eter “Ski” Schwartz is a New York based session musician, arranger,
producer, remixer, arranger, programmer and score composer for TV shows.
The Pet Shop Boys contacted him and asked to refresh some of the older
tracks, including Being boring—and liked
the result so much they offered him the position of musical director
of the whole tour. Programme for 1999’s-2000’s Nightlife tour has
the following information about Peter Schwartz:
Was working as a keyboard salesman in his hometown of New York when,
through a customer, he worked on Safire’s Don’t break my heart.
Has worked as a programmer, remixer and/or orchestral arranger
on songs for U2, Madonna, James, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey, has
been musical director for David Bowie, Madonna, Enya and Cher and
has worked closely with dance producers including Shep Pettibone,
David Morales and Frankie Knuckles. He played keyboards on
David Morales’ Pet Shop Boys remixes, beginning with So hard,
and most recently played on I don’t know what you want but I can’t
give it any more, Closer to heaven and Footsteps.
In addition to abovementioned artists, Peter Schwartz also worked with
Maxi Priest, Luther Vandross, Kraftwerk, N Sync, Jamiroquai, Gloria Estefan,
Chaka Khan and Anita Baker. Among others, he played and programmed
keyboards on David Morales mixes of U2’s Lemon,
Mariah Carey’s My All and M People’s One night in heaven.
he German Keyboards magazine published an interview with Peter Schwartz,
about the Nightlife tour, working with Pet Shop Boys and updating
their old tracks:
When last we spoke to you, you were on tour with David Bowie. How did
you land this gig with the Pet Shop Boys?
I was doing a session for David Morales last year; he was
producing some stuff for the Pet Shop Boys’ Nightlife album, and the
Boys happened to be at the session. It was one of the rare times when
the artist was actually at the session. Apparently they liked what I was
doing, and kept tabs on me. So after those sessions were over, they
called and asked if I’d be interested in doing some synth sweetening on
a few other tracks, which I did at my home studio. And after that, I was
asked to be musical director of their tour.
When you say “synth sweetening,” what exactly did that entail?
They sent me the individual tracks—they were doing it on
48-track, and they transferred it all to ADATs. So I had the option of
doing comp mixes and putting it all in the computer, but I ended up just
working off their two-track DAT reference mixes. I put those in [Emagic]
Logic Audio and then just started adding parts as I heard them. A lot of
their stuff was orchrestrated with a real orchestra, so I was
reinforcing certain parts with pads—adding ear candy, basically. And
then what I ended up doing was printing it all back on ADATs, and they
synced it up to their multitracks and mixed it.
What synths were you using?
For the ear candy, it was a lot of [Clavia] Nord Lead,
[Oberheim] Matrix-12, and [Roland] Juno-60. For the bass stuff, I was
using an [Oberheim] OB-8. I also brought this custom One-Voice Oberheim
modular. I call it a modular, ‘cause years ago I had Andy Topeka take
the I/O of an SEM and bring’em up onto a blank panel that’s positioned
where I generate little eight- or 16-step sequences and have those run
alongside the tracks, a la Giordio Moroder. One of the modifications
Andy did was increase the eight sequencer steps to 16.
How did you sync the sequencer to the tracks?
Using a Roland MPU-101. What I do is, I generate a pulse
track that’s either eighths, sixteenth-notes, or whatever I want. So
those notes go into the MPU-101 and get translated into gates. For the
most part, I didn’t use pitch information on this project; it was mostly
noise-based stuff. I took the Gate Out of the MPU into the Clock/Step In
of the [Oberheim] sequencer, and I used another note on a separate MIDI
channel to reset the sequencer to step 1. So at the top of the track,
the first thing that the MPU got was a note on channel 2, then the gate
from the MPU’s channel 2 fed the Reset of the [Oberheim] sequencer.
After that the sequencer got a stream of notes from MIDI channel 1,
which came out of Gate 1 on the MPU, and that went into the Step Input.
And you were fiddling with the knobs as the sequence played back.
Yeah... opening and closing the filter, changing the
envelope shape and amount, and so on.
When you got the call to do this tour, how did you go about
recreating the music for the live show?
One of the most gratifying things about getting this gig
was the fact that the Boys wanted me for my style, so there’s a whole
list of songs I was allowed to change any way I wanted to—provided that
I made the tracks more up-to-date, atmospheric, and techno. They gave me
some criteria; there were certain songs they heard as being more
Chemical Brothers-like, for example, or more Depeche Mode-like. There
were vague guidelines, but they were good enough to send me in a
particular direction and I just applied my thing to it. Other songs they
gave me no direction at all. Only the wind is a good example of that.
They said, “Do your thing,” and at first I didn’t quite know what to do
with it because it’s such a great song as is. The original string
arrangement is very beautiful, subtle, and emotional. But then I
thought, “Okay, if I just strip this away and listen to the vocal, what
do I get?” What I ended up with were sounds that were very gentle and
evocative, except when I need to make a point, and then it gets very
dramatic and big. It’s one of the few songs with guitar in it. In
general, a lot of the songs received significant makeovers.
When updating the songs, did you start from scratch or use existing
tapes, samples, and/or MIDI files from the Pet Shop Boys archive?
The first thing I did was spend about three days going
through all their old multitracks, which was kind of a nightmare because
they had multiple versions of songs—some were demos, some were done
with different producers, some were recorded on different formats, et
cetera. So what I did to save time in the studio was, I went through
their tape library notes trying to figure out which were the right reels
by matching producer names with the album notes. It was very
complicated, because sometimes we’d have three different machines going
at once: analog 1/2” 24-track, 1/2” 48-track, and digital. It was a sync
nightmare at times, especially when there was an analog master and a
What was the medium of choice for this tour—DAT, MDM, sequences?
It’s MIDI sequences with digital audio in Logic Audio. One
of the first things the Boys said to me was they didn’t want a whole lot
of digital audio playing back. They didn’t want the majority of the show
on tape. They wanted as much as possible sequenced. There are certain
things that were very practical to sequence, and other things that were
made simpler by streaming off something from the original multitracks to
Logic Audio and having it play back that way, like big orchestral
Why did they opt to go with sequences, though, as opposed to a
less-risky digital tape approach?
They understand the impact of live synthesizers versus
recorded synthesizers, which is great to hear from an artist; it shows
me that they’re really into the technology and they want the show to
sound a particular way. They know that when you have, say, a bass sound
coming from an analog synth live, each note is slightly different
because the oscillators are always drifting and your envelope generators
are firing differently. Also, you’re getting full dynamic range because
it never hits tape.
How deep into syths and programming are Chris and Neil?
Chris is probably more than Neil. Chris plays through the
whole show, as do I. But I don’t know if I’d describe them as
“synth-heads”; they know the kinds of sounds they want and they’ll get a
guy like me to get those sounds for them. They are, however, very
familiar with things like performance controls. I had a discussion with
Chris at one time about whether or not he wanted to manually open and
close the filter on a song or whether it should be done with an LFO and
whether it should be synced up. Sometimes I think they know more about
this stuff than they let on. They appreciate it all, and they’ve been
patient when I’ve had my MIDI moments. (laughs)
With Logic as your engine of choice, how do you manage the songs
during the show? Do you have one contiguous song file, for example?
What I do is, I load up all the songs separately in reverse
order of the set. I stack the windows, so what happens is, the first
song appears in the front, and when that song ends, I manually select
and start the next song with the mouse. There was one point where the
Boys wanted to segue directly from one song to the next, but fortunately
we changed the set order and it nixed that idea. One of the troubles we
had doing that is with Logic, it’s difficult to take one song file and
paste it into another. Even though the environments may be exactly the
same, the instrument assignments get scrambled when you attempt to do
that. So this ended up being the best way to go, and I’ve gotten very
fast on the mouse.
What happens if the computer chokes or crashes during the show?
What we’ve done is, on a regular basis we’ve recorded the
show onto [TASCAM] DA-88, eight tracks. So let’s say our computer blows
up. We’d run the tapes while I get the second computer cued up. If the
Mackie goes down, same thing... we have a spare.
pcode Magazine also conducted an interview with Peter Schwartz. Although it’s
about David Bowie Outside tour Schwartz also was musical director
of, it still might be of some interest to the Pet Shop Boys fans:
What do you do on the Outside tour?
I’m the Musical Director and I’m also the keyboard player in
the band along with Mike Garson on piano, and the occasional
synthesizer. The band also has two guitarists Carlos Alomar
and Reeves Gabrels; Gail Ann Dorsey on bass; and Zachary Alford
on drums. Background vocals are handled by George Simms and the
other band members.
What does the Musical Director on a tour do, exactly?
I’m sure it’s different for every tour, but in this case it
started with listening to a cassette of the album for a few weeks
and getting familiar with the new material. The plan was for the
band to play along with the sequenced tracks, so I had to make
preliminary decisions about what to play live, and what to sequence.
Then it was time to go into the studio and put up the original
multitrack tapes from the Outside recording sessions and start to
sample off sounds. I sampled everything from individual kick
and snare hits to entire sections of heavily processed guitar or synth
parts. I also made “work cassettes,” which were mixes with certain
parts turned way up in an otherwise sparse, rough mix. I did this
so that the bass player, for instance, wouldn’t have to strain
to hear the bass part in a song where it was buried in the mix.
Many of the mixes are made up of layer upon layer of sound, and
they end up being an atmospheric soup. There are lots of layered
loops, layered guitar parts, heavily processed keyboards all mixed
together—in other words, ambiances. With sound that dense
that had to be recreated live, it was important for me to
isolate each component in the studio and determine what, if any,
key part of that texture could be played live. I wanted to make
sure that there was live playing on top of whatever parts were
sequenced, so that the whole thing would feel as organic as possible.
The next thing was to transcribe and resequence parts in Vision.
Doing this for over 30 songs, resulted in a lot of time being
spent listening critically... for loops to line up, for blends to
be right, and so on. Then was time to trim all the samples to
their smallest possible size to minimize the memory requirements for
the samplers. Then I had to recreate some of the synth sounds
from the record on my own synths. Brian (Eno, co-producer of Outside)
heavily processed a lot of the keyboard sounds he made for the
record, and imitating them wasn’t always so easy!
After getting all the songs’ sequences and sounds to be right,
charts were made for the musicians, and then it was rehearsal
time. I scheduled the rehearsals so that all the musicians didn’t
need to be at the rehearsal studio from the start. I worked first
with the guitar players, then brought in bass and drums, then
piano, and background vocals.
Once everyone was together and playing, it was necessary to
make changes to some of the arrangements on several songs, as
David and I had discussed previously, and to introduce some new songs
as well. We didn’t have a whole lot of time to rehearse, change
arrangements and get all the MIDI stuff to work right, so there
was a lot of head arranging going on, rather than writing out
formal parts for everyone to play. Sometimes this meant making changes
to an existing sequence and the samples, or creating whole new
sequences complete with new sounds that didn’t necessarily come
from the record.
So in short, I guess my responsibilities as Musical Director
combined the work of an arranger, a programmer, a MIDI system
designer, a rehearsal coordinator, two keyboard players and a
band leader. Can I go on vacation now?
What gear are you using on the tour?
I’ve got two setups tied together, one on stage and one off stage.
It all runs under the control of Vision and two Studio 5LX interfaces.
On stage I have a remote Macintosh keyboard, trackball and a
small nine inch computer monitor so I can run Vision from the
stage. Off stage are the racks and a PowerBook 165 running Vision,
Galaxy Plus Editors and OMS.
How are you using Vision on the tour? Is it playing on every
song, or just on some of the pieces?
It’s playing on almost all the songs—at a minimum it’s providing
a click track, or sending program changes to the Studio 5LX,
which in turn sends patch changes and controller resets to the
synths and samplers. On other songs it’s playing everything from
bass lines, sampled background vocal arrangements, guitar parts...
basically all the stuff that can’t be played live, or in all
practicality can’t be performed by the band—studio stuff that’s
important to the sound of the songs.
So the drummer listens to a click on every song and then the
band plays to his tempo?
Yes, almost every song. Zach (the drummer) plays to the click,
and sometimes the other players do, too. The last song we play
with Nine Inch Nails is Hurt, and Zach triggers a hi-hat sample that
has eighth note echoes, where each repeat gets softer and softer.
Now Zach has great time on his own, but playing it back live has
to be right on the money. That’s not always easy because the
slapback from the halls we’re playing can make it hard to hear
soft sounds, like the quietest repeats of the hi-hat echoes.
Reeves is playing two handed hammer-ons so he has to also
hear a click to be locked to Zach.
How long have you been using Vision?
I’ve been using sequencers for the last ten years, starting with
the Synclavier, but I didn’t start using Vision until right before
the tour. Until now I used Notator software for the Atari.
Vision was the best choice for this gig because it lets you
randomly access any song without having to load up from disk.
By hitting a key I can start any song in the sequence list. I
have learned from past experience that David expects to be able
to bounce from one song, to any other song, without any delays.
So for this tour, Vision’s ability to instantly access any song
was the reason you chose it? Is this the very first project
you’ve used it on?
Yes! And it’s working great—we haven’t had any major problems,
just a few minor quirks during set up, which was mainly due to
getting the PowerBook set up correctly.
What does the future hold for you—it seems you’ve done so many
kinds of musical productions.
(laughs) I spent a good part of last year doing a score for
TV with James Mtume for New York Undercover. I’d love to get
my teeth back into that kind of work—it’s been a great vehicle
for me to incorporate strange harmonies and outside jazz kind of
stuff with funk and hip-hop loops. It’s a very cool type of
score that’s very dramatic. It was probably the most expressive
gig I’ve ever had. I’d also like to continue with song writing
and record production.
Nightlife tour dates and music
Keyboards magazine website.
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