Their mutual respect for one another is readily apparent, and their obvious bond—which comes from growing up together, sharing amazing musical experiences onstage and in the studio, and enduring heartbreaking personal losses—shone during our recent talks. We learned about their 14th studio album Toto XIV, the inspirations and synths behind its individual tracks, and how they’ll recreate their famously layered, keyboard-driven recordings on the world tour that hits U.S. shores in August. Throughout, we were struck by how much they focused on serving the song as opposed to showing off their chops—advice for every musician to live by.
Toto XIV started as a final contractual obligation. Did that give you a feeling of freedom?
David Paich: I think so. That was the beauty of being released from the shackles. We knew weren’t gonna get on pop radio, so we got to do what we did on the very first album, and the fourth album, and pretty much all of our albums, which is be ourselves.
Steve Porcaro: Instead of the guys fighting some of my more ambitious ideas that would take an investment of time, they encouraged me to do that. They know that’s part of what Toto is now.
DP: There was something very cyclical about it. We were making the record half a mile from where we started our first demos. So we all had this mindset of, “We’re back full circle here.” I look and I see [guitarist] Steve Lukather, I see Steve Porcaro, I see [lead singer] Joe Williams. David Hungate [bassist] is back. It’s like a time warp, but it’s a contemporary-sounding record. I can honestly say it sounds like nobody else.
It’s not an overly indulgent record. You’re crafting great pop, not taking long solos.
DP: That’s because Steve and I haven’t finished overdubbing on it yet! [Laughs.]
SP: We love song structure and we still love a progressive pop single. We long to do the next “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” or whatever stretches boundaries.
DP: Having worked with great producers like Sir George Martin and Quincy Jones, what I took away from them was that [even though] they’d have all this production, they’d listen and say, “Is there a song underneath all that?” I wanted to make sure that no matter what we did production-wise—and Toto can layer better than anybody—that we never lost sight of the melody and the lyrics.
Let’s talk about some of the cuts. First, “Running Out of Time.”
DP: That was one of the songs that we wrote together. Joe Williams and I were in the room, we put up a drumbeat, and Steve Lukather started playing that riff. I have a Hammond in my studio: “Aristotle,” my old Deep Purple, cherried-out A-100. We start rocking out, trying to live in the moment, and it came very quickly.
SP: My stuff on it came after the fact. I often take two basic, filtered sawtooths and make a kind of Clav sound for comping. I love being able to dial in how thin it is and how it fits in the track. You hear it in some of the breaks in the verses. It reminds me of something you might hear on a Joe Walsh record. For the solo and the breakdown at the end, I used a sound that I’ve been using in scoring a lot. It’s from this software called Plectrum from Vital Arts, which I really dig. There’s this real biting patch that sounds like a cross between struck piano strings and gamelans, with this really cool attack.
DP: Lukather, CJ Vanston, and Joe wrote that together. CJ basically had what he wanted on that, and because he and Lukather are pretty good piano players, they pretty much had it. It’s like the Beatles. If John’s playing keyboards on something, Paul doesn’t have a problem, and vice-versa.
SP: “Holy War” was first cut as a three-piece. It was drums, Luke, and Lee Sklar on bass, and it was this kick-ass Jimi Hendrix version of the song that sounded done to me. When that’s all they were hearing, they filled the void. And Lee, who’s one of my favorite bass players in the world, had played it with fingers, which just sounded huge. But there was no room for all the ideas that I had. It was one of those times when we made an executive decision. We redid the bass part with a pick, which is a typical thing Toto has done to open up some space in a track.
I had a second-verse string line and a lot of orchestral stuff that got tossed out at the end of the day. But they did keep the very end, where it’s supposed to be a synth solo, but it’s me kind of whacking out these huge brass stabs alongside Lukather.
What did you use for that?
SP: There’s a Yamaha CS-80 in there along with some DX1. But it’s mostly the CS-80 and I’m using the ribbon controller to smack it down. I actually doubled it with my Logic ES2 synth, which has this great pitch-bend range that’ll go down three, four, or five octaves.
“21st Century Blues.” It was CJ Vanston playing piano in the outro?
DP: At the very end, yeah. He did the template for that, because he wrote it with Luke. It’s a meat-and-potatoes song. My head goes back to when I did the Pretzel Logic album with Steely Dan. You have this slow, groovy, triplet blues happening. And there’s electric piano on it, a little grand piano, and some Hammond. And the rest is, we got Tom Scott to do the horns, and CJ just blew on the end.
DP: “Orphan” went through a lot of changes. When I first made the demo, I was doing a rock ’n’ roll ska thing. The piano was just doing this half-time, Bob Marley kind of reggae thing. That wasn’t really translating to what the band was envisioning. Joe went over to the piano and sang it, but he was just playing a D and an A, and letting it ring out. So I came up with some simple, Coldplay-ish piano parts, where you can go through four or five chord changes but just let the root and tonic ring. Then Steve made it contemporary sounding by adding his synths. It’s always a surprise and everybody smiles after he’s done his thing. Because it’s subtle, but it makes the song sound modern and valid.
DP: Brother Jeff Porcaro and me, we bonded way back. Jeff had this fascination with the American Civil War, and his favorite book was The Red Badge of Courage. It’s about the last guy in the Civil War, a drummer. And when this album came up, I had already been starting to write some thoughts down on the subject, little essays and stuff. I got together with Luke and played him a little piece I had, and we were looking for something that made us feel that warm and fuzzy vibe that we got from stuff like Elton John’s Madman Across the Water. Just something organic that had 12-string acoustic, piano, and maybe some strings. It was a chance for us to talk about all the young boys that have died all the kids that are still out there. Plus, we’re still fighting the war for freedom and racial equality here in the United States as we speak. So it was little comments on all of that.
“The Little Things”?
SP: When we were coming up, we all dealt with that thing where the producer plays you the demo and since you’re the synth guy, you’ve brought in this rig—for which you just handed them the rental bill—that fills the room. Meanwhile someone had played an ARP ProSoloist or whatever on the demo. And the producer’s going, “Why doesn’t it have the magic of the demo?” What’s wonderful now is that most everybody can bring in whatever they used on their demo.
On this album, any magic from a demo wound up on the master. That’s how this tune happened. I brought my demo files to CJ Vanston, and the guys Toto-ized it. Luke was very respectful; he loved my guitar parts on it and pretty much recreated them, but he always brings his thing to it. Having [drummer] Keith Carlock, the guys helped me produce the drum track. And then Hungate playing bass on it? This was a dream come true.
DP: The most fun thing when you do a Toto record is when someone brings in a song that’s 95 percent there, like Steve did, and you can sit back and actually produce. You’re not struggling just to get the basics out. I can listen and go, “You know what, Steve? You’re all there, man. You just need to bump the tempo up here, and maybe have an acoustic guitar thing right here. And that’s it.”
SP: He says “bump the tempo.” He bumped it six bpm! It was quite a change—he made it a record all of a sudden.
DP: That’s something I carry from the Thriller days that I learned from Quincy Jones. The most important three things: tempo, tempo, tempo.
DP: I had the blueprint for the song back around our first album. But I never anticipated the intro that Steve just “colored in” with sound design and parts, to get this kind of Asian influence, but not too clichéd. Then there’s this little section where Steve, having worked with Earth, Wind & Fire, comes up with his own hybrid of these parts that makes it just cool sounding. In the same way that Steely Dan will bring in a mallet player on xylophone to do something, he does this very subtly with keyboards. So he just raised it to the next level, keyboard-wise.
SP: That’s classic Toto, first-album stuff. “Chinatown” was on our first demo we ever gave the record company. It just never got finished until this album.
“All the Tears That Shine”?
DP: I’m like Steve: As soon as one album’s over, I’m ready to start the next one. If you hear the original demo, it’s just me playing piano with a little acoustic guitar. Steve came in and did this whole other, English kind of thing with it.
SP: I took a Hammond sound in Logic, and just gated it real short, with some slap echo, and then put a slow wah-wah on it. Like the Seal song, “Crazy.” That was the model.
What was the synth at the end of the tune?
DP: A Korg Triton Extreme. This great Genesis-like sound was going to be a place marker until we found out what we wanted to do in that section. And I love Steve, because he’s always like, “Hey, man, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Let’s talk about your live rigs. How are you recreating the old and new songs live, and how has your technology world changed over the years?
SP: When MIDI first came out we absolutely loved it, because we could limit the range of the instrument itself, or we could split it from the master keyboard, sending out different channels. But it took forever. It was a puzzle: I’ve always loved wigging out, but it was a huge pain. Now [Apple] MainStage brings it all together.
DP: Steve and I used to have all the instruments . . . the Minimoogs, I carried a Hammond and my nine-foot Baldwin on the road. We each had our own mixing boards and an engineer mixing us live. We were doing hundreds of keyboard parts, trying to do all our overdubs live. There was no automation. I forget all the times we’ve gone through what we we’re doing now, updating our rigs. Now I have everything in a rack—it’s smaller and it’s consistent.
We all wish we had your rigs from back then, but you’re sitting here going, “Are you kidding?”
DP: Anybody who wishes that hasn’t toured with the gear from back then! [Laughs.] The funny thing is, people actually thought that what we were doing then is like what we’re doing now. They thought we actually had something like today’s technology back in 1980. We didn’t. It worked because of Steve spending time patching all this stuff up.
SP: A lot of customized magic black boxes, Jerry!
DP: When you get into modular synthesis, that’s what separated Steve from the rest. I saw guys like Malcolm Cecil do it in the studio and they’d spend three days getting a sound. We were going from city to city having to set this up every day.
David, what’s inside your upright piano shell?
DP: It’s all changing, because the band wasn’t digging that they couldn’t see me. So I just chopped the case down. It’s two keyboards: a Yamaha CP4 on the bottom and Motif XF7 on top.
What’s the source of your main piano sound, or is there more than one?
Toto keyboard technician Jordan Rippe: We use Ivory and others. We just started using Pianoteq for a couple of reasons. It’s extremely stable and it’s not a memory or CPU hog.
SP: One of our biggest hang-ups was when David does his solo spot, he does a thing where he hangs on the sustain pedal, and just repeats one note over and over again. And on sample-based software pianos, it’s building up and building up voices, so we had a lot of trouble with the system eventually freaking out.
JR: Now we have more RAM and a large solid-state drive. We were also using some custom piano samples in Logic’s EXS24, which inherently has a voice limit. Pianoteq solves all that, and you can really tweak it. David needs a very dark, classical piano sound for the tune “The Muse” from the Live in Poland DVD. We just spent half a day going in there, dialing in more of the hammer action, a softer felt, and all these things that you can only do with physical modeling.
What other sound sources are noteworthy?
JR: We’re doing some slick stuff in MainStage, like having a Rhodes, a Wurly, and a string pad all on expression pedals that you can bring up, all dialed in. On the solo on “Pamela” we have a piano sound downstairs and another that’s very similar upstairs, that we have totally effected. David uses a pedal that controls a chorus and the throw of a delay, so when he kicks into that solo, he’s copping the sound from the record. We’ve got the London Symphonic Strings from Aria Sounds. We’ve got the Spitfire Audio libraries, like Mural [symphonic strings], and Sable [chamber strings]. I’ve had to slim those down for live use, of course, as they’re huge libraries. David uses a Rhodes from his personal sample library. And we’ve got the MainStage/Logic EVP-88 [electric piano plug-in], which is pretty hip.
SP: David uses a lot of custom stuff that I help with. We also use Logic’s ES2 plug-in an awful lot. It’s my go-to, straight-ahead kind of two-oscillator polysynth.
So you’re not using a Minimoog emulation?
SP: I’d love to. I love the Arturia stuff, but [ES2] uses so much less CPU. Especially the system I’ve been using these last six years, which ran just on the edge of disaster. When I first started touring again, my Arturia stuff was in there for everything—the CS-80V, even the Moog Modular. I had to go through and slim down. And I just found for a whole lot of stuff, ES2 works great.
You’re going to crush some readers when they realize you’re not using the “big dogs.”
SP: Well, we did go back to the big dogs for the record. But for the road we’re trying to be a lean machine. I gotta tell you, MainStage is what I envisioned as the future of pulling stuff off live and how to exploit MIDI the best way. I f***in’ love it, you know?
Now you call up a preset and everything is there . . .
SP: Every night it’s exactly the same The oscillators are rubbing against each other, the tape slap is perfect, all those things. I use controllers so the sounds are breathing, opening filters and controlling delays, things like that. Any of the differences between this and how much better having the real thing might be, it’s like, “Keep the change, man.”
Any other go-to software synths?
SP: I use Sculpture for some bell stuff. There are a lot of custom EXS24 samples tucked in there. With our new systems we’re going to have some more headroom, so I’m going to use [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere and more than I did in the past.
Your controllers are two Motifs?
SP: An XF8 on the bottom and an XF7 on top. David and I both love the feel of Yamaha keyboards and they’re the only brand we trust on the road night after night. We have a long history with the company and they’ve been very supportive of us. Plus, their sounds are there for backup. If a lighting rig falls on my computers, the Motifs mean that I have Hammond, electric piano, my blippy brass sound, pads, and so on. I could finish a set. And we have samples loaded, like the fall from the “Rosanna” solo.
Speaking of Hammond, what’s your main source for organ sounds?
SP: I got together with Eddie Jobson about a year ago and he had the coolest Hammond sound. Apple EVB3 was in there, but it was doubled with Native Instruments B-4, which they don’t make anymore. B-4 was doing nothing but this ultra-distortion sound. He layers them both together and it’s bitchin’. I’m going to try Eddie’s approach.
Steve, in a 2005 interview you said, “I wish we could all be the elder statesmen at this point.” With Toto XIV have you achieved that?
SP: Absolutely. I’m very happy with this album. When we’re being true to ourselves, it’s really simple. We know what we’re doing and don’t have to second-guess ourselves.
DP: I can’t tell you how proud I am of the guys on this record. Everybody really put forth an outstanding effort, and you can hear Toto both as a group and also individually—the sound that we originally were.
Editor’s note: Below are the portions of Jerry Kovarsky’s conversations with David Paich and Steve Porcaro that we couldn’t squeeze into the August 2015 print issue. As promised, we have included them here online. Scroll to the bottom for a slide show of extra rig photos and screenshots of the band’s Apple MainStage setups. Enjoy!
Story behind the making of “Africa” . . .
DP: When we made the Toto IV record, “Africa” was a “save that for your solo record” call. Except that this was my solo record!
David, to the casual fan of the band, Steve’s the synth wizard, and you’re the two-fisted piano player/songwriter. I know these are gross simplifications. But you played the CS-80 figure at the beginning, right? And reading other interviews, that sound inspired the song?
DP: Through Steve we were able to get our hands on these new instruments. And he always told me to write new music for the new instruments. Don’t just write a piano part on a CS-80. Most guys, if they’re basically a piano player, when they get on a Hammond organ, they still play like they’re playing a piano.
The great thing about the CS-80 was it was this living, breathing, organic instrument; it had a lot of humanity in its sound. And the sound, with this brass flute, just came out where you would play parts like that. So instead of trying to go, “OK, well this is just a synth thing, but we’ll redo this on piano when we do it for real,” we said, “let’s keep that sound here, it’s kind of new, and a little bit different.”
Believe me, the band didn’t know what to make of “Africa.” It was the first tune where we were doing loops and overdubbing. But Steve really helped me navigate through parts like that. It’s been because of these sounds and Steve going, “Listen, if you take this sound and play like this;” he’d sit down and play a part, where it would be just the perfect part. Because Steve made these sounds. But he would also show, in demonstrating the sound to me, the kind of part to play on it, because I’d be playing a piccolo part down too low, he’d say, “You want to play this kind of thing.” Half the time they’re his parts, and I would be given credit for a lot of things that I actually didn’t do. Which I have no problem with, by the way.
SP: That works both ways. Let me give you a geeky keyboard aside to David Paich’s keyboard sound on “Africa,” and that great kalimba sound that we got. That was worked on intensely. That was a GS-1, but it was a customized sound by Gary Leuenberger, using that big programmer that looked like it was out of a sci-fi movie.
DP: There were four huge screens, all put together in one box, on top of it. And the thing that Steve does, and Leuenberger did the same thing, is tweaking the sound to tailor it to the part that I was playing,
It makes all the difference in the world. Often when I’d hear a sound, if the release is too long or something, I’ll go on to another sound. Where Steve says, “If you like that sound, we can tweak it, tweak the filter, tweak everything.” And that kalimba sound was something that may not have been used had it been in its original state. What you’re hearing are actually five and six individual little motifs that we tracked, little three- and one-note gamelan kind of things that when combined created this thumb piano vibe.
SP: We had this amazing kind of marimba-kalimba hybrid that came out of that four-operator FM, that you would have thought when a six-operator FM instrument like the DX-7 came out, you could do at least as well. But we’ve never been able to get that magic again, that sound on the record.
Talking about how technology has changed their approach to music-making:
DP: Steve and I had something that no one had at that time, which was we were a band that was left alone, and we had our own multitrack recorder. You gotta understand, people didn’t have laptops with multitrack DAWs back then. You had to get a PO number from the label, and it cost a lot of money to go into the studio. So we bought a multitrack machine. And I had a studio, where Steve and I could experiment like the Beatles used to with George Martin, like we used to hear.
SP: That was Dave’s and my concept all the time at The Manor, even though we were just screwing around, we were doing it to 24-track. With striped tape. It all could be used on a record if it was good. It was really fun when you had the parts this guy was coming up with and stuff, when you’re hearing the ideas that he was coming up with. We just were guys who made records. For us, it was all about coming up with parts, and the arrangement.
SP: An interesting aside that kind of relates to what David’s talking about, is that we come from that school, back in the ‘70s, where it would take us five tracks and every synth in the room to try to get just a convincing string sound and part. And with a lot of sounds, we were used to building these sounds up from all these different tracks, and bouncing it down later. We’ve all had to adjust to the fact that these synths have gotten so powerful, and so cool. With all that they’re doing with Omnisphere (Spectrasonics), all the great libraries you can get for (Native Instruments) Kontakt: these sounds are amazing, They’re doing it now, they’re doing such amazing work, these companies. Guys like Jack Hotop, Eric Persing, Skippy (John Lehmkuhl); the work they do, the presets that come out of the box are unbelievable now.
The amount of records that they’ve been on and don’t even know it.
SP: Tell me about it. We don’t need to stack five different versions of the bell sound and try to do some additive, just to have a decent bell sound. It’s been an adjustment for us, to be able to do one pass of sound and leave it alone. It sounds great.
You don’t have to build a MIDI stack that takes you 40 minutes to program.
DP: No. And even go before that, Steve was doing that stuff on modular, building the sound from scratch to get the special sound. Like the Stevie Wonder, “Livin’ for the City” kind of sounds that they were doing with the big modular Moogs, and the Keith Emerson stuff.
SP:And of course, we still love being able to lift up the hood and get in there, having a knob on all those different aspects of these complex sounds. It’s so great to be able to get in there and pinpoint what you like or don’t like about something, and crank it or lose it, or make it right for exactly what it is you do. We love doing that. But to start off with such great stuff to begin with, it lets me personally focus on the other side of my brain, as far as writing songs and doing that stuff that really is a lot more important to me at this point in my life, to be honest with you.
Some love for their producer and friend CJ Vanston:
DP: I know you’re trying to cover a lot of ground here, but I’m just going to make one more point about this. It is really an advantage to Steve and I, to have a great keyboardist/synthesist/sound designer CJ Vanston involved with this. Because you hear that piano sound (in “Burn”), but in the very end he takes it, twists it up a little bit, and it gets this weird, distorted environment on the piano. So we have a kindred soul here on the inside, playing around with the keyboards with us. And I’m forever grateful.
SP: When I found out that the producer was a guy who used to be my competition in the studios, and yet another keyboard player/synth guy, I was like, “Right the F on. The more the merrier. Bring ‘em on.” He did all kinds of stuff that I didn’t have to, so I could just work on being, again, the best me. Because he’s doing this stuff that I like to bring to the table. And all the other synth stuff, he was more than competent at making the guys happy. And when I say all the other synth stuff, I mean, the things he contributed and helped out on were…the bar is way up there with CJ.
And he knew the history of the band, he played all the tunes, and would correct the band that he was in when they weren’t playing the parts right. So it was as if he had been with the band all along, just out in Chicago or in his studio.
DP:It’s great having a guy like that, because when I play, and I kind of lose myself when I play and I’m not trying to play letter-perfect all the time, CJ’s able to go in, and I don’t make a lot of mistakes but I occasionally have what Jim Keltner calls “errors in judgment”. And CJ is great at fixing those things for me. Without interrupting.
Early musical influences?
SP: I grew up in a musical family, my Dad’s a jazz drummer (Joe Porcaro). And he also did percussion in the Hartford Symphony, back in Connecticut. So I was exposed to a lot of jazz, a lot of the Miles Davis Quintet. A lot of Coltrane. And we’d hear a lot of classical music in the household, too. There was no Elvis; there was no Buddy Holly. I really have no affinity for that music, other than knowing who they inspired, which was the Beatles. Which for me was like Day One. Seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. It’s a big cliché, but it just rocked my world. The whole thing: the music, the clothes, everything just hit me like a ton of bricks, and that’s what I wanted to do.
So flash forward and it was really the Doors – “Light My Fire” completely blew my mind. It solidified what I wanted to do, play organ. I didn’t want to have to worry about being a piano player, and all that came along with that. I wanted to be the keyboard player in the Doors.
What was your first keyboard? Did you get a Farfisa or a Vox organ?
SP: No, my Dad got me a Rheem organ and some little amp for Christmas of 1967. I think they make the air conditioner that’s on my house right now. For some reason they made an organ, and it just was the most horrible thing in the world. But it might as well have been a Hammond B-3, that Christmas morning. I totally wasn’t expecting it, and it was the best Christmas ever. Soon after that, I started dragging my Dad down to Guitar Center in Hollywood. And I wound up with a Farfisa with a Leslie 147 and preamp. We traded in my Rheem, got a hundred bucks for it or something. That was my first real rig. And in my bands, that was sixth grade going into seventh grade, believe me, we played “Light My Fire” twice a night.
A few years later I heard Switched on Bach, and I was very, very interested in this Moog synthesizer thing I’d been hearing about. Moog had got into my head. My brothers and I went to the Hollywood Bowl, this is 1971, and it was Edgar Winter’s White Trash, Humble Pie, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I think I was like 14 at the time. Quite honestly, we were there to see Edgar Winter’s White Trash. Edgar Winter came on, they were amazing: we loved it. Humble Pie, that wasn’t my wheelhouse, but they were great that night, and the crowd was standing on their chairs when they got off the stage. I thought, “Who are these guys, this ELP band? How are they going to follow that?” They just had this one song on the radio. It was a big hit, but it was just this one song, “Lucky Man”. And they were headlining. “How are they going to follow this?”
Well ELP came on… oh, I gotta say, before they went on, this was like a defining moment in my life. Whoever the keyboard tech was, he hit this low note on the Moog, this low note came bellowing out of the speakers, and he did this slow glide up to this high note. And I remember, thinking to myself, “What the F was that?”
Anyway, they opened with “The Barbarian,” and they did “Tarkus” that night. I don’t think it had, or it had just been released. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. Keith’s whole thing: the style, the attitude: the whole thing. But most important thing was his notes. Keith’s f-in’ notes. Hit me like a ton of bricks. No fast Leslie. And that characterized my Hammond stuff for life. When I hit the Leslie on it’s because I have to, because that’s the way Paich did it on the record. Me, myself, when I play Hammond, I pull out the first four draw bars. The Leslie stays on slow, and I love it.
Of course right after that was Rick Wakeman in Yes, and all the prog guys, whether it was Kerry Minnear from Gentle Giant, or Tony Banks in Genesis. All those guys heavily influenced me. I was a real prog head for a while. While a lot of my friends were getting way off into the jazz world, I stayed at the prog party for quite a while. I loved the way Keith played. I loved the whole thing.
All the guys around me couldn’t hang very long with the whole Carl Palmer school of drumming. It was great at that 1971 concert, but soon after that groove and pocket became much more important to us. It became unlistenable to my brother Jeff. While I was still trying to go, “just focus on the keyboard.” Ask Paich, that was my mantra, Dig. Keith’s. Notes. Those heroic chord changes, all that battle music. It was so cool.
By the way, through all this time growing up, I was always very influenced by jazz. I was always listening to jazz musicians. McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea; we used to go to all their concerts. “Return to Forever”, we were way into all that stuff.
I remember walking in after The Leprechaun (Chick Corea) just came out, and I go, “Steve, give me that sound.” And he dialed that up on a Minimoog for me right there. When you had your little rig at your parents’ house. Whenever you see Oberheim, the station, and all that, this guy made the first station. I remember seeing it, because you just chopped your C-3. And you had your Oberheim, you had your DS-2, and you had a couple little synths, but you made the first station right there, as you walk in the doorway. I’ll never forget it.
Dave, what was your start playing keyboards?
DP: My father (Marty Paich) was a jazz pianist and arranger. We lived in Reseda, and I heard him playing every day. He had his room that he played in, I think he was doing “Blues in the Night” with Mel Tormé and Ella Fitzgerald simultaneously. So the first song I ever played was (sings), those three notes, I heard him play that, and I walked over to the piano and played it. (singing) “My mama done told me.” Seemed easy enough.
So my Dad started to teach me a C scale, which is when you go thumb, index finger, third finger, and teaching me to take my thumb and get it moving across, because you gotta repeat with the thumb. And my Dad, you know every year I played piano, up until he passed, he would say, “I can still hear that thumb.” It’s like a joke from my first piano training when I was five. Now, just to follow that up, I wanted to be a drummer. I sat next to Shelly Manne and Louie Bellson, they were my Dad’s two drummers, and I really didn’t like playing piano, because it was such a beast, and you gotta learn it and study hard. Where drums, I could get up there and I could bang ‘em and play pretty good.
Well, in 1966 I heard a record called “Poor Side of Town,” my Dad did with Johnny Rivers. And a guy named Larry Knechtel was playing piano, but it sounded like a guy strumming an electric guitar. And I had never heard that before. Back in the old days, they were always plinking up high, the triplets, (sings), those kind of things. Well, Knechtel was rolling eighth notes and playing 16th notes like Elton John and Leon Russell, way down low on the piano. And as soon as I heard that, it flipped me over, turned that key.
SP:He’s reminding me of a very important thing, because of what our fathers did I became hyper-aware of studio musicians, and especially guys like Leon Russell and his style of gospel piano playing. I was like, “What is that that he’s doing?” It knocked me out. And David always copped that stuff well. He got that stuff at an early age. But that was another huge influence, Larry Knechtel, Leon Russell.
DP: And then Elton John came out in 1970, and just changed the whole thing. All of a sudden you had a guy playing piano, but rolling all the sound, playing so much piano, but it was the way he played, it wasn’t like a normal singer-songwriter. He was playing like a musician did who was jamming in a band.
SP: Ballsy, strong.
DP: See you have those kind of singer-songwriter things, which is my school, meat and potatoes, being able to play C, G, and F, playing guitar kind of stuff. Then you get into Steve, who was taking apart the Keith Emerson stuff. Now that’s classical, really compositional. Like Aaron Copeland stuff. That has to be scored out. You’re not just sitting there with chords, faking that stuff. They were parts. Amazing.
Coming back to Elton John, the record that was from the live radio broadcast, 11-17-70.
DP:Yeah, A&R Studios with Phil Ramone. I lived and breathed that album! I saw him at the Greek Theater, with a trio. Elton played the first half solo; Nigel and Dee came on the second half. In fact, it so influenced me that when I went to an all-boys Catholic school, in my fourth year, I played “Burn Down the Mission” with two of my friends. Which at that time was very subversive to do. And I got suspended from school at my graduation. Full-on Elton John, it was worth it. Because he was such a dynamic performer. He was just a madman, like Liszt or something. And he wore glasses, and had short hair: freed all of us.
What was your first electronic keyboard?
DP: I had a Rhodes. I was already in high school. I’d been looking for keyboards, and they didn’t make anything. They discontinued the old Wurlitzer, and my Dad was looking at all these combo organs: I looked at Vox Continentals, Farfisas, I was going to get a Baldwin electric harpsichord. They didn’t make an electric piano. And then the Fender Rhodes came out. I went down to the factory and played one, and my Dad had a Fender endorsement. He did two arrangements for Louis Bellson and got me a Fender Rhodes. It was life changing.
Before then, I had a Guild amplifier that I borrowed from a friend, and an SM-57, and I’d stick it into of those little spinet pianos, and put it into a guitar amp. And then I had the Fender Rhodes, all of a sudden it was like giving me a Marshall and a Les Paul. I had bass; I had it all. Steve remembers, man.
You never did the combo organ thing?
DP: I bypassed the combo organ thing. But I was this close to getting it. Because “Light My Fire” was out, and the Animals, and all that stuff. And there was nothing else to play. So I almost dropped dime a couple times, telling my parents I need to get this keyboard so I can join a band. Because everybody had a Vox Continental or something. But after that, I remember getting a Minimoog: changed my life.
SP: You know what I loved when you got your Minimoog, Dave? I remember, you were still living at your folks house. He bought a brand-new Minimoog, and at the same time, a brand-new Echoplex.
DP: Yeah. And it had a pitch bend wheel. So when I found out it had a pitch bend wheel, and I could get guitar s*** out of it, you realize what a cream job guitar players have. But then, flash forward to me starting to do dates on a Minimoog. And I didn’t know what an envelope was. A lot of times I had the envelopes set too slow. And I’d be sitting there, there’s an orchestra going on, and no sound was coming out of my Minimoog, Because all my envelopes were set to the right. And I’m twisting them, I’m twisting them, and I can’t get s*** out of it.
I met Steve Porcaro, he goes, “Dave, do this,” and I took a grease pencil and marked a couple things. His bass setting, that I think he did with Gary Wright, and a couple little settings that I used on every session I ever did.
SP: Jerry, you’re uncovering the real reason I ever was in the band. Help Dave get a sound out of his Minimoog!
DP: Yeah. Back in the day, when you used to see all the fake wrestling, the tag-team wrestling, that was me and Steve doing dates. If one guy wasn’t working, you tag, get in there, man.
SP: But it was best when we were a tag team, like Dave’s saying.
DP: One of the reasons I hired him, I turned on either the “Midnight Special” or “Solid Gold,” and I saw him in a white jumpsuit, long hair, with a Minimoog around his neck playing bass. “That’s my guy.” And they go, “You already know that guy. That’s Steve Porcaro.” Steve was wicked on bass, man.
Talking about James Newton Howard and Friends
Q: Did you have any idea when you did the James Newton Howard and Friends direct-to-disc session, the Yamaha demo record, what legs that was going to have, and if you only got royalties for every piece of pro audio you ever sold?
SP: Dig it. Let me tell a quick story. Clare Fisher was one of my piano teachers, and I would constantly ask, “Clare, are you hip to this guy, or that guy?” And Clare was one of those guys who pretty much hated everything, right? So it was really impressive to me when I ran into him one day, and he told me he was in some high-end stereo shop, this guy’s selling him some full-on, super-hi-fi system. And what did they use to demo it? James Newton Howard and Friends. Clare goes, “Of course I didn’t buy the system, it sucked, but I asked him what was the music they were playing. I loved the music.” So it was the best compliment I could have ever gotten.
DP: We got a chance to open for Tina Turner on a tour in England, and we’re at Wembley in front of 90,000 people. And her sound guy, who was Showco’s chief operator, Dave Natal, who also is the Stones’ chief guy, he put on the James Newton Howard thing. And normally at rock concerts you want to hear Pink Floyd, Van Halen, this rock stuff. I go, “Take that off. You don’t have to play that.” He says, “I’m not taking it off. That’s what I tweak my sound system to every day.”
SP: We had no idea it would be so successful.
DP: The original name was called the Triumverate. That was our band, the three of us. We introduced the DX-7.
SP: The only reason why James is on the cover is because we were under contract to Columbia. We couldn’t record for another label as an artist. So we were James’s friends on that. But it’s had great legs, man. It’s very cool.
DP: I don’t even know how many it’s sold. But I know people talk about it all the time. And God bless, Doug Sacks just passed last week. He was the producer on that. We did our first Toto record with him. The very first Toto, and I think Toto IV.
Discussing audio quality
So it’s come full circle: we try and keep our sound quality up, our standards. To this day I listen to that recording (James Newton Howard and Friends), and it’s great. I got to master something with Doug six months ago, with Alan Sides, and we did Steve’s “Human Nature”, it’s great to go back in and hear what real hi-fi and audiophile, 96k, and using C-12s, and players with air and everything. We always try and keep reminding ourselves where center is, with the sound. With good sound. Natural sound.
SP: It’s really true. Something about last year, for some reason, I was in these big, expensive recording studios like five times. Part of it was the Toto project; there’s been a few different reasons. But it had been many years since I’d been working, where I hadn’t been in some kind of a home studio. Doing my film work, my TV show (Justified), or doing demos and working with the guys. But I gotta tell you, what we do in our home studios is so amazing now, and the tools are so amazingly powerful. But when you’re in a real studio with all the real s***, I gotta tell you, man, it really was mind blowing this last year.
It reminds you what a good space…
SP: It reminded me how good it used to f-n’ sound! I really missed it.
DP: When you have great drum sounds, and we had some great drum sounds for our demos. I thought, “there’s no way we’re going to beat this.” And you take a good engineer, and you take him to Capitol Records, and you use room mikes, and you’ve got a good drummer, with good drums, and some C-12s, and some good microphones…
SP: Real chambers…
DP: It adds this third dimension, this third unknown element, like Doug Sacks would say, that gets it out of your face, that doesn’t keep squashing this digital…
SP: It isn’t just the microphones, it isn’t just the room, it isn’t just the compressors or putting—all of that stuff we can kind of fake it real good for the money these days, right? But to have a master engineer really work the s*** in a room: I’m sorry, but there’s nothing that comes close. It just sounds expensive to me.
Share some important lessons and sage advice.
DP: You need to hear the singer singing the song to set the right tempo. So many times I cut tracks for Toto, and we cut them too fast, because we were singing the songs in our head. Jeff would sing the song, I would sing the song, but without the singer actually singing them there, you get the tempos a little fast. So make sure you have a singer singing it right there.
More about setting tempo:
DP: David Foster and I did a Donna Summers album: typical synthesizer stuff and everything… I think the Linn drum machine had, you could do like 99.5, down to 1 decimal place. Well, we would go in there, and we’d be tweezing the tempo between 101 and 99, or 101.5 and 99.3, and we’d go up and we’d go down. And when we settled on it, and said, “We think we got it here,” Quincy (Jones) would come in and would go, “Fine.”
Now, Michael Jackson, here’s what he did. He had a standing rule. Any time you get a tempo set; take it up one more bpm. Because he said “you gotta put that little dance edge on it.” And Mike liked to sing in front of the beat a little bit.
Did you ever play the game, and take it down one from where you want it to be?
SP: That’s what I always do. Because I’m always going too fast.
DP: I never did that with Michael. But I did that with other people. I mean, I was always, “Pay no attention to the man behind the mirror.” I was always fussing with s***. Tempo is so important. Jeff Porcaro and I found out that a lot of the disco DJs had been going down to mastering, because they were tweaking the tempos after the fact, to get the dance tempo right. So Jeff and I, on occasion, would go down and tweak a Toto record. Because when you’re cutting a track, instruments sound one way. When you’ve got all the overdubs on, sometimes they start sounding fast, because of this cumulative 16th-note stuff that goes on. So Jeff and I, we never told the band, we’d ease those tempos back just a little bit. Now it’s more common practice.
Lukather and CJ, they have this thing where they automatically just set the things back like two or three increments, or whatever they’re called in Logic. And bring it back a little bit, so it lays back a little bit more.
Another piece of advice?
SP: My thing is always to serve the song. Sometimes it’s just like film composing, where you’ll look at the picture and you’ll start writing, and your intention is just to do nothing but serve the picture, but quite often you’ll start writing a piece of music that can take on a life of its own. Musically it wants to go to the B section, and musically you wish it would do this, and musically you wish there was a chord substitution here. And that starts diverging from serving the picture. Maybe you’re serving the song, but you’ve stopped serving the picture.
The same can happen in the studio, where you’re getting a sound up, but the track is stopped and you’re doing nothing but listening to the sound all by itself. You’ve got to be tweaking while the track is running, so that you’re always serving the tune. That you’re not getting in the way of other instruments, that you’re finding your slot, and coming up with your part.
DP: Here’s an example, a lot of times if you have a synth part solo, and you’ll make it sound, man, this sounds unbelievably cool, it’s got a nice range, it’s got a little bottom on it, nice mid, top. But it gets in the track and it gets dark and it muddies up the thing. Where, when you EQ it when it’s in the track, you gotta crank the mids and highs on it. Now if you solo that again you’re gonna go, “well, man, that’s way too bright. That sounds horrible.” Steve has played me a lot of sounds where I’ve gone, “Oh, man, that sounds bad.” He goes, “Now unmute it and put in the track,” and they put it in the track and it sounds just like you wanted it to sound, perfectly.
I have encountered that so often. A guy would say, “Man, I got this amazing sound out of your board xyz, and he’d send me the sound and I’d play it by itself and go, “It’s kind of simple, I don’t get where the magic is.” No, it’s in the track, that’s what it’s all about. The sound worked perfectly. We have that problem with synths, we make that wakeup sound that’s gotta get you to buy it, and it’s a sound you could never use. It’s got way too much of everything on it.
SP: It’s all about serving the tune. It’s all about serving the record.
DP: Those hits on the Yes “Owner of a Lonely Heart”? You think those are full-range frequency blasts. They’re not. The bandwidth is very narrow on those. Very narrow bandwidth on those hits. Little 8-bit, no bottom, no top. That’s what sits in the production.
David, you’re a strong two-fisted piano player, but do you find when you’re recording that you adapt your style of playing, to stay out of the way of the bass?
DP: Yeah. Here’s a couple of tricks I learned. First, Larry Knechtel would always let the first pass go by. He wouldn’t play a thing, he would just sit and listen to it. And then about halfway through, he’d start playing a note here, a couple notes. So I always listen. And he’s listening to the song, he’s listening to how it goes, and kind of listening to fit into the mix.
I realized that after I’d been playing for a while, and been playing on hit records, I was playing too hard all the time. And I’d listen to Billy Payne, and Michael Omartian, and what a great, crystal-clear sound they have. And when I got to watch them play, they weren’t playing as hard. Billy Payne played a lot easier. So they’d have to turn the mikes up louder, and you’d get this crystal clear tone. Same with Leon Russell. Leon Russell does not play hard at all. And you’d think he was pounding the s*** out of the piano. He’s not. He gets everybody to turn up those mikes, so when he does dig in a little bit, it jumps out at you. But in general he’s playing very light.
Another thing Knechtel told me, I was using too much pedal for many years. Where Marty (Michael Omartian) would just sustain all the stuff manually. When he plays chords, he gets off the sustain pedal. I was muddying things up, so I stopped using a lot of sustain pedal.
And one more trick that Nicky Hopkins was great at, I think Larry Knechtel told me about it: when the whole rhythm section’s pulling back, you go the opposite way. You push. Find out, don’t play with everybody, play the opposite of everybody. If everybody’s rushing, and pushing, edgy, that gives you a chance to sit back and pull the reins back. If they’re dragging, you push forward a little bit. A little yin-yang right there.
That keeps that tension in the music.
DP: Like a rubber band, and you’re swinging somebody around here. If someone gets too far out of whack, trying to play too slow, you gotta take the chance to move it forward a little bit here.
I always thought that The Band had great tension within their grooves.
DP: Absolutely. See, Levon sits way back, so those guys can’t be: they can try and rush, and they can’t derail it. They will not derail Levon.