IMRW Late February 1989: I'm Only Humanoid
From teacher to pop star. Humanoid's Brian Dougans keeps Chris Jenkins in after class to give him a lesson in hit making.
With not a single cry of "ACIEEEEED!", one record, Humanoid's "Stakker Humanoid", has blown apart the UK House Music scene. It's the most uncompromisingly Acid track to be produced so far in this country, yet it's also one of the few to make the crossover into the charts, having been played on Top of the Pops, John Peel, and The Hitman and Her to name but a few. The band Humanoid is basically one musician, Brian Dougans, in collaboration with engineer/producer John Laker. If you have a very long and exceedingly accurate memory, you might recall an IM Home Taping feature on Brian in December '86; at the time he was based in Manchester, producing ambient music for theatre and video, using a four-track system around a small assortment of keyboards and a Yamaha CX5 music computer.
The success of "Stakker Humanoid" has taken Brian a little by surprise; when we spoke, the single was at 18 in the charts, with a Top of the Pops appearance scheduled for the following day ("just something you've gotta do..."). Up until a few weeks ago, he was teaching an audio-visual technology course in Salford.
"I took the course myself and they asked me to stay on as a tutor afterwards. We use a 16-track with a Soundcraft desk and two video edit suites, one VHS and one U-matic."
Brian's involvement with the course brought him into contact with commercial video outfit Stakker, and he began to work with them on TV idents and MTV videos, including a forthcoming EuroTechno compilation video. The combination of music and video technology came together in the concept of the acid dance band Humanoid.
"My dad ran a music studio in Glasgow, so I learned a lot about recording there," explained Brian. His synthesizer-based ambient music put this experience to good use, but it was the Manchester underground scene which changed his attitude in music making.
"In Manchester, the House scene has been going for ages, in London they're backwards! I spent a lot of time at the Hacienda club with people like Baby Ford (whose "Oochy Koochy" was a recent hit for Rhythm King Records) and Gerald. The UK underground, people like Cabaret Voltaire, had the sound and the aesthetic, but what they didn't have was the American dance influence."
At the time, one of the more influential sources of American dance music was Morgan Khan's Streetsounds label. Khan now runs West Records and a number of other affiliated labels publishing American import and home-grown dance music. Brian sent a Stakker video to Khan, who liked the music more than he liked the video. Within a couple of weeks this led to a recording session at Khan's Westside Records studio, Dance Music, and from this two-day session, "Stakker Humanoid" was born.
Issued as a white label to promote a forthcoming compilation, Acido Amingo, the track was picked up by the clubs, by Channel 4's Behind the Beat, and by John Peel. The rest, as they say, is history.
"Stakker Humanoid" is a relentless dance barrage of electronic trums, sub-sonic bass, distorted vocals and, of course, that squidgy Roland TB-303 Bassline. Brian and John Laker produced it in Dance Music Studio, a modest 16-track set-up located below Westside Records' West London offices, featuring a Fostex E-16 recorder, Soundtracks MRX32/8/24 mixer, Yamaha NS-10M and Tannoy Little Gold monitors, and Revox B77 mastering machine. The studio was recently revamped by engineer/producer John Laker, whose aim was to turn a relatively small space into a workshop suitable for largely electronic recording.
"You get a great punch out of the NS-10s, though some people think they're a little dull," says John, who previously specialised in dance music at London Bridge studio. "The Tannoys are good though; they give an excellent stereo image."
John also brought in most of the instruments used in the sessions; an Akai S900, Yamaha RX5 drum machine, DX7 and TX81Z, Casio CZ101, Roland JX3P, Alpha Juno I and D550, and Oberheim DPX sample player.
"I'm not too happy with the DPX though," he admitted. "You can set up the equalisation and effects on the desk for the S900, and when you play the same sound from the DPX it just comes out completely different."
But why so many instruments?
"Very little of what we did ended up on the 16-track tape; most of it's on a box full of floppy disks," explained John. "I've used C-Lab's Creator software on the Atari ST almost since it first appeared, the event editor and quantisation facilities make it much more flexible than, say, Steinberg Pro-24. Most of "Stakker Humanoid" was played live, controlled by the ST. The remixing we could do using the rearrange mode on Creator; for the extended versions, we physically edited three master tapes. I'd like a really good half-inch mastering machine in the studio, because nothing bears splicing tape. DAT looks useful but, of course, you can't edit it; and I'm interested in digital editing systems, like the Commander Electronics Lynex. But from what I saw at the APRS they're not reliable enough yet."
"We produced "Stakker Humanoid" backwards, starting with the last Acid section and breaking it down back towards the intro," added Brian. Though there's very little variation in the bass line, the track is divided into three main sections: an intro featuring a synth organ sound and two Acid sections. The 12" includes a 3:40 radio edit, and a 7:50 Omen Mix featuring some unusually atmospheric sampling.
The distinctive TB-303 patterns have to be programmed on the Bassline itself; there's no way to control it directly by MIDI, and the modulation is done by hand. Synchronisation is via a Roland SBX90 SMPTE-to-MIDI convertor, which conveniently features a Roland DIN Sync-24 output which will clock the Bassline.
Though there wasn't much multi-tracking involved, the mix made heavy use of the studio's large selection of effects units.
"The E16 needs a bit more processing than a 24-track to lift the sounds. We use a Urei limiter/compressor and Drawmer expanders to fatten up the drum sounds, and there's also a Drawmer compressor, a Symetric expander/gate, and TC delays, eq, gates and preamps. They're all excellent quality. There's an ART equaliser, which makes up for the fact that we don't have a de-esser; and for reverb and delay we have Yamaha SPX90 IIs, a Lexicon PCM70 and Yamaha Rev 5.
"The Lexicon we used to create chordal effects on a sort of synthi harp sound, and the SPX90 II for flanging the 'vocals', 'Humanoid' and 'Intruder alert'. Although most people assume that the noises were produced using a vocoder, in fact they're sampled from a coin-op arcade game, Berserk; Brian recorded them with a Walkman. You'll also hear some of the sound effects from the game Stakker Humanoid. We experimented with a software package which generates speech sound on a home computer, but we weren't happy with the results. We just couldn't understand what it was saying!"
Most of the drum sounds were TR-808 and TR-909 sample from the Akai S900, but the cuika and smoe backwards cymbal effects are from the Yamaha RX5 drum machine.
"We also used a sort of noise chot effect; that's from the Juno."
Though all the percussion programming was done on C-Lab, in future Brian and John also plan to use the audio-to-MIDI trigger board on the Akai S900 to record patterns played on drum pads.
"Because the C-Lab sequencer can use a higher note resolution than MIDI, you can sequence percussion with a really human feel.
"Another innovation is the McHall-Jones Rhythm Stick, seen (none too clearly) on the first Top of the Pops appearance, which was unfortunately dominated by the two dancers brought in to liven up Humanoid's stage presence.
"The Rhythm Stick is a guitar-styled MIDI percussion controller with touch sensitive pads. You program them for any MIDI note and play them with your fingertips. The MIDI connection comes from a floor-mounted box. Although this is just a prototype, we may well use the finished instruments, even though it does look a bit Heavy Metal!"
Which brings us to a sensitive point - that John Peel session. John and Brian recall it with extremely mixed feelings.
"We had four days to prepare three tracks, which we programmed in Dance Music studio; then we went to the BBC to record the session. We were given five hours to record the three tracks, and a producer who thought we were a Heavy Metal band called Stakker. They were obviously used to recording live bands, and didn't have much interest in electronic music. We thought we were having a lot of MIDI problems, and half the time it turned out to be producer problems! 'Oh yes,' he said, 'I know, Acid House,' and started singing "White Rabbit"! Eventually we got everything recorded, and left the producer to do the mix. When we came back, he'd put enormous heavy reverbs on all the drums..."
Fortunately the session was knocked into shape, and transmitted on November 29th. The three tracks all feature the familiar electronic drums, Acid effects and repetitive bass, but each has its own mood and texture. "Orbital (Feeling)" features sampled oohs and aahs produced at Dance Music.
"The live room as AKG mikes, but isn't used for much more than the odd vocal or horn section," explained John. "I do miss acoustic recording!" "Slam" and "Jetstream Tokyo" complete the session, and give some idea of the sort of variation which will feature in the next Humanoid releases, though they're not necessarily intended to appear on any forthcoming album.
"We're just working on a second single now," says Brian. "It will feature the same sort of ACid burn as "Stakker Humanoid", but it's more mellow."
Just as remarkable as the first single is the promo video produced by Stakker, shown on The Hitman and Her on December 4th, and featured on the sleeve of the single. Now established in London, producing videos for the fashion and music industries, Stakker used the Fairlight Computer Video Instruments - not to be confused with the better known Computer Musical Instrument - to produce a fast-changing wash of Acid colours and patterns, combined with some heavy-duty 3-D manipulations produced on a mega-expensive Quantel system. You have to see the video to fully appreciate the single, and vice versa.
"The video's full of subliminal messages, and is cut at an incredibly high speed," enthused Brian. "I really like it, though I might do the video for the next single myself."
So what's the Humanoid impression of the future of Acid house?
"Certainly the feel of it will continue, as an influence on more conventional songs," suggests Brian. "But the UK style is significantly different to the feel of the American tracks, and not just because they don't have such an association with drugs over there. Perhaps it's because so many US House records are produced on four and eight-track systems. The UK feel is much harder, a re-interpretation of the Chicago sound."
But isn't the Acid thing already running out of ideas, reduced to doing cover verions and endless remixes?
"We like the idea of doing club remixes of conventional songs; maybe we'll start seeing Acid versions of Bros records!" Brian suggests, only half jokingly. "but as for running out of ideas, we've got f'kin LOADS!"
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