- RECORDING the future.
surrounded by his keyboards at Nemo Studios.
one of the most strikingly original elements of the film Blade Runner
is the sensitive, deeply evocative soundtrack which was created especially
for the film by Greek composer and multi-instrumentalist Vangelis Papathanassiou.
Blade Runner was a departure from normal electronic sci-fi scores
- Vangelis concentrated on atmosphere and emotion, avoiding the burbles
and wails that cinema audiences had often had to endure. The music was
also a technological tour-de-force, drawing on the combined might of
the masses of synthesizers and sequencers built up at Vangelis' own
Nemo Studios, and was mixed in quadraphonic sound for a special presentation
of the film at the Leicester Square Odeon. The music from Blade Runner
remained unreleased for 12 years, only becoming commercially available
after expensive bootlegs had appeared. Even now, many pieces from the
soundtrack remain in the archives alongside other work that has yet
to see the light.
gifted yet private man, it was Vangelis, along with a handful of other
musicians, who almost single-handedly brought about the acceptance of
electronic music as it's own distinct art form. This feature is an attempt
to analyze the creative process employed by Vangelis when recording
the famous soundtrack for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and to
try and give a brief insight into the unique manner in which he went
about creating and recording the music that he produced during this
time, when the digital samplers and music-making equipment that we take
for granted today had not even been invented, and the creation of electronic-based
music was a much more hands-on process.
From 1975 to
1987, Vangelis did nearly all his recording at his own Nemo Studios in
London, a custom-designed facility located on the top floor of Hampden
Gurney Studios, a former school building in Hampden Gurney Street, near
Marble Arch, London. The spontaneous way that Vangelis used to record and
layer his musical textures onto tape necessitated the installation of a
large amount of electronic and acoustic instruments which all needed to
be ready for him to record with at any given time. Obviously then, the
principal concern when choosing a site for Vangelis' studio was going to
be the amount of physical space available, and the converted school building
in Hampden Gurney Street had plenty of space - Nemo's main studio area
was 23 x 44 feet, with a ceiling 20 feet high, and the control room was
approximately 430 square feet. When you look at the original studio floor
plan and layout, featuring Vangelis' full timpani set, gong tree, Busendorfer
grand piano, Hammond B3 organ, drum set, lighting gantry and stage area
all installed, not to mention his vast collection of keyboards and recording
equipment, you get an idea of why so much space was needed:-
rough floor plan and layout circa 1978 (following the re-equipping of the
studio in that year). Diagram: Keith Spencer-Allen.
1978, the studio was re-equipped with a top-of-the-range Quad/Eight
Pacifica mixing board and Lyrec TR55 24-track tape machine, and with
various acoustic and technical problems addressed, Vangelis began to
enjoy the benefits of one of the best-equipped studios in the country.
The massive main studio and control room enabled him to work with whomever
he wanted, from choirs and soloists to African drummers, and with all
kinds of instruments. In addition to the vast array of keyboards (see
equipment list, below) there was a large variety of percussion, including
a drum-kit, three tuned timpani, a 3.5 foot symphonic bass drum, a symphonic
snare drum, gongs, a thunder sheet (large sheet of metal, used to create
a deep, rolling noise similar to the sound of thunder - heard extensively
on the BR soundtrack), a gamelan, a circular saw blade, two bell trees,
a glockenspiel and two sets of tubular bells.
feature of Nemo Studios was the "creative environment" in which Vangelis
liked to work (some idea of this can be obtained from the picture of
Vangelis sitting astride a metal-plated horse at the top of this page).
For example, the control room alone contained a fountain, a bed, a hammock
(in which Demis Rousos was often to be found), speakers stacked like
tower blocks, mobiles hanging from the ceiling, plants, mirrored statues
and a tiger skin on the floor. The latter was placed on the floor between
the desk and the tape machine, and engineer Keith Spencer-Allen had
to avoid breaking his neck when rushing around.
on the music for Blade Runner, and on other soundtrack projects, Vangelis
and his engineers followed a spontaneous method of working, which they
tried to preserve through the lengthy, overdub-ridden process of recording.
With no MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) available then, and
only primitive sequencers, most of the music was created through over-dubbing,
where every instrument had to be played and recorded individually. Even
some of the simpler musical lines were in fact made up from several unison
parts, in order to create the right tonal colour. Keith Spencer-Allen observed
Vangelis' technique when he recorded his "handmade" soundtracks: "…Vangelis
would watch the parts of the film that had been earmarked for music. After
two or three passes of the film he had the core of an idea and we would
then start recording. Often it only took a couple of attempts to create
the complete musical section…"
Alongside Keith Spencer-Allen,
the other person regarded as Vangelis' closest technical collaborator
at Nemo was French keyboard programmer Raphael Preston. Raphael came
to England in October 1975, and in 1977 was offered work at Nemo, where
he immediately began experimenting: "There was a wall full of synthesizers,
all on shelves. I had things that could trigger all the different synths
together, linking them to sequencers and getting them to work with each
other. It ended up like one huge machine that you could control and
transpose easily. Because all the equipment then was voltage-controlled,
I would experiment by wiring a 9v battery to a jack lead, connecting
that to a volume pedal and sending different voltages to the synths'
oscillators. So the volume pedal could transpose everything by nine
One of the major
reasons why the Blade Runner soundtrack still sounds so modern and
innovative to this day was the choice of instruments used to create the
music, and the way Vangelis would combine acoustic and electronic sounds
to create highly original, evocative sound textures - for example, the
combination of orchestral percussion instruments and ubiquitous sweeping
synth lines heard over the opening titles, played on Vangelis' favourite
ever synth, the Yamaha CS80, which provided most of the solo synth lines
heard in "Blade Runner", including the expressive, harmonica-like sound
featured on "Blade Runner Blues" and "BR Main Titles". The Yamaha CS80
was one of the first ever polyphonic analogue synths to become commercially
available, and was a serious beast, weighing in at around 210 pounds!!!
Vangelis was introduced to the CS80 at a trade fair in 1977, and was tremendously
excited by the possibilities it offered, but arranged to have one on loan
for a few weeks before deciding whether to spend the necessary £4850
(the 'CS80's asking price at this time)! The equivalent cost today would
be around £26,000. During this period, Vangelis recorded the "Spiral"
album (released 1977), which featured the CS80 on every track. Shortly
after, he imported a CS80 from Japan in order to bypass the six-month UK
waiting list, and the synth arrived in London after a mammoth train journey
through Russia. Vangelis eventually went on to buy another SEVEN CS80s,
some of which were for concerts, while others were just for spare parts.
The sound of Blade
Runner : Yamaha's Polyphonic CS80 synthesizer (1976).
used by Vangelis on the Blade Runner soundtrack included the
Roland VP330 Plus vocoder (used for choir and string pads) and the very
rare (and expensive) Yamaha GS1, an early FM keyboard resembling a miniature
grand piano, which contributed the lush electric piano sound featured
on Blade Runner's "Love Theme". Electronic studio effects units
also contributed greatly to the depth and atmosphere of the Blade
Runner soundtrack - for example the early MasterRoom spring reverb
unit installed in the Nemo Studio which featured a 7-second decay(!!!)
- coupled with Vangelis' orchestral bass drum, this is what provided
the atmospheric booming sounds which open the film, which so effectively
serves to draw the viewer into the world of Los Angeles 2019. Another
beautifully evocative piece from the Blade Runner soundtrack,
"Memories Of Green", is distinctive for it's melancholy, "drunk" piano
sound. This was achieved by putting a Steinway Grand piano through an
Electroharmonix "Electric Mistress" guitar flanger pedal - the sort
of irreverent recording technique which would be shunned by most professional
engineers/producers at the time, but which was readily used by Vangelis
in his search for new sounds and textures. The electronic noises also
featured on this track came from one of the first handheld electronic
games, a Japanese product called the "Bambino UFO Master Blaster Station"(!).
Raphael Preston remembers "…having to play it for the length of the
piece without losing the game, because when you lost, it made the most
Nemo is now
fondly remembered as a kind of electronic "alma mater" by it's former
personnel. Sadly, anyone who wants to visit Hampden Gurney Studios will
find a block of flats in it's place - the old building was demolished
after Vangelis left England in 1987. Nevertheless, the spirit of Nemo
has been preserved on Vangelis' pioneering records, which have shaped
people's attitudes towards synthesizers and the way they can be used.
at work on a solo album for Demis Roussos (right) in the control room for
Nemo Studios in late 1976, some time before the studios were completely
re-equipped in 1978. This picture was taken from approximately the location
marked A on the studio floor plan (see above), facing the bottom right
corner of the control room.
Above all, the main
thing that has always appealed to me personally about Ridley Scott's
Blade Runner is the incredibly deep, sensitive mood of
the film. Clearly, Vangelis' lovingly-crafted music plays no small part
in achieving this - characterized by Paul Sammon in his book "Future
Noir" as "futuristic nostalgia.…a dizzying melange of unabashed romanticism,
ominous electronic rumblings, gutter-level blues, delicate celestial
shadings, and heartbreaking melancholy…" Hopefully
this article has served to shed some light on the technical background
behind the creation of the incredible Blade Runner score, and
to illuminate some of the more innovative working methods employed by
of one of this century's most influential electronic composers.
- SELECTED EQUIPMENT 1977-83.
VP330 Vocoder Plus
CP80 electric grand
TR55 24-track tape machine
ATR100 2-track tape machine
244 reverb (from 1980)
BX25 spring reverb
spring reverb (with 7-second decay)
SDS5 electronic drum kit
System 700 sequencer
Read Richard Clew's
"Recording Vangelis" article for Sound On Sound Magazine.