There aren’t many keyboard players who have blurred the lines between muso and mainstream quite so prolifically and successfully as Steve Porcaro.
As a seasoned session player, songwriter, and a founding member of rock demigods Toto, the legacy of his playing and his musical impact cannot be overstated. We have the privilege of spending time with Porcaro and CS-80 V, our digital reimagining of his very first Toto synthesizer.
Always the synth guy
During the course of his decades-long career, Steve Porcaro has helped pen numerous era-defining hits that went beyond the musical sphere, becoming cultural phenomena in their own right; the brassy intro pads of Toto's 'Africa' being perhaps the most obvious example of his power to stir the collective soul of his audience.
He's also lended his synth-driven talents to a plethora of acts over the years, from collaborating with Michael Jackson to Earth, Wind & Fire - but for him, much of that success stems from curiosity and love for the instruments themselves.
I was always the synth guy, I got deep into the synth stuff. Quite often me and other keyboard players would be a good team.
Looking around Porcaro's home studio space, his walls are a visual representation of his decorated career. Countless records, accolades, and musical heirlooms that tell of his time spent in pursuit of musical perfection. It's also apparent that when you commit this much time to something, you foster an attention to detail; Porcaro knows his instruments inside out, the little details that separate the mundane from the authentically exciting.
While a lot of this stuff may sound very subtle to most people, with synthesizers a lot of the static sounds can just get boring after a while to the ear. These subtle differences - every key being slightly different - really had this accumulative effect.
Mastering a sound
As a veteran of the session scene, Porcaro quickly learned that proficiency wasn't everything. Artists, producers, and engineers needed quick results to keep the wheels in motion. So he honed his ability to instantly deliver the synth sound that the session needed. But for someone with such respect and mastery for these instruments, he often couldn't help but wonder what more time could bring.
I was in a band with a lot of guys that were just great players. Their parts and what they brought to the table came to them very fast. That’s why I got hired for sessions; I could be very fast with synthesizers, but I was always haunted by the possibilities. If I just had more time, I could do X, Y, Z…
On the other hand, Porcaro likes to fully grasp the mechanics of each sound he uses. With deep knowledge of these instruments comes a desire to understand how every component affects every aspect of every sound. Whatever the patch, he likes to be in full control.
When I hear a sound, no matter how great it is, if I’m gonna have a chance of using it in something I usually want to get in there and have a handle on it. I want to know how to control the speed of that LFO, how do I control that filter brightness on this aspect of the sound. It’s never like a sample or a standalone thing that I would trigger.
Meeting CS-80 V
Many of Toto's most iconic tracks are underpinned by Porcaro's silky-smooth keyboard work, written and performed on his trusty Yamaha CS-80. Before Toto began, his rig revolved around a MiniMoog, an Oberheim DS-2 sequencer, and an SEM. But the sound of the original CS-80 proved irresistible - and couldn't have come at a better time. We sat down with Steve to compare his original unit with CS-80 V, with mesmerizing results...
The CS-80 was the first synth I bought when Toto started. I really wanted to have something distinctive and new when the band began. Once I heard the CS-80, I had to have one.
Those beautifully soft chords that tuck a lush bed of harmony into one of the most famous pieces of music of all time; Porcaro fired up the BRA1 factory preset - just like on the original keyboard - and showed us how it’s done.
Porcaro penned this classic tune for Michael Jackson with Quincy Jones in the production seat; the CS-80 was his instrument of choice. Sticking to the BRA1 preset with a few micro-tweaks, he played us the bridge section and chorus, making a little use of CS-80 V’s added FX.
Takin’ It Back
Moving away from CS-80 V’s sawtooth-driven brass sounds, Porcaro dials in a favorite of his using sinewaves and a 5th harmony for the intro the Toto’s Takin’ It Back.
A plucky pulse width patch brimming with stringy resonance, this sound was used underneath the main solo section of the song.
That brass sound which has always been so important to me, from the original to the new one - boy they sound a lot alike to me.
A step further
Hearing some of Porcaro’s finest work recalled and performed on CS-80 V is a testament to the lasting legacy of this instrument and the music that people created with it. It’s thrilling to hear these instantly recognisable melodies and motifs brought to life with a software emulation, and hopefully indicative that CS-80 V doesn’t just do the job - it goes a step further.
Arturia’s taken things a step further. Where the CS-80 was very good at controlling the curve of the keyboard on its different ends of the range, Arturia took it to another level with modulations, effects, and with the keyboard itself. You’re able to totally tweak your curves for velocity, aftertouch, mod wheel, tracking.
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