Take A Walk On The Soft Side

Steve Porcaro is probably best known to most people as being a member of the hugely successful band Toto and a busy session player and songwriter on countless hit records. Nowadays, he is primarily focused on film and TV scoring and is just beginning his third season scoring FX’s hit show “Justified.”

Hi Steve, Good to see you again. What I would like to discuss with you today is your transition from being a hardware synth guy to a guy who uses mostly software synths nowadays, correct?

That’s true.

When you were starting out as a synthesist, what were your main “go to” synths?

It’s funny, I saw a little video just last night of me playing live with Gary Wright in San Diego ….


Yeah, I did the Dreamweaver tour in 1975. I was good friends with David Foster who did a lot of work on “Dreamweaver”. He recommended me for the tour, and I got the gig. It was my third audition. I had auditioned for Mac Davis and Tim Buckley and didn’t get the gigs. I was seventeen at the time and I wasn’t much of a player, I’m still not.

(Jay laughs) (Steve cries)

I borrowed a high school friend’s Minimoog for the audition. My friend also had an Oberheim sequencer and an Oberheim SEM (expander module) and the Moog had been modified .

Did you already know a lot about the Minimoog at that point?

No. I knew how to get a basic bass sound and it was more a matter of knowing this knob is here and this knob is there rather than really understanding how it worked….

Knowing what oscillators do…

…. what “amount of contour” was actually doing. I didn’t really understand what was going on….yet. But I knew enough to get it going at the audition for a jam and I started jamming with Art Wood, the drummer, just riffing on an E minor kind of thing and Gary showed up a little later and jammed. After about five minutes of this he said, “you’ve got the gig.” So my brother Mike loaned me the money and I bought a Minimoog with the sequencer and Xpander, and that was my first synth rig. Soon after that Gary got one of the first Oberheim 4 voice synths, long before there was any programmer and I had that onstage as well, but I was mostly the Moog bass guy, the bass player in the band.

What was your first MIDI capable synth?

A Yamaha DX-7. I got a Yamaha CS 80, again from my brother Mike who was on the road in Japan with Larry Carlton.

I’ll never forget going down to David Abell Pianos. They had the only CS-80 in town. I put the headphones on and when I hit that brass preset it was like, “ooohhh!” The polyphonic Moog I’d always dreamed of, which the Polymoog never was, as far as a really warm, fat sound goes. But they were the only dealership in town that had them, you had to give them several thousand dollars to get on a waiting list and it was going to be 9 months to a year to get one. But my brother Mike was in Japan and said “they’re everywhere, every music store has CS 80s” so he grabbed me one.

Unfortunately, it had all kinds of problems and I would be driving down to Buena Park to deal with it and the tech guys were very impressed with how well I knew the synth. That led to a 20 year relationship with Yamaha where we ended up introducing the Dx7 at a NAMM show, ’83 I think it was.

I was at that show and I ordered one.

Within a year or so of that, I remember I was doing a Don Henley session and Danny Kootch (Kortchmar) the producer, had just got a brand new Prophet V and I’ll never forget the look on they’re faces when I pulled out a MIDI cable and I hooked it up and played his Prophet from my DX7.

(Jay laughs) So let’s fast forward now to Toto. What was your basic rig then?

Well again, that was at the beginning and my CS 80 was the centerpiece of my rig with the Minimoog and the sequencer. But soon after that the band bought me a Prophet V. I remember that Michael Boddicker helped me load some presets and I loved that synth, just loved it!

By the time “Toto IV” came around we had a Yamaha GS1”. It was a DX7 $16,000 predecessor, an FM synth that you couldn’t program, it had these weird little magnetic strips to change the sound. So I had this and the CS 80 on top of it and the Prophet V off to the side. I also ended up with one or another Emulator and the Minimoog. And then I got all the Modulator banks, which I loved. A lot of hardware.

So now we fast forward a little again and you are transitioning into becoming a film and TV composer. I think you said that very early on you started using Aruria’s Moog Modular emulation?

Yes, and just to get to the nub of what I think it is you want to talk about I’ve always believed in the future and what’s coming next and been excited about it. We’ve moved on. Would I love it if all my sounds could come from a real analog synth, with knobs and patch cords where I dial in the sound and take the output and record it? Sure, but with the work I do now, especially now; There is a need to be able to recreate and build on sounds I’ve already programmed . I don’t want to spend three days on a Moog sound and then never hear it again and then try to recreate that magic. Now when I spend three days on a sound, I hit “save” and now I can completely change the sound and two days later, two months later, two years later, when I want to work on a sound like that, I can start right where I left off.

Let me ask you this: if you were to create a patch on a hardware synth and then recreate the patch on a very good very faithful software emulation and bounce them both and play them back, would you be able identify which was which?

Probably. I am sure I would prefer the one with the hardware synth. Still, I say to you, keep the change. We all aspire with our art to have our sounds at the highest level, to sound as good as it can possibly sound but I am looking at a calendar and saying I have only so many years of my life left, forty years if I am lucky. I would rather the world hear all the music I hear in my head rather than just some small fraction which would be the situation, if I am going to be the tweaker for the rest of my life and worry about that level of detail.

If it were a personal project, the new Steve Porcaro albium rather than a film or TV project where you were not up against a hard deadline, might you run the soft synths out to an amplifier and into a console and back in? Some guys do and they feel it makes a big difference.

Absolutely. Especially if I had an engineer and a big Neve console sitting there.. Usually I don’t have that. That would be the optimum situation for recording, but in my life I don’t see this as a compromise, I have too much ADD, I’m looking for what’s happening next. I get bored tweaking and tweaking one sound, that is not who I am anymore. There’s too much to do out there.

And I LOVE the fact that because it is all in the box, when I am doing film work and I’m moving pretty fast to have it done by Thursday, I can look back and think, “Hey that cue you did in episode 4 was cool and it could be bigger than the two minute cue it was; I can get it back up and I am never chasing that magical sounds, it’s BOOM! It’s there, something I did two years ago and there it is in all its glory and I am able to expand on it and turn it into a composition that I might want to use for something special.

What are some of the soft synths that you love to use these days?

I’ve come to love some of the Logic stuff, like the ES2. It’s become a staple.

That is a pretty under-rated synth I think.

It really is a pretty under-rated synth. It’s just a matter of taking the time these things deserve. Back in the day when I had a Minimoog, CS 80 and Prophet V I mastered those things, I knew them inside and out. Now there is so much out there it is overwhelming. I’m constantly fighting option anxiety.

Funny I came at it just the opposite way. My first real synth was a DX7 and I spent hours and hours learning to program it with no knowledge of analog synths and I would come up with what I thought were some great sounds. But then I would buy a cartridge of sounds that Bo Tomlin did and they were so much better than mine that I realized it wasn’t a productive use of my time. It was only when I started to teach Logic that I learned about how synths worked; OK the sounds are generated by waves created with oscillators, they go through a filter section and a modulation section and an amplifier section, etc. So now I could probably sit down at an analog synth and have an idea about what I am doing which back then I could not.

Yes I ran into some of the same thing. I came into the business as a synth programmer. My brothers were playing with guys like David Paitch and David Foster and I wanted to do what they were doing but I was nowhere near the player these guys were.

(Jay laughs) That was a pretty high bar you were setting there.

Tell me about it! But I was smart enough to see that where there was a gaping hole at that time was that the synth programming was mostly being done by geeks who were not very musical, lab coat kind of guys, and the guys who were the great players didn’t have time to screw with that kind of stuff, the black boxes and all the cables in pre-MIDI days, and I got into it to a point where every session Foster did that needed a synth, I was there. So I considered myself a synth programmer for a very long time but as soon as DX7s came out and I too spent a lot of time and got a lot of help from guys at Yamaha but at the end of the day, Bo’s stuff kicked my ass too! I was never going to spend the amount of time he obviously did, so like everyone else I started looking for libraries and shortcuts.

So back to the softsynths you like.

I use some of Rob Papen’s stuff and I use a lot of Arturia’s stuff. I think they have done an amazing job. I use the Minimooog, the Prophet, the Jupiter… the hard one is the CS 80. They did a great job but without the polyphonic aftertouch, and that to me was a big part of the sound. It probably drove some people crazy but it gave it a depth and warmth that I don’t think we have really seen now. And if they did add it, there are not enough controllers out there that can transmit poly aftertouch.

I also use samplers. I started with a bunch of Roland 760’s. I got into them from James Newton Howard who got it from Hans Zimmer. All of a sudden everyone had a boatload of them stacked up. Then Gigastudio came along and it was just kind of a natural progression, it put all our samples into one box

But now I know you have converted most of you giga stuff into the EXS24 and in G Player.

Exactly. It’s pretty much all EXS24. I have G Player but I haven’t really been using it.

I know you like the Spectrasonics stuff. As someone who started out as a synthesist, have you gotten deep into Omnisphere? The whole Orb thing?

It’s brilliant, but no, I am way behind on my Omnisphere chops but Eric (Persing) keeps raising the bar. He doesn’t get complacent. He deserves all the acclaim he has received. He’s a brilliant programmer.

Yes, he’s the real deal. Anything that you still are not happy with your choices for, that you miss from the hardware world? I notice you have a Virus in your rack.

Yes, I still love grabbing a knob every now and then dialing in a sound. I love my Virus B, it’s a very cool sounding synth. As good as the soft synths are, the second I start getting into some finer modulation stuff, which I do on a modular synth making my “spit”, my “blips” and then especially for any kind of clangerous modulation, heavy FM, sci-fi sounds, you see where even with the great emulations you can make them screw up. They don’t respond very well to heavy modulation applications in my experience.

I think people miss the knobs. There is something very satisfying about the tactile experience that you do not get from moving faders with a mouse, which is why we all use control surfaces.

Yes. The control surfaces are really just a big mouse of course, but they give you some knobs and faders that gives you a little of that.

Anything else you want to say?

You know, all this stuff used to be so expensive that the companies needed guys like me to be giving them suggestions about what they need to do, how to do things properly. They loved me cause I was on the road with Toto and recording with them and everyone else’s session and I really knew this stuff. Now it is affordable and accessible to everyone so everybody is doing that and I don’t need to be that guy anymore. I can put down the books and the pencils and the whatever and just go about making music. (He laughs) I’m busy now just learning about all the great stuff and trying to keep up. I read about this great feature and it’s like, “ I’ve got to be able to do that.”

Finally any composers who are doing synth stuff that you really admire and listen to these days??

I’m a big fan of a lot of film guys but some record guys too like Guy Sigsworth. I am and have always been a fan of Thomas Dolby, he has some new stuff out that sounds amazing. But also Hans Zimmer and all of his camp; Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell, these guys are doing amazing things on a daily basis. And of course, my mentor and friend, James Newton Howard….

Does he still program because he also started out as a synth guy for people like Elton John, right??

Yes, James has always been great with synths.

Thanks Steve, it was great talking to you.

You’re very welcome.