Kieran Hebden of Four Tet is a producer who puts the intelligence into Intelligent Dance Music.
Two years ago, Keiran Hebden released his second album as Four Tet. Pause went on to feature in numerous critics' Top Tens of 2001, and Hebden was even credited with inventing a new musical genre, 'folktronica'. Topping that achievement was always going to be a challenge, but it's one he seems to have met with his new album. Its implausible but beautiful blend of fragile acoustic fragments, brutal beats and glitchy electronica has already garnered a rich crop of five-star reviews, and Rounds looks set to be every bit as influential as its predecessor.
Kieran Hebden is the living proof that you don't need esoteric equipment to make quality music. The music room in his north London flat contains just one piece of specialist recording gear, and that's a DAT recorder. His tracks are put together using only an unremarkable hi-fi and a Windows PC with a Creative Labs Soundblaster Live soundcard, running a motley selection of software, much of it lagging well behind the cutting edge.
"I don't like studios very much at all," he insists. "I feel really uncomfortable in them, I always get the wrong sound and nothing works out the way I want it. I feel a lot happier in here. I know I can get the sound I want in here, because I know these speakers off by heart, I've heard a million records through them. I also like the way I can get up in the morning, sit in my pyjamas and eat a slice of toast and work. The music becomes part of my everyday life. That's become one of the defining things about the music I'm doing, I don't go and hide away in a studio to get it done, I am able to do it in this really relaxed way where it does tie in with all the other things I'm doing in my life."
Despite the importance he attaches to a relaxed attitude, though, what's most striking about Hebden's approach to making music is its discipline. Unlike many producers, he doesn't seem at all daunted by the endless possibilities that computer-based recording generates. "I get asked in pretty much every interview, 'How do you know when a track's finished?'," he laughs. "I'm like 'That's the easiest thing ever.' I think that's what my talent is, essentially. That's what makes a producer. The whole reason I'm talking to you, and that the record's coming out, is because I know how to work on something and know when it's finished, or know when it's not finished and what it needs, and when it's going to make sense to listeners. That's the bit that's second nature. The more difficult part is coming up with ideas and starting points for tracks that have some real substance behind them, both in terms of emotional content and musical ideas."
Ideas are central to Keiran Hebden's music-making process, and although improvisation also has an important role in generating his distinctive soundscapes, it's always used in the service of a clearly defined musical goal. Even the 'folktronica' genre is something Hebden has thought about and planned from the top down. "For the very first Four Tet recordings, I was obsessed with free jazz, and the whole spiritual jazz thing from the late '60s and early '70s. There was so much dance music coming out that was claiming to be influenced by jazz music, but it was always really mellow, much more laid-back, and the influences were always fusion influences rather than the really dark, evil sort of jazz that I knew and loved. I wanted to do a contemporary record that was influenced by the evil dark jazz, and the whole first album was all about that. When when the next album came out, I abandoned the whole jazz thing — not because I wasn't into it any more, but because I suddenly started thinking about what was possible with this project and where it could go. I became a lot more ambitious.
"For the second album I was really into all this American R&B stuff, like Timbaland and Rodney Jerkins, who were putting out big chart records with harps and thumb pianos and really weird instrumentation. This made me think 'I need to be loads more ambitious about the sounds I'm using and the instrumentation. All the things that everyone's so familiar with, bass, drums, guitar and piano, that's in the past now, that way of thinking. It can be three harpsichords, a banjo and four drum kits, and that can make sense.' I was thinking about that and I got really interested in British folk music, and started buying loads of records and hearing people like Pentangle and Fotheringay and Fairport Convention. I wasn't crazy about all the music, but I really liked the sort of sounds I was hearing on the records. The thing I was looking for in that music that I couldn't find was a much more heavy rhythmic element, and that's when I thought 'Imagine if you got Kraut-rock and British folk music and fused them together,' and that became a kind of blueprint for the second album.
"For this one, I was happy with a lot of those ideas, but if there was one criticism I had [of Pause], it was that it did sound like I'd got a bunch of records and squashed them together at moments. I felt that it was time to try to be a bit more ambitious about what I was doing, and try to move things away from being such a product of their influences, to start thinking about making music that was coming more from me, where people would hear it and they wouldn't be able to know what records I'd listened to or what sort of music it was, even: something that was coming from my complete knowledge of music rather than what I was interested in at the time."
When he began work on Rounds a year before its eventual release, Hebden thus already had a firm idea of what he wanted to achieve and how he wanted it to sound. "One of the things I wanted to do on this album was not try to achieve the sound by endlessly layering everything up a lot, and try to do some tracks that only had two or three sounds and keep that interesting for the whole song without introducing tons of countermelodies and stuff to keep it going.
"Particularly on this record and the previous one, the idea is very much that the computer's the instrument. If I wanted a guitar line or something, I'd never pick up a guitar and write a guitar melody to go on it. I might record some guitar into the computer, then start working on a track, and if I decide I need some guitar, I'd go to that recording, break it up into pieces, and then compose the melody using that sound. To get the sound I want and do what I want to do, it's all about using the computer as the instrument, and the most interesting stuff I've done has been all about that kind of idea. Loads of people think there's lots of live playing on my music, but there's nothing at all. It's all from the computer. I think one of the nice things about that is that you listen closely and it conjures up the image of a musician, but you realise that everything's humanly impossible. It's the little details that make it.
"I think I f**k with things a lot more than people realise, to get them to work the way I want. There's a track with a gamelan on it on the record, for instance, but it's in a different scale to Western music, and to make it work within the track I sampled a loop of gamelan from the record, but I had to break it up into all sorts of pieces to try to get the timing right, and I had to stretch bits to get it to work in the context of the track I was doing. Every single sound's been messed with like that. On Pause, for instance, there was no bass of any sort, all the bass was all the other instruments slowed down, and everyone kept saying 'It sounds like this is a band playing.' For me that was a really insane idea, because I knew that everything was at such unrealistic speeds, and so many of the notes are backwards and messed with.
"There's different ideas behind what I'm trying to achieve at the beginning stages of a track. I might have a very clear idea in my mind about something melodic that's got to happen, and I'll put all my energies into making sure that works out right first, and then sort out the other bits. Sometimes I might have quite a clear idea for the whole thing, and sometimes I might just do a track in a couple of hours. It really depends on the feel I'm going for what my starting point is. It changes a lot depending on whether drums are something you start very early with in the track, or whether they're something that comes a lot later."
Typically, Kieran Hebden has very considered opinions on the process of making music on a computer: "People who make music on computers don't realise how powerful the visual element is. Whether you like it or not, your minds starts to think in terms of patterns, because it's a natural human way to do things, and you start seeing the way drums are lining up on the screen, and it becomes completely instinctive to line them up in a certain way. It's important just to close your eyes and use your ears, and trust what's coming out of the speakers more than anything. So many shitty records come out with terribly programmed drums, where everything's really stagnant and sterile. It's always been a problem with British dance and pop music when they've got a hip-hop beat on something. It's always so sterile, and when you listen to American productions they walk all over them, because there's so much more swing. It's just confidence — they'll just get an MPC and hit the beat out, and it's human at that point, they haven't just hit the quantise button. They trust their own judgement more than the computer's, and I think that's an important thing to try to remember."
Hebden's main tool for creating and manipulating sounds is Ross Bencina's cult shareware program Audiomulch, an idiosyncratic modular virtual studio package for PC platforms which is downloadable from www.audiomulch.com. He also uses Syntrillium's Cool EditPro to chop up and trim audio, before assembling the results in Cakewalk's Pro Audio 9.
"I really like Audiomulch, it's one on my favourite bits of software. It's so stripped-down, and you can really abuse it. Reason just makes trance music, and you're not really allowed to piss around with it too much and everything's got this horrible reverbed sound, and I kind of hate it — Audiomulch is my preferred version of that idea. I find that what I do is just make sounds, get things going in Audiomulch, write it all to audio, and then I'll take samples. I'll do a lot of mad improvisation in Audiomulch and I'll be writing it to a WAV file the whole time it's going on, and then I'll play it back and find a good bit and grab something from it. Audiomulch is so quick. If I'm playing a record and I suddenly hear a bit of guitar I want to use, I can try it out with 20 different drum loops in the space of five minutes. Everything I do is rendered straight away.
"In Audiomulch you can set the universal tempo for the whole thing and know that everything's going to be running in time, and every little effects unit's got quantise on it, so if it's getting too out-there you can whack all the quantises into effect, and have all the granulators and delays and effects locked in with each other. Audiomulch is really good for beats because you can put any sound you want into the drum machine, and because of the universal quantise, you can set the whole machine to 120bpm, get two or three breaks off an album, play them all at once in the right time with each other, and get a drum machine and program in some 808 hits and stuff to get the sound you want, and then you can add a different EQ to every single one of those elements and create a mix.
"To get the right feel of the beat and to get the basic loop working right, I use Audiomulch loads, but then I transfer everything over into Cakewalk, and then I start chopping it up, and then I start making all the variations in the drums. I usually take a whole bar or so from a record, and then start to add other sounds to it to get the sound I want. If the bass drum's not quite right I might get that and I might add other sounds to that, or if there's a bit I don't like in the drum loop I might chop it out and replace it with something else. It's often the case that my drum loops may be a combination of two or three drum loops from something else."
Hebden's self-discipline is most apparent in his approach to using sequencers. "Audiomulch is really powerful, but everything that comes out is a bit off the hook, so I use sequencers to contain my ideas, in a way. I'll start recording, get all the rough ideas together on a track, and chuck it all into the sequencer, and then I'll probably sit on that for a little while until I'm happy with the general sounds. Then there's the process of going back and refining everything and making sure all the drum rolls sound natural, and all the gaps are right, the lengths of every bit. That's probably the longer process, adding the detail and making sure everything comes in and out at the right moments — the arranging, basically. If I want to change the volume of the sound or anything, I don't use the mixer, I can only turn things up or down 3dB at a time. If I want to add an effect, a lot of the time I just put it in and that's it, there's no going back. I just write everything to WAV files. I mix as I go along, it's not like I make the track and then try to mix it afterwards — each instrument's added and it's put in how I want it to be. You get glitches just by chopping samples in the wrong places. I don't really think about all the separate sounds as putting them into separate contexts when I'm working on the music, I'm not thinking 'Right, now I want to bring some glitchy stuff in, then I want some drums.' Once all the sounds are in the computer, all of it's just sound, really, and they don't become separate moments in the process.
"I use Cool Edit for all my sample editing. I do a lot of time-stretching and stuff in Cool Edit, and I really like it — it's kind of shit, but good shit. The one thing I've looked to other bits of software for is time-stretching, because every time-stretching device sounds so radically different. Sometimes you can get time-stretching that sounds like it's underwater — sometimes you want bad time-stretching to get that really stuttered effect. I do a lot of time-stretching and editing manually. I don't use any programs like Recycle, I chop everything by hand. A lot of the time I don't even quantise, I do it by sight."
Hebden's approach to working with computers is very much based on destructive processing and manual editing, and he tends not to use plug-in effects: "I only use about two plug-ins. I use the TC Native EQ and the Waves C1 compressor quite a lot, and some reverbs, but not much. Everyone's records end up sounding the same, so I really haven't explored plug-ins at all."
When it comes to computer hardware, Hebden's requirements are fairly conventional. "I put the computers together myself, and buy in exactly the bits that I want. I need really fast hard drives to do as much audio as possible, and I don't put loads of other crap in them. PCs are much cheaper than Macs and you can build them yourself. You can exploit a PC in so many more exciting ways — you can get a lot more interesting free software, and you get a lot more control over what you're doing. I've got a Soundblaster Live soundcard in the PC, and I'm getting better sound these days because I don't have to use the sound outputs from the computer any more, I just run the optical cable from the computer into the DAT machine, and then always listen through the converters on the DAT machine, which sounds better. I don't bother having any compressors or EQ here, because when I get to the mastering stage, they're always going to have better shit at the mastering place than I can afford. Having said that, on my last album we didn't change anything much, we probably added a very little bit of treble here or there, but otherwise the sound on the record is pretty much identical to the sound of the finished product in here."
An example of the balance between planning and improvisation that goes into a Four Tet track is the centrepiece of Rounds, 'Unspoken'. "What happened with 'Unspoken' is that I had the piano and the drums on my laptop, and I was on the Eurostar coming back from France, and I literally listened to that loop for the whole two-and-a-half-hour journey back. I got back and didn't do anything with it for a couple of weeks, I knew I had it sitting there, and then I just sat down for two days and just did the whole thing. For the middle part I had the idea very clearly in my head about what I wanted to happen, with this big grand bit in the middle, and it got really insane with 40 tracks of audio going — there were three drum kits and loads of percussion and all sorts of stuff.
"I laid out the arrangement first, with where the piano was going to go and everything, and than for the bit in the middle there's all these electric pianos, and I probably took sequences of one or two notes from about four or five records with bits of electric piano to make all the parts work. Everything else in I put in as I needed it. It was one of those tracks where it was like 'It doesn't lift quite enough. I'll add another shaker. It's not quite bassy enough. I'm going to put a sine wave underneath it.' I think a lot in those terms when I'm working on something — what does this need at this point? — and I use a lot of really simple devices, things like sine waves and shakers and cymbals, that you need to give the track the right dynamic. To pull off a track like that and make it lift in the middle and make it sound epic enough, it wasn't just one of those things where I was just putting together an improvisation in Audiomulch, I had to really think about how I was going to make it happen and listen to it again and again. I wanted the feeling that it would keep rising and rising, and whenever I played it back, if there was ever a point where it felt like it was losing its momentum I'd know that I needed to put something else in there again."
Even where something sounds completely spontaneous, it may be carefully planned, like the free-jazz wig-out drumming on 'And They All Look Broken Hearted'. "That random drumming was actually a really laborious Cakewalk process that took hours, taking loads of sounds and breaking them up and trying loads of different placings. I wanted to have the feeling that someone was just knocking around a drum kit, and what I really like about that track is that the drums go along in this random way, and it's building up and you expect the drums to kick into a beat, but then another kit comes in, and it's that other kit that suddenly kicks into the beat. The idea was that it was suddenly going to take off, but it wasn't going to be the obvious drum kit — another drum kit would do it."
Here and elsewhere, the melodic elements provide a repetitive bed while the detail and musical development comes from the drums and percussion. This deliberate reversal of roles is one of the characteristic features of Rounds: "You can't over-complicate every single sound in the track — you have to decide which things are going to ride through the track in a simple way, and which ones the detail is going to be in. Everything I do has some sort of anchor in there that holds it and keeps going, in a way. Even though there's a harp melody that's the main hook, you probably end up listening more to the drums — they become the main focus."
Kieran Hebden's thoughtful, ideas-led approach to music making is visible at every level, from his conception of the 'folktronica' genre to the details of his drum patterns. It's also apparent in his concern for the neglected art of structuring and sequencing an album to work as an album: "I like to make albums that you play all the way through. Before the album's finished I start organising the sequencing, and working out what track's going to go where, because you get to the point where you're doing the last few tracks and you know that you're going to need a certain energetic track, or it needs another slow track. I'm a bit manipulative at that stage, I suppose. I start using little devices here and there to make things work, like non-musical sounds, especially as the music is instrumental as well. I use a lot of non-musical sounds to try to set the scene. You can just put in the sound of the sea for two minutes before a track starts and it sets the scene, it gets you prepared to listen to the music. The fades and how the tracks end is so important. The album is quite eclectic, and it takes a bit of time to make it work at the same time as being eclectic."
With Rounds now in the shops, Hebden is moving on to other projects. He's taken on his first production job for another artist, on a forthcoming album from Beth Orton, and is also in demand as a remixer, while in the live arena he's touring with Prefuse 73 and supporting Radiohead this Summer. Whatever he does next, though, ideas will always be more important to him than gear. "My whole thing is that I don't use a lot of equipment, I just keep it really simple. Good music's about ideas, really, and I don't want to get trapped in the whole thing of constantly worrying about my new software, and learning how to use it all the time. I feel I've mastered the equipment I've got, and I'm at the point now where I don't have to think about the equipment any more. I can concentrate on making the music."