Amin Bhatia is a composer and synthesist, best known for his soundtrack work for film and television.
But he’s also a self-professed ‘geek’, inspired by Holst & Tomita, sci fi and action films and classic analog gear. And he’s released two of the most important ‘classitronica’ style works of this generation, The Interstellar Suite and Virtuality.
The Interstellar Suite, originally released in 1987 and Bhatia’s first album, is a suite of original pieces of synth music, arranged in the classitronic tradition of Wendy Carlos and Isao Tomita. The Suite is themed around a futuristic interstellar voyage. Tracks like Launch: Mission Control and Liftoff and Battle: Planning The Attack put the Suite firmly in the category of program music – music that explicitly paints a picture or tells a story.
For its 25th anniversary, Bhatia is revisiting The Interstellar Suite and updating it for a new generation of technology and listeners.
In this interview, Bhatia reveals how he was inspired by Tomita and other synth music pioneers, how he got into electronic music and his plans for bringing The Interstellar Suite to 21st century music formats.
Synthtopia: Amin – what inspired you to get into synths and ultimately to create The Suite?
Amin Bhatia: My goal was to work with orchestras, as a kid. I loved orchestral music. That’s all my parents played around the house. I listened to orchestral music, because I didn’t know it wasn’t cool. My parents just had that stuff going on all the time. Other kids in Grade 5 didn’t know how cool Holst’s The Planets was, or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I began to realize I was listening to a type of music that was very strange and unusual.
Then, like so many other people, the Tomita albums and the Wendy Carlos albums brought to my attention the idea of classical music done in a whole new way, and I found that very exciting and very intriguing.
I bought as many synth albums as I could. And my dad, bless his heart, took pity on me and got me my first Minimoog. Which I still have!
Synthtopia: Thanks, Dad!
So, in we go into his credit card.
I brought the thing home, and I had an old four track recorder, because I was doing tape experiments and my parents let me play with the family tape recorder. And I brought this Minimoog home, and for weeks, I was trying to be Tomita. And the sounds that were squealing out of this thing! My parents were beside themselves. They were thinking “What did we just waste our money on?”
And [meanwhile] I’m learning about filter sweeps, and I’m learning about sawtooth, and I’m learning about ADSR. And my parents are hearing all these shrieking sounds from the basement.
Then, a few weeks later, they were having a party. They were having some of their bridge group friends over.
By then, I had figured out some basic melodic things, and I did a little echo chamber thing with my four track recorder. I did some flute melodies for them, from one of my dad’s favorite classical albums, and the bridge group thought it was cool. But my dad was just thrilled – and really relieved that this thing could actually make some music!
From that point on, I think he breathed a little easier.
As the years went buy, and I did more and more experiments, my dad became my greatest fan, bless his heart. Between him and my sister, I would experiment with all kinds of things and play them.
The Origin Of The Interstellar Suite
Synthtopia: In the last 25 years, The Interstellar Suite has earned a reputation as a cult icon of the classictronica style of synth music. What inspired you to create The Suite?
Amin Bhatia: A friend of my, Dave Kletke, showed me the back of a Keyboard magazine, and there was an ad for the Roland synthesizer competition.
At the time….a friend of mine in college was doing a radio play thing. It was about a spaceship that could travel faster than light. It was an audio play concept he wanted to get going. So, I started doing some sketches and melodic things.
The radio play never got off the ground, but when I saw the contest, I took one of the pieces that I was working on, Flight Beyond The Stars, and finished it off. And I shipped it off to the Roland competition. It was done with a Minimoog and a four track. I think I had some Polymoog in there as well.
Weeks later, I got a letter in the mail from Roland. They said “Thank you very much for entering into the competition.” And I looked in the amateur category, and my name wasn’t there, though I’d entered as an amateur. I nearly threw the piece of paper away.
But then I turned it around, and on the other side was the professional category. And they’d moved me from the amateur category to the professional, and I’d won the grand prize.
So I called my dad, and he came running! I was yelling, “Oh my god!” We drank saké wine that night!
That was a pivotal moment.
Most importantly, the judges on that Roland Synthesizer Competition included Ralph Dyck - who was a synthesizer programmer for Roland. Ralph, who’s a brilliant programmer & synthesist, got my four track demo tape in the hands of Steve Porcaro. David Foster took an interest in it, and Oscar Peterson wrote me a nice letter expressing his support.
The doors that opened from that contest entry then took me to the next level, and made me think that – maybe – I could make a living doing this.
The Record Deal & Recording The Suite
Amin Bhatia: Steve (Porcaro) got me into record label. We took that piece, Flight Beyond The Stars, which is now the Launch cut on the album, and everything has grown from that.
Synthtopia: My understanding is that you got an album deal, but ran into trouble with the label?
Amin Bhatia: I was going to be “the Tomita of Cinema Records.” They had Patrick Moraz. They had Pete Bardens of Camel. And they had Michael Hoenig – who was formerly with Tangerine Dream.
I was doing all this orchestral stuff and I asked them, “Is this too outlandish for your? Don’t you want vocals?” And they were like, “No, no, no. We want you to be the next Tomita, or the next Wendy Carlos. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”
And any Tomita fan will hear, that in Intersteller Suite, there’s a huge Tomita influence. A lot of spinning stuff, the flange-y exploding kind of things. I’d heard that for the first time on Tomita’s Firebird Suite. So there’s certainly an homage to Tomita there.
So for three months, I locked myself up in my apartment, and kept my girlfriend and family at bay. I just had a ball, with my Roland Microcomposer, two JX-10 synthesizers, a TX-416 – which was four FM modules and an Oberheim expander, which Steve Porcaro had let me borrow. Between that and an 8 track Otari, it was building layer and layers and layers.
Then we re-played all the sequences at a 24-track studio synced up with a Roland SBX 80.
So I finished this album, and we went to Los Angeles, My engineer, Danny Lowe, and I went to the Capitol Records people that had met us months earlier. But when we got there, we discovered that all the people that had loved what I was doing 5 months earlier had all been fired. They had been replace by a whole new group of people.
I remember one of the new people’s comments on it was – “You know, you should have put vocals on this, dude!”
Synthtopia: What was that experience like?
Amin Bhatia: I was shell-shocked! I had never had such a such a high become such a low, in my life. The Cinema people were wonderful. Had the Capitol politics not been overturned, it would have been a very different story.
Capitol honored their obligation. They released the album…limply. Michael Hoenig referred to it as a “stillborn label.”
They got the albums out to a few record stores. There were only something like a thousand copies in all the world. And that was it! No promotion, no nothing. I think they did a record launch party at a dive bar in Los Angeles. So we got the “Hollywood treatment” for a day and a half.
It was just so depressing. We couldn’t find the album in record stores. People would ask “When’s your album out?” And I said, “It’s out – you just can’t find it anywhere.”
The only saving grace from that time was that a director named Sidney Furie got hold of the album. The album also helped me get a film agent. And this became my calling card for film and TV work, which has [ultimately] become my career. My first film with Sidney was Iron Eagle II, which was a big action-adventure thing. Interstellar Suite gave him an example of the kinds of things I could do, which were the kinds of things he wanted on that film.
A New Life On The Internet
Synthtopia: So, after being released on a ‘stillborn’ label, how did The Suite find its audience?
Amin Bhatia: Over 25 years…..I had not given Interstellar Suite much thought. It was a wonderful experiment that went nowhere.
Then, in the mid 90′s, along came the Internet. And before there was the web, there were all those newsgroups. And there was a newsgroup “new age,” and people had started posting “Hey, can someone get me a copy of Interstellar Suite?”
A composer friend of mine, Donald Quan, told me “Hey, do you know there’s a newsgroup named after you?” And that was the first time that I began to see that, out of that limited run of albums, the people who had actually bought that album really ‘got’ what I was trying to do.
[Fan mail began to reach me and it] was wonderful. Many of them were geeks — like me! They got it. They loved the sci fi aspect of the music. They loved the melodies. They loved the tape flanging things I was doing.
They loved that it was all analog synthesizers.
I didn’t use any samplers [in making The Interstellar Suite].
I deliberately wanted to use lots and lots of analog synths, as a tribute to orchestras. I didn’t want to replace [orchestral instruments], I wanted to celebrate them in a whole new way. Kind of the way an animator celebrates the real world. So, I’m portraying strings, and I’m portraying horns, using sawtooth waves and using FM synthesis – and it’s like an animation I’m trying to make.
So the album has never climbed the Billboard charts – but there’s this niche following now, for decades, that has always loved the album.
We did a CD release of Interstellar Suite in 2003. Producer/Engineer David Greene, who is a friend and mentor to me, remastered the album from a 2 track digital safety I had. At the time we had no access to the multi-tracks. So we spent a lot of time and money getting the a license from Capitol to re-release my own album. And that, ultimately, has led us to this 25th anniversary [project].
I was kicking around some ideas, and kicking around the idea of a surround sound release. I mused about the idea of a surround sound release with engineer & producer Frank Morrone, who was a fan, and he just jumped at the idea. He said ‘Yes! Let’s do it. Let’s do it now!”
So, we’re now going through something I did 25 years ago, and remixing in 5.1 — and we’re having a ball.
Synthtopia: What’s the status of the remixing and remastering of The Suite?
Frank and I have gone back and forth on the mixes, and at the moment, we are now to the stems stage, where we have 5.1 stems of the music, the reverb from the music, the sound effects and the reverb from the sound effects. With those four stems, as we continue, and as we get to mastering, we can play with that balance. If we want things to be a just little wetter, if we want things to be a little drier, we can do that.
We’re now signed off on the music balances, recreating the balance between the strings and the horns and the percussion, and matching the original album as much as possible. I’ve listened to some of my favorite albums remixed and I’m quite meticulous and quite upset if they change one thing. So I didn’t want to do that for the fans.
I’ve recreated the album exactly the same way. I’ve gone for the same dynamics, I’ve gone for the same balances and even the same reverb treatments, although in a 5.1 environment, it can be much more of a “concert hall” experience.
There were things that I always wanted to do with the panning and shaping of sounds that I could never have done with the state of audio technology in 1987- so we can do that now. So it’s like a high definition version of something everyone has always known.
So we’ve been listening to the Suite in as many environments as possible, too, to make sure it can play well in all of them.
Synthtopia: Can you share an example of the types of challenges you faced in remixing the album?
Amin Bhatia: On the original album, I did a lot of flanging. That’s the act of taking the original source, copying it and playing it against itself, but slightly off speed, so that the original and the copy play against each other. And because one of them eventually overtakes the other, you get this combing, flying effect, this ‘jet plane’ effect as one piece of audio overtakes the other. Tomita did this a lot. I think the Moody Blues did this a lot.
Synthtopia: And you did this manually with reel to reel?
Amin Bhatia: There were pedals, and in this day and age there are all kinds of digital flanging and stuff like that, but nothing has matched taking two signals and running them by each other, because you achieve that zero cross-over point. Any plugin or pedal that you use will never be able to give you that, because you can’t reverse time in real time. You can only get to zero, you can’t cross over it.
In the original stereo mix I did with Danny Lowe, back in 1987, the way we achieved it was that we had a Studer tape machine that had varispeed on it. So that was a very artful way of being able to control how we did it. When we got to a final mix on the 24 track, we would print it in stereo to the separate two-track machine. And then, for the final mix, we would run the two together and we would play with the Varispeed on the two-track machine and create those flanges.
Now, we’re using digital to get as accurate as possible, but we’re still using the same technique. So we’ve printed the stems, we’ve Varispeeded them and now we’re running stems against stems – and we’re making the flange happen in exactly the same places as in the original. And that’s a lot of work! That’s a lot of surgery!
Amin Bhatia: It’s really strange to go back ‘forensically’ to yourself 25 years later. There’s things I found in the multi tracks that make me think, “Wow, that’s really cool! I need to get back to doing that technique again.”
And then there are other things I’ve found in the multi tracks where I think, “Thank God I’ve learned never to do that again!”
Most of it’s about low end management. There were things I did 25 years ago that were just so wrong. We glued some tracks together that we should have never glued.
For rhythmic precision, I made sure that my percussion parts and my bass parts had to be accurate. They couldn’t drift. And with earlier MIDI sequencers, and SMPTE lock up, there was always that danger.
There are parts of this where there’s a very strident orchestral pounding that’s going on, basses and timpani and xylophone. To make sure that was rhythmically accurate, I printed that in one pass to the 24 track. In this day and age, you’d have the basses on one track and the xylophone on another. Because they are very different in their frequency and timbre, you’d never blend the two. But back then, that’s what I did, because I wanted it to be rhythmically accurate. So it is rhythmically accurate, and I’m going to preserve that, but there’s only so much we’re able to do in remixing it.
The challenge is bringing all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle back together in exactly the same way, but with a better color. And there have been some things we’ve been able to improve and other things that [have to stay] exactly the same, because there was no way we could get [back] into there anyway. And, in the long run, that’s okay.
Synthtopia: It sounds like, in expanding this to 5.1 [surround sound], you’ve been careful not to change The Suite in ways that would be jarring to fans of the original. Were there opportunities, though, to get creative with the opportunities afforded by 5.1?
Amin Bhatia: The mandate that we wanted to do was to preserve the energy and passion of the original mix. We did try some experiments, and what we finally concluded was that we should create a ‘concert hall’ experience for the music – so that the synth strings, horns & wood winds are placed in an orchestral palette across the front of the room between three speakers, to give you the feeling of sitting in front of an orchestra. Between that and the work with the concert hall reverbs we have, we’re using 5.1 reverbs. The one that we’ve been making the most use of is called ReVibe. i believe it’s one of the Avid reverbs. It’s a true 5.1 reverb. So it’s not one of those stereo reverbs, doubled over as some reverbs are. It’s true 5.1. A single source will have 5 taps around the room, which is fantastic.
Then, for the ear candy – all of that cool stuff, because we are dealing with a spaceship flying through the galaxy, we’ve gone nuts on the sound effects. The sound effects are kept on a different stem and a different layer and we’ve tried all kinds of experiments there. So, with a spaceship that would just whoosh by for a moment before, we’re spinning it around the room.
And that’s what’s giving us the best of both worlds. Musically, we didn’t want to start tearing apart the balances, because of certain ways the instruments blend together. I didn’t want to lose that by putting the strings on one channel and the horns on another. So musically, we’ve been very respectful to the imaginary orchestra I created for the original. And then sound effects wise and flanging -wise, we’ve just gone nuts.
So that’s where the ear candy surprise is for the fans. The music will be the music that they’ve come to know and love – but sound effects wise, we’re taking this further than we ever could before.
With 5.1, there’s no restrictions to the dynamic range, so, when that spaceship lifts off in cut 3, your landlord will evict you from your apartment!
Synthtopia: The final thing I wanted to talk with you about is your IndieGogo campaign. You’ve got plans to do some things which seem to really be intended for your hardcore fans.
Amin Bhatia: The IndieGoGo campaign is a chance to get fans involved as co-investors in the project. I’ve put in my own time and money in getting the project to a technically workable level, where we’re going to have a 5.1 download that is a true representation of the album. And that, I am putting all the time and money into.
To take it to the next level, to do the things I like to see in collectors’ editions, and what some of the fans have asked for, that’s where the IndieGoGo campaign is coming in. We’re going to do all sorts of extra perks. Obviously, we want the DVD to exist as a proper 5.1 DVD in Dolby DTS that you’ll be able to play on your DVD player. That involves manufacturing costs.
I also wanted to really expand on the liner notes. I love liner notes. The compact disc world has been fantastic and MP3s have been amazing, but we’ve lost liner notes, and I hate that. So I wanted to give fans the kind of things that I always love to see in liner notes and stuff and collectors’ books seem to be that way. There are special editions of Tomita’s albums now, and Pink Floyd and whatnot, and they have all that extra stuff.
So I kind of wanted a little bit of that [extra stuff]. People have always had lots of questions about some of the technical stuff I did on this album, so we’ll include all of that in there. We’ll have nice artwork, we’ll have the track sheets, we’ll explain some of the weird technical stuff we had to do to put this album together.
There were a lot of restrictions on what I could do, technically, on the original album, so I had to come up with some creative ways of getting the dynamics and the image that I wanted. I think there’s a story there, because in this day and age, we have all this amazing technology, [that makes it] so easy to do now, the kinds of things that [were really hard and] took a long time to do 25 years ago.
People have wanted to have Interstellar Suite T-shirts – so we’re going to do Interstellar Suite T-shirts.
I’ve also collected a series of experiments over the years. Things I’ve done with the Roland Corporation, I’ve done lots of presentations and trade shows and I’ve created some pieces that were demos for their equipment, and some of the pieces have become cult hits that people have wanted a copy of. There was a very strange song I did for a Roland sampler called ‘The Answering Machine Song”. And I get requests for The Answering Machine song. At the time, my agent didn’t know what to do with the Answering Machine Song – so now we’ll release it.
There will be that piece, some early experiments of The Interstellar Suite and some of the pieces I’ve worked on in my film and TV work.
One other thing we’re offering is a chance for fans to be involved in record release parties. So, instead of record label execs showing up at some fancy dinner where we play the music, we thought, “Why don’t we have our fans do that?”
Synthtopia: It sounds like both an exciting project and a very personal project.
Amin Bhatia: It’s wonderful. It’s a way of saying thank you to my fans that understood this strange album that I embarked on so many years ago. It’s a chance to revisit my roots. And it’s a chance to reaffirm that there’s something about the analog, linear way of putting things together that we’ve lost in digital today.
I don’t think it’s the “tape vs hard disk” argument or the “tubes vs transistors” argument. I think it’s about linear and non-linear.
In this day and age, you can compose anything and you can start with something in the middle and add the beginning later. You can take out the drums and replace them. And to me, that’s like building a giant house and taking out the third floor and replacing the third floor with something else. There’s a structure you lose when you do that.
In the old days of linear tape, and sequencers and planning everything out, because the sequencer couldn’t play everything at once, I had to think in terms of 8 different groups, and record them at different times and put them all together, and hope it would work. There was planning involved in that. It’s too easy now to run our studios and create something without giving it any thought at all.
What this album has reminded me to do, and what I’ve always encouraged my students and my interns to do, is to stop for a second and think about what it is you want to create before you even go into the studio. Before you go through those six billion libraries of sounds or loops or effects, or whatever you’ve got, stop and imagine what it is that you are creating today.
Imagine the music.
Imagine the sonics.
Imagine the simplicity.
Think of places where it’s going to be very simple. Think of places where it’s really going to hit you hard. And think of all that and plan that before you go into the studio. Have a blueprint. And have a foundation to work from.
Then all this stuff becomes ear candy. It becomes icing. We’ve all heard too many albums in this day in age that are just a feast of technology – but there’s no music there.
Synthtopia: Bhatia is aiming for a December release for the release.