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Ambient Techno: Peter Namlook, Mixmaster Morris, Scanner & David Toop

Interview | Artist
Published March 1995

In the '70s, there was Eno's Ambient music. In the late '80s, there came the Techno sound of Detroit. Over the past two years, there has been talk of 'Ambient Techno'. But what is it? MARK PRENDERGAST explains, and speaks to four influential creators of Ambient Techno about how they produce their music.

Ambient was a term first coined by Brian Eno in the 1970s to describe music with no immediately recognisable melody, or, in extreme cases, form of any kind, which often relied on natural ambient sounds (running water, birdsong, the sounds picked up in an empty room, and so on) to give the music a basic structure. In the last few years, however, the term has been used in combination with the word Techno to describe a more structured kind of music. This 'Ambient Techno', like the Techno music that came out of Detroit in the late '80s, is primarily generated using electronic instruments and computer sequencers, but is much less upbeat than Derrick May and Juan Atkins' music, more relaxed, and often still incorporates long samples of ambient noises, like the original Ambient. Some say Ambient Techno began with The KLF and their Chill Out album. Others are determined it was the Orb who started the ball rolling, while still others cite the Grid's 1990 single 'Flotation' (amusing, in the light of their recent smash chart success with a single that is anything but ambient in nature).

Since the turn of the decade, and especially since around 1992, Ambient Techno has been the buzz‑word on the lips of those involved with Chill‑Out rooms, virtual reality headsets, computers and lots and lots of music technology. Computer‑generated visuals are the latest craze, accompanying the Ambient Techno soundscapes of the Future Sound of London [interviewed in August 1994's SOS] and many others. Ambient Techno is responsible for an enormous gush of new music worldwide, a fact possibly attributable to the nature of the music itself — in the most part instrumental electronica, it requires no vocals or band formats, and is therefore easily produced with a minimum of equipment. All over the world, clubs, DJs, labels and bedroom boffins are churning out electronic music as if there was no tomorrow. Belgium, Germany, Japan, California and London seem to be the epicentres — drawing in influences and throwing out techno wizards at weekly intervals. Labels continue to spring up at an alarming rate, and there seems to be no end to the experimentation and change in the music being produced.

Both dance music generally and Ambient Techno are musical forms that have brought old analogue synths back into the limelight. Practitioners swear by the Moog, the EMS Synthi and the Mellotron. Old record collections are being dusted off to get the best analogue samples from their grooves. At present, early '70s German electronic music is the most coveted. As already mentioned, there are thousands of people worldwide making this music, but this article takes a look at four individuals whose work is fairly representative. They are Pete Namlook, Mixmaster Morris, Scanner and David Toop.

Pete Namlook And Fax

No other musician has done more to make Ambient the classical music of the future than Pete Namlook (né Kuhlmann). From the end of 1992 to the end of 1993 he was the producer on an average of two albums a week at his Frankfurt Sonic Studio complex, and most of the material was released on his own Fax label. Names like Deltraxx, Sequential, Hearts of Space and Escape all characterised a new kind of Techno — spacey and more musical, frequently moving beyond the four‑on‑the‑floor limitations of conventional House. All releases on the Fax label were characterised by a circle‑within‑a‑circle colour‑coding system, which was instantly recognizable. Green meant House, Yellow meant trance, and Blue was for Ambient. The Ambient ones, in particular, sold amazingly well, and two of them, Air and Silence, were licensed to London's Rising High Records.

Over the last year, Namlook has concentrated his efforts on CDs, again all packaged within the coded circular sleeves. There have been interesting collaborations with the likes of Ambient dub guru Bill Laswell (Psychonavigation), Tokyo mainman Tetse Inoue (Shades of Orion), San Francisco's Jonah Sharp (Alien Community) and ex‑Tangerine Dreamer Klaus Schulze (Dark Side of The Moog).

John Cage shocked me into submission at the age of 11...

On these records, and his other releases, Namlook has really gone in for combining sounds produced by analogue and digital synthesis with natural acoustic sounds, for example flute, soprano voice, and even rain‑sticks. This side to his music is less surprising when you consider his classical background, as the man himself explains: "I started in music by learning classical guitar, and studied music at Frankfurt's Goethe University. But my father had a Revox tape recorder at home, and I started making tape loops, overlaying birdsong on guitar, and so on!". Increasingly fascinated by electronic music, Namlook quit university, got a job in a bank and invested his earnings in electronic equipment.

During the '80s he bought a Roland MKS80 and Yamaha DX7, and a Roland GR500 guitar synth. Later, he added an EMS VCS3 and a MiniMoog. Towards the end of the '80s, he began building studio monitors, and was able to truly expand his setup, buying a Sequential T8, an Oberheim Expander, a Prophet VS and an "old but very good" Prophet 2002 sampler. In 1991, whilst at the Frankfurt Techno club 'The Omen' he met DJ Criss, with whose help he started making records. Shortly afterwards, Namlook founded the Fax record label.

Today, thanks to Fax's amazing success, Pete Namlook divides his time between a country house and his Frankfurt studio. No week goes by without another new Fax CD, either by him or the dozens of artists he invites to record. He loves recording acoustic sounds and putting them through Cubase Audio, which he runs on an Apple Mac Quadra with 30Mb of RAM and a 3Gb hard disk. He also uses two Digidesign Pro Tools systems, having become a keen computer programmer from his time in the bank. His success has enabled him to expand his arsenal of synths still further, his favourites being a cherished Oberheim 4‑Voice, two EMS Synthi AKSs (in suitcase format), two Oscar synths, and the much more recent Emu Morpheus.

Namlook's fascination with all forms of electronic instrumentation has led him to seek out many pioneers of original electronic instruments, such as Ludwig Rehberg of EMS (who is reputed to have played the Synthi on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon) and Oskar Sala, the German developer of one of the earliest monophonic synths, the Trautonium. This peculiar instrument was made famous in the 1930s by the composer Hindemith, and then used years later on the soundtrack to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Namlook: "I've known Oskar Sala for eight years, and he re‑built one for me. I did a lot of programming work with it, and started using sub‑harmonic rows and sub‑harmonic chords in my compositions. You see, the synthesizer industry only uses black and white keys, the well‑tempered scale. To find a really interactive scale, you have to go beyond that, and the Trautonium has the best interface for monophonic sounds. Today, synth manufacturers like Roland do not bring enough creativity to musicians. You don't find these limitations with something like the EMS Synthi. As far as I'm concerned, as long as new synthesizer companies cannot even compete with the technology of the 1920s, then they cannot bring real creativity to musicians".

Mixmaster Morris

Mixmaster Morris is probably the most widely travelled of all those involved with Ambient Techno. A pioneer of live sampling in the '80s, Morris (who records on Rising High records as The Irresistible Force) has been around the world from Frankfurt to Tokyo, Berlin to San Francisco and back via Zurich and Amsterdam, averaging 100 shows a year. His phrase "I Think Therefore I Ambient" has become famous in its own right, and his 1992 debut Flying High received great critical acclaim. He collaborated with Pete Namlook on 1993's Dreamfish, and his most recent album, Global Chillage, released at the end of 1994, is a significant new step in the Ambient Techno field, or, in Morris's own words, that of "dance music you can't dance to".

Morris is certainly the most important artist on Rising High today. But his beginnings were not quite so auspicious, as he recalls: "I was just a little punk rocker in the '70s. I was inspired by Cabaret Voltaire and This Heat, and in 1980 started doings one‑man gigs with an EDP Wasp synth, a Watkins Copycat tape echo, and a few early drum machines like the Roland CR78. I desperately wanted to do sampling, but a Fairlight was much too expensive. I got a Sinclair Spectrum with a little sampling package, and then a Commodore 64 with a little sampler on the back. When the Akai 612 appeared, it was great, because everyone could have sampling for under £1000".

In 1988, Morris was one of the audience at the Heaven club in London, where DJing members of The Orb and The KLF started blending Ambient textures with House tracks. Suitably inspired, Morris concocted Flying High, throwing in samples of Can, Spaceman Three, and the lectures of Terence McKenna (who has since worked with the Shamen on their Boss Drum album). Morris recalls: "Flying High was made with an Emu Emax sampling keyboard, a Cheetah MS6 and an Octave Cat, in Rising High's very primitive studio — it had water dripping through the ceiling. The mixing console was covered with paper cups to catch the drips".

Progressing slightly, Dreamfish was recorded in Pete Namlook's studio in Frankfurt. "I always fantasised about meeting a German electronics synth guru. We recorded the album in two days! Often, we'd record a track, do a mix each, and edit them together. I like to use the mixing desk, and Pete just uses line mixers. I run stuff through the desk over and over again, experimenting with the faders and the mute and drop‑in/drop‑out buttons. That, to me, is the essence of making music. I'm not into pre‑programming, because I can't resist tweaking a knob on the fly. Even in the cutting room, I'm thinking what will happen if we modulate this or cut this filter off at a certain point. I'm into changing the sounds all the time."

David Toop: "I'd always been dependent on other musicians, but now the technology could give me independence."

Despite his clear love of technology, Morris's home studio is relatively primitive. The Emu Emax sampling keyboard and Cheetah MS6 synth module are still his main tools. There's also an Oberheim Matrix 1000 and a Roland Super Jupiter MKS80. For outboard, Morris favours a Boss BX 6‑channel stereo mixer, and an Alesis Midiverb II. Just as important is the huge Apple Mac system on which Morris regularly surfs the Internet. There are also various DAT and cassette decks, a pitch‑shifter, and an MRT Pro Audio mixer with MRT70 phonic Equaliser. Pride of place goes to the Denon double CD deck with DJ toggle control, and his twin Marantz and Technics record decks. "Those are great, because they stop and start instantly — the platter floats on magnets, and can't be worn out like a belt drive can when you mix a lot."

Morris loves records. His collection of early '70s German electronica is incredible. As well as the expected Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh and Neu, Morris has real rarities by Ash Ra Tempel, Conrad Schnitzler, Michael Rother, Cluster, Roedelius, Balloon and Emtidi. His favourite album is one from 1974 by Harmonia. "They were Brian Eno's favourite group — a supergroup of Cluster and Neu together. They even recorded a track called 'Hausmusik'!"

Morris sees Ambient Techno as an evolving thing. "There is this unwritten promise in Techno that you can make a track in your bedroom that can spread all over the world via the underground, which is a wonderful thing. The music industry hasn't worked out a way to hype it. You need a genius brain to make genius Techno. You can't bluff it."

Morris is quite committed to computer music. "I love using computer software techniques. The next album will be all inside the Mac, with no sound sources outside the computer. I've been designing virtual synths and downloading them into my Audiomedia card. I like the idea of downloading another synth package, instead of going out and buying another module. I always wanted more programmability — and that's where the future lies."

Scanner And The Electronic Lounge

Robbie Rimbaud is Scanner, a Battersea‑based musician who since 1993 has done two quite startling things. Firstly, he has recorded three albums based on scanned conversations from people's mobile phones: Scanner 1, Scanner 2 and Mass Observation, all released on his own Ash label. All these albums take highly‑charged and often illicit conversations, and put them within a framework of samples and electronic sound. Along the way, you hear some fascinating interactions between adulterous couples, lovers, and underworld characters. Robbie deletes all names and addresses, as he is only interested in the character of the interchange, and the specific sounds generated.

Secondly, Rimbaud has succeeded this year in establishing the Quiet Club that Eno dreamed of in the 1980s. Called 'The Electronic Lounge', it occurs at The ICA every month. Such luminaries as Orbital, Mixmaster Morris, and David Toop have all had DJ slots in an environment that allows for discussion and interaction by those interested in electronic music.

According to Rimbaud, the idea occurred to him about a year ago: "Most Techno clubs were too loud to speak in, and when you encountered people they were either too tired or too out of it to talk. I didn't want a Chill‑Out zone, just a place to meet with interesting experimental music going on around you. With the Lounge, everything feels really free. Orbital can come down and play what they like, stuff like '60s film soundtracks, which they could not get away with at a dance club".

Robbie feels he defaulted into DJing as a sideline. He's been involved in music for 15 years now, since his schooldays. "I started off using cheap bugging devices. I also used to tap the old phones to get crossed lines. I ended up doing stuff for Derek Jarman, working on installations, and getting involved in the experimental industrial scene of Lydia Lunch, Test Dept and Coil. Then I graduated to film soundtracks for the London film festival."

The first Scanner album is a collage of 15 years of sounds. "It's reels and reels of 4‑track recordings all spliced together in avant‑garde fashion. You see, John Cage shocked me into submission at the age of 11. After hearing him, I went home and kicked hell out of the family piano..."

Like Mixmaster Morris, Robbie's studio is pretty basic: "A Fostex 280 4‑track, a Digitech echo with a 7‑second sample delay, and old Aiwa 1 and Teac reel to reel recorders. I've just bought an Akai S1000, and I'll get more. I also play some guitar — and then, of course, there's the Scanner itself. It's a really low‑tech piece of equipment which you can buy in Tottenham Court Road. I've also seen them at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. It's a radio receiver with a huge band width, from 0 to 1000Mhz. It can pick up anything from hearing aid transmissions to overhead aircraft radio."

Rimbaud's way of mixing music gives us an insight into Ambient Techno in general. "I use the Scanner to get all the voices. Then I might get a TV sound, re‑sample it and bring it to the foreground. I'll then make a loop, and map it out on the keyboard. Live, I trigger the loop from the keyboard, and put other voicings on top. When I'm DJing, I'm mixing textures, with three or four layers going at once."

Scanner is above all interested in communication "or the lack of it" in our accelerating technological environment. His music is constructed to remind us that there's more to life than being a 'mouse potato' stuck forever in front of a computer screen logged onto the Internet. "I'm very involved in music. Bill Laswell is doing a remix for me; I'm doing a CD/Video project with Sun Electric and The Orb, and remixing some Sabres of Paradise stuff; I'm recording for New Electronica and Reflective in San Francisco — lots of things."

David Toop

In Britain, David Toop is better known as a writer on Ambient and neglected music rather than an experimental and electronic musician in his own right. But he was well known for the album he made with Max Eastley in 1975 for Brian Eno's Obscure label — the interestingly titled New & Rediscovered Musical Instruments. Having successfully championed Techno music in the style press over the years, Toop found himself working with Eastley again after 20 years. In 1994 came their second instalment, Buried Dreams, which successfully combines found sounds, real instruments and MIDI triggering in a new kind of multi‑layering process. Toop explains his history: "It goes right back to playing lead guitar in R 'n' B bands in the '60s, and then getting interested in Free Jazz, psychedelic music and then experimental music. I was into all sorts: Ornette Coleman, John Cage, Terry Riley, and early Pink Floyd." In fact, Toop was an art student at Hornsey Art College in the '60s, and became involved in light shows at the same time as Pink Floyd were starting out on similar lines.

The early 1970s music scene was similar to today's — ethnic music, jazz, electronics and rock, all blending and experimenting. After all, this was the same environment which produced Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, the original Ambient pioneers. In the early '70s, Toop wrote a pamphlet inspired by the instrument inventions and installations of Max Eastley, called New & Rediscovered Musical Instruments. Both Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman supported Toop's ideas and published his writings. In 1974, Radio 3 invited him to come and mix tapes on air. Brian Eno heard one of his programmes, attended one of Toop and Eastley's performances, and decided to make a record with them. Toop recalls: "We each had a side. Max's side was straight recordings of his sound sculptures. My side was three compositions. One featured acapella singing, another had some very long home‑made flutes, and the third was a very long, very slow track featuring myself and Brian playing prepared instruments".

In 1978, Toop set off for two and a half months to Southern Venezuela, to make Ambient recordings of Shamanistic Indian rites. Today, he is considered an expert in the field. In 1979, after playing with David Cunningham's Flying Lizards, he went on to producing with Steve Beresford, on various sessions by Adrian Sherwood and Prince Far I. Through his contacts with black music, Toop wrote Rap Attack, a critical analysis of Hip‑Hop. After its publication, he was offered many newspaper and magazine columns. "The writing just took over. Then computer sequencing software came along, as did MIDI, so I immersed myself in that. In '87/'88 I started producing Techno tracks. I thought Acid House was amazing, this new kind of Minimalist music. The Detroit Techno of Derrick May and Juan Atkins was very inspirational. You see, I'd always been dependent on other musicians, but now the technology could give me independence. I started off with Steinberg's Pro 24, then moved to Cubase. Then I bought a Roland Juno 106, a Cheetah MS6, some Roland 909 and 727 drum machines, and started talking to Max Eastley about doing something live..."

Toop is concerned that Buried Dreams is not seen as another sampled statement, but a more complex electro/acoustic work: "It began in 1990 with an exchange of ideas. I was writing pieces at home on an Atari, using Cubase. We used a lot of my field recordings from South America, Max's outdoor and gallery stuff, ambient recordings, and lots of instruments, including Max's bowed‑arc (a stringed instrument whose pitch changes when the bow is bent) and a Casio CZ101 with my own sounds for top‑end melodies. All of this was amplified and processed in some way. It was recorded in a small 16‑track studio in Shepherd's Bush. We did it all in only three days!"

Toop describes his music as "a mixture of analogue and digital, the programmed and non‑programmed, live and sampled material, the outdoor and indoor, hi‑ and low‑tech. Of interesting contrasts." Yet he is happy to have it released in the Ambient Techno milieu rather than have it shunted into an avant‑garde sideline. The outcome has been many offers of musical work, including possible albums with Jon Hassell and Pete Namlook, and a follow‑up to Buried Dreams for Toop's record company, Beyond. Following his work on a recent Shamen CD‑ROM, Toop has interesting words to say about interactive media: "I think the stuff that Prince and Peter Gabriel have done falls into the area of expensive electronic press kits. They are not a form of art in which you can immerse yourself, like film or music. The problems lie with the interface. Very few developers are aware that anything's wrong, and the programmers and artists find it difficult to communicate with each other. When they find a common language, then things can start to happen."

Some Essential Ambient Techno Albums

EARExperimental Audio ResearchSympathy
DivinationLight In ExtensionStoned Heights/Island
SyzygyMorphic ResonanceRising High
Spacetime Continuum (Jonah Sharp)Sea BiscuitFax
Axiom AmbientLost In TranslationStoned Heights/Island
Global CommunicationGlobal CommunicationDedicated
Tetse InoueAmbient OtakuFax
VariousTrance Europe Express 1Volume
VariousTrance Europe Express 2Volume

Info Guide

    Rising High have released the classic Namlook albums Air, You, and Silence, as well as the compilations Definitive Ambient Collection One and Definitive Ambient Collection Two. All other releases are on Fax Records. For serious enquiries, fax Fax [oh, very funny — Ed] on 010 49 69 450 464.
    Both Morris's Irresistible Force albums Flying High and Global Chillage are on Rising High Records, as is his collaboration with Pete Namlook, Dreamfish. A second collaboration, Dreamfish 2, will be available later in the year. For serious enquiries, fax Luna Park Management on 071 486 5722. Mixmaster Morris biographies, photos and musical excerpts are also available on the Internet at the following location:

    All Scanner CDs are available through These Records (phone 071 622 8834). If you wish to enquire about Scanner or The Electronic Lounge contact Robbie Rimbaud through his record company, Beechwood Music, on 0932 572677. A new Scanner album, Spore, is scheduled for release in early 1995.
    David Toop and Max Eastley's Buried Dreams is availble on Beyond, through China Records. All enquiries to China, on 081 742 9999, or fax 081 742 9999. New & Rediscovered Musical Instruments is planned for CD re‑issue by Virgin Venture sometime in the future. You can access writings, images, music and text relating to Buried Dreams and its recording at the following Internet site: