Roni Size's New Forms revolutionised electronic music. Ten years on, he's returned to his classic album with a fresh perspective.
Released in 1997, Roni Size's New Forms is one of those landmark albums that didn't just define a genre, but an era. Size took the drum & bass genre to a new level, finding new ways to incorporate live vocals, live instruments, and a jazz feel. New Forms won the Mercury Music Prize in the year of its release, introduced drum & bass to a whole new audience, and has gone five times platinum.
A decade on, Size has released New Forms 2, featuring a selection of the original tracks, altered with additional production and overdubs, plus three brand-new tracks. This news is sure to make purists' heartbeats skip a beat or two, and one wonders what made him risk accusations of sacrilege. The answer sounds like a case of burnout.
"I'd been DJ'ing solidly for two years, five days a week," explains Size. "It got to the point where I was doing five-hour sessions at Space in Ibiza, which was a massive challenge to me. Afterwards I sat down with [DJ] Carl Cox, and said to him that even as I love drum & bass, I didn't feel any more as if I loved the music I was playing. I said 'It's good for the moment and for putting smiles on people's faces, but it's not really me.' He recommended that I take time away from music, which is a hard thing to do, as I get offers every day to remix, or to DJ in the most exotic places. But I took his advice and called my agent and said 'No more gigs, no more music, from this point on.' I even stopped listening to music. You know how wine tasters clear their palate after each tasting? For me this was a case of clearing my musical palate.
"For six months I stayed at home, not doing much, and then I got a couple of emails from Universal saying that they wanted to release a deluxe edition of New Forms to mark its 10th anniversary, and did I have anything to add to the mix. And I thought: actually, I do. I wanted to do things that I couldn't have done 10 years ago, because of the technology, and because I didn't have the same knowledge as I have now. So my assistant, D Product, and I went through all my ADATs and Syquest drives and archives of floppy discs, all the formats I have used over the years, and loaded everything into a brand new Pro Tools LE system. Once I had everything in front of me in Pro Tools, I thought 'There's so much stuff here, double bass, live drums, vocals, that I didn't know how to use on the original New Forms.' So I started to pull it all together, and before I knew it, I had a new record.
"What I did not want to do was take anything away from the original, because it had so much space, and at the time it was quite groundbreaking. I didn't want to stir up anything of that, yet I did want to update it. There are people who never heard the original New Forms . For them this is a new record. What I tried to do is give the original a new coat of armour, making it sound like a record that could have been made today."
Size reduced the original album's 23 tracks to 13, in the process losing some highlights such as 'Watching Windows', but retaining classic tracks like 'Brown Paper Bag' and 'Heroes', while adding three new studio tracks and the live 'Encore'. Size then added keys, saxophone, guitar, vocals, drums and/or additional production to the remaining original tracks, much of it material that had been recorded at the time.
"The song 'Watching Windows' didn't make the grade for me," explains Size. "I prefer 'Don't Hold Back', the new track, because it will sound spectacular live. With a lot of the music I make now I think of how it's going to sound on stage. In the past I didn't consider how things would sound live so much. But during the period '97–'01 we toured a lot around the world, and we got a great response back from people, saying which tracks they like. And all the tracks from New Forms that people told me they really, really like, I put on the new album. But in my mind there were a few elements missing. So I added 'Heart To Heart', which is quite slow, really down–tempo, and represents an aspect from music that I want. I wish I could have done a track like that 10 years ago, but I would not have known how to do the drum programming. 'Less Is More' is also a vocal track, and it shows what our sound would be if we were a funk band.
"I chose to include the vocal version of 'Brown Paper Bag', which is great because it never was on the original album. The New Forms 2 version is 10 years old, all I've done is EQ the vocals a bit to make them punchier. In general the effect of the overdubs is very slight. Once again, I did not want people to turn round and say 'I prefer the original.' But perhaps the people who didn't understand the original album will understand the new version. It's a lot tighter, a lot more produced. Ten years ago I only knew about tops and bass, and did not know the difference between 60Hz and 120Hz. I have that kind of knowledge now. The knowledge I've gained is reflected in New Forms 2.
"First and foremost, I did New Forms 2 for myself. In the past I may have tailored some of my music a little bit to the radio, or to Jools Holland, or whatever. That was maybe necessary at the time. But now I'm trying to make stuff that's short and sharp, that does the job, and works as a piece of music."
Naturally, the original New Forms was made with the equipment of the day, starting with an Atari computer and Cubase and Notator software linked to two Alesis ADAT machines. ("That was quite hard work.") Size also made heavy use of Roland S550 and S760 samplers, and Yamaha NS10 monitors. Halfway through recording the project, he changed over to an Apple Mac 7600 with a Mackie desk, Mackie monitors and the S760 sampler.
Only three years ago, Size was still working with a collection of equipment that was in essence a development of his late '90s gear: Pro Tools 5.1 working in conjunction with two ADAT machines, Mackie HUI controller and Malcolm Toft MTA 948 console, plus endless samplers, drum machines, sound modules and synths, among them the Akai MPC2000XL, Emu 6400, SP1200, Planet Phatt and Orbit, Oberheim DMX, Roland JV1080, MacBeth M3X, Korg Triton, Alesis Andromeda A6, and so on. He had by then also amassed a substantial number of mics, mic preamps, EQs and outboard effects. Two years ago he ditched his ADATs and almost all his sound sources in favour of an Apple Mac G5 quad–core, Pro Tools 7.1 software and a massive array of plug–ins. As Size fell for the joys of working 'in the box', the Mackie also was sent packing, and the MTA 948 has fallen into disuse.
"I've handed a lot of my equipment to younger engineers coming through," explains Size, who at 38 can hardly be considered old. "I still have my Triton, which is very cool because you can manipulate everything and it has a big sound that I love. The Andromeda is also still here, because it has a very unique sound, and I have a couple of keyboards that I'll never get rid of, among them the [Korg] MS20. But almost everything else is gone, and it's now all in my Pro Tools library. All my Orbit kicks are in an Orbit file, and so on. All my vintage stuff is in front of me now, and I can access it at the press of a button. I now use [MOTU's] MachFive, which is a great sampler, reminiscent of the S760, and I love Structure, the new Pro Tools sampler. I also really like Xpand!, another Pro Tools module. Other favourites are the Korg MS20 Legacy Cell plug–in and the SSL plug–ins. And Waves offer a perfect time–stretch plug–in. Ten years ago it would take me half an hour to time–stretch a vocal and it would still be wrong. In the Waves plug–in it takes five seconds and it's perfect every time."
Size notes that the single most important improvement afforded by working in the box is "instant recall. To me it is the best thing ever. The days are over when I had to wait an hour or two hours for someone to recall a whole song on an SSL or another desk, and even then it never came back the same. Even until recently, when I had 16 outputs from the Pro Tools going to my MTA desk, a recall never came out the same. But now things always come back the same, which means I can make a reference mix for listening in the car, or in a club, and I can hear what needs to go maybe 2dB up or down, and just recall the mix and do it. It's great.
"The other thing that I love is my hard drive. I can now have nine or 10 projects sitting right in front of me at the touch of a button. I used to work for days on one tune, but now I'll never work for more than an hour on each one. If I get a little stuck, I simply move to the next tune, and come back to it later. Or I can wake up and lie in bed for two hours running through in my head what I have to do, and get up and simply do it. It's all so much easier than before, when making one record was a lot of work. But you say this to the kids nowaways, and they don't understand. In the old days, before going out to DJ I had to spend an extra hour saving everything to floppy discs. Sometimes I left all my equipment on standby, and when I came back from DJ–ing and hadn't saved properly, I would lose the whole tune, as the electricity would have been cut off because I hadn't put money in the meter. I had no money in those days!"
Things have changed enough over ten years to make it unlikely that Roni Size will be running out of 50p pieces any more. That doesn't mean that he can't see some good sides to the old days, and disadvantages to the new way of doing things. "I think that one reason why I felt that there was substance missing from the music that I was playing as a DJ was that the music has become too easy to make. Back in the day it took us a week to chop up a break and edit it and put it back into Cubase. Now you buy a machine and press Play and it's done for you. With all the soft samplers, it's done in a moment. We are living in a preset world. And when I was listening to the music and I could hear a preset from a machine, I thought 'That's a bit fucked up, innit?'"
The producer/DJ also waxes lyrical about his Apogee Rosetta 800 AD converters. "They are the best thing in my studio. Wow! They are incredible. I have two of them, both eight–out/eight–in, and they sound beautiful. And I love using 24–bit/96kHz. It's like floating on air. You hear the top, the bottom and it allows you to EQ in a certain way. When you EQ'ed in 16–bit, you always lost a whole dimension."
"I don't mind a bit of 16–bit or 12–bit crunch," he adds. "My MPC was eight–bit, and sounded great. I think you have to use it all. My theory is that I use everything. I use acoustic drums, and stand–up bass, and piano, and Fender Rhodes. I still use acoustic instruments. I like to use a mixture of plug–ins and outboard. I'll use an SSL EQ outside of the computer or my Waves SSL bundle. Although, to be honest with you, I don't EQ that much: a dB here or there, that's all. When you have the Rosettas you don't need to EQ much."
As can be expected, given Size's enthusiasm for recording acoustic instruments and his Rosetta A–D converter, he's held on to his collection of microphones, mic preamps and other outboard. "I still have all of them, and I use all of them live, including the Amek Pure Path and the Eventide Eclipse. I'll also sometimes use the Tube–Tech LCA2B and Tube–Tech SMC2B. I'll use the Pure Paths for my recording vocal chain as well, going into the Rosetta and then into Pro Tools, where I'll have an SSL Renaissance Vox as de–esser and an Echo Farm delay, which is fantastic."
Roni Size repeatedly sings the praises of his engineer, D Product (Dave Amso), who "has been with me for 15 years, every step of the way, never letting me down," but he has clearly spent a lot of his own time hands–on with his toys. "I'm always in the studio. I go to the studio like other people go to the gym. It's my form of release. As soon as I get out of bed and make my breakfast, I go straight upstairs and start fucking about with whatever I last did in the studio.
"I tell you one thing we did here. My engineer and I spent six months building a room, and the acoustics here are fantastic now. The sound is like a mirror reflection. I have a great–sounding room, with my Genelecs 1031 for my overall studio sound, nice and clean, and when I want to EQ the bass I put on my Dynaudio M2s. The [Yamaha] NS10s are in the loft, but I now have a really small pair of Micro Solutions speakers, which are like copies of Auratones. I'm using these Micro Solutions for my radio reference."
Apart from working on New Forms 2, Roni Size has also had "six or seven projects in total" on the go over the last year or so. Some of these were productions for others, but Size has also been "working on another project of my own, strictly for the dance floor. Remember what I was saying about not being very happy about the music I was playing as a DJ? So I went and recorded my own sets. I built 40 tunes of dance floor smashes just for myself. So I could say: this represents me. This is what I'm about. It will be released at some stage under my own banner, RS1."
But first, there's the release of New Forms 2, and the accompanying UK tour, featuring some of the original Reprazent members, like MC Dynamite and Onalee, as well as D Product. As a final question, Size is asked whether he feels that, given his Jamaican ancestry, drum & bass is his way of developing his reggae roots and pushing them into the 21st century. His reply is adamant. "No way! I'm not trying to push anything apart from maybe that I'd like to contribute to something. All I'm doing is just trying to give myself musical fulfilment. I love rolling sets of drums, whether in reggae or jazz or hip–hop. I love bass lines. I love acoustic guitar. I love melodies. I love some classical stuff. I love music. I'm a musicalist. I love the amalgamation of different types of music gelling together."
It's this openness that made the original New Forms so much more than a drum & bass album. Will he achieve the same crossover success with New Forms 2? By the time you read this you can judge for yourself, as the album was released on Mercury/UMC Records on March 10.
Mixing & outboard
- Alan Smart C2 compressor
- Amek Pure Path preamp (x4)
- Amek 9098 EQ
- Eventide Eclipse effects (x2)
- Focusrite Red 7 voice channel.
- Malcom Toft MTA 948 40–channel console
- TC Finalizer mastering processor
- Tube–Tech LCA 2B compressor and SMC 2B multi–band compressor
- Apogee Rosetta 800 converters (x2)
- Apple Power Mac G5, MacBook, PowerBook G4
- Digidesign Pro Tools HD3 system with 192 interface
- BSS crossover
- Crown K2 power amps (x2)
- Dynaudio M1 speakers
- Genelec 1031A active monitors
- Micro Solution monitors
- Quad 520F power amp
Instruments & DJ gear
- Emu E6400 sampler.
- Korg Triton workstation synth
- MacBeth M3 analogue synth
- Pioneer CDJ 1000 CD decks (x2)
- Pioneer DJM 909 DJ mixer
- Rhodes 54 electric piano
- Roland S760 sampler (x3)
- Technics 1200 turntables (x2)
- Vestax QFO turntable