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Airwolf Interview with JIM COX - original Airwolf synth player
by Mark J. Cairns

I had the pleasure of talking with Jim Cox, legendary keyboard player who has played for everyone from Elton John, Aerosmith, Pink, Barbra Streisand through to Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler nowadays, playing keyboards for him on his 2013 European tour.

It has been said that if you ask him any question about the Top 100 hits of the last 50 years and he could tell you everything about it... year of release, producer, music label, all the editions, who sang it etc. He’s like a human encyclopaedia! He also owns one of the biggest and oldest record collections of all time as a hobby.

Along with fellow keyboard players Alan Pasqua, Greg Graham, they were mainly the go-to synth guys who Sylvester Levay originally picked to actually play most of the episodic music and Airwolf score week on week for the series, and in the end working for composers Sylvester Levay, Udi Harpaz, Bernardo Segáll and Ian Freebairn-Smith during the 1984-1986 seasons of the show.

As an interview in conjunction with Airwolf episodic composer, Udi Harpaz’ fantastic interview within the ‘Airwolf Extended Themes’ 24-page souvenir cover booklet; for the first time, Airwolf Themes’ can reveal what music kit was actually used to play that wonderful music on the original Airwolf series’ music recording sessions, with regards to synth (and additional) kit back in the day to produce those lovely big, fat, warm, memorable episodic synth pieces so indicative of the show.

Compare that today with what Jan Michal Szulew and myself used to create ‘Airwolf Extended Themes’ here...

Airwolf lead keyboard player Jim Cox playing keyboards on Mark Knopfler Tour (Dresden 2013)
Q1: Were you there from the start from the Airwolf ‘PILOT’ episode?

No, as I recall, I didn't play on the Airwolf ‘PILOT’. I always assumed Sylvester played all the keyboards on the ‘PILOT’. The first time I played on an episode, Sylvester tweaked my Oberheim OB-8 to match his original Main Title sequencer sounds, and I loaded them in and used them every week. For the aerial battle scenes, I sequenced the bass and ostinato figures on a Roland MSQ-700 sequencer, fed it to the OB-8 (split keyboard), programmed the LinnDrum, and played the French Horn parts live on an original Emulator. We fed the Urei click track straight into a 'Garfield Dr. Click', and ran the Linn and MSQ-700 from that. There was always about a 30millisecond lag, so the click to the musicians' headphones was delayed by that amount.

Q2: Were you brought in via Music Contractor (industry professional responsible for hiring the appropriate musicians to play film scoring sessions), Sandy DeCrescent? Or had you worked with Sylvester before ‘Airwolf’?

Yes, Sandy DeCrescent recommended me to Sylvester.

Sylvester always had a keyboard set up for himself to play, too. Mainly oboe solos.

Most of the Airwolf dates I did were double sessions. We'd do the synth stuff in the morning, and then I'd play piano with their orchestra in the afternoon.

Q3: Did you own all that kit you mentioned (LinnDrum, OB-8, Emulator, MSQ-700, Garfield Dr Click), or did other guys bring in some of it? I.e. What kit did you have at that time (1st Season thru 3rd Season), and did it change over the 3 years?
Q4: The warmth and fatness of the Airwolf crew’s synths were incredible compared to other shows like ‘Knight Rider’ (did you do work on that show by the way?), did everyone have their favourite sound patches and let the others (incl. Sylvester, Udi and Ian Freebairn-Smith) hear them for ideas of soundscapes, or did the likes of Sly just know the “type” of sound he wanted?

Yeah, I owned all that gear. As a working keyboard player at that time, you were pretty much expected to own all the "greatest hits" synth-wise, as well as a mixer and all the usual effects (rack, pedals and stomp-boxes). Different composers had their favorite brands and models, so it made sense to own and be familiar with them. Sometimes they would bring their signature patches (loaded on cassette tapes back then) and you'd dump them in your machine. My gear was brought to each date, but some of the other guys used what was there at Universal. I think Greg Graham used the in-house DX-7 and brought his own cartridges.

Some sound engineers wanted complete mix control over every sound, and others would rather just get a stereo mix from you. I think engineer Mickey Crofford took the LinnDrum stuff separate at Universal, and let me mix the keyboards.

Composers would usually write vague generalities about sounds ("warm analog strings", "cosmic wind", "bubbly") or maybe reference a sound that was on some hit record. Then you'd fine-tune it on the date.

All of the Airwolf dates I did were definitely post-MIDI. Some of the keyboards were retro-fitted for MIDI (Prophet V, Mini-Moog, Emulator 1), and some used a MIDI to DCB interface (Jupiter 8), but all were capable of accepting at least note-on and note-off MIDI.

I wasn't part of the original "Knight Rider" crew, but ended up subbing about a dozen times when Don Peake was the composer.

Q5: To have owned all that gear, I assume you had to transport it all around in a mini-van or station-wagon (we’d call it an Estate Car in the UK) or something? Did you have to bring the gear in and set up from scratch every single day?
Q6: You mentioned “Sometimes they would bring their signature patches (loaded on cassette tapes) and you'd dump them in your machine”, how did that actually work back then (considering later 80s synths like the Yamaha SY77 could save patches & settings to on-board Floppy disc etc.)? Was there a level of control on some of your gear that allowed you to back-up your sounds / settings e.g. In case the worst happened, or you had to load in a different set of signature sounds for different jobs?

All of the retro-fits were factory-approved mods, and I had either Eddie Reynolds or Music Tech modify my keyboards. (I have no idea what goes on under the hood of these things... hire a professional!). I was very lucky I guess. All the midi mods worked fine. Again, it was all note-on, note-off stuff. No velocity, after-touch, volume or patch change.

The gear was brought, set up, torn down and taken back to the warehouse for each session by a cartage company. Most keyboard players, guitar players, drummers and percussionists used a cartage company, as did bass players that needed multiple instruments. The production company paid the cartage fee. I used Pro-Rock. Other companies at the time were Royal, Musicians' Transfer, Andy Brauer, and several others I can't recall. I never kept any of my regular synth setup at home, but a lot of guys with home studios did.

For loading others' patches (or re-loading your own), you'd always carry around a cassette player. The Prophet V (and some others) had "cassette" in and out jacks on the back panel. You'd record your patches' digital squawk onto a cassette tape and that was your back-up. Then you could load someone else's sounds in. When the internal battery went dead, all memory was lost, so it made sense to always have a couple copies of the tape.

Q7: Do you still prefer playing old-skool hardware synths, or what do you think about the modern software-based replications of them e.g. Arturia Prophet V, Native Instruments FM8 etc.
Q8: Which of the synths did you like best back then? As far as easiest-to-use? Warmest sound? Or just, you know, working with it? And basically if you were on a desert island and had a power supply ;)  (just go with it :D) which of them back then if you’d to pick one would you have taken with you to keep you amused?

Yeah, when we got a load of Midi, we all realized that was the future. I only did a few sessions with the Sequential Circuits pre-midi sequencer (the one you screwed into the back of the Prophet) and man, was that tedious. The Oberheim system wasn't much better.

I still enjoy playing keyboards that actually make sounds themselves, rather than relying on a computer and an interface. There's still a perceptible latency with everything I've tried (although using a Muse Receptor is very, very good).

My favorite controller (for synth stuff) is the Prophet T-8. It's velocity sensitive, feels pretty good, and the pitch wheel (if modified correctly) doesn't have a built-in "dead-band", so you can get very subtle vibrato. All other midi controllers have a built in dead-band, meaning you have to go up or down-a-ways before the bend kicks in. Not very natural.

I enjoyed most of the synths I owned, but gravitated to the Moog and Sequential Circuits’ products because of the pitch wheel. The paddles, joysticks and spring-loaded wheels really turned me off. Still do.

Q9: How did the guys in the sound booth work with you guys within the Airwolf recording sessions?
Q10: Did you guys ever get an input into the crafting of the scores themselves? Like if something didn’t work during the session and Sly or Udi had to re-write, was it common to try a workaround (i.e. If Sly was there with his own keyboard playing Synth Oboe or whatever, were there ever times when he would just tell you to play it another way, or earlier, or later, or change sounds from his original idea). Or in the actual mixing process later?

Typically at Universal in those days there would be projection (the footage we were scoring shown on a huge cinema screen on the back of the stage), and recording directly to magnetic film. Hence there would be someone running the projector, and someone recording to mag tape, I recall the latter as Mickey. The sound booth guy, Todd would push a button to speak to all parties, sort of like a director yelling "Cut!" or “Save It!”. Since many cues had moments of silence (for dramatic effect, to clear dialog, or to make room for an explosion), all the film ops and engineers would wait for a cue from the floor to stop rolling). Sometimes the music editor [usually Gene L. Gillette] did this, but I seem to recall at Universal it was Todd in the booth.

Most episodic TV was recorded and mixed live to magnetic tape, in “Mono” during that time. The engineers were used to working with live orchestras and rhythm sections, and at the end of a three-hour session you'd have fifteen minutes of score already mixed. It wasn't until stereo TV became more popular [a few years later] that it started to be done differently. Even then, it was typical to mix to live stereo or four-track tape, with maybe soloists split off to ride on the dubbing stage. With Airwolf, since there would always be overdubbing (orchestra), it was easier to treat it more like a record date.

When a composer finds that programmer, orchestrator or engineer that can hear things exactly the same as they do, they hang on to them. Most composer-orchestrator relationships last a lifetime.

There never seemed to be much re-writing going on, but that's just my recollection. Maybe stuff would get moved around a couple of bars here and there (especially if the film was incomplete - by that stage - for the spotting sessions), but I don't recall any real emergencies.

Q11: So, was the Airwolf music recorded in Stereo?
Q12: With the Main Theme itself, the generic “tracked” one that was re-used by Gene Gillette throughout the closing titles for the 2nd/3rd Season, how much of it was played “live”? Or by then was everything, included the lead, pads, and brass all midi’d? Was the 1st Season Main Theme (late’83-Winter’84) partially live?

I remember Mickey, one of the audio engineers letting me mix my synths in Stereo, so the bass part, synth ostinato and french horn parts would have been left/right stereo. However, NONE of the synth sounds were themselves stereo back then, so it would just be how they were panned [to simulate “pseudo” stereo]. The LinnDrum outputs (kick, snare, hi-hat, crash) were taken separately, and whether he sub-mixed them or gave them each a track, I don't know. The whole “stereo” business was really moot until [well] after 1984, when the first Stereo shows were broadcast as I said above. Nobody mixed any television for Stereo in the mid-80s because, frankly, why bother back then [when nearly all TVs at home were still Mono]?

Any reverb would usually be added by the engineer, since the plates and chambers they had were usually better than the ones in our racks.

I can't tell you much about either of the generic "tracked" themes. I might not have been involved with either one.

With the aerials, I certainly recognize Udi’s "DAMBREAKERS" [final aerial] cue as being my synth rig as I always tried to give the LinnDrum a little skip (accenting the third 8th-note triplet on the hi-hat), and that's not in either of the generic “tracked” theme cues. But, in answer to your question, both of them sound sequenced (not played live) to me.

Q13: What did you think of Sylvester Levay’s Main Theme for ‘Airwolf’?

I think Sylvester's main title was perfect for the vibe of the show. It had a very Munich-based, electronic insistent pulse that could either say "ominous" or "triumphant". As far as cutting edge, television music was (and to a certain extent still is) a little behind the curve. I think Moroder's track to Blondie's "Call Me" might have been the blueprint for the theme (a four-year-old hit at the time), but I could be wrong.

Q14:  Did you ever work with Mike Post on his shows; Jan Hammer on ‘MIAMI VICE’, or Stewart Copeland on “The Equalizer”? If so, was it a different vibe to working on ‘Airwolf’?

I never worked with Jan Hammer or Stewart Copeland, and only subbed a couple of times on Mike Post’ sessions (one ‘Greatest American Hero’ episode and one hour-long drama at Universal... maybe ‘L.A. Law’?).

Alan Pasqua
Image © 2013 Alan J. Pasqua
All rights reserved
BONUS FOLLOW-UP directly from Jim’s colleague, jazz pianist ALAN J. PASQUA at the time confirming the music kit he also used in conjunction with Jim and Greg:

I used a Yamaha KX88 midi controller master keyboard, had two full-tier stands of various keyboards... Yamaha DX7, Emulator, PPG Wave 2.2, Roland sequencers, audio processing gear, etc. This was really before synth modules were born, so we had full keyboards on every stand. I think the cartage companies made more $$$ than us musicians! I remember those dates to be a lot of fun. Jim and Greg were a gas to work with... really good guys.

AIRWOLF™ is a Trademark of, and licensed to NBC Universal Television Studios © 1984. All images and multi-media content of this website are Copyright Mark J.Cairns © 2007. Under NO circumstances must any images or digital content be used from it on any other websites or media without the express written consent of the Copyright / Intellectual Property owner. All MP3 theme tune files remain the Copyright of Mark J.Cairns and Sylvester Levay © 2007. The Airwolf Themes soundtrack is the officially licensed score based on the original CBS episodes of the Airwolf TV series.