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The HM80 and Hot Air Balloons: An Interview with Randy Walters

For our 6th Flashback on the HM80 Harmonizer®, we asked the Eventide community to share any stories or experiences they had while using the product. Here is film scorer, composer, and musician Randy Walters' story:

Your website mentions you studied music at Brown University, can you tell us a little bit more about your background in music?

Back in 1968, when Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach was released, I was all of 13 years old. It had a huge impact on me. Ms. Carlos – and later Todd Rundgren – both inspired me by showing that all by themselves, individuals could use these new tools to make astonishing sculptures with sound. This seems commonplace to us now, but back then it was an earthquake.

In 1972, I was able to get access to an EMS VCS3 synthesizer that was sitting unused in a janitor’s closet at a neighboring high school. The recordings I made there became part of my application to Brown University, and by spring of ’73 I had my first real synthesizer – an ARP 2600 – and headed out to Brown that fall, the first student to arrive with a synthesizer of their own.

While in school, I followed what was going on in the industry by reading magazines like Recording Engineer/Producer and Mix. I remember seeing ads for Eventide’s first products, and I sooo wanted to get my hands on them. At one point, the professor who oversaw Brown’s electronic music studio had some funding available for new equipment, and he asked me what I might like to see in the studio.

I didn’t even have to think. “AN INSTANT FLANGER!” I had already used the studio’s twin Ampex 4-track tape decks to do reel flanging the “old-fashioned way,” and I was drawn to finding new, off-the-beaten-path uses for the studio’s new magic box.

After Brown, I spent some time working for a mobile recording company (Fedco, which owned a truck with a console and two 24-track tape decks) and I remember the very first time I saw an Eventide Harmonizer in person. I’m sorry I can’t remember who we were recording; just that it was an outside show.

I asked the engineer at the outdoor board about this new tool that was blowing everyone away. “Yeah, man …” he nodded, “it’s cosmic.”

When did you first purchase and use the Eventide HM80? Did you buy it for a specific use (practical and/or creative)?

By the beginning of the ’80s, I was running my own home project studio. My primary instrument was a massive Oberheim 8-Voice modular synthesizer, which would be my “main axe” for 15 years or so. My recording gear was simple; a TEAC four-track reel-to reel with four outboard channels of DBX noise reduction, and a TEAC mixing board. Other than the DBX, I had no outboard processing at all.

That changed (drum roll) when the Eventide HM80 hit the marketplace. I was doing commercial music; minor film scoring, industrial stuff, commercials. And as the ad read, “… for the working musician …” it seemed right up my alley. I could afford it! This was at a time when – believe it or not – my rent was $65 a month … utilities included. So the price was right.

I didn’t need a specific application for it; this was my first chance to get my hands on Eventide gear of my own. I remembered how much more I was able to get from Brown’s Instant Flanger than just … well, flanging – and I looked forward to seeing what could be done with the delay and pitch shifting the HM80 offered.

Randy Walters in his home project studio. Randy's HM80 (not pictured) would sit on top of his DBX unit.

While using the HM80, did you ever discover any exciting or unexpected uses for the device?

I was surprised with what the HM80 could do to sustained notes or chords. The combination of pitch shift and feedback, mixed back with the source at reasonable levels, could produce interesting tone colors – almost like artificial harmonics. They certainly didn’t follow the harmonic series, and it wasn’t like the sidebands you get with a ring modulator. It was musical, and I liked it a lot. It could be subtler than you might imagine.

What was your favorite feature that the HM80 had to offer?

I can’t reduce the HM80 to having one “favorite” feature that I preferred over any other; it was always a matter of trying to use it creatively in whatever context you were applying it. Having one “fall-back” option is exactly what I wanted to avoid; as Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

With complex gear, there was always the temptation to opt for short-term productivity over creativity, especially with deadlines looming. But keeping a childlike, playful attitude toward the use of processing can ultimately yield more interesting and satisfying results.

Your original tweet mentioned that you used the Eventide HM80 on “a couple of films on hot-air ballooning”, could you elaborate on that project?

In the early ’80s, I had the opportunity to score a series of films on hot-air ballooning in Venezuela that aired on the Discovery Channel’s National Geographic Explorer program. Some of the locations – like Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world – would later inspire some of the locations in Pixar’s Up! The real-life locations were every bit as incredible as the art the animators came up with, and posed genuine risks and dangers to the ballooning crews.

With the balloons, there were naturally sequences that involved ascending and descending. The HM80’s ability to produce trails of rising or falling colors enhanced the score in what I hoped was an almost subliminal way, at times echoing the motion onscreen in a manner that (with luck) was more felt than perceived.

Note: Randy recently found old master tapes for a compilation album of the hot-air ballooning music that was released on CBS Central America in 1985. He plans on having them digitized later this summer, and will post the tracks on his Bandcamp site, along with his more current work.

Are there any other memorable projects you used the HM80 on? Are you still using the HM80?

The HM80 served as something of a “Swiss Army knife” in my studio for many years, finding its way into much of my work – including commercials for the National Basketball Association that aired on CBS. Still, I bought my first Macintosh computer just two weeks after its release in 1984, and as computers and software evolved, the move to computer-based production was unstoppable. At some point, I sold the HM80 to help fund other gear or software (as working musicians do!).

When a photo of the little guy popped up on my Twitter feed, it really took me back and made me smile; I hadn’t thought of it for years. But while it was part of my studio, it paid for itself many times over, and I got a tremendous amount of inspiration and fun from it.

 

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