19: Sand (1987)

Cover art (painted by Francois Bardol)

     While working on his 1987 release, Sand, Allan Holdsworth concentrated on developing his skills with the SynthAxe MIDI-controller and creating new sounds with his Oberheim synthesizer modules. He also introduced some new inventions of his own to improve amp tone and recording techniques.

SynthAxe with Breath Controller
     From a performance perspective, Allan began to use a "breath-controller" to modulate the SynthAxe's output. The controller's plastic tube acted as a kind of volume pedal when blown, and gave Allan the feeling of playing an oboe (or some other wind instrument). Unlike a Yamaha MIDI wind instrument, this mechanical device was basically a "fader", and in fact had no keys. It could be set up to control various parameters, but Allan primarily used it to control the attack and decay of SynthAxe notes (and sometimes the tone). Unlike on a regular guitar (or a piano for that matter), with the breath controller he could swell notes after they were picked, or fade them in. Allan can be seen playing the SynthAxe trigger keys and breath controller in this clip of "Pud Wud".
     "I use the breath controller a lot on it, because I always wanted to play a horn. Breath controllers have been around for a long time, but keyboard players generally don't like them. But for me, it seems so natural, because I really think I should have played a horn. So when I play the SynthAxe with a breath controller, I am playing a horn; I feel like I've actually achieved what I wanted to do. There are a lot of things on the last track on the album that I did with the SynthAxe, simulating the guitar sound, that were very reminiscent of things that I would do on guitar if I could do them almost the same way." (20)
     On the other end of the SynthAxe signal chain, Allan began developing his own custom sounds for the Oberheim Matrix 12 synthesizer module, and also added some Kurzweil Expander modules as well. This allowed him to create blended synth tones, or to have one synth take over when another synth module's range was too low or too high.

Steinberger TransTrem
     Alongside the SynthAxe synth controller, Allan continued to play electric guitar, and he eventually moved from his signature model Ibanez guitar to a headless, synthetic-fiber Steinberger guitar, fitted with the company's TransTrem system, which kept all six strings in tune even when the whammy bar was raised/depressed.
     "For the longest time I just didn't think the thing would work...and I was wrong. I picked it up at a NAMM show once and played it for about two seconds and ordered one immediately. I've never felt like that about a guitar since I was 20 years old...(The synthetic construction material) just makes the thing so stable and, from that respect, very controllable... My first Steinberger was the stock model with a TransTrem. I installed custom Seymour Duncan pickups, and I had Bill DeLap convert the radius to 20 inches, and install Dunlop 6000 fretwire. All the Steinbergers after that were sent directly to Bill without frets or pickups. These were used on Sand, Secrets and Wardenclyffe Tower" (21, 64b)
Holdsworth Juice Extractor
     Allan himself invented many gadgets for the studio, and one of these eventually became the Rocktron-produced "Juice Extractor":
     "I'm sure every guitar player has got an amp that they just plug into and love the sound of - except that it's three hundred times louder than they want it. Or they can't use the processing on it, because the effects send and returns are pretty sad on tube amps, because they're a voltage device. So basically I made this box which you just plug into the output of any amp. It has an output with a volume and a tone control on it. It's a totally isolated output and it plugs into stereo processing or a mono power amp so you can control the volume from zero to whatever. And it captures all of the sound of the original amplifier. In fact, it sounds better to me. It's not like a power attenuator or a power-soak, as such, because that's just like a load resistor and it also involves the speaker, whereas this has no speaker involvement at all. But it does have a simulator inside it because a speaker is like an inductor as well, which changes with different frequencies. I've been using this thing on and off for a couple of years and the version I've got is the final one." (23)
     "For live use, the advantage is that you can use any kind of a head - a Fender, a Boogie, a Marshall or whatever - and just come off the output and into the Extractor. It's got eight multiple outs, so you can send and return for eq and gating and make the amp totally invisible to your ears. The outs can be sent to as many pieces of processing equipment as you can afford, and that signal just returned to a stereo power amp via a mixer of some description.
     "For recording, I take an amplifier whose sound I really like and put it into the Extractor. Then I take the line out of the Extractor - it has only a line out; there's no output - and feed it into a solid-state power amp. That drives the box that's going to be recorded at an absolutely minimal level, so the speaker's not experiencing any pain, and the cabinet's not experiencing any undue resonance from overloaded air inside it. Plus, the microphones are happy because they're not dealing with huge air excursion. And it's unbelievably quiet. I can get a big, reaming guitar tone on tape, with no noise whatsoever." (25)

Holdsworth "Portable Speaker Box Enclosure"
     Holdsworth had been using Dan Pearce amps since the Metal Fatigue days, but he needed to find an easier way to get a consistent microphone set up for the amp. For this purpose, he came up with an "amp cabinet enclosure" (nicknamed the "coffin"), which made it easier for him to record his amp sound no matter where he was (live, at home, or in a studio).
     "Any guitar player knows about trying to get a consistent sound in the studio but it can be so time consuming - you can go in and move the speaker cabinet and the microphone around for a while and still not be happy with it. So I thought 'This is grim!' So what I did was, I made a totally enclosed box that has the microphone and the speaker in it and you can totally change any of the speakers. The baffle slides in and out and I've got loads of different speakers I can put in it - 10's, 15's, 8's, Celestions, Jensons, JBLs or whatever I want to use for a specific sound. It's got a Neumann U87, and a specially constructed stand which I can move, but once I find a sound I like, it's permanently located. So when you go to the studio, you just pick the box up and stick it in the car, plug the amplifier in at one end and plug the other end into the recording console -and you're there! You just cart it down to the studio and, providing the microphone stays in exactly the same position, the sound will stay consistent. I've got three different versions of it; a portable one, a slightly bigger one and a very big one. The very big one sounds the best because it's reduced the resonant frequency of the box to below the guitar's audible register, so it's easy to eq out. " (20,23)
     The album Sand showcases many new sound textures in Allan's songs, largely because the use of synth modules gave him an incredibly large palette from which to work from. As a fan of classical music all his life, it's no surprise that Allan naturally felt the desire to compose with more complex orchestrations. With this in mind, the album Sand makes use of sounds which appear to be futuristic versions and combinations of oboes, flutes, trumpets, choirs, strings, glockenspiels, etc... The songs themselves had less complex structures (less A, A', A'', B, B', B'', etc), but instead had reprises of themes on different instrumental textures (ie - synth patches), for example, on "Pud Wud", "Clown" and "Bradford". This is, of course, a classical orchestration technique, where a theme is passed between different orchestra sub-groups.

     In retrospect, I.O.U., Road Games and Metal Fatigue could be said to make up Allan's "rock" period, whereas Atavachron and Sand headed into a more "classical" arena (from a compositional technique standpoint, but not stylistic). There are only two electric guitar solos on the album, but the synth patch for the last SynthAxe solo (on "Mac Man") was actually designed to somewhat replicate the sound of an electric guitar (and this solo is framed by SynthAxe "piano").
     "All these things that I dreamed about I can try and have a go at. It's just unfortunate that I didn't find out about it twenty years ago - but that's life!" (23)
      The recording of Sand was also facilitated by the construction of Allan's hand-built home studio, the "Brewery", which was equipped with an Akai console. Bassist Jimmy Johnson, drummer Gary Husband ("Sand", "Pud Wud") and drummer Chad Wackerman ("Clown", "The 4.15 Bradford Executive", "Mac Man") were still recorded at a professional recording studio equipped with a 24-track Studer machine, but Allan overdubbed guitar and SynthAxe leads at the Brewery home studio. Aside from recording Sand, Allan also contributed electric guitar (and some SynthAxe) to albums from the bands Soma, Krokus and Jon St James' project.


 Written and Produced by Allan Holdsworth
Trk Title Dur Song Breakdown
1 Sand 5:25 Allan Holdsworth – SynthAxe
Jimmy Johnson – Bass
Gary Husband – Drums
     "..There's a solo on the title track Sand where I used a Kurzweil 250 Expander (synth module) and an Oberheim Xpander mixed together. I'd created an oboe-like sound on the Xpander and I used the bassoon patch on the Kurzweil, and mixed them both through the breath controller. It was great, because the bassoon patch ran out half-way up the range and the Oberheim kind of takes over, and it's almost undetectable - it's hard to know where one ran out and the other one took over. But I actually forgot, when I was recording it, that I was playing anything that was anything to do with the guitar at all. I was in the studio and it was almost like I had an oboe in my chops. It's a great feeling because it's closer to what I want to do than I've ever got from the guitar." (23)

     Gary Husband: "The drum idea for the track 'Sand' was another particularly wild experiment on my part - the three thing over the 4/4, flowing through the whole thing and accumulating at the same point the accumulation in the composition occurred. (I remember sitting and actually calculating the maths of that!). Unfortunately, on the take we opted for (I think the first) I didn't actually get it quite right! So there's a little bluff in it around the end! But, hey! It WAS perfect on paper!" (Gary Husband FaceBook)

     Gary interviewed by Rick Beato: "Do you remember the track "Sand”? And (in there), if you can call it that - there's like a chorus to it… It’s Elgar! It’s 'Enigma Variations'!" (95)
     Allan opens the album with several new SynthAxe textures and blends, as well as a SynthAxe solo. The mood fluctuates between one of tension and release. The "3 over 4" segment Gary refers to above is probably the syncopated bridge. The "Enigma Variations" quote Gary mentions is (I think) hidden in the B section.

0:00: Solo SynthAxe intro (brass/square-wave/soft strings patches) based on upwardly-winding phrases (with a reprise).
1:07: Rhythm section enters, falling-rising atonal A motif (modulating once, with high pedal tone) on glassy-synth SynthAxe, cadence.
1:39: Short phrases dialogue in low and high registers (B section).
2:03: Falling-rising A theme reprise, cadence.
2:34: Short phrases dialogue in low and high registers (B).
2:50: Syncopated bridge.
2:55: SynthAxe "oboe/bassoon" solo over "cheerful" variation of A and B section harmonies.
3:56: 2nd solo chorus, syncopated bridge.
4:54: Syncopated bridge, coda based on B theme (with outro solo).
2 Distance vs. Desire 5:18 Allan Holdsworth – SynthAxe
     "One tune we did, a piece called 'Distance vs. Desire', which is a ballad, is like a duet with myself. I think I was able to get as much expressiveness out of the synthesizer as I've ever been able to get out of a guitar. So that was a revelation to me, something to get totally excited about, seeing as I'm still new at it....
     "That girl I mentioned who really liked 'Distance Versus Desire' - I was really kind of knocked out by that, and it opened my eyes to the fact that though it was played on an instrument that has caused me to be rejected by one half of the population, I was able to reach somebody else with it who knew very little about what I was doing normally. So there was a classic example of a person who was exposed to something and liked it." (29, 25)
     This textural SynthAxe ballad features one of Allan's most lyrical solos, played with the SynthAxe and the breath controller. He uses the plastic tube to shape the attack and decay of each note for maximum expressive impact.

0:00: Solo SynthAxe intro (brass/square-wave/soft strings patches) based on 3-chord rising-falling phrases.
0:50: Rising bridge, intro cadence.
1:30: SynthAxe solo (lyrical, soft but reedy) over swelled chords in a gentle rhythm.
2:19: Solo over cadence.
2:38: Solo over broad chords again.
2:48: 2nd solo chorus.
4:04: 3rd solo chorus, ending after rising bridge.
3 Pud Wud 6:44 Allan Holdsworth – SynthAxe, Guitar
Jimmy Johnson – Bass
Gary Husband – Drums
Alan Pasqua – Guest Keyboard Soloist

     This playful/willful tune has Allan employing several different SynthAxe textures during its length, going from soft to brassy to textural and other sounds (especially while comping in the solo sections). Allan's guitar solo here (one out of only two on this album) is pretty wild. Jimmy Johnson gets a bass solo here, and Lifetime band mate Alan Pasqua returns again for one solo as well. "Pud Wud" was also Allan's nickname for his daughter Emily.

0:00: Sounds of children (Allan's kids Sam, Emily and Louise, I assume), playing outside.
0:36: Bouncy main theme in brassy middle register accents punctuated by low register synth-bass flourishes.
1:09: "Determined" B theme over a broader groove with rhythm section.
1:23: Bass solo over main theme and B theme (Allan comps with SynthAxe accents).
2:08: 2nd bass solo chorus.
2:50: Guitar solo over main theme and chorus (SynthAxe 'brass' accents begin entering during B theme).
3:37: 2nd guitar solo chorus.
4:21: Alan Pasqua keyboards solo (more subtle SynthAxe glassy/breathy tones).
5:04: 2nd keys solo chorus (added SynthAxe accents/dialogue).
5:48: Main theme reprise, final chorus theme. 
4 Clown 5:13 Allan Holdsworth – SynthAxe
Jimmy Johnson – Bass
Chad Wackerman – Drums

     This song also features a variety of changing SynthAxe solo/comping textures over the blowing choruses. Chad Wackerman's drums are featured in opening and closing cadenzas.

0:00: Processed drums support a 2-chord vamp (with some grace-note syncopation), leading to opening drum cadenza.
0:44: Syncopated "muted brass" accents in a twisting staccato theme, with added swelled "siren" textures, cadence.
1:14: SynthAxe solo (reedy, filtered) over broader harmony changes, then main theme groove.
2:12: Solo continues (less filtered), comping chords become accented "choir" patches.
2:57: Solo continues (harmonized figures), background harmony becomes a low pedal.
3:25: Twisting staccato theme reprise, opening vamp with closing drum cadenza.
5 The 4.15 Bradford Executive 8:29 Allan Holdsworth – SynthAxe, Guitar
Jimmy Johnson – Bass
Chad Wackerman – Drums, co-writer
     "We did that piece in a really bizarre way. I was born in Bradford, and often took the train from London to visit my family. I used to catch this train from King's Cross to Bradford, called the Bradford Executive. I wanted to try to musically depict the changes from south to north on that train. So we just set up the drum machine to get the chug-a-lug kind of feel, and then I improvised some chords. Then we added real drums and guitar, just improvising over the chords, myself and Chad. Then I took the tape home, stripped everything off it again, and just left Chad's real drums there, and wrote the whole piece around the drums. Instead of just writing a chord sequence, I wrote it around what I heard him play. The chord sequence never repeats; there's a little motif at the beginning and at the end, but the rest of it never repeats at all, for eight minutes or so... just like the constant changing landscape out of a driving train. I just wanted to do that track like that. I'll probably never do it again, but it was an interesting experience. It was like writing to a picture - "film music" in a way."
     "I used two amplifiers on that, a 50 watt Marshall and a 15 watt Gibson, and each of them was going into its respective 'tweak' box. I had the Marshall panned hard left and the Gibson panned hard right, and it worked out really good because each amplifier would reproduce different frequencies, slightly more or slightly less all the time. So you would get this nice fluctuation between left and right. It's something I've never done before." (20, 22, 23)
     The supporting SynthAxe textures under the guitar solo describe the changing landscape Allan mentions above. The division of the solo "trip" into 6 "legs" is just my impression, but in general, each leg seems to end with a "station stop" held pedal chord (or rest), and then changes to a new SynthAxe texture. This kind of "tone poem" writing is also a classical technique used by Debussy, Berlioz, Strauss, etc... 

0:00: Processed bell sounds and layered drums.
0:50: SynthAxe (using a digital piano sound) plays a modulating "flourish" motif, joined by a straight drum beat (layered drums/bells fade out) and then with soft, held chord harmonies.
2:34: Guitar solo (1st "leg") over held chords and expressive drums, pedal cadence.
3:27: 2nd leg: with added synth-choir textures, cadence.
4:00: 3rd leg: with "flipped" tremolo bar licks, "whistle blow", pedal cadence.
4:46: 4th leg: more "pastoral" harmonies, chromatically descending, pedal choir cadence.
5:53: 5th leg: shorter, tentative phrases over glassy synth accents, string patches, falling string harmonies.
7:02: 6th leg: coda with pedal cadence.
7:18: Modulating "flourish" motif with drums, layered drums/bells fade back in. Fade out.
6 Mac Man 4:01 Allan Holdsworth – SynthAxe (with Roland digital piano module)
Biff Vincent – Roland Octopad (bass)
Chad Wackerman – Percussion
John England – Digital Editing (Mac)
     "Chad's percussion parts, the drum machine and bass, were recorded on the sequencer down at the studio. The melody part is played with the SynthAxe through a Roland digital piano. It's funny because the first part is like a pseudo acoustic piano, and the solo's like pseudo electric guitar... I wanted to see if I could do that (create a pseudo guitar sound), just as a challenge. I did that by creating a sound using the Oberheim Matrix 12, and then combining two separate sounds and putting them into a little 15-Watt Marshall. That was my first attempt, and I did that solo really fast." (20, 23)
     Not much to add about this humorous, somewhat tongue-in-cheek piece beyond what Allan has described above. Strangely, some of the rolled piano arpeggios (at 0:48) must have been produced by 'strumming' the SynthAxe strings, which Allan would normally never do on an electric...

0:00: Solo drum sequence, joined by SynthAxe theme driving a Roland digital piano. The "piano" theme alternates between an evenly-accented phrase and an effusive sequence of ornamental flourishes (soon joined by accented octapad bass pulses).
1:30: After some percussion ornaments enter (later developed), the SynthAxe solo begins, using a "lead guitar" sound (over octapad accents and sustained comp chords).
3:33: Accented chords/flourishes theme final reprise.  

     The Atavachron 1986 tour had Allan joined by Kei Akagi (keys), Jimmy Johnson (bass) and Gary Husband (drums), and began featuring songs from Sand months before the album was released. "Pud Wud" and "Sand" began showing up in the spring, and "Distance vs Desire" made some live sets in the fall. A typical set would have selections from the below list:
  • Non-Brewed Condiment (SynthAxe)
  • Looking Glass (SynthAxe)
  • White Line
  • Funnels
  • Atavachron (SynthAxe)
  • Solo (SynthAxe)
  • Pud Wud (SynthAxe)
  • Devil Take The Hindmost
  • Tokyo Dream
  • Letters of Marque
  • Shallow Sea
  • Three Sheets to the Wind
  • Proto Cosmos
  • The Things You See
  • Where Is One
      Allan also played a few dates as a keyboard-less trio (opening for Chick Corea). At this point, Allan probably began using some pre-recorded synth backing tracks for one or two songs ("Pud Wud" and "Looking Glass"). Fortunately, Steve Hunt assisted on keyboards for these two numbers in 1987 after Allan met him while touring with Stanley Clarke (more about Steve Hunt in the Secrets chapter). Allan's European trio dates featured Bob Wackerman on bass and Chad Wackerman on drums (although he also sometimes sat in with Stanley Clarke's band on a few numbers). More Sand tour dates ('88-'89) included Steve Hunt as permanent keyboardist for the band. Gary Husband soon rejoined on drums for a stretch, followed by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta (Frank Zappa).

Next: Secrets
Previous Chapter: Atavachron (1986)

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The numbers in parentheses after Allan's quotes above refer to sources listed in the Bibliography
For more detailed information on this chapter, see the Annotated Chronology.

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