and pulling out cables to build up something that comes out as an extremely soothing, mellifluous sound bath. “It’s one of the better things I’ve done in a while!” he declares.
Creativity happens to you
Even Faithfull gets lost trying to negotiate the number of possible connections between modules. “Chance operations” – beloved of avant-garde artists, from Dadaists to Situationists – are very much his working method when it comes to his modular synth musicmaking, but also in his creative work.
“I have a big belief that creativity is something that happens to you if you’re in the right state, whatever you’re doing and whatever fields you’re in,” says Faithfull. “It happens to you, you don’t necessarily make it happen. These instruments force you to be playful and to be more carefree in the way you generate ideas. You’re a bit less in control. That is where you get interesting things happening, such as putting different people together to solve a problem, rather than the same people doing the same thing. If you just playfully explore stuff, stuff will spill out.
“These instruments force you to be playful and to be more carefree in the way you generate ideas.”
“Chance and mistakes will happen, as they do in any creative process, and the modular synth is from that world of chance operations. It’s opened my head up, in the way you look at the creative task. It does feel a bit like a metaphor for the work I do. In my job, I’m really interested in the pile of stuff I’ve not been shown – I want to see the crap ideas, the stuff that was too stupid to bring to the meeting. Because that is where the gold is. The little accidents where you think, ‘That was a silly idea. I’ll put that aside.’
“That approach of being open to a different way of looking at things – that is what working with these modular synths has taught me.”