GUY SIGSWORTH: Music After MIDI

Interview | Producer/Musician

Published in SOS March 2001
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People + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers

What's the connection between Madonna and Stockhausen? Sam Inglis meets a producer who puts the 'art' into chart music...

As long as there's been mainstream pop music, it has absorbed ideas, sounds and production techniques from the avant garde. The experiments of modern classical musicians, studio freaks or arthouse bands are co-opted to make the next generation of chart singles sound fresh, and ideas that were initially challenging to listeners swiftly become familiar. Any modern dance record would have sounded utterly alien to the audiences of the '50s, yet we no longer raise an eyebrow at unearthly synths and samples, bizarre treated vocals, or rhythms that no human drummer could play.

Of course, this constant reinvention couldn't happen without pop artists and producers who are willing to take the risk of alienating their audiences by incorporating new ideas into their music. Names such as The Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, Can, David Bowie, The Residents, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys spring to mind: and one that surely must feature on any list is that of Madonna. Her unprecedented success, spanning nearly 20 years, is a direct reflection on her unerring skill in seeking out new sounds, fashions and musical collaborators. Madonna's recent work with William Orbit and Mirwais has again succeeded in deriving massive mainstream success from underground influences, and her latest single 'What It Feels Like For A Girl' shows off the talents of another producer with a determination to explore new sonic territory: Guy Sigsworth.

Digital Evangelism

Sigsworth came to pop production from a classical background, after a spell as a harpsichordist, and has always had a keen interest in experimental electronic music. His big break came with the opportunity to co-write and play keyboards on Seal's debut album, which was produced by Trevor Horn. Since then, he has pursued a varied career as producer, arranger, and musician working with artists such as Bomb The Bass, Bjork, Talvin Singh and Lamb, while building up his own West London studio. Most recently, he's put his other projects on hold to finish an album he's been recording with singer Imogen Heap, under the provisional band name Frou Frou.

Though he's yet to enjoy the fame that has accrued to Orbit and Mirwais, Guy Sigsworth has also embraced the world of tapeless digital recording with an almost unique zeal. "Around that time I'd made a conscious decision to write directly into Pro Tools and to completely stop using MIDI. I'd seen people buy Pro Tools, but use it with some kind of other front end for the sake of the MIDI, so that the most powerful audio manipulator ever invented was left hidden behind a Cubase or a Logic front end. I thought 'Why don't I switch off the MIDI and force myself to sequence things directly on the Pro Tools screen. That way, I'll get a feel for what's amazing about this new digital audio way of working.' So I'd maybe play some chords on an electric piano or a guitar, and then I'd sound-design them in Pro Tools; chop them up, reverse bits of them, whatever. The opening sound I got by playing four chords on a Rhodes piano. I stuck them in Pro Tools, put a grid across them, chopped bits, reversed bits, and it made a pulsing sound. And then the left- and the right-hand side are the same sample of me playing the same chords, but tuned down an octave in one. With the drums, I took some sounds off an old DMX drum machine, then used plug-ins and stuff to process them. But I did the programming and sequencing of them just on the main screen of Pro Tools. Nothing was played in via MIDI. And that's how I like to work now.

  Why Pro Tools Is Better Than MIDI  
  "I used to work with Ataris, and I thought that they were great with MIDI," says Guy Sigsworth. "But when Macs came out I just hated the MIDI on them, I always thought that tracks which sounded super-tight to me on an old Atari sounded messy with the same data on Macs. I think eventually they got it together, but when I was first hearing friends' music using Macs, it was like 'Oh, no, they've lost the vibe'. And also I found that MIDI programs in the Mac just got absurdly complicated, you wound up with something like 20 screens to look at, and I love the fact that in Pro Tools you basically spend the whole time only looking at one screen. I also think it's more accurate than MIDI. You can put a note anywhere you want in time — you just put it on the grid and say 'I want it there', and it's not going to move. And you don't have the delay that you get with MIDI. Where you put it is where you put it."  
"I love using Pro Tools as the source of sounds, using digital audio and celebrating it. There are rock records which are more heavily Pro-Toolsed than anything by the Aphex Twin, but they're using Tools purely to make so-so performances sound miraculous, while pretending it's a rock & roll band jamming in the cellar. They're frightened to expose the front end of the digital audio, to make what it's doing blatant and in-your-face, which I find much more exciting. I mean, I've gone as far as drawing clicks directly onto the screen in Pro Tools to create waveforms — really making it explicit.

"I love the basic Audiosuite plug-ins in Pro Tools. It's now got some nice reverbs and stuff like that, but it's particularly all those De-fis, Lo-fis, Sci-fis, Vari-fis, they're great. It's really just like sound design from square one, literally putting a sine wave into Pro Tools and by the end of it you wind up with something from Neptune. I think with the Audiosuite plug-ins, you can just go on a roll as you're creating an idea. Normally I've got a very clear idea in my head of what I'm after, and then I loop some bars of music. You can keep the bars looping in Tools, and then as you try something like 'What if I stick this bar through a ring modulator?' it just keeps cycling, and then you do it and after one cycle the processed file comes in and hear the variation, so you can decide whether or not to keep it. I love it, I've been waiting for it all my life."

Performance Enhancements

As well as the experimental possibilities thrown up by Pro Tools, tapeless digital audio also appeals to Guy for more pragmatic reasons: "Despite all this mucking around, I do love real human performance, and one of the joys of digital is that in some ways I think it makes it easier for singers just to do what they do. If you are going to edit the vocal they can see what you're doing, and they feel much more empowered than in the days when there would just be some guy on a mixing desk moving faders. I don't really drop in any more, I just let them sing and say 'Look, if you make a mistake, just finish the take, do another take, we're not going to go back over that bit unless you really can't get it at all, because we've probably got it on another take.' Or they can sing the right bit in the wrong part of the song, and it's not a problem. I'm not in the least bit sentimental about reel-to-reel recording. One of the most horrifying things in the world is having to use two analogue tape machines slaved together. I think that's the most painful thing, waiting while one takes 20 bars to get in tune with the other one — and then you want the singer to drop in after that?

"Another empowering thing in Pro Tools is that if you know what you want to hear, if you've got the idea that the riff should be this, you'll get it eventually, because even if you have to play it one note at a time into Pro Tools, you'll do it. And I think that's beautiful. If your compositional idea is clear, you'll get there in the end, even if your technical ability to play it is limited."

Guy's own keyboard-playing skills are clearly anything but limited. Some of his material, notably a take of Joni Mitchell's 'Boho Dance' recorded by Sigsworth with Bjork for a forthcoming Mitchell tribute album, features neat improvisation on traditional keyboard instruments such as the celesta, which Guy's mangling in Pro Tools can't quite disguise. Other tracks demonstrate his mastery of the oft-neglected technique of using the pitch wheel in a synth performance: "When I was developing my MIDI skills I was really into the pitch-wheel. I'm fascinated by Indian music, I've worked a lot with Talvin Singh, and I'm intrigued by how great Indian musicians bend pitch. I want to understand it, but in my terms, not necessarily understanding the true theory that an Indian musician learns. I've done things like sample an Indian phrase and then program against it, sort of ghosting it to try to get a feel of how those bends work, because it's completely different from blues bends on a rock guitar. Indian musicians call it 'meend', I believe. A lot of 'east-west fusion' stuff is still pretty trivial, still in the world of Peter Sellers, like Kula Shaker overdubbing a sitar on a soft rock track. I hope what I do goes a bit deeper than that."

Pro Tools and modern electronic instruments also allow the experimentally minded producer to create new sorts of performance: "I think plug-in audomation is where the radical possibilities are. It's just the same with synths. I know the anoraks will say that virtual analogue synths aren't as good as the originals, that they don't go out of tune as wonderfully as the originals, but the automation possibilities of effectively having eight pairs of hands on every oscillator, and moving them in a coordinated way, are radically new. You could never have done that on a Minimoog in 1973. I think the automation of plug-ins, reverbs and things like that, is a fantastic possibility, because it gives us a chance to manipulate musical space in unprecedented ways. Again, it's like having eight pairs of hands on the dial of a Lexicon or something."

You might think, then, that Guy Sigsworth would be enthused by the idea of using tactile moving-fader control surfaces to manipulate his Pro Tools plug-ins, but he's emphatic that such tools are rooted in an old-fashioned way of working that the digital evangelist leaves behind: "I think the full-on fake mixing desk thing is not the way to go, that's like you're kidding yourself again, you don't want to admit that Pro Tools is what it is. I think they're for people who want to pretend it's still like an SSL or something. People who are in denial about digital audio. To me, a Playstation joypad would make more sense as a controller than a fake desk console. I prefer to think of Pro Tools as a souped-up funky laptop thing."

The Oval Office

As you might expect of someone with a background in modern classical music and a radical approach to pop production, Guy is very much in the business of taking experimental art music to the masses: "I'm very fond of these electronic pieces Stockhausen did in the 1950s. He did this piece which took a boy's voice and played around with it on tape, and one of the few effects he had to play with was reverb, and he did a lot of things where the first note's completely dry, the second one as reverbed as possible, the next one somewhere in the middle. The reverbs are very dynamic, they're not like just some vat you dip the whole thing in, they move around, they're very agile, they're like a nervous animal. I really like that, so I try to get that hyperactive approach to space.

  Remote Working  
  There was a time when artists and A&R people would have to choose songs on the basis of a simple demo, perhaps just featuring piano and vocal. These days, however, the jobbing producer or songwriter trying to place his or her song needs to have a much more completely realised backing track. The art of attracting an artist like Madonna is, as Guy explains, about creating a demo backing track that is finished enough to impress, but not so finished that it restricts the singer/lyricist's freedom to write over the top of it: "I've done a lot of sending people tracks, because there are quite a lot of people who prefer to collaborate by 'correspondence course', where you MP3 them a backing track and then they have an idea for it and send it back to you. It's a difficult job, because you want to put enough things in to get them feeling vibey, but not enough to force them in a direction that they might not want to go melodically, or to over-fill a track so that the singer thinks 'Help, I can't get in'. Even with harmonies and chords, there's a way I try and write it initially so that the sections are vague enough that if the singer wants to extend a verse or bridge, or sing over into the wrong section, it's not going to completely interrupt it, even if later it means you're going to have to tweak the music. Because sometimes if you put the thing too much in the box, with big drum fills coming into the chorus and things like that, if they don't want to go there, you've kind of snookered them. You just learn by doing it, seeing other people struggling with it later, and thinking 'I won't do that again!'

"The Madonna song was done very quicky. I sent her a backing track, and she wrote a top line to it, we put it together and four days later we had a record. And what was kind of good for me was that we decided on day one that we liked all the noises I'd already used on the demo, and it was more a matter of repositioning them in the arrangement around M's top line. So the whole job, apart from recording the voice, was moving things around in Pro Tools.

"I sent her two sketches, and the funny thing was that I knew instinctively that this was the one she'd like. Everybody else thought she'd like the other one, but I thought it was too obviously like a clichéd Madonna track — which I'm sure she gets lots of, and I knew she'd more likely get this, the more unusual one. And at the start of it, I put this sample from a movie of the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. I just knew that M would fall in love with that, and she did."

 
"A key feature of the Madonna song that's a bit of a Guy trademark is the sound of the CD player skipping, like when you press fast forward. I've really been inspired by this amazing avant-garde German band called Oval. I just fell in love with their music. My favourite tune by them is called 'Do While', from the album 94 Diskont — buy it, if you can find it! Anyway, the only musical instrument they use is the compact disc player. They put paint on the CDs, pull Stanley knives across them, and everything, and then they re-record the effects of these fractured CDs. It's surprisingly beautiful, and often reminds me of early Steve Reich. They're totally leftfield, avant-garde, arthouse digital terrorists, and I'm trying to make pop tracks with Madonna, so it's quite different where we're taking this idea. After all these years, people still put vinyl record scratching on things, so you think, well, where's the future? Well, let's at least catch up with the CD player. Maybe we should try to find out what weird noises DVDs and MP3s make!

"People are actually quite timid about new technology. For instance, Akai samplers had time-stretching for ages before junglists came along and said 'How brilliant is this?' Before that, everybody just thought 'I want to make that thing a bit longer... Oh, it doesn't sound very good, it sounds sort of strange and distorted.' And then suddenly the junglists said 'Hey, it's brilliant, it sounds strange and distorted.' And so I think with any new technology, you're always looking for the errors or the flaws or the idiosyncracies of the thing, the accidental properties that might turn out to be features. After all, guitar distortion is a mistake, but it's one that we now can't live without.

"I'm fascinated by the qualities of time-stretching. Sometimes I've time-stretched parts and then time-stretched them back again, so it's not to change the length, it's just to get that weird shifting of the harmonics that time-stretch puts into a sound. I discovered a wicked thing the other day using the Digidesign Noise Reduction plug-in. When you drive it too hard, it starts, again, to mess with the harmonics of the sound you're putting into it. You're meant to show it an example of the noise it's trying to remove, and then you show it the sound it's got to remove it from. If you deliberately show it a completely unrelated sound, so it's looking for those harmonics in this other sound, you can create really weird harmonic resonances.

"I love it when you start pulling down the sampling rate and you get aliasing, and you can use it creatively to get a resonant frequency that's really strange in the sound. It's how you get the mystery into digital, the ghost in the machine factor. I think it's those weird quirks, clicks, glitches, things like that, that are kind of to digital audio what amp distortion or tape distortion is to analogue. Before I got my Pro Tools system I was already into that idea. I used to have two Akais, and I got into having them digitally hooked up, and doing things like press 'sample' on sampler two while the sampler one's sending a signal in, and then switch off sampler one, so I've sampled the 'off' noise mains spike, and I'd think 'Yeah, I'll use that as a kick drum.' Akais have some great quirks you can use, like you can record total silence via the digital link, so you've got a sample that's in theory got nothing in. But if you gain it up by 50dB, which you can do in the Akai, you'll suddenly get these ghostly little glitches that come out of nowhere. You can't even see them on the screen, but you can hear them. Gili Wiseburgh, who programs for me, has some great ideas for Akai abuse based on System Exclusive. You know if you loop a sample really badly you just get a kind of tuned buzz? Well, Gili's found a way to change the loop length over SysEx, so the 'buzz' can do an automated glissando.

"It's really funny, isn't it, because on one hand we're getting into DVD and people are saying 'At last, total fidelity, we'll be able to record a symphony orchestra so that it sounds pristine,' and I'm always looking at stuff and saying 'As soon as I've got the money I'm going to buy one of those Prism converters.' Yet as soon as I've got sounds in there, what am I doing? I'm bit-crushing them to death, going for two-bit sound! It's funny how it pushes you in two directions. Obviously we do have to make records here, and we can't spend all our days doing this geek stuff, but it's really fun, and I think it's what gives you your own stamp and your own style."

It's looking as though Guy Sigsworth will be making records for some considerable time to come. His own profile has been raised through his work with Madonna, and big things are expected of the Frou Frou project, with a debut album scheduled for later this year. Whatever he does, however, his willingness to experiment with sound, and his uncompromising attitude to digital recording, will always give his records a unique stamp and style.

  Guy's Gear: Some Highlights  
  Guy's musical equipment is currently distributed between his own studio and Imogen Heap's writing room, on different floors of the same building.

"I've never owned very many synthesizers," he explains. "I've got the Nord Lead and I've got one of those Roland boxes with loads of things in it, and it's not exactly a massive armoury. I think the thing with me is that I owned a sampler before I owned a synthesizer. I first got a Roland sampler, an S330, and even when I did Seal's first album, a lot of the sounds people think were synths were samples that I was processing with filters and stuff. So maybe Pro Tools, which is a kind of sampler de luxe, is a kind of natural extension of that. Often, with me, the source sound is something that probably went down a microphone, or something like that, but by the time it reaches you, God knows what's happened to it."

• Wurlitzer and Rhodes electric pianos.

"Imogen and I both play keyboards well and we both like to write on keyboards, and there's something about having a real instrument — it's probably the fact that they don't have a MIDI lead in them. I'm really not against MIDI, honest, but I realised that when I got asked to do sessions with people on records, I'd wind up sitting in front of a screen with somebody saying 'Can you change that a bit?' and I'd end up tweaking one parameter for hours. But if I turned up with something made in the 1970s with no MIDI leads in it, they'd know that all I could do was play it, and they'd either say 'Play it again' or 'That's brilliant, your cheque's in the post.' It made them commit to the idea, or not, more quickly."

• Danelectro Nifty Fifty guitar amplifier.

"That Danelectro amp is great. For the money it's amazing. I think it's about 80 quid or something. It looks great, that's why people buy it. I bought it purely for the looks. I've discovered, actually, that that's a very good principle: ignore the spec and buy it on what it looks like. Normally things that look shit actually are shit, and things that look great are good."

• Roland VP9000 Variphrase processor.

"I bought a VP9000 and I've been a little bit disappointed, because I had this idea from the hype that they might have made audio completely elastic, which is what I want it to be, but it isn't quite there yet. My idea when I bought it was I'd use it to sample unique sonic moments — a 'cello harmonic or a boy soprano's top C, or whatever — and then play keyboard parts on the sound, formant-shifted across five octaves. I think one day they'll get there, but they've released it before they've finished the R&D. One thing I will say for it, though, is that it's got great effects."

• Weltmeister Klavisette 200.

"This is an East German instrument, made in the 1960s. The mechanism is like an African thumb piano — it's got plectra on the notes and little bars, so it's like a mechanical version of that."

• Touched By Sound spring reverb.

"This is one old-school thing I really love. It's really cheap, but it's brilliant. If you want that old reggae-type watery sidestick sound it's just fantastic. A lot of digital reverbs are, unfortunately, still horrible."

• Mackie mixer.

"We don't mix on the desk at all, we just monitor through it. Desks are suddenly the least interesting part of music, I think, they're not where it's at any more."

• Clavia Nord Lead virtual analogue synth.

"I like the Nord Lead. When I was working with Lamb, they had one, and I found it very easy to get things we would react to really quickly. I think one of the most important things with gear like this is to get stuff that as soon as you put your hands on it, something might happen."

• Tahal Malah electronic tabla.

"Talvin Singh gave me this, it's a tabla drum machine. It's got presets. You select a taal (Indian rhythmic cycle), and you can adjust the pitch of the high and low tablas, and the tempo."

• Korg G5 bass processor.

"It does this kind of fake vocal sound which I've heard on loads of Timbaland records, so it's obviously his trade secret as well!"

• Yamaha QY20 pocket sequencer.

"I'm a great believer in the QY20. I think when Yamaha made it more clever, they lost the plot, because it should be really basic. It's got like four drum kits, and if you don't like them, you can f••k off. It makes it really easy to make a musical decision and get going really quickly."

 

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