Internationally renowned DJ John Digweed and studio partner Nick Muir make cutting-edge dance music as Bedrock.
"If you make a record that's hard for a DJ to programme, he's not going to play it," says John Digweed. "The bottom line is that we want people to play our music. It's just making it so that it has a rhythm. Even if you're going to have something that begins with a pad, you've got to have that little bit that you can actually start the mix. There's no point in having just a pad at the start — how can you mix it in?"
When it comes to giving DJs what they want, Digweed ought to know. Already one of the biggest names in the British and European dance scene, he looks set to repeat his success in the US thanks to some ground-breaking tours in colossal venues. If you're going to have a musical partner, Digweed sounds like a good choice. "It's a real advantage working with John," agrees his collaborator Nick Muir. "We can make acetates of work in progress — as we come up with various mixes John will get a slate cut and play it out. I can listen to it out front and John can be aware of how it's working in the set. That's two sets of ears in a different environment."
Together, Digweed and Muir form Bedrock, in which guise they have released numerous remixes as well as original material including the influential progressive house hits 'For What You Dream Of' and 'Heaven Scent'. It's a partnership which has its roots in the early days of British house music. "I was playing with rock bands back in the '80s, and I had access to a sampler and I had an Atari 1040, and I was sort of feeling my way a bit," explains Nick. "About 1990 I started going to a few parties and had my head turned by what I was hearing, and I thought 'OK, this is happening', and so I started to make tracks. Like everybody else, I was feeling my way at first and wasn't exactly sure how to go about making the sounds that I was hearing. But I met John and he started to tell me a few things that I really needed to know about what DJs needed to have on a record."
"I think sometimes from a musician's point of view you think 'We'll have a nice intro,' but from the DJ's point of view, you want something you can mix," adds John. "You want something which is easy to get into from the get-go, and also you've got to allow for the fact that with most records, the first minute is going to be mixing over the last record. Obviously, you don't want it all happening too quickly, so it's about giving the track a bit of space before it actually happens, so you're allowing time from the last record. And likewise with the ending, you need it to break down so you can work it into the next track."
"Something else John told me about when we first met was the idea of using layers, which didn't really occur to me before he put it in that way," continues Nick. "It seems obvious, but when you're building up a track you're starting with maybe one or two elements, and then you're adding elements normally after eight or 16 bars. Now what happens, of course, is if you tail in a record like that using elements every eight or 16 bars, and you've got another record which is tailing out the same way, if you're mixing it right you'll get one element taking over when the other element of the old record is dropping out, so they start to interlock. When I used to hear John and Sasha playing together, the music would just be grooving along, and then you'd hear something as simple as a hi-hat coming in and the place would go nuts, everybody would be punching the air and cheering. It was like U2 just walked on."
"Everyone says 'Oh, you can only play them 20 times,' or whatever, but I've got acetates that are years old that I've played every night for long periods of time," says John Digweed. "I think if you get a good cut it does last. However, I have been playing quite a lot of CDs on tour, because I get a lot of producers and DJs working on tracks that send me CDs, and there was just no time to send stuff back and get it cut. I was using the Pioneer CDJ1000, and it's great. It's easy to use and definitely does the job. There's still something about playing a CD, though: it doesn't feel quite the same, but it's fine. It's a great way of road-testing tracks, but it never sounds as warm as a nice fresh acetate."
Nick Muir agrees. "The bottom end's so important. It has to pulse in the right way, and CDs can be a bit bangy, not quite as throbby. A good acetate's got that little bit of roundness to it."
As with any dance music, the most important elements of any Bedrock track are the rhythmic ones. "It's a very distinctive percussion sound that we seem to have," says John. "Nick is great at getting a groove, and I think that's the most important thing with club tracks. I get so many records sent to me that have great sounds, great moods, but they just don't have that groove. It's the rhythm that makes people dance, not the farty sounds."
"A lot of people doing this type of music tend to assume that what the computer is doing is providing the rhythm for you," says Nick. "All it's doing is keeping it in time, it's not providing you with a groove. If you're working with loops, or you're programming beats into the computer, it will quantise them tight to 16s or swing them. But that still doesn't mean that the thing will groove properly unless you yourself can feel where the groove is in the loop, or you yourself can feel when the groove is right within the computer. It has to come from you, and you have to recognise it when you hear it.
"I always quantise everything tightly. It seems to me that the sound of house music is tight quantised. It's absolutely on the money, as precise as you can get it, because if you do that and you manage to keep it over a period of time then it turns into something. The idea is to get a hypnotic sound to it, and if you're using the right sounds with the right grooves, and they're quantised exactly, then that is what tends to make you go into this slightly different frame of mind when you're listening to the music. When we started to do this type of music I had to forget that I was a piano player for a while, and had to use the computer to help me get things rocking in the right way. I've heard people say that tight quantising has a dehumanising effect on the music, but it seems to me if that's the way you're looking at it you have completely missed the beauty of it. The beauty of it is the fact that it is time-locked, and that makes it possible for John to present the music in the way that he does, because you can make this seamless flow of music and set up a groove."
Like most big-name DJs, John Digweed has released a number of mix albums, and he's keen to emphasise that there's more to making such a compilation than meets the ear. "The hard work is the selection. Putting a mix CD together can take me three or four weeks, finding those 22 records or 11 records. You can get the thing done in the order that you want it, and then the record label says you can't use the middle track, so you're then in a position where you have to find something that is going to work inbetween two other records. It's not an easy process.
"All the tracks I use on my mix albums are tracks I play out in the clubs, but obviously in a club I'll be playing for five or six hours. So it's about breaking it down to the best tracks, there's certain tracks which sound great in a club, and there's certain tracks that sound great in a club but also sound great at home or in the car, in those different listening environments. I want something that every time they hear it, they hear different things coming in because it's put together in a way which is very crafted. When you're in a club environment you'll use certain records as bridges, you'll have peaks and then you'll hold them off for a little while, you can't have them just going mad the whole time because they'll wear themselves out over five hours. But obviously with a CD, it's not about going mad, but you want the real quality ones, not the bridges.
"It's all done off vinyl into Pro Tools. I work out exactly how I'm going to do it, so these are all the records, this is the order, these are where the mixes are. They'll be certain records which may need an extra 16 or eight bars, and obviously if the record ends and you're in the middle of the CD you've got a dead spot. So the reason it's done in Pro Tools is so you can add on those extra bars and give it that smoothness. There's always these people who are like 'Oh, it's not a live mix,' but I don't have to justify my mixing techniques to anyone. I'm quite capable of doing it, but I want this CD to be perfect. I'm sure when Oasis do their album they don't do one take and go 'Right, that's it, you only got one go at it.' They make it as well as they can, and when I'm doing an album I want it to be as good as I can make it. If that means using the technology, that's fine."
Tight MIDI timing is obviously crucial to Bedrock's music. After a bad experience with an Apple Mac LC475 and an early version of Logic, Nick returned to his Atari running Creator for many years. In 1999 he returned to the Mac/Logic combination, and although he enjoys the advantages of integrated audio recording and soft synths he still harbours doubts about its timing. "I thought the timing on Creator rocked," says Nick. "As far as I know, it used to bypass the operating system and address the architecture of the computer directly, so it didn't have an OS to negotiate, and the MIDI ports were built in to the computer. I don't know what difference that makes, but it seemed to be very direct, very fast, very solid, very predictable. OK, it's linear information as it comes out, but it seemed to trigger pretty much everything the same time, the same way each time it came out.
"Now the Mac, on the piece that we've just been doing there was one particular loop, for example, that I just could not get to sit right. I would solo it on the desk — soloing it on the computer doesn't work, obviously, because you're cutting off MIDI flows — but if you have the whole sequence going and you solo the bits you're unsure about on the desk, I was noticing that it was triggering differently each time. Sometimes the loop would trigger before the kick drum, sometimes it would trigger after the kick. That is not acceptable, basically. You have to do jiggling around in order to get the thing to sit tight, so in that case, I recorded some of the loop down to audio and then edited it as audio and got it matched up with the kick that way. Then you haven't got the MIDI timing to deal with, and that seemed to solve the problem.
"A lot of what's happening with the computer doesn't feel quite solid. When I'm using ESX24, I'll go back the next day and find the tuning's knocked out a little bit for some reason, and some of the cheaper soft synths that you pick up on the Internet don't trigger the same way each time. I had a rhythmic line going though something that we'd done recently, and I was noticing when I was soloing it that sometimes all the notes wouldn't trigger. It was playing a three-note chord and sometimes you'd end up with a two-note chord. So I end up sampling or recording a little bit as audio.
"There's always been an element of that through the years: things will seem to be rocking along fine apart from one or two elements, and then you have to go in and address them, either turn something into a sample or record it. I noticed on Creator, for example, that the order that you had the elements on the tracks made a slight difference — it seemed to me that kicks and loops worked better on tracks one to eight, simply because they were nearer the top of the list. So if you're suffering timing problems, don't just ignore them, try to do something about it, and if you make an effort with it, a lot of the time you'll find that you can get a bit closer to it."
Prevailing wisdom suggests that the best way to avoid MIDI timing problems is to buy a sequencer and MIDI interface from the same manufacturer. John and Nick have dutifully equipped their Mac with an Emagic AMT8 interface, but Nick claims to notice little improvement. "The idea of the Active MIDI Transmission is that it reads ahead and will lock stuff into time, but I haven't noticed it making any difference whatsoever. You get problems when you stack a lot of MIDI stuff up together, then stuff will start to sound looser and flabbier, and quite whether or not the AMT side of the AMT8 makes any difference, I remain sceptical.
"The other thing that knocks it out is if you're using OMS. I've set OMS up on the computer in order to use some bits of stand-alone software with Logic, and there's definitely another heirarchy to go through if OMS is active, and it's completely noticeable. So OMS got sacked. Anything that makes the timing suffer just goes — we're very hot on timing."
Mindful of the need for a fresh pair of ears at the mixing stage, John Digweed and Nick Muir bring in freelance engineer Jon Gray (also a signed artist in his own right, recording as Fatliners) to mix their recordings. "I've been working with them for seven or eight years, and they used to use Creator running on an Atari and we'd take it to a proper room and mix it there," says Jon. "Now their setup has become more usable, the 02R and everything is good enough to do a good finished job now. There's always at least a sampler full of stuff running live and more and more's coming out of the computer now, less and less is coming out of the keyboards. Because there's only eight or 10 individual outs coming out of the computer, there's often more parts than that so I'll be balancing and EQing some stuff in the computer and other bits in the 02R. The Waves EQ is good, I don't tend to use the Logic ones.
"Some things will be effected as they've written it and some things won't be. I'll always add a load of effects. I'll be using some tight reverbs on the percussion, putting things in spaces, putting delays on things. If there's a vocal on it I'll use plenty of effects on the vocal — delays, reverb, whatever.
"I use loads of compression. In the current setup we're using, I use some of the 02R's compressors, I've got some outboard compressors that I bring — I've got a little rack of Gain Brains and a Smart Research C2 stereo compressor, which I mix through. I'll use the Waves compressors, and some slightly more vicious ones if necessary. All compressors have a different character — different ones are better for different things. The 02R ones aren't vicious at all, but they work. I use compression to bring things out and make them clearer, or to make them sound more aggressive, or use them to control bass, or make cymbals and hats and stuff sound sharper and meaner. I like to get the whole mix working with itself, the whole thing pumping with the bass and bass drum. I don't use multi-band compression. Before I got the Smart Research compressor I used to use the 02R's compressors across a mix."
When John and Nick develop their own tracks, their starting point is rarely something as concrete as a drum loop or a melodic phrase. Instead, they ask what kind of mood or feeling they want to create. "Being in the clubs and having access to all these records, I'm at the cutting edge of it," says John. "Tracks come in and they're blowing up, and I'm like 'This sound is what's working.' What we'll do is never just mimic it. We'll say 'This is really good, but what we should do is take elements of this and take it to the next level.'"
"A lot of the time, we'll fish out three or four tracks from a few years ago and think 'Listen to the way the mood is built up here, listen to the way that this record does this particular thing,' and if you use the way that somebody has set up a groove or a mood in times gone past, and you amalgamate that with some ideas that you've got together, it will take you off in a new direction," adds Nick. "Then, once we've got some idea of what the initial mood is going to be, we'll think 'So, how do we do that?' It might be a bass line, it might be a little loop that we mangle, or we might chop up a couple of different loops to make another loop, any of those. We don't necessarily start with a melodic line — melodies get in there, but we don't start with a top line.
"Each sound is tailor-made for the track, it never just gets passed by being thrown in there. You would have thought that with all the thousands of sounds you have access to, you could just pick a few off the peg and they would work, but that never happens. You always try something with something else, and then you'll work on it. Unless you've done that work it doesn't sound like a record. They have to be made to fit, you have to put a bit of effort into making them sound as though they belong together."
"We usually layer two or three drum sounds, just to create something with an identity of its own," adds John. "We'll get the kick and certain other elements in there just to get it up and running, and then change them later on when we think 'We've got the idea working, but the kick's not right.'"
"If I start with kicks and hi-hats and what have you, then the S3000 gets used," explains Nick. "I like the sound of that sampler, it's rock solid, but a lot of the time I'll use the sampler and then record the sound into Logic. The way Logic handles editing is so fantastic that you can record stuff that you've programmed through MIDI into audio, and then edit it. That is so flexible. I used to use two samplers, fill them up and have all the outputs going. Now I'm finding that one sampler is pretty much enough, and the rest of the samples are in EXS24 or imported into Logic as audio."
The Bedrock studio houses an impressive array of analogue synths, but more of the work is now being done by software instruments. "I can't believe how good soft synths sound," says Nick. "I've never been particularly convinced when people talk about old synths and how much better they are than new synths, and I find the quality of the newer soft synths staggering. That is a really strong point in their favour. It's just the lack of control over them, the fact that they don't exist in a physical sense, that I find a bit of a problem at the moment. It's nice to use your hands! As a musician, you're used to playing things over time and using your hands to express something that you're feeling.
"The Roland JX8P I really like, and the Juno 106 still gets turned on now and again. For instance, if we've got a bass trucking along and it's not quite got the bottom end, the 106 will be really useful for adding something below. I got the Yamaha CS60 from a friend of mine and it was in a very dilapidated state, it had been flood-damaged, so I took it to the Synth Service Centre in Primrose Hill, and it makes a really good noise. I really like the sound of ring modulation, and it's got a great ring mod on it. It's got touch-sensitivity on brilliance and the filter, and it does sound kind of different. It's fat, but kind of wheezy. A lot of the time we'll use atmospherics in a track, stuff which kind of runs behind the main action, and that's brilliant for some of that stuff if you stick it through some decent quality reverbs and some delays. Then you can record some amorphous stuff down as audio and edit it after the event."
Most Bedrock material is now mixed in their own studio using the Yamaha 02R desk and Logic's on-screen mixer, with the help of engineer Jon Gray (see box). "You want the records to sound tight and upfront in a club, and you don't have to sink them in tons of reverb, because you have to bear in mind that if you're playing over a large system in a fair-sized room there's going to be that sound of the room there anyway," explains Nick. "You've got the main action happening out front — the percussion, the bass line if there is one — and then one step behind we'll put the atmospherics. If you've got atmospherics happening behind the track it expands the sound a little bit, it really spaces the track. Jon has edited quite a few of the reverbs in the Lexicon PCM80, and some of his short spaces, you hardly know that they're there really, but it's the difference between something being dead and something coming out at you. A lot of the time we'll use the Lexicon and record something down or sample it with that space on it."
Dance mixing is usually seen as demanding a powerful speaker system with enough low-end extension to reproduce sub-basses accurately, but until recently Nick and John have been working with a standard pair of Tannoy Reveal nearfields, although they've recently supplemented these with a larger pair of Questeds. "The kick drum, which is where all the energy of the music comes from, is not a super-low sound anyway," insists Nick. "It seems to work around 120Hz or a little bit lower, and those speakers are more than adequate for making sure that that type of energy is coming across. The bass instrument itself will sit below that frequency range, and that's what you really have to keep an eye on. With the Tannoys, a lot of the time it was guesswork, but because we've spent a lot of time in the room and done a few different mixes, we were getting used to where we were getting it wrong."
The duo have recently completed the soundtrack for a film called Stark Raving Mad, while the acetate of a new Bedrock track, 'Emerald', was receiving a storming reception on John's recent tour of the US. It may be in the clubs and in the shops by the time you read this. "It's like you're writing three or four records before you get the one," concludes Nick. "We'll be building something up and it's not quite making it, so we sack quite a bit of it and we'll start again. But we get it right in the end."