Mike Barnett is the man behind successful ambient music label Beyond Records. He had obtained some previous experience in the music business through management and as a music agent, and quite simply was compelled to start up a new label in order to release the type of music that he felt was being overlooked by other labels and was not reaching its potentially large audience.
"I was having such a good time at house clubs," recalls Barnett, "and I was looking for a project to pursue; something that I'd always been interested in doing. Really the area that we're in was inspired by listening to the Orb. I'd always had a general interest in ambient music dating back to the '70s with people like Terry Riley, Micky Hart (Grateful Dead) and the weird stuff coming out of the west coast of America. But then I also liked dance music too. I'd been involved with management before, which was falling apart at the same time as I was getting interested in the type of ambient music that the Orb were doing and I felt that there should be more available.
"So I started tracking down artists, although the original idea was to work on a number of my own tracks as well, but that soon got dropped because it wasn't as good as the stuff I found when I started digging."
Beyond's first release in August 1992 was the compilation album Ambient Dub Volume 1. Concentrating on album releases is an important consideration for Barnett.
"One thing that you've got to do in order to survive as a record company is to become album based -- unless you can pick hit singles, in which case you'll quickly become extremely rich. I really can't see how singles-based companies can survive selling a few thousand records here and there. Albums are around for longer, they go around the world easier and you can work press with an album over a period of months, whereas with singles it's often a matter of weeks or even days. Therefore I wanted the first release to be an album and the idea of a compilation just naturally arrived."
Establishing a good distributor is obviously a good start for anyone contemplating starting up their own record label, but what other initial advice can Barnett give?
"The very first thing I did, in terms of deciding to do the record label, was to rent a mailbox in London. I thought that was a good starting point to have a central point for mail to go to that would remain the same if I moved. I use a service company who re-package and re-post your mail to wherever you happen to be, which at the moment is in Birmingham. It also makes for good continuity to have the same mailing address on all the records.
"My distribution is through Total. They are an independent company who have a distribution deal with BMG, so they (Total) act as middlemen. It's an unusual situation because most distribution companies do their own wharehousing, despatch and handle their own returns -- but Total let BMG handle that day-to-day business and act purely as the sales operation. It's worked really well and we've had quite a bit of success.
"Basically when I got the record ready I assembled it onto a cassette tape and posted it off to various distributors who I felt would do a good job with it. I then followed up and spoke to them on the phone. It's been a good experience but you have to learn how to work with your chosen distributor and you've got to enthuse them. Which means banging on doors and having some kind of story to tell."
When it came to mastering and having the records cut and pressed, how did Mike approach the daunting task of choosing a manufacturer?
"I looked in things like the Music Week Yearbook and I knew of a few pressing plants even though I'd never dealt with them before. So I just rang a few up, got some prices and went with what seemed to be the best deal. But it's 'horses for courses' -- you learn as you go along. Some plants are better for vinyl, some produce better quality products and you need to ask around. Now we do all our vinyl at one plant in the same way that we do all our cuts with one particular engineer; Miles at Copymasters in London -- because we're really happy with everything he's done.
"It's the same with CDs -- some places produce a product that sounds better than other, so you need to shop around just like if you were buying a TV or a car."
I was interested to know if a small record label like Beyond needed to release a minimum number of records in order to keep going.
"Well -- we'd only need to sell one if it sold well! It's nice to have a flow of releases, but if there wasn't anything that sounded good enough then I wouldn't release anything. I think it's more important to keep the vibe rather than just release something because you have to, which is what the big companies do. And one of the things you've got to do is not do what the big boys are doing because you can't compete with them. Instead you've got to do something apart from what they're doing; things they can't do, like small quantities, because they can't make money out of it."
What sort of quantities are these?
"The first pressing of Volume 1 was 1000 CDs and on pre-sale we did about 150 in the first month. Then we started getting the good reviews and now we can do pre-sales of around 3-4000."
Next I quizzed Barnett about the departure of one of his acts, Banco de Gaia, who moved on to record with the Planet Dog label, suggesting that artists featured on compilations often get 'snatched' up by bigger record companies. Unexpectedly Barnett has a 'laissez-faire' attitude to this dilemma.
"The guys at Planet Dog are friends of mine who've often talked of doing a label -- and they've known Banco de Gaia long before I even met Toby (Marks) so I feel that it's best for an artist to record with whoever suits them best. "There are pros and cons of recording with a major label. The pros are that you usually get some money up-front, whilst the cons are that you usually have to sign an onerous multi-album contract and you lose control of almost everything. For some artists it makes a lot of sense to be with a big record company and it wouldn't make sense to work with a small label -- but with other artists the reverse is true. Like it wouldn't make a lot of sense for Whitney Houston to make a record with Beyond!"
Beyond's market is largely UK-based with no licensing deals, although they have a deal with Play It Again Sam records in Benelux, who take finished products.
Barnett: "I haven't done any licensing deals yet because basically you get offered crap money, you get a crap royalty and you lose control of the product."
The term 'ambient' has been heavily used to describe the kind of music that Beyond have been involved with. What does Barnett feel about the now commonplace usage of the word to pigeonhole a diverse range of music?
"Well we've stopped using it for some time, but we never used it on its own -- it was 'ambient dub', which we meant to be a better description. When I was putting the first album together I was trying to chase a vibe down; a positive underground dance vibe. In fact our motto; which you should pick once you've got your mailbox, is 'Underground, Positive and Experimental'. Everything else falls into place once you've decided what you're trying to chase and the feeling that you're trying to get at. I was wanting that feeling of positivity that I was getting from going to house clubs -- but I wanted to expand it into something that was happening outside of the established main nights."
Does Barnett have any further advice for people wanting to start their own record label?
"Don't do it!" he laughs. "But if you do do it, do it properly; for example, making sure that the stuff is barcoded 'cos you can't get into the big stores otherwise. Ask around and do as much research as possible -- talking to distributors is a good source of information. But a good record will sell itself -- after that it's just a case of making sure you don't make any stupid mistakes. For me an album should act as a catalogue product, by which I mean that it's a product that will sell outside of the chart system and will continue to sell over a period of time and doesn't depend on the vagaries of the Indie or Gallup charts in order to sell. I'm interested in records that will sell to people who are enthusiastic about music rather than those enthusiastic about fashion."
The concept behind the Higher Intelligence Agency has evolved from the live and experimental electronic performances given by core members Bobby Bird and Dave Wheels during early 1992 at their Oscillate club nights in Birmingham. The now bi-weekly event is a multi-sensory affair incorporating a live band, music and surround visuals -- the so called 'heliocentric atmospheres' are an attempt to reach people on another level.
"We used to play a record and follow it with a live piece," recalls Bird. "And nobody knew the difference -- it was like a big difference from seeing a group and thinking 'I'm watching an artist working!' Instead they just heard it and if they liked it they were dancing."
Colourform is the band's debut album, released on Beyond Records, and features the tracks 'Speedlearn' and 'Ketamine Entity' previously released by Beyond on EP and compilation formats. HIA's sound is electronically inspired and shows the influence of free-form experimentalism; on surveying their equipment racks in their home-based Birmingham studio, it's obvious that there is a heavy bias towards everything analogue. Was this intentional?
Bird: "The things like the keyboards I just asked other players what made a particular sound because I didn't have a clue at that stage from one keyboard to the next. And everything always ended up being some kind of analogue instrument."
Despite having a fairly comprehensive studio setup (see equipment listing) HIA work in what could be considered a fairly unorthodox manner, especially when it comes down to mixing. There is a Fostex R8 machine, but this has long since been abandoned, 'spool-less', in the corner of the studio. No, HIA are advocates of 'live' mixing, using their computer as the only form of sequencing and tracking. Bird: "Because the idea of the band comes out of a live thing, it seems like the right way of getting a performance onto the DAT. Having everything running live just has this freshness about it where you can manipulate things. Whilst it's going down onto tape, we're working -- we're not just sitting back after having pressed record."
I assume with this method of working that the pair end up with a number of different takes.
"We do sometimes make about three and then choose one -- but it's usually obvious which is the one."
Listening to the Colourform CD it's apparent that there is a lot of sound modulation going on. Do they employ any methods of automating these random elements?
"Actually I don't like automating things," admits Bird. "I'd rather let it run and just happen. I prefer it when it's unpredictable and you have to try to get the good take."
This rogue approach is reinforced by various bits of gear around the studio -- like a Roland System 100 sequencer used for writing unusual riffs and getting ideas. There is also the Paragon Systems DVM-X, a locally made analogue drum module that never really took off. "It's pretty crap," admits Bird, "but it's useful for what we do. We use it live, put a signal through it from the desk and then Dave kind of manipulates it."
Wheels: "You get a kind of noisy snare, shaker and maracas type of sound -- right down to very low notes. We'll trigger it with rhythmical lines like a hi-hat or something."
One piece of digital technology in HIA's studio is their Akai S1100 sampler with 10Meg of memory and run in conjunction with a DAC R4000II removable hard drive. Bird: " I use it to sample drums, whilst also using a number of machines as well. But usually the bass is a sample. I like the Juno bass sounds because they're really heavy. When we're recording I'll run it live, whereas for live use I'll sample it.
"The Syquest hard drive was bought mainly for working live -- it makes it easier to load up a lot of information very quickly. But it was also useful when we did a re-mix of Pop Will Eat Itself's last single 'Famillus Horribilis'. They (PWEI) gave us the vocals on DAT along with other data on the Syquest removable drives that they'd been using. So we just loaded it into the Akai and worked off of that information. It was good fun."
So what other sound sources are you sampling?
Bird: "We're doing less and less sampling from records, even though we've never sampled dance records. I once got an interesting sample when I was trying to take the sound of a video. Because the video player was over the other side of the room from where the sampler was and there was no remote, I just set the sample for 20 seconds. But by the time I'd turned the video off and returned to the sampler it had accidentally recorded what was on the TV afterwards. And it was around those few words snatched out of the airwaves that we based the track -- in fact we've written two tracks around it.
"One thing I try to do is have elements in the music that have happened accidentally or randomly and see if anything comes out of it that we like. Most of the time I don't know what key any of the tracks are in or what the notes are that I'm playing into the computer. I try not to think about that."
Colourform was recorded and mixed at HIA's home studio. To help the process, an Allen and Heath GS316 desk was bought to replace their aging Seck (18:8:2) which had developed some annoying traits and is now used only for live work. Bird: "The Seck was actually picking up interference from transmissions like Radio Moscow! Working at night was OK but during the day it came up really loud and we'd just have to stop and wait for it to go away."
There is little difference between the way HIA record at home and their live presentations. The general idea is to uproot the majority of their gear and take it out on the road, as they do frequently for their increasing number of live shows throughout the country.
"It's not too difficult to set up," announces Bird. "A normal group uses expensive gear with drum kits and microphones, along with the whole nightmare of having to mix it all out front and cope with the monitoring. We take out a lot of electronic stuff, but I would say it only takes about half an hour to set up."
Sequences from the computer are offloaded into an Alesis Datadisk in real time. Outputs from the instruments (see HIA live gear) are then fed into the Seck 18:8:2 desk and mixed by the group themselves, with a stereo feed going directly to the PA system. Bird: "Basically we just mix it on stage, or anywhere else where we're allowed to set up at a gig. Often it's nice if it isn't in the same room. But it most cases we'll use the main system as foldback so that we can hear what everyone else is hearing and it's also good to be able to EQ for the specific room."
Whilst Bird will operate the main desk and analogue instruments, Wheels has his own little setup consisting of a Sony cassette desk, Yamaha mixer, Paragon drum module and Test Oscillator.
"I have selections of spoken words which I'll spin into the tracks or play during links whilst Bobby resets some of the sounds," explains Wheels. "I also use a Boss PCM2 percussion pedal."
Akai S1100 sampler (10Meg memory)
DAC R4000II Hard Drive
Alesis Quadraverb effects
Alesis Midiverb effects
Oberheim Matrix 1000 synth module
Alesis Datadisk data filer
Zoom 9030 effects
Yamaha YMM2 MIDI merge box
Aria DEX-100 digital delay
Ibanez DM2000 digital delay
Seck 18:8:2 desk
Roland Juno 60 synth (with Roland MD8 MIDI interface)
Sequential Circuits Prophet 600 synth
Roland Jupiter 8 synth
Roland TB303 Bassline
Groove Electronics M2CV MIDI to CV interface
Advance H1 Test Oscillator
Paragon Systems DVM-X percussion
Roland 201 Space Echo
Sony cassette deck
Yamaha AM802 mixer
Boss PC2 percussion synthesizer
ADDITIONAL STUDIO GEAR
Allen & Heath GS316 desk
Yamaha NS10M monitors
Atari 1040 computer running C-Lab Creator software
Roland TR808 drum machine
Roland Drumatix TR606 drum machine
Roland System 100 Sequencer ARP Odyssey synth
Roland SH101 synth
Alesis Microverb effects
Roland R8 drum machine
AKG C1000s microphone
Fostex R8 8-track
Casio DA7 DAT machine
In a quiet backwater in Leamington Spa, I met up with converted cottage owner-occupier Toby Marks. He is Banco De Gaia, whose tracks adorned each of the three acclaimed Ambient Dub compilations released on Beyond records, and whose living room is graced with a fine Victorian fireplace rescued from a house in Stratford.
His discography also includes a track on Excursions In Ambience, a compilation on the New York Caroline label, available only on import, one on the Future Shock video, another on the compilation Feed Your Head, and a new single, 'Desert Wind', out now on Planet Dog. An album is scheduled for release on that label in January.
I first became aware of the project from ecstatic references to it in MixMag, which immediately told me that this is not merely music for depressed students. Currently I'm auditioning the second of three cassette albums released on Toby's own label, World Bank, called Freeform Flutes and Fading Tibetans. While obvious Orb comparisons can be made, the tunes do have their own identity, notably when the Hawaian guitars or Hovis horns come in. For someone who disclaims his keyboard technique, some fairly cool piano work is in evidence. Of course he might have quantised the trills... The whole musical montage is woven from world sound sources, both popular and ethnic, and it's easy to see why this tape caused the music establishment to take note of Banco De Gaia. Other tapes include Medium, released in 1990, and Deep Live, recorded in late '92. These are available from Toby or via Woof Distribution, yet another arm of the Mega Dog empire.
"I'd been sitting here, working on my stuff for a few years and getting a bit pissed off with it. It wasn't going anywhere. I had a bit of (unresolved) interest from Vinyl Solution and De Construction of all people... then someone told me they'd seen an advert in Sound On Sound about this new ambient label up in Birmingham who were looking for material... I bunged them a tape, they really liked it, and we took it from there.
Which is how come Toby has five compositions and one remix included in the seminal Ambient Dub Trilogy.
"Beyond are very well respected for what they are doing. Mike (Barnett) was very careful about quality control. Rather than just chucking out another compilation with three or four good tracks and other fillers, he would make sure that every track was worth having there."
Beyond don't have a studio of their own. I asked where the works for Ambient Dub were mastered.
"They were all done here. In fact one of the tracks on Vol.1 was done with the 550 and a Tascam 238 8-track cassette, and it sounds great on CD... If you've got the money to get a reasonable set of equipment you don't need to hire studios any more. You don't need Lexicons, you don't need 48 channels..."
Depends on whether you want to use live strings, I suppose. As if to prove my point, it transpires that the forthcoming album was in fact mixed in a professional studio, to gain access to a better desk and more outboard.
What's in Toby's home studio now?
"I use a Studiomaster Proline 16:4 desk. The MIDI muting is handy when you've got a lot of analogues hissing away. I have a Quadraverb, an SRV-2000, a Proverb, a couple of Boss micro effects, and a BBE Sonic Maximiser which helps a lot. I don't really use the bottom end, just the top. The main thing it does is polish the windows. You turn it on and suddenly it's like a layer of film comes off the sound. It brings the whole thing into focus.'
"I'd been playing down in Club Dog in London quite a lot. They were starting up a label and they asked me if I would like to do something with them. Initially I said no, because I'd been working with Beyond. Then a bottleneck started to develop at Beyond with too much stuff waiting to come out, and not enough money to do it. Mike suggested that maybe I should take up the offer at Planet Dog rather than have me sitting frustrated for about six months, being unable to release anything. He suggested that it would be in everyone's interest that I move on, and it's worked out really well."
Since there was no written contract with Beyond, and since the split was at Mike's suggestion anyway, there was never going to be a problem moving on. It might interest readers to know that Banco and Planet Dog have a non-exclusive deal of a type that is becoming very common with so-called 'dance' artists. For a limited financial commitment a label signs an act for a given number of records under a project name. The act is excluded from using that name elsewhere, but may work freely under as many pseudonyms as they like. This safeguards the label from being ripped off after developing the act, while freeing the artist to do more or less as he or she pleases. (There is nothing worse than being contractually bound to a label which prevents you from flourishing.)
Ironically, with significant appearances on five compilations and three cassette albums to his name, 'Desert Wind' is the first single. At the time of writing it had reached 9 in the Indie chart. Toby tells me he's "hardening the beat these days, to reach a wider audience." Judging by the present single, this does not mean selling out. As before, a complexity of ingredients blends naturally into a cohesive whole. No short-cuts to success have been taken.
The heart of any Banco performance or composition is a fully loaded (18Mb) Roland S750 sampler, driven by Creator on the Atari. Toby started with a 550, and the 750 was the logical successor. A second MIDI output from the Atari's MODEM port feeds the S750 exclusively.
"There's something warm about the Rolands. Somebody said to me once that the Akais are like production tools, whereas the Rolands are musical instruments.
"Before I got the Jupiter I was actually using the 750 for a lot of analogue-type sounds. Analogues on their own are fine, but personally I wouldn't give up the sampler for anything."
An 80Mb hard drive is used for live, and a 650Mb one resides at home. He has somehow just acquired a Jupiter 8 in mint working order for £350, and an SH09 for fifty quid. The latter has an external input, so he can put anything he wants through the filter. He also uses a Juno 6, complaining that the LFO is sometimes not slow enough for filter swept arpeggios. An M1 is now mainly given over to mother keyboard use. He doesn't use a drum machine, but if a suitable sampling one was available he'd be interested.
"I'd really like to get a drum machine going at the moment, because I actually miss the way they work. I really like the immediacy of just getting loops going and changing things while it's running. Doing that on sequencers can be a bit of a pain. But what I'd really like to get is one I can put my own sounds in. Most drum machines have got, if you're lucky, a dozen usable sounds... six months later, you've used them. What are you going to use for your next track?"
Like any serious Roland user, he has noticed a tendency for some notes to play late when polyphony is stretched. (I point out that Roland have now issued a CPU upgrade which should sort him out.) Having sussed that rhythmically crucial tracks need to be fired first, and that Creator, like Cubase, scans from top to bottom, he always puts drums at the top.
"I prefer the way Tracks work on Creator, but I hate the Arrangement. It's not intuitive like Cubase."
Also, strapped for outputs, he was considering getting an SP700 in the near future, until I told him that it does not support a monitor-and-mouse environment. He was interested to hear about the S760, though, which does. [See review of the S760 elsewhere in this issue.]
BCM Box 8098, London WC1N 3XX
Tel: 021 368 3166
Fax: 021 357 7196
Alternate Fridays at Bonds, Bond Street, near Constitutional HIll, Birmingham.
Ambient Dub 1 (compilation, August '92)
Ambient Dub 2 (compilation, February '93)
Ambient Dub 3 (compilation August '93)
Colourform ( Higher Intelligence Agency, November '93)
Buried Dreams (Max Eastley & David Toop, February '94)
A Positive Life (early'94)
Live At Oscillate Vol.1 (compilation, early '94)
Life Before Land (Another Fine Day, early'94)
Speedlearn EP (Higher Intelligence Agency).
The Calling EP (A Positive Life January '94).
What's the connection between the Orb, Fluke, Banco De Gaia, and the other artists featured on the front cover of the NME a few weeks ago?
"The Atari ST? Everyone's trying to work out what's going on with music at the moment. There's this new genre of live electronic music coming out, dance oriented, ambient, encompassing a lot of technology, what exactly is it?"
According to Mike Barnet, 'Intelligent Music'. As a label, however, it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. What did Toby make of it?
TM: "Well, I am intelligent, and I do make music..."
Comparisons with Electronic Music and Punk have been drawn. (Both forms thrive outside of the established music industry, etc.) Why, therefore, did he think dance has survived as an underground phenomenon for so long, whereas Punk exhausted itself in a relatively short time?
"There's a limit to what you can do with a drum kit, a guitar, a bass, and a lot of youthful energy. When you've got a sampler you can have 25 minutes of seagulls, or anything..."
The possibilities are endless. Watch out for a Peel session coming up in January.
Audio files to accompany the article.
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