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Rick Wakeman surrounded by vintage keyboards

Rick Wakeman surrounded by a glorious assembly of vintage keys from the cover of his 1973 album "Six Wives of Henry VIII"

It’s probably not much of a secret to those who know me that I love vintage synthesizers. I used to gaze in awe at images of stars like Rick Wakeman and Vangelis  surrounded by tier upon tier of glorious synthesizers. I picked up brochures of the wondrous objects of desire and even managed to work out what each knob did by relating the sounds I heard to the descriptions in the brochures.  Read the rest of this entry »

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The EMS  Synthi A Synthsizer
A sonic powerhouse in a briefcase

My overiding passion in the mid to late 70′s was the synthesizer. It ticked all of the boxes – lots of shiny knobs and sliders, lots of elctronics and the ability to create a whole new realm of sounds. Whilst I was still at Maidstone I discovered the the Film, Sound and Video unit. Lots of experimental ideas were explored there with people like Brian Eno and Michael Nyman lending their expertise. The college even produced its own chart topping band called “the Flying Lizards”. Lurking within the department was a variety of musical instruments and electronic devices. My eye was drawn to a strange moulded plastic brief case – but this was no ordinay briefcase. Inside lurked a wonderful array of multicoloured knobs and sockets - the wonderful EMS Synthi A. The Sythi A looked more like a piece of test equipment than a musical instrument. In reality it was probably more of an experimental sound generator as, on its own, it didn’t have any form of keyboard. The keyboard that could be attached was the DK.2. The keyboard wasn’t calibrated to a standard scale so you could merrily venture into the world of micro tonal scales. There were no presets and all of the components like the oscilators, filters etc had to be connected via a multipin patchboard. No instant sounds here but brilliant to explore sonic ideas with – The Synthi A was featured prominantly on Pink Floyd’s “on the Run” from their “dark side of the moon” album. It was a steep learning curve especially in the absense of a manual but it gave me a solid grounding in the world of synth programming.

My first efforts using the Synthi A were far from musical. I had an old reel to reel that I recorded my efforts on, but without the right leads or interface to plug the synth directly into the recorder, I had to use a hand held mike to record. I had a stinking cold and was constantly sniffing in the background. At the college we were expected to attend “discussion” groups where we had to bring original works along to stimulate artistic debates. I bought my tapes in and was amused that the reaction was  admiration for the industrial soundscape I’d produced. – and in particular the sound remeniscent of a steam piston. I didn’t have the heart to reveal that it was in fact the sound of my sniffling lol. The Synthi A was a brilliantpiece of kit which I feel really priviledged to have had a chance to use, but it was a tricky instrument, especially if you wanted to create music. I borrowed it as often as i could and got to know it really well, but what I really wanted was a synth of my own….

The EDP Wasp Synthesizer – A symphony of Black, Yellow and Plastic

The major synth manufacturers at the time were Moog and ARP and lesser players like  Roland and Korg were coming up fast. The only snag was the price. The classic MiniMoog cost more than £1,000 in 1978 which is an astonomical sum in todays money. There was no way I could afford one of these beasts on a student grant but salvation was at hand. A UK based company call the Electronic Dream Plant (EDP) had decided to create synth that was actually affordable! It was a mighty little box of tricks and, with it’s distinctive (if not subtle) colour scheme of bright yellow and black, it was well suited to its name – The Wasp! it came in at around £200 which, although still a substantial sum at the time, was actually affodable. I scrimped and saved and finally gotenough to make the journey to Rod Argent’s keyboard shop in the West End of London and walked out with a box that felt far too light to contain  anything. Iwas not disappointed. For the money the Wasp was immensly powerful and it was true synthesizer . It had a keyboard …  of a sort in that it didn’t have any keys at all. Instead, it had a strip of yellow and black sticky back plastic printed to resemble a keyboard. This was stuck directly onto a section of the main circuit board  which protruded through the plastic casing. I wasn’t ideal but it was still playable and the sound helped  to compensate for it. The Wasp helped pave the way for a synth revolution – it was never going to be an instrument for the virtuoso keyboardist like Wakeman or Emerson,  but it’s limitation as a playable instrument let to experimentation by would be musicians who hadn’t got traditional musical training, the very kind of person that had spawned Punk.

The Spider – a massive step forward to making electronic music accessible

As if to compensate for the lack of playability EDP’s next piece of kit was a god send to the electronic musician. Keeping with the creepy crawly theme, it was called the ”Spider”. It wasn’t a synth – it was a sequencer. A sequencer is a device that can be programmed to play synthesizers automatically. There were a few sequencers around at the time but they were expensive and were often limited to playing 8 t0 16 notes by setting knobs to the required pitch. The spider went much better than this. It boasted up to 256 steps or, even more revolutionary, 84 realtime notes meaning it could play back exactly what you played in via the Wasp.  In reality, the step time sequencer was far more valuable and I deal for setting up bass line sequences. Once more, I saved up my pennies and made the journey from Maidstone to Rod Argent’s and the box felt even lighter – but it was worth it. It’s hard today to appreciate the impact that the sequencer and synth actual had on music. There are very few pop tracks these days that don’t use some form of synthesized or sequenced sound lurking in the back of the production, but back in the late 70′s this sort of technology was the exclusive property of the electronic musician. Armed with my newly acquired duo of black and yellow boxes I set off on my new journey as an electro musician, a path that I’d been awaiting for quite a while.

The Wasp’s  first live outing was interesting – It was at the main hall at Maidstone College of Art with my fellow illustration students Martin H and Mike G. We’d previously been together as a rather dubiously named  punk band but now, safely renamed to D3, we decided to go Ska. I was the sole musician armed with a double manual organ, my Hohner Clavinet and the Spider & Wasp combo – my first bank of keyboards, nut quite up to the standards of Rick wakeman, but I was chuffed :). Mike was on drums, Martin was on Vocals, and a friend called Vanessa joined in on “backing” Vocals …. although she was really there because she was quite sexy and wore a tight black leotard…. we were young!! lol.  I decided to program the entire melody line for a cover of Madness’ Swan Lake into the Spider – lots of notes but, hey, it could handle it. All started well, and then the dodgy  stage electrics kicked in. The sequencer stopped the lights dimmed and we looked like lemons… then the power kicked in. The sequencer burst back into life and so did we.. unfortunately the power kept dying and then coming back on. The Spider kicked back in to but got progressively faster with each reboot – poor old Mike was breaking into a sweat trying to keep up but Martin and Vanessa just danced on regardless. With every power surge the crowd gave a bigger cheer and when we finally reached the end the crowd went wild… well they were mainly art students and the beer was cheap. A valuable lesson was learned that night – don’t rely completely on technology working the way it should and keep the sequences simple for live performances. 

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I’ve had various guises in my life and one of them was/is as a composer. I’ve written loads of tracks for tv and theatre productions – some I’m proud of others, and I’d rather forget about- but hey, that’s the lot of a jobbing composer. Most had to be written, arranged and recorded with ludicrously short deadlines but I coped and never missed them. Below are few pieces that stick in my mind:

This piece was commissioned by a production company to accompany a video about the English countryside. The client had asked if they could get some music that sounded a bit “Vaughan Williams”. Ok, Vaughan Williams was a genius and normally had a full orchestra to compose for, but I was up for it… Just one catch… the commission reached me at5pm and it was required for an edit starting at 8am the next morning – gulp. I sat down at my trusty keyboards and Atari 1040st running Notator (it’ll mean something to the techies!)and summoned up my recollection of Vaughan Williams music, – The Lark Ascending, Greensleeves, Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis etc. I started composing and within 3 hours I’d composed, arranged and recorded a 4 minute piece. Unfortunately, I’d got so engrossed in the process, I forgot to save it and, sure enough, the computer crashed and wiped out everything. I didn’t panic.. much, so I sat down and did it all again. The following morning I arrived at the studios, on time, with the tape including the main theme and a variety of 30 and 5 second stings. The client was delighted, the producer astonished and me barely able to string a coherent sentence together. I went home and slept. Ah, the joys of freelance composing! Read the rest of this entry »

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Never one to say no to the sniff of a new idea, I’ve often found myself led down some pretty unexpected artistic tracks – some fruitful… others not quite so fruitful.

Robert Stanston performing Henry V - Lion of England

One rewarding avenue that I stumbled down was my introduction to the world of theatrical production. A one time girlfriend of mine was very keen on amateur dramatics.. aka AmDram. As a result I ended up being subjected to a variety of amateur theatre productions. Some were OK, others (dare I say, the majority) were painful. Amateur theatre is a strange world where the loudest voice often occupies the lead role regardless of ability. That said, many of our finest thespians have cut their teeth in amateur productions.

As is almost seemingly inevitable, at the first mention that I had artistic skills I was unwittingly recruited into producing some artwork for posters. I had managed to keep way away from becoming a member of the AmDram community but I agreed, for a very small fee, to produce a design for each play in the season. Part of the Am Dram bunch was an aspiring director called Nick Hennegan. Nick had already achieved a certain amount of fame locally as a radio jock on BRMB so, when he stepped forward to direct the theatre’s pantomoime version of “Worzel Gummage”, he was welcomed with open Arms. My lady friend was enlisted into the cast and I was introduced to Nick. The production was… erm… interesting but it was evident that Nick’s ideas were far more ambitious that Am Dram could really accommodate. Read the rest of this entry »

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Steve Jobs sadly left this mortal coil on 5th October 2011 but his legacy will carry on. He said and did many inspirational things in his time but I think this quote says it all really:

‘Your time is limited so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your own heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.’

Rest in peace Mr Jobs safe in the knowledge that you really have changed the world.

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Wedding Photography in Devon and Cornwall is our passion

As well as the music and illustration, the other great Artistic passion in my life is photography. I started off with film cameras way before the idea that camera’s could digitally capture an image even represented the vaguest of possibilities. Like my illustration, my photography has always been about people using a reportage style to capture rock bands and theatrical stuff. I’m very fortunate that my wife, Natalie, is equally as passionate about people photography – so much so that she started a business specialising in photographing little people as a pre-school photographer. Together though, we work under the name of Iconik Photography and specialise in weddings. Nat’s ability as a portrait photographer and my experience in capturing events and performances, have come together perfectly so that we can offer a unique blend of reportage and the more classic style of photography. Photographing weddings was  something that I didn’t take on lightly as there’s a real responsibility to get it right, but now I relish the opportunity with each wedding to capture the true essence of a little piece of personal history.

Small, random sample of wedding photography in Devon and Cornwall by Iconik Photography below…. Read the rest of this entry »

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lemmy_of_motorhead_by_robb58-d3kyao3-1A few years back I had the good luck to be invited onto a Motorhead tour around Spain as official tour photographer for the support band , White Trash UK. Somehow I got roped into doing acting as White Trash’s sound engineer,  so many nights I also ended up running the mighty Motorhead sound system desk whilst White Trash performed… which was interesing lol.

During the tour I got to meet and chat with Lemmy on quite a few occassions. What I descovered was, despite the somewhat fearsome persona that he offten seems to project, he was an absolutely brilliant bloke. He posesses and great inelligence and insight which, accompianied by a wonderfully dry sense of humour, makes him a fascinating man to talk to. He’s seen and met most most things rock’n'roll so anecdotes about his past, including his days of being a roadie for Hendrix, are pure rock history.

He cares about his music too, sitting in his dressing room before a gig listening to recordings of the previous nights offering. Any cock ups, front and backstage, are noted. Tripping up  three times in a row earned the offender a stint in a comedy cow outfit for the show – I remember Lemmy pointing out to me  a guy on the lighting crew operating a spotlight dressed in the black and white spotted outfit – obviously a serial offender lol.

In recognition of my admirartion for the legendary Lemmy, I decided to use the great man as the subject for my first portrait drawn completely in photoshop , a true legend of rock!

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Discovering the wonderful world of music.

I’ve always been interested in music and sound. One of my earliest memories was sitting down on front of the old black and white tv with my mum, watching a film. I can’t remember what the film was, but at one stage the music took center stage with a huge swathe of strings pumping out through the tinny television speakers. I immediately turned to my mum and said “what instrument is that?”. She told me me it was an orchestra, to which I replied, ” I want to play one of those”. She smiled and told me it wasn’t one instrument but lots of instruments playing together. The seed was planted – I wanted to make music that sounded like an orchestra. On another occassion, I remember discovering that, if you slowed down a record on the old Dansette record player, the instruments sounded different and had a much bigger feel to them, more bass! My mum had Pat Boone’s version of “April Showers” on a 45rpm Single. When I slowed this down to 33 and a 1/3rd rpm, the bells on it sounded superb to my ears   – they had a mystical quality to them. My love affair with sound was well and truely born! Read the rest of this entry »

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Hello and welcome to Iconik.

Iconik is an eclectic mixture of thoughts and creations by me, Robb Williams. I’m an multimedia artist, photographer and composer based in Cornwall.

As a visual artist I work as an illustrator and graphic designer specialising in traditional and digital illustration , caricatures and flash animation.

As a composer I create music to commission for theatre, television and multimedia productions.

As a photographer I work mainly with my wife, Natalie, specialising in wedding photography and portraiture. Read the rest of this entry »