The Synclavier – The guitar sound of Dire Straits So far away

I recently saw a few threads in numerous forums about the guitar sound of So far away on Dire Straits’ fifth album, Brothers in Arms. People speculated that there was a flanger, a delay, a chorus, or other effects involved to create the rather unusual sound of the lead guitar.

And unusual it is in fact. This is because it is not really a guitar what you hear – instead it is the Synclavier by NED – a synthesizer – that is triggered by a special controler guitar.

The Synclaviar

I don’t want to go into too many details about the Snclavier since there are enough articles in the web about it, including this Wikipedia article. In short, it was a very complex – and thus expensive – system that was similar to the Fairchild synth. Due to the high price – I heard Knopfler payed something like 300,000 $ US in the mid-eighties for his Synclavier – both systems were mainly used in big studios or among top-selling artists. The Synclavier was not only a synthesizer – which means a device that generates sounds combining basic waveforms – but also one of the first high-quality samplers – a device that generates sounds from recorded (=sampled) waveforms of real instruments or real sounds or noises.

It was one of the first high-end workstations that allowed you to produce an entire album with almost nothing else. No wonder that it was used on some of Mark Knopfler’s soundtracks in the 80ies, like Princess Bride or Last Exit to Broklyn. I remember reading that even one of the guitars on Princess Bride was sampled (most guitars here were really played of course).

Synclavier II from the mid eighties
Synclavier II from the mid eighties

The Pensa controller guitar

To trigger the sounds from a synth with a guitar you need a special guitar – one that sends MIDI commands or some other similar electric signals. For this purpose Mark Knopfler had a special guitar build by Rudy Pensa’s Music Stop. It had a Stratocaster shape and lots of switches and knobs. As it also had two conventional pick-ups, you could play it as normal guitar, or blend the guitar sound with the synth sounds.

Here are some pictures showing this guitar. I have no idea what this guitar was used for on the concerts these were taken from, at least to my knowledge it was never used live for So Far Away which was played on the red Schecter Strat on stage in 1985.

Mark Knopfler with Bob Dylan who was a guest on the Brothers in ARms tour in Australia, 1986
Mark Knopfler with Bob Dylan who was a guest on the Brothers in Arms tour in Australia, 1986

synthguitar 003a
synthguitar 004

And finally the official video of So far away:

22 thoughts on “The Synclavier – The guitar sound of Dire Straits So far away

  1. This guitar was used as a “normal” guitar for Ride across the River in Sydney 86, and maybe for the entire 86 year, instead of the sunburst schecter during the first part of the tour, like on the Israel video.

  2. Yep. It was used on the opening song (Ride Across the River), but that was the only time it was used on that particular show at least.

  3. Yes, you are right of course, how could I forget. I admit I have not watched the Sydney concert for ages.

  4. In Guitarist Feb 86 there was mention of the guitar being used with the Snclavier system for the upcoming Australia leg of there tour. They had tried it before (rehearsals I guess) and there were some problems with it.

  5. According to JVT, Dylan joined DS in Melbourne, 19th February 1986, to play the following songs :
    – All along the watchtower
    – Leopardskin pillbox hat
    – License to kill
    – Knocking on heaven’s door

    and MK joined Dylan in Sydney, 10th February 1986, to play the following songs :
    – Blowin’ in the wind
    – Rock ’em dead
    – Knocking on heavens door

    I think that MK would not have joined Dylan’s stage with his headband (but not 100% sure, he got it on Prince’trust, so….)so I guess the 1st picture is more likely at the DS gig than the Dylan’s one. In both cases, the guitar would have been used on Dylan’s tunes like Whatchtower or heaven’s door.

    According the fact that the guitar “replaced” the sunburst schecter on RATR (but not on R&J outro, and Tunnel), I guess that Mark could have used it also on TR, in Christchurch. I think it’s the kind of tune where he would have tried a new guitar, like his new Pensa in Rome 2005.

  6. Talking about So far away, I always wonder who play the rhythm guitar part on the studio version. If you remember, Ingo, we were discussing about that (among several others interesting subjects:)) some years ago, by mails.

    I think it could be either Mark or Jack Sonni.

    There are two clues which tend to think it`s Jack :

    1) we can see him playing on the official video clip (howewer, It`s not very a proof, because we also see him on the MFN video, and the 2 LP are obviously played by Mark on this tune, and generally the video clips are not very accurate about musicians and instruments)
    2) Jack is credited on the BIA sleeve among others musicians “for helping to make the record”, so he must be playing on at least one song, and when you think of it, there`s only 2 songs on the album where he can play : So Far away (rhythm part) and walk of life (acoustic guitar). I can`t see others songs featuring J.Sonni :
    – MFN has 2 LP on both channels obviously played by Mark
    – YLT has only one guitar
    – WW has 3 strats, mainly in Mark`style
    – RATR has only one strat (OK, there`s a second one coming at the end, but It`s just the lead one doubled, so obviously by Mark too)
    – TMTS has the ovation (played live by Mark) and slide played on the National, so of course both by Mark. I`ve always wonder if there was an electric guitar for the hard strumming chords in the chorus, or is it just keyboards ?
    – OW has only one guitar
    – BIA has only one guitar

    So if J Sonni played on SFA and WOL, he could have played the rhytm part on SFA.

    But there`s also a clue which tend to think it`s Mark :
    Since 2001, SFA is played live by Mark, and every time he plays the intro (in 2001 with nails as a “virtual” pick, and since 2005 with a real pick), and then he goes on the lead part. So if it was J Sonni on the studio version, why would have Mark not let Richard played the intro live? I guess that he plays the intro himself because it was his “own” part in 84-85, although in 85-86, Sonni played the intro (of course in Sydney because Mark had to change the Gibson Chet Atkins to the red schecter strat, but also in Wembley where Mark had the strat from the beginning of the song).
    It`s like on Expresso love : in 82-83, Hal Lindes played the intro rhythm part because Mark had to change from the Ewerline to the red strat, but in 85-86, Mark played the intro on the strat, to re-play his “own” part on the studio version.

    So could it be Mark, and J.Sonni featuring only on WOL ?

    I always dream on a list which explain who play what on every song of each album. Although, we had a recent example of non accurate information of this lists: the list provided by Guy Fletcher about Get Lucky (as it is said on MK news forum, Remembrance Day is obviously not the strat54)

    What do you think about that folks?

    1. Hi ! I remember an old interview of Jack. He said that he played the synclavier on TMTS. That’s all he recalled of his recording contribution. He also wrote the bass line of RATR, a song that he said was struggling to find a reggae feeling. He talked a lot with Mark about the atmosphere of the songs and the sounds. He helped Mark to shape the guitar sounds, especially OW where Mark took Jack’srig. He also introduced him to the synclavier, the pensa being inspired by Jack’s guitar. I’d like to find this article to refresh my memory;-)

  7. Thank you for an informative and entertaining blog. I have created a website for my greatest passion: guitar playing. For original guitar-related content pay my website a visit.

  8. Hmm, it’s a fantastic sounding guitar, I wonder if the pickups are single coil or humbucker? (Probably single coil because on the Sydney concert, at least, it sounds ‘out of phase’). Speaking of Sydney, the other thing I notice is that compared to ’85 gigs (eg. San Antonio) the tone with this guitar and the sunburst strat (ToL, R&J) sounds heaps thicker. I heard that this is because Mark started using Jim Kelly amps. Does anyone know about this?
    I wonder how the Synclavier/guitar interface worked? Perhaps something like Pat Metheny had…

  9. Hi, the photo of Mark and Bob was definately taken at the Melbourne Dire Straits show in February 1986 (I think by a professional) because I was there. Something that you might be interested in is that if you look in the “Sailing to Philadelphia” tour program book there is a full page photo of Mark and Bob. This photo was also taken at the same concert during the song “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and it was the very last photo on my roll of film. I am a huge fan of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits and I was just lucky to be in the front row of this concert. It was a fantastic night that I will always remember.

  10. Hi janet,
    thanks for the info. 🙂
    As I never seen the STP tour book, can you confirm which guitar he has on the pic you’re talking about ?
    is that this pensa ? Did he play this guitar on Knockin on heaven’s door ?

  11. A mystery finally resolved!! For Years I’ve been running speculations and asking “people who know” what the hell IS that sound on So Far Away, Thanks!

  12. Fantastic stuff here! I just wanted to comment on Jean-François’ musing, “Jack is credited on the BIA sleeve among others musicians ‘for helping to make the record’, so he must be playing on at least one song.”

    Indeed, I suspect that MK may have been commenting on Jack’s suggestions on changing some of the lyrics, such as replacing “earing and the tutu” with “earing and the make-up” in Money For Nothing. I have no proof, to be sure, but it interesting to ponder.

  13. It was done using the six analog tone generators in the Synclavier. To be truthful, it could had been done with any good analog polysynth with MIDI, like a Tiracon 6V.

    1. As a huge Fan sind 1985 and guitarist i am trying to recreate the SFA Sound nowadays. AutoWah, Phaser und SpringReverb could come close, dont you trink ?

      BTW: The Sydney Intro of SFA is in my Personal Top10 Dire Straits Moments very high, a beautiful Moment! The live Version of PONO First Seen in 1991 ist my Second favourite.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *