Sam Inglis meets the production crew behind one of the year's biggest garage tracks.
Tré and City, the production team collectively known as Architechs, are having trouble remembering the name of the keyboard which brought them their big break.
"He had a Korg N364," says Tré of his collaborator.
"No, it was a Korg X3."
"No, I had an N264, you had an N364."
"It's an X3!"
"It is a Korg X3. I've had it for years, man."
"I'm sure you had an N364. Check it."
"What do you mean, check it? I've had it since 1996. I know what I've got!"
City's workstation first reached the public ear in 1997, when the duo used it to create one of the first great underground hits of UK garage. They took an a capella mix of Brandy & Monica's R&B smash 'The Boy Is Mine', welded it to a two‑step dance groove, and pressed up a couple of white labels to give to friendly DJs. The track immediately became a guaranteed floor‑filler at clubs like Twice As Nice, and eventually shifted over 20,000 copies as a bootleg without receiving a legitimate release.
Three years later Tré and City went overground, signing a deal with Polydor subsidiary Go! Beat and, with the help of vocalist Nana (pronounced 'Nay‑nay'), recorded their debut single proper, 'Body Groove'. The track was an instant hit with DJs, pirate radio stations and Radio 1's The Dreem Teem, and the growing buzz ensured that it entered the charts in October at number three. Even at the time of writing in Christmas week, 'Body Groove' has only just left the Top 40, and is still A‑listed at Radio 1.
Like their remix of 'The Boy Is Mine', 'Body Groove' was recorded using fairly basic equipment. The backing track was concocted at home, using City's trusty X3 (or was it an N364?), a Roland JV1080 sound module, and an Akai S3200XL sampler, sequenced from Emagic's Logic Platinum running on an Apple Mac G3. Vocals were added at The Dairy studio in Brixton, where the track was also mixed.
"We still use quite basic equipment," insists Tré. "It's no more than four or five things at a time. It's never like an elaborate thing where we've got tons of gear and hire stuff in, because our music — our own personal stuff, not the remixes — is based around songs, and they are always given room to breathe."
"It's quite akin to hip‑hop," adds City. "A lot of underground hip‑hop you hear now is not done in expensive studios either. Or if it is, they make it sound like it's not, it's quite dirty. It's the same sort of ethos for garage. It's done in studios like the Dairy, but it's made to sound like it's not, because garage has got a certain quality, and once it sounds too overproduced it loses the rawness. It's the same with jungle, you can't do jungle in a big studio."
Tré continues: "And not only that, it's that most people who are making that style of music haven't been trained in the sense of being engineers or being musicians, so their technical know‑how is kind of limited. That's good to a certain extent because it brings out that raw element. If they had gone into a big studio with engineers and people who are really experienced, the sound would have been completely different, because people would have been EQing it from the aspect of 'No, the bass should sound like this, the hi‑hat should sound like this, that snare should be like this.' Whereas the people who are doing this kind of music are making it more from how they feel it, from how they hear it, than the whole technical side. It's not expensive to get into it. It's not like doing band‑based music, where you need someone to give you money to buy guitars, amps, and stuff like that. This is quite basic."
"When you listen to a lot of stuff, it's not panned, it's like just faders and that's it," agrees City. "No EQ, nothing. It's just raw like that, and that's where the sound comes from. But it's club‑based music. All people want to hear is the drums and bass, and even if it was done in mono people wouldn't even be bothered."
City and Tré are keen to emphasise both the diversity of the garage scene, and the way in which their own music draws on a varied musical heritage. "A lot of people say 'I don't like garage, but I like your stuff,'" explains Tré. "And that, to me, sums up garage. I mean 'garage' is such a broad term, you can't really say who is doing garage — what is garage now? Garage used to mean US house, and now we use the same word to describe Architechs, Zed Bias, Wookie and MJ Cole, although the only thing they've got in common is the tempo. But the whole production values and everything are completely different, so you can get someone from R&B liking our stuff but not liking someone else's stuff because it's too jungle, or vice versa. And that's what we set out to do with 'The Boy Is Mine' initially. We were R&B producers, so we liked some of the garage stuff we heard, but only some of it, like Tina Moore and other tunes that were really soulful. We said 'Well, that's more like R&B, but at that sort of tempo,' and that's really what we set out to do. We weren't sure that it was going to work, because it is different, and people can be quite conservative when it comes to music, they don't like change. And it blew up."
"I used to work with Seb Fontaine back in the late '80s," recalls City. "This was when 'hip‑house' was coming out, which was like rapping over house music. And all the majors were saying 'Right, great, you guys are good, but we want you to do this,' and I thought 'No, I'm not doing any hip‑house!' Back then I was into the old‑school rap which was credible underground, and hip‑house was seen as pop stuff. So I thought 'I'm not doing it', and we turned our backs on the deals, and then we both went our separate ways. I went more into writing mode, and Seb carried on and became a house DJ — he's one of the biggest right now. So all our production skills and values have come over from hip‑hop production, and with the Architechs we're doing a sound which uses hip‑hop beats and R&B influence, but with more emphasis on the beats, so people who are hip‑hop, who are not necessarily into two‑step, can listen to it and think 'Mmm, I don't like the genre, but I like this.'
"I wrote the lyrics and the music to 'Body Groove'," continues City. "The ideas came about from trying to merge all the different influences of music like reggae, salsa, calypso, high‑life African music, but with a modern feel. So like the chord structure is based on an old kind of Latin groove, and then the chorus has a reggae element to it, and it's got R&B in there as well.
"That song would never have been done if it hadn't been for one of my brothers. The hook just came out of me mucking around trying to emulate an MC, and I played it to my brother and he said 'That's a good idea, you should write something around that.' And I was like 'Whatever'. And he said 'No, really, you should write something around that.' So I thought of what could fit around this, and I thought 'Let me try to write a song about people who are working nine to five, and everyone's looking forward to the weekend because you've got your two days of freedom, so when you go out you want to party.' So whether that means you want to go down to the pub and get legless, or go to a club, it's that same thing, you're going to party."
"I think that the key is not to take it too seriously," agrees Tré. "Some people worry. They think they've got to sit down and seriously write a hit, but I think hits normally just come to you. They're usually ideas you have when you're being silly!"
Compositionally, 'Body Groove' is fairly minimalist. Apart from the vocals, drum part, and bass line, the only major element is a synth‑derived sound vaguely reminiscent of pizzicato strings, which is used to carry the song's chordal parts. Like all the other sounds, this was created by combining several different elements in the duo's Akai S3200XL sampler: "That's a mixture of Korg X3 and other sound sources as well," explains City. "They're all made‑up sound patches. I can't even remember what went into them. There's a harp in there, timpani, and several other sounds, it's just all mixed up."
"We put it all into the Akai and make it into a keygroup and just play it from there," adds Tré.
"Everything was played in to the sampler and then programmed from Logic Platinum," says City. "I get a sound I like on the keyboard, sample it in, get another sound, sample it in, and just layer different sounds together. I sample it just to give it that old‑school hip‑hop feel, where you can tell that something's been sampled, so people will listen to it and think 'Oooh, they've sampled that from an old track.' People love that whole flavour, that whole crunchiness. I've found that the Korg X3 is nice, but it's very clean‑sounding, and when you run it through the Akai and put the filters on, it gives it more of a bite."
"The bass is a mixture of layered, different basses," continues Tré. "Some are from the JV1080, mixed with Korg sounds and layered. We never like to use raw basses."
Like the keyboard parts, the drums were played into Logic from the X3, triggering layered samples in the Akai S3200XL. City is adamant that this is the only way to get the feel right in drum programming: "We'll do the drums live, we'd never draw them in."
The move up to Logic on the Mac is a relatively recent one, and allows City and Tré to combine audio recording and MIDI sequencing in one machine, but in general they still prefer other tools for drum programming. "Our first track was all done on an Atari ST," says City. "And people these days are still shocked when I say 'Yeah, sometimes we use the ST.' I've got a G4 at home now, and the G4 is good, but the timing on the ST is tighter. But anything that has MIDI is going to suffer time delay, because of the information being transferred and stuff, so most of the time we use an Akai MPC2000." (The internal sequencer on the MPC2000 doesn't use MIDI, and like many others, City feels that it gives tighter timing as a consequence.)
As well as the obligatory crunchy snare, pounding kick, splashing cymbals and busy hi‑hats, there are also some more unusual percussion sounds. These include backwards cymbals and, most noticeably, a curious springing sound in the chorus that sounds uncannily like someone bouncing up and down on a bed. "That's a weird sound that we made up in the sampler," explains City. "It's like shakers, but it's tweaked and crunched a bit in the sampler. There's also bells that come in, and there's a tambourine that comes in on 16ths."
'Body Groove' boasts a number of vocal tracks. The most prominent is Nana's melody, on top of which she also sang several harmony lines in places. "The vocal arrangement and all the harmonies were down to Nana," says City. "When I was doing a lot of R&B in the past, I had put together this girl group, and she was one of the vocalists. We were doing tracks and stuff, and had a bit of interest, but nothing came of it, it just all fell apart. So I kept in touch with Nana, because she knew I was still doing writing, and she was still singing and doing a lot of backing sessions, and trying to make it as an artist."
In addition to the main vocal, Nana recorded lots of scat singing, which appears throughout the record, sometimes as it was recorded, and in other places reversed and filtered in the Akai sampler. "All the vocal scats are hooks, because people remember them," explains City. "If you go back to hip‑hop, when you had all those tracks sampling little James Brown 'oohs' and 'aahs', those were the little hooks that people always remembered. So when you're producing, you can build up a pattern where you're always using certain things as your hook, and as soon as people hear the track, and they hear that certain hook, they know 'Oh, yeah, that's the Architechs'."
On top of Nana's parts are the spoken male vocals which form the basis of the chorus and of the song's short rap section. The voice in question belongs to City. "I put down the vocals in the studio, but I'm not really an MC," he says. "I just put them down, and the others said it sounded all right. Originally, the whole song was built around that one hook, the 'Make the body groove, you got to let the body groove'. So when I first played the track to Tré and to other people, that was the main thing that they picked up on, and they said 'Your voice sounds all right on that.' I was going to get someone else, an MC, to come down and do the vocals, but we tried it with mine, and it kind of fitted. So we just sampled it to make it sound as if it was from an old reggae record or whatever; just ran it through filters a bit."
All the vocals were recorded directly into Logic Audio on the Mac. The sessions took place at The Dairy, with the voices tracked using a Neumann U87 mic plugged straight into the desk and lightly compressed at the recording stage with a TLA valve compressor.
Thanks to City and Tré's insistence on getting the right combinations of sounds into their Akai sampler in the first place, the mix of 'Body Groove' was straightforward. Reverb was added to the chordal pad from both the Akai's internal effects board and an outboard Digitech multi‑effects unit, while the latter was also used to give the vocals a bit of space in the mix. The sampler's separate outputs allowed the drums to be processed individually, with compression added courtesy of the duo's Dbx 266 and Alesis 3630 dynamics processors, while the vocals were compressed futher using the TL Audio C5021. "The kick and the snare, because they're the two strongest elements, will get compressed together," says City. "It does make a difference what compressor you use, but as long as it gives it a punchy sound, that's all right. The TL Audio works slightly differently because it's a valve compressor. I think the Dbx is one of the best for that kind of punchy sound. The Alesis is alright, but the TL Audio's good for vocals as well. A nice soft, warm sound. It just depends what you're after.
"We had it mastered at Tape To Tape in Putney Bridge. They mastered a DAT of the mix, and then they used that to make a lacquer, and they used it for the CD as well. One of the guys who does the mastering down there did it, but always one of us sits in, because that's another stage where they can f••k it up. In the mastering and when they're making the lacquers, that's when the quality goes, or the bass boosts, or the vocals dip, or something goes wrong, so you have to monitor all the processes that happen once you've done your mix. Once you've left the studio, you're happy with the sound of it, so you want to be happy all the way through when you hear it on vinyl and CD."
Following the success of 'Body Groove', Architechs are in hot demand for their remixing skills, and a buzz is already growing around their next single, 'Show Me The Money', due out in March. They're also hoping to follow MJ Cole and Artful Dodger in pulling off the difficult trick of converting success in the dance singles arena into album sales. So what can we expect from their as‑yet unfinished debut LP?
Tré: "It'll just be a mixture of R&B‑type and two‑steppy garage vibes, really. That's our sound and that's what we're going to keep to. We're not going to do any rock songs."
"You never know, though," laughs City. "We might do a rock fusion."
Tré pauses, then shakes his head. "I always thought you had an N364, you know..."
Coming from a hip‑hop background, Architechs see the sampler as central to the music‑making process, and think of it very much as an instrument in its own right, rather than simply a device for playing back the sounds of other instruments. "You have to experiment, because that's what the sampler's there for," insists City. "It's an instrument for you to create new instruments, a magical little box. You have make up different things."
"The filters are the main thing really," continues Tré. "The Akai is good, because it's got its own unique sound. Obviously, the Emu's got different types of filters, and maybe even better ones, but the Akai's got a definite sound. That's what we used on the vocals for 'The Boy Is Mine', too. It's got a wicked sound to it."
"I'm a fanatic when it comes to sampling beats and kicks and snares and stuff," admits City. "All my production ideas have come from hip‑hop, and they spend hours on getting kicks sounding right, and snares, and just building up libraries. So that's very important to us. We'll keep sampling different kicks and layering them, timestretching them, detuning them, transposing them, compressing them, all types of thing, just to try to make each snare sound completely different."
"The thing that sampling's really important for is for beats, for getting kicks and snares from old albums and so on," agrees Tré. "You can't get them out of drum machines. I don't think there's been any drum machine yet that does it properly, whereas you do get other gear that does other sounds OK. But for beats, you have to use a sampler. The hooks, the filters, and the fat beats are the three things that are always constant in our production. From 'The Boy Is Mine' on, the hip‑hop beats and the filtering have always been in our productions, but other than that, our stuff is always different, with different sounds. We like to keep a certain vibe constant. You'll never hear a track from us and the beat's skinny, like it's taken straight out of some old drum machine. It'll always be a fat hip‑hop beat that's been mixed to give it extra fatness."
"I get my samples from all over," continues City. "I live near Portobello market, so I'm always there every Saturday trying to find things, and I get stuff from junk shops, mates, cassette tapes, whatever. I listen to everything. I'm getting more samples and ideas from classical and pop stuff now, because the whole soul music angle has really been covered. There's only as far as you can go. But when you listen to classical and pop stuff, there's so many beautiful samples that you can take."
As Tré acknowledges, though, there are no obviously recognisable samples in most of Architechs' output: "We haven't actually used that many samples in our music as yet. The thing about sampling is that you get inspired to make things sound like a sample, like we did with the chords from 'Body Groove', rather than actually using a straight‑up sample. If you can create your own sound and make it sound like a sample, it's completely unique — people can search all they want and they'll never find it, which is the great thing."