"It sounds funny to say, but maybe I can afford to be lazy," laughs Ben Mills, aka DJ Ran$om, aka MC IQ, aka Ukgaragefm broadcast coordinator. "I'm 19 years old, I go to a good university, I'm going to get a good degree out of it and hopefully a good job. I don't really need the music."
Garage music is, however, clearly more than a hobby for Ben, his father Peter, co‑producer David Trotter (aka Silent Partner), and the DJs and MCs — Paul Wingham (aka DJ Infa Red [sic]), Michael Laws (aka DJ Deadly), Mark Gemma (aka DJ Ex L), Simeon (aka DJ H20), Reece Smith (aka MC Bubbles), Neil Horseman (aka MC Breezer) and Jolie (aka, er, DJ Jolie) — who broadcast daily hour‑long sets over the Internet from Ukgaragefm's web site, (www.ukgaragefm.com). For a start, there's the £40, or so, which Ben spends every week to keep the Ukgaragefm record library stocked with the latest garage tunes. Secondly, there's the slick, professional‑looking Ukgaragefm web site itself. And most impressively, there's the studio where the DJs record their sets, and where Ben and David produce their own garage tunes.
Located in an upstairs room in the Mills' spacious South London house, the studio has been put together by Peter who, as well as bankrolling Ukgaragefm, takes a hands‑on role as studio technician and site manager. "We've got to the stage now where we've got our studio set up as professionally as you could probably get in a bedroom setup," he says. "There's not really a lot that we haven't got."
Different areas of the studio serve three different functions. In one corner is the DJ area, where Ben and the other Ukgaragefm DJs record their sets using a pair of Vestax decks, a Korg Kaoss Pad effects unit and an Akai S20 sampler. The main focus of the studio, however, is the two PCs. The older of the two is used to transfer data to and from Ukgaragefm's server via ADSL, maintain the site, and carry out other Internet‑related chores, while the other — a fast machine based around a 650MHz Intel Pentium III processor, custom‑built by music specialists Area 51 — runs Logic Audio and serves as David and Ben's MIDI sequencer and multitrack recorder. "Both PCs are linked with a very small hub network, so that we will never ever have anything on the music PC direct from the Net," explains Peter. "It goes through the other PC, the cheap and nasty one, and we can filter it then. If there's anything wrong that we don't like the look of, it doesn't go on the music PC."
Listening to the day's show on the Ukgaragefm site, designed by Peter, his brother, and another collaborator, is a simple matter of clicking on an on‑screen 'virtual radio'. The process of getting the shows to the site, however, is a little more complicated, as Peter explains: "Before, we were on BT Internet, and we had to use it between 6pm and midnight, so we had to wait til then to do all our transfers. Now we're on ADSL, it's 40 quid a month for 24‑hour access. We broadcast in RealAudio, which is quite a good system, but the problem with it is quality. It's a compromise between the quality that we want to put out, and the quality that people can listen to. The majority of the computer world still have a 28k modem. The rest have, say, a 56k modem, certainly in the UK. So we originally were broadcasting in 28k, and an hour's broadcast, which is what we're licensed to do each day, would take anything from 45 minutes to an hour and a half to load to the server using a 56k modem. But with ADSL, that is six minutes, which is tremendous. What we do now is use SureStream, which is a dual‑band system that offers both 56k and 28k, so that people with the 28 will still get it, but people with the 56 will get slightly better quality. Now, with ADSL, we have the true potential to do live shows. We've always shied away from doing live shows, because if we were uploading it, and they were downloading it simultaneously, it made Net congestion even worse for the listeners. So until now we've always recorded the set, posted it to the site, and then played it out. With ADSL, when it settles down, we'll probably do live sets.
"At one point at the end of July, we'd been going since May, and didn't seem to be achieving very much, and I was going to knock it on the head — the radio side, not the production stuff — and then suddenly it just started taking off. I got a new server out in Atlanta at a very good price which is very stable, people can tune in and hear our shows in good quality, it doesn't break down, and it's suddenly mushroomed and everyone's contacted us."
As well as the daily music downloads, the Ukgaragefm site carries news, reviews, and occasional interviews. "The creative side is supplied by Ben, as MC IQ, and David," explains Peter. "They've known each other since Ben was a toddler and David was nine, so they've progressed. On the DJ side we have a variety of DJs and MCs. The MCs supply this sort of rhythmic chat that's unique to UK garage — it's amusing, much less aggressive than rap, just good fun really.
"Last time I checked, we were up to about 20,000 hits a week, and 57 percent of our audience comes from the States. An advertising agency in New York, Blah Blah, have been pestering me for a while, and they've said that they will push it to a million hits a week. I'll believe it when I see it. In the meantime, we'll just carry on doing our thing. Some of the record labels have recognised that we're there, and they'll send us stuff to review. Ben's reviews are quite good — he's reading English and Classical Studies."
Ben and David's real ambition is to find success with their own garage music, and this factor originally motivated the setting up of Ukgaragefm. "The idea of the station initially was to get the guys a bit of exposure, with a view to getting picked up by a label," explains Pete. "The actual production side has really taken off as much in the last couple of months, when they've finally mastered getting the garage 'sound'."
Though their roles are fluid, it's usually the case that Ben supplies the vocals and the rough melodic basis of the tracks, while David contributes production expertise and other compositional elements such as bass lines. Ben describes the process: "What I do is build up a 'pen picture' of the track. I use the S3000 to generate my sampled beats, put the beats in in Logic, quantise them, and get the basic feel that I want, with really basic drum sounds, and I won't really develop it further than that. David will replicate the feel of the beat, with our proper drum sounds, and work a melody to the vocals and then we're away, really. I might come up with a basic melody line on the guitar and sing to that. I won't actually play the guitar in, I'll use it to come up with the melody, and when I've got the melody in my head I'll record it on a little dictaphone. What I do is to come up with an idea in my head, and then David will finish it."
"That's the big problem, isn't it?" agrees David. "I work three days a week, he's away three days a week, so sometimes, we're having to have him do the vocal line over the top, and I'll come in and do the music, without actually interacting."
"So it's like he's remixing me," concludes Ben.
David explains the value of his greater experience: "It's never going to sound as good if you've been doing it for three weeks, as someone who's been doing it for seven years. It's just the little things. I've been studying music from the age of 11, when I first started, kicking off on the piano and guitar. I went to the Brit School, and met a few good people there, a few good contacts, got into dance music, got into techno. I was doing that for about seven years when Ben gave me a call and said 'I want to be an MC, I want to do garage,' so we just got together. He came to my house — we didn't have anything like this, we had maybe a quarter of this — and kicked it off. And then Pete's been supporting us all the way, built up this beautiful studio, and it's been getting better and better.
"I've always had difficulty with garage, because I started in techno, and it's a completely different sound, completely different progressions in techno in comparison with garage. It's all chopped up, the bass comes in at different times, it's taken me a long time to get used to. The way Ben sees it, he's got his records, he knows every tune inside‑out, and he knows where things are supposed to go, where you're supposed to arrange these things. And now we've got that going, with the quantise working properly, it's getting easier."
So what is the secret behind the garage beat? "It's actually quite simple," explains David. "You can pretty much listen to the beat on a garage record, play it how you hear it, and then you just move it along. You quantise it at a 16th beat shuffle, by about 66 percent or 56 percent, and everything just moves by a quarter of one of those squares, you know — but not all the sounds. You've got your hi‑hat going along, and you give it a shuffle, keep some on the beat, and some off. And then you get that feel."
Unlike most aspiring producers, Ben Mills has been lucky enough to have someone else build and equip his studio, and doesn't have to do a nine‑to‑five job to pay the bills until the record company cheques come in. Nevertheless, he still sees time and money as two of the most irksome limits on his musical activities: "I'm a student at university, so I'm down there half the time, and then I'm back here half the time, so it can be a bit difficult. Also, I've got to work to make money to make ends meet. A lot of the time, my creativity comes out of basic spontaneity, but a lot of the time we have to work to order really. The problem with being apart is that either I'll have to work to him or he has to work to me. When we're together it's better, because we can come up with a compromise."
"We haven't got the money to just stop and do five days a week or seven days a week in the studio, which I know is what you need, because I've seen people doing it," agrees David. "I worked at Beethoven Street Studios for a bit — you get treated like crap, you work 14‑16 hour days, but you get to see exactly what the professionals are doing, how they get into their little secrets. Leftfield worked at Beethoven Street when I was there, and they were there six months. We haven't got that flexibility. You've got to be able to make the music constantly. I've got to come in, I've got to make music: it doesn't matter if I'm up for it, if the creative side of my brain's working, I've just got to produce something."
Ukgaragefm has been an effective opportunity for Ben and the other DJs to raise their public profile as an alternative to the traditional way of building up a reputation, DJ'ing in clubs — an avenue which they've found blocked by unsympathetic promoters. The next stage, as Peter explains, is to try to get some of Ben and David's own tracks out into the public domain: "We're actually thinking of starting our own label. I hate the idea of getting ripped off, I hate the idea of seeing the guys getting ripped off. And the thing is, if you've got your own studio, you might as well have your own label. Just pay for a bit of mastering somewhere. I'm investigating getting a mastering unit now, something like a TC Finalizer Express to come in just to put that little polish in there, and then start with a thousand white labels and see the reaction we get. On the production side, I would say that within a month we'll have a couple of tracks ready to go. We've probably got 20 tracks sitting in the computer."
In the meantime, Ukgaragefm continues to spread the garage gospel worldwide, and is acquiring an ever‑wider following among the fans who populate Internet garage forums such as Uptown. Ben laughs: "I had one guy emailing me yesterday, saying 'I can't believe I used to sit next to you in Geography!'"
Could this be the first taste of real fame?
Pete: "This is a great piece of kit. The DPS12 is 100 percent reliable. It's a couple of years old now, but it never goes wrong. Now we've got the 2408, though, you notice the difference."
Pete: "That is a pukka, professional piece of kit. Even playing back, the conversion is just so clever. The computer we had before was as unstable as anything. We were using a Yamaha SW1000XG to start with, which we never, ever got to work successfully with audio. Then we had an Emagic Audiowerk8, which was pretty good, and that worked a lot better, but there were timing issues."
Pete: "We run most of the studio equipment through the Powerline. My only criticism of that is that there's not enough DC outs on it — there's only four DC outs. It's got four AC 9V outs, but AC equipment is much less common."
OUTBOARD & SOUND SOURCES
Peter: "We've been trying to make the best use of an Akai sampler for ages, and we're scratching the surface of its potential. We've got the sounds in there that we've created, and we use Recycle to stick various drums in there as well, but we've just got the EXS24, which we haven't actually put in there yet, but that's meant to be fantastic."
|Ben: "The idea of that really was to get a sort of bass‑generating module that I could open the filters on straight away without fussing around inside the sampler. It's done its job, but to generate the bass sounds we want, what we really need is to explore the S3000 more and basically manipulate the filters to get exactly what we want."
David: "The Korg Electribe is quite dark, it's more techno than garage if you ask me."
Pete: "We've had quite a lot of support from Vestax and Ortofon, doing us pretty good deals on the equipment. In return, we give them a little bit of promotion on the web site. I think they have mainly latched on to the success of the site, and they can see that we've got the sound and we've got the audience. We contacted Technics to see if they wanted to help us out, but they didn't seem to want to know. But Vestax, they've brought out this new turntable here, and to be honest, they really knock spots off the Technics. They're as stable, and they've got other variations that you can use in there. The simple way I look at it is, I can't mix, but when I look at the deck and the mechanics of it, the Technics has got a 1.4kg/cm torque, and the Vestax is 2, and that's a significant difference, and it is a practical difference when you actually feel it. You could stop the Technics decks quite easily."
Ben: "The biggest thing for me is that they have got Ultrapitch [an extra coarse speed variation control], which is great when you're mixing old‑school garage with the newer stuff. The newer stuff is recorded that much higher up, and before you would either have to play the new stuff in minus land, or the old stuff cranked right up, and it still didn't sound quite fast enough. I was experimenting the other day with a really slow tune, just putting the Ultrapitch up half a notch, and it made it almost normal."
On top of his vocal role as MC, 'rinsing' spoken‑word parts over records for the radio show, Ben Mills is also the principal singing vocalist on his and David's tracks. Recording the vocals for their garage tunes, however, poses a few problems. Firstly, there's the question of where to put the singer, given that there's no dedicated live room in the studio. "We use the corridor," explains Peter. "This is the booth. It's a perfect booth, you see, because we just put a curtain on a stand at the other end.
"The Rode NT2 is our main vocal mic when we're set up for recording vocals, although when we're just doing sound pictures, we'll use the AKG 65s, or we've got an AKG C1000. That's pretty good, just for knocking in an idea."
The other problem is one of simply getting all the words into tracks that typically proceed at a rollicking 143‑145bpm. Ben and David's solution is to record the entire track at a slower tempo, then simply speed up the final master on the Akai DPS12i multitracker. "What we're doing at the moment is recording his vocals at about 130 bpm, 'cause he's finding it very hard at 144 to say what he's got to say and sing what he's got to sing," explains David. "Then, in the DPS, we can tune it up to about 143."
"No‑one's going to record vocals at 145 beats per minute," insists Ben. "Not the vocals that we're recording. I sing properly — I don't just put in a vague half‑sung, half‑spoken vocal part — and then jack it up to the right speed. It's properly done. I sing it like I was singing a real song, say at 130 or 135bpm."