Generations | Part3: Henrietta Smith-Rolla

Key Figures From Electronic Music
By Dave Clarke

Henrietta Smith‑Rolla’s studio features a small number of hardware synths, but most of the keyboard instruments are controllers.Photo: Michael England / Spitfire Audio

Producer, DJ and remixer Dave Clarke meets the innovative producer acclaimed both for her piano‑based film soundtracks and her techno music.

In this short series, I’ve been meeting inspirational figures from the world of electronic music. This month, I’ll conclude by talking to someone currently attracting a lot of attention both for her DJ’ing and her productions, which include techno, electro and classically‑inspired pieces. Henrietta Smith‑Rolla has been active in the music industry for around 20 years, but it’s only in the last few years that her profile as artist and DJ has taken off. The position she has attained in this time demonstrates that being a late bloomer can actually have its advantages, allowing a self‑believing artist to watch from different angles before committing.

Your DJ’ing and club‑oriented production moniker is Afrodeutsche, which sounds like a nod to ‘Afrogermanic’ by Underground Resistance. That record came out in 1998 when you must have been 16 or 17. Was that a watershed moment?

Yes it was, but it wasn’t until perhaps two or three years later that I first heard it. I had moved to London by myself to get into the music industry; I wasn’t making music, but just being part the machinations and working in different guises, and a lot of my friends were into Underground Resistance and Drexciya and then something clicked with the way those sounds communicated with me, it all made so much sense. Afrodeutsche actually came about from my personal heritage, from my father’s side, but the language in the music of UR was indeed a very deep connection and inspiration.

So can I assume that your classical influences come from the Russian side of your family?

I found out that a relative of mine was a classical composer and wrote music for churches, so I am a product of this inheritance of music and language. My mother also was a huge influence on me musically. She had classical records playing all the time, which was my first introduction — no concerts, just recorded music. We were actually really poor, living in rented apartments that we really should not have been living in, but a lot of my friends at school had pianos and they all had classical training. I would hang out at their houses a lot and take advantage of the pianos, and would stay and teach myself to play.

I should say also that I was the only black person at my primary school, and even when I went to a very large secondary school, I was the only black person there too. I would travel to that school with a big violin case and get given a hard time, but they didn’t realise I got a scholarship through doing really well with my aptitude tests for music. At school, I had access to a music room that had Casio keyboards, and I was in heaven trying to play Prodigy bass lines and Crystal Waters with one finger, and then I forgot all about the violin. Of course, at that time music lessons were meant to be classically based, but with these keyboards and my friends having Technics turntables my electronic journey really began.

Devon must have been quite culturally cut off in those pre‑Internet days?

Yes, but my mother, again, had incredible taste in music, and had lots of brilliant acid house records whose influence really play a part in my DJ sets. Also The Box on UK TV had a lot of avant garde music to be found. An older friend of mine used to go to these parties and I would get all these cassettes and flyers from these gigs as a reward for keeping her rave activity quiet, as I used to go to her house and pretend to have a sleepover with her whilst she went out!

I then moved to London and worked at 19 Entertainment and got to meet Cathy Dennis and Annie Lennox briefly, and of course that also changed something within me. I had what you may call a block in belief, and it started to release and I realised that I was allowed to work through this to get on my journey. Seeing at close hand how these women had a passion for music and succeeded really opened my eyes.

I then moved to Manchester after a difficult break‑up and rebuilt myself, and the only thing that would give me solace was to make music, and even though I had been in many bands, including one with Graham Massey [808 State], I realised I had to do this just for me. I played some material reticently to Andy Maddocks from Skam Records and after a few weeks I got an email asking if I could play him some more material with the possibility of putting it out. Finally I had a feeling of validation, perhaps it should not have come from there, but it was a piece of music that I had created on my own with no external influence and was an emotional track. That was around 2014.

‘The Burial’ by Leviticus was an early favourite record of yours. It samples new — Jill Francis, a year before Leviticus — and old — Foxy’s ‘Mademoiselle’ from the late ’70s. Is sampling important to you?

I wouldn’t know what I know unless people sampled music on the consumer side, but on the work side I have no place for sampling. The only occasion I will sample will be on my radio shows [on NTS] as it aids the narrative, helps the story. I have never had a sampler. I have tried using it within composition but it doesn’t make me feel that I want to listen to that piece of music.

What was your first commitment to buying something electronic for your musical career?

Photo: Katja Ruge
The Yamaha DX7, around 2004. A lot of people were fed up with it, but for me, I was hearing elements of the tracks I loved as a teenager, and just through the presets. I actually bought it from a school. Then the next item I got was a Technics stage piano in 2010.

Did you start a home studio around that time?

No, but I did go to a lot of studios around Manchester and play with whatever was available. It was 2016 that I really started focusing on building my own home studio and started building up with a lot of controllers, but I prefer to have very few tools otherwise I find myself in a situation where options are infinite and end up thinking more about the tools than the actual music. It’s better for me to be in the analogue mindset of only having a certain amount of choices, then I stick with it and do the best I can. I cannot be creative if there is too much going on, I start to walk around in circles of confusion and frustration because I am not processing anything.

What is your most recent purchase?

The Kurzweil K2000. I am really passionate about it, even though it only has a handful of audio outputs, but this machine has transformed my writing. Before owning it I would tend to imagine and hear sounds in my head and try to create those, but since owning it I’ve had found another form of inspiration that allows these languages, landscapes and themes that run through my film work to have a place. The K2000 has a quality to it that manages to fill that space, plus it gave me this comfortable bed I could rest in and yet be surprised by the different avenues it would send me on. I got it from a good friend of mine, which gives them the advantage that they can borrow it back if ever they need it!

The next thing I will upgrade will be my monitoring. I went from very lo‑fi to Genelec, but I need to work out a better way of using my space to get the best way for them to perform in the studio. I will probably move, but I also know the present space makes my music sound the way it does.

What DAW do you write with, and what is your approach within it?

I have used Ableton [Live] from the beginning of my personal composing. I started on version 8 around 2009. I was introduced to Logic to record the piano pieces but the GUI didn’t make any sense to me. I suppose Ableton vs Logic is like Windows vs Mac: you just prefer one or the other.

My use of Ableton with recording varies and depends on how I’m feeling, but often I will start by sitting at my piano and jamming something out that I need to hear. From that I’ll have some cues and ideas for building something bigger. These jam sessions can last for a few hours. So, I enjoy taking time listening back to these sessions and cutting out little bits that I might like to develop in the future.

Vocals have become a huge part of my writing process recently, and I’ve noticed that I will end up using at least 16 separate tracks of my vocals to layer and create a soundscape: really trying to create one full voice, but using many, many textures. I also try to record most things very dry so that I can spend time using other effects to lift what is already there. It can get quite muddy‑sounding if I’m not on top of it. So I move forward and jam, improvise and layer, knowing that these instruments are in the right place, and when it comes to mixing I have less work to do which frees me up to be far more creative and write in that moment.

For film scoring I do have a much stricter use of Ableton, including creating frameworks to work within, programming each channel according to the instrument and the placing within the film, plus I make MIDI markers and colour‑code these according to a character in the film or important dialogue and sound effects.

Another view of Henrietta Smith‑Rolla’s studio.Photo: Michael England / Spitfire Audio

You put together a sample library for Spitfire Audio. How did that come about? Were you nervous about categorising your sonic signature and decoding it for yourself and others?

I wasn’t sure I could quantify it. When they came to me, I had to be sure I did this right. It had to be both useful and inspiring. As my music world is based in colour [Henrietta has a condition called Irlen Syndrome, in which certain frequencies of light can aggravate the brain; being unable to read sheet music, she has also developed an understanding of notes through colour] I called it Spectrum. I made every note across the 88 keys to be a different sound but they all work together sympathetically and are texturally rich. I based my experience on using other libraries, and found out that for me they would generally only truly work and be effective across a limited amount of octaves, but for Spectrum I wanted to use the whole breadth of the keyboard, to have a sympathetic yet inspiring palette of sounds. I needed it to not be an experience of opening a plug‑in and then thinking “Oh, I’m not using that again.” That was important to me.

I really rate Spitfire, of course, and my favourite plug‑in is their BBC Symphony Orchestra. I do like other sampled orchestras from other companies but this one really does something to me emotionally, the way they have transcribed each instrument from real life into a tool. I have been moving further into working directly with actual orchestras, too.

Henrietta Smith‑Rolla: "Working with instruments and then using convolution reverb makes it much more physical, placing the instruments or sopranos in a realistic physical space for the listener."

I also have to say that convolution reverb is a subject that has been gaining further interest for me. Working with instruments and then using convolution reverb makes it much more physical, placing the instruments or sopranos in a realistic physical space for the listener. It is also quite funny that my mum says reverb is a favourite for her too.

What other instrument plug‑ins do you use?

For drums I use Perc and Vengeance. In both of these packs there is such an abundance of varied kicks, snares and claps that I don’t actually have the words to describe it; it is almost an infinite field of sound. I can jump on either of these two plug‑ins and not be too precious, scroll through and create a drum rack and jam something out fast enough to not put a halt to my creative process. They are reactive and yet pleasing in quite a short amount of time, but the samples are still malleable and stand up well in the mixing process. These packs are really satisfying, and up to this moment I have had no need to search for anything to replace them.

I loved your piano‑based soundtrack for Kamali, the BAFTA 2020‑nominated Best British Short Film, but was deliciously frustrated as each piece is so short! Were you not tempted to expand them for the audio release?

I was tempted, but every time I approached those pieces of music with a view to extending them I hit a big wall, because they were specifically created for the documentary, and I have a strong emotional connection to the music I make. I did want to try and let my ego show people I can do more, but in the end I felt I would be lying if I extended them for a music‑only release.

Dave Clarke: I would like to thank John Foxx, Surgeon and Henrietta Smith‑Rolla for agreeing to be interviewed for this series.

Published August 2021

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