A surprise hit with the independent release of 'Chime' led to a record contract, numerous singles, two successful LPs and worldwide touring for brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll. Nigel Humberstone catches up with them to talk about good gear, punk ethics and the importance of being spontaneous...
Like many groups, Orbital — brothers Phil and Paul Hartnoll — have developed from being enthusiastic music hobbyists. But where the Hartnoll brothers have excelled is in achieving the status of influential and respected leaders of their particular genre of electronic dance music. Remix work has been carried out for the likes of The Drum Club, Yellow Magic Orchestra and EMF, whilst they've also managed to stamp their own distinctive sound and characteristically diverse approach on both their live and recorded work.
I met the duo whilst they were preparing to assemble material for a third album at their east London workplace, one of the handful of rented spaces situated within Strongroom Studios. This particular unit, with a window overlooking the live room of Studio 1, is Orbital's nerve centre, every available inch of which is crammed with their own gear. As Paul explains, the space and the equipment is their alternative to spending vast amounts of money in expensive studios.
"What we do is get an advance from the record company, which is like the equivalent of going into a good studio, and from that we'll buy a lot of equipment and rent this room. Because then you've got your own studio — and in fact this is now better than the first studio that we ever went to!"
The two brothers obviously have a close musical working relationship. Phil is the elder, by four years, and noticeably more reserved than his effervescent junior Paul.
"We started off on guitar," recounts Paul, "and our Dad had a home organ that we used to muck around with in various ways, especially with the auto‑chord function. We discovered that if you held down two octaves you'd get a kind of 'high energy' sound. But the first proper thing we bought was a drum machine, a Poly 800, and a KMX30 to link them both together. Then I got a TR909 dirt cheap after the TR707 came out and everyone was trying to get rid of them. I also bought another Poly 800 and an Alesis MT88."
Why the need for two Poly 800s, I enquired.
"Well," begins Paul, with a certain amount of restraint, "what I actually wanted was a Sequential Circuits Sixtrak — but because I didn't know much about MIDI at the time, I consulted this guy at a reputable London music shop, who assured me that you couldn't link up Sequential Circuits MIDI with other MIDI devices! Of course I later found out that you can, and would now like to go and punch him in the face — but there you go. This was all around 1985, when it would have been amazing to have had six individual voices coming out of a synth.
"At the time, we were messing around with guitars and were a bit like New Order, I suppose, and the likes of Cabaret Voltaire. I used to be really into all that so called 'industrial funk', and especially Sheffield‑based bands like Hula, Chaak and Workforce."
Orbital's first record was the white label release of 'Chime'. It was initially put out on Oh‑Zone, a small label set up by a pirate radio station DJ called Jazzy M, but interest was so great that inevitably the majors picked up on it, and in 1990 'Chime' peaked at number 17 in the charts.
The kind of equipment Orbital were using at the time included an Akai S700 sampler, Roland TB303 Bassline, SH09, DX100 and Alesis HR16. Their interest has always veered towards everything analogue, and more recently they have consolidated this preference by purchasing an ARP 2600 and a Roland System 100. So what is it that attracts them to these pieces of kit?
Paul: "It's the sprit of adventure, I guess. You can start with no sound at all and create something — you know the parameters are so much wider than with, say, something like the Wavestation, which is practically like a playback sampler with the option of ordering your sounds. With the System 100, you have to battle to get decent sounds and you don't know what you're going to come up with!"
With such a comprehensive collection of gear I wondered if the two were now more selective about what they bought.
Paul: "I would say that I'd be very choosy now and I wouldn't buy a new synth until something interesting happens. I do like the idea of having a good synth from each of the major manufacturers, but I'd draw the line beyond that." Phil: "I think we've got enough gear really — it gets to the stage where you're almost becoming a collector. There's plenty here to be getting on with, although something we're considering is hard disk recording, something like Cubase Audio that is integrated and running alongside your sequencer. It all looks very visual and easy to use, and would allow for some different techniques to be used, but nothing that we haven't been able to get around already." Paul: "One thing we can't do at the moment is just 'jam' away. Sometimes arranging a track is something we don't want to do in a formal way on the sequencer. So to 'jam' straight into a hard disk recorder would be quite entertaining — we could then put breaks and fills over the top with the normal sequencing side of things."
At this point I spot an Alesis ADAT, half hidden under the Mackie mixer. What does this get used for?
Paul: "We've had it a year now, although it's not used a lot. We tended to use it for the last album, doubling up certain things like a Vocoder, and mucking around with a synth as it played and panning the results hard left and right, which worked well. But I think if we got a hard disk recording system then we'd probably sell it."
Unlike many of their contemporaries, Orbital have steered clear of using Akai samplers (except the early S700), opting instead to work with the Emu range. An Emulator III, fully expanded to 32Mb RAM, with optional sampling board, 105Mb internal HD and external 128Mb MO drive is their essential piece of gear. Paul: "We had an Emax keyboard at first, expanded to 8Mb, which was great after having been used to an S700, but we got fed up with carrying it around for live use. So when we got some money from the record comapny as tour support we looked at getting a rackmounted version but ended up opting for the Emulator III rackmount instead. We've found it superior to earlier Akai samplers — although the new ones are flashy — but we quite like the idea of using a sampler that's not the industry standard or as common as the Akai.
"One good feature with the Emulator is its velocity to start time, where if you've got a one‑minute sample you've got 127 start points depending on what velocity you hit. It's a pretty mad [good] thing to have — it means you can gate voices and slope the velocity so that it fits exactly, almost like crude timestretching.
"The Emulator, with all its optional accessories and internal hard drive, wasn't cheap, but it's good because it's more of a synthesizer than something like the Wavestation. You can actually load up a bank of presets and really muck around with them, more so than you can with the Korg."
All of Orbital's recent recordings have been created and mixed at their studio. I wondered if there were any allowances needed for not having perfect monitoring conditions. Paul: "Well apart from having to turn the main lights out to get rid of a hum, the room is a bit of a weird shape and you can get funny bass traps, so you have to make sure and stand around the room — like, my favourite thing, in the evening when there's not too many people around, is to jam the doors open and go outside and listen to it from a distance. Maybe even stand around in the toilet and listen to it through the walls like when you're in a club, in order to hear what's taking the most accent, as it were. I try to get things right the first time; I live in fear of having to record things twice, because I'm a 'first‑take person'. I feel that the most 'energy', for want of a better word, goes into the first attempt."
Paul: "I try to get things right the first time; I live in fear of having to record things twice, because I'm a 'first‑take person'. I feel that the most 'energy', for want of a better word, goes into the first attempt."
So I assume there's a lot of real‑time modulation involved?
"Yeah, that's another reason why we got the ADAT, so that when we were using analogue synths, we could effectively record a lot of the modulation onto a track of the ADAT and run that with the mix, so that you've got it exactly how you want it. Then you've still got four hands to use in the mix on effects, or to become an autopanner or whatever."
It transpires that Phil was a first‑generation punk, whilst Paul took an interest in that style of music when bands like Crass and the Dead Kennedys came around. With this in mind, would it be fair to say that they've retained some of that punk ethic in their approach to electronic music? Phil: "It's got a lot to do with the attitude of electronic music, where you can produce a record in your bedroom up to a high standard. And it's only since the upsurge of punk and independent record labels that you've been able to do that. The punk attitude of garage bands is as much evident now with all the electronic stuff that's happening, and it's good because it allows people to make unadulterated music.
"When 'Chime' took off, we got chucked in at the deep end and by default ended up signing to London records — so we had this contract whereas they [London] were really only interested in picking up on a proven white label. They didn't really know how to deal with us."
Phil cites teething problems with their record company — the pair had to employ their own press officer because the in‑house press couldn't see how papers like Melody Maker and NME would be interested in them. A classic quote was "You're not an NME band", which seems ironic now that Orbital have recently scooped that paper's alternative 'Brat Award' for best dance act!
"We're a lot more anxious about things now," admits Phil. "We've now got the responsibility of getting a track finished 'cos it's going to be on a record. You become more analytical of your stuff." Paul: "I still have to fight with that idea — the last month has been quite bizarre, with us trying to work out what the next record should sound like. For example, I've been trying to dodge using a constant 909 bass drum 'cos a lot of our records over the last four years have got that. But then I think, 'Hey, if we were at home making music then I wouldn't hesitate to use that if I wanted to.' You know what I mean? And I'm forever trying to draw the line somewhere and work out why, if we weren't making records would we have used it? Because we just felt like it! Now we think twice about it; you start to think 'Hey wait a minute, isn't that just getting pompous?" Phil: "Consequently you're in the studio, set to do your next recording, and you end up spending three weeks just talking about it!"
- ARP 2600
- Korg Poly 800
- Korg Wavestation keyboard
- Korg Wavestation A/D
- Oberheim Xpander
- Oscar synthesizer
- Roland System 100 (Model 101 keyboard, Model 102 (x2), Model 104 Sequencer)
- Roland SH09
- Roland SH101
- Roland TB303 bassline
- Roland Jupiter 6
- Yamaha DX100 keyboard
- Alesis SR16
- Roland R8
- Roland R70
- Roland TR808
- Roland TR909
- Sequential Circuits Drumtrax
RECORDING & SEQUENCING
- Alesis ADAT digital 8‑track
- Atari 1040 computer running C‑Lab Creator/Unitor
- Casio DA2 portable DAT machine
- Mackie 24:8 desk
- Yamaha NS10M monitors
SAMPLING & STORAGE
- 128Mb magneto optical drive
- Akai S700
- Emax II keyboard
- Emulator III XS (105 Meg) rackmount
- Alesis Quadraverb
- Boss RSD10 digital delay
- Drawmer DS201 dual gate
- Ensoniq DP4
- Lexicon LXP1
- Alesis Datadisk
- Beckman Oscilloscope
- Groove Electronics 4CV MIDI to CV interface
- Korg KMS30 MIDI synchroniser
- Philip Rees V10 MIDI thru box
- Roland SPD8 drum pad
- Technics SL1210 Mk2 record decks (x2)
- C‑LAB CREATOR
Paul: "We've used it ever since we had a computer, which is about four years. I've always wanted to try Cubase with its arrange window, 'cos that's how you tend to visualise music — left to right and linear — but now I'm not so sure, because I know this system so well."
- ROLAND SYSTEM 100
"I've always fancied an analogue sequencer and the Roland (Model 104) is great because you do all your tuning by first twiddling the knobs, so you make the tuning up as you go along. You can also take the CV out of one of the Model 100s, and instead of controlling pitch, you can have it running from MIDI (via a MIDI‑CV interface) so that while it's playing it's opening and closing the filters, which is interesting. The system has a typical Roland sound like the SH09 and Jupiter 6 — very pure sounding."
- AKAI S700
"It's used sometimes and is really smooth at having a sample and panning through the start time. You can also have things like hi‑hats played backwards, but they're not actually reversed because each soundbite is being played forwards but in reverse order, which can be interesting on vocal samples."
- MACKIE MIXER
Phil: "We used to have an Allen & Heath GS3, which sounded nice but had this fault, which was totally unacceptable, where all the effects would bleed onto the master left and right channels. There was only a tiny amount, but enough if you broke the track down to a single sound." Paul: "So we changed it for this Mackie, which I like apart from one aspect — the mutes are rubbish; they click. It seems to me that you really need to spend another couple of grand before you get a decent desk. I think the best option would have been to have bought a big, old‑fashioned second‑hand desk. I've got more faith in older things most of the time."
- CASIO DA2 PORTABLE DAT
Paul: "It's got this weird habit; when you press play, the first thing it plays is this digital noise that fades out into the sound. It can sound great and I've tried to sample it, but of course it won't do it when you want it to."
- 'Chime' FFRR, Mar '90
- 'Omen' FFRR, Jul '90
- 'Satan/Belfast' FFRR, Jan '91
- 'Choice/Midnight' FFRR, Aug '91
- 'Mutations' EP FFRR, Feb '92
- 'Radiccio' EP Internal, Sept '92
- 'Peel Sessions' Internal, Feb '94
- (Untitled) 1 FFRR, Sept '91
- (Untitled) 2 Internal, May '93
Orbital — The Live Experience
Playing live is an essential part of Orbital's existence. They've toured extensively in America (twice) and also Australia. Their live shows are a way of formulating tracks, finding what works the floor and giving them an idea as to what the arrangement of a track should be when they get back to their studio. Their ability to randomly rearrange a track live is down to the choice of an Alesis MT88 sequencer for playback. Paul explains the process.
"We use two MT88s live and have them running in pattern play, so that you can just jam and improvise with them. There's no live keyboard playing — I won't even attempt to pretend that any of it was live playing. Essentially it's a jam with two sequencers, where we're punching things in and out, and as you've got two MT88's synced with MIDI, you can change over to the next track — it's a bit like having two turntables." Phil: "Yeah, you put the MT88 into pattern play and let a track happen for as long as you want. Live we just set up a skeleton of what's in this room; we have our mixing desk on stage, and we improvise by using the desk mutes and effects, along with the eight big buttons on the MT88s."
Paul: "We've actually played tracks live where we haven't had any arangement for them or anything. After a tour of America we came back and arranged the tracks in the way that they had developed throughout the tour.
"We try to keep the drums on separate channels, like bass drum, snare, hi‑hat, bassline and then any vocals or strange effects. They're not arranged, just laid out so that there's 16 given sequences at any one time and you just punch them in or out. It's the way we work now because we didn't have any other way of doing it when we first started.
"We figured that if we'd pre‑arranged every track, then we'd be sat at each gig just twiddling a few knobs! Nine times out of ten we'll not know what's going to happen next, although normally we'll have the first minute or so of introductory stuff worked out. Other times we'll get fed up with that and change it completely."
A standard oscilloscope is used essentially for live work, but in a bizarre and ingenious way. "It does sometimes keep us entertained in the studio," recounts Paul, "but what we do live is have a video camera shoved up to it and then we feed that image to a video projector and project the oscilloscope whilst we're playing. We've actually invented a sound that will create our logo — which is quite amusing — and we often use it to start the set off.
"It was quite simple really. A pure sine wave will make a sphere, then if you layer a few so that they're oscillating against each other you end up with like four or five ovoids all spinning around at the same time, and it makes a nice representation of our logo.
"Some of the tracks can look bizarre. There's one that starts off with a didgeridoo and it just looks mad; a really weird shape that seems to be moving in 3D space. Another time you'll have this shape that will wobble when the bass drum kicks in, and when you add hi‑hat the whole thing gets wiggly round the edges. At times we'll play around with the oscilloscope live rather than with something like the 303."