Many people love the idea of laptop recording, but few have put it into practice like 1 Giant Leap. Their acclaimed album and DVD project was recorded on an Apple Powerbook during a six-month journey round the world — with a little help from some friends...
In early 1999, I took a phone call at the Sound On Sound office and had my first encounter with someone calling himself Duncan Bridgeman. Brimming with nervous energy, the caller introduced himself as a producer and asked if I would be interested in a feature on recording with a laptop. I was intrigued; at the time, plenty of people were talking about dispensing with desktop computers and using laptops to liberate their studios and make themselves mobile — but few people had actually attempted it. I asked what he had in mind, and he explained that he was taking a friend and embarking on a round-the-world trip, from the jungles of Africa to the streets of New York by way of India and Australasia, and planning to record any musicians he could find on the way into his Apple Powerbook, using it as a fully fledged multitrack recording studio. His intention thereby, he claimed, was to create a CD, DVD, and documentary film, all three of which would provide a snapshot of mankind at the turn of the new Millennium, and form a vast multimedia project designed to, as he put it, "celebrate the unity and the diversity of humanity".
Everything fell into place. Duncan Bridgeman was clearly completely mad. Adopting the soothing tone I reserve for putting unhinged authors of wildly impractical articles on the backmost of burners, I asked a few polite questions, listened carefully, and suggested (not untruthfully) that we couldn't actually do very much at that point, and that such a feature would at least have to wait until after he'd collected his raw audio material and returned from his trip. I then drew the conversation to a close in a friendly fashion and rang off, commenting to my colleagues in the SOS office that I expected the entire project to have trouble getting out of NW10, let alone as far as the North-West Frontier Province.
Two years later, by complete coincidence, I ran into Duncan in person in a London studio while interviewing somebody else. But by then, I knew exactly who he was. He was half of the creative force behind 1 Giant Leap, the project he had described to me, and which he and his creative partner Jamie Catto had subsequently made a reality. At the time, it was already making waves in the press worldwide, having secured the participation of a bewildering variety of famous and not-so-famous people from all over the planet, including philosophers, authors, actors, businessmen, scientists, and, of course, musicians, from the completely unknown to the likes of Michael Stipe, Robbie Williams and Neneh Cherry.
Now, another year later, the project has spawned a Top 10 UK hit single, a worldwide presentational tour, numerous musical concerts, and, of course, the promised CD, DVD and documentary. And what results! The antithesis of modern albums that entertain for as long as their hit single is playing and then go into a sharp decline, the 1 Giant Leap CD is, in 2003, that rarest of commodities: a record of astounding ambition, artistry and depth, but one which is also tremendously engaging, and rewards repeated plays with something new to commend it each time. It's not short of some fine tunes, either. Almost unbelievably, the DVD, which contains both the music and films, is even better.
If I wore a hat, I would take it off to Duncan Bridgeman; if I had any Dijon mustard handy, I would eat my words. The very least I could do was interview him for a feature in SOS. After all, that was what he had rung up for in the first place.
Like many complex achievements, 1 Giant Leap began as a simple idea — in this case a straight musical collaboration. Duncan and Jamie both have successful histories in the music business behind them, Duncan as a pop producer in the late '80s and early '90s, and Jamie as the art director of the thinking clubber's crossover act Faithless. One day, they got talking about how the modern record business was obsessed with dividing music into categories, and began considering what they could do to blur the boundaries. They held a shared admiration for such '80s cross-cultural works as Peter Gabriel's world-music project Passion and Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, and decided to undertake something similar, but with a twist made possible by recent technological developments. These albums had introduced world music performers like Baaba Maal and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to the West, but why, in this age of ostensibly portable recording equipment, could Duncan and Jamie not go to record their favourite performers in their home environment? They could, of course — but they were determined to make a properly collaborative, interactive project, and that meant taking a multitrack recording environment with them.
Speaking at his home studio in North London, Duncan explains why: "When we said we were taking a laptop to record to, nearly everyone said we were mad. 'It'll crash,' they said, or 'Take a DAT as backup,' or even, 'Just take a DAT, and forget the computer!' But I thought that if I did that, it would make the trip redundant. The whole point was that I had a multitrack studio with me, and that I could retake things, and the players could hear their contributions in the context of the backing tracks. The tracks also built up as we travelled around, so when we were in Bombay recording a tabla player, he would be hearing the drummers that we'd already recorded in Senegal, say, and reacting to them. That could make him play something that he's never played before.
"I also wanted to be able to listen, add and make alterations to tracks on the move if I needed to, by comping and editing. Basically, what we wanted was to take the studio out of a little room in London and put it into the world."
Duncan and Jamie put together some sample-based demos with which to present their case, and these came to the attention of Palm Pictures MD and former owner of Island Records Chris Blackwell, who was so impressed that he came up with an astoundingly generous deal.
"Chris asked us what we wanted to do, and we said we'd stolen loads of stuff to make the demos, from the TV, from CDs, and from old cassettes, and we'd like to make field trips. We had no idea of making a film at that stage, we just wanted to replace the samples with real performances. That dictated the places we wanted to go to, because we wanted to replace specific samples from specific places. We had specific countries, specific types of music and even specific musicians in mind.
"Then he said 'If you're going, make a film of it,' because Jamie had made a couple of pop videos for Faithless. But neither of us had really had any experience of film-making before. Our next question was, 'What's the budget?' And he just said, 'Well, I've never done anything like this before... let me know when you need money!' He basically trusted us, and gave us the opportunity to go anywhere we wanted. So of course, we agreed — and then we went away wondering what we were actually going to do, and how!"
In one night of frantic brainstorming, the pair came up with the concept of a 12-chapter film, in which each chapter would explore a fundamental theme of human existence, and would be accompanied by the collaborative music of the original concept. The visual content of each film would be created in a similar collaborative way, by finding interesting people to talk to on their travels and filming them discussing their opinions on the 12 main themes of the project. "We like talking about life, so we thought that as we travelled, we'd have that conversation with all the people we met. The intention wasn't to provide any answers, just to give opinions an outlet." In a further extension of the original musical concept, the pair decided to seek out some of their personal heroes to interview for the project, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Dennis Hopper, Brian Eno and Anita Roddick.
Despite having the financial backing of Palm Pictures, the project called for a vast amount of preparation. Duncan and Jamie spent many months pulling every string they could to contact the artists and celebrities they wished to collaborate with, in a bid to persuade them to take part. They also had to design a completely portable audio-visual setup to take with them (see the Have Laptop, Will Travel box for more information on the gear choices they made), and create a feasible round-the-world itinerary.
Their planning paid off. Once they'd become practised at it, they eventually got the process of collaboration off to a fine art. "We could be totally guerrilla about it. We could turn up in someone's house, be ready to record in about 10 minutes, and we were often gone inside an hour, or two hours at the most. That meant it wasn't a heavy time commitment for people. And if they weren't happy with what they'd done, they just didn't sign the release form."
Rather than riskily leave inspiration to chance while they were travelling, Duncan and Jamie also pre-prepared some basic music, Duncan holing himself up for two months on a remote Scottish island, Eilean Shona, to write. Between 15 and 20 sample-, synth- and guitar-based tracks for the project resulted, stored in Emagic's Logic Audio on Duncan's G3 Powerbook, and ensuring that when the trip began, the musicians they encountered would have some music (and, perhaps more significantly, a constant tempo) to work to. "We had to have something strict enough to give us musical security, but flexible enough to allow us leeway to add collaborators. So a lot of the tracks were harmonically simple, to give the other musicians a bit of scope. The strict tempo could be seen as a bit of a restriction, but it was also a blessing, as it meant not only that collaborations added at different times stayed in time, but it also made it easier for me to take vocals off certain tracks and use them in others if I wanted to.
"When we were planning our trip, we started in Senegal, because we had wanted to work with Baaba Maal, and he was on Palm Pictures, so it seemed like a sensible thing to do. We made up the rest of the trip by working out all the places we wanted to go to and then putting them together in a sensible order.
"In the end, we nailed down only about 10 percent of the people we worked with before we left. In a lot of the places, we didn't really know anybody; we just knew we wanted music from a particular region or a particular country. So in those places, rather than try to arrange everything session by session ourselves, we managed to set up at least one person in every country who was on our wavelength, and who could meet us at the airport with a van and a list of potential people to see. Then we just crammed in as many things as we could. In most countries, that worked. Thank heavens for email, because virtually everyone has it, and we were still able to organise things that way while travelling."
Beginning in October 1999, Duncan and Jamie set off on their six-month trip. They took in Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Uganda, India, Nepal, Sikkim, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the USA, nearly always heading East, and returned to London in March 2000. This only gave them about a week to 10 days in each place. "It was pretty high-pressure stuff. You know, you arrive in say, Ghana, and in the six or seven days you're there, you need to find something worth recording! In most places, though, we found something that was worth it, as well as plenty that wasn't.
"The first track me and Jamie had done together, 'This Is What Comes Through To Us', had this sampled chant on it that I'd had on a DAT for years. I didn't know anything else about it. But when we got to Senegal and played the track to Baaba Maal, with the sample in it, he said 'Oh, that's Fulani singing,' which is his tribe. He took us to them, and we got to replace the sample with singing from the right tribe.
"We went to a hut, we didn't know what was going on, it was 40 degrees, and it started filling up with people who were all wearing the same sort of clothes. I said to Jamie, 'I think something's about to happen — I'd better get the mics set up!' So we slapped up some mics, got the cameras going, and they were off. There's this tradition all over Africa but especially in Senegal of drum calls, where you sing and play the rhythm. I only had five sets of headphones — one for me, and then I just had to hand the other four out to whoever I thought were the most important rhythm makers. I was in a little room next door setting the recording levels as best I could, because I could only record into the laptop in stereo. I had to make mixing decisions there and then, and I wasn't sure what I was hearing through the headphones and what was in the room — and I was right by a djembe player making the racket from hell! Unfortunately, the only compressor I had was on my little Roland VM3100 digital mixer, and it's very basic. I just had to do it and hope that it was OK."
Recording the South African female trio the Mahotella Queens in Johannesburg made such an impact on Duncan that they ended up singing on three tracks, including the truly spine-tingling vocal break in what is perhaps the album's most effective track, 'All Alone'. "At first, I added them to a very upbeat track, 'Ma' Africa'. But that went off so well that I played them 'All Alone' as an afterthought. 'All Alone' was written to accompany our film about death, and the Queens used to be led by a man who performed with them, who had died about two months before we got there. We explained that this was our film about what death means, and thought that it would be good to have something uplifting in the middle to show that death can be a beginning, as well as an end. They started singing a vocal break over a groove immediately. About three days later I was listening to it back in my hotel room, and I added the descending bass line and chords to fit around the chant.
"After that, I wanted to work with them again, but we only had two days left in South Africa, so we ended up going to their house to record the third track, 'Daphne', which was really special. I sat there in the living room, on their settee, playing the track to them on guitar while they wrote vocal chants. Then I set up the laptop, trailed a mic across, and they sang away. Job done! That experience was really what the whole project was about.
"The only reason we went to Uganda was that I'd heard that they have these people called the Earth Drummers, and we didn't even know what they were; all we knew was that they would dig a pit in the earth and play drums. We just said, 'OK, we'll go and find out.' It turned out to be a huge marimba. The pit is a couple of feet wide and about 20 feet long; they put slats all the way along it and about six of them bash it, and the whole village sings. We had these Sony clip mics we were using for interviews, and I dropped one at each end of the marimba pit. I got so much bass end from them, I had to roll a lot off at the mix later. I only really realised when I got home and put it up on the big speakers!"
The biggest coincidence of the entire trip came in Jaipur, India, and again underlined just how spontaneous the mobile recording process could be. Jamie and Duncan were having lunch in their hotel when they spotted Indian singer Asha Bhosle (immortalised in Cornershop's 'Brimful Of Asha') on the other side of the restaurant. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
"We went over with the laptop and explained that we were making a film, told her about us, and she said 'Well, let me finish my lunch and I'll come out and do something.' We set up in the garden outside, put some flowers around the computer and put the mic under a nice tree, and sat there wondering if she was going to come. After dinner, she came out, we put some headphones on her, and she did her part. It took 20 minutes."
Not all of 1 Giant Leap's collaborators, of course, are so well known. The female Maori singer Whiri Mako Black was a complete unknown internationally before appearing on the record, but Jamie insisted that they include her after her haunting voice helped him through a painful experience.
"When we were in New Zealand, Jamie had a big Maori tattoo done on his back, which was very painful. He said the only thing that got him through it was this recording of a woman they were playing in the shop. It turned out that this was Whiri Mako Black. We'd never heard of her, and it took ages to track her down — she was working in a factory."
Duncan felt that they lacked a suitable track for Whiri to contribute to, but the ever-flexible laptop came to the rescue again. Composing a new track from a guitar idea he'd had for a while, he recorded it at the same speed and in the same key as another track, 'Bushes', onto which they'd already recorded the vocals of Baaba Maal. "I thought we were going to put Whiri Mako Black on the beginning of the 'Bushes' track, which I thought needed something. So it was originally a new part for the 'Bushes' track. And some of the parts that were on the 'Bushes' track, some recordings of Turkish percussion that we'd made before we left London, I just pasted them on to the new section to give me something to play to Whiri Mako Black that night..."
After the vocal session, Duncan added a keyboard melody idea from the Roland JV1010 he was carrying around. When he and Jamie eventually returned to London, they decided to replace the synth with something much more distinctive. "One of the instruments that me and Jamie really love is the doudouk, which is an Armenian oboe made from apricot wood, with a single reed. It's got an eerie sound, half-string, half-vocal, half-pipe... you don't really know what it is when you hear it. It was used on the first track on Peter Gabriel's Passion — that was the first time I heard it. It's something you don't hear enough of — a very emotional instrument."
Eventually, the musical piece, with a distinctive double doudouk part replacing Duncan's synth lines, became a track in its own right. It was named 'Ta Moko' after the Maori word for tattoo.
If Duncan had found the process of recording in the field occasionally stressful, things got much worse when he and Jamie returned to the UK. "Until then, we were just coping with the challenges of recording all the film and music. Then we had to start making something out of it. First, we had to log all the recordings. I waded through all the audio, and Jamie did the video. He found that we had over 300 hours, or more than 12 days of it — it took about six weeks! But our planning paid off again. We had those 12 themes, which we kept in mind as we were going through it: God, Money, Sex, Death, Inspiration... and anything relating to those themes in the footage or interviews was logged and stored under that heading."
The project now entered a frenetic phase, with work proceeding on the video editing, Duncan working on mixing the audio tracks for both the CD and the DVD, the latter in both stereo and 5.1 surround. And the pair were still recording, adding the contributions of a number of UK artists to the heap of material, notably Eddi Reader, Horace Andy and Robbie Williams. The laptop continued to be the main recorder, and desktop Macs were used to edit the video, the pair putting their feet down and insisting that there was nothing an expensive Avid video workstation could offer that dual-processor Macs and copies of Final Cut Pro could not. And although IDG Studios is credited on the sleeve of the CD, it turns out Duncan merely rented a room there. "I'm very proud that it wasn't mixed on a mixing desk. It was mixed without a mixer — just with a Mac and a mouse."
When it came to editing the video, there was one main problem. On the CD, Duncan had layered performances over one another via the marvels of multitrack recording, creating a convincing illusion that the music was all played at once. But during its musical sections, how was a DVD to show all the musicians playing on screen at once?
"Our editing assistants would say, 'Somehow, we've got to get four musicians on screen at this point — what do you reckon?' We were quite nervous, because we didn't want it to look like a documentary, and we didn't want it to look like a pop video; we wanted something in between." The chosen split-screen solution, curiously, is one of the DVD's most attractive features, because it makes the musical sections kaleidoscopic — there's so much going on visually that it's impossible to take it all in the first time you watch it, meaning that there will always be something that you haven't noticed before each time you play it. And if you only know the 1 Giant Leap CD, the DVD is a musical treat, allowing you to see exactly who played on what.
"It's so rare when you see a music film that the video of the performance shows the same performance that you're listening to. But in our case, we'd get that moment where Jamie would say 'That audio performance is four minutes 22 seconds into such-and-such video take,' and I'd drop the audio on top of the video and it would sync perfectly."
The finished 1 Giant Leap DVD was never intended to provide great answers to any deep questions, but it's thought-provoking, moving and thoroughly entertaining nevertheless. Duncan, however, was sometimes unconvinced of its merits while making it. "I would often say to Jamie, 'Hollywood spends a fortune in its films building up to that big emotional moment, where you're supposed to laugh or cry, depending on what it is — what's that going to be in our film?' But Jamie reckoned that because it was real people and real opinions, it would 'speak' to people. And he was right, although different people are moved to tears or laughter by different parts in the film. I certainly don't agree with the opinions of everyone in it, and in some parts, I think the people we filmed are talking complete nonsense, but even those bits touch some people. Every time someone new watches it, they find something different in it which moves them."
Looking back on the project, Duncan has few regrets, but one of them is that the audio album could not accommodate more material. "There are four tracks that are on the DVD that aren't on the CD. We originally wanted it to be a double album and double DVD. Anyway, what I'd like to do now is put out a special double album with everything on it, and that'll clear the decks of this project." More live gigs are scheduled, coupled with screenings of the DVD — at the time of writing, the 1GL live band have just played at the prestigious Purcell Rooms in London. Longer term, it seems 1 Giant Leap may be off on their travels again. Duncan is unequivocal. "There's never been a better time. It is incredible what power laptop users have now. I've got a Gigabyte of RAM, a 48GB hard drive, FireWire capabilities, USB capabilities..." he pauses and smiles. I'm really looking forward to the next trip, basically. I'd do it differently next time. I wouldn't worry like I worried.
"When we were making the film, we were really interested in the idea of where inspiration comes from, so we asked everyone. And more or less everyone said the same thing. You let go, and it will come to you. You're not thinking about it, and suddenly, you've done something incredible. Just keep your ears and your eyes open, and react when things happen!"