The first time I heard an Omnichord in a song, I didn’t know it was an Omnichord I was hearing. Which is kind of silly, because the musician credits in the liner notes made it clear two different people were playing the Omnichord, and I’ve always been one of those people who pores over album liner notes, soaking up everything from them I can.
If you know this song, it’s probably because of the Romeo + Juliet movie that’s got Leo DiCaprio making out with Claire Danes (it also features “Talk Show Host”, one of the best Radiohead songs never to make it onto a proper album). The version in the movie is an alternate mix with a different bass line. The album mix rips it to shreds.
It’s always been my favourite Gavin Friday song. It’s got this cool slow-motion futuristic underwater dance club feeling to it, with a spacious mix that rewards careful listening on good headphones, and a vocal performance from Gavin that sounds a bit like Bono’s falsetto circa Achtung Baby bent out of shape and made much stranger.
It might be the single best recorded example of the Omnichord in any genre. It’s high in the mix and driving the whole song. But like I said, for years I had no idea that was what I was hearing. I just assumed it was some strange synthesizer.
The first time Omnichord awareness registered for me (anyone want to make Omnichord Awareness Week an actual thing?) was when I heard this song on Daniel Lanois’ debut solo album.
He makes a point of mentioning in the song-by-song blow-by-blow he provides in the CD booklet that there are only two sounds in this song other than his voice. One is a heavily processed electric guitar. The other is an Omnichord, and that’s what’s doing most of the heavy lifting.
Still, it took hearing his great atmospheric use of the instrument on the Sling Blade soundtrack years later, after not seeing that movie for ages, to get me to start thinking about buying an Omnichord for myself.
Suzuki still makes and sells them, but they call them QChords now. The Omnichord was analog. The QChord is digital, and while it offers a lot more in the way of preset sounds, it’s kind of cheap-sounding in my opinion. I’m not a big fan of the way it looks, either. They took a really cool, quirky instrument, and made it look and sound like a toy.
So I found an original System 2 Omnichord from the 1980s on eBay and bought that instead. And then it took me months before I recorded it for the first time. I kind of forgot I had it for a while.
It’s set up like a synthesized autoharp, but it doesn’t sound like an autoharp, or like anything else in the universe. I think Lanois likes to run his into a guitar amp for extra low end beef. One thing I’ve found: it likes a lot of delay and reverb. For one song, I ran it through a Strymon El Capistan and got all kinds of gooey goodness happening. Here I used my favourite ambient-sounding patch on the old Digitech guitar effects box. Turns out it was pretty much made for the Omnichord.
(There’s more to the song than this, but I gotta keep some things under wraps until the albums they’re going to live on are finished.)
It’s not a sound that’s going to be right for every song, or even most songs. But when it fits, it weaves an atmosphere nothing else can.
Long live the Omnichord, conjuror of ghostly sonic otherness.