MARTIN VERGO (MONO): Recording Formica Blues

Interview | Band

Published in SOS June 1998
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

MARTIN VIRGO OF MONO * RECORDING FORMICA BLUES

English electronic duo Mono are virtually unknown in the UK, but are in big demand in the USA, thanks to their single 'Life In Mono' being used as the main theme to the new film of Great Expectations. US-based English writer SAM MOLINEAUX talks technical to Mono's musical mainstay Martin Virgo, and provides the perfect perspective on the disparity between their British and Stateside success so far.

From a US-based perspective, there's no doubting the fact that British bands are cool. They have been ever since 9 February 1964, the day The Beatles made their first US appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, watched by a staggering 73 million Stateside viewers. As far as the Americans were concerned, Britpop was born, and they welcomed it with open arms. Although in recent years the sensationalism has lessened, the thirst for the best of British pop in the US certainly hasn't. Tune in to any radio station, particularly the alternative ones such as Los Angeles' KROQ, and you'd be amazed at just how much of what's being played is from our side of the pond.

The latest Big Thing musically in the States, of course, is Electronica -- a term coined by the American music press last year to describe the world of synths and drum loops following The Prodigy's explosion onto the American music scene. It would be an understatement to say they can't get enough of it right now. Anything from Blighty that's suitably drum & bass, big beat, techno, jungle or trip-hop (all known collectively as electronica) is, to use another American term, the bomb.

MONO PRODUCTION - JIM ABISS

Producer/engineer Jim Abiss and Mono's Martin Virgo first worked together in '93, Abiss engineering and Virgo programming songs on Björk's Debut album, under producer Nellee Hooper. Having also been involved in mixing various Massive Attack records, Abiss has more recently produced the Sneaker Pimps, DJ Shadow, and the Pecadillos, and is currently working on his own original project Darling. He agreed to talk to me about recording Mono's Formica Blues.

Where did you work on the record?

"We worked at a lot of places. Martin's got his own little writing room at home, so we started a lot of it there. And we went to Britannia Row, where we did a lot of overdubs, and then to the Strongroom to finish it off and mix it."

As well as producing and engineering, you're also credited with some of the programming. What was your involvement there?

"I've worked with analogue synths for a long time, and I took a lot of mine to the studio, so if there were sounds that Martin wanted to improve upon, I'd sit there with headphones on for a few hours and work out a sound that I thought was more interesting, rather than using something that was just an easy sound that he had to write with. So most of the programming I did was not so much on the computer, but more getting actual sounds."

Which analogue synths were you using and how were they controlled?

"Various things, among them a Roland Juno, a Minimoog, an OSCar, and a Sequential Pro One. Although those synths don't have built-in MIDI on them, I've had Kenton CV-to-MIDI interfaces added to them all, so they could be controlled by our sequencer. Quite often, though, when we were putting things to tape, I'd be fiddling manually with frequencies, resonance, amounts of LFO, and so on. You can hear a good example of that on the instrumental song 'Playboys', which Martin and I wrote together. That one's more of a techno workout, with a touch of vocals where we thought we needed them."

There's a very distinctive, highly processed sound to the lead vocal on most of the songs. How did you achieve that?

"We tried a lot of different mics on Siobhan and we ended up doing half of the album using a valve AKG C12, which is a mic I use a lot, and the rest on an ordinary Neumann U87. It just depended on which song suited which vocal character and which range in Siobhan's voice. The signal was fed through a Tubetech valve compressor and pretty heavily compressed, with no EQ to tape, and then, when we mixed it, we either used a Neve EQ or a Massenberg EQ to get the tone we wanted, and put it through the Tubetec valve compressor again on mixing.

"We used lots of different effects, including a real plate the studio had, and a [Lexicon] 480L. My favourite effects box for vocals is the Roland Chorus Echo -- it's an old '70s tape delay with reverb and chorus on it. We also fed Siobhan through speakers and miked those occasionally to get a slightly different tone."

Were there any other unusual approaches or special effects that you particularly remember from the sessions?

"There's one thing we did on the song 'Penguin Freud'; a trick which has been used by various people over the years and it's a sound that I really like. We wanted to get a kind of eerie, ghostly sound, so we fed the vocal and the sampled piano signals through a speaker sitting on the strings of a grand piano, wedging the sustain pedal down with a brick. We then miked up the effect of the piano's strings vibrating and that gave a very nice shimmery effect on both of those sounds.

"A lot of other effects we used which maybe sound like they were very reverby were just samples of sounds which already had a lot of reverb on them. I buy loads and loads of old crap records from charity shops -- the worse the cover the better they usually are -- and I use lots of samples I find on them, especially for reverby sounds."

Although the songs sound very simple on first hearing, the more you listen the more detail you hear -- there's more going on than you first think...

"Martin's a really good musician, and he's been writing songs for a long time, so he had a lot of ideas that he wanted to try, as well as certain sounds in his record collection and sample collection; and I've made a lot of records as well, so between us it was a case of deciding how far we wanted to go with each song. We did spend a lot of time on the detail, but not at the expense of the more important elements. I think all good music should sound simple the first time you listen to it. As long as you have the key elements -- which are the lead vocal, a lead instrument playing a riff and some kind of rhythmic pulse -- it just depends on how detailed you want to go from there. It's a case of prioritising; a lot depends on how much time you have, and how important you think those details are."

Riding high on the crest of the electronica wave are British newcomers Mono, a group (like Cornershop) who've experienced their first taste of success not on home turf, but in the US. The duo -- comprising keyboardist, programmer and producer Martin Virgo and vocalist Siobhan De Maré -- weave together a seamless mix of peculiarly diverse threads of music, serving up an exotic blend of British trip-hop, '70s TV themes and '60s-style French pop to create a lush new musical fabric they jokingly term 'glam & bass'.

They've recently been in the States on their first major tour, where their popularity is soaring, certainly due in part to the fact that their first single, 'Life In Mono', features prominently on the Great Expectations soundtrack (released in the UK at the end of April).

It's uncertain whether the soundtrack album brought Mono success or whether their hauntingly serene song was responsible for the album's gold status. What cannot be denied is that 'Life In Mono' was the number one requested song on US commercial radio stations for weeks following the movie's release. "It's amazing really, and something we never expected," says Virgo, speaking from the offices of their record company in Hollywood, just before the commencement of their US tour. "This is the first time I've been to L.A. and we're top of KROQ's playlist!"

It's not that success has evaded them closer to home, but so far their European-flavoured sound, although popular on the Continent, is yet to achieve widespread recognition in the UK. However, with the recent release of Twentieth Century Fox's remake of the Dickens classic (starring Robert De Niro, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke), all that could be set to change. The song rounds out the movie as the closing credits roll, and is also being used as the backing music to the film's trailer and TV commercials, as well as being the lead cut on the Atlantic Records soundtrack album.

FORMICA BLUES

But there's a lot more to Mono than just this one song. Their debut album Formica Blues, released on Chrysalis subsidiary Echo Records, draws the whole French-inspired retro pop formula one step deeper into the area of sample-based drum & bass, with a collection of 10 beautifully melodic yet profoundly rhythmically driven cuts in a style that encompasses both lounge music and breakbeats. So why the juxtaposition of such diverse musical genres?

RECREATING MONO LIVE

"If I'd thought we were ever going to play this music live, I don't think I'd have been half as eclectic instrumentally," says Virgo, who claims it was a major feat reorganising the material on the album so it would work well in a live situation.

"When we were doing Formica Blues the circumstances were such that we didn't really think it would end up being a live thing at all, so I never once made a concession to that -- which is why there are things on the album like a dulcimer coming out of the left speaker and a Mellotron out of the right."

The Mono duo are joined on stage by a guitarist, bassist and drummer. Virgo covers the keyboard parts on a Fender Rhodes and a Roland A33 master keyboard, which controls his Roland S760 and Akai S3000 samplers. Meanwhile, an ADAT provides the breakbeats and backing vocals.

"It's arranged so that the drums are spread between the ADAT and the live drummer," he explains. "I felt it was important to have a live drummer to avoid gigs becoming karaoke-type affairs. It's a bit of a test, but it seems to be working."

"I've always liked French music -- the songs of people like Françoise Hardy and Astrud Gilberto as well as the Impressionist composers, Satie, Debussy and Ravel -- and I wanted to incorporate that into my own music, partly because there's so little music that sounds like that anymore," explains Virgo, a classically trained pianist and composer who studied at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama before making a name for himself on the London studio scene as a session keyboard player, most notably with Nellee Hooper and Massive Attack.

"The drum & bass aspect of Mono came out of my session work with those kinds of people. With the dance revolution, keyboard session work has changed. Now people don't just want someone who can play a Hammond solo; they want somebody who can also program a 909 kick drum! I just adapted to what was demanded, and then found myself really getting into the whole computer-orientated dance thing."

Virgo's involvement with renowned producer/remixer Nellee Hooper started out as a one-off session at London's Nomis Studios but rapidly turned into something more permanent, and together they worked on numerous dance projects including Bjork's Debut album, Shara Nelson's Friendly Fire and Massive Attack's seminal track 'Unfinished Sympathy' from the 1991 classic album Blue Lines. "Nellee was doing a lot of remixes around that time, so he'd be taking just the vocal from a track and the music would have to be built up underneath it. I would do that part of it on the Atari -- all the programming, sampling, and drum programming," he recalls.

During a break in projects back in 1996 Virgo first started laying down a few tracks of his own. "I was resting at the time," he laughs, continuing more seriously, "The thing about being self-employed in this area of music is that you think every job's your last, even when you've got a supposedly regular gig like I had with Nellee. I started writing again just as something to do between jobs."

The creative catalyst was a holiday in France, the country with which he feels the closest musical affinity. "I'd just spent a month in Paris and then St Tropez, and I think the whole French vibe got into my blood," he explains. "I'm very into France and French music -- the rich harmonies and powerful melodies -- and I came back wanting to recreate that very particular kind of style."

INTO MONO

Virgo's introduction to his future bandmate Siobhan de Maré was simply a meeting set up by a mutual friend. Having written the music and lyrics to his first song, 'Life In Mono', he was on the look-out for a female vocalist to complete the picture. Her seductive voice was the perfect fit for his European flavoured retro-futurist arrangements.

Coming from what she describes as a "showbiz background" (her grandfather is the guy who bangs the gong in the Rank trailers film, her grandmother was a Cuban dancer who performed with Shirley Bassey, and her dad was the original drummer in The Shadows), de Maré describes their characters as "extreme opposites". Nevertheless, it's a collaborative partnership that seems to work. No sooner had they begun writing together when Virgo's publisher was on the phone with some exciting news.

"My manager had played her the backing track without telling me. I hadn't actually wanted anyone to hear it for a bit," Virgo remembers. "And, you know, it's an industry thing; my publisher then played the tape to some people she knew, and before we knew it the bids started coming in."

De Maré was out of the country at the time and had to make a hasty return to record the vocal part. Virgo had already started on their next song which was still only half-finished when they were offered a record deal. "We signed an album deal on just one and a half songs," he says, still amazed by the speed it all took off. "We didn't even have a name!"

The name Mono, named after their first song, was in fact a reference to another one of Virgo's musical heroes, producer Phil Spector. "He's such an important producer for many different reasons, but purely sonically he has an amazing legacy, right the way through Brian Wilson and up into contemporary types of music," comments Virgo. "I love that whole school of music production where there are so many things going on at once but the overall sound doesn't seem complicated. It's so kaleidoscopic, and that's what I'm really into: creating 'colour-melody'.

"The composers of the Second Viennese School -- Schoenberg, Webern and Berg -- had the exact same approach with orchestral music, which they called Klangfarbenmelodie. This was especially true of Webern, who experimented with the orchestra in very unusual ways, creating melodies out of changes of timbre. This isn't music that tends to rear its head in a lot of popular music, but it's what I listen to, and I've absorbed these influences."

Pulling all these strands together seems to be something that Mono do with consummate ease. 'Life In Mono', for example, started out as a sample taken from film composer John Barry's theme to The Ipcress File, to which Virgo added a deep bass line and sampled drum loops, before juxtaposing lush string harmonies, achingly sentimental harpsichord figures and a heart-melting melody. As if painting in extra splashes of colour to the foreground of an almost complete painting, he then created numerous counter-melodies out of additional snatches of sound: little synth riffs, the odd DJ scratch, slowly evolving filter sweeps, pulsating waveforms, and suchlike.

MARTIN VIRGO -- SELECTED FAVOURITE GEAR

KEYBOARDS & SYNTHS

Fender Rhodes
Korg M1 workstation
Korg Prophecy monosynth
"I've got really into the Prophecy; I used it for the clubby, trancy sounds on the album."
Yamaha acoustic grand piano
"The Strongroom has a really nice Yamaha grand, which I used a lot on Formica Blues."
Moog Minimoog analogue synth
Oberheim Matrix 6R rack synth
Roland Juno 106 synth
Roland MKS20 synth
"Nothing I use off this ever ends up as a straight patch. That's not through any kind of dogma, it's just a question of something to do if we get bored!"
Vox Continental organ
Wurlitzer EP200 organ

SAMPLERS

Akai S3000/Roland S760
"I mainly use the Akai sampler for drums and the Roland for the instrumental parts. I commit all those sins that musicians aren't supposed to, like using factory presets and sounds that come on the operating disks. When I got the S760, I thought 'Let's get this out of the way' and I bought the entire Roland sample library, which I use a lot."

COMPUTER & SOFTWARE

Apple Macintosh Quadra 650
Emagic Logic sequencer
Steinberg Recycle
"I use Recycle a lot -- I'll often run breakbeats into it, chop them up and then re-use them in a pattern that's more appropriate for the song I'm doing."

MISCELLANEOUS

Dulcimer
"We had a dulcimer player come in for a session and he actually let me multisample his instrument, so some of the dulcimer parts on record come from my own samples."

"Most of those extra sounds come from the Korg Prophecy or a Juno 106, both of which I use a lot," he reveals. "I also have an Oberheim Matrix 6R, the rackmount version, which I use for some of the nice analogue sounds."

MUSIC FOR LAZY MUSICIANS?

Virgo describes himself as a "lazy musician" when it comes to working with sounds -- but get him on the subject and he starts talking about multisampling dulcimers and recording scratches off old 78s... and you can't help but wonder what he thinks an energetic musician is like. "I do a lot of my own multisampling. I sampled The Beatles' piano at Abbey Road to get the piano sound for 'Slimcea Girl' [track 3 on Formica Blues]," he reveals.

"I was doing a string session in the main studio there, and the engineer said 'Hey, look at this'. He'd opened up this cupboard and there was an old Steinway upright inside, which was apparently the original piano the Beatles had used on some of their classic recordings. We wheeled it out and I started playing 'Lady Madonna' on it -- it sounded exactly like the record. It was amazing; and seemingly, it had just been in this cupboard for years. I asked if I could sample it and no-one seemed to mind, so the engineer and I spent an afternoon multisampling the entire thing -- literally three velocities for every note. When I got home I edited it all up on my Roland S760. It used up virtually the whole 32Mb of sample RAM but it's a really good sound, and I used it a lot on the album."

Alongside the reverberant Beatle-esque piano part on 'Slimcea Girl' is a killer '70s-style trumpet line, notable as much for its old-fashioned sound as its cheesy melody. "That was actually a flugelhorn patch from one of the S760 sample disks which we put through a Sansamp speaker simulator, one of those things that gives the effect of an old amp, and then we added a bit of surface noise underneath it which I sampled off an old record," he explains. "I was basically trying to get an old sound from a modern digital sample, and it seemed to work.

"We did a similar thing for the vibes on the album track 'The Blind Man'. There's a vibes patch on the Roland MKS20 module which is actually pretty uninspiring, and really, just as something to do, we ran it out into the studio, put it through a Leslie speaker, recorded it onto a Dictaphone and then sampled it. Believe it or not, it produced a really cool vibes sound!"

And the harpsichord, which is so prominent on 'Life In Mono'? "That started out as a Vox Continental patch from the Roland Keyboards Volumes 1 & 2 sample libraries and I used that on the demo," he says. "But when we were in the studio, we didn't think it sounded enough like the real thing, so we hired in an actual Vox Continental and used the harpsichord patch on that -- it's the sound that John Barry used to use a lot."

It turns out that many of the keyboard sounds on Formica Blues were 'the real thing'. "There was quite a bit of live piano, and we hired in a lot of vintage keyboard instruments -- a Wurlitzer, Rhodes, the Continental, some Moogs -- and went for live takes," reveals Virgo, adding, "I'm a real old-school musician in many ways; when I first started, I was doing all sorts of piano and organ sessions, which were always live, so doing it this way comes quite naturally to me."

SINGIN' THE BLUES

Recording Formica Blues took almost a year from start to finish, although a lot of that time was spent writing since the duo had very little material in demo form when they first went into the studio. Most of it was done in the Neve Room (Studio 1) at London's Strongroom, half on 48 and half on 24 tracks, and then mixed on a Neve VR60 Legend console.

Production and engineering credits were shared equally between Virgo and producer/engineer Jim Abiss (see the 'Mono Production' box), who was largely responsible for coming up with the distinctive '60s-style haunting effect on de Maré's vocal.

"Siobhan has quite a quiet voice, so it was a case of getting it to stand out in the mix first of all, and between them they worked quite hard on the vocal to get the right sound," remembers Virgo. "A lot of the sound is in the effects

"I never want to be led by the hand by a computer; on the last album I wrote at least half of the songs at the piano before I even went near the computer, and I think that kept me in control of what I was writing."
stage, such as the hollow backing vocal on the chorus of 'Life In Mono'. I actually recorded that at my house with an SM58 mic and sampled it. Then we tracked it, added EQ, and ran it through the plate reverb at the Strongroom."

GOING DIGITAL

Since completing Formica Blues, Virgo has delved deeper into the whole area of Mac-based recording, and is currently in the process of setting up a new digital studio at the Strongroom complex, where he intends to do most of the writing and recording for Mono's next album as soon as they've finished the current tour.

"I never want to be led by the hand by a computer; on the last album I wrote at least half of the songs at the piano before I even went near the computer, and I think that kept me in control of what I was writing. The other half of the album, the more groove-based tracks, were done largely on the Mac," he concedes.

"For the next album, though, I'm investing in a 24-track Pro Tools system, in many ways because we're tending towards the live end of things now and also because there'll be slightly more of a clubby sound next time, which that type of system lends itself well to.

"I'm very excited by the possibilities of hard disk recording, and I've been checking out a lot of the plug-ins that are available, such as the vintage Focusrite and Neve EQs, which are amazing. It's an incredibly versatile system.

"I've also been getting into programs such as Steinberg's Rebirth where you use the Mac itself as a sound source. Once you make the software work for you it can start to become really creative."

Roll over Debussy, and tell Phil Spector the news!

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