Many commentators in magazines such as this have gleefully observed that the trend in recent years towards ever cheaper and more powerful studio equipment has begun to blur the distinction between the professional recording facility and the home or 'project' studio. Indeed, some of the home studios that have previously featured in Readerzone have been so well stocked with impressive hardware as to put many smaller commercial studios to shame.
This is doubtless a good thing. Ultimately, however, is it really the point? Surely what makes the proliferation of technology exciting is not just that it allows a few enthusiasts to blow their life savings replicating Abbey Road in their basements, but that filling a room with expensive hardware is no longer the only way to produce professional‑sounding recordings. In fact, nowadays, there is no reason why people shouldn't be making records on their kitchen tables, using just one or two well‑chosen pieces of inexpensive equipment.
Hailing from a small Suffolk village, and in possession of an absolute minimum of hardware (see 'Full Gear List' box), Oli Bell, aka the Groove Criminals, has already succeeded in releasing several examples of his distinctive blend of crunchy, funky hip‑hop beats and herbally enhanced atmospheres via a couple of independent record labels (see 'Discography'), and shows no sign of being prepared to stop there. How, I wondered, did he get started?
"I was into the first wave of hip‑hop in the late '80s, and wrote my first tunes around 1990 using a borrowed four‑track, a couple of home keyboards and a dodgy record deck." This modest setup was later augmented with a Commodore Amiga and a sampling cartridge, the latter described by Oli as "the best‑spent 40 quid of my life." Immersing himself in the then‑thriving Amiga tracker scene, Oli began programming with a vengeance — eventually producing the music for a commercially‑released tennis game. The Amiga bubble burst when Commodore went out of business, but by then Oli was hopelessly addicted to the process of writing music. "I collected whatever gear I could afford and continued to dabble. I hooked up with a couple of mates who used to rap for me, but we never took it very seriously. In '98, after a lot of encouragement from those around me, I felt ready to have a proper crack at producing a demo and actually sent it off to a selection of record companies. I was contacted by a few A&R guys, but none were prepared to take a chance. 'We love what you're doing but don't see where it will fit' was a typical response."
Undaunted, Oli continued to write tunes and send off demos, gradually refining his sound and occasionally acquiring the odd new bit of gear to aid the creative process. It now looks as if his patience and tenacity have begun to pay off: in addition to having released three tracks already, he is currently working on a new four‑track Groove Criminals EP, and has a remix lined up for Cambridge‑based hip‑hop act The Mantis Chapter. All this has been achieved as a result of many hours spent at work in a home studio that could perhaps best be described as minimal. Very minimal!
As you would expect in the studio of a hip‑hop producer, samplers are very much the centre of attention. However, the Akai S01 and S20, upon which the Groove Criminals sound depends, are arguably two of the cheapest and most cheerful samplers ever built. Here you will find none of the resonant filters, LFOs and envelope generators that are considered essential these days even in an entry‑level sampler. Nor is sample RAM in abundance. "My S01 has got its full expansion and offers a whopping 31.25 seconds," deadpans Oli. His S20 has recently been expanded to a more reasonable 16Mb, but could still hardly be considered the last word in sampling power. Does he ever find these limitations frustrating?
"It's really a case of trying to not miss what you don't have. The S01, by today's standards, is extremely basic — but I love it. It's got a great sound: not too clean and perfect. It's got character, and I know it inside out. In fact I always start a track just using the S01, as it's so easy to get ideas down." Is there nothing then about these rather basic samplers that bugs him? "One down side," he concedes, "is the lack of dedicated line outs. The S01 has only got one output. A little more flexibility would be nice."
Oli's choice of computer is similarly uncomplicated. He has not succumbed to the current fad for Mac or PC‑based sequencers, with their multiple audio tracks, real‑time effects and virtual instruments. Instead the trusty old Commodore Amiga is still taking care of business, running the Octamed sample tracker and MIDI sequencer that Oli got free off a magazine cover disk some years ago. "Programming with Octamed is very much like step programming on a drum machine," he remarks, "and its simplistic approach is really well suited to my kind of loop‑based production. As I'm not a trained musician, I don't miss having a more advanced sequencer."
Putting theory into practice, then, how does Oli go about writing a new track? "Each tune starts with a sampled loop, something that has caught my ear. It's more the feel of the loop than the actual sounds that grabs me, and more often than not the original loop will get thrown out as the track progresses. The next stage is to get the beats added: I tend to use sampled loops and cut them up into their component parts, and add fills if I need to. I spend a long time getting the beats right, adding noise, atmosphere and grit — basically getting the sound I want before adding the rest of the track.
"I very rarely have a fixed idea in my head from the outset. The track tends to ebb and flow into the finished version, new ideas being added and whole elements being scrapped along the way. I might also be working on three or four tracks at the same time. They'll usually all get to be about three‑quarters finished, and then one will jum p out as the best, and I'll dump the others and concentrate on that."
This final stage involves concentrating on the quality of individual sounds as much as anything else, and listening to Oli's recordings one cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer inventiveness of his production. Avoiding clichés like the plague, dropping in samples that most us would probably never dream of using, he nevertheless manages to achieve a gritty authenticity that many so‑called trip‑hop producers would kill for.
"Just because you're using limited kit," he says firmly, "there's no excuse for your production to be limited. I do tend to mess with my samples quite a lot. Neither of my samplers can time‑stretch or anything like that, so I have to look for new ways to make things interesting. I'll pitch samples up or down, mic up the speakers, overdrive the mixer, stuff like that. Just experimentation really."
A large part of this experimentation centres around discovering new ways to distort, erode and generally interfere with sounds, to achieve the grainy, low‑fidelity edge that is an essential element in this style of production. Many artists have jumped on the 'lo‑fi' bandwagon in recent years, and a number of manufacturers have responded by marketing gadgets which claim to provide 'that sound' at the touch of a button. However, Oli has no truck with such cop‑outs and quick fixes. "If I want to rough up a sound I'll do it through the telephone or my old distortion pedal, rather than resampling at a lower rate or using anything like that. I never use the Amiga's 8‑bit samples either, as the quality is just too low to be of any real use — even for me." Er, sorry Oli, for a moment there I thought you said...
"Yes, I do sample over the phone," he confirms. "I've got a lead that has a phone plug on one end and a minijack on the other. If you plug it into a two‑way phone socket you can record both sides of the conversation. Nifty little thing. I can't remember where I got it now. I'll often send someone next door or down the road to the phone box with a tape player, and sample the resulting phone call."
Whilst Groove Criminals chiefly consists of Oli as writer and producer, other collaborators have been drafted in from time to time. The soon‑to‑be released track 'Heartbeats', for example, features the vocal talents of Paul McGilley, a Londoner currently based in Frankfurt, who sings in an AC/DC covers band called Black Angus. How did Oli go about recording this track? "I recorded Paul's vocal in my spare bedroom, dry, using a stocking pop shield. It was recorded straight on to Minidisc, inbetween cars passing down the lane outside. Then I cut it up in the sampler, and fed it through the grunge pedal."
Another more regular collaborator is DJ Rapid, who has brought his impressively dextrous turntable wizardry to a number of Groove Criminals tracks. The scratching brings a pleasingly live and spontaneous feel to the proceedings — although in reality this is just another example of skilful sample manipulation: "To record scratching I normally set up a beat at around the normal tempo of most of my tracks, and DJ Rapid or myself will scratch over the top. I record just the scratching on its own, straight onto Minidisc with no effects. I'll then sample sections as and when a track needs them. By not restricting the scratches to one particular track, or even tempo, you can come up with some interesting effects and patterns. Perhaps not a method favoured by the purists, but there you go. I basically employ scratching as I would any other sampled element, and tend to use it quite sparingly."
When all the disparate sampled elements have been brought together, and the track has developed a coherent structure of its own, the final stage in the process is mixing. With only his modest Mackie 1202 mixer, a budget Zoom effects box and an Akai parametric EQ to play with, Oli sometimes finds achieving the perfect mix far from easy.
"Getting a finished sound I'm happy with can be difficult. Sometimes I've had to pull vital samples because they were too noisy or refused to sit in the mix properly. With such a small setup there is often very little I can do about it. Again, it's a case of doing the best you can within your limits, choosing the elements carefully and just relying on your ears to produce the best mix possible. To be honest it's more of an intuitive process than a technical one." So, does Oli have any advice for anyone mixing on a budget? "Top tip: if you can't afford expensive monitoring, buy the most expensive pair of headphones you can stretch to, and use them to monitor your mix at each step. I once went to a pro studio to transfer a track from Minidisc onto DAT and was horrified to hear the amount of noise that my basic old cans didn't pick up. I now use Sennheiser HD25SPs which cost around £85, and I couldn't live without 'em."
I asked Oli what plans he had for the future. "Well, I'm still unsigned and obviously I would like the financial stability of being with a independent/ major label. There is relatively little money in the UK hip‑hop scene so keeping your head above water is hard work. Underground is one thing, insolvent is another...
"I'm also looking into working with more vocalists — MCs and singers — although I would never give up the instrumental side of things. Remixing is something else I'd like to get into more. After years of trying, I think I've finally got a 'Groove Criminal sound', and it would be fun to bring that to other people's tracks."
Any final thoughts on working with limited resources? "When I started on the Amiga in the old 8‑bit days, tracker tunes could use only 4 samples at any one time, and the whole tune had to be under 150K if you wanted it used in a game. Now that's a fair set of restrictions, and people still made some great tunes. It is possible to make limited resources work in your favour: you just have to know your limits and how to work right up to them. I see people in magazines who have massive kit lists and racks of the latest gear, but have never had a tune released. It's the ideas and the vibe that makes good music. Technology can only help you shape your original idea: it won't write a track for you.
"I'd like to think that what I've used to make my tracks has absolutely no bearing on the buyer of the end product. If I've done my job as a producer, and worked hard on getting a good sound and a solid structure, then I'm happy. I really don't think the majority of the public give a stuff about what you used to make a tune, as long as they like what they're hearing, and it moves them in some way. And that, at the end of the day, is what it's all about."
Akai S01 and S20 samplers, Amiga 600HD running Octamed v5, Soundlab DLP3R turntable, Gemini PMX40 scratch mixer.
- 'Turf': Featured on Fortified Stereophonic (compilation CD, catalogue VR003), Vapours Records, May 1999.
- 'Ghosts And The Second Chapter': Featured on vENT 0004 (compilation CD), Tar Media Productions (www.tarmedia.com), April 2000.
- Product Of A Vinyl Upbringing: Forthcoming EP on Vapours Records, Summer 2000.
"Sampling is what I'm all about," asserts Oli, "and I work hard to find my samples — from a huge selection of sources, not just vinyl. My record collection is only just beginning to grow again after I sold most of it to keep the project going. So, I'll basically use whatever I can get my hands on. Car boot sales are good for turning up odd stuff — especially when you haven't got a £500 record budget to play with. A sample doesn't have to come from a vintage funk record to produce the spark of a great track, so keeping an open mind and ear is all important." Has his reliance on sampling ever left Oli vulnerable to the twin perils of copyright lawyers and sample clearance fees?
"The smaller you are," he answers carefully, "the less profitable it is to take you to court. I may have taken a few liberties in the past, but I've tried to get more cunning as I've gone along. If you sample creatively — and this is the important point — then the source of the original sound becomes less and less of an issue anyway, as it begins to transform into something new. This is why I'm also not adverse to using the odd sample CD, as long as I've worked with the sample, and not just lifted it straight."
"CDs, cassettes and videos are all great places to find inspiration." He pauses. "A mate of mine used to work on the bins, and he often supplied me with bundles of other people's audio rubbish. Lovely."
Oli Bell can be contacted via SOS or at his web site, www.groovecriminals.co.uk.
- Akai S01 sampler (fully expanded to 2Mb).
- Akai S20 sampler (fully expanded to 16Mb).
- Amiga 600HD running Octamed v5.
- Mackie 1202 12‑channel mixer.
- Soundlab DLP3R turntable (borrowed).
- Gemini PMX40 scratch mixer.
- Zoom 1202 multi‑effects.
- Sony MDS JE520 Minidisc player/recorder.
- Akai EX85P parametric EQ.
- Technics CD player.
- Sennheiser HD25SP headphones.
- Shure Prologue mic.
- Rocktek distortion pedal.
- Battered hi‑fi amp and speakers.