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GRAHAM MASSEY (808 STATE): Recording Don Solaris

Interview | Band By Matt Bell
Published July 1996

It's taken a couple of years, but 808 State have at last emerged from a variety of studios with a sleek new album, the superbly‑crafted Don Solaris. Matt Bell talks techno to head of State Graham Massey.

Unless your band is called The Beatles, three years is a long time to be absent from the world of mainstream pop music. In the even more faceless world of dance music, the 'stars' — if you can call them that — often burn out much faster, and are swiftly forgotten. But although it's over three years since the release of 808 State's last album, Gorgeous, Graham Massey is in fine spirits, and with good reason. The group's new release, Don Solaris, marks a return to form after Gorgeous, a record that Massey himself now admits to finding "weak" in parts — a victim of what he and colleagues Andrew Barker and Darren Partington perceived as the stagnation of the dance scene that they had dominated at the turn of the decade with singles like 'Pacific 202', 'Cübik', 'In Yer Face', and the albums Ninety and ex:el.

Timely Return?

However, Graham's current enthusiasm doesn't just result from satisfaction with the group's new material — he believes music is now more interesting than it was at the time of Gorgeous: "Programming is a lot more exciting than it used to be — the 'drum and bass' movement is widening the whole thing out completely. Of all of the things you hear when you go out clubbing, that's been one of the things that's got me really excited again. It's affecting all kinds of other music as well, and that's good for us. Once upon a time, I think people looked on what we were doing as rather flash, but it's accepted now. It's only in the last year and a half that people have been able to be that broad — things like Tricky would never have happened earlier on. There's a more open, eclectic climate".

So, perhaps the delay was a good thing. For Don Solaris is definitely late — in his last SOS interview, in November 1994, Graham was talking about a January '95 release. At the time, he claimed the group were "sitting on about 40 finished tracks". I wondered what had happened, and whether any of that 40 had made it onto the final record. "There's quite a lot of them. Basically, we hit a point where we'd recorded in so many different studios that it didn't have any continuity to it". Extensive recording had already taken place in Sheffield's Fon studios and Manchester's Planet 4, and mixes of the material had been completed, when 808's label ZTT suggested the band go and mix the album again from scratch in one place. The intention was not to do any further recording, but it didn't turn out like that: "We ended up going to The Wool Hall in Bath with Al Stone as our engineer, who's mixed Björk and the Stereo MCs. Of course, we wrote more tunes there as we mixed in the studio".

Massey feels Stone's input much improved the album: "He made it loads better, just in terms of keeping everthing sonically clear. It had got quite dense — and sometimes you can get in a bit of a pickle with that. We'd be concentrating, going 'errr — you know the fourth type of hi‑hat in the eighth kit? I can't hear it!'. It's good to have an outsider come in and tell you that that doesn't matter. He's good to work off, a good critic — and it became a proper album, as opposed to a collection of tracks. The recording process can be quite fragmented now, because you might take a piece from your home studio, and another piece from another studio... Once upon a time, you went in the recording studio and made a record — now you're collecting little elements all the time, which you put together at the end, in the mix."

I assumed that the group must have employed hard disk recording to assemble the final tracks in this way, but this was not the full story, as Graham explained. He purchased a Digidesign Pro Tools system last Christmas to digitally assemble the album master (of which more later), but most of the tracks themselves were finished by then: "It depended what studio we were working in. Some had Pro Tools systems running with Cubase, but we were flying things in on two‑inch analogue tape as well. It was a real curry! We used a lot more live elements on this album, and hard disk recording helped out there, because you can almost treat audio as if it were MIDI information, but you've still got that spontaneity and randomness. For example, we know a really good Latin drummer, so we got him playing along roughly to some stuff in our own studio, and then took a DAT of him down and fitted chunks of his playing into our grooves".

Instrumentation: Going Live?

It is the more 'live' feel that sets Don Solaris apart from the likes of ex:el — although the incredibly complex 808 State programmed rhythms and basslines are still in evidence (of which more elsewhere in this article). Back in November 1994, Massey promised a more 'organic' 808 State, stating that the increased use of acoustic instruments that had begun on Gorgeous was much more advanced on the new record. Not only is this apparent now that Solaris has at last risen above the horizon, but the production techniques used on the album have been more 'organic' too, with wider use of improvisation‑inpired composition, old‑fahioned analogue effects, and amp miking techniques than you might expect from a band named after a drum machine. Graham: "We felt a lot more comfortable about using guitars and instruments like the vibraphone and glockenspiel on this album. There's more brass and wind instruments on this one, too. They were on the others too, but it used to be a big deal to put a guitar in, say. Now we're comfortable with being less tied to SMPTE."

Session musicians were not required to play the brass and wind instruments, as Graham has been playing both for many years, having been part of various improvisational jazz bands before his techno conversion: "There are hardly any samples — we've really cut down on those. It's just a natural element that's always been there, from 'Pacific State' onwards."

Certainly, on the track 'Black Dartagnion', the band sound like they're trying to get every world genre into one piece of music: tablas, a jazzy bass clarinet, a didgeridoo, and a dub bassline blend together with subtle synths to create a much more natural‑sounding backing than anything the group have produced before. Graham: "That was one of the earliest tracks, and survived from the Fon sessions — it's about three years old now. We didn't want to change it — we thought it was really good already. The bass clarinet is one of my favorite instruments, and there's loads of original Fender Rhodes in it too. We went to town on the electric pianos on this album — we got a Hohner Electra, which has a different sound altogether, and Wurlitzers. We used them all layered together, for that Miles Davies 'five‑Rhodes‑in‑a‑room' sound."

Other equipment was used to enhance the warm feel of the record, like the Korg G5 bass analogue processor, used by the band to impart a fat, Moog synth bass‑type feel to tracks played on a real bass guitar, for example in the closing passage of the track 'Mooz'. Graham: "You can get a lot of Moog‑style feeling into your bass parts with it. We've also started putting kits through it. A guy I know who does a lot of drum and bass stuff got one just to put his kick drums through, and I've heard it on loads of jungle records since then! People have obviously all got the same idea at the same time there.

"We also used a lot of cheap analogue effects pedals — one of the best things I've bought all year is a Digitech whammy pedal, which I've used in countless situations."

The keyboard solo on the closing album track 'Banuchaq' — one of the wildest I've ever heard — was played on a Moog Liberation. The signal was sent through several analogue pedals and a parametric EQ, as Graham explained: "The EQ was being tweaked as the Liberation was played. You get quite a lot of control on a Liberation with its controller ribbon, and if you get the oscillators sync'ed up and pass the whole lot through a parametric EQ set to distortion, the sound really turns into something else. That wasn't sequenced — it was just a case of going at it!"

Indeed, for the recording of much of the album, the band exhibited the same tendency to 'go at' things and improvise. For Graham, this presented a welcome return to the kind of playing he had been used to in improvisational groups; but he did acknowledge the usefulness of technology for improvisation, as a non‑classically‑trained musician. "You're constantly having to deal with the limitations of your musicianship. I know this happens for a lot of people, if they're not trained musicians — and we're not, not really — you go to a keyboard every day, and you find yourself doing the same things. But if you're recording into a computer, you can change what you record later. You have a link from your brain to your hands which is only good enough to do certain things — but then you have the link from your brain to the computer, which is capable of much more. But it's still your brain — and they're still your ideas. That's what's great about technology. Despite that, being in an improvisational band for years was a tremendous help to composing; you need to improvise to create in the first place. I think a lot of programmers now would benefit from being in a jamming situation. I know jams are sometimes really terrible, but it's a great skill to learn if you can. I've been trying to do it a lot more myself lately — just get in a room with humans and play. I've done remixes where I've brought a lot of session musicians in: percussionists, and flute and sax players — and while I've been waiting for the album to come out, I've been doing a few other projects that are more musician‑based; I like having that human element again."

Whose (Instrumental) Line Is It Anyway?

On some of the songs, improvisation, hand in hand with technology, took the group far away from their original ideas for the track. One of the few new synths used on the album (see the 'The State Of Synths Today' box) was a Korg Prophecy. Graham had written a drum pattern with a North African feel to it, and when the group dicovered that the Prophecy keyboard could be set to different tunings, they elected to try an Arabic scale to fit the tone of the rhythm pattern — which was unused in the final version of the track, named 'Balboa'. Graham: "We played loads of Arabic flute over the top, then we took out about four bars that sounded good, wrote basslines to go with them, and worked out mid lines from the same improvisation. That track was one of the ones that we wrote in the studio at the end".

The arpeggiated and extremely unpredictable chord progressions at the end of the track 'Kouhoutek' came about in a similar way. Graham: "That came from another piece. We had the front part, and needed an ending. I had this tape which we'd done at our studio, with chord progression exercises on it — I was just messing around with some chords and the arpeggiator on our Jupiter 8. We edited some of the chords out and ended up with a section of about 24 bars, with some really good juxtapositions. It shouldn't really relate to the rest of the track, but somehow it does. We'll very often take a successful piece of a tune that isn't working properly as a whole, and work it into another track by changing the key."

Like the unexpected chord progressions on the fade of 'Kouhoutek', many 808 State tracks exhibit bizarre melody or bass lines. Another good example from Don Solaris is the sax line with a deliberate off‑key note on the track 'Joyrider'. But Graham defends his choice: "Sometimes, it's limited musicianship, a lack of 'proper' knowledge that leads to strange chords in our stuff. But that happens in all kinds of other music. A 'wrong note' in something can be the most right note, because to do the obvious thing all the time is boring. We often squabble about certain notes in the middle of the night, and some things get left. It can be very hard to get tuning right, especially when you're dealing with sub‑bass. You almost ignore a sub‑bass line until you put it up on big speakers — and often, when it's in tune on large monitors, it twists out of tune again when you play it on something else quietly... it's only in tune when it's loud. That makes it hell to mix. You have to decide: should you make it in tune when it's quiet, or in tune when it's loud? Or do you just forget it? Often, we leave it, and again, on this album, Al Stone was good at encouraging us not to worry about things like that so much."

Mixing It

The mixing sessions for Don Solaris (carried out using SSL consoles, mostly at The Wool Hall in Bath, but also at Olympic studios in London, where the photos accompanying this article were taken) were a vital part of the making of the record. Far from being a simple matter of balancing levels, this was the stage where heavy processing was applied to the tracks recorded, in some cases distorting them out of recognition, as Graham explained:

"Once upon a time, electronic music was quite a sterile environment — you wouldn't mike gear up, as the whole point was to DI everything. That was the thrill — everything was plastic and clean. It's all gone the other way now; you're trying to pretend it's not a D50 anymore, it's an old organ, or whatever. And distortion's 'in' as well, so we used the studio facilities a lot to give us room sounds — we'd send individual lines through miked‑up guitar amps, and we used a lot of cheap processing, like crappy MXR phasers instead of the AMS in the studio. To give a big 'soundscape' feel on 'Bond', we had the drums playing through some big speaker stacks into a room, and then we miked those up.

"We used some digital outboard too — Lexicon reverbs from whatever studio we were in — but what I really love is analogue squelch boxes, like the new Mutator filter, which I've just tried out [see the Mutator review on page 126 this month — Ed]. That's wicked! We didn't use it on the album, though — it wasn't out then. We like to use a lot of old analogue effects, like the Roland Space Echo and an old Echoplex, to give the album a real flavour, rather than having everything too clean. At the other end of the scale, we also used digital distortion — our sampler feeding back on itself. We sampled that, chopped it up, and used it in 'Bond'. It sounds like a motorbike — in fact, anything that sounds like a motorbike is usually a piece of equipment going wrong. We have DATs with different kinds of sounds stored on them, so when equipment starts to die on us, it's 'quick! Stick it on the motorbike DAT!'".

At the mixing stage, the songs varied wildly in their complexity. Involved pieces like 'Bond' went across 48 tracks, while the comparatively spartan 'Lopez' only used eight tracks. SSL automation was used to mix the entire album, which was then placed into Graham's then‑newly‑purchased Pro Tools system so that he could create a crossfaded master.

Mastering The Situation

When he spoke to SOS in November 1994, Graham was looking forward to getting to grips with a digital editing system such as Pro Tools, so that he could create records with no clear track boundaries. At the time, he said, "An editing system is something we could use really well... we've done maybe three mixes of each track, and then lots of little sections ready for editing — we want to merge the whole thing, make it one continuous piece. I like the idea of using music as raw material to build a bigger picture; that's something the new album will definitely show". I was surprised on listening to the album that this appeared not to be the case. Tracks crossfaded into one another, but remained fairly distinct musical entities. I asked Graham why he had changed his mind.

"That was an idea I had that I was going to do. There's elements of it in there — that's what the 'Intro' is for at the start, it's like an overture of pieces from other tracks — but it didn't turn out the way I thought. I was quite ambitious when I started, and did a few psycho versions at home, but the album lasted two hours, and it was all getting a bit long‑winded! Gradually, I got that out of my system, and toned it down to something that worked. I think you would need to do an album in a different way from the start to pull that kind of thing off successfully. I've been doing stuff since just to try it out, really loose stuff that you can jam together. You don't end up with songs so much, just themes."

Unable to decide whether to master onto analogue tape or DAT once the crossfading was complete, the group elected to test both: "We had it cut from half‑inch first, and it was a bit muddy for us. Half‑inch tape sounds great with minimalist stuff, but this album was too dense for that. So, we went back and cut it again on DAT. Certain tracks were suited to half‑inch, and others weren't, but we cut the whole thing from DAT in the end. And now we're going to sell all our half‑inch for recycling, because it costs a fortune!"

The Don Article

With the album now on release, and the striking 'Bond' already picked as the first single. I wondered which tracks Graham thought would make good follow‑up 45s. He seemed most keen on the commercial 'Jerusahat', or the simple 'Lopez', with vocals sung by the Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield. "Instrumentals seem to be a bit more acceptable in the charts lately — you've had Robert Miles' 'Children' and the X‑Files track. I'd like to try and put 'Jerusahat' out as a single. I think it'd sound great on the radio." Was this his favourite on the album? "No, that changes all the time. I think the album as a whole is quite balanced, and that's the main thing — it's been concentrated over a period of time into something quite solid. Of course, my picture of it is a lot bigger, because I know all the other stuff that was going to go into it... I could get picky about some aspects of it, but you've got to stop doing an album at some point, put in a full stop — and do another one!"

Don Solaris was released on June 17th, on the same day as the new single, 'Bond'. 808 State are planning a British tour for later this year.

808 State: Selected Gear


  • ARP 2600
  • ARP Odyssey
  • ARP Quartet
  • ARP Axxe
  • Chase Bit One
  • EDP Wasp
  • EM&M Spectrum Synth
  • Emu Vintage Keys
  • Korg Prophecy
  • Korg Wavestation AD
  • Moog Prodigy
  • Moog Rogue
  • Moog Minimoog
  • Moog Memorymoog
  • Moog Liberation
  • Moog Opus 3
  • Oberheim 4‑voice
  • Oberheim Matrix 1000
  • Roland D50
  • Roland JD800
  • Roland Juno 106
  • Roland Jupiter 4
  • Roland Jupiter 8
  • Roland JX8P
  • Roland PC100
  • Roland SH09
  • Roland SH101
  • Roland SH2000
  • Roland TB303
  • Sequential Pro One
  • Yamaha CS30


  • Atari 1040ST running Cubase
  • Apple Mac Quadra 650 running Pro Tools


  • Akai S1100
  • Akai S1000


  • Alesis HR16
  • Denon rhythm box
  • Pearl Syncussion
  • Roland CR78
  • Roland R8
  • Roland TR606
  • Roland TR727
  • Roland TR909


  • Arbiter Time Dimension DDL pedal
  • Boss overdrive
  • Crybaby wah‑wah
  • Digitech whammy pedal
  • Electro Harmonix Doctor Q
  • Electro Harmonix memoryman
  • Korg G5 bass synth processor
  • Korg VCF pedal
  • Morley wah fuzz
  • MXR phaser
  • Roland Space Echo
  • Sovtec Bigmuff (x2)


  • Bentley Acetone organ
  • Fender Rhodes Stage 73
  • Hohner Clavinet C
  • Hohner D6 Clavinet
  • Hohner Electra piano
  • Vox Jaguar organ
  • Yamaha DX7 mk I


  • 6‑string lap steel
  • 8‑string hawaiian lap guitar
  • Fender Stratocaster
  • Gibson Les Paul
  • Guild Starfire
  • Hawaiian Ukelele
  • Ibanez ST50
  • Kramer
  • Takamine acoustic steel
  • Takamine classical acoustic
  • Yamaha 12‑string acoustic


  • Fender Musicman


  • Alto clarinet
  • Bamboo flute
  • Bass clarinet
  • B flat Clarinet
  • B flat trumpet
  • Bongos
  • C flute
  • Cornet
  • Congas
  • Cowbells
  • Egyptian tamborine
  • Glockenspiel
  • Kalimba
  • Pocket trumpet
  • Tamborine
  • Tenor recorder
  • Traford soprano saxophone
  • Trombone
  • Vibraphone


  • Alto melodica
  • Cromatic harmonica
  • Electric violin
  • Peavey Gold Amp
  • Stylophone (x2)
  • WEM Dominator bass combo

The State Of Synths Today

Though 808 State's enormous number of synths — featured on every album sleeve in tongue‑in‑cheek gear lists — is undiminished, it would seem that they've not bought much that's new since the making of Gorgeous. When I make this point to Graham, he concurs: "It's true. More and more, you get tired of buying. There used to be this feeling that buying a new synth would expand everything, all your sounds — but when you've bought your umpteenth synth, you realise it's only added a little bit to your power. You get a bit more choosy. We're in a fortunate position — some people only get one choice, don't they?

"It seems analogue synth mania is finally tailing off over here. But it's moved abroad. It was always a pretty British thing — when we were over in the States a couple of years ago, you could still pick vintage gear up cheaply there. You can't any more — and now the Japanese have gone mad for it as well."

A couple of modern synths have caught the group's eye, however. Graham: "We got a Korg Prophecy when they came out, and it seems manufacturers are finally starting to listen to what people really want. That synth is really organic. I love the feedback loops in it — you can make everything go absolutely mental. The JD800 is still one of our main instruments for the same reason — you want something, you can just reach out and push a slider. It's our master keyboard, but it's been on a few tours and is a bit battered. Some of our music is now shaped by the fact that several keys have been kicked in and are missing..."

Graham's colleague Andrew Barker has recently parted with one of his two prized Roland TB303s — and the high price he fetched for the unit allowed him to go straight out and buy the object of his desire, a Waldorf Pulse monosynth. Graham: "It's brilliant — just like a Memorymoog in a box. And it's stable. On the other hand, I saw one of those Quasimidi Ravens the other day — and I was appalled at how easily you could do rave music with the thing — it was like the Antichrist!"

Wanted — One Casio FZ1

Rather as with their synths (see the 'State Of Synths Today' box elsewhere in this article), 808 State have not been gripped by upgrade frenzy where their sampler is concerned — they're still using an Akai S1100. Graham: "It's fine — except we sometimes take our stuff down to Bunk, Junk, and Genius for remixes — and our Akai disks don't fit in the S3200 down there. If we were going to upgrade, we might keep our S1100 and move up to an Emu or something — except then you have to convert your library sounds... Sometimes, though, it's good to have a clearout! I've still got a load of old Casio FZ disks that are like antiques now. I'd like to get those sounds back again, because there were a lot of good ones on the FZ sample disks, really upfront strings and things — and the FZ had a great resonant filter too. If I see one going cheap, I might get it. Anyone want to sell me theirs?"

Masters Of The Rhythm: Drums & Bass

On Don Solaris, as on all their other albums, 808 State do not use sample CDs to provide them with percussion loops, but build up their incredibly complex rhythm patterns themselves. Surely, I ventured, it would be easier to get them off the shelf? Graham was firm: "We haven't got any CD‑ROMs. We don't have any big objection to doing it, but we never get so stuck that we have to resort to something like that. It's just not as challenging." I asked how they go about building up their patterns.

"All kinds of ways. Rhythm usually comes first when we start a track, though we do do it other ways. We really like just programming on drum machines sometimes, like the Roland TR909 or R8. Or, we'll take weird preset patterns out of our CR78 or our Denon preset rhythm unit. That's an old preset organ accompaniment box, with wicked sounds in it — kind of like a TR808, but with its own character. I got it in an organ shop for about a fiver, and it's been on loads of our tracks. Once you've got your basis, you stack further patterns over the top. Sometimes, you'll be flicking around trying to get two patterns in time, and you'll hit a point where they're not in time, but they're doing a rhythm that works anyway. At that point, someone shouts 'Stop! Let's see if we can do anything with that' — rather than try and fit everything into four‑on‑the‑floor 'pockets'. You just have to be aware enough to recognise when something's working, even when the rhythms aren't supposed to go together.

"Sounds also dictate rhythms. Rhythms are almost like another layer of music in themselves, with different tones and textures: a Buddy Rich‑style crusty vinyl sound will dictate a certain feel to a track, and a big fat 808 sound on the bass will dictate another. So, when we're making up rhythms, we're not just thinking like a drummer would, we're thinking sonically. Because you're not actually playing the kit, you're free to think about the sounds you're using. When you stick a drummer in a room and record him, there's only one sound — and that's such an old idea! You're just dealing with technique then, and though that's very important, there's a lot more to drumming than that. We've got more of a palette now, and that's brilliant."

808 State's fluid, portamento'd basslines are also extremely distinctive,and contribute a great deal to the group's impact on dancefloors. Here Graham shared a couple of secrets: "We get some really good basslines by putting a polyphonic line through a monophonic synth — sometimes chords played through a monosynth result in very odd bass ideas, depending on the way the synth handles note priority. We also do the same thing we do with drum patterns — we'll write basslines in Cubase to go with a rhythm, and then copy the bassline to another track and shift it on a few beats in time — to the next 'pocket', where it fits rhythmically, but sounds totally different to how it used to."

Don Solaris — Tracks

  • 'Intro'
  • 'Bond'
  • 'Bird'
  • 'Azura'
  • 'Black Dartagnion'
  • 'Joyrider'
  • 'Lopez'
  • 'Balboa'
  • 'Kohoutek'
  • 'Mooz'
  • 'Jerusahat'
  • 'Banachaq'