Newcastle‑based Dubstar released one of the most successful pure pop albums of the last 12 months — and they made most of it using gear that wouldn't be out of place in many SOS readers' studios. Matt Bell gets sidereal with the band's programmer and main songwriter, Steve Hillier.
Rising stars in the galaxy of pop music, Dubstar (Sarah Blackwood, vocals; Chris Wilkie, guitars; and Steve Hillier, keyboards and programming) have enjoyed a run of four Top 40 singles since last autumn, and recently watched their debut album, Disgraceful, go gold. They're on first‑name terms with electronic smash hit overlord Stephen Hague (producer of Disgraceful, as well as various releases by New Order, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, OMD, and so on), have already toured their brand of catchy guitar and synth‑driven dub pop all around the UK twice, and enjoyed their first number one single (Disgraceful's opening track, 'Stars' made it to the pole position in Israel a few months ago). They even released a cover of a song by a completely unknown band from the North‑East of England about the savage robbery of an OAP's high‑rise flat as a single. A guaranteed, resounding, sure‑fire flop in the Boyzone‑bedevilled charts of 1996, you might think — and yet Dubstar took 'Not So Manic Now' into the Top 20. Nothing, it would seem, can put a damper on their blazing run of success.
You might expect such triumphs to have gone straight to the head of chief Dubstar songwriter Steve Hillier, but as yet, he seems to have maintained a characteristically easy‑going grip on the reins of his sanity — although he does seem very pleased to be appearing in the pages of SOS, describing it as 'an ambition fulfilled'. As he and songwriting partner Chris prepared B‑sides for the forthcoming Dubstar single 'Elevator Song' before departing on a European tour, he found time to talk at length about the band's Newcastle‑based studio, and their attitude to modern music technology.
Setting Up Shop
When Dubstar signed their deal with Food Records in 1994, the band were given the funding to expand on the equipment they owned, and set up a compact studio in the centre of Newcastle. This happened towards the end of last year, after the recording of the delightful Disgraceful, although much of the equipment now situated in the studio was used in the making of the album. I asked Steve why the group had pushed for the studio, and how they had achieved it. "We decided very early to put new songs on every release we did, because people are paying four quid for every CD single, and it's not fair to play on people's like of the band, and give them four versions of the same song. The most cost‑effective way to do this — and it does pay to have a head for the economics of this industry — was to equip ourselves with the means to record songs ourselves, rather than having to go into commercial studios. Although the record company financed this, it's now our gear. The way they look at it is that you need to have this equipment to get the job done; they had the choice of paying £10,000 for a load of remixes on each release, or spending six grand so that we could do own stuff. We can now do whatever we like, whenever we like, and we don't ever have to watch the clock."
The setup is simple, but effective (see gear list and the pictures elsewhere in this article), and allows the band to create release‑quality masters — indeed, this is where they have recorded all their new material since the completion of Disgraceful (ie. the B‑sides to all the singles from 'Not So Manic Now' onwards).
Steve: "All the synths and sequenced stuff comes into the Tascam MM1 keyboard mixer, and goes down to two channels on the Yamaha ProMix. All the live instruments and recordings come from the Alesis ADAT into the ProMix 01, and then we take everything digitally out of the ProMix into the Tascam DA20 DAT for mastering. It's pretty simple.
"Time is the scarcest resource you have in this industry. For that reason, so much of this gear is set up to save time; we've created a page in Cubase to give us instant access to all our instruments, for when we come to arranging a song. So if you want a bass sound, you go to MIDI channel 5 — that's set up ready for bass, and off you go. You do have to spend a certain amount of time getting everything set up like that, but it's like an investment. As a result, we can record extremely quickly. Yesterday, Chris and I started on two tracks for B‑sides. The songs were written, but the arrangements weren't done. We managed to do everything, apart from the vocals, in just five hours. So much of what you can get out of these machines depends on how you approach them, and this sort of setup is a breeding ground for creativity — but as it gets more complicated, all sorts of other issues come into play".
For this reason, the band were determined not to over‑complicate their setup. Steve showed me around the studio, explaining how they had made the purchase decisions to equip their facility. "We had just one ADAT at first, which we bought when they were right at the end of producing that model, late last year. Then, when we wanted another one, they didn't have any more, so we had to get an ADAT XT. We had to get another, because the first one kept breaking down! The XT is a much better machine, though. We did the B‑sides for 'Not So Manic Now' on the original ADAT, and the B‑sides for 'Stars' on the XT, and the difference was incredible." With the record company funding them, I wondered why Steve had chosen an ADAT and not gone for a Tascam DA88, or a hard disk recording system. "The only thing that was better on the DA88 was that you had built‑in SMPTE‑to‑MIDI conversion; and I realised that it was cheaper to buy an ADAT and a BRC, which gives you that. Also, we're often in different studios, or on tour, and to replace or repair an ADAT is easier than when you're using a format that isn't quite so established, like the Tascam.
"One of the main reasons we didn't go to computer‑based hard disk recording was that I wasn't convinced that the technology was at the right kind of level to invest in. I heard a lot about Cubase Audio on the Atari Falcon, and it sounded fantastic — but the one thing that put me off was the idea that you'd do a take and then have to wait a certain amount of time for the files to update. I thought that what you would gain in malleability, you would lose in computer‑related delays — not to mention all the time lost in potential crashes. I do think software like that is where we're all going end up ultimately, but I don't think now is the time, because the software aspects haven't been developed enough yet. If somebody came up with a hardware‑based hard disk recorder that was as flexible as computer‑based systems, that would be fantastic — but we don't have that yet. The Roland VS880 sounds interesting, but if we bought one, we'd be duplicating a lot of what we've got here — you get a mixer with it, and we wouldn't need that; we've already got the ProMix."
Asked whether it was the automation aspect of the ProMix that had attracted them, Steve agrees that it has been useful being able to make minute adjustments to the level of a track — particularly a vocal — and have the tweaks stored over MIDI: "If you want a vocal to sit in a mix, a lot of people will just stick a lot of compression on and leave it at that. But you can lose a lot of dynamic information that way, and also, there are musically valid times in a track where you want to tweak the level of a vocal. And, of course, you can set up Cubase to record the changes you make. It gets a bit confusing at times, but you can come up with some good results."
The price of the mixer was also seen as a bargain by the band. "When you consider what you get for the price — a 16‑track digital mixer, two loads of effects, and three compressors — it works out much cheaper than buying the separate units! I've found it extremely reliable; in fact, of all the computerised things here, it's the only one that hasn't given us serious hassle."
A Korg Wavestation SR module was also purchased as the studio was put together, and as Steve explains, this was to make going live easier and less demanding on their gigging setup. "Part of the reason for buying that was that we were going on tour, and we had to have instant access to a load of pad sounds that didn't take up room in the sampler. It was more cost‑effective to buy that than another sampler, or another ADAT for live use." On the sampling front, Steve nevertheless benefitted from the extra record company funding, being able to upgrade from his old Roland W30 to an S760, with the added luxury of the graphical editing option: "I got the S760 because I could then use all the W30 sounds I had without having to change the file format; I had a library of samples that I'd invested years of time in developing, and I decided that it really wasn't worth me spending a month converting all of the sounds when I could have been writing new songs. If you enjoy sampling a load of sounds you've sampled already, then great, cheers; but I think you could be putting your time to better use!
"The S760's graphical interface is absolutely essential if you're editing anything, or doing anything complex with MIDI. The S760 is a great machine, and again, very cost‑effective. Even if you fully expand it, and get the video option and the DA400 multiple output box, you're only looking at about £2,500 for a top‑flight sampler. The W30 was capable of some good things, too. At the start of 'Week In, Week Out' on Disgraceful, there's a pad sound, which was actually a sample of some guitar playing. It originally sounded like noise, but there was a slight pitched element to it as well, which we were able to bring out with the W30's resonant filter. There's loads of things you can do like that. The Roland S760 can really can be like an S+S keyboard if that's what you want, and if you have the application. Samplers have taken over the territory that synths used to occupy, and the things that are still being considered synths, like the Korg X‑series half‑rack units, are actually more like sample replay units now. You just use them because they give you instant access to a lot of great sounds."
Ye Olde Faithfuls
As well as the purchases made when the Dubstar studio was set up, the facility also contains the workhorse synths and effects that the band owned previously. Most of these were used on the album Disgraceful, and have featured on many of the B‑sides recorded at the studio. Some of the items go back several years, like Steve's Yamaha TX81Z. "I bought that before Dubstar. I had a Yamaha DX100, which I thought was excellent, and was in a band who were playing live all the time. I realised that all the moving around would wreck the keyboard eventually, and decided I needed a rack module. I was able to sell the DX100 and buy this TX81Z, which was essentially the same thing upgraded, for only about 20 quid more! It's a very, very useful machine; 8‑part multitimbral, portable, and easier to program than the DX100 — you get all the waveforms displayed on the LCD! Also, I could dump all my DX100 sounds into it, so it was compatible with what I'd been using."
Nestling below the TX is an even older unit; an original Alesis Midiverb. Steve: "I bought that when I was still at school! You could change the sounds over MIDI, and I thought that was a good way of doing some dub stuff, by sending the drums through it and changing the sounds throughout the track. We could go and get something better now; but the Midiverb does the job! It's been on the recent B‑sides; on the end of the song 'Excuse Me Father' [B‑side to 'Not So Manic Now'], for example, and I defy anyone to say it's not good enough to use.
"The Zoom 9030 effects was bought for a similar reason, because that was one of the earliest effects units to respond to MIDI control messages. Also, you've got four control knobs to get to the sounds, and everything's displayed on screen; it's a very logical machine."
Steve still uses an Atari 1040 ST for sequencing. "I would like to move up from the Atari 1040 ST ultimately — I'd like to be able to use my computer for word processing and synth editing, and you can't get all of the latest editors for the Atari now. But I'm concerned with what's happening to Apple Macs at the moment, and I haven't heard anyone who's got anything good to say about going over to a PC! For the moment, I'm happy; I think Cubase for the Atari is great. I learned a lot of new things about it while we were in the studio doing Disgraceful, like how to use the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer; it's great for triggering breakbeats on jungle tracks, which I amuse myself by making sometimes. People keep going on about old analogue sequencers, like on the Roland SH101, and what you can do with them — but you can do all that from Cubase, if you can just get your head round it, and the fact that the ST display looks like somebody's plumbing..."
In the corner of the studio stand three other keyboard synths. Elsewhere in this article, Steve rightly laughs at the current widespread unthinking devotion to all synths analogue (see the 'Revival Schmival' box). Nevertheless, it seems he has a soft spot for the Korg Mono Poly. Perhaps it was because it was his first synth. "If you are looking for analogue sounds, I think that's the synth to get. You've got four oscillators, so you can do chords, oscillator sync, fat sounds — and delicate ones too — and you've got loads of modulation options. It's never let me down". Steve is also fond of his CZ101, which is one of his staple synths, providing him with many lead sounds, including the main organ riff on the hit single 'Anywhere', one of his favourite tracks from Disgraceful. "I could recommend this to anyone — it's so cheap. I got mine for £50 in '92." His Roland Juno 60, however, simply fulfils a function for him: "I used this live on the first tour; it was going cheaply, and I just wanted something to write on in soundchecks".
Songwriting And Creativity
Steve clearly sees studio technology as a means to an end — a typical pragmatic quote during our conversation runs "When you're writing, your primary consideration has to be: does the music sound any good? Not to worry whether you've used a preset sound or not". And it seems this attitude has been part of the band's general approach to all levels of band work, from music‑making to business dealings, from a very early stage. Asked, for example, about the trademark dubby basslines that grace much of the band's work, Steve cites these as an example of this philosophy at work. "A lot of people approach basslines as just something to fill out the bottom end, on just the chords' root notes. That's boring. For everything you put into a track, I think you need to ask yourself why it's there — and it would be a waste to just have a bassline on root notes. The bass commands a lot of your attention; you have an opportunity to do something that will strike people and which they'll enjoy, rather than just carrying the rhythm and filling out the bottom end of the frequency spectrum."
Chris Wilkie's approach to guitar playing in Dubstar exhibits the same philosophy, Steve maintains: "Chris's attitude is that it's a cop‑out to use barre chords, and cover them in distortion to give you that enormous sound, which gets you an immediate emotional response. He's more into playing melodically more interesting things, arpeggios and so on. As with the basslines, he tries to incorporate something that would work in isolation, rather than just something to fill out a song.
When he is programming MIDI backing, too, Steve maintains that you have to have a specific reason for doing anything. "Otherwise, you have no objective, and you end up with nothing at all. This applies particularly to using computers to write; if you don't have the end result in mind, you end up with nothing. If I approach a computer without an idea, I just get miserable because I can't come up with anything... I've never had inspiration from a piece of gear. It comes from other things: listening to other people, going to clubs — going swimming, even!"
And Steve finds an empty Cubase page a hindrance to creativity for another reason. "It doesn't keep you as focussed as something on a piano; you get bogged down with all the details. If you programme in some drums, it might take you, say, three minutes to create something useful. That's three minutes during which the guitarist can get fed up with hearing the same thing over and over, and maybe forget something... It is a different kind of discipline to being totally creative."
For these reasons, Steve does not approach his ST before he has at least the bare bones of an idea thrashed out on his acoustic piano: "You can come to a piano with a lyrical or melodic idea — or even no ideas, and eventually, something will take form. That's the point at which you go to the computer to write an arrangement. All Cubase does is help you out with that — and if you haven't got anything to arrange, it won't help. You have to have ideas."
Steve doesn't believe that this is just the way Dubstar work. "I'm sure lots of people will read this and think, 'well, that's all very well, but that's because they're doing conventional pop songs; verse‑chorus‑verse. I bet Leftfield, Orbital, and The Prodigy don't do that'. But I'm convinced that even those people — particularly Orbital — probably have certain ideas in mind when they sit down at the computer which are equivalent to our song structures, even if they then do most of their arranging in front of a screen; maybe they think 'well, I'd like to do something quite fast this time, and maybe this one should have some vocals in — I haven't done that for a bit. And I've got a load of guitar samples — I'll put those in somewhere...' They'll have the germ of an idea for the track in mind when they start."
Re‑Record, Not Leave To Stay
Steve admits that doubts about the value of some sections of a song can cause major rethinks: "Often, we'll build up a track, and even get Sarah's vocals on it, before we realise that the song is 'arranged out'. We did a cover of an Astrid Gilberto song, 'A Certain Sadness', for the B‑side of 'Not So Manic Now' which was a good example of this. It was originally going to be an stomping, dancey sort of number, and all the music was done — but then Sarah did her singing, and put down what I thought was one of the best vocals she'd ever done. We had to ask ourselves what the point was of covering up such an intimate vocal with a load of programming — and so in the end, we stripped the arrangement right down, and only brought the drums and everything in at the end, just to round everything off. That allowed the song to breathe much better.
"That's another problem with computers — it's a one‑person job. You really need to be working in a band environment to have someone to say to you 'OK — but why have you got that stupid sound going all the way through it?' A lot of gratuitous programming which I could do if I was left to my own devices is taken out, because of how Chris feels — he doesn't like us to be known as a 'synth band'. And that's good, because it makes Dubstar a better thing."
To Chris's irritation, the comparisons between Dubstar and pure synth‑based pop groups look set to continue; the music press never stop comparing the band to St Etienne or the Pet Shop Boys. As the conversation ended, I asked Steve how he felt about this: "We're in a particularly dry period for synthesizer‑based songwriting, as opposed to just dance music, or '80s revival music that just sounds like Depeche Mode or Erasure. So I think journalists — and maybe the public — aren't used to hearing songs in a synth context; they go 'Oh, it's got synths and a drum machine on it — it must be the Pet Shop Boys'. I think that'll change — and if we can do anything to help that along, great."
Dubstar's remix album, consisting of material from Disgraceful remixed by Steve Hillier and others including Way Out West and Biff & Memphis, was released on July 15. Their new single, 'Elevator Song' is released on July 22. A brand new album is planned for release before the end of the year.
Dubstar Studio — Main Gear
- Casio CZ101 keyboard synth
- Korg Wavestation SR module
- Korg M3R module
- Korg Mono Poly
- Roland JD800 keyboard synth (master keyboard)
- Roland Juno 60 keyboard synth
- Yamaha TX81Z module
- Roland S760 with graphical editor
- Alesis ADAT
- Alesis ADAT XT
- Alesis BRC remote
- Alesis Midiverb effects
- Assorted guitar effects & pedals
- Tandy PZM mic
- Tascam DA20 DAT machine
- Tascam MM1 keyboard mixer
- Yamaha ProMix 01 digital mixer
- Zoom 9030 effects.
- Zoom 9050 effects
COMPUTING & SOFTWARE
- Atari 1040 ST
One of the Dubstar studio racks (the one containing the Roland S760, Korg Wavestation SR and M3R, Yamaha TX81Z, and Tascam MM1) also forms the heart of the band's live setup, together with the Roland JD800. The synths and sampler are all driven from a pre‑programmed Yamaha MDF2 data filer. Steve: "We don't use DAT backing tapes; backing vocals, percussion and orchestral sounds come from the S760, while the Wavestation does the pads and the M3R handles the bass and piano. The TX81Z does the twiddly bits — reggae chords on off‑beats, and so on. There's also a live drummer".
Sitting It Out: Developing Technologies
Steve: "Because our studio setup works well at the moment, I would rather stick with it for the time being, and keep an eye on how technology continues to develop. Recently, Chris was considering buying a VG8 [Roland's virtual guitar system], but I had this feeling that we'd be spending £2,000 on the first example of this new technology, when it was still at a very early stage. You can speak to people who've still got Yamaha DX1s — they were left with something that rapidly became totally obsolete after just a couple of years. Why spend £2,000 on what is effectively Roland's attempt at testing a new market?"
No Blues Guitar, Please — We'Re Dubstar
Chris Wilkie and Steve Hillier shared a mutual liking for '80s independent music when they met. Guitar‑based sonic sculptors like My Bloody Valentine, Throwing Muses, and The Durutti Column all had an influence on Chris's guitar style, and consequently on Dubstar, as Steve explains: "Chris is really into using the guitar in a way that doesn't follow the blues tradition — he's taken his lead more from the innovators of the '80s, making use of effects units creatively. In a way, he uses his guitar like some people use synths; the strings are like the oscillators, and then all the processing that comes afterwards shapes the sound. The other great thing with Chris is that it's not all machinery; a lot of it comes from his technique. He'll do swells with the volume control on his guitar, or he'll use an E‑bow — there's a lot of that on the Disgraceful album. Many people assume some of those sounds are from synths, but if you're using guitars in that way, the sounds develop and evolve more than they do on a synth. There's a certain unpredictability to a guitar, and it's just not the same on something like a Wavestation.
"A lot of guitarists are wary of technology — maybe they think it will dilute their sound. Whereas from the outset, Chris has really embraced it. After all, it's only another colour to your palette — and you're the one in charge. You don't have to use it!"
Revival Schmival: Steve On Techno Lust
As you might expect from someone who considers himself primarily a songwriter rather than an equipment fanatic, Steve has little interest in the rise in popularity of analogue synths, and the use of too much technology for its own sake, and has been quite scathing on the subject in the past. Although more subdued when I spoke to him, he still gave the 'analogue revival' short shrift: "I think it's actually really unhealthy. What you have to remember as an aspiring keyboard player is that for all the people who become stars who talk about analogue stuff, there have been 10,000 analogue purists whose music meant absolutely bugger all! And the successful people haven't done well because they got an old Korg MS20 and found that the filter was really nice — it was that they had a good idea, they put the music together effectively, and lots of people enjoyed it. You wouldn't walk up to a Rickenbacker and think that the sound of that guitar would make your ideas into good ones.
"I think keyboard players, particularly, are prone to getting off on the toy aspect of so many of these machines. I bought our Zoom 9030 to use as a multi‑effects unit when I used to play guitar. It has got weaknesses, but there are certain things that it does really well. Why would you want to spend £700 on another effects unit? Why not just keep it, use it for what it does well, and forget the fashion aspect of it? People waste a lot of money that way. The Korg M3R is one of the main things I use, but I've spoken to some keyboard players who say 'Oh, yeah, first‑generation sample and synthesis — that's so '80s, man...'. But that's ridiculous! There are certain things it does really well — just like there are certain things a Rickenbacker will do well.
"I used to be a DJ, and got sent a lot of demo tapes. I could hear a lot of technology working on those for its own sake. That's useless — the only people it's interesting for is the other bands, who can then say 'oh, wow! That's a really interesting System Exclusive filter sweep — how did you do that?' Most people not only don't care, but will actively dislike what they will consider to be any 'muso' aspect to your electronic music."