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Bright Sparks Documentary

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Bright Sparks Documentary.


My business partner, Chris Macleod and I have long been fans of the band, I Monster, who most of you will know from their hit Daydream In Blue and the Blue Wrath, the theme tune for Sean Of The Dead. The latter was composed using our M-Tron (and a Yamaha SY-2 for all you gear nerds out there) and over the years I Monster's Dean and Jarrod have become friends, kindly helping us out with demos and patches.

In 2014 they came to us with an idea of creating an album paying tribute to several electronic musical instrument pioneers, and because of our extensive synth collection, asked if we'd be interested in helping to make sure that each track was truly authentic (ie that the Moog tracks used only Moog instruments etc) and loaning gear when necessary. We readily agreed and at one point during a synth swapping-out meet, Dean casually asked "I don't suppose you'd be interested in making a little film to go with the album, would you?"

I was immediately cast back a few years, and to just before a trip to one particular NAMM show (the annual musical instrument makers pilgrimage held in LA each January) where I'd decided to remove the back from our Minimoog, to take to the show in order to get Bob Moog to sign it. However, en-route to the airport I realised I'd forgotten to pack it and duly cursed out loud. Chris rolled his eyes and said "Don't fret. Bob'll be at MESSE in a couple of months" 

MESSE is the European version of NAMM usually held in March but alas, Bob wasn't there. News had surfaced that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour and in August 2005, the musical instrument industry lost a true legend, a gentleman and a wealth of knowledge.

There is a superb documentary, aptly titled 'Moog' that was released in 2004, but suffice to say while I Monster's album included a tribute to Bob Moog, it also included seven other pioneers, many of whom hadn't been as well known as Bob. So my second thought was "We need to try and capture their stories while we can" And I agreed to do what I could.

The first test was to get in touch with a few of the names on the list to see if they'd be interested in taking part. I was almost thwarted from the off because an email to the company who had purchased Don Buchla's company, was met with deafening silence. However, I sourced a direct email for Don and tried to make contact via that route. Sadly, it was revealed that Don wasn't well and it quickly became clear that it wouldn't be possible to film him in the near future.

I would probably have written the idea of a mini film off at this point had it not been for three people.


Firstly, the charming and supremely talented Will Gregory had come with his band Goldfrapp to my local town. And in a wonderfully serendipitous moment he agreed to give me some of his opinions on that same afternoon. I'd met Will a few times over the years and it's always a pleasure to hear about his latest project and chew the cud about vintage synthesisers and minimalist composers. So on April 4th 2014, after picking him up from the station, we had a fun afternoon capturing some of his experiences and opinions, before heading down to the gig.

Secondly, NIN keyboard player, Alessandro Cortini, has been a friend from our early days, and as an avid user of Buchla's work, and long term friend of Don, he agreed to take part in Don's absence. The fact that he was touring the UK with NIN within the month afforded me a perfect opportunity to do a test shoot and see what came of it. 

Thirdly, I managed to get in touch with Ken Freeman, inventor of the string ensemble, and keyboard player extraordinaire whose work has on Jeff Wayne's War Of the Worlds, David Essex's Gonna Make You A Star, BBC TV's Casualty & Holby City. While Ken spends his time between Spain and the UK, he agreed to appear when he was next in the UK, which was, fortunately, in a few weeks time.

Alessandro's shoot in May 2014 was an absolute pleasure. Aside from being top notch synthesist, he's passionate, articulate and incredibly knowledgable about Don's work, and gave me everything I needed in two uninterrupted monologues. We then headed to catering (a place I sorely miss from the old touring days) and finally watched him in action with NIN. After the show, my friend Chris Britton and I left in the knowledge we had something rather splendid in the can (as they say).

On 16th June Ken Freeman and his wife arrived at my studio and Chris and I interviewed him about inventing the world's first String Ensemble and how that came about. As soon as Ken started talking we knew were in the presence of greatness, but with a story so typically British, involving underfunding and ultimately being ripped off. Nonetheless, his insight and humour gave us something special and he also answered a question that had been bugging Chris and me since our early teens; namely "what was the synth used on David Essex's Gonna Make You A Star?"

For those old enough to remember and be interested, "it was an ARP2600. Double tracked for double session fees"

July saw us film John Bradley, grandson of the original Mellotron manufacturers. John also worked in the factory until the demise of the company in the 1980s and afterwards he spent his time repairing and maintaining existing Mellys, together with sidekick Martin Smith. This ultimately lead them to start making the M4000, a 24-voice tape based tron which is little short of engineering genius. Over the years Chris and I have gotten to know John and Martin well ,and John's intimate knowledge of Mellotron history lead to a relaxed and easy shoot, and what should be an easy edit for me, later.

Those who know the story will be aware that the Mellotron derived from the US based Chamberlin and as I'd been in touch with the Chamberlin family for a few years and had their blessing on a couple of previous videos, I decided to do the Chamberlin story myself. To be honest, while I know the story well and can tell it easily, I would rather have filmed Harry Chamberlin's son, Richard. However, he's on the West Coast USA and already this 'short film' was starting to add up both in terms of time and expense. One day I'd love to replace my footage with Richard and if that possibility ever arises, I promise I will. In the meanwhile, my ugly mug will have to suffice.

Others filmed during that summer ranged from our good friends Billy Currie and Criss Cross, who talked about their relationships with the ARP Odyssey and EMS AKS, respectively. Also, the wonderfully debonair Peter Zinovieff, the ideas man behind EMS's products. Spending time in Billy & Chris' company is always a pleasure and it was the same with Peter too. Indeed, when we left Peter's house in my old Citroen DS, he told us about the DS Safari that was used as the EMS company car, by him, Tristram Cary and even EMS engineer, David Cockerell. Tristram's son later told me "My Dad hated that car."

I'd been trying to get in touch with EDP owner, Adrian Wagner, for a while because I really wanted his story, particularly in light of a conversation I'd had with him in the mid 90s in which he'd spoken passionately about a what he considered was a re-writing of history since the demise of EDP. Alas, when I did get to speak to him, he wasn't in the best of health and did want to put his head above the parapet. Instead he nominated his close friend and former EDP sales director, Fred Gardner. I'd previously met Fred via an old friend, Jeff Boult, and it transpired that both Jeff and Fred recorded at Adrian's studio with their band, The Tapes. Jeff now is a video & film producer and he had some superb pictures of those studio days which punctuated Fred's piece about Adrian and EDP, perfectly. Another wonderful piece of serendipity.

In the USA I'd managed to persuade the eminent Herbert Deutsch to talk about his early Moog days and as luck would have it an old school friend (and superb photographer), James Bareham, worked nearby and agreed to do the interview on our behalf. I sent a list of questions and in mid August James sent me his fantastic footage. In fact, the quality of his footage raised an important issue in that I'd been shooting on a Canon 7D and a Sony HC-9 Video camera, whereas James had used a Canon C300. Somehow we needed to up our game a bit so Chris and I invested in a couple of matched Lumix cameras so we had a uniform look to future footage. We also invested in a lapel mic. Things were starting to get a bit more 'pro'

Also in the USA, Bob Moog daughter, Michelle Moog-Koussa, who runs the Bob Moog Foundation, agreed to talk about her father. For her footage, her then co-worker and synth historian, Marc Doty, filmed her using a couple of their own cameras. Marc became a real ally during the rest of the project. We poured over every little detail that had been unearthed and he and I talked continually with the same enthusiasm throughout. If we'd have had enough money, we'd have paid Marc to become our US based camerman/interviewer for many many more intended subjects. But, as I alluded to earlier, the budget was starting to mount up and we were staring to have to look carefully at finances. Nonetheless, Chris was nothing but supportive as I made the bold claim "I don't care if I never do another thing in this industry. I HAVE to do this."


Dean's idea of a small film was now starting to look unlikely. I was so obsessed with the subject matter that I found it disingenuous to edit someone's life story down at all. This was really brought home to me when the aforementioned, Jeff Boult, came to my home, viewed some footage and informed me of the demands of TV commissioning and editing. "it all has to follow this format.." Jeff explained as he laid out a template treatment which showed that for every 15 mins of TV time, the maximum you would have is 6-7 mins of the interviewee.


This was a serious dilemma, but in the end, an interview with Adrian Utley made me decide to take my own route. Essentially, Adrian's opinion was that the deluxe package of I Dream Of Wires "was two days too short" and at that moment I dropped any idea of getting it shown on TV and gave myself a 2 hour running time.

Given that Bob Moog was sadly no longer with us, the one person I had always wanted to interview was ARP founder, Alan Pearlman. As I understood it, after the demise of ARP, Alan left the industry completely and aside form an appearance in Mark Vail's superb Synthesizers book, had never talked about his experiences. Eventually, via Mark, I got in touch with Alan and we spoke a few times on the phone before he agreed to take part. His words were "I'm nothing special. I'm like the person behind the curtain in the Wizard Of Oz"

Again, the cost-demon came to haunt me in my sleep, and I looked at various alternative ways to film Alan, including asking our friends at iZotope to film him answering my questions. However, in the end Chris said "Half the reason the footage we have is so good, is because you love this subject and are able to engage with them by asking good questions. We need to do this ourselves."

Another fortuitous event occurred which made us decide to jump on a plane to Boston ourselves. Via his daughter Jennifer, ex-ARP engineer Dennis Colin had agreed to talk to us at his home in New Hampshire. Dennis was in a fragile state after losing his wife to cancer so we knew we'd have to be gentle and know exactly when to leave - a skill we'd begun to develop when talking to elder statesmen who understandably got tired after hours of questioning.

Our day at Alan's was nothing less than life changing. However, the moment we arrived I suddenly felt uneasy. Here were two fifty year old men knocking on the door of a 90 year old legend and his wife and the truth is they didn't know us from Adam. It was clear that Alan's wife, Buena, was (rightfully) sizing us up for the first few hours but thankfully she eventually realised that we were genuine and began to warm to us. Meanwhile Alan was the perfect host, graciously answering even the most awkward questions. At the end of the day they asked us to stay for dinner during which we asked if they'd ever been to the UK?

"We went in the 70s and it was very stuffy" said Buena. "We had a young daughter and after a long flight we wanted some food but we couldn't get to the restaurant because we first had to have an aperitif in the bar. But we couldn't get to the bar because we had a young daughter."

"What did you do?" We enquired, well aware of the type of hotel which enforced this rule back in the 70s.

Buena replied "I did what kept me alive as a child. I elbowed my way to the food." And then proceeded to explain that during WWII she survived three concentration camps. Chris' and my jaws hit the floor as she recounted her story and when we left, we spent the next few hours just exclaiming "Wow" out loud. 

This is a day I'll never forget and I'm eternally grateful to Mark Vail, Dina Pearlman and I Monster for helping us to be in that room on that day. As Chris said "Even if we weren't allowed to turn a camera on, I'd have made the journey just to hear their stories." As we were leaving Buena gave us some of her art which now takes pride of place in my living room. 

The journey to Dennis Colin's house the following day took longer than expected. We'd been given directions but the SatNav didn't cooperate and we ended up asking for directions in a small tumbleweed town called Gilmanton Iron Works just as the light was failing. The main street was called Elm Street and someone in the post office had wrongly sent us along Crystal Lake Drive. Chris and I made jokes about having enough gas and who was going to get out when the car broke down. Thankfully, we eventually arrived at Dennis' home as night was setting in. But it was clear that he wasn't in a good way. His daughter Jennifer had flown out from San Francisco to be there at the same time, and between us we managed to get him comfortable enough to tell his ARP2600 story. When we left, as we'd done with Alan, we asked Dennis to sign our 2600 manual and he wrote a very moving message. 

After returning home we filmed a few final bits to try and gel the various sections together. Mute's Daniel Miller was as erudite as ever and I was able to have a big chat with him thanks to Chris and Sonicstate's Andy Mccreeth taking care of camera duties. At one point Daniel said "I apologise if I seem too familiar, it's just that I feel I know you from the SonicTalk episodes." I've dined out on that a few times. However, that meeting would not have come about had it not have been for my old and good friends in the Underworld camp. Their manager, Mike Gillespie, set it up and later Rick and Karl volunteered to do pieces on the ARP2600 and Chamberlin, respectively. I cannot emphasise how much I owe them. In the 25+ years I've known them, they have never been anything other then encouraging and supportive.

When all the footage had been gathered, we met with I Monster to play them various sections and film various bits and pieces. Jarrod's passion for the Mellotron was as evident as ever and Dean's considered words helped set a pace that felt comfortable when embarking on the edit. 

For me, editing is like playing 3D chess and a freely admit that the finished film could have been cut down a little. But first and foremost I'm a fan of everyone who took part in the project and I wanted to represent them all in the best light possible. If they weren't happy with anything, I wanted to know and I would do my level best to change it until they were. I struggled with Dennis' audio because, due to his ill health, he coughed and snorted a lot. In fact, at one point his interview felt exploitative and I considered removing it. Thankfully though iZotope's RX came to the rescue by allowing me to cut them all out. It was a real revelation in the veil enforced by his age-related, physical ailments,vanished, and his razor sharp mind was revealed for all to see.

Dean and Jarrod then sent me instrumental stems from the accompanying album and I set to work piecing it all together. Once I had something I was happy with, I enlisted the help of an old friend and video editor, Matt Farrell, who worked his magic with contrast and colour to make it look like a cohesive project. He also added the vignette which to me worked because it made it look like an old porn movie - and let's face it, this subject is better than porn to some of us.

After Matt's work we arranged a private screening in a small local cinema, where we made notes about changes, after which I went back into my room for some final tweaks and ended up with something just over 2 hours long and which, rightly or wrongly, had been produced in the manner I saw fit. So many people had helped on this and I'm grateful to them all. During the process, there was such a love for the project from so many people, it lifted me when I felt the insecurity start to nag. Every photograph or piece to camera or word of encouragement is really what contributed to this project being special and as we neared release, Chris and I wondered what kind of numbers we could expect to see? Prior to this, we'd not even considered the commercial aspect of it - we just had to do it.

Once I had something I was proud of, I sent a few advance copies out and quotes were garnered from a few high profile people. it was a scary moment but  I was genuinely moved when people like Brian Eno, Vince Clarke, Eric Persing, Paul Hartnol, Tom Rowlands and others gave us amazing testimonies. Finally we were able to announce a release date with a screening at a small, local cinema in December 2015. The press and various contributors were invited and the insecurities began to nag. Was it good enough? Was it too long? What if they all hate it?

The entire project had taken nearly two years and over and above the physical work, we'd put a considerable sum of money into making it. We had created what I thought was a valid historic document and I Monster's accompanying album was as good as their finest work. Thankfully, the launch night was a success and as is usual when we release anything, I then went into promo mode, only this time I did it alongside Dean which was fun. Nick Batt kindly gave us an entire SonicTalk to discuss it. Again, an indication of the love for the subject.

It's at this moment I could either bullshit you and say "it was a huge financial and critical success" or I can be honest and say "it was a critical success." I'll opt for the latter and you can read between the lines as to what that means. However, I'll temper it by saying, for us, this was never about money. The documenting of legends in our industry was vital to us, particularly after losing Bob Moog, and I'm sad to say that since release we've now lost Don Buchla, Adrian Wagner and Dennis Colin. 

I'd love to continue this project and at the time of writing this I'm making enquiries with regards a couple of other prospective Bright Sparks. However, if I do embark on a similar journey, I'll probably take Jeff's TV edit advice and keep a firm grip on the finances. There are so many Bright Sparks in this industry that I'd like to film - Chris Huggett, Tom Oberheim, Dave Rossum, to name but a few - Long may they shine.


“Electronic Music has been around for long enough to deserve its own historians and archaeologists. Dave Spiers is right at the top of the list: this loving and exhaustive study sets a new standard in instrument research, unravelling the tangled webs that lead to innovations.”
Brian Eno

“Bright Sparks isn’t just another tribute to analogue synths; it’s perhaps the most successful project yet to persuade the sometimes shy and always modest pioneers of the 60s and 70s to tell the human stories behind the electronics. As such, it’s warmly recommended to everyone who has an interest.”
Gordon Reid (Sound On Sound Magazine)

“An engrossing and fascinating documentary that pays tribute to the modest but amazing innovators who changed the face of electronic music”
Vince Clarke

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