There’s an old saying; ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person’. It’s a phrase which could easily apply to musician, composer and producer Chong Lim. It seems there’s nobody busier in music than Chong and there’s no musical project beyond his capabilities … the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Musical Director of the John Farnham band, and even synth programmer for Roland headquarters at one point. When Greg Phillips caught up with Chong, he was preparing for the final night as MD of TV’s Dancing with the Stars.
Chong Lim is grateful that his parents suggested that he learn a musical instrument while growing up in Malaysia. He’s also glad that they persuaded him to study hard and acquire a qualification. The combination of his talent on the piano and his mechanical engineering nouse serendipitously paved the way for a long, fruitful and eclectic music career.
After meeting David Hobson (now a successful opera singer) and James Valentine (currently ABC radio announcer) at university, Lim formed a band with the two and so began his career in music. Chong’s first musical curve-ball came when he diversified from performing at gigs to presenting product demonstrations for Roland.
I used to go the music shop, Music Junction in Camberwell a lot and ended up doing clinics for them,” recalls Chong. “There was a guy Barry Kroll, who used to work there. The legendary Paul Smith was working at Roland doing the marketing and he was looking for someone to do clinics and Barry recommended me. I had a really good and grateful relationship with Barry and Palmi from Music Junction, who I respect a lot. Anyway, weeks went by and nothing happened. Then I was doing a recording session at the Power Plant in Carlton. This was for Manny Seddon, of Manny’s Music, it was his blues band. I was excited because I had never really been in a studio before. Manny was really lovely, he was another person who was very helpful to me. I mentioned to Manny that Roland had been talking to me but nothing had happened. He said, really … let me call them. If you know Manny, he is very matter of fact. Obviously Paul had gone back and said he had found this guy but nobody must have paid him any attention. I think with a bit of a jolt from Manny, they decided to give me a go.”
Chong’s next happy accident occurred while presenting a demo at the Australian launch of the D-70 keyboard. Fortuitously, Roland’s founder Ikutaro Kakehashi was in attendance, loved Chong’s demonstration and invited him to fly to the company’s headquarters in Japan to begin work programming sounds for their new series of synths.
“We (Adrian Scott
and Chong) got there and it was the JV series we were to work on,” says Chong. “Adrian and I sat in different rooms with just a pair of speakers and a prototype. We’d get in at 8.30 and you’d just program as many sounds as you can. They also had a Japanese team and an American team with the famous Eric Persi, who now owns Omnisphere and Spectrasonics, an amazing plug-in series with a lot of Roland sounds in there. He was the chief programmer for Roland. He went on to program the Michael Jackson album Bad
. I think there was a German team too, so we were all part of this huge international team. So you’d write as many patches as you could every day and the most exciting thing was coming up with the patch name! A lot of my sounds got to be the versions on the keyboards so I was very proud of that. Then I went into R&D for them and they asked me to choose the waveforms for an analogue card.”
Further into his journey, in 1994 Chong famously became musical director of the John Farnham band. He has worked with numerous high profile artists such as Olivia Newton John, Tina Arena, Boz Scaggs and is most proud of his work with the Sydney Olympics and Commonwealth Games. It is at his most recent gig however, on the set of Dancing with the Stars where I get a real feel for a day in the life of Chong Lim.
It’s been over two months of hard work for all involved in the production of the thirteenth series of Dancing with the Stars. It all culminates in the grand final which goes to air live. The afternoon of the show, the set is abuzz with activity. Lighting and effects are being tested, levels are being checked, wardrobe decisions are being made, and celebrities are beginning to arrive. There’s a sense of controlled mayhem. Chong however, is as cool as a cucumber but it wasn’t always like that.
“For about the first three episodes I was petrified,” he says on reflection. “I’d done a lot of gigs prior to this but I had never done a gig, and I don’t think many people have, where you play a Michael Bublè strings song, the next is Rihanna pop and then it’s Lana Del Rey, more esoteric pop… then it’s a folk song, a classical piece and we’ve even done Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It goes from one extreme to another. To get your head around it, it was very frightening at the beginning. Plus you have to make sure all of the players are playing what you need and that is nerve-racking. After so many seasons, everyone knows what they have to do now.”
The Dancing with the Stars process for Chong goes something like this; songs are chosen for an episode then edited down to one and a half minutes (that’s how long contestants dance for), songs are sent to dancers, tempo tweaks are made, the band rehearses the tunes, the dancers then rehearse with the band, and finally … it’s show time. That’s the over-simplified version but add the time constraints, producer’s and dancer’s constant changes, plus the pressure of an impending show to the mix and it’s a full on adrenaline-soaked affair.
“It’s like going out to run a marathon or play a football match,” says Chong. “There is no room for error. During ad breaks they move stuff around. It’s live to air, there’s no delay, so you can’t make mistakes.”
In the early days of the show, Chong also had to battle the whinges of the dance-snobs, the traditional type dance aficionados who would invade the show’s website to tell him that a tango should be played at between 40 and 46 bpm and that he was playing it much too fast. He laughs at it now.
“I absolve myself from all blame because they pick the tempos,” he explains. “I only serve what they ask. It is a problem for the dancers though. Traditionally a jive is a jive, a tango is a tango. Now the show has evolved, the producers have their hands on it and the tango might be Lady GaGa or Rihanna. The network is trying to make the show more modern and interesting. It’s a tribute to the professional dancers that they make it work. Helen and Todd (two of the judges) are the ones who notice, they are more traditional. In the transitional period there was a lot of controversy on air and I was dragged into it as well.”
Chong Lim has had a long association with the Roland Corporation, firstly as a product demonstrator, then graduating to synth programmer at the Japanese headquarters. It’s no surprise that Chong chooses Roland gear for his demanding musical roles now. For Dancing with the Stars, Lim uses the combination of the Roland Fantom-G8 and a Roland XP-80. It’s not only the G8’s sounds which Chong admires, the workstation’s numerous features help immensely in getting his demanding job done.
“Because Dancing is such a quick show, there’s no time to sit and go, ‘I’m going to program a new sound’,” says Chong. “The G8’s feature called ‘Favourites’, where you line up your patches is awesome. I have to find patches really quickly and switch between patches during a song, so I’ll line it all up with the quick-keys, so that I can jump from a verse or chorus quickly. Also Roland has a great feature where you can change a patch in the middle of your present patch and it won’t change the sound, and it is so rapid. Apart from playing you have to get above the technology, you practice your moves and have everything laid out and levelled out, which is a big job. You can layer stuff up really quickly within the performance patch which is great, and splits too. They are mainly the functions that I use a lot. For the piano sounds, I take off all the effects so it is clean. Also the soft keypad where you can do quick changes to parameters is very useful.”
“You can see why the Roland Fantom is used on a lot of live tours,” continues Chong, “because they sound so good and Roland is so good at pop culture. The TR-808 and TR-909 remain to this day the main drum sounds for dance music. Recently we played a song on Dancing with the Stars and it was all 808. They are analogue drum sounds, not samples. For some reason, some guy at Roland made those sounds up and they have become the staple of pop music. It’s a 30 year old sound. I love the Roland family. They have always paid a lot of attention to the piano, even in the early days with piano samples, they did a great job. About 4 years ago I was touring with John and Stevie Nicks’ band in New Zealand. I remember her sound engineer coming up and asking what the piano sound was. He said, that sounds amazing. I think I was using an A-80 mother keyboard with the piano board. Just the other day, we were backing Kate Ceberano on Dancing with the Stars. Ross Fraser who is an A&R guy with Sony and was also the engineer on Whispering Jack, he always comes in and supervises. He said, ‘wow the piano sounds great’. In my studio I might have a couple of other racks just for fun but live, it’s always Roland.”
Chong’s reason for using the XP-80, a twenty year old keyboard on the show, is probably more emotional. After all, he was personally involved in the unit’s production. “Myself and Adrian Scott programmed the XP-80, so I know it inside out. It’s a testament to Roland’s quality, it is still as good today as when I first got it. I can literally do anything I want on it.”
Now that Dancing has finished up for the year, Chong’s attention turns to other projects. One of his biggest gigs next year will be his return to the MD seat in the John Farnham band when they tour along with Lionel Richie. For this tour, Lim will change his gear set up from what he’d been using on Dancing with the Stars.
“I’ll use the G8 still but I’ll also use the little half keyboard, the GAIA SH-01
for the analogue. It’s very quick for the programming and easy to get the sliders going. We’re trying to re-create Whispering Jack
. There was a lot of Prophet and Moog stuff on that. Also I’ll take my JV-2080 with me because I know them really well.”
Apart from the Farnham/Richie tour, Lim has an abundance of work lined up including quite a few recording projects. From his studio in the inner city Melbourne suburb of Richmond, Chong has racked up a string of recording credits including an ARIA award-winning album for jazz artist Sarah McKenzie. When laying down piano tracks, again, it’s Roland he trusts to complete his musical tasks.
“When I record, I still record with a Roland piano,” he says. “I love the playability, the response of the keys to the sound, the velocity degradation. Everyone has their own idea of what a real piano sounds like, it’s subjective but also there are two kinds of pianos you have to have. You need a keyboard that sounds incredibly real and woody that will work in a solo situation. Then when you play pop music, you need a brighter piano that cuts through and Roland delivers on both fronts. Plus all their analogue patches and poly-synth kind of sounds, they’re amazing.”
Roland Interview: Adrian Scott – A Brief Introduction
Roland GAIA SH-01 Synthesizer Overview by Adrian Scott
Roland Interview: Adrian Scott – The Story of Midi
- GAIA SH-01
- Flash Back, Flash Forward.