Melody Maker 25 June 1994: The Future Sound of Technology
For Brian Dougan and Gary Cobain, The Future Sound of London is the medium for pushing the frontiers of studio recording, live performance and video making. Tom Doyle takes a peep into the future.
In the corner of a quiet suburban street in Dollis Hill, north-west London, lies Earthbeat Studios, home to The Future Sound Of London. Although at first it might look like a small demo studio, this is the place where Brian Dougan and Gary Cobain have become virtual hermits over the past four years.
Not only do they make their records here, Earthbeat also doubles as the group’s nerve centre, where they design their album covers, edit their videos and, even stranger, perform live broadcasts, delving into the cutting-edge of technology with the help of a series of innocuous little boxes lining the walls. They’ve hardly seen the outside world for sometime, so this Monday morning they look impressively knackered. The first question, “When did you first start working together?” is eventually picked up by Gary. “We had separate studios in Manchester, I just had an Atari and a couple of drum machines, but I met Brian in a nightclub and he had a really good four track and some other bits and bobs, so we got together.
“We decided to do a mix on a track that I’d done, so I brought all my gear up to Brian’s, but we had a break in,” adds Gary. “Half of it went and it wasn’t insured. So at that point we became a band! We just thought ‘We can’t afford to work separately now’.”
Before signing to Virgin two years ago, the pair paid for their London premises by producing “shit dance tracks” under various names, including Mental Cube and Yage.
“We had overheads and we had to make a living, so to a certain degree we were making tracks that we knew we could sell without really believing too much in them,” Gary admits.
They started off Earthbeat with a really old Soundtracs desk, a couple of S900s and an S1000. Now they’ve got two Alesis ADAT eight-track digital recorders, Apple Mac Soundtools for digital editing as well as racks of analogue synths and Akais.
The Day Off
A typical working day for them is easily explained.
Brian: “Cup of tea, couple of spliffs, intense arguments for a couple of hours, then maybe one of us realises that there’s a track in there.”
Gary: “We’ve got two new albums prepared and so God knows what everyone else is f***ing doing. We probably haven’t worked on music for about four months now and we’ve still managed to make over two hours of music. That’s as well as doing sleeves, videos…”
Will a track start from one sound idea or a sample?
Gary: “We just see ourselves as electronic librarians really. We’ve got over 200 hours of DATs and we collect sounds from everywhere really, and that’s why we’ve got so much. We take our video cameras everywhere and we monitor a lot of radio and TV now that everything’s coming into the home in glorious digital. You can’t really ignore any of the formats because they sometimes reap beautiful sounds. I can’t go out and film some of my mates kicking a ball in the park without overhearing the sound of a girl screaming with laughter or a dog barking in the background and wanting to use it. So you have to go through two hours of video just to get that one sound.
“When we get back into the studio, usually one of us will take control. When that person flags in terms of their creativity and their personal comment, then the other person will take over. You have to let one person predominate at any given point.
“I dunno, we maybe don’t work together anymore. We’ve gone through a recent phase of working on separate tracks and then bunging them together again. We’ve got so many good sounds in the studio, we don’t have to work together anymore. It’s quite bad for our sound in a way because when we had to fight to get our ideas out, the other person would be sitting there bored, thinking, ‘Come on, you self indulgent bastard’ and you had to try harder.”
Brian: “It’s like, ‘At least entertain me when you’re on the f***ing computer!’”
There was no definite start or end point for the recording of Lifeforms. Some of it was recorded before their 1992 debut “Accelerator”, and even on the day they were supposed to cut the album, they went and changed half of it. The title track is about three years old, though, and some of the sounds go way back to our Manchester days,” says Brian. If you often work separately, would you say there’s a general sort of sound umbrella for The Future Sound Of London which you both understand?
Gary: “Our whole attitude is to try to push ourselves into areas where we’re not doing what we naturally do. That even means now we’re thinking, ‘F***, we shouldn’t be working with samplers, maybe we should just use real instruments now’. Inherent in our whole working approach is the fact that maybe we shouldn’t be doing what we do… Too many people get a style and just assume that they can milk it. We’re supposed to be f***ing cutting-edge experimentalists, right? But how experimental is this kind of music? I think we could be a helluva lot more experimental and more coherent at the same time.
That means dealing with our equipment in a different way and not working to a formula.”
Live... on DAT
Although they’re not credited on the album sleeve, there are probably about a dozen other musicians on “Lifeforms”. There were guitarists, percussionists, vocalists, violinists and all manner of people. But FSOL’s way of working with musicians means that their performance instantly join the DAT collection. The next step, they say, is to get a live room and work with even more live musicians.
Gary: “What we tend to do is get a lot of musicians in and instead of trying to give them a backing track which makes them a bit too linear, we just let them play in air, just let them explore the complete range of sound of that instrument and then we just drop it onto DAT and start abstracting it.
“We were talking about this the other day. The equivalent of us playing live would be to have 1,000 musicians coming onstage to play one thing once and then walking off. How many musicians would have the self-control to do that?
“When we had Robert Fripp in here recently, he was winging it entirely. The problem is, when you listen with sample ears, you’re really, really critical, because sounds don’t really blow you away. Fripp took an hour getting the best possible sound out of his stack and looked up at us like a little boy, sort of ‘Isn’t this a great sound?’. We looked at each other and thought ‘Mm, might be worth a three second sample’ haha.”
For the album they had to get sample clearance from Ozric Tentacles (“They gave us the sample free”) and Klauz Schultz (“He didn’t”).
Brian: “Also, we sampled one note off a Daniel Lanois record, and even though we thought we had clearance, the night before the cut we got a call saying he didn’t want us to use it.” Gary: “It’s his loss though – one guitar note and he could have got a piece of the action.”
Although there are enough synths in the studio to impress even Gary Numan, Brian explains that they’ll often only use one sound from a synth and then never use it again. Are there any ones that they use quite a lot?
Brian: “There are certain synths that we do go back to, like the Roland SH1010.”
Gary: “Apart from that we’re really largely sample-based.”
They tend to “crunch up” the sounds of certain synths.
Brian: “We do that in various ways, like putting a sound through a reverb and echoes and dropping it onto DAT then a couple of weeks later we’d pull it out, sample it, re-EQ it, maybe put more echoes and a reverb on it.”
Gary: “A lot of the time we’ll just a write a crap sequence – the first thing that comes into your head – then fiddle around with it to make it sound good. You’ll start with a really cheesy piano sound and then put weird sample in its place. We do a lot of splicing and editing, re-sampling and degeneration of samples. A lot of the time we’re jamming things through tape decks until they distort and stuff.”
The two ADATs, they claim, have changed their way of working.
Brian: “They are really superb unless they’re spitting out the tape.”
Gary: “We’re committing a lot more to tape now and a lot more randomly.”
Brian: “What we do these days is write halftracks, drop that down to ADAT, re-stripe the tape with timecode and then go back and sequence over the top of that.”
Gary: “We used to get this pressure when we were simply sequencing that we had to finish things, but now we can just go on to something else.”
The mixing is always done here. Most of the level changes are done inside the Atari, so there’s little need for desk automation. The tricky part comes with the digital editing on the Soundtools, since Lifeforms ended up a near seamless collection with few breaks between tracks.
Gary: “For the first time I think we’ve achieved a non-linear listening experience. We were editing the tracks on the Apple Mac and syncing them with new sequences from the ADAT which would fade in for the last minute of the track and lead into something else. There was a lot bolting together went on.”
Live... at home
Two years ago the pair branched out by beginning to produce ground-breaking radio shows, firstly for Kiss FM in London, and now for Radio 1.
Gary: “We never wanted to be a touring band and we realised that there were other ways to play to people and convey ideas to them without going any where near a beer hall. Kiss initially wanted us to just DJ our way through a show and chat and so on, but we were far more interested in doing everything from the studio and then just presenting them with a DAT at the end of it. We ended up spending about a week on each show and actually tried to make it like a piece of recorded work. For us, that was blowing away the myth that the record is the be all and end all of your creative work. Initially we were using a lot of other people’s records within the show, but eventually we started phasing that part out.
“Now what were doing is exclusive products that mix very small elements from music, like Rachmaninov or Miles Davis – basically all the stuff we couldn’t get clearance for with the album. It just allows us to go completely mental, it allows us to do that album with 4,000 samples on it and say, ‘Clear these, you f***ers’.”
The pair claim that Kiss FM didn’t understand how the show was developing and so Radio 1 took it up. To date they’ve done two shows broadcasting live from the studio through a new digital phone-line system developed by APT (Audio Processing Technology). The possibilities of this system are endless, allowing you to transfer digital music information at full bandwidth in real time through phone lines. If studios have them – even if one is in Britain and one in the States – a vocalist can lay down his vocal in New York at the same time the band are recording the backing track in London. The Future Sound Of London have been using them to do a “tour” of radio stations across Europe from the comfort of Earthbeat. In typically idiosyncratic style, the pair have left this remarkable piece of technology balancing precariously on the cardboard packing
case it arrived in.
Gary: “Radio 1 had to get an APT, which revolutionised their set-up as well, and so we performed live down the phone straight onto the radio.”
Brian: “It was half and half live. We had ADAT sections that we’d pre-recorded which would allow us to load up the computer sequences and fade them in. Fripp was in the corner improvising, Gary was doing his mad axeman thing with a keyboard. It was going really well and then all three lines disconnected. We were freaking!”
Gary: “Radio 1 was silent for about a minute and a half…”
Brian: “In the end we just pressed Redial. If you listen to a tape of the show you can hear each line disconnecting – it drops from full bandwidth to 15kz then 7kz and then it's dead.”
Gary: “These things are going to rule in the future, though. They’ll completely blank out record companies. We can just advertise our music on the Internet, which has a million subscribers and send it straight to them.”
The pair are no less excited about the new possibilities in video and computer graphics, as anyone who’s witnessed the promo clip for Lifeforms will understand. Gary: “It’s like the sampler was the most expressive instrument of the last two decades and it was a very misunderstood piece of technology. We think the same is going to happen with video and TV. When the new video technology comes down to an affordable level, a street level, the kids are just going to wipe the floor with what the suits and the privileged creatives are doing with it.”
The Future Sound Of London have a small video team around them, and the majority of the editing is done here at Earthbeat.
Gary: “As far as video is concerned, we only have the philosophy, we don’t have all the brain power, but we’re using video to express our ideas through our creative team. They programme on Silicon Graphics systems or you can chain together PCs to emulate the more expensive visual systems. We come up with certain concepts and then we’ll have certain frames built and rendered piece by piece and then we’ll change them. The revolution is going to happen with Silicon Graphics – which in our opinion is the new sampler – and we want to be very hands-on with that in the future. We’re going after about five of those at the moment – even though they’re about £60,000 each – and the plan is to move somewhere else and have the whole creative team working in-house.”
Brian: “Over the next eight months we’re planning to do a feature film for national release…”
Gary: ”The plan is that we’ll play in the orchestra pit but, of course, you won’t be watching us…”
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