Nigel Humberstone accompanies aspiring band Necroscope to one of their gigs, to find how they cope when taking technology onto the stage with no roadies or technical support.
Some of you may recognise the name Necroscope from a review of their debut demo in a previous issue of SOS (April '93). The band might not enjoy the 'high interest' status of other industrial and hard electronic bands, but the story of how they create their music and cope with gigging is just as worthy and interesting. As a relatively young and inexperienced band (in a professional sense), Necroscope are nonetheless enthusiastic, organised and well presented. Their brief biography cites that the band was "born in mid‑1992 from a collusion between two similarly minded strangers — Phil Price and Scott Ryder." Their musical direction and inspiration is based on the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, Nitzer Ebb, Ministry and Skinny Puppy, their objective to create "brutal sound collages coupled with tortured vocals."
Almost immediately on their formation, the band, along with their previous third member Carl Parkes, put together a three‑track demo, entitled Birthless, which was duly sent to various music magazines eliciting good reviews and positive criticism. Fired by this praise, the band have carefully ploughed money into new equipment and concentrated on developing their performance by playing live as often as possible. Getting gigs has not been easy, but slowly they have built up a small following and started to establish a name for themselves.
On this particular occasion the band were playing at a familiar venue (The Jug Of Ale — where they have played previously), along with Ruptured Freaks, another local band who use sampling and synthesis technology live. For all involved, Necroscope is still only a hobby; during the week, Phil is a computer programmer, Scott a student and Jon (who joined the band in December '92) is a computer operator who works in Swindon but makes it back at weekends.
Early gigs for the band were daunting events; the nervy prospect of sound checking, reliance on limited technology and wondering whether they would interface with the house PA were just a few of the problems encountered. Running Cubase on a PC for sequencing also presented the problem of just how to recreate their live sound.
Jon: "We sequence with a PC, but bringing a PC out to a gig is not advisable; even a hired DAT machine failed on us — so we'd rather not risk it."
Phil: "We'd also have problems loading the S950 between songs — as we've only got a small amount of memory (1.5Mb) we can only load a track at a time, and 40 seconds loading time between tracks is not really acceptable."
So, after a bad experience with DAT players (along with the cost of hiring a machine for both recording and playing the backing tracks) the band opted to use an analogue cassette played through the support band's Philips DCC player.
Jon: "Everything was programmed and recorded in a bedroom and it really all came out of the S950. We were surprised with the playback quality, even though we used analogue cassettes."
Phil: "We do want to get back to sequencing live — at least, that's what we should be doing. We know someone who's got an Akai ASQ10 and what we're hoping to do is to use MIDI song dumps into that. By that time, we aim to have two samplers (Jon will be buying another S950) and we'll use one as the other loads."
Frustrated by the constant cost of hiring a DAT, the band are also buying a portable DAT.
Jon: "We could go for something like the Alesis Datadisk, but a DAT machine is more flexible because we can also use it to master our demos on."
Necroscope are amongst the growing number of musicians using a PC in preference to the more established Atari ST and Macintosh based systems to drive their sequencing software at home.
Jon: "We're using Steinberg's Cubase software and it's excellent. Basically I use the PC (a 386DX40) because I did a computer science course at Polytechnic, so I had one for that and of course Phil uses PCs at work. Prior to that we'd both had (Alesis) MMT8's which we were getting stuck with — it was all becoming very loop orientated. Since we got Cubase we've been able to move things around a lot easier."
Phil: "It's also good for Scott, who isn't technically minded, because he can come round and see what's going on graphically in the arrange window.
"We had problems originally where if you moved the mouse when you were playing a track the timing would suffer, or if the song pointer moved over the mouse it would slow down. Basically it was down to the software not being properly loaded into Windows, but it took us a month to work it out."
The band's Akai S950 is the real workhorse for all their compositions, and although it's limiting, they have learnt to extract the most from it.
Phil: "Being 8‑note polyphonic and having only 1.5Mb of memory, we have to be very careful. However, we find these limitations make us more selective over the samples we use. Rather than sampling everything at high sample rates, we often sample things at considerably lower rates in order to save memory. This sometimes gives sounds more character and makes them sound dirtier.
"When using long samples, we'll try looping shorter samples or time‑stretching them, which also degrades the quality and gives them a metallic edge. If we use a drum loop, we might try using a shorter loop and re‑trigger the sample to make a new interesting break which also saves memory. We also sample our own drum patterns as loops, often via the Zoom or distortion pedal, which — when played as a loop from the sampler — saves polyphony."
The Akai sounds are placed in programs and scrolled through for each song. They include samples of dialogue, drum sounds from records and drum machines, plus samples from a Roland SH101 for electronic zaps and kick drum.
Phil: "One thing we want to do when we record is to experiment with vocals. We've started doing that with the S950; on one of the live tracks we've sampled Scott's voice and turned it backwards to provide a weird backing vocal."
Situated in Moseley, a pre‑dominantly student area of Birmingham, the Jug Of Ale is one of the Midlands' 'alternative music pubs', providing DJs and a variety of live bands, seven nights a week. The upstairs room (200+ capacity) is promoted by different organisers and hosts both local and independent touring bands. Tuesday nights are taken over by The Swamp Club, who present 'noise and sub‑pop' groups. Necroscope have appeared at this venue on a number of previous nights, each time adapting to the 3K in‑house PA and its high turnover of mixing desks. Tonight there is a Series 5 Studiomaster (16:4:2) augmented by a spartan outboard rack equipped with an Alesis MEQ230, Roland RE201 Space Echo and Boss RV1000 digital reverb.
Like many gigs of this nature Necroscope are 'paying to play', but in this case the agreement has its benefits. The hire fee of £65 is for the PA and mixer/engineer, and it is worked so that each band pays £30, with the £5 balance being made up by the promoter. Each band then receives 50 tickets which they can either sell or give out free, with any further profit from door takings being divided on a negotiable percentage, based on the 'pulling power' of the bands involved.
"If we sell all our tickets, we make £70 profit" explains Phil. "But if we decide to give them all away we lose £30 — so it's up to us how we want to do it."
As it turned out, the band had managed to sell nearly all their ticket allocation, but any profit has to be balanced against the hire of a smoke machine and expenditure on items like disks, tapes and of course their self‑produced flyers and posters for advertising.
Phil: "The venue advertises in local newspapers and magazines like Brum Beat, whilst we leaflet local record shops. We also go to other concerts, like the recent 'Sheep On Drugs' gig, and hand out flyers. There's also a club in Birmingham every fortnight called 'Contamination', that plays a lot of electronic music and we hand out flyers to people who look like they might be interested.
Jon: "What we're also doing is flyer'ing on the door tonight for our next gig, which will be here again in December — it'll be like our Christmas party! But in the future we'd like to play at clubs, rather than pubs, where there's an audience that likes our type of music."
The band realise that their style of music is only going to appeal to a limited audience — but they're working at it, learning by their mistakes and developing their sound and image as they go along.
Phil: "With our first gig we had a couple of analogue keyboards that we were changing the parameters of over the backing track. We thought if we made enough noise that we'd get away with it — but it was a clumsy approach. We've calmed down and it's a bit more organised now. We've certainly learnt a hell of a lot out of gigging, especially from other bands who are so professional with their stage show and overall presence."
"Another thing we've learnt," recalls Jon, "is that it's a definite advantage to have your own engineer — we have to rely on the house engineer, who is usually oblivious to what we're trying to do."
Phil: "But what we try to do is take all the mixing away from him (the support band use their own mixing desk on stage with just a stereo feed to the front desk), but we can't afford our own desk yet. So Jon mixes his analogue sounds and samples together himself, the backing tape is already mixed and I've set all the Octapad triggered sounds within the S950 (using just a mono output). The only thing we have problems with is the vocals."
For his tortured vocal sound, Scott plugs his microphone directly into an Ibanez distortion pedal; as the processed signal is present in the stage monitoring, there is a fine line between controlled distortion and howling feedback.
"It's not so much distortion that I'm after" admits Scott, "but something to give the vocals an edge, really. It's probably not the best effect to use, though it can sound good. However, when you turn the distortion up, the only way to combat feedback is to turn the treble down."
Unfortunately the problems became evident during part of the set, when the engineer had no control over the vocal effect and had to shout for Scott to turn the distortion level down. At another point the distortion pedal had its input dislodged, and later the battery became disconnected. All minor problems that I'm sure many touring bands come across, but in this instance it was made all too apparent that the band were out there on their own with no roadies or technical back‑up.
The band had attempted to pre‑empt any problems by supplying the engineer with a set list outlining certain aspects of the songs. For example, one of the tracks had an intro of sampled feedback, which could prove very disconcerting for any unprepared engineer. However, comments by the engineer during the soundcheck — "Can I hear the other thing!" — in reference to Phil's Octapad and S950 setup can only confirm one's scepticism about dealing with 'rock 'n' roll' biased stage technicians.
As for the actual set, I hadn't heard any of the band's material previously but was impressed by the tight and punchy sound of the backing tracks along with the visual presentation. Jon and Phil set up front of stage with their keyboards and Octapad respectively, while Scott prowls across the back (in front of the projected slides) and centre stage areas.
The opening tracks, 'Pivot Point' and 'Dying Moments,' are representative of Necroscope's hard edged style, but I felt that a bit more arrangement and dynamics could help channel the power that the songs are attempting to put over. But it was evident that the band are improving and developing with every concert and they're also enjoying that learning process as much as the playing itself.
Phil: "When you're playing live you just can't beat it — it's such a good feeling to be up there."
As to the future, how do the band see themselves progressing — and what are their immediate aims?
Phil: "What we really want to do now is to get into a studio and get something recorded properly. The Birthless demo is over a year old now and was basically the result of us deciding that there was something worth doing, so we knocked a couple of tracks together and did a demo. As soon as we did that and got the response, we ploughed money into it and bought new equipment. We now want to produce a demo of tracks which are more representative of what we're doing now — it's changed a lot, mainly because of the equipment and with Jon getting involved."
Knowing where the best venues are and what kind of bands they favour is one of the first challenges for bands who are serious about gigging. We've just received news of a directory called Zero Hour from Lancashire‑based multimedia and record company Zero Zero, which gives details of over 700 venues throughout Britain. Where possible, it even indicates what kind of music is preferred at a given venue. Zero Hour costs just £5.50, from Zero Zero, Unit 1C, Vickers Industrial Estate, Mellishaw Lane, Morecambe, Lancs LA3 3DY. Telephone 0524 844872.
- Roland SH101 analogue monosynth
- Yamaha DX100 synth
- Boss DR550 drum machine
- 386DX40 PC
- Steinberg Cubase software
- Akai S950 sampler (1.5Mb memory)
- Roland S10 sampler
- Zoom 9001 effects
- Akai S950
- Roland S10
- Roland Octapad
- Korg Poly 6
- Ibanez distortion pedal
SCOTT RYDER: Lyrics, Vocals
PHIL PRICE: Sampling, Programming
JON BRAIN: Sampling, Programming
- SEQUENCING LIVE
Though Necroscope have made the decision not to take a sequencer on the road, and rather to rely on taped backing, live sequencing can be a viable proposition. Myself and occasional SOS contributor Mike Simmons have performed using a sequencer on several occasions and have been fortunate enough to get away without any major disaster. But that's not to say you can be complacent about it — because when something does go wrong, it can be horrendous. Our own experiences were with that most fragile of all beasts, the Atari ST; here are a few pointers for avoiding hassle.
- With a machine like an ST, a solid, flat table is essential, ideally parked where there isn't too much floor vibration.
- The computer's mains lead should be plugged into the cleanest supply you can find. Under no circumstances should you share a ring main with the lighting rig! If this means running an extension lead back to the dressing room, then so be it. This latter precaution can also save you from potential data corruption in the event that the venue is fitted with one of those detestable automatic power cutoff level sensors.
- It's advisable to clean the computer's disk drive prior to the gig using a standard cleaner disk, and check the mains plugs on all your gear. Also ensure that you have enough MIDI leads of the right length and tape them down so you don't trip over them.
- To avoid having to waiting for the next song to load, we used the automatic load feature in Emagic's Creator, so that as one song drew to a close, the new one was already loading in the background. If you've programmed any fade‑outs, it's vital that each new song starts with a set of commands that pushes all the levels back to normal, otherwise you'll start your second song with everything turned off!
- MIDI DATA FILERS
Having put the case for using a computer live, I must say that I prefer the idea of using a MIDI data filer with sequence replay capability, such as an Alesis DataDisk, the main limitation being that most of these only provide a single output port. That means you're limited to 16 MIDI channels — but that's usually enough. Data filers are designed to load songs quickly, there are no fragile monitors to break and they tend to be reliable — though you should still plug them into a clean power supply; taking your own mains filter may help.
- TAPE: IS IT CHEATING?
Despite the relative ease with which MIDI sequencing can be taken onto the stage, I have to confess that on my last few performances I've transferred the backing to DAT. Why? It reduces the amount of gear I have to take, the balance can be perfected in advance and I can add effects while mixing to DAT in a far more sophisticated way than I could live. Is it cheating? I don't think so. Both sequencing and DAT are means of recording a performance in advance and DAT is undoubtedly the more reliable on stage. To help avoid problems:
- It's best to use your own DAT machine rather than hire one — that way you know it's been looked after — and keep it in a dust‑tight flight case
- Always use reputable DAT tapes and store them indoors; don't leave them in the car.
- Take at least one backup tape with you in case you have problems, and consider using the remote control to start and stop the machine if it isn't parked right next to you.
- A second backup on analogue cassette and a decent Walkman might be a good idea for the more paranoid.
DAT has a huge advantage over conventional cassette in that the tape speed is always constant, so there are no tuning problems, but unless you're prepared to use a mono backing track, you can't record a separate click track for the drummer. Of course, you could always use a digital 8‑track such as a DA88 or ADAT as a live backing, if you were lucky enough to own one — you could then have quadraphonic sound, a backing choir of thousands and two click tracks. Now that's an appealing idea!
As for being at the mercy of the house PA, you can run everything through your own small mixer and then feed that into the house PA with strict instructions that the house engineer leaves it alone! Set the vocal levels first and then adjust everything else to match the vocals. Paul White