For his latest solo project, innovative DJ and producer Howie B set himself a difficult challenge: to create live, improvisational dance music with a minimal setup.
'Improvisational' and 'fantastic live experience' are not expressions one associates with very much electronic music, but Howie B is intent on changing that. Having progressed from his beginnings as a DJ to a producer who's worked with some of the biggest names around, Glaswegian Howard Bernstein is now focusing his creative energies on a project he's calling Skelf. The idea is simple: develop a minimal synth setup optimised for live performance, and use the same equipment and techniques to produce studio recordings for release.
The Skelf setup consists of a Sequential Circuits drum machine, two Latronic Notron step sequencers, two Clavia Nord Lead 2 synths and an Analogue Systems FB3 filter bank, along with a small rack of outboard processing and effects gear. Four improvised tracks, performed in Howie B's Chilli Mobile studio on this small set of gear, are included on his EP Coming At Ya: another 12-inch vinyl release was planned around the time we went to press, with a third in September. The aim is to bundle the material from these three 12-inch releases on a full-blown album for Christmas release -- which will, most likely, simply be called Skelf.
Chilli Mobile is normally based in a small work room in Sony Music Recording Studios (formerly Whitfield Street Studios) in London, and it was there I met Howie B. His setup there features two 16-channel Mackie desks, an Atari 1040STE running C-Lab's Notator 3.2, an Akai S3200XL sampler, a Roland Super Jupiter MKS70 synth module with PG800 programmer, a Roland PC200 master keyboard, a Fostex R8 eight-track tape recorder, a Panasonic SV3800 DAT recorder, Yamaha NS10M monitors and a record player.
Howie began by explaining Skelf's mission statement, 'less is less': "Skelf is all electronic, and is just made using simple sound sources: one drum machine, two synths and two step sequencers. It's about making very little sound very big. I'm using such a minimal amount of gear so I can focus more on the groove, and less on the gear and the machines. I get fed up with so much gear. There are so many things around, and it seems like people are taking technology much too seriously. It's like we've gone too far with all these plug-ins and the conviction that all these extras are going to give us a great sound. It's technological overkill. I get demos sent to me, and at the bottom of the accompanying letter it often says something like, 'If I'd had one more plug-in, it would sound great,' or 'If it was compressed it would sound a lot better.' That's rubbish. Good compression is not going to make it sound better. If it's a bad tune, it will remain a bad tune."
Skelf is heavily informed by Howie B's activities as a DJ, which have soared to rather impressive heights during recent years. Almost two decades since starting out as a DJ, he's taken the art to new levels with performances in the open air for huge crowds -- the largest one consisting of 165,000 when B was doing live production and DJ-ing on U2's Popmart tour.
In parallel with his DJ activities, B has also built a career as one of the world's most successful producers and mixers, with a very impressive credit list featuring the likes of Sly & Robbie, Ry Cooder, Steve Reich, U2, Björk, Tricky, Robbie Robertson, New Order, Simply Red and Soul II Soul. To get there, he followed the well-trodden path from teaboy to tape-op to assistant engineer to engineer, when working at Lillie Yard Studios in London, 1984-1986.
"I could see myself DJ-ing forever, but I wanted to learn a skill, I wanted to take it seriously," B explains. "And so I went into apprenticeship in a studio. When I began working there I was so intimidated. I did not know what the hell I was meant to do or what any of the technical stuff meant. Because of this I had a completely different attitude to equipment, but I did learn all the technical details and procedures.
"Lillie Yard was a film studio, so working there was a bit crazy: one minute I'd be recording a jingle for McDonalds, the next a jingle for Danone, and then I'd be recording a 20-piece choir or a small orchestra. I'd often record and mix 40 minutes of music in one day. What was great was that I was working with real hard-line electronic enthusiasts. Hans Zimmer, the studio's owner, bought eight Akai S900s as soon as they came out, so I was playing around with new gear at a very early stage. I realised that the most important thing is actually sound; something that you recognise because of the way it is recorded. From there I went on to express myself through recording techniques."
As Howard Bernstein's profile grew, he became known as someone who could enter projects from left field, providing radical ideas and inspiration. His background as a DJ meant that he was closely in touch with contemporary dance music culture, while at the same time his non-musicianship gave him a different take on things. As B himself put it in an interview in the July 1997 issue of Sound On Sound about the making of U2's Pop: "I gave the band a direct line into club culture and freestyle DJ-ing."
Expressing himself through recording techniques meant that as well as his skills with the record deck, B also became a master of the cut-and-paste, looping and collage techniques that sampling offered. He explored this direction in depth on four solo albums. Music For Babies and Turn The Dark Off (1996 and 1997 respectively) were both released on Polydor, while 1998's experimental Snatch was released on his own Pussyfoot label. Last year saw his most accessible release to date: Folk is full of atmospheric sophistication and features luminaries such as Robbie Robertson and Jon Hassell. Yet Polydor informed B soon after its release that the recording was too obscure and would never make Radio One, and promptly dropped him from their roster. Ironically, B tasted sweet revenge a few days later when Folk was declared Record of the Week on BBC Radio One.
In his two decades as a DJ, Howie B has built up a record collection of over 40,000 vinyl recordings. Yet during the summer of 2001 he stopped bringing stacks of vinyl records to his DJ gigs. Instead, he brought the Notrons, Nord Leads and Sequential Circuits drum machine, and began trying out the ideas featured on Skelf. Having performed like this at, among other places, Notting Hill Carnival and the Essential Festival in London and Creamfields in Dublin, he found the audience reactions encouraging enough to continue, and to take his initiative to the recording stage.
"I set myself some challenges," B asserts, "by using a very limited set of equipment, and also by staying away from using samples. Until a year ago, whenever I was writing a song, it was sample-based. Even though I would often distort samples beyond recognition, they still dictated the key of the tune, the tempo and the ambience. This is great, because when I heard something I immediately knew how to make it the base for a new world, for a story, the bottom of the pyramid that is the song.
"But with Skelf the bottom of the pyramid is not a sample, but my own ideas. That means I have to dig deeper. Even though it's challenging, it's also more satisfying, especially when I play live. It is outrageous for me. I create these pieces live, improvising them as I go along in front of a crowd, and have to hold the floor with brand-new stuff in an environment where people will usually recognise some of the music that's being played. When I came off stage after an hour of playing I often said to myself, 'F**king hell, that was amazing!'
"The way I work is that I prepare grooves in the Sequential Circuits and sounds in the Nord Leads beforehand. On stage I'll usually start with the drum machine, playing only that for about four to five minutes, improvising over the grooves I've pre-programmed. It is quite hard to get people moving just with that, but that's how I start off. I then switch to the sequencers, and then it's like a yo-yo between sequencers and drum machine until I put the two of them together. I usually start off at 123-4 bpm, and then over an hour bring it up to 145. It's a continuous piece of music that I make up as I go along."
Although he doesn't play a traditional musical instrument, Howie B has always found ways of expressing himself through music technology -- first as a DJ, then as an engineer and producer using recording gear, samplers and sequencers, and now with the aid of the Latronic Notron. Does this mean that the technological tools of the producer and programmer are instruments in their own right? Well, it depends. "There's nothing musical about the computer," he argues. "In fact, I don't think there's a relationship between computers and music. The computer is a manipulator, a tool, and definitely not a musical instrument. The whole point of Skelf is that not only do I avoid using samples, I also don't use any computers.
"The Notron, on the other hand, is a step sequencer, without any software, without any menus, without a screen. I believe it's a musical instrument, because you can actually play it and there's an immediate reaction. Unlike with computers you're not looking at colours and menus. I can have a relationship with the Notron. The same with the Sequential Circuits. I love it. It has a gorgeous tone, and sounds very big. It's a recorder of grooves. For me a desk is an instrument as well, again because it is immediate, and because you can have a relationship with it, it has individuality. You know its headroom, you know its resonant frequencies, the way the mic amps and EQ work, and so on. If they're not VCA-controlled they're a dream. As soon as there are VCAs I get a bit upset, because they affect the sound. A VCA works better the more it's turned on, and the quieter the sound, the harder it is working and then it changes the whole sound. I'm fighting a losing battle if I'm using a VCA-controlled desk."
Not being a musician in the traditional sense of the word posed some interesting challenges for B. He found the answer in two pieces of kit that have very tactile approaches with lots of buttons and knobs and wheels and sliders that can be manipulated in real time. The Clavia Nord Lead has long been famous for its return-to-the-analogue-age approach to programming, but the Latronic Notron is a slightly more obscure piece of gear. In his original Sound On Sound review of the Notron (also in the July 1997 issue!) reviewer Paul Nagle was beside himself with enthusiasm, writing "the Notron took me on a voyage of discovery which has caused me to reassess something I once firmly believed -- namely, that no machine can inspire. In fact, during the time I worked with the Notron new ideas flowed as they used to back in the days of ancient knobbiness." It turns out that B is equally smitten by the futuristic-looking device, which provides the perfect solution to his non-musician predicament.
"The Notron is an incredible piece of gear," B exclaims. "I can't sing its praises highly enough. It's a beautiful machine that allows me to make things up in a live situation. I can fiddle with the knobs and everything happens in real time. I can play around with note-length values on pre-programmed hi-hat patterns, open up a closed hi-hat and so on. On a dance floor you can hold people just with a hi-hat. I love the fact that if the Notron crashes, I can just turn it off and on and it's there again in a split second. There's no load-up time. You can reverse patterns, instantly change velocity, control pitch, aftertouch. It's a gorgeous piece of gear."
Each of Howie B's two Notrons triggers one Nord; and while one Notron/Nord tandem performs mainly rhythms, the other takes care of more musical parts. The two Notrons are sync'ed, but the Notrons and Sequential Circuits drum machine are not. This he insists, is not a problem: "It is a thing that DJs can do. I just start both the Sequential Circuits and the Notrons by hand, and if it's in, it's in, and if it's not, it's not, and I stop immediately. But they stay in sync for the whole concert."
When it comes to recording tracks in the studio, Howie B's approach is equally minimalist. His primary reason for renting a room in a major studio is the availability of good-sounding recording rooms, for his choice of equipment is basic. Not only was his ancient Atari an important ingredient in the making of Folk, but B also recorded and mixed most of the album using the Mackies and his trusty old Fostex R8.
"If I need to do anything live, I can just stick a mic in one of the recording areas and record it to the Fostex," B explains. "It's a brilliant machine. I haven't lined it up for I don't know how long, and it's only settling down now. It's a gorgeous wee machine. For vocals it's outrageous because the compression is incredible. You get a great presence. In any case, I prefer the sound of analogue. It is a much closer representation of what actually happened than digital. Digital turns something absolutely beautiful into a block of numbers. It is crazy that we have accepted that as being really good and the norm. Some digital machines are OK though: my Panasonic [SV3800] DAT is beautiful, and the Akai [S3200] sampler sounds very neutral and tightens things up for me.
"My Mackie desks are very neutral too, and I know their limits. I've found certain ways of working them and pushing them. I like what I can do with them. Like with any desk, the less EQ you use on them, the better. In general, the more buttons you use on a desk the smaller the sound becomes. This forces me to look harder for a better sound at source level, rather than rely on the desk to sort things out. It's another reason why I've gone for the minimal setup with Skelf, because simple things will sound bigger. The more things are fighting for space, the less space there is, and the smaller your mix will sound. You also get there much quicker with simple arrangements. And for writing songs, you're actually more focused on the art of songwriting, rather than on filling up a canvas."
Skelf's musical simplicity is not only expressed through the minimal amount of gear involved in the making, but also in the music itself, which is almost entirely devoid of what traditionally are called chords, melodies or hooks. In some of the tracks there's not even a bass line. "The music is very simple," B agrees. "I may move a whole musical element up by a fifth or a seventh, or the key may change. That's about as musical as I'll get. But apart from that the whole thing is rhythm-based. Some of the bass lines and sounds are quite hooky, and live there are some little sequence things that do not appear on the EP. There are a few more musical elements, just to give a hint that there's a new song playing now."
For a producer of electronic music, Howie B has a defiantly anti-technological stance. "I can't stand this emphasis on technology," B proclaims. "I like reading articles in music magazines, but when everyone says it's getting cheaper and cheaper to record your own music, I say it's rubbish. It's getting more and more expensive. The cheapest way to make music is to buy an acoustic guitar and sit at home and write a song. You can't get cheaper than that. That's something we've been able to do for hundreds of years. And if you record something on a rusty nail, if it's a good idea it will be on Radio One, whereas if it's bad idea it will sound like... a rusty nail."
He is, for instance, still happily residing in the computer stone age with his ageing Atari 1040STE, and Notator 3.2 software dating from 1991. "The Atari is fantastic," B exclaims, "and what I love about Notator is that it is incredibly musical. I have learned so much about music through using it, including how to read notes. The timing of the Atari is better than on other computers, and also, I'm upset with Apple. I am upset with companies that let you do their R&D by giving you things that aren't finished yet. Why do they do that? The Atari is simply brilliant, there's no strain in working with it all."
Where Howie B's Skelf material sounds fairly rough and ready, and from a musical perspective rather naüve, most tracks on Folk are characterised by a high level of sophistication in the rhythms, arrangements and melodies, as well as in the mix and the ambient effects. Good examples are the opening track, the Spanish-tinged 'Making Love On Your Side', and the brooding, atmospheric collaboration with Robbie Robertson, 'All This Means To Me'. B is credited as sole writer on the former track, and one wonders how he, as a 'non-musician', constructed tracks like these.
"I was working with two guitarists, Robbie MacIntosh and a flamenco guitarist called Ramundo Amador," B explains, "I was just watching them jam, and Ramundo kept hitting something that sounded really good. I made a rhythm out of that and played it back to him. He went crazy and said it sounded brilliant and played on top of it. So I made an arrangement of about four and a half minutes with him hitting his guitar, some electric guitar bits, and lifting and manipulating lots of other little noises, and they played on top of that. So I deconstructed what they gave me. The singer [Marina Heredia] added her part in a first take.
"When I'm producing a solo artist, many tracks come into being in a similar way -- what we do becomes very much a collaboration -- but when I'm working with a band it's more like old-school production. I routine the songs with them and work very closely with them on song structure and arrangement and so on. I get them to play as if they would be live on stage, with an audience. After playing it through many times you find out what's needed in a song and what's not. It's quite unusual these days for a band to play live in the studio, and I like pushing for that. While they're rehearsing I'm experimenting with drum sounds and guitar sounds and so on. There's a lot of activity in the room, it's not me sitting just with the bass guitarist working out a part. Working with the whole band is very dynamic, and you get results quite quickly."
Howie B is clearly someone who can get results whatever he's doing, whether it's behind the decks, behind the desk or in front of a crowd. With Skelf, however, he feels that he's made a step in a new direction, meaning that he's 'more focussed' than ever before. But probably wisely, he refrains from trying to sum up his many roles in the world of music and technology. "I'm not interested in carrying a flag," he says. "I do not care what my tag is. All I know is that I can express myself through music much better than in many other ways. This is really what I want to do: to express myself and my feelings. And I can do this best surrounded by electronic bits of gear."