Amon Tobin

Published in SOS April 2003
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

If you don't think the sampler can be a musical instrument, you haven't been listening to the music of Amon Tobin!

Simon Young

While the sampler has become a staple ingredient of most studios, few people can claim to have exploited it to quite such extreme levels as Amon Tobin. His current album, Out From Out Where, is his fourth on Ninja Tune, all of which were made entirely with just a sampler, a few effects, an ever-growing record collection and not a single real instrument in sight. He has developed a unique, idiosyncratic voice that embraces such diverse styles as drum & bass, hip-hop, jazz, Latin, film soundtracks, electronica and downright mad sonic experimentation. The result is a dizzying kaleidoscope of sounds, all tied together by a sexual undercurrent that has made his music a favourite on the American strip-club circuit!

From Brazil To Brighton

Having spent most of his early life in Brazil, Amon moved with his family to Britain when he was 10, eventually settling in Brighton, where he began his hip-hop experiments in the early '90s. He released his first album Adventures In Foam on Ninebar Records back in 1996 under the Cujo moniker, but Ninebar's dubious business sense meant Amon wasn't making any money. Fortunately, two artists on Ninja Tune, Funki Porcini and DJ Food, picked up on a couple of Amon's EPs, and so began his fruitful career with Ninja, the label set up by electronic/hip-hop pioneers, Coldcut.

Someone else to pick up on Amon's sound was maverick satirist Chris Morris. Morris had frequently plundered the Ninja back catalogue, including Amon's work, to provide a suitably warped backdrop to the twisted sketches on his Blue Jam Radio 1 shows. This led to a collaboration, where Amon cut up the voices from a Morris sketch and turned them into melodies on the track 'Bad Sex'. This certainly raised his profile in the UK, but he enjoys even greater succes in both Europe and the States, where his last album Supermodified outsold the likes of Massive Attack and Björk.

Studio Tan

Released in October 2002, Out From Out Where was some 18 months in the making, the work being particularly intensive in the last six months. Amon is something of a night owl when it comes to writing his material, working through the small hours to put a track together in one block. "I'll start in mid-afternoon and work through to the next day. Usually by then, I'll have got the arrangement. Then I'll pull it apart, work on the production and mix it over the course of the next two or three weeks. I might change the arrangement, but usually most of it's done in one go in a couple of days. Even though it's laborious, it's also quick if you know what you're doing. I've also got more confident, so I won't be spending 1000 hours looking for the exact right snare. If something actually works, I'll use it, but if I'm slightly uncertain about it, I'll throw it away until I find something I'm completely certain about.

Photos: Shane Ward.

Amon Tobin's Montreal studio is based around a Mackie D8b desk, an Apple Mac running Cubase VST, and enormous quantities of records...

"When I first started, I used to throw out a lot, but maybe because I've now got more control of my sounds, now the music is closer to the original idea I had in the beginning. Before I'd find a sound and just put it with another sound to see what happens. Sometimes it would lead somewhere and sometimes it wouldn't, whereas now that random element is somewhat tapered, so the ratio has improved, but I might throw away maybe one in four tracks."

Does the writing process begin with a basic loop or sound, or does he try to realise a strong preconceived idea in his head? "It's a bit of both. When I first started, it was much more finding a sound that inspired me to find more sounds to go with it. Now I find it a lot more satisfying if I have a framework to work inside or a goal to achieve with the music, and then try to find the sounds to fit in there, manipulating them until they do. It doesn't always work like that, so I still stumble across sounds that make me think 'Oh, I know exactly what would work with that,' and off I go." But does he have definite sounds in his head that he tries to recreate? "Oh definitely, mainly different types of beats, but also bass sounds or more abstract ideas of the types of noises I want. Sometimes I'll have an idea for a melody and that gets really tricky; for example, I'll find three or four saxes that have the right notes, so I'll try and piece them all together."

Needing Treatment

Amon has a pragmatic and highly effective way of dealing with the discrepancies between the tone and production of the samples. "It's amazing what you can do with filters; I look at it as being a bit like watercolours, when you've got various different blotches and then you use a wash to bring it all together. I also use a lot of effects in my stuff for that reason — it's not particularly because I love delays and reverbs or whatever. Processing is the answer. I'll take a lot of samples to make a melody, then process it with one type of filter or modulation effect, re-record it, cut it up, and by then it will sound like one sample — but sometimes if it doesn't, it can be really interesting anyway."

Filters and EQ also play a big part in isolating specific sounds or instruments within a sample. "You can take out an entire frequency that holds an instrument, so that you can no longer hear it, or you can hear it in such a background way that it becomes an interesting subliminal part. Unfortunately that means it can sometimes sound really harsh, because the EQ has to be so extreme. Some people have even said it's a characteristic of my sound. I love that — here's something I f**ked up, and someone relishes that!

When you do as much sampling as Amon Tobin, the Akai S6000's detachable front panel comes in very handy.

"Something that I'm aiming for, but I don't always pull off, is to have a mix where the different melodies, drums and bass are all sitting in their own frequency realms, so things can stand out. You can also do a lot with stereo, where if I want something to stand out, I'll make it mono and then put it somewhere in the stereo field where there's not much going on. All these things cause their own problems, like phasing problems, but I'm sure eventually experience will win with this one and it can be mastered, but it's obviously going to take a long time because I'm using so many different sources. I've had up to about 80 different samples in a tune, so it's a lot of sounds and some of them will only happen once."

Perhaps more than half of those samples make up his incredibly complicated beats, which frequently incorporate sounds that quite evidently are not conventional or electronic percussion. "I got really into taking a sound that has nothing to do with a beat, and incorporating it into a loop to give that snare a completely different characteristic, just by virtue of it being melded with something else."

It also works the other way, so Amon creates melodies or bass lines by manipulating unpitched sources. "'Proper Hoodage' has a bass sound that is from the percussion, which I treated with formant filters, which can create chords out of sounds. I mixed that with various plug-ins to try and create a note as opposed to a percussion hit. When I sampled it back in, it synchronised so well, because the bass sound was made out of the percussion so it fitted with it perfectly."

  Playing Live  
  When Amon plays out, he doesn't use his studio equipment, but instead DJs his material with conventional record decks and some cutting-edge DJ technology, namely Stanton Magnetics' Final Scratch software, running on a PC laptop. It plays WAV files, which are triggered by a special timecode disc that plays on conventional decks. The idea is that you can store all your tracks on hard drive instead of lugging around flightcases of records, while (in theory anyway) the timecode disc enables you to perform all your usual DJ tricks of slipping, scratching, vari-speeding and so on.

"I feel like it was made for me. It's been sold as a convenience tool, so you don't need to bring your records with you any more, you can just bring a laptop. But I bring my own decks when I DJ, because I want that control and I don't want to use someone else's equipment, so it's no more convenient for me. But it helps me to make a much more personal set, because I don't have to make dubplates any more. So my one-off versions of tracks that I used to have to make to DJ with, I can do instantly now. I can really experiment with how they mix with something else, or I can record single elements of tracks and play them over something else, so it becomes much more of a live tool. That's what it's all about for me; I don't think there is any point in going to see someone play live who's just playing his own records, you can do that at home. I think it's really important to make something that's happening at that time, and it might go wrong as well, so you've got the precarious tension that creates."

Unfortunately, as Amon has learnt to his cost, the rather domestic-looking Final Scratch interface has been a source of some of those problems. "I've had a couple of shows where it's crashed outright. USB is just not reliable enough, the thing should be Firewire. Also, the timecode records warp, and when you get fluff on the needle, they react in a totally different way to analogue records. The warping causes exaggerated speeding up and slowing down of the waveform that actually makes it impossible to mix, let alone listen to! I'm still going to stick with it, because the potential is so good, and you're bound to get these problems with new equipment."

Another problem Amon has faced in the live arena is the inadequacy of some PAs, which struggled to cope with the huge sonic range of his music. "That's been a massive problem, especially in Europe. Sometimes you're up against things you just can't control, like the law in France, where you've got a 105db limit. It's so frustrating, because it doesn't have to be blasting all the time, but it's meant to be a full-body experience, you're meant to feel the bass. I find it really hard to control an atmosphere with those constrictions. If you've got a top-notch sound system, you don't need to go that loud for that to happen, everything is detailed and clear. But if as in most cases on this tour in Europe the sound system wasn't quite up to scratch, and you've got this low dB limit, it made it very hard to feel confident that I was doing what I wanted to do."

Amon is unequivocal when it comes to saying which he prefers, studio or live. "It's two different things, but I definitely prefer being in the studio if I had to choose between the two. Going out DJing started off as a necessity to promote a new record, but now it has become something that I do enjoy doing, just not all the time so consequently I don't play that much. It's a priority for me to go and create."


Tasty Organic Sources

Evidently, Amon's sampling methods are a far cry from simply lifting melodies and breaks wholesale from old jazz masters. "In the past, I've taken massive chunks of things, but as time has gone by, for my own integrity and for obvious legal reasons, I have moved away from that. It's a slightly dubious area for anyone using samplers, but fortunately it's never caught up with me. Either the samples have been obscure and uninteresting enough for people not to worry about, or the manipulation has been so extreme that people don't recognise them anyway."

Amon undoubtedly has an attention to detail that ensures his programming is utterly transparent. His tunes have a live, organic quality that belies their programmed origin, helped by choosing highly idiosyncratic and energetic sample sources. "It's what I'm attracted to really, sounds that have those qualities. It's always changing, I used to go strictly into jazz record sections, then I deviated into easy listening and soundtracks. I can't really go into the composers I like, 'cos they're the ones that I sample!" he jokes.

"Recently I've come across a whole load of Bollywood soundtracks, which have been amazing because they've got this notion of what Western music sounds like that is just as skewed as Hollywood's notion of Eastern music. I'm quite fascinated by the misunderstanding that creates something new. If you listen to Martin Denny and all that easy-listening stuff from the '50s and '60s, their idea of Hawaiian or Eastern music was so far off from reality, but by virtue of that, it created a new sound. It goes the other way with Bollywood, where they'll have this idea of what disco, funk or soul is, and it's just totally mad! Bollywood movies are hard, because every song starts the same with an incredible, massive introduction, and then this really piercing, squeaky voice will come in. You have to sit through all that, before you get these really amazing, lush sounds, which are really beautifully produced. I'm also getting more into electronic sounds, but from the '70s. Their notion of future electronic sounds is just great. I started to appreciate emulations of real strings done really well by experimental processes. They've got a unique quality to them which isn't real strings but isn't those horrible 1990s pads."

Despite Amon's obvious enthusiasm for his sounds, their source is ultimately not that important to him. "It's so random really, but it's more about where they're going rather than where they're from. I think you can take a sound from almost anywhere and make it relevant to your track."

  Amon's Gear  
  Amon's studio setup is based around a Mackie D8b digital desk and an Akai S6000 sampler triggered by Cubase VST on a Mac. Amon chooses to trigger all his samples via MIDI from VST, rather than building up audio tracks. "I do use the audio side of VST: a lot of my samples will have gone through several layers of plug-ins before they get to the MIDI stage. But when I'm programming, I really like the versatility you have over each note with MIDI — I know you can do similar things with audio, but up till now, I found I've just had a bit more control with MIDI. All the controllers you have are so powerful in MIDI, you can do cheeky things like assign velocity to filters. It's just how I first got into working; my first sampler was an Akai S01 and there wasn't any hard disk recording, so how much control you had over the MIDI determined how much control you had over the audio.

"I also love programming drums with MIDI and I've never understood how people can programme drums with audio. I did a collaboration with Steinski and he was using Pro Tools. We had this big break and I instantly wanted to chop it up, assign different MIDI notes and make a beat, but I was amazed at how he could just cut slivers of the waveform and drag them around, which is just insane and totally beyond me!"

With the ever-increasing power and ubiquity of DAWs, more and more people transfer their MIDI-generated sounds on to audio tracks if only to curtail the endless flexibility that MIDI offers, but having too much choice doesn't bother Amon. "I know sometimes it's a bit dazzling when you sit there and think 'I could do anything, but what the hell do I do?' But I come at it from a different point of view, where I have a specific thing I want to do and I'll take whatever options are available to realise that."

Recently he has been experimenting with Steinberg's Halion VST soft sampler. "I think it's awesome. The Akai is great because you have so much control and there are so many things you can do within a program, but you do always have to set up a program and key groups within the program, and so on. It's really laborious and it really f**ks with your creative flow. It is music after all, even though we're doing it with computers, and there is some soul we're trying to keep alive, so anything that makes the process more transparent is good as far as I'm concerned. Halion offers that really well; you can just grab a waveform and put it on a key. If you want it to cover more keys, you just stretch it.

"I like things that are user-friendly and intuitive, and I've never been an advocate of that elitist attitude that if you don't know about the latest or most complicated bit of kit, you can't cut it. That's bollocks! What's important is your ideas and being able to get them out as effectively as possible. People who are fascinated by the interface are interested in a different thing to me, but it's not going to help them come up with great music."

Amon also uses a TC Fireworx multi-effects, which contrary to conventional wisdom, he doesn't place on an aux buss on his mixer, as he explains. "I don't like to have effects running in real time in the final mix, I like to have the sound already recorded with the effects in my arrangement. I suppose it's having the control of say, the modulation sweep peaking at an exact point and I know every time the sample is triggered, it'll be at that point."

Software compression plays a big part in the beefiness of many of his sounds, though he leaves any overall compression to the mastering house. "If I was to try to polish off the track and then go to master, it would just be done again and it would sound too f**ked. I have done that in the past, which is why some things sound too f**ked, because they've been compressed and compressed again. It's all things that you pick up as you go. Compression is not so much about volume, but the way volume is perceived — something sounds louder even though it isn't. But sometimes it's nice if it gets abused as well, I quite enjoy the pumping effect that you get when you over-compress. I think some of the software ones are great — when I want it to flat-line, they're good for abusing the parameters.

"I'd like to experiment with some serious hardware compression, but it's always a priority with me to maintain the momentum we were talking about. I'm not a tech-head and I don't want to lose myself in valves and pretty lights. There's so much bullshit surrounding equipment. I'd much rather listen to some badly produced wicked tune over some crystal-clear ambient nonsense produced on a Neve desk."


Isolation Vs Collaboration

Amon usually works in total isolation, from the initial idea right through to overseeing the mastering, but does he feel limited by not having anyone to bounce ideas off or to tell him when to stop? "I think you win and you lose. I don't have the reassurance of someone saying 'Yes, that's really good,' or saying it's no good, or whatever, but then I have total control. I've never really thought of myself as a control freak, but I guess I must be because the idea of anyone having any say in what I do is totally unacceptable! I do accept other people's ideas and when I've collaborated, I've learnt so much, especially technical stuff. But I know that if it came to the bottom line and I said something doesn't work and they say it does, I'd just say 'It's not going in and that's that,' so working with other people is probably not my way of doing things."

Amon's outboard gear, from top: Roland VP9000 Variphrase processor, MOTU 828 interface, TC Electronic Fireworx multi-effects, Mutronics Mutator compressor, Akai S6000 sampler and Tascam DA20 MkII DAT.

However, a desire to work alone isn't the reason why he always uses samples and never live musicians or real instruments. "I like using sounds that have existed in a different musical context before. It's not musique concrète or found sounds and I won't use session musicians or sample CDs. I find sample CDs of, say, a session drummer really flat, because they don't have any real musical context. The energy that I'm after is may be in the middle of some one-off recording that happened in a special time at some festival, where the drummer was just going off and there is that bit of energy that you just take. You can extend it or rearrange it, but the energy's still there. That's always what's fascinated me about samples and what I can't get out of session musicians or sample CDs. It's not that I'm against it; it's a perfectly valid way to work, but just not one that appeals to me. I don't think I can get anything that isn't already on vinyl, so why use a session guy when I can use the sax player or the drummer? Why settle for second-best?"

The fruits of one of his rare collaborations can be heard on 'Verbal', which is the first single from the album. The mad cut-up vocals are those of MC Decimal, a mystery MC whose true identity Amon refuses to reveal. "He's far too mysterious and it would ruin the mystery! Prefuse 73 did something similar with cutting up vocals and it was inspired by that, really. It was a way to try to make a percussion sound out of the vocals. The idea was to not just have snippets of vocals dotted about the track, but to have it as the main focus. It's a whole rhyme where there aren't any words, because they never finish. I chopped up all the different parts of the words and put them in different sequences to try and make my own flow, so that it sounded like a rhyme but it wasn't."

Since he completed the album, Amon's been working on a string of further collaborations, with Bonobo, P Love, Steinski and a possible forthcoming one with Kid Koala. He hasn't been idle with his solo material either, though inevitably for someone who moulds such an eclectic mix of sounds into such idiosyncratic music, he struggles to categorise the results. "I've been making some R&B-influenced stuff; it's more like A&B, anger and blues, like really dirty beats but chopped up in a different way to straightforward hip-hop. Downbeat but almost upbeat at the same time! But I have only done two tunes since the album, so I need to do a few more before I announce a new direction."

Whatever the results, there's no doubt that they'll be worth checking out.

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