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ROB PLAYFORD: Producing Goldie

Interview | Producer By Christopher Holder
Published June 1998

ROB PLAYFORD: Producing Goldie

Rob Playford is not only the man who, as Goldie's producer, helped mould one of the most original drum & bass talents into a household name and chart success; he's also boss of one of the hippest drum & bass labels on the planet, and a sought‑after remixer. Christopher Holder asks 'how does he do that?'.

Drum & bass: frenetic, schizophrenic, urban, always evolving. Soho: ditto. It seems fitting that the HQ of Moving Shadow records, one of the leading drum & bass labels, should be based here; cross the borders of this tiny square half‑mile of London and life takes on a whole new urgency. Everyday occurrences are achieved with impossible speed: coffee is ordered and drunk without breaking a stride, and shops change hands — and décor — before lunchtime.

Even in this hothouse environment, there doesn't seem to be enough hours in the day for Rob Playford. For the best part of a decade, he's subjected himself to a punishing regime of running Moving Shadow records, producing and engineering his own music (as well as that of many others), DJing around the UK club circuit, and, until recent times, holding down a nine‑to‑five job as a software engineer. Phew!

Rob is riding on the crest of the still‑ongoing musical revolution brought about by drum & bass — or whatever you call it; as the Moving Shadow home page on the Internet succinctly puts it 'breakbeat, hardcore, jungle... call it what you will, it sounds like the future'. David Bowie wanted to be part of it with 'Hello Spaceboy', Roni Size's Reprazent shook up the prestigious Mercury Awards with it, every rock act wanting to spice up their singles sales has a remix using it, and everything from game shows to shampoo advertisements is trying to grab our attention with it. But it wasn't always this way...

In the UK, back in 1994/95, the sound of breakbeat was reaching critical mass, its popularity gradually seeping out from the underground scene such that even the major labels were forced to take note. It was at this time that Rob Playford was hooking up with Goldie at weekends to work on tracks. The result was the single 'Timeless', a faultless blend of atmospheres, voices, fierce breakbeats and a masonry‑endangering bassline. London Records went — in the popular parlance of the time — mad for it, and drum & bass broke worldwide, transforming Goldie into a pop star overnight.

Downtown Upturn

ROB PLAYFORD: Producing Goldie

Normally, when you walk into a London‑based commercial studio, you know what to expect. For starters, the age of the SSL desk should give you a good idea of the studio's cashflow situation; then there'll be a 24‑track reel‑to‑reel lurking somewhere, and all the usual suspects from Lexicon, Drawmer, and Eventide in the racks, along with a few mysterious '70s curios for the sake of good yarn when hi‑tech music journalists turn up. But as soon as I got into Moving Shadow's HQ, I could see things would be different. The atmosphere was less one of hushed corporate commerce than that of a school project on steroids. There's an immediacy that the atmosphere shares with the bustle of Soho outside the front door; everyone's getting on with a dozen things, and not because it's costing a client a grand a day for the privilege, or because the board of directors said so, but because there's just so many cool things to do. Rob casts a benign gaze over the scene, smiles broadly, and invites me into the studio.

Trident And Tested

Rob's racks (top to bottom): Oberheim OBMx, Alka Seltzer (essential creative tools, natch), Akai SG01v, Yamaha TG500, Novation Drumstation, Akai S3200. Below are the Opcode Studio 4 and two Sony DATs.Rob's racks (top to bottom): Oberheim OBMx, Alka Seltzer (essential creative tools, natch), Akai SG01v, Yamaha TG500, Novation Drumstation, Akai S3200. Below are the Opcode Studio 4 and two Sony DATs.

"Way back, this used to be Trident Studios", offers Rob by way of introduction. "This studio used to be the remix room; the main studio was directly underneath, although quite a few things were recorded in here. Bowie did his recordings here up until 1974. We actually had him in here last summer, doing a track for Saturnzreturn [Goldie's second album], and that was freaky for me. He hadn't been in this room for 25 years, but he went straight into the vocal booth and started rolling off some of his old cheesy tunes; it sounded exactly like it did on his records!

"Moving into a purpose‑built facility has saved us a lot of trouble. It's a completely floating‑room construction, and we need that, because we make such a racket! Some of it still leaks out with the volumes we run at and the sub‑bass we use, but it gets cut down a lot. It's better than a bedroom, anyway..."

Rob should know; all the seminal Moving Shadow drum & bass releases came out of sessions in his bedroom in Stevenage.

"I got into music as a DJ, not a musician. But in the '80s, forms of music came along that you didn't necessarily need to be a musician to make or appreciate; early electronic and electro, and then hip‑hop. People who weren't musicians could get involved, either as producers or as DJs.

"My first taste of recording studios came when Stevie V, who was a friend of my brother, gave me the run of his studio for a number of weeks. I didn't know anything about the gear, but just figured it out through trial and error, and managed to finish four tracks! Back then, releasing your own record was a cool thing to do, so I got 500 pressed up.

"During that period, I gradually pieced together some gear at home. I bought a Yamaha DX7, and then some shareware Atari sequencing software called Superconductor. You could write the notes in single steps, which I found a lot easier than actually playing the DX7.

"Being a working man, I had some money to spend, so I bought myself an Akai S950 sampler. When that was delivered to my house one morning, I just knew there was no way I was going to work that day! With that as my basis, I started doing more from home, and produced some early Moving Shadow tracks."

Me And My Shadow

Budget outboard sits alongside a top‑end digital system: Alesis 3630, Behringer Suppressor, Ultrafex II, and Intelligate, SPL Stereo Vitalizer, and three Behringer Composers share rack space with Pro Tools 24 I/O hardware.Budget outboard sits alongside a top‑end digital system: Alesis 3630, Behringer Suppressor, Ultrafex II, and Intelligate, SPL Stereo Vitalizer, and three Behringer Composers share rack space with Pro Tools 24 I/O hardware.

Even now, Rob's setup maintains a home studio feel. Remember, this isn't a pre‑production suite or somewhere Rob thrashes out ideas with his mates; the mixes coming out of this studio are the finished product — and this is achieved on gear we can all reasonably afford. There's Behringer outboard, a couple of Alesis Quadraverbs for effects, and an Allen & Heath Sabre for the mixing. This kind of setup makes you look at your own home studio and wonder what your excuse is.

Rob: "I don't like getting rid of anything really. Like the Sabre: when I bought that it was a huge leap, and although it's now not out of the question that I replace it, I'm a bit daunted by the prospect of adjusting my ears to a new console and relearning the tricks I have on new gear.

"Saying that, there have always been things I like to constantly upgrade. It used to be my samplers. I went from the S950 to the S1000, then up to the S1100, and finally to a S3200. I can't see myself upgrading again soon, either to an Emu or the latest Akai; not with the way I'm spending money on my Mac! Macs are like black holes; everything in the studio is slowly getting sucked into them. Pretty soon everything you need in the studio will be sitting in one. I run [Emagic] Logic Audio, a [Digidesign] Pro Tools system and various software plug‑ins on the computer.

"Pro Tools is my other great weakness. It's now the only thing I really keep up with, and it forms the heart of my studio, together with Logic Audio. Logic uses all the hardware and the operating system of the Digidesign system, and I use it quite bit more than the Pro Tools software front end. There are things which Pro Tools handles better, but it's the sequencing side that's more important to me, which of course Pro Tools isn't designed to do.

"I've invested in the Pro Tools 24‑bit system now, and have been pleased with it. When you think about it, 16‑bit digital audio was brought out to be a compromise, a consumer format. It was never meant to be the last word in sound quality. I know it would have been difficult at the time, but I think from day one they should have had a separate professional studio format and a consumer format. I think it's a step forward going over to 24‑bit, and it's the same when they eventually start hiking up the sample rate of digital recording.

"It's the extra‑fine detail that you might normally miss that makes the difference on a 24‑bit system. The ear can hear the difference; for me it's like talking about the difference between butter and margarine. The weird thing now is that with all this high‑end digital gear, the plug‑ins I'm using are emulations of 8‑bit samplers, and really dirty stuff like that. What a waste, eh? Still, it's nice to know you've got that headroom there, and that muscle to flex."

What we're producing here is moving into territory which people haven't seen or heard before, and it suits me not being a musician, because you're not limited by any rules.

Sounds Like The Future

ROB PLAYFORD: Producing Goldie

Rob is, let's be honest, keen on computers. "I honestly think that everything in the studio will go into the computer at some stage; that's where it's headed. Ideally, you need a big 11‑foot display with all sorts of touch screens on it; that would be brilliant. Everything you need should be there in front of you: mixing, sequencing, patching, effects, the lot. That's what I don't like about the digital desks; you have to remember how you've got things set up. I've got a 20‑inch screen on my Mac and a 17‑inch one next to it, but there's still not enough room to view everything. All you need is for the interface to be big enough; that's the only thing that holds back computers."

Reliability, it seems, is not an issue for Mr Playford.

"You've just got to be careful. As long as your system is properly set up in the first place, with your SCSI connections right, and you back up regularly, I can't see the problem. Lost work can happen to anyone; it's not like nobody's ever erased a a two‑inch reel of tape by sticking it next to a speaker... Anyway, CD‑Rs are brilliant for backing up. I finished a project last week, and including all the takes we didn't use, the whole project took up 600Mb of memory — but hey presto, it fits onto a CD‑R which costs 80p, and it's backed up.

"I use [Adaptec] Toast CD‑writing software and a Plasmon drive. I did use Digidesign's Masterlist CD, which is just as good, but both programs have this odd time limitation built in; they assume that there's a 74‑minute ceiling on recording time for the CDs. Recently, I've found out that the R&D departments for both packages aren't aware that there are 80‑minute blank CDs out there, which was a shock. A lot of the Moving Shadow albums we're doing are75, 76‑minute albums, and we had one recently where it was a real struggle to cut it back to under 80 minutes. We managed to, but then the software wouldn't let us write it! I've asked the R&D guys to make an alteration in their next versions."

Technical VS Musical

ROB PLAYFORD: Producing Goldie

The role of a record producer has patently changed over the last 40 years, thanks to the increasing role played in recording by technology. Consider, say, the difference between George Martin's musical input into a Beatles album and William Orbit's predominantly technical contribution to Madonna's latest. There are obvious needs for producers at both ends of the spectrum, but I was curious to hear about how Rob perceived the role he held.

"The kind of music that I've been involved with didn't need a music producer in the classic mould; it needed a technical producer. That's the difference. In the last 10 or 15 years there have been a lot of producers coming from the technical side. They know the limitations of the machinery, and using that know‑how, it's easier to see the possibilities for a track, rather than applying a musical direction as such.

"Neither Goldie nor myself are musicians, or would ever claim to be musicians, but we have in our heads what we want to hear. If we could actually play the damn instruments, I'm sure we'd be dangerous, but we can't. It's kind of frustrating at times, but I think the more knowledge you have in one area, the more it can stifle your creativity in others.

"Goldie has a very vivid imagination, and knows nothing about the technical side of the process. Meanwhile, my imagination has been stunted by the familiarity I have with the electronics. If I'm sitting here on my own and I have an idea for a track, I go through this whole process of whether I should bother doing it or not. If there's someone beside you like Goldie, who comes up with the same idea, but can't realise it, then you want to show what you're capable of — it becomes a challenge.

"Goldie and I both came through similar musical experiences at the end of the '80s and in the early '90s, so he could describe things to me that others wouldn't begin to understand; it was a very special chemistry. I would then have a go at it, and he'd get excited that here was somebody who could turn this sound or style in his head into something that he could actually hear. I was like an interface, but an interactive one; I could see the direction he was going in and try and take him that little bit further with my knowledge of the gear. Then that extra step would kick him up onto another level. That's my role; being able to understand what someone is telling me and not just doing it, but showing them what else the technology is capable of, based on that seed of an idea.

"What we're producing here is moving into territory which people haven't seen or heard before, and it suits me not being a musician, because you're not limited by any rules; you're not worried about whether that key isn't meant to go there or whatever. There are certain cases where talented people going through the writing process will have doors shut on them way too early; you'll be told that this chord doesn't work with that, for example, but if you perservere, what you end up with after you've processed it and done all your trickery is something that does work. The point is to keep going; just be aware that you're not finished yet.

"For good or bad, musicians generally do have certain protocols programmed into them. If I was a musician, I don't know whether I'd be particularly broad‑minded, which makes me reticent to even begin learning the basics. It might just destroy what I've got."


What Makes 'Timeless' Tick?

Rob with his beloved Power Mac running Emagic Logic Audio and Pro Tools.Rob with his beloved Power Mac running Emagic Logic Audio and Pro Tools.

'Timeless' is the single that kicked it all off for Goldie. At 21 minutes long, it's a drum & bass epic; over three intricately interwoven movements it evolves and deconstructs, giving drum & bass class whilst also demonstrating it at its most brutal. Without 'Timeless', Rob could still be working from home, and Goldie could still be like any of the other gold‑toothed, peroxide‑haired guys you can see redecorating city library walls with aerosol cans. So how did this opus come about?

"First of all, we had the idea for the strings. Goldie wanted to have a string part playing, and then have that sound bend away, leaving another note to take over. Of course, all you need is the same sound set up on different MIDI channels on your synth, but until then no‑one had shown him it was possible. The idea was to have the strings as an almost visual experience, where they're going along, falling, and exploding. We worked on three string parts in the end, and assigned them to three different channels on my Emu Vintage Keys. We were then able to adjust the volumes on the channels, bringing them up halfway through a chord, or pitch‑bending a note without it affecting the others — there was a lot of control data involved.

"I suppose we spent a few weeks doing that, working every Friday night; and Goldie was on the phone every other night with new ideas for different bits. If we were working solidly, we might have had it done in one or two weeks, but I think it was good that we didn't, because we had the time to work on all the different ideas we had for the song.

"I was living in Stevenage at the time and would give Goldie a ride back to London when we'd finished; we just kept rewinding the string section on the trip back, it was so gorgeous.

"After a few weeks, we thought that it would be great if this was a really long track; I suggested that we should make it go up to the 40‑minute limit for a single. Then I realised that on Notator, our sequencer, at the tempo we were using, the maximum length was 32 minutes! I was gutted; that was the end of my plan for a 40‑minute track. It was too late to go and do it at half the tempo — we had too much stuff already arranged.

"We then put some drums in towards the end to give the strings more time to develop. It was then that I found this trick on the sampler that I don't think anyone has done since. The breakbeat is actually made up of two mono files on the sampler, which I adjusted separately, so that when I stuck them together, I had the break riding up and spinning around in the stereo soundfield. It sounded like nothing we'd ever heard, it was a revelation — we listened to that for hours and hours.

"We then added basslines, using some shocking subsonic parts, but trying to keep it fat as well. The way the three parts mixed into each other was also very important; like a DJ mixing two records, I wanted the transition to be smooth. I spent a long time connecting the three parts of 'Timeless'.

"Eventually, we ended up with an instrumental version of the song, which to my mind was finished. With that version, we could just get from Stevenage to Goldie's house in the time the track took to finish. That was the goal; to get Goldie home without any rewinding!

"I don't know when the vocals idea came into Goldie's plans, but he certainly didn't tell me about it until we'd done the whole track. In my head, I'd constructed it to have all the pieces come out and develop; I couldn't see where the vocals would fit in.

"Diane Charlemagne came over and did the vocals, and we put them onto DAT and sampled the parts we wanted. I also reprocessed them; I think I put them through a [BBE] Sonic Maximiser, to get that airiness in there. But it wasn't actually until I put them into the song that I thought, 'no, brilliant, they work perfectly'".

Re: Remixing

The record that shot Goldie to fame.The record that shot Goldie to fame.

Following the success of 'Timeless', Rob has become a much sought‑after remix artist. Already, he's remixed names such as Fugees, Black Grape, Garbage, and Sleeper, as well as a remix that appeared on the Mission Impossible soundtrack.

"From my earliest memories, I've always listened to records and thought of ways I would have done them differently. Also, mixing other people's records is how I got into music, either by DJing or doing 'megamixes' of other people's tracks. Now, I'm given the pieces of a complete tune and asked to reassemble it. I think it's something that I've always been able to do.

"We approach remixing the same way we used to make records in the old days; we sample. When we do a remix here, we listen to all the tracks we're given on ADAT, and then keep what we like and scrap what we don't. We just use their tracks as a starting point — if I'd sample a sound or vocal for one of my tracks, it's in; if I wouldn't, it's out. Even if it's the chorus — if it's crap, we won't use it.

"We've done remixes where we've given it back and the reaction has been, 'there's nothing of the original track here at all!' — when in actual fact there hasn't been one sound that wasn't from the original. We've just done our trickery to it, redone and reprocessed it, that's all".

Break The Rules, Beat The Competition

A fresh breakbeat is critical to a fresh drum & bass sound. So, Rob — what's the secret?

"A lot of people think writing breakbeats is just about lifting a drum break and looping it, but there's more to it than that. We sample the breaks we want, add some noise to them, give them some horrible EQ, distort them and do anything else we can to give the break 'authenticity'. We get second‑ and third‑hand breakbeats that are 20 or 30 years old or more that have been through some hideous processes in their time. For some of them, it's no good sampling the original breakbeat, because the people who sampled it first — normally early hip‑hop artists — have done something to it on their crappy little DJ mixers that has added to the flavour.

"On the other hand, you can take a sample and turn it into a breakbeat that sounds like it was just recorded in a drum booth. You can make it go either way depending on the style of your track, whether it needs to be grungy or clean.

"Whatever you do, you're aiming to end up with new breaks. All we wanted years ago was an unlimited supply of fresh breakbeats, and we've learnt how to achieve that. A lot of the beats on Saturnzreturn were actually redrummed; then we processed them in Pro Tools. That way, we could get the right flavour of the breakbeat we were trying to emulate but still be fresh. We got about 1.3Gb of breakbeats that way!"

Timeless Stuff — Selected Rob Playford Gear


  • Alesis 3630 compressor/gate
  • Alesis Midiverb III effects
  • Alesis Quadraverb multi‑effects
  • Alesis Q2 multi‑effects
  • Alesis Midiverb III effects
  • Allen & Heath Sabre mixer
  • Behringer Composer compressor/expander (x3)
  • Behringer Intelligate
  • Behringer Suppressor multi‑band de‑esser
  • Behringer Ultrafex II enhancer
  • Klark Teknik graphic EQ
  • Lexicon Vortex effects
  • Novation Drumstation
  • Plasmon CD‑R writer
  • Sony DAT (x2)
  • Sony M7 sonic modulator
  • Sony MP5 effects
  • SPL Stereo Vitalizer enhancer
  • Tannoy monitors
  • Technics decks (x2)


  • Akai S3200


  • Akai SG01v vintage synth module
  • Emu Vintage Keys module
  • Korg 01/W workstation
  • Novation Bassstation monosynth
  • Oberheim OBMx analogue rack synth
  • Roland Juno 106
  • Yamaha DX7
  • Yamaha TG500


  • Apple Power Mac
  • Digidesign Pro Tools 24 system
  • Emagic Logic Audio sequencer
  • Opcode Studio 4 MIDI interface
  • Adaptec Toast CD‑writing software