How would your band like to be given 75 kiloquid from Pete Tong to come up with an album's worth of music in your own sweet time? Such an apparently too-good-to-be-true event has recently befallen Edinburgh's Finitribe. How did they do it? What have they spent the money on?
First a little background. Taking their name from the term the Rosicrucians coined for fish, the Finis have been ploughing their own very individualistic musical furrow for over a decade. During the '80s, they evolved from being a six-piece post-punk thrash-theatre pop group into a lean and mean dance machine. Presently, the trio of Philip Pinsky, David Miller and John Vick own and run a 24-track studio, and I don't just mean the equipment. They bought the building, too, from which premises they also manage themselves and run their own label, Finiflex. Over the last four years the band were signed to One Little Indian, though by 1993 they were not exactly seeing eye to eye.
John Vick: "Most bands get dropped by their record company at some point for not doing their job very well. We've done the opposite. We've sacked our label...!"
Finitribe felt One Little Indian had no idea how to market them, and that the label was simply trying to push them down the Shamen route to instant chart success, via radio-friendly Beatmasters remixes. John Vick has very strong views on this approach:
"As soon as you start messing around with a juvenile fan base, you are on very dodgy ground. Your life expectancy goes down drastically. It's not that the fans aren't loyal, but their taste is constantly changing. That's why you see all these bands with one-year chart careers."
Last year the Finis defiantly released a record on Finiflex. This included the Catch the Whistle remix of 'Monster in the House' b/w a Finis remix of '101'. Both sides got substantial club and airplay, and around 5000 copies changed hands. This alerted the industry to the fact that the Finis might be on the transfer list.
A period of re-evaluation saw the boys (curiously, given their apparent aversion to the biz) having a serious flirtation with pop supremo Tom Watkins, he of Pet Shop Boys, Bros. and East 17 fame. Though they have great respect for the man, they finally turned down his management offer in order to retain maximum creative independence. Courted by several majors, they have now signed a recording contract with London. (Apparently Tracey Bennet, who runs London Records, became convinced when they proved to him they could dance -- in a restuarant!). The deal is unusual and innovative, and may be a watershed in the way big companies tackle the thorny problem of how to properly test the viability of dance acts without committing a prohibitive amount of time and money to development and promotion. London have not signed the agreement, and will only do so if they like the results of their initial £75K investment. On the other hand, until London say yea or nay to releasing and promoting a Finitribe album, other record companies cannot step in with a better offer. The Finis therefore have time to get their album together, and London have safeguarded their interest relatively cheaply. (Stories of half a million being flushed down the toilet on a duff signing are relatively common among majors). The Finis still owe One Little Indian part of the advance for the undelivered follow-up album to An Unexpected Groovy Treat. This is to be repaid as soon as London pick up their option.
Before, during and after their spell on One Little Indian, the Finis released their own and other artists' records on Finiflex, using independent distributors RTM and Deltra to get records into shops. All graphics and label image-building take place in-house. Their famous five-pointed asterisk has appeared on record labels, sleeves, T-shirts and stage clothes. On one tour, the band even sported asterisk guitars (albeit with no strings). All three members appear on records and stage, but otherwise division of labour is the order of the day; Davey and Phil take care of Finiflex and all aspects of management, leaving John Vick with the responsibility for the development of the studio and also for the majority of the musical composition. It is John who spends his days in the basement of Finitribe's two-storey complex in a Leith tenement, peering down a soldering iron, fiddling with S3200s, and pushing back the groove frontiers with Cubase V3. It was was also John I spoke to at length on music and technology-related topics.
My conversation with John started with an examination of the difficulties of trying to be both a credible club act and a mainstream commercial success.
"Finitribe do songs, yet all the Finiflex releases have been club tracks, and that's a real dilemma for us. It's very rare to have a normal band doing songs which are really popular in the clubs, and also go really high into the charts, yet that is what is wanted. All the major record companies are looking for their acts to do that."
You've said you could do a simple 10-minute button mix of all the loops which would get Philip Howes [London Records], Pete [Tong] and Davy and Phil excited.
"Yes, but they would want the same piece of music done in a more commercial way as well. They want a long club version, and an edited-down radio version which sounds just the same but is shorter."
That doesn't really work.
"I know it doesn't work. In the club you can hear things building up. The only time it worked for us was with the remix of '101', which we did with Andy Weatherall, and that was just a fluke!"
What did Andy do?
"He put some loops along with it, and on one mix replaced our piano with a harmonica, but basically it was the same song."
He beefed up the rhythm track, then. Were you using loops yourselves at this time [2-3 years ago]?
"No, we wanted to program our own drums. We didn't even think of using loops. For Finiflex productions [of other artists] we did use loops, because it was an easy way to get that club sound. The only loops I'm using for the new LP are ones I've made up. It's very easy to get a house loop and chuck it in and it'll sound fine. It's much harder to do something different."
On a practical level, how do you go about assembling a tune?
"You can start from different angles. You can get a synth sound on the JD800, hear it evolve, and then write music to go along with that. Or you can start with a bassline. If there's one thing I don't like doing it's getting a drum groove together and then just writing to that. If I do start off with a loop as a rhythm guide, I'm scared to get rid of it in the end, because it becomes such an important part of the music. I'll maybe use something to keep time, but I'll start a song from a musical, as opposed to a rhythmical, outlook.
"The basis of Finitribe music now is a sequence tied to a bassline, which is in turn tied to a harmonic progression. Because the music is evolving throughout the song, the bassline can remain the same, holding everything together. The sequence will follow the notes of the bassline. Sometimes the bassline will follow the chords, but I tend only to do that for highlights. What I've been doing recently, because I've got the resonant filters on the S3200, is to replace bass sounds with tones, and use the filters to create evolving basslines. One trick I've been doing is to put a bass note on the beat, then adjust the envelope so that the full bass of the sound comes in on the offbeat, so you get this very powerful deep sound like a bass drum, but without the click. Then I would gradually wind it up over 16 bars, so that you have the drums with this thing coming in underneath."
John Vick has a working knowledge of electronics, and has designed circuit boards for a local electronics firm. In the studio, he is constantly customising and updating the old but excellent 36-input MCI Series 400 console, in which an innovative automation system has been installed, to control the VCAs and many of the switches. The automation is not in use at present, as it is being modified to be under MIDI control instead of only SMPTE. The console has six auxiliary sends, and the 16 group Outs can also be used as a selectable aux send. Not only is the architecture of this large, in-line console simple, the EQ is incredibly basic, with switchable bass and treble shelving, high-pass filtering, and a swept mid-range. The warmth of the sound from the desk is very impressive, though sometimes its lack of seriously corrective EQ (a task farmed out to several outboard units) proves frustrating. I asked John to explain why such an old and unsophisticated console should sound so good.
"It uses high quality ICs, and not many of them... The bass and treble are just passive. They are not incredibly harsh. It's mix EQ rather than correction EQ. Then there is one IC for the parametric. A rotary switch is used for frequency selection. It's much quieter than it would be if it used a potentiometer."
How much would it cost to buy a console of this build quality nowadays?
"Not loads and loads. It's just that people want to be able to do much more in a smaller size."
Is there a comparison between the warmth and quality of this desk, and that of an old analogue synth?
"Absolutely, and that's what I really like about it. I think people will start getting hold of the old mixers..."
The 3M M-79 24-track machine is no spring chicken either, but again, it has a fantastic sound. It tends to be used only for recording vocals, for reading third-party masters when remixing, and for dumping the outputs from the Akais when a remix is required outside of Finiflex. Otherwise, the music is stored entirely on computer, with two 32Mb Akai S3200s and a 10Mb S1100 doing the lion's share of the work, supported by DAC 128MB optical and 500MB hard drives. For sequencing, John uses Cubase V3 for the PC, which he recommends over the Atari ST, and not just for its vastly increased speed. There are some software enhancements in the PC version that have yet to appear on the Atari V3 -- improved naming is one example. But another item that simultaneously excites and frustrates John is the recently-acquired Eventide DSP4000.
"I'm really fucked off because it can't do the things I want to, yet!... You make up your sound effects using modules -- not like echo, then reverb, then chorus -- but actual little mathematical models... There are filters, it asks you if you want one, two, three echoes, etc. But there are no modules for pitch or frequency analysis, and that's what you need to make a vocoder, which is one of the main reasons I got it... Right now, the sampling is tops, the reverb is fantastic, everything about it is fantastic -- but I'm absolutely gagging for this update from Eventide."
Obviously, a machine like this will have many applications in a mix. To get around the fact that he only has one of them, John re-samples many sounds with effects applied, using the Akai S3200s, which replaced older S1000 samplers. Other goodies acquired since the money from London came through include two channels of Focusrite EQ, a Behringer Ultrafex, two Behringer Quad Gates and a new Neumann U67 valve mic, specifically for recording vocals.
"The Focusrite has switchable filters on it, so you can clean up your signal. Then there's the equalisation; although it doesn't seem very powerful at first it actually is, and it holds itself together really well. In general, it makes things sound very, very good. I use it an awful lot when re-sampling."
Phil Kelsey told me that he thought even when the Focusrite wasn't doing anything it sounded good.
"One of the guys from Focusrite told me that as well. He said I should try playing DAT mixes though it. I haven't tried that yet. It can be ferocious, but generally it's just very nice. Because I've done electronic engineering before, I know when something is well built, and it's an incredibly well-built machine. That'll probably be still sitting there in 50 years time whereas everything else will have been updated."
The valve mic won't date either.
"The U67 is much better than the U87. It's absolutely spot on. It means when you record the vocals they sound fantastic. When I do vocals, they go through the Focusrite. On the way back from tape I put the vocals back through the Focusrite and also the Ultrafex."
John doesn't just use the top end exciter of the Ultrafex, either. There is so much LF content in some of Phil's vocals that the bass enhancer, set to 100Hz, can be used to warm up the sound. A BSS 401 is no longer used for compression duties, though its de-esser is sometimes required. Instead John employs an old Urei LN 1176. The amount of absolutely industry-standard outboard he has managed to collect is most impressive -- the high price of such equipment is offset by its exemplary performance and lack of value depreciation.
You work with DJs. How do you find them?
"You can learn more from people who know how to work equipment than you can from DJs. They can help you to arrange a track so it will work in a club, but what you really need to know about is music, and how the machines work... The DJ will come up with a loop and say that sounds good, and of course it sounds good -- that's why it got onto vinyl in the first place.
"On the other hand, the DJ's job is to sort out the wheat from the chaff. They should do that a lot more thoroughly, because there is an awful lot of naff stuff about; mainly, I should add, due to them making a lot of it! Usually, records are made by DJs who get paid well enough at clubs to go in and do their own records."
I know you've collaborated with Sparks and Justin Robertson recently. Is there anything else in the pipeline?
"The Human League phoned me up a fortnight ago, wanting me to program their entire next album. I suppose there would have been about £30-40K in it, but I had to turn it down. I'm just too busy."
Er... could you pass them my phone number?...
"It's very rare to have a normal band doing songs which are really popular in the clubs and also go really high into the charts, yet that is what is wanted. All the major record companies are looking for their acts to do that."
"Some people would say we were stroppy, others would say that we know what we want to do. And think that record companies are going to be looking for people who know what they want to do, rather than having to have tons and tons of people around to guide a stupid, fucked-up band through, until one of them shoots themself... London realised that we could look after ourselves, but I think primarily they liked the music."
Has this kind of deal been done before?
"No, but it will be done again. Once again, we're on the cutting edge of the business as well as the music. People will read about this and realise that that's exactly the sort of thing they want to do..."
MCI JH400B 36-channel Console (Automated)
Roland M16E Sub-mixer
Akai S3200 X 2 (32Mb in each)
Akai S1100 (10Mb)
DAC 128Mb Optical Drive
DAC 500Mb Hard Drive
DAN 486DX66 PC (8Mb RAM, 310Mb Hard Drive)
Mark of the Unicorn MIDI TimePiece 2 (8 MIDI ins and outs)
Focusrite ISA215 preamp & EQ
Tascam PE40 parametric EQ
TC 2240 parametric EQ
Urei 1176LN Peak Limiter
BSS DPR402 Comp/De-esser
Aphex Type B enhancer
Eventide DSP4000 Ultra Harmoniser
Alesis Quadraverb effects (X2)
Alesis Midiverb effects
Yamaha SPX90 effects
Ashley SC33 stereo gate
Drawmer DS201 stereo gate (X2)
Behringer XR2400 quad gate (X2)
Tannoy Gold monitors
Yamaha NS10 monitors
JBL Control 1 monitors
Electrovoice 1810 monitors
Peavey, Denon and Munro power amps
Neumann U67 Microphone
3M M79 24-track tape recorder
Sony DTC 1000ES DAT
Aiwa HHB 1 Pro DAT
Curling And Stretching 1984 Finiflex (Single)
Let The Tribe Grow 1986 Cathexis (EP)
Detestimony (The bells!) 1987 Finiflex (Single)
I Want More 1987 Wax Trax (Single)
Make It Internal 1988 Wax Trax (Single)
Noise Lust & Fun 1988 Finiflex (Album)
Zulus 1988 Finiflex (Single)
Electrolux 1989 Finiflex (Single)
Grossing 10K 1990 One Little Indian (Album)
Animal Farm 1989 One Little Indian (Single)
Monster In The House 1990 One Little Indian (Single)
101 1991 One Little Indian (Single)
Ace-Love-Deuce (102!) 1991 One Little Indian (Single)
An Unexpected Groovy Treat 1992 One Little Indian (Single)
Forevergreen 1992 One Little Indian (Single)
Monster in the House 1993 Finiflex (Single)
John had one of the first Ensoniq Mirage 8-bit samplers. Sampling, and mixing via EQ and FX, rather than synthesis, still seems to be his forte, though he does do some programming on the JD800. He has a lot to say about the merits of using DIN-synced drum machines and synths live, though.
"Keyboards and drum machines which run with CV and Gate are a unique wee setup of their own. They're so easy to use live. Each instrument has its own internal sequencer. Hence any or all of the patterns may be changed at any time; the change will only occur at the end of the previous pattern. Changes are executed by pressing one button per machine. With Cubase, such real-time rearrangement can only be done using the left/right locators. This is clumsy, and there are often hiccups when cycling. I want to see if Steinberg can develop a way to use computers in a much more dynamic way than just pressing go..."
It doesn't surprise me that you're a fan of drum machine pattern-style programming -- you've been using them for years.
"We had the first drum machine in Scotland, a DR55."
Did you get a TB303 as well?
"No, because we thought that the music being made on these machines was mince. Then when we heard acid house, we thought, 'Is that machine really doing all that?'. When the Bassline first came along, people thought of using them to play the bass line, not how you'd use a Bassline now."
One of the people up here who did cotton on very quickly was Jaimsie, from Ege Bam Yasi [now recording for Finiflex].
"That's because he didn't know what he was doing."
On the subject of sequenced music played live -- When I play, I have a DAT running along with the sequencer, just in case it all goes horribly wrong.
"One time we were playing in Newcastle and we had a power failure. It took three minutes to re-boot, and the only tape we had available to play was a recording of a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon! It was hilarious."
Come Down Here Chris Connelly (Single)
Pitstop Peter Perfect/Justin Robertson (Single)
I Want More Ege Bam Yasi (Single)
And Away They Go Various (Album)
National Crime Awareness Week Sparks (Production)
Five Sisters Brok (Single)
Sincere Robin Reliant (Single)
Ex Ovo Omnia Ege Bam Yasi (Live EP)
Anthill Peter Perfect/Justin Robertson (Single)
State Of Flux State Of Flux (EP)
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