There's also life beyond Beyond, as Wilf Smarties discovers from Toby Marks, one of Beyond's early artists, now graduating to independent chart success under the name Banco De Gaia.
In a quiet backwater in Leamington Spa, I met up with converted cottage owner‑occupier Toby Marks. He is Banco De Gaia, whose tracks adorned each of the three acclaimed Ambient Dub compilations released on Beyond records, and whose living room is graced with a fine Victorian fireplace rescued from a house in Stratford.
His discography also includes a track on Excursions In Ambience, a compilation on the New York Caroline label, available only on import, one on the Future Shock video, another on the compilation Feed Your Head, and a new single, 'Desert Wind', out now on Planet Dog. An album is scheduled for release on that label in January.
I first became aware of the project from ecstatic references to it in MixMag, which immediately told me that this is not merely music for depressed students. Currently I'm auditioning the second of three cassette albums released on Toby's own label, World Bank, called Freeform Flutes and Fading Tibetans. While obvious Orb comparisons can be made, the tunes do have their own identity, notably when the Hawaian guitars or Hovis horns come in. For someone who disclaims his keyboard technique, some fairly cool piano work is in evidence. Of course he might have quantised the trills... The whole musical montage is woven from world sound sources, both popular and ethnic, and it's easy to see why this tape caused the music establishment to take note of Banco De Gaia. Other tapes include Medium, released in 1990, and Deep Live, recorded in late '92. These are available from Toby or via Woof Distribution, yet another arm of the Mega Dog empire.
"I'd been sitting here, working on my stuff for a few years and getting a bit pissed off with it. It wasn't going anywhere. I had a bit of (unresolved) interest from Vinyl Solution and De Construction of all people... then someone told me they'd seen an advert in Sound On Sound about this new ambient label up in Birmingham who were looking for material... I bunged them a tape, they really liked it, and we took it from there.
Which is how come Toby has five compositions and one remix included in the seminal Ambient Dub Trilogy.
"Beyond are very well respected for what they are doing. Mike (Barnett) was very careful about quality control. Rather than just chucking out another compilation with three or four good tracks and other fillers, he would make sure that every track was worth having there."
Beyond don't have a studio of their own. I asked where the works for Ambient Dub were mastered.
"They were all done here. In fact one of the tracks on Vol.1 was done with the 550 and a Tascam 238 8‑track cassette, and it sounds great on CD... If you've got the money to get a reasonable set of equipment you don't need to hire studios any more. You don't need Lexicons, you don't need 48 channels..."
Depends on whether you want to use live strings, I suppose. As if to prove my point, it transpires that the forthcoming album was in fact mixed in a professional studio, to gain access to a better desk and more outboard.
What's in Toby's home studio now?
"I use a Studiomaster Proline 16:4 desk. The MIDI muting is handy when you've got a lot of analogues hissing away. I have a Quadraverb, an SRV‑2000, a Proverb, a couple of Boss micro effects, and a BBE Sonic Maximiser which helps a lot. I don't really use the bottom end, just the top. The main thing it does is polish the windows. You turn it on and suddenly it's like a layer of film comes off the sound. It brings the whole thing into focus.'
"I'd been playing down in Club Dog in London quite a lot. They were starting up a label and they asked me if I would like to do something with them. Initially I said no, because I'd been working with Beyond. Then a bottleneck started to develop at Beyond with too much stuff waiting to come out, and not enough money to do it. Mike suggested that maybe I should take up the offer at Planet Dog rather than have me sitting frustrated for about six months, being unable to release anything. He suggested that it would be in everyone's interest that I move on, and it's worked out really well."
Since there was no written contract with Beyond, and since the split was at Mike's suggestion anyway, there was never going to be a problem moving on. It might interest readers to know that Banco and Planet Dog have a non‑exclusive deal of a type that is becoming very common with so‑called 'dance' artists. For a limited financial commitment a label signs an act for a given number of records under a project name. The act is excluded from using that name elsewhere, but may work freely under as many pseudonyms as they like. This safeguards the label from being ripped off after developing the act, while freeing the artist to do more or less as he or she pleases. (There is nothing worse than being contractually bound to a label which prevents you from flourishing.)
Ironically, with significant appearances on five compilations and three cassette albums to his name, 'Desert Wind' is the first single. At the time of writing it had reached 9 in the Indie chart. Toby tells me he's "hardening the beat these days, to reach a wider audience." Judging by the present single, this does not mean selling out. As before, a complexity of ingredients blends naturally into a cohesive whole. No short‑cuts to success have been taken.
The heart of any Banco performance or composition is a fully loaded (18Mb) Roland S750 sampler, driven by Creator on the Atari. Toby started with a 550, and the 750 was the logical successor. A second MIDI output from the Atari's MODEM port feeds the S750 exclusively.
"There's something warm about the Rolands. Somebody said to me once that the Akais are like production tools, whereas the Rolands are musical instruments.
"Before I got the Jupiter I was actually using the 750 for a lot of analogue‑type sounds. Analogues on their own are fine, but personally I wouldn't give up the sampler for anything."
An 80Mb hard drive is used for live, and a 650Mb one resides at home. He has somehow just acquired a Jupiter 8 in mint working order for £350, and an SH09 for fifty quid. The latter has an external input, so he can put anything he wants through the filter. He also uses a Juno 6, complaining that the LFO is sometimes not slow enough for filter swept arpeggios. An M1 is now mainly given over to mother keyboard use. He doesn't use a drum machine, but if a suitable sampling one was available he'd be interested.
"I'd really like to get a drum machine going at the moment, because I actually miss the way they work. I really like the immediacy of just getting loops going and changing things while it's running. Doing that on sequencers can be a bit of a pain. But what I'd really like to get is one I can put my own sounds in. Most drum machines have got, if you're lucky, a dozen usable sounds... six months later, you've used them. What are you going to use for your next track?"
Like any serious Roland user, he has noticed a tendency for some notes to play late when polyphony is stretched. (I point out that Roland have now issued a CPU upgrade which should sort him out.) Having sussed that rhythmically crucial tracks need to be fired first, and that Creator, like Cubase, scans from top to bottom, he always puts drums at the top.
"I prefer the way Tracks work on Creator, but I hate the Arrangement. It's not intuitive like Cubase."
Also, strapped for outputs, he was considering getting an SP700 in the near future, until I told him that it does not support a monitor‑and‑mouse environment. He was interested to hear about the S760, though, which does. [See review of the S760 elsewhere in this issue.]