Nigel Humberstone gets a rare glimpse inside Mute Records' in‑house studio, talks to Mute bands Nitzer Ebb and Renegade Soundwave, and interviews the label's elusive and influential founder, Daniel Miller.
Mute Records is one of those independent labels that has survived the test of time and endeavoured to develop a diverse catalogue of artists (with stunning chart success), whilst at the same time retaining its autonomy and identity.
Something that the majority of Mute bands have in common is Worldwide Studio, the in‑house studio set up to accommodate the recording needs of Mute artists. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Laibach, Martin Gore (Depeche Mode), Inspiral Carpets, Renegade Soundwave and Nitzer Ebb have all recorded or mixed at the fully equipped studio situated above Mute's Harrow Road offices. I talked to both Renegade Soundwave and Nitzer Ebb about their current work and equipment, and managed to obtain a rare interview with Mute founder and musician Daniel Miller about the house studio and his own home setup.
Since touring America with Depeche Mode and again in their own right, Nitzer Ebb have found favour (album sales in excess of 200,000) with the US market. As a result, band members Douglas McCarthy and Bon Harris have spent a great deal of time in the States, deliberating, writing and preparing their follow‑up album to 1991's EbbHead. Bon Harris, now based in Chicago and getting married in the summer, explains what, for him, is the attraction of American culture.
"I think that a lot of things that I was into as a kid, starting with Marvel comics and going through to skateboarding, had a real American aspect to it. So as soon as we toured there I felt a great affinity for the place and it was almost inevitable that I'd end up going there — and the band took off there way before it did here. The clubs had no barriers about our music, they just played it and got into it."
I wondered whether Harris had noticed any difference between American and British studios.
"They've got a very different way of working. I mean you can go to University over there and get a degree in sound engineering and it counts! Whereas over here if you went into a studio, you'd start as a tea boy. That type of situation doesn't exist over there, and like most things, you get protected, there's a union, and you get paid a fair rate. A knock‑on effect from that is that a lot of things that engineers do are born out of theory and not from experience, so they know the correct way to turn an EQ knob — but you think 'use your ears, man, and not a textbook!' I do get frustrated with them sometimes, because they don't seem to work off their instinct."
It would appear that the making of Nitzer Ebb's latest album has been fairly fragmented over a couple of years, and this could have made it difficult fo the band to retain a sense of continuity. Harrsi responds:
"Not really. The album has been fragmented, but basically once we'd done EbbHead we were starting to feel constrained and there was a danger of not only repeating ourselves, but also repeating a lot of common mistakes and cliches of bands that grew up with electronics and technology. So we were trying to re‑invent our approach and in doing that we were exploring a lot of different avenues, some of them which we almost knew would end up as bullshit, but you still had to get that out of your mind. We started off in Chicago and that went horribly wrong. We then spent a long time in California where a few good things came out in terms of the approach, but not musically, and it was the same when we went to Lake Tahoe in Nevada."
The band eventually relocated to the middle of America (in Donna Summer's old house) where there were less distractions, and this paid dividends with a host of new songs which were then brought back to England to finish off.
"Around that time we incorporated Jason Payne as the new drummer, involving him in the process. But really the first visit back here in November '93 when we worked with Flood, was the turning point."
Producer Flood had joined the band towards the end of their time in Los Angeles, and then (following his work with U2 on Zooropa) full‑time from Lake Tahoe onwards. Flood has worked with Nitzer Ebb on previous albums, and I wondered what it was about his input that the band valued. Harris:
"Projects tend to come together when Flood is sitting in the producer's chair. As a human being he is very good‑natured and well‑balanced. And probably the bottom line is that he is incredibly intelligent. He's been in a lot of intense situations with bands having problems, and his knowledge of technology, music and human temperament is vast, plus he's got the temperament to sort it out. To replace him in the studio I think you'd need three human beings. He's just that kind of bloke. At times it's been like he's almost another member of the band.
"The mixing was where Flood was so important. The arrangements that he did on the board made the difference between a track that was mediocre — a lot of good ideas but not very focused — and a great track. But on this album the mixes were much more conventional, in terms of balance and sweetening. We took a lot of care with this album to put things down to tape as we wanted them, and I think that set the trend for the way we're going to work in the future.
"We're going to be using a more 'live' format from now on — simple things like having a guitarist use an effect at the front end. Like I'll have my synths going through the SE70 or the H3000 all the time, so quite often I'm putting sounds down with delay and reverb all over them."
Speaking of guitars reminded me of the distinctive guitar processing on the new Nitzer Ebb track 'Living Out Of A Bag'. I asked Bon how this was achieved.
"There's various guitars in there, and again a lot of the bizarre guitar treatment comes from Flood because he's worked with a number of guitar bands. As with most of the guitar parts on the album, they're multi‑layered, and one part was done with an electric fan held against the strings and using open tunings. The track would be written in a conventional fashion with chord changes and then to get the sound that we did, we just used equivalent open tunings that would fit in with the chords, did separate passes, and then Flood would arrange it with the desk mutes. On another pass the drummer might play the guitar neck with sticks, so it wasn't so much the processing but how the guitar was treated."
I wondered who came up with the idea of using an electric fan..
"That was something that Blixa Bargeld first used on a Bad Seeds track, he wanted a constant strum feel and there it was — get a propeller in!"
Bon Harris: "It amazes me the instant credibility that people often attach to any stringed instrument. I find it quite sad that people still look upon synthesizers and people that use synthesizers as somehow inferior to other musicians."
Is there any special approach to recording the bass guitar?
"If we're leaving it fairly untouched, we'll just use tube compression and EQ to give warmth, and then pretty much the sky's the limit. I like putting the bass through the pitch shifter an octave up and totally misusing it. On the album, we fell back on the overdrive and fuzz. On 'In Decline', Flood had a tuned and pitch‑shifted delay from a DSP4000 that went over everything — drums, bass, the whole lot. That was one of those tracks where we were searching for a bit of a direction. Flood slapped on this tuned delay and that just contributed an enormous amount to the initial vibe that we all worked off.
"It amazes me the instant credibility that people often attach to any stringed instrument. In some ways I find it amusing, but in other ways I find it quite sad that people still look upon synthesizers and people that use synthesizers as somehow inferior to other musicians."
In Chicago, Bon has a small rented space at a place called Studio X.
"It's just something that I've built up. The main synths I use are old modular analogue things so obviously you need quite an area to house those in — and this studio offered me some space, at which point I decided to get some more stuff, like a Soundcraft 600 board, which is pretty ropey but does the job. Then I've got a couple of ADATs and a Session 8 with the ADAT interface, so that they can all lock together and keep everything within the digital domain. A couple of DMP7s are used for automating the ADATs. Then there's various outboard equipment, compressors, gates, an Eventide H3000 and Digitech GSP2101, and super sound manglers like the Boss SE70, which I use all the time.
"Then I've got a Kurzweil K2000 sampler and various keyboards, but I've tended to shy away from buying much gear in the past because it would just sit there between albums while I was on tour. I'm still learning about the K2000 and I don't know it as intimately as I do the Xpander, for example. I don't feel I can 'subconsciously' use it at the moment, but in terms of its architecture and the philosophy behind it, it's pretty much the type of instrument I like."
Bon Harris has been engaged in an almost constant search for a sequencing package that he's happy working with. What would the credentials have to be for his 'ideal' system?
"I think something that precludes any form of editing, unless you want to edit, and definitely you should never have to stop it if you don't want to. Very manually controlled — I'm currently talking to this guy in New York who's developed something for the Amiga, and eventually the Macintosh, called HyperChord. And that's based on a grid, much like the editing page of Cubase, where you can just put the notes in a square and then go over to the play page where you've got a graphic representation of the keyboard which can be mouse or MIDI operated. Then along the bottom of the page you've got lots of different scales, so you can have your sequence playing and then hit, say, the Major 6th button, and the whole thing adjusts to that scale — and at the same time you can go from C to F. So if you know what your guitarist is playing you can do the changes with him. Often working with the old modular step sequencers, which is part of my style, you get something that you like the rhythm and dynamics of, but in order to change the key of it you need to manually adjust it or sample it. So to be able to change things 'on‑the‑fly' and 'perform' more is what I'm looking for. Something where it's more intuitive, so that you don't have to sit there thinking 'right I need to chop this, move it here, transpose this, transpose that' — because a lot of the time that's not how you naturally make music; you don't think about what you're going to do, you just do it.
"So everything for me now has got to be geared towards real‑time manipulation. As a result, I'm now using the Lexicon Jam Man all the time. I do a lot of stuff with that where I just sit at home; I make music now like I used to when I was 16, when I used to sit upstairs in my room making synthesizer noises and not record a note. I'd do it because it sounded good and I enjoyed it.
"The Jam Man allows you to do a lot of different things and encourages you to think about things in a different way. Oberheim are set to release their version of the Jam Man, called the Echoplex, which is more advanced."
One of the drawbacks of the Jam Man is that once you've overdubbed there is no turning back. So in order to stay one step behind, Bon keeps a DAT player constantly running so that he can backtrack and access previous takes.
Returning to the new album, how does Harris think hardcore Nitzer Ebb fans in Europe are going to react to it?
"It's difficult to say. When we did Showtime I was convinced that it was unique and individual and people would dig it, and I guess our hardcore fans did, although they took a while. And again with this album I feel like that, that it's a very honest piece of work. I can see a thread and see how it's relevant and true to everything that we've done. And a lot of our fans are obviously very perceptive and intelligent people, so I think they'll see the thread as well. But there's always the hardcore techno German element who want everything at 1000 BPM and overloaded!
"It's also strange that I've been outside the European sphere of influence for quite a long time, so I really don't know what the barometer is any more. And because we've made so many changes ourselves within the band, I don't even know what a Nitzer Ebb gig is like at the moment because we've never done one in this format — although yesterday we performed on MTV and we did the single 'Kick It', with some sequences, but live drums, bass and guitar. So that was a departure.
"I was probably as nervous as when we did our first gig. It was the first time that the four of us had played together in public and we chose to debut in front of a potential 59 million people! So if you're going to find out that you're a crap bass player then that's the way to do it."
Nitzer Ebb's new album, Big Hit, was released on the 27th March.
Renegade Soundwave's new album, The Next Chapter Of Dub, is a return to the radical dub technologies found on 1990's In Dub but features a number of reworked tracks from their last album, Howyoudoin?. The majority of recording work has again been done at Mute's own Worldwide studio, though Danny Briottet, the technician in the band, does a lot of preparatory work at home, where he has a small and simple setup consisting of S1000 samplers, Allen & Heath GS3 desk, and Quadraverb effects, all running with an Atari computer/Cubase sequencing configuration. Briottet: "I've also got a little Tascam 8‑track cassette which I transfer the vocals onto that we've done in the studio. I'll stripe one channel of a DAT with code and the other with the vocals, so that when I get home I can dump it all onto the 8‑track and work on it."
Even with this relatively modest setup, a lot of pre‑production work can be done:
"I can do pretty much everything, but I can't make a lot of noise, and really you need to just get in the studio and blast the bass line. In the early years we never worked with NS10s or any nearfield monitors — we just had the big main monitors on all the time, all day and all night, and I used to come home with a splitting headache. But after a while you tone down. We use the KRKs in here a lot of the time and they're really nice because they're in between the two and you can feel the sounds around you, rather than with the NS10s where the sound is just 'there'. Sometimes we don't use the main monitors at all unless we're doing a club mix.
"I think it's even good to do club mixes on NS10s, which I never would have said a few years ago, but it's because so many club PAs are such rubbish. The bass sounds good but you lose everything else."
Bass is obviously important to the Renegade Soundwave sound. Where do the ultimate bass sounds come from? Briottet: "It's often a collection — the Juno is a pretty good and reliable source. We've also got some nice live bass samples with the strings plucked, then there's the old MiniMoog and Prodigy.
"Sometimes in the mix we'll filter a lot of the bass frequencies off. We'll do several mixes and at the end of the day the best mix will be the one with the bottom end filtered off the bass."
The new album contains a large number of re‑mixes of tracks from Howyoudoin. How do the band go about re‑interpreting their own material?
"We've always done that — even with our first singles back in the '80s. There's always been a lot going on in our tracks and sometimes one mix isn't enough. Often we feel we can take a track in a different directions and with this dub album we've had live percussion put on some of the old tracks as well as live guitar.
"With some tracks you say, 'well, that's the mix', but with others we can probably get three or four mixes. I like to cut things in a lot of the time, do little stabs of sounds on the desk."
And this is a technique that Briottet utilises for live shows, as he explains:
"I run two S1000s (8Mb each) and I loop everything off the multitracks and have everything running round through the 16 channels. Then I bring everything in and out manually rather than having it all sequenced up. So basically we can remix the tracks every night, and if it's a club night rather than a set gig you can follow the vibe of the crowd.
"We also have a DJ who mixes things in, a drummer/percussionist, a guitarist, and Gary doing the vocals. The basic parts are coming from my desk but everybody else is playing with it so we can jam and make different arrangements. All the stuff is dumped from Cubase onto a [Alesis] Datadisk which works really well and never crashes. And I've got a little DAC Optical Drive which keeps crashing and giving me loads of problems. It works well because we'd EQ'd all the sounds before we put them in the samplers, so in essence it's studio‑quality stuff that I'm blasting out."
The Next Chapter Of Dub is released on 24th April.
- ARP 2600
- EMS synthi
- Roland system 100M
- Roland system 700M
- Korg MS10
- Moog series 3 modular
- Oberheim Xpander
- Roland SH101
- RSF Kobol
- Akai S1000 & S900
- Kurzweil K2000
- Lexicon Jam Man
- ARP sequencer
- Atari Stacy 2 / Cubase
- Mac Quadra/Digidesign Pro Tools/Cubase Audio
- Boss SE70
- Eventide DSP4000
- Eventide H3000
- Jim Dunlop Cry Baby Wah
- Yamaha SPX90
- Zoom 9010 & 9002
- Fender Musicmaster bass
- Fender Mustang
- Gibson ES335
- Gibson Les Paul
- Gibson Thunderbird bass
- Paul Reed Smith bass
- DDrum pads
- Drumkat MIDI controller
- Gretsch kit
- Alesis ADAT 16‑track with BRC
- Alesis Quadraverb Effects
- Amek Hendrix 56‑input console (all channels with Virtual Dynamics)
- Amek Super True Automation
- ATC 200 Main Monitors
- Climax Guitar Valve Pre‑amp
- dbx Boom Box
- Drawmer DL221 Compressor
- Drawmer DS201 Dual Gates (x5)
- EMS Vocoder
- Eventide H3000 & H3000E Harmonisers
- Focusrite Dynamic Processors (x2)
- Joe Meek Compressor
- Kenton Pro‑2 MIDI‑to‑CV
- Korg DRV3000 Reverb
- KRK 9000 Monitors
- Lexicon PCM70 Reverb (x2)
- MXR Pitch Transposer
- Otari MTR90 2‑inch 24‑track with Dolby SR
- Otari MTR12 half‑inch 2‑track
- Roland SDE330 Delay
- Roland SRV2000 Effects
- Sony PCM2500 A/B DAT recorder
- Summit Tube Dual Pre‑amp
- Symetrix Noise Reduction
- TC Electronic Parametric EQ
- Valley people 610 compressor
- Yamaha NS10M Monitors
- Yamaha SPX1000 Effects
- Yamaha SPX90 Effects (x2)
- Alesis 3630 Stereo Compressor
- Alesis ADAT 16‑track Digital
- Alesis Midiverb
- Amek Einstein 52‑Input Console
- Amek Super True Automation
- Drawmer DS404 Noise Gates (x4)
- KRK 1300B Monitors
- Otari DTR7 DAT Recorder
- Studer A80 Mk3 2‑inch 24‑Track
- Yamaha NS10M Monitors
- That Total Age: Stumm 45 (May 1987)
- Belief: Stumm 61 (Jan 1989)
- Showtime: Stumm 72 (Feb 1990)
- Ebhead: Stumm 88 (Sept 1991)
- Big Hit: Stumm 118 (April 1995)
- 'Murderous': Rhythm King
- 'Let Your Body Learn': Mute 58
- 'Join In The Chant': Mute 64
- 'Control I'm Here': Mute 71/Mute 78
- 'Shame': Mute 96
- 'Lightning Man': Mute 106
- 'Fun To Be Had': Mute 115
- 'As Is': EP, Mute 122
- 'I Give To You': Mute 133
- 'God Head': Mute 135
- 'Ascend': Mute 145
- 'Kick It': Mute 155
Daniel Miller's enigmatic leadership of Mute Records stems from his underlying passion for electronic music. Applying independent record label values learnt at Rough Trade, Miller (under the guise of The Normal) launched Mute's debut release in April 1978 — with the cult hit single 'T.V.O.D' and 'Warm Leatherette'.
Miller's active role within the Mute label has continued, and as a musical director/producer/remixer he has earned a rare loyalty from the artists he has signed — artists such as DAF, Depeche Mode, Vince Clarke, Nick Cave and The Birthday Party, Nitzer Ebb, Renegade Soundwave, Einsturzende Neubauten, Laibach and The Inspiral Carpets.
Miller originally set up an 8‑track demo/pre‑production studio at Mute's former Kings Cross offices (where Erasure's backing tracks for 'Sometimes' were recorded). I asked him about the philosophy behind setting up Worldwide Studios.
"Well, initially as an 8‑track it was just at the time when synthesizers were getting a bit more programmable and the concept of pre‑production was introduced. So the idea was for artists to work out ideas, do demos, and somewhere for me to mess about in as well.
"But when we moved to our current premises in 1986, I specifically looked for somewhere that would have space for a studio and that's when we decided to build the 24‑track studio. The idea was to create a high‑quality recording and working environment but at a reasonable price, which wasn't a commercial studio and therefore didn't have to keep up to date with new equipment in order to compete. Over time it's like anything — you get more and more bits and pieces, but if a new £10,000 Lexicon reverb came out, we don't have to get it."
Roger D'Arcy of Recording Architecture was responsible for the design of Studio 1. As a minimal and functional workspace the interior is very distinctive: what was the brief?
"At the time it was very innovative and not at all like other studios. I wanted it to look fairly neutral and as flexible as possible, so that whoever was in there could make it their own space; I didn't want to impose my vision of what the studio should be like."
Are there any artists who don't like working in an 'in‑house' environment?
"I think people like working there, but as with any studio they like to move on and very often they'll go away, do an album at another studio and then come back. It's a good working environment, the price is good and we have good staff. We also have a room with ProTools digital editing, which is used for everything from editing 12‑inches to preparing albums."
Are the studios for the sole use of Mute Artists or are they commercially available?
"Originally they were for Mute artists only, because I didn't want to be in the position where I had an outside client in for three months and one of our artists wanted to record there and couldn't. But because the workload of the artists who work there is relatively uneven, we go from being extremely busy with backlogs, to the point where there isn't anybody in for two months. So it can be available to outside clients although we haven't actively advertised it — it tends to be friends or artists from other labels that we know, like Beggars Banquet."
Like Vince Clarke, Daniel Miller is also an obsessive collector of weird and wonderful analogue equipment. How did the collection start?
"I've never really collected — it just grew. But then I consciously went out and got a couple of older things that I really wanted to get. I suppose one of my prize possessions is an old Moog modular system and a Roland system 700. For rarity value I've got an EMS Synthi 100 (acquired from the University of East Anglia's Electronic Music Department), which is like 10 VCS3s in one big unit the size of a 48‑channel SSL desk. It's ridiculous that it's so massive, but it's an amazing synth with two huge pin matrixes.
"Another favourite piece is a Synton Syrinx, which at first glance looks like a Pro One, but it's a Dutch synthesizer which has very flexible internal patching and three filters, each with its own envelope generator. So you can get incredibly sophisticated sounds with it."
Having your own home studio, do you ever release any of your recordings?
"No — well, it's my hobby now. I'm not saying I never will, but I do it to relax, really — I think electronic music is very relaxing and can be very relaxing to make, especially if there's not a record at the end of it. Working on sounds can be very hypnotic — almost like meditation. I suppose I do it like other people do fishing and gardening. I very often don't use the computer, so I'm running off analogue sequencers. And obviously the nature of them is that they are fairly repetitive — so it's like my own ambient environment."
Other equipment at Miller's home studio includes two ARP sequencers, Minimoog, Korg MS20, Korg 700S (his first ever synth), Roland System 100M, TAC Magnum desk, Korg Wavestation, RSF Kobol expander, three MPU101 MIDI‑to‑CV converters, Roland 8M, Roland MKS80 with programmer, Akai S1000, Doepfer MIDI sequencer, and a Macintosh Duo 270c laptop computer running Vision, with an Opcode Studio4 interface.
"I tend not to use the sampler much these days, although I used them a lot when doing record production. But I've also got an AKS suitcase synth and I use the S1000 mostly for sampling unrepeatable sounds from that and the EMS synth.
"I've got a little portable setup that I take away with me on trips, because I travel a lot as part of my work. That consists of the Powerbook, Novation BassStation and a Korg O5R/W and it's very relaxing to be able to use that in the middle of a stressful business trip."
How do you manage to balance the interests and needs of artists like Depeche Mode and Erasure, with those of less successful ones?
"Well, obviously from the success of major artists you invest in developing new artists. But it's important that the people who work at Mute have a broad interest in music, so that they can work with different artists.
"Rightly or wrongly, I sign artists because I like them and their music. And inevitably they may not be in fashion, but you make a commitment and stick with them. As long as the investment is financially realistic and they continue making good music, then that's fine by me. I suppose that's what part of having your own label is about really."