The perpetrators of recent smash hit 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' might look like a leopardskin‑clad disco covers band composed of several people, but in fact, they're the pet electronic project of two Mancunians with their heads firmly screwed on and an eye to the future of dance music.
"NA NA NA NAAH‑NAAHH!!" It is the evening of Friday October 31st, 1997, and as Top Of The Pops is beamed into living rooms nationwide, so too is a radically updated version of Rod Stewart's late‑'70s hymn to leopardskin, 'Do You Think I'm Sexy?' by N‑Trance. 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' as the group have mysteriously renamed it — has become the third cover hit the band have enjoyed in the last two years (following 1995's 'Stayin' Alive' and this year's 'D.I.S.C.O.') by sampling the hooks of old disco classics and reworking them for the modern club market. Easy money, you might say; this is obviously a group bereft of talent, stealing other people's ideas by means of modern sampling technology and reaping the rewards.
But as with so many other aspects of life, it's not quite that simple. For a start, reworking those disco tunes around a main sampled section isn't as easy as it looks; a lot of studio work goes into their creation. But more importantly, there's more to N‑Trance themselves than their cover hits. They've had plenty of self‑penned successes, for one thing, such as their 1995 dancefloor classic (and UK number 2) 'Set You Free'. And then there's the material they're working on at the moment: the hard‑hitting, Robocop‑sampling 'Violent Mechanical Psychopath' which exhibits distinct leanings towards the recent output of The Prodigy; the expansive, driving instrumental 'Deep Blue', which Kevin O'Toole, one of N‑Trance's core creative duo, proclaims "the best thing we've ever done"; and 'The Mind Of The Machine', a hardcore collaboration with Hollywood actor Stephen Berkoff.
It's all a long way from 'Stayin' Alive', and the brains behind the group are only too aware of this; in fact, as I visit their Manchester‑based Deep Blue studio in late September 1997, they're discussing bringing N‑Trance to the end of its life after the imminent release of the next album, and looking forward to continuing in their new‑found, more progressive vein under a new name. As Dale Longworth, the other half of the duo, affirms, "Our main problem is that now people expect pop from N‑Trance... and that's not the way we want to go."
Deep Blue Studios is located in an arts complex near Piccadilly station in the heart of the city; and Dale and Kevin have fitted it out like the true Star Wars fanatics they are. Models of Star Destroyers, Rebel Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, and plastic figures from the film litter the studio. A video and Nintendo games console attached to a TV sit snugly in one corner, along with some of the duo's favourite films: Robocop, George Lucas's THX1138, and Dune. As befits the creative team behind a 5‑piece group (Dale and Kevin plus vocalist Kelly Llorenna, rapper/vocalist Jerome Stokes, and dancer Lee Limer) who sold over 1.5 million copies worldwide of just one single last year ('Stayin' Alive'), they seem to have everything they could wish for.
Of course, it wasn't always like this. N‑Trance's rise to fame was far from immediate. Inspired heavily by the KLF, N‑Trance were formed in 1990 by Dale and Kevin when they met at college on a theatre sound engineering course (Dale: "We had no singer at first, so we were just doing trancey instrumental stuff — that's why we're called N‑Trance"). After a 12‑month 'false start' to their recording career with Pete Waterman's Manchester‑based 380 Records, the duo signed an amicable 50/50 deal with independent Blackburn‑based All Around The World records (with whom they remain to this day) on the strength of a single they had written for their new vocalist Kelly, 'Set You Free'. After (once again) a couple of false starts, the track was released a third time in January 1995, whereupon it shot to number two in the charts and sold over a million copies.
By the time the group's debut album, Electronic Pleasure, was released towards the end of 1995, Dale and Kevin had experienced their second enormous success, this time worldwide: the Bee Gees‑sampling 'Stayin' Alive'. Kevin explains how the track came about.
"One day, we were driving to a studio listening to the radio, and they played PM Dawn's 'Set Adrift On Memory Bliss' [1991 sample‑based hit, which laid a trendy beat over Spandau Ballet's 'True' — Ed], followed by The Bee Gees 'Staying Alive', and we thought 'If we put a beat under that...' So we sampled The Bee Gees off a CD, and just put a rap over the top off another record to get us started. We played it to some people, and they said it was pretty catchy..."
'Stayin' Alive' reached number one in eight countries, allowing Kevin and Dale to set up Deep Blue Studios, and equip it in whatever way they wished. As far as they were concerned, this opportunity could not come quickly enough, as they had struggled to get by on the minimum of equipment from their beginnings. Dale starts the sorry tale: "When we started, we had just the Korg M1, the Roland R8 drum machine, and the Atari". Kevin: "We had a Juno 106 as well. That was all, though. We didn't even have a mixer; at first, we wired everything up into one plug and stuck it through a hi‑fi."
Dale: "That was our mixer; a jack plug."
Kevin: "We just couldn't afford one at first. The M1 cost me two grand — we had no money left."
Dale: "We borrowed a mixer from college for a bit. Only trouble was, it was a lighting mixer..."
Gradually, matters improved, and until fairly recently, the group owned a Tascam 2524, with which they were delighted (Kevin: "That was great, 'cause of all the MIDI muting. All our mixes sounded like they'd been done on an SSL, dead clean"). However, a recent refit saw them switch to a Mackie 8‑bus console, enlarged with further expander units to give a total of 80 inputs. Dale: "They didn't make the 2524s any bigger, and we couldn't expand. So we got the Mackie. Most of our setup is hard‑wired through the desk, so the same instruments always come up on the same channels, which makes things quicker. Even so, we still have to go and master somewhere else, on an SSL. But this place is good enough for demos and remixes."
In truth, Deep Blue is now a more‑than‑adequately equipped studio. A soundproofed vocal booth (see the 'Whole Booth' box) nestles at the back of the main room, one side of which is mainly occupied by the enormously expanded Mackie desk. A pair of turntables lurks to one side, but most of the rest of the main recording area is stuffed with both vintage and ultra‑modern keyboards (there are, curiously, very few synth modules, aside from a couple contained in a blue rack pod that accompanies the band to gigs). MIDI sequencing for the whole studio is provided by an elderly Atari 1040ST (see 'Long Live The Atari' box), and digital multitrack recording by a stack of four chained Tascam DA88s, which now ultimately record everything the band produce, MIDI‑generated or not. It's a nice compact setup, with a cosy feel; yet as Dale has explained, they still trek to London to master on an SSL console — for the moment.
Dale: "I don't care what anyone says about home setups, everything's been mastered on an SSL. There's that statistic; 95 percent of what you hear on the radio has been mastered on an SSL. You can't argue with that."
Kevin interjects: "It's actually a lot easier with the DA88s than it used to be. Now, we just take four tapes down to London, hire another four DA88s there, and master from those. We make sure everything sounds right before we go down, with all the vocals compiled, and everything spot on. When we did the first album, we took the whole studio down to London. It took ages to set up, and then we'd get halfway through a song and think, 'shall we put the Juno in here?' — and realise we'd left it up here."
Dale: "Also, we were paying a grand a day for an SSL in London, and we ended up recording stuff there, which we could have done here for nothing."
Kevin: "We're hoping to set up a proper SSL complex in Manchester, 'cause there isn't one at the moment. We want to do something for bands round here."
Dale: "I can't believe no‑one's got an SSL studio up here. OK, so the music industry on the whole is based in London, but we're from here, we record here, our record company's up here, our video guys are here, Ikon, the company who do all our sleeves, Internet design and interactive media stuff, are based up here... we've got a really good team here. Well, now we're in a position where we can make it all happen up here. So why not? All we need is the mastering facilities, and we're laughing."
With three massive sample‑based hits now behind them, Dale and Kevin are now past masters of the art of constructing a hit around someone else's record. I ask them to take me through the process. First, there's the choice of material... why have they always chosen disco, and what should you look out for in a song that makes it ideal sample/cover material?
Dale: "Disco's just catchy stuff; the sort of music that people can still dance to today if you beef it up a bit."
Kevin: "The best thing to do is look through the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles and see what made number one years ago. Boney M, Abba..."
Dale: "We always pick fun records that have already been massive hits — so it's already been proven that they work."
Kevin: "Everyone does it. Look at these rappers from America. Puff Daddy, The Fugees, Coolio; they haven't done one of their own songs yet."
Kevin: "Also — this is something we haven't done — if you're going to pick a song to re‑release, try and pick a song by a band that only had a couple of hits, 'cause they'll need the money! When you pick someone like Rod Stewart or The Bee Gees, they don't — so they can just say no. Actually, it didn't take all that long for The Bee Gees to agree to us, but Rod Stewart took over a year — it was the biggest sample clearance job ever, apparently.
"We did try to do 'Paradise City' by Guns & Roses, but we couldn't get clearance on it. The band wouldn't let us do it."
Dale: "We heard they were arguing; we don't know who was who, but some of them were up for it and some didn't want us to. They've split up now, so we like to think we caused that, at least!"
Kevin considers another point: "Another good thing to look for — or create — in these covers is an audience participation part. Like in 'Sexy' there's the 'na, na, na, nah‑nah' bit. You just know if you put something like that in it everyone'll start singing along to it."
Dale: "If you have a bit in the song where you can either shout out loud or do a dance to it — like Whigfield's 'Saturday Night' — everyone loves it in clubs."
Once N‑Trance have chosen a track, there are the technicalities of melding the original song with a new rhythm and backing track to consider. Kevin continues: "You start with a sampled loop of the song, and remove the original kick drum from it — the snare doesn't matter, because you can cover it up with a new one. To notch out the kick, you just look for the peak on your sampler, and then EQ it out. It sounds like a click after that; you can't hear it. Then you just experiment to see which sort of sounds fit. We have certain snare and kick sounds that we particularly like; the kick is one we made up ourselves from three other kick sounds. As far as rhythms go, your best bet, at the end of the day, is a 4/4 kick with the snare on every second beat..."
Dale: "So everyone can dance to it..."
Kevin: "... and that's your beat sorted out. Your hi‑hat just needs to be straight fours on the beat. Anyone who messes around with the hi‑hats and other complicated stuff for this kind of music is wasting their time. You don't need fills, for example. If you listen to the drums on 'Stayin' Alive', there's no fills at all. We used a sample of a machine gun for that fill effect."
Dale: "You just need a beat to dance to. We know people who have spent weeks on kick drums; but it's just a drum! If the song's there, it doesn't matter."
If the duo seem cautious about making the new drum track too complex, they are still more reticent about changing basslines. Kevin: "You can redo the bassline easily if you have to, but you really have to watch it, and not overdo it. Sometimes, we'll put a chugging Euro 'octave' bassline in, played with a buzzy analogue synth sound, just to hold the beat a bit. But you can't make it too complicated. Think of something like Prince's 'When Doves Cry'; there's no bassline in that, but it still sounds brilliant."
Dale: "In 'Stayin' Alive', the sampled guitar riff is already like the bassline — it didn't need much else."
Moving onto specifics, I wonder how N‑Trance actually put together their cover hits in the studio, and what problems they had to overcome. We consider their two biggest cover hits, 'Stayin' Alive' and 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?'.
Kevin: "They said we could use the main funky guitar riff, but not the vocal 'ah, ah, ah, ah, Staying Alive, Staying Alive' bit. We were wondering what to do about the music under that bit, but luckily the guitar riff, which we were allowed to use, fits under that — it's not played like that in the original, but it still fits. And then we got two session singers in to sing over the top. When they first started singing, it sounded nothing like The Bee Gees!"
Dale: "We did about 30 tracks of them singing, but they just couldn't get high enough, so we used the varispeed to slow the tape multitrack down and recorded it that way. Then it was just about right."
Dale: "Barry Gibb still thought he could hear himself on it afterwards."
Kevin: "Well, we had to get it to sound the same. It wouldn't have worked otherwise."
The situation with 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' was a little different. When sample clearance for the track was initially delayed, N‑Trance first tried re‑recording the track themselves, with drums and guitar. Dale: "It just wasn't the same; no‑one else can sing like Rod, so we sampled it off the CD in the end."
This, however, was just the start of their problems.
Kevin: "The finished 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' may sound easy — but you try sampling that track and getting it all in time! The Bee Gees one was dead easy to lift and use, 'cause they must have used a drum machine click or something to sync to — it was all in time. 'Do You Think I'm Sexy?' wasn't. It took hours to do. We had to sample tiny sections and time‑stretch bits, as well as taking the kick drum out, as described earlier, and replacing it with a new one... I did all that with our Akai S3200, by ear. I'm used to mixing records and DJing on decks, so I can tell when a kick's going out of time. But once you've got the kick and snare in time, the guitar's out, 'cause that was all live when the track was recorded as well. You have to stretch everything else as well."
I venture that this sort of task sounded like an ideal job for a hard disk recording setup, and wonder why Dale and Kevin have stuck with the Akai. Kevin: "I find the sampler easiest. I'm used to it."
As mentioned at the start of this piece, Dale and Kevin's music is continuing to develop in the studio, and along lines far different to the ones that produced 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' and 'Stayin' Alive'. As Kevin explains, work on what was due to be the group's second album is complete, but the pair are now having second thoughts, and are on the point of splitting the album into two separate projects.
"We've done this song called 'Violent Mechanical Psychopath', which we think is one of the best things we've ever done, but it doesn't sound like N‑Trance. Half of the album's really cool and hardcore, and the other half's like..."
Dale: "'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy'! Everyone has a problem with us doing such a wide range of stuff, so we're going to split it and do two albums."
Kevin: "When you're trying to sell to Spain or Japan, say, they want it all to sound the same — they want pop. You can't put hard tracks next to pop — they want 10 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?'s. And if Japan say they want pop, we'll do it, 'cause we know we'll sell tons of albums — and then we can do our other stuff under a different name.
"With the N‑Trance stuff now, there's no deep meaning to it — it's designed to have a few pints to and have a laugh dancing to it. And kids buy it, so that's what brings the money in for us."
Dale: "We'll put out the pop album out as N‑Trance, and that might be the last N‑Trance album. Then we'll start again as something else."
All's well, then; the pop kids get their N‑Trance album, and this finances Dale and Kevin's continuing excursions into more harder‑edged material. In fact, it would seem there's just one snag...
Kevin: "We can't think of a name for the new group. Maybe we'll use something from Star Wars."
Dale suddenly grins. "Sometimes, we're just like big kids, aren't we? We've got all these figures and models, and the Nintendo and the Playstation, and a Scalextric next door..."
Which sums up N‑Trance in a nutshell. On the one hand, hip purveyors of the coolest, most cutting‑edge dance music; on the other, two Manchester lads chanting along to a Rod Stewart sample on Top Of The Pops. On the one hand, shrewd businessmen full of plans to revitalise the recording industry in Manchester with a new studio complex; on the other, self‑confessed 'big kids' addicted to their Sony Playstation and their Star Wars figures. On the one hand, the Kevin O'Toole who sits hunched over his sampler into the depths of the night, time‑stretching a Robocop sample until it fits into a track just so; and on the other, the Kevin who, as I leave Deep Blue, offers me the following advice:
"If you sample yourself saying 'Blokes A Week Off' and reverse it, it sounds like Arnie saying something really rude."
Don't try this at home, kids.
As explained in the main part of this feature, N‑Trance rely exclusively on their aging Atari 1040ST for all their MIDI sequencing needs. Dale and Kevin seem to view theirs with a mixture of fondness and slight concern, much as one might a slightly dotty uncle.
Kevin: "Ataris never seem to work when you move them about too much, do they?"
Dale: "This is all right, this one! Our last one used to stop working if you ran it for more than three hours. We got this one out of Loot for 60 quid. Everyone says to us 'get a Mac, get a Mac', but we just think..."
Kevin: "...why should we get one of those?' And they say, 'well... because... it's in colour!'. Grrreat."
Dale: "It's a sequencer, not a fucking telly."
Kevin: "We did the first album on Pro24. We didn't even have Cubase. But it did what we wanted. All we needed was for it to record what we played, quantise it, and then record pitch‑bends and stuff over the top."
Dale: "The thing is, if you start losing yourself in the technology — you know, 'Oh, you can do this', and 'How do you do that?' — by the time you've worked it all out, your song's disappeared."
Kevin: "I can't see the Atari going for another 10 years, though. We've already got it up to 4Mb of RAM, and put a hard drive on it. People say 'Oh, don't give it up, you can put samples on it and everything.' Well, yeah — but we've got an Akai sampler over there for that..."
Dale: "Ten years? It's knackered now, mate. What about the keyboard?"
Well, what about the keyboard, I enquire? "It's fu**ed," explains Kevin, "some of the keys don't work. We can't get the letter 'O'. That's why our version of 'Do You Think I'm Sexy' is spelt with 'A's, you see..."
When N‑Trance moved into what is now Deep Blue, they inherited a completely empty space, which they then divided up into various different rooms and areas themselves. One item they were determined to construct was a vocal booth, as their vocal recording options had previously been a touch, well, limited. Kevin explains:
"Before we moved here, we were still recording in my bedroom at home, and it had this really metallic sound. We wanted a really good, dead sound for the rap vocals, and everyone said we needed a proper vocal booth. We just had to stick a duvet over the rapper's head... there you go, that's one of our classic recording techniques! Mind you, it worked.
"When we got here, we used something in Sound On Sound to build the booth. There was a big feature on studio construction [see SOS 'Practical Studio Design' series, starting August 1993, folks — Ed] — how to put in the floating floor and everything. It turned out really well."
Dale: "You have some good stuff in your mag like that."
Aww, shucks, guys — you shouldn't...
- Akai AK73
- Hammond XB2 - Kevin: "This supplies all our organ sounds, 'cause I like to use that Jazz Organ sound sometimes, but getting a real B2 through the door is a bit much to ask!"
- Korg M1 - Dale: "The M1 doesn't get used much now, though it was good for rave piano in its day."
- Korg Minikorg - Dale: "We call this 'The Cooker', 'cause that's what it looks like..."
- Korg Trinity - Dale: "We use the Trinity tons."
Kevin: "We constructed 'Deep Blue' around a flutey sound on that."
- Korg PolySix (x2)
- Korg Prophecy
- Novation BassStation - Dale: "We got this 'cause everyone says it's supposed to be like a 303. It's nothing like one, though — and it freezes up on us all the time. Nothing ever sounds like a 303."
- Oberheim Matrix 1000
- Roland AX1
- Roland Juno 106
- Roland Jupiter 6
- Roland JV1080 - Kevin: "That's really good for orchestral stuff. There was a diagram we saw in Sound On Sound showing the layout of a real orchestra. If you create a multitimbral setup on the JV for orchestral sounds and pan them all to the places shown on your diagram, the result sounds just like a real orchestra."
- Roland SH5
- Roland SH101 - Kevin: "I like the internal sequencer on this — you can't clock it to anything, but you can 'DJ' a sequence in to the rest of your track, until it fits, and then sample it and loop it. It sounds great."
- Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 - Kevin: "We only ever use one noise out of this!"
Dale: "We drove all the way to Edinburgh in your van for that as well. Shocking."
Kevin: "Everyone says, if you're going to do dance, get a TB303, a Prophet 5, a Jupiter 8 and an OB8. So we got the Prophet — but it's not that good."
- Yamaha Clavinova - Kevin: "This is probably one of the dearest keyboards we've got — it's properly weighted, and you've got to have something that sounds like a real piano."
- Yamaha SY22
- AKG C414B mic
- Behringer 1400 Multigate
- Boss SE50 multi‑effects
- Boss SE70 multi‑effects - Kevin:"One of the best effects units we've got; you can get a great Leslie‑type sound on it. We also use the vocoder a lot, as well — some of our older keyboards are brilliant through that, and the distortion effects sound really good on the TB303. It is a bit noisy, but it is good."
- Casio DA7 DAT machine
- dbx 160XT compressor
- EV MC150 mic
- Lexicon LXP15 multi‑effects
- Lexicon PCM90 reverb - Dale: "This is good, but we only really use our effects for listening and demos, not really for recording. You're never going to beat something as good as the Lexicon 480 or AMS delays. The stuff we've got here is good... but not as good as those."
- Mackie 8‑bus desk (extended to 80 inputs)
- Neumann U87A mic
- Philips CD920 CD player
- P&R Patchbay - Kevin: "Here's something it took us a while to get. We used to keep just getting round the back of the machines to swap things over. I don't know how we lived like that now."
- Roland SDE330 delay (x2)
- Shure SM58 mic
- Sony MZ1 MiniDisc
- Soundcraft Absolute 2 monitors
- SPL MikeMan mic preamp
- Tascam DA30 MkII DAT machine
- Tascam DA88 (x4) & remote
- Technics RSBS1601 cassette deck
- Technics SL1210 MkII record decks (x2)
- Yamaha SPX90 multi‑effects
- Yamaha SPX990 multi‑effects - Kevin: "This has a brilliant gated reverb sound, but it's noisy."
- Akai S3200 (with 1Gb hard drive)
- Roland R8M drum module - Kevin: "We still use this a lot, because we've got all the TR808 and 909 set drum cards for it."
Dale: "On the B‑side to 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy', 'Spice', we just ran through as many vintage drum sounds as we could, and came across all the old CR78 and 808 ones. It was pure electro, body‑popping stuff."
Kevin: "You still can't beat those drum sounds, they really drive a song along. That track was originally about The Spice Girls, you know. We had all these samples in from the film Dune, saying things like 'We must halt all spice production'. But it's just a B‑side..."
Dale: "...and we didn't want to end up giving all the money from the A‑side away in sample clearance."
Kevin: "You do have to think about things like that."
- Roland TB303 Bassline - Kevin: "This is the best thing we own."
Dale: "It's God."
Kevin: "I got it for about 100 quid in a shop in Oldham; they didn't know what it was."
Dale: "It goes on nearly every track now."
Kevin: "It's so versatile, for something with basically only two waveforms. Especially the sound you get when you distort one through your desk; that sounds great."
Dale: "Roland should just start making them again, like they used to be, and stop mucking about with these digital versions of it... with drums on them. You don't want drums... why don't they just make the TB again, but with MIDI?"
- Roland TR606 drum machine
- Atari 1040ST (with 4Mb of RAM)
- Steinberg Cubase
- Hamer Slammer Electric Guitar
- Hohner Rockwood Bass Guitar
- Micro Scalextric Super Endurance
- Mitre indoor football
- Nintendo 64 games console
- Samson Servo 500 Power Amp
- Sony Playstation
- Squier Strat Electric Guitar
- Tanglewood Autumn Leaf Acoustic Guitar
Anyone who thinks dance music isn't 'rock and roll' enough should listen to some of N‑Trance's stories about their early gigging days; these are tales of Transit van‑centred debauchery that make Led Zeppelin look like St Winifred's School Choir, and are sadly unsuitable for reproduction here. However, suggest that dance PAs are in some way 'tame' and the band get quite excited. This is the duo, after all, who once fused the entire lighting system of a club by turning their on‑stage water cannon (an entirely artistically valid part of their stage act, naturally) onto the lighting desk. Kevin: "It is like rock and roll. You're touring Scotland in a crappy van, all of you in the back with all the gear... you can't brake too hard or you'll all be squashed... you don't know if you're going to get paid... we had loads of arguments about that, and used to just play for beers sometimes..."
Were you actually playing anything live then?
Kevin: "Naw, it was all off DAT."
Dale: "The first one was off cassette! You could tell when we were on, 'cause the whole club filled with hiss... it was like the call to us in the dressing room."
Kevin: "We took the Atari on stage, but it just had a game on it... "
Dale sighs: "There's a lot of bollocks talked about dance bands who play live; I know things about bands who've said they do it all live... but when I worked for a PA company before this, I used to see the stage sheets that said 'DAT player to the left and right channels, and two live mics for the vocals, please.' And there's always some live percussion. A band off DAT always has some live congas up the front to try and make it look real!"
Kevin: "We know, 'cause we've done it!"