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DANNY SABER: Saber Dance

Interview | Artist By Richard Buskin
Published February 1997

He's an accomplished producer, remixer, writer, programmer, guitarist, bassist and keyboard player — is there no end to Danny Saber's abilities? Richard Buskin talks to him about his blending of pop, rock, hip‑hop and trip‑hop sensibilities, as well as the commercially unorthodox results that have placed him in international demand.

"At the end of the day it's all about making the vocal that you're working with shine, and building things around that vocal. That's what the average guy listens to. He doesn't give a damn about what I'm playing on the guitar. Maybe some other guitar player does, but nobody really cares how interesting the noise is. People either like it or they don't, and they get a vibe. The music sucks them in but the vocal is what keeps them there, so everything has got to be supporting that vocal."

In a nutshell, that's the musical philosophy of Danny Saber, and one that, in light of his success working on records by Black Grape, Garbage, Madonna, Terrorvision and Chuck D, not to mention upcoming releases by David Bowie, Michael Hutchence and Agent Provocateur, is well worth noting.

Saber began his musical career playing in a band with vocalist Issa Joone. "I started out as a guitarist," he says, "but from the first time I ever went into a studio I was always telling everyone else what to do." During the early '90s, the garage at the Joone family home housed a studio setup that Saber subsequently used when recording demos for a wide variety of LA acts, including names such as Bronx Style Bob and House Of Pain. "I was supplying the music, collaborating with the musicians and playing a lot of the instruments," he now recalls, "and that's pretty much what I do now with Black Grape. When required I'll pick up the bass or play some guitar, and I also do all of the programming myself. I don't have any programmers who work for me. I learned that stuff by just having a room, buying the equipment and finding out how to work it. Totally trial and error, and that was really cool. I was real lucky in my timing because as things were coming out I was right there learning how to use them. The gear was advanced, yet affordable — not like the early '80s, when you needed $200,000 to buy a Fairlight.

"I was forced to learn. If some singer or rapper came in and said, 'I want to sample this, this and this, and I want to hear it all in the same song', as a musician I'd be thinking, 'That doesn't work!' But they weren't interested in hearing that, so I'd just have to take their ideas and somehow make them work. By doing that, and by having all of these different kinds of people with these different ideas coming to me, I really began to bring things to fruition. At first I was this real technical kind of person, but then I grew into a writer and that's where I'm at now."

Trip‑Hopping Along

Take David Bowie, for instance. The original mix of his single, 'Little Wonder', was sent on 2‑inch tape to Danny Saber with the request for him to produce full‑on remixes. The result: the main vocal remained and everything else was rewritten.

"I kept the basic melody of what he sang and then I totally restructured the song around what I wanted to hear, what I liked and where I saw it going," says Saber. "I took the vocal, put it in Logic — I'm using Pro Tools interfaced with Logic for my programming — and then I built a whole new track around it. In fact I did a couple of mixes, and the first one consisted of what I wanted to hear from Bowie. He had done this real cool track with jungle rhythms and heavy guitar and I liked it, but I wanted to hear something different: some weird 1996 'Space Oddity' trip‑hop kind of thing... It was all in my head before I did it, and for once it actually came out the way I imagined it.

It's twice as hard for you to remix your own stuff, because you've already made it the way you want it. Now you've got to come up with a twist.

"I started with an acoustic guitar, referencing many of the people who grew out of him, such as Love & Rockets, and then I came up with some changes and ended up writing a new acoustic song around his vocal. Once I get that initial spark I can go anywhere I want to. From there I put a loop on it and then I just built it up with Logic, the Akai S3000XL sampler and the Emu Orbit. Towards the end of the original mix it went into half‑time, so I decided to put the whole song in half‑time and make it into a ballad."

For the first half of the record Saber also opted to have Bowie's voice sounding as if it's coming out of a small transistor radio. "We just filtered the vocal. On the Drawmer gates you can input the audio into the key — there's actually a high‑pass and a low‑pass filter — and there's also a program on the Eventide called 'Critical band' which I like to use a lot. You dial in the frequency and it will thin it out and make it real small. It's just an EQ thing and there are lots of different ways to get that. You can do it on the console, rolling off all of the low end and cranking up the high mids."

Among the sounds on the slow mix are a distorted drum loop, tuned down an octave and going through a dbx 363X gate, triggered on sixteenth notes via the Nord Lead keyboard; and strings courtesy of David Coleman and his electric cello, as well as half a dozen sounds — including that of a Mellotron — that were MIDI'd up with a Roland JD990. "I just thought 'Ah, Bowie — Tony Visconti!'" Saber recalls. "I grew up on that stuff — I learned how to play listening to it, so it was great to be able to do that and, in a way, it was also really easy for me."

Working With Mr X

In the work sense, home to Danny Saber is Westlake Audio in Hollywood, where he and engineer John X usually employ an SSL console (or a Sony in the tiny production room that they use there) together with Saber's own assortment of toys.

"John is like the creative mind on the console," says Saber. "He comes up with a lot of the vocal noise sounds, recording things backwards and so on. In fact, on the slow Bowie remix he ran the vocal through a really long reverb and then recorded it backwards, producing this sort of 'whoosh' sucking sound. He's a real integral part of what I do because, once I've done all of the music and come up with the sound, John then mixes it, and in that sense he's not a standard engineer. He's very creative and very musical — a lot of times he'll put live drums through an Eventide H4000 and tune the kit to the song. He comes up with all of these mad ideas, and the beauty is that he's just as creative in what he does as I am in what I do, or as any of the artists are in what they do. He's not like an engineer in a white lab coat. He's real technical but he's real musical too, and at the end of the day we'll leave things in if they've got a vibe... Plus he's a nutcase, so we have a lot of fun!"

On the Bowie record, as on many others, Saber himself played a DI'd 5‑string Modulus bass and a BC Rich Bitch guitar. "What I was going for was Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson and my own style mixed in," he says. "The guitar was going straight through a Marshall amp which I've had since I was 15. I've also got a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier that is real versatile, but it's a little more modern sounding. I travel a lot, so I can't take seven guitars with me."

Still, for the 'Little Wonder' remix Saber did rent a Martin 12‑string, and then, for the sound of an orchestral 'rush' similar to that which distinguishes The Beatles' 'A Day In The Life', he took a sample of an orchestra tuning up, created a sound, spread it over the Nord Lead keyboard, and then triggered it at different points within the eight bars of the rise. For the second remix of 'Little Wonder', Saber was looking more to the feel of Bowie past masters such as 'Fame' — combined with certain 'Saberish' elements, of course.

"I wanted to do something a little faster and kind of funky. However, the tempo was too slow for what I wanted and if I moved it up it was too fast, so I used Logic to time‑compress the vocal to the new tempo — I took it from around 75 beats per minute to 116, which was quite drastic. I also changed the way he was singing, by taking the lines and moving them around into a rhythm that fit the music. Then John X ran the vocal through a Digitech Vocalist to build the weird Vocoder‑type harmonies that blend around the melody.

"Meanwhile, for the sort of 'transforming' sound that you can hear, I ran a Juno 106 through a distortion pedal. Again, I was coming from the DJ point of view, triggering it with a gate and then playing it on the keyboard in any kind of rhythm I wanted, while pitch‑bending at the same time."

A Musician First

For this remix, Saber had friend and bassist Jeffrey Conner come in and play. But, while it is evident that Saber is deeply into the techno sound, what also distinguishes him from many of his peers is the fact that he is first and foremost a musician rather than a DJ.

"I've been playing guitar since I was 13 years old," he says. "I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix when I grew up. That's where I was coming from. In fact, when I got my first guitar the great studio gear wasn't accessible to most people. At the same time I also knew that I wanted to be more than just a guitarist. For one thing, I realised fairly early on that I was never going to be the world's greatest guitarist, and I was also aware that I was good at putting things together."

So, live bass, live guitars. The same often goes for the drum sounds, as played by Black Grape's Jed Lynch on any one of his Gretsch, Yamaha or Premier kits, though Danny Saber again sets himself apart from the rest of the field by combining such percussive efforts with loops. "It's really just a matter of trial‑and‑error with me," says Saber. "I mean, I'll get a loop, I'll know where I want the groove to be and I'll build everything around that. I'll take maybe 10 loops individually and tune them to a click at the right tempo. Then I'll just start turning them on and off to see what works together, resulting in a groove and a beat that I've probably never heard before. After all, it's basically like having five different drummers playing different beats all at the same time — if, somehow, you get them tight and they feel right together, you end up with a rhythm that's more than just a kick and a snare. Then if you throw live drums on top of that you may take it a step further."

Loops, samples, layering... Yet, in the face of temptation, how does the objective producer decide when enough is enough? Or is that like asking the proverbial question, 'How long is a piece of string?'

"Well, we get an all‑in budget to do a remix, and so everything has got to be planned out to a tight schedule," says Saber. "I usually only do one mix, because you can hear the quality of what I'm doing. I'm not taking a vocal and putting a drum loop under it. I'm giving them something that's on a par with what they've done and probably spent a lot more time doing. In fact, with Bowie I spent a lot more time than normal; four days of studio time to do all those mixes, with a day or two to just think up the ideas, whereas usually what we'll do is take the tapes, go straight in and spend two or three days in the studio.

"So there's always a plan. The first day I'm coming up with the idea, the second day we're mixing it. That's how we limit ourselves. We know that we can't just sit in there forever and do stuff. That's the problem that I think some people run into when they have their own studio. They end up spending months on things instead of just going with that initial vibe and running with it. Having the luxury to analyse everything can actually hurt you in the end."

Stupid Girl

Nevertheless, one luxury that Danny Saber certainly does appreciate is that of being left totally to his own devices when producing a remix. His work has earned him enough respect for the artists to trust his judgement and leave well alone. Communication is sparse, save for situations such as that with Garbage: Saber, the band and their producer, Butch Vig, all share the same management (Los Angeles‑based SOS Management Inc).

"When it came to the remix of 'Stupid Girl', the only thing they said to me was that they wanted something to put on K‑ROCK [an LA 'new wave'‑type radio station]. So I just went for a Soft Cell vibe combined with a kind of house/dance vibe. I basically took the vocal, I knew what the tempo was, I knew the key, and I got some loops going and started jamming over the track. I came up with a bass line that had a slightly different feel and I just kept building around that. They already had some really good noises on there, like guitars feeding back and some real weird shit, including a Clash loop that they probably paid a load of money for and which they wanted me to use. So I started with that Clash loop and I guess I just made the track a little more housey and clubby and dancey. I did that in a day, and then we took another day to mix it.

It's all down to the vocal. When there's a good vocal to work with it's a piece of cake, at least for me.

"It's all down to the vocal. When there's a good vocal to work with it's a piece of cake, at least for me. But when you've got something that needs to be forced into some weird genre that doesn't even come close to what the artist is about, that's when it becomes much harder." Such as? "Melissa Etheridge! It was a song called 'I Want To Come Over', and I was trying to take a country rock kind of vocal and turn it into a club record! First off, we put her vocal into Logic, played with the words that we liked, and in the process turned the chorus from 'I want to come over' into 'I want to come over and over...' Then we put the vocal through a vocoder and totally replayed the melody to this track that I'd come up with. The original melody she was singing was really strong and it was hard to get away from the chord structure, so we put it all in the vocoder and it came out sounding like some weird, Donna Summer, trip‑hop gay hit!

"What I didn't want to do was the standard thing of putting a house beat under the song. I could have done that and got away with it, but I really wanted to do something that made a statement with her. I think it's cool. So is Melissa Etheridge, and in that sense I knew that she'd hopefully appreciate whatever I did. She's probably got a sense of humour and from what I understand it was totally her idea to do this, so that was OK, whereas if I was doing it for somebody who took themselves too seriously it would probably turn into a ball‑busting nightmare."

Mr Do‑It‑All

Having co‑written, produced, programmed and played on Black Grape's 1995 album It's Great When You're Straight...Yeah, which went platinum in the UK, Danny Saber is not averse to remixing his own efforts.

"I did the first two remixes for them," he says, "and although it was kind of hard in a way, it was cool in a way too. I mean, I don't think that's the easiest stuff to remix anyway, because it's already so 'out there' to begin with. In fact it already is a remix.

"However, after the second remix I decided to give the third one to somebody else. I couldn't do it any more. It's twice as hard for you to remix your own stuff, because you've already made it the way you want it. Now you've got to come up with a twist. So I think it's good and it's also fun to give stuff to other people for them to remix, as long as there is a point to it.

"When I do remixes, people definitely get their money's worth, and I also get sent songs to mix for radio, so it's definitely legitimate, but I also think it can be a big pile of crap too. It just depends on who's doing it and what the motive is. If you're putting out a single, you've got to give people stuff that's not on the album, otherwise why should they buy it?"

A new Black Grape album is currently in the works, as is an on‑going solo project by Michael Hutchence of INXS, which Danny Saber is once again producing, in addition to serving as co‑composer, programmer and instrumentalist. This kicked off in 1995 at Nomis Studios in London, after Saber had just finished working there on the forthcoming album by Agent Provocateur. Nine songs were recorded with Hutchence in the space of six weeks — which also took in a spell at Peter Gabriel's Real World studio complex — and although sessions with INXS then took precedence, a recent five‑day spell at Westlake saw the demo'ing of three more solo numbers.

"Michael's album is nearing completion and it's a lot harder‑edged than what he does with INXS," says Saber. "It's more like what I do, mixed with rock." That it certainly is — the demos I heard feature Hutchence's unmistakable vocal style, while all else around it is imbued with that Saber touch. "All of my equipment is used in writing to create a vibe, and what helps me is the fact that I've got all these different things to fall back on," he says. "For instance, on one of the songs I had a groove and a bass line, Michael came up with a vocal part and then I just jammed with the guitar for five minutes. After that I went through and edited myself, and I took one bar and kept looping it over and over again. It was really just a lick while I was doing a solo, but that turned into the chorus and so that basically came about completely by accident. With me it's always a case of trying things, playing and jamming, recognising something and then editing myself.

"Almost 90% of the time everything that I do on the demo ends up on the record. I might go back and re‑record some of the guitars, the vocals will be improved upon, there will probably be some live drums on there, and I might pull a couple of the loops that I have just for the idea, but essentially it isn't going to be that much different. That's the way I write; the production and the song are one with me.

"I've got something like five different angles from which to come up with a song: if I can't think of something on the bass, I can pick up the guitar; if I can't get the guitar right, I can play the keyboards; if I can't come up with anything on the bass, the guitar or the keyboards, I can sample something; and if I can't find anything cool to sample, I can take some loops and loop them, put a noise in and create something musical. So I've got all of these different places to pull from, and that is really what helps me."

The Wish‑List

"Some computer program that will interface with your brain, so that if you heard a song in your head it would be converted to MIDI. That would be cool!"

The Travelling Studio Setup

"This system has been built up over the last five years. I move around and so I have to keep everything streamlined. There's not one thing that doesn't get used every day, and that's the way I like it."

    "This setup has been invaluable. Being able to put a vocal in and just cut it up any way I want it makes everything easier. Before this, putting vocals in the sampler could be a nightmare."
    "This is great, the best programming device that there is. It interfaces with Pro Tools really well and it's really reliable. The sequencing is fantastic, because you've got 16 tracks of audio and as many sequences as you want. And the audio page is really bitching!"
  • AKAI S3000XL
    "This is basically the staple of everything I do, because I use a lot of samples."
    "This is my newest piece of gear and I'm very proud of it. It is awesome. It enables me to back up all of my Pro Tools stuff. I've got a 4Gb drive, so when I run out of space, for $7 I can make a 650Mb CD‑ROM. So, even though this thing cost me $3000, it's the cheapest storage device and the most reliable.

"I've got an external 540Mb hard drive which I've formatted to the Akai S3000; when it's full, I just run off a CD‑ROM to my Marantz. So now all of my samples are on CD‑ROM, everything is labelled and it's far better than having to shuttle through 80 disks. On top of that, none of the artists have DAT machines, so now I can run off CDs of the rough mixes for them, and that's great."

    "I've had this for a few years now, and it's a good multitimbral device for writing. If I want an organ sound as an idea it's there, but if I want a B3 I'll go out and get a real B3."
  • EMU ORBIT 9090
    "Again, another thing for when you want a quick sound. It's got some really cool noises in it."
  • ROLAND JD990
    "This has got killer bass sounds, really good strings, nice piano... excellent."
    "A cool machine. One ADAT's fine; if you need more than that, get a 2‑inch!"
  • dbx 363X
    "I use this for gating things and screwing them up."
    "A beautiful piece of gear. It gives me an opportunity, even when I'm doing demos, to still have at least one good sound."
  • dbx 160X
    "I use this for vocals."
    "I've just got this, and so I have nothing to say about it. It's kind of a toy, it's a stand‑alone thing and it's got really cool sounds, but I don't know how well it's going to interface with my gear yet. It's only got two outputs, which kind of sucks — I bought it sight unseen and I thought it would have eight — but if I don't want it, I can sell it."
    "I'm using this as my controller keyboard and for sounds. I was going to buy a Minimoog, and then, just as I was about to get it 18 months ago, this thing came out and I went to see it. It's got four channels — you can upgrade it to 12 voices — and every knob on it is recordable to MIDI. It's got all of these real techno sounds and it looks cool. The Moog wouldn't have been as practical."