Not many dance acts start life as string quartets — but Clean Bandit’s fusion of classical and electronic music has powered them to worldwide success.
Clean Bandit have become one of the UK’s biggest acts of recent times. Their six top-five singles included two number ones in ‘Rather Be’ and ‘Rockabye’, while their 2014 debut album New Eyes reached number three, and they have sold 13 million singles and more than a million-and-a-half albums worldwide.
They’ve come a long way since forming back in 2008 as a Cambridge-based musical experiment meshing classical music with dance music. Originally a four-piece comprising keyboardist/programmer Jack Patterson, cellist Grace Chatto, drummer Luke Patterson and violinist Neil Amin-Smith (who quit the band in 2016), Clean Bandit first bonded at university as a result of Jack Patterson dabbling in recording Chatto and Amin-Smith’s string quartet.
“I’d been using Ableton for a while,” says Patterson. “I was helping out with Grace’s string quartet and making recordings of their concerts. Sometimes in Ableton or sometimes just on a field recorder, but bringing it into Ableton to edit it, just to help them with their web site and stuff like that. Then suddenly I had all this string quartet stuff in Ableton and I was just dicking about basically and started adding drums and bass.
“I played it to another friend who was a singer, this guy Love Ssega, and he had some ideas as well. We basically decided to make a band and try and do a performance. It was all really quick. It was in the space of a few weeks. We just got a load of material together really quickly and put on this club night.”
And so Clean Bandit were born, initially performing at their National Rail Disco club night at the Fez Club in Cambridge. Patterson and Ssega’s ideas for the band included mounting piezo pickups onto the string players’ instruments that could be fed directly into Ableton, meaning that their performances were manipulated live by Patterson before they reached the front-of-house PA.
“I was dubbing it up,” he says, “but doing some other mad stuff like rhythmic gates. So they’d be playing chords and I’d have a MIDI controller and it’d be like a gate that was triggered by my drumming. I’d be hammering out rhythms for chopped-up effects.”
It was an inventive and unusual way for a band to begin life and in some ways reflected Jack Patterson’s upbringing as the son of a mother who’d studied French horn at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and a DJ father who’d run a mobile disco in the 1970s. At 12, Patterson was given a PC for Christmas along with a MIDI keyboard which included a copy of Cubase and a demo of Fruity Loops, both of which he began to learn. “Piano was basically the first thing I played, and then clarinet,” he remembers. “The deal with my mum was that if I passed Grade 4 clarinet I could get a sax.”
After university, where he was studying architecture, Patterson transferred to film school, and he and Grace Chatto moved for a time to Moscow. There, he continued to work on Ableton on his laptop, refining the tracks he’d recorded with the nascent Clean Bandit. “I wrapped up a MIDI controller in a blanket and put it on the plane,” he laughs.
The result was the band’s first two singles, ‘A&E’ and ‘Mozart’s House’. “‘Mozart’s House’ was the first one that we’d actually managed to record in a decent way, I guess,” Patterson says. “We recorded the vocals in Grace’s bedroom. The strings we did using churches and things like that. We recorded ‘A&E’ in a church in Holborn, literally with the mic that was built into the M-Audio field recorder. I think that’s a testament to the fact that the most important thing is the playing and then the acoustic that you’re recording. If you get that right, you can get away with an awful lot.”
Arriving back in the UK, and through architect friends involved in a community project called South Kilburn Studios in North-West London, Patterson set up what was to be Clean Bandit’s first studio base. “We got involved right from the beginning with that and were helping them lay the floors,” he says. “It was the old housing association offices, but they turned it into a studio complex — interdisciplinary studios, so anything from hat-makers to musicians to graphic designers to photographers, everyone was in there. You got the space for free so long as you donated a certain amount of your time to teaching kids in the local area. So that’s kind of how we really got going.”
In 2013 Clean Bandit landed a deal with Atlantic Records, before quickly scoring their first number one, ‘Rather Be’, featuring the then-unknown singer Jess Glynne. “For both of us it was quite a new process,” Patterson remembers. “She hadn’t even been signed when we first started recording ‘Rather Be’. As a singer, she just has a kind of real power.”
The distinctive staccato synth riff on ‘Rather Be’ was created by Patterson using the Ableton soft synth Operator. “My absolute workhorse is Operator,” he says. “Often it’s just a sine wave on one oscillator and then feeding in another one with a bit of modulation, for really kind of simple organ-y sounds.”
Meanwhile, Patterson states that despite their tight, rhythmic effect, the string parts on ‘Rather Be’ didn’t involve anything in the way of audio quantising. “That’s all live,” he says. “Well obviously there’s a lot of comping. But I think when you get to a certain stack you don’t really notice. With our strings, it’s kind of like a fake big sound, lots of Neil stacked up. Or we’ll get a quartet in and we’ll get the initial kind of quartet sound and then we’ll build on top of that, just overdubbing.”
Trickier was the piano part, double-tracked by Patterson using the Fazioli F228 grand piano housed in Studio A at Metropolis. “That was a real job,” he admits, “‘cause that’s two pianos overlaid, so it’s like four hands going. There was a lot of manipulation. For me, that piano is the main draw of that room. I just fell in love with it. They’ve released a sample version of it actually [Wavesfactory’s Mercury], which I haven’t downloaded yet. But I’d be quite interested to see how it compares.”
Whilst some of the tracks on Clean Bandit’s New Eyes debut album were mixed in commercial studios, ‘Rather Be’ was completed in the box back at South Kilburn Studios. Not bad for the fastest-selling single of 2014. “Yeah,” Patterson laughs. “Wez Clarke [Beyoncé, Rudimental] worked on it as well, but the final thing that went out was summed in Ableton in a laptop and that went to mastering.”
Having moved out of South Kilburn Studios, Jack Patterson has taken up residence in a ground-floor writing and programming room at Club Ralph Studios in Queen’s Park, North-West London. The facility is owned by Mark Ralph, producer and mixer for the likes of Hot Chip and Years & Years, who also co-produced tracks for New Eyes. “He’s got a very good ear for the overall sonic,” Patterson says of Ralph. “I think for me I’m always hearing individual things, but he’s got a really good idea of how it should come together. When we first started working, he was like a mix engineer and then it gradually became producing together. He’s got a club background as well and he just knows how to get that balance right.”
Patterson and Mark Ralph have now settled into a highly productive working arrangement where the former does his writing and pre-production in his programming room, before bringing the results upstairs to the SSL room for additional production and final mixes. And, after years of writing and programming using Ableton Live alone, Jack Patterson now moves projects between it and Pro Tools. “I basically started realising how Ableton’s amazing for what it is,” Patterson says, “but when you start dealing with vocals it’s quite difficult, just managing data. The same with recording strings. I started to understand the power of being able to create VCA groups and being able to deal with multi-mic things for recording strings. I’d been creating loads of groups in Ableton and the sessions were just turning into a total mess.
“Also, comping vocals in Pro Tools is a dream. Just being able to manage all the takes as well. Pro Tools almost feels like an operating system in itself, ‘cause it’s so easy to hide stuff and get rid of stuff. The projects are getting really big now, and there’s no way of hiding things in Ableton. If it’s there, it’s there and you can see it. So I just love how you can manage that in Pro Tools.”
Since the debut Clean Bandit album, Patterson’s approach to production has also become more minimalist. “Before, I’d kind of layer stuff up until I thought it sounded good,” he says. “Now it’s much more about making space for just four individual lanes and making sure each of those is really doing its job.”
“I think as a general rule,” adds Ralph, “I always try and reduce everything I do to the absolute bare minimum I can get away with at any given time. It might have lots of different things coming in and out, and that’s what gives you the impression that the production is quite rich and varied. If you listen to some of the greatest records, you can probably count on one hand the number of things playing at any one time. I think that’s what makes records distinctive — when you can really identify the key melodic and lyrical hooks, and you do that by reducing it to its minimum. That’s something we’ve been trying to achieve with these latest records.”
To this end, Patterson will mix a part such as strings down to a stereo pair to purposely limit the options when mixing upstairs in the SSL room. “I’ll mix the strings and then there’ll just be a stereo,” he says. “Projects can get so massive, I think it’s good to be like, ‘That sounds good, that’s done, that’s it.’ Then there’s this one less parameter and you’re just kind of ticking off tasks as well. If stuff’s always editable, y’know, you could be tweaking strings to fit the bass line. It’s good to get some things kind of pinned down, otherwise everything’s in flux all the time.”
Although he owns various vintage synths including a Roland Juno 106 and SH09, Patterson tends to just use his Yamaha upright piano and Wurlitzer electric piano during the writing process, with soft synths for bass parts and pads, his favourite being U-he’s Diva. “It’s kind of like a Frankenstein of synths,” he says. “You can just pick an oscillator, and it doesn’t say specifically what it is, but you can tell by the graphic what it’s supposed to be replicating. So you can get an oscillator from something that looks very much like a Juno 60 and then a filter from something that looks very much like a Minimoog and take the best elements of certain things and build stuff. It’s really cool.”
A lot of Grace Chatto’s cello parts are recorded in his room using either a Neumann U87 or, more often, a Neumann TLM103. “It’s really bright and kind of just seems to work on everything,” says Patterson. “The U87 has got its own sound, but I kind of don’t like that. I think a lot of our aesthetic is just kind of crystal clarity and super no-noise.”
Monitoring-wise, Patterson uses a pair of Dynaudio BM15s matched with a Behringer K10S sub, and tends to balance on a pair of trusty Yamaha NS10s. “I’ve started to rely on them now ’cause I’m working in so many different places,” he explains. “NS10s are getting more and more difficult to get a hold of, so I’ve got an eBay alert for when they come up. If you can get it sounding good on them, you’re laughing. I know that’s obviously like a trope of recording technology, but it’s true. What I find more useful is they’re everywhere. I’m doing a lot of stuff in LA and if the studio have got a pair, you can listen to them and you know the sound.”
Plug-in-wise, Patterson uses a Universal Audio Apollo interface and DSP platform with his DAW software. “I really like the Oxford and the Massenburg EQs. But, to be honest, when I’m writing stuff in here, I’ll just do everything in Ableton, just to keep things light and quick. It’s more important to be fluid and fast, so down here I tend to just use the Ableton plug-ins, which are amazing. With drums, I’ll often just start with an 808 in a writing session and then gradually, piece by piece, it’ll be replaced.”
When it comes to mixing effects, both Patterson and Ralph rave about the Valhalla plug-in reverb range, particularly the Vintage Verb and the Shimmer. “It’s fantastic,” Patterson says of the former. “It sounds very digital but there’s something about the way it modulates. It’s not like an acoustic effect — it’s not to make it sound real. It’s kind of adding colour. Shimmer I’ve used an awful lot. It’s amazing. I love automating stuff through Valhalla.”
Recently, Patterson added a Tiptop Audio Z-DSP Eurorack module to his setup, after he found out that you can fit them with cartridges featuring Valhalla’s Shimmer and Halls Of Valhalla. He plans on using it more in his future sessions. “It’ll be so nice to be able to have actual control of all those parameters that I love messing around with in there,” he says, “but in hardware.”
“Valhalla’s great,” Ralph agrees, “and to be honest with you I’ve bought more expensive plug-in reverbs and they haven’t sounded as good. Their modulation one, UberMod, is really good as well, from the point of view of me comparing it to my own hardware reverbs.”
Upstairs in the mix room, Ralph’s collection of outboard reverbs includes an EMT 240 gold foil plate, Lexicon 480L, AMS RMX16 and Yamaha REV7, along with the spring in his ARP 2600 synth. “I’ve also got an [Eventide] H3000 which has reverbs in as well. But I tend to find that the plug-ins these days sound really, really good and it’s nice having that control over them. Certain things the plate sounds really great and natural on. So it’s sort of mix and match.”
Both Jack Patterson and Mark Ralph say that completing the second Clean Bandit album hasn’t been a top priority: in today’s streaming world, record company and audience demand is more for singles. It’s already been a highly successful approach for the team, with 2016 seeing Clean Bandit enjoy two big hits courtesy of ‘Tears’, featuring X-Factor winner Louisa Johnson, and Christmas number one ‘Rockabye’, featuring Sean Paul and Anne-Marie.
“Louisa has got a massive voice,” Patterson enthuses. “It was a real surprise when she came in, ’cause we’d finished ‘Tears’ with someone else. Me and Sam Romans wrote ‘Tears’ almost two years ago. We’d had this ballad version of it that was just piano and Sam singing. His manager had been playing that around and he’d played it to Simon Cowell, and in the meantime we’d actually finished the track with someone else. Simon Cowell was like, ‘I’ve got a perfect voice for this track, please can you hear Louisa sing it?’ And we were like, ‘Well actually no, it’s finished, but we’d still love to do something with her.’ So she came in to record another track but when I heard her I was like, ‘Flipping heck, her voice would be amazing for “Tears”.’ It was really sad to be arseholes and start again. But we were like, ‘We need to try Louisa on this track.’”
“I guess the concept of the song,” says Ralph, “was sort of ‘I Will Survive’, but with some modern kind of garage production. The song tells a story of heartbreak or whatever, but it’s got a contrast with these quite sparse kind of garage-influenced beats and bass. I think that’s quite an original juxtaposition.
“When you’re producing music, you’re always thinking, What happens if we mix this kind of style with this style? Or make this type of record, but we do it in a different way that no one’s done it before? I think that record is definitely a mishmash of those. ‘Rockabye’ is exactly the same thing really. It’s quite a dark, melancholy song but dressed up as a dancehall electronic/classical mishmash. So that’s an interesting combination, I think.”
Sean Paul’s rapping contribution to ‘Rockabye’ was written and recorded by him in the main room at Club Ralph. “Seeing how he writes was really interesting,” says Patterson, “‘cause it’s kind of like a stalactite growing. It’s not like he’ll have an overview of the whole verse. He’ll grow it along until it’s done. I’ve noticed some people have started tracking like that as well. They’ll just do a line over and over again until that’s right and then move onto the next. It’s quite an interesting way of doing it, really getting into detail. If you start like that, if you say that’s the process, then there’s no single performance to compare it to. I mean you might think it’s cheating. But if you’re gonna comp it anyway...”
Of the Clean Bandit tracks currently being worked on, the next that are most likely to be released are a collaboration with Swedish singer Zara Larsson and another, ‘Disconnect’, featuring Marina and the Diamonds and a funky guitar part by Nile Rodgers. “We were touring with Chic and Duran Duran in America,” says Patterson, “so we played it to him. He just does everything in his studio in his house. So it was just remote tracking.”
More physically collaborative were the recent writing and recording sessions that Clean Bandit did with Elton John at RAK Studios. “We met him at the Ivor Novello Awards,” says Patterson. “Grace is incredibly cheeky. She’s been the main one to just make stuff happen. She suggested working together and he seemed up for it.”
Patterson admits, however, that he was a tad starstruck when it came to directing Elton through vocal takes in the studio. “That’s the tricky thing,” he grins. “Y’know, who am I to tell Elton John to sing in a certain way, or to do it again? But you have to. That’s your responsibility to do that. No matter what level the singer is that you’re working with, you’re there to help them and to guide them. But I don’t think I did. I think I just sat there going, like, ‘That’s all amazing!’”.
Clean Bandit may have to get used to working with more premier league artists if their current commercial success continues. Mark Ralph, for one, can’t see that ending any time soon. “I think they have a very strong focus on writing good songs, and I think they tick a lot of boxes,” he says. “They’re quite unique in the way that they combine classical music and dance music, particularly with their slant on garage. But I think there’s also a very, very strong sense of everybody pulling together and using each other’s talents to get a good result.
“It’s encouraging, because in this day and age the public instantly vote with their feet. You can have a band who’re doing really, really well, and you assume that whatever they put out is gonna be a hit record, but it doesn’t always work like that. I guess you probably have to try that much harder to just make sure your song is a 10 out of 10 rather than an eight out of 10.”
The tracks that Mark Ralph mixed for Clean Bandit’s debut album New Eyes were completed when his Club Ralph studio was based in Kilburn and centred on a 60-channel desk built by German producer Conny Plank [Kraftwerk, Neu!] in the ’70s. “I think you get used to the sound of whichever console you’re working on,” says Ralph. “I got very used to the sound of that, the way the EQ behaves and the way it sums the audio signals together. You get a very good intuitive kind of workflow based on what the desk’s giving back to you, and how hard you can drive it.”
When Club Ralph moved to Queen’s Park two years ago, the room already had an SSL E‑series console, previously owned by Tony Visconti and installed at his Good Earth Studios in Soho, which meant Ralph couldn’t use his Conny Plank desk. “I’ve lent it to somebody else who has a studio in East London,” he says, “just because I couldn’t fit both desks into one studio.”
Ralph admits that it took him some time to get used to the E‑series. “When I switched over, it was quite difficult to adjust to begin with,” he says. “Even though I’d worked on a lot of SSLs over the years, it felt strange. There’s more functionality on the SSL, so it was nice having different routing options. But I got used to it and I kind of feel like once you get used to a desk, it’s hard to swap and use a different one. I went out to LA to Interscope’s studio and I was finishing off a few things on the Years & Years album. I was using an E‑series which was Dr Dre’s old desk and it just didn’t sound anything like what I was used to at home. So I do believe that they’re all very different.
“Even though you assume an SSL is an SSL, it really isn’t. They’re so individual in my experience, just because of all the revisions that were made over time. The main differences as the generations went on were in the centre section of the console and the computer. A lot of the E‑series desks ended up, as mine did, upgraded to the G-series computer which was a bit more reliable and had more functions. I’ve also got a different combination of the EQs — predominately the brown EQs, but some black EQs and some of the orange Pultec EQs as well. When I took on the studio, I had the whole thing recapped so it’s fully all-singing, all-dancing.”
Still, Ralph is clearly tickled by one particular peculiarity of the G-series software. “I think the latest revision was 1987 or something,” he says, “but the clock doesn’t go beyond the year 2012. They assumed the world was going to end on January 1st 2013 [laughs]. A lot of the time the clock doesn’t really work anyway and just kind of gets stuck on the one time. So you generally just have to pick a date in history that you would like to look at every day and that’s your date.”