How can an electronic band produce exciting, spontaneous, unpredictable and visually engaging live performances? And if they do, is it really possible to capture the experience of being there in a recording? Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of Underworld believe they have the answers, as Paul Tingen discovered.
Music technology has brought making and recording music within everyone's reach. It made possible the rise of the bedroom musician, who could sample, program, sequence, and record professional‑sounding music without a conventional studio. But as these musicians began to court public favour, an entirely new problem arose: how do you translate people twiddling knobs into exciting live performances? And whilst the bedroom tried to find out how to make an impression in the concert hall, the concert hall was still trying to fit into the living room. The effective translation of large‑scale live concerts to consumer playback media remains the Holy Grail of many a recording engineer and live band.
So it is with a sense of occasion that one of these former bedroom bands has, in effect, announced that they've found this Holy Grail, in the form of a live registration on a brand‑new consumer medium. The band is called Underworld, the release Everything, Everything, and the medium DVD.
Out Of The Underworld
Today, Underworld consists of singer/guitarist Karl Hyde and techno‑wizard Rick Smith. They began their long march through the music industry in the early '80s, their various bands and musical directions all meeting with limited success. In 1992, they were about to pack things in, but a meeting with the then 18‑year old DJ Darren Emerson opened their minds to the idea that sounds, rhythms, and texts did not necessarily need to be shaped in traditional song form to be successful. The newly‑formed trio released a couple of singles as Lemon Interrupt before deciding on the name Underworld, their musical direction combining hypnotic dance rhythms, new wave, rock, dub, trance, techno, ambient influences, and the latest music technology.
Their 1993 singles 'Mmm Skyscraper I Love You', 'Rez,' and 'Spikee' were greeted with great enthusiasm by the dance world, whilst at the same time containing enough melodic information to appeal to rock music lovers. Released in 1994, Underworld's first album dubnobasswithmyheadman met with great critical acclaim and commercial success, and immediately established the band as one of the UK's leading dance acts, and the first to cross over into the mainstream. Several more successful releases followed, amongst them the single 'Born Slippy' (1995), and the albums Second Toughest In The Infants (1996) and Beaucoup Fish (1999). Underworld also gained a tremendous reputation as an exciting live act who did far more than simply duplicate their studio recordings on stage. In addition, the band become a part of the design company Tomato, a collective of nine people, who have been very successful in producing television commercials, documentaries, film titles, installations, music and sound design, publications, typography, and architecture. Tomato have a building and showroom in Soho, in Central London, and are responsible for all visual aspects of Underworld's projects, including album sleeves and live backdrops.
With this background in multimedia and cutting‑edge technology, it's not surprising to find Underworld breaking new ground with a DVD release combining both. Everything, Everything, the DVD, was issued in October (a similarly titled live CD containing mostly the same musical material came out in August), and broke new ground for the nascent DVD medium. The DVD contains about 90 minutes of live music, mixed in 5.1 surround sound, which can be combined with concert footage, or a selection of the Tomato art work that was projected onto five large screens behind the live stage. These 90 minutes aim to be the closest anyone has come to translating the live experience to the living room. As if that was not enough, Underworld also pushes the boundaries with other options, including 'Program Your Own Gig', with which the user can program a new track order, 'Outtakes', containing footage from hand‑held stage cameras, and two extra tracks, 'Kittens' and 'Rowla', featuring Tomato stills.
All this was more than enough reason for an interview with a band who have traditionally been reluctant to do interviews, preferring instead to communicate with their fans via their extensive web sites, www.dirty.org and www.underworldlive.com Underworld are based in one of the less fashionable places in Britain, the Essex town of Romford. On the outside, their terraced house betrays nothing of the technological paradise hiding inside its walls; Underworld's base has grown from bedroom studio to probably one of the best‑equipped 'home' studios in the world. Today, the place is manned by Karl Hyde, Rick Smith, and studio manager and all‑round technical man Malcolm Corbitt. Darren Emerson left Underworld early in 2000 to pursue a solo career, making Everything, Everything the last major project of Underworld as a trio.
The main studio is located in the large, elongated former living room on the ground floor, and contains a 24‑channel, in‑line, TL Audio VTC valve desk, lots of sound sources, effects, drum machines and a computer, in addition to Hyde and Smith's live racks. The studio is mainly Smith's domain. Hyde has his own hide‑out in a small room upstairs in the back of the house, and at the front of the first floor is a maintenance and storage room, where the band have set up a G4 Macintosh system with Final Cut Pro software. Several Retrospect‑powered disk drives and DAT data cartridges for archiving are hiding under the staircase, whilst the kitchen doubles as office and the band's communication centre. All facilities are connected using Ethernet.
Hyde and Smith kicked off by telling me about the raison d'être of the new DVD. "Rob Buckler, the manager of Strongroom Studios, had given me some free time to try out their Studio 2, which they had rebuilt specifically for 5.1 surround sound," Smith recalled. "A little later, in May 1999 I was stuck in a traffic jam on the M25, and suddenly the thought came to me what a great medium for live recording DVD would be. The quality of the visuals in DVD was really appealing, as was the possibility to mix in 5.1. Our live concerts are nothing like our albums; the audience is a crucial part of the way we jam. In the past I'd always rejected recording live albums, because every concert is so different, but now I thought, 'We'd better do this, because might not play like this again.'"
The subsequent departure of Emerson made Smith's thought remarkably prescient. "I think it took us a week to get the Manor mobile organised, and put together a film crew," Smith continued. "We recorded two shows, at the Forest‑National in Brussels, and Pinkpop in Holland. In late August, after we finished touring, we started to piece together the DVD. However, we immediately ran into loads of technical problems, to do with transferring the 72 channels of digital audio to a 24‑bit, 64‑channel Pro Tools system. Also, when the first visual roughs were put together at the Avid suite we set up at the Tomato building, it was very much like, 'Well, the gigs are not like that, they're not just a load of people going bananas down the front.' There was a certain sense of scale and atmosphere that we wanted to convey, and it just didn't translate. It was dreadful."
At this stage, Underworld decided to incorporate visual archive footage from other concerts, which, said Hyde, "a good editor could lock up to the music for periods of time. We also decided to put some Tomato artwork in the bits that weren't in sync with the music, and what began to evolve was an impression of our live concerts, rather than a documentary of one gig. It was one of those happy disasters that we thrive on, because this was a better idea than the original. Some images from Pinkpop remain, but you also see other places, like the FujiRock festival in Japan and Glastonbury, so you can see how the group developed."
Smith elaborated: "It went away from a more documentary style to us attempting to communicate a live experience. The BBC did a stereo recording of us a couple of years ago, which was a great stereo recording of a show, but no more. We wanted to make something that was much more engaging, and that also would truly make use of what DVD is capable of doing."
To give an impression of what an Underworld gig is like, and how it was translated onto the Everything, Everything DVD, it is necessary to rewind to the genesis of their music in their Romford studio. Smith recorded previous studio albums in the corner of the main studio that he calls 'home' on a Soundcraft Series 6000 desk, which he has had for 15 years, and which was only replaced by the TL Audio a few months ago. Other essential parts of 'home' include an Akai MPC2000 percussion sampler, which functions as a sequencer and master clock, Akai S3200XL sampler, Macintosh running Logic Audio, Clavia Nord Lead synth, Yamaha DX7 MkI keyboard, and the Roland TR909, whose distinctive rattling bass drum graces about 80 percent of Underworld's recordings. "We have three 909s," Smith explained, "and one of them has quite a special bass drum sound. The 909 sound is at the root of many of our rhythms, although we only use the sounds, not the sequencer. The MPC2000 triggers it."
Hyde and Smith insisted that they have no fixed working methods. "We have no patterns of working," asserted Smith. "When a pattern begins to develop, it means something is going wrong, and the best thing to do is to interfere. But what may happen is that I come up with a groove or a bass line and Karl comes along, and goes, 'Great, let's play together.' Or I might send it upstairs, and Karl works out his own response. Recently Karl recorded some guitar and dobro whilst he was doing some film editing. I grabbed some of the stuff in Recycle, cut it up, and a new idea came from that. We rarely just jam freely, there's usually some sense of focus to what we do."
Hyde elaborated: "There's a bluntness between us in the way we work now, where it can immediately be like, 'Nah, this isn't working,' despite the fact that you feel you've just bared your soul. We don't like to bullshit around. Beaucoup Fish was in part written on stage, because we'd come to a point where we felt we had gone as far as we could in the studio, and we felt the best thing was to use the enormous kick of adrenaline you get when playing in front of lots of people."
"Miles Davis used to say, 'Listen to other people, but then forget it,'" recalls Smith. "What we never used to do was 'forget it', and so 10 years ago we might have ended up with something that sounded like a pastiche of Nirvana. Today we start with the 'forget it' bit. But at the same time as we try to forget things, we've also stopped avoiding doing things that come naturally. Karl was always happy singing over electronic rhythms, and for years we would avoid that, but we don't any more. All music is a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. One of the lovely things about house music is this four to the floor that's like a handrail, that's constant, that makes your body want to move in a certain way."
In live performance, Underworld balance between the familiar and unfamiliar much more precariously than do most other electronic bands. They have found an intriguing solution to the problem of how to translate the bedroom to the live stage, and make men twiddling knobs look and sound interesting. Of course, the Tomato art projected on the screens behind the band plays an important part, as do Hyde's vocals, guitar playing, and interaction with the crowd. But rather than being tied to tapes and movies, everything Underworld do live is to a great degree improvised. The Tomato images are not pre‑sequenced, but can be selected at any moment, and mixed in with feeds from several live stage cameras. "The lighting director was also improvising, as well as the band, so you get the feeling of being in the middle of a huge jam," said Hyde.
Smith explained how the music was improvised, with loops stored in the Akai S6000, clocked by an MPC2000, sequenced from two Apple Powerbook computers running Logic Audio, and then run through two Mackie desks, one 32‑channel and the other 24. This gear forms the heart of Smith's live setup. It is complemented by a TR909, Nord Lead, Nord Rack module, Sony DPS V77, MP5 and Boss SX700 multi‑effects, Behringer Composer MDX2100 compressor/limiter, Korg DL800 MIDI delay line (x2), Quasimidi Technox synth (x2), Korg O3/R sound module, Novation BassStation Rack bass synth, Emagic Unitor 8 MIDI interface (x2), plus some "secret boxes" made by Kenton Electronics, which have "something to do with MIDI". There's also the small matter of Hyde's live rack (see box).
Smith's main concern was to dispel the idea that Underworld were doing the equivalent of running tapes. "The way we work is based on an idea that I've developed over eight years," Smith explained. "It began with us wanting to manipulate electronics in a way that they don't want to be manipulated. Electronics want to be like this or like that, and you have to work hard for it to become an instrument that's playable, and doesn't force you in a certain direction. Electronics are incredibly stubborn, and I wanted them to be predictable and unpredictable at the same time. It's again a matter of balance. I wanted to be able to flow from one song to another at any point in the way a DJ can do with two record decks. And I wanted to be able to deconstruct the songs to the point where they aren't even a certain song any more. What we ended up with was a combination of sequencers, drum machines and CD players, the latter for flying in spoken word. It's like using a palette of colours, and selecting and mixing them."
Spur Of The Moment
Smith's "palette of colours" is based on components of Underworld's studio albums, and pre‑organised in the S6000 as loops of varying lengths. He stated, "Of course you need to make reference to the studio albums, but not all the studio elements are there. You have to make choices. There are little details that are nice on a recording, but not relevant live. When we come on stage in Glastonbury at 9pm, people want to dance. They don't want to hear lots of really interesting artistic details. So I fill up additional channels with possibilities, things chosen to be able to go into different directions."
"Rick is playing and rocking in here when preparing the live stuff," Hyde added. "He's thinking, 'What happens if we really want to rock out in this track?' Or, 'What happens if we want to go off on a completely different tangent, using different chords or a different key?' — which might inspire a different response from me."
Smith elaborated, "The loops are synchronised with each other, because this is dance music. I have plastic strips for each tune that I can lay on the mixing desk, and which tell me which channels the different elements of each tune are on. If I wanted to do a straight version of 'Cowgirls' I could come pretty close, but I'd have to mix it live, and I can bring in elements of other pieces. What's crucial is that it's not just a matter of everything clocking together, and I press play, and that's it, and if you want to change something, you have to press 'stop'. That would be really limiting. You're again forcing yourself into 'OK, this is the tune.' Instead I can turn parts of the loops off, or fire them up with something else, or load another piece, so a different tune and different rhythms sound at the same time. I may run the bass and drums of 'Rez' and all the other ingredients may be from a different tune. The pieces are also not sequenced in a particular order, I can respond to what's happening in the moment at any point, and begin any tune at any time, because I have the whole show in the system."
With the help of Malcolm Corbitt, Underworld's live racks are so tightly organised that they have managed to set them up on stage in a record‑breaking 12 minutes. During the concerts in 1999, both Hyde and Emerson's contributions were routed via Smith's two Mackie desks, giving him total control, to the degree that the front‑of‑house engineer used to receive only a stereo output. Nowadays, the engineer is also fed the vocal, two kick drums, the two Nords, and the vocoder, so he can tweak things according to the acoustics in the hall. "We also do our own monitoring, listening back via headphones," explains Karl. "Years and years of pain for everybody have been solved that way."
The performances at Pinkpop and the Forest National were recorded to 72 tracks — a digital Sony 3348 48‑track, and an unspecified digital 32‑track machine. The tracks included six live microphones, placed around the audience with 5.1 in mind. Smith took up the story of how he, with the help of several dozen others, converted these 72 channels into a 5.1 surround DVD mix. "We didn't want to work with Sony 48‑track for the mix, because it's too expensive to hire these machines, and you can't manipulate things in them. Logic is a bar‑based sequencer system, and a couple of people told me that Pro Tools sounded much better than Logic, specifically with regard to phase coherence. I decided to go with that, so I had to learn how to use Pro Tools.
"We had an incredible amount of technical problems in creating the DVD, and they started straight away, with the transfer of the audio to the Pro Tools system, which was marred by code breaks on the digital 3348 tapes. Malcolm struggled with this for a couple of months. I also wanted to run a QuickTime movie on the screen with the audio, and we tried and tried, and we finally realized that it was too much for the poor old Mac. So we gave up on trying to run the images inside of the computer, used a DoReMi hard drive instead. But slaving the Strongroom's Euphonix console, a 64‑channel Pro Tools system, a Genex 8000 and the DoReMi video hard drive was quite a challenge. It was crucial for our mixing process — otherwise it would have been like 'OK, mix some audio and bung some pictures on it.' But what happened was that we mixed some audio, then we selected some visuals from that point of view, and went back into the studio and mixed sound to those images. It was a very interactive process between the music and the visuals."
After having made his improvisational choices with his "palette of colours" on the live stage, Smith now again had artistic choices to make in how he mixed 64 Pro Tools channels down to 5.1. The decision was made not to try to recreate the live concert exactly as it had sounded: "We did sometimes change levels in the parts," Smith said. "The end result was different from how we sounded live. Artistically this was the most difficult aspect of making the DVD. Mixing was a chance to look at the different parts again, and decide where and how they fitted, whether they needed a particular effect, and also about incorporating the information from the six ambient microphones."
A complication was that Underworld were still learning how to mix in 5.1. "The first test we did with surround sound was with a studio track two years ago," Smith remembered. "We were hammering everything, with kick drums coming from anywhere and other things back to front and so on. It didn't work very well, and it definitely didn't work for the live gig. I think that the transition from stereo to surround sound is similar to the transition from mono to stereo, with people trying out all sorts of things, some that work, others that don't. In the end, there are no rules for stereo, nor for surround sound, but we found with the live concerts that as soon as we started mixing from the perspective of the audience, with the band in front and the hall around us, and the six microphones panned in the same positions as they had been in the hall, the whole thing came together a lot quicker. We found that it worked to occasionally fly things around, like a startling cinematic effect, but that was all. On the whole, the beauty was in maintaining a sense of the space, even though atmosphere, not accuracy, was our aim.
"We also often reduced the mix to one or two cheap Sony Walkman speakers. That was crucial, to get the mix to the most basic it could be. If a part is not working, I find that mixing with one or two small speakers is very exciting. You get it to work on them, and then put it back on the big speakers, and every single time it will have improved, and make an impression. Of course, Mike [Nielsen, who mixed with Smith] never EQ'ed the bass on them, but in terms of balance and the way things move, small battery‑powered speakers are great.
"Another surround mix issue was that the reality is very different from what the Dolby textbook says. For example, in the studio all speakers are the same, but most people's rear speakers will be half the size of the front speakers. Also, when you're monitoring 5.1 you can press a button and it folds everything down to stereo. It works with algorithms that take an average, but they're not true to reality at all. It's quite tough going from 5.1 to stereo. Mike and I ended up running tones through the Euphonix, and working out the SPL of various pan positions, and how it translated to stereo. We mixed the whole project three to four times, partly because of technical problems, and partly because of the learning curve."
Underworld's Romford studio is not yet equipped with 5.1, so I was unable to sample the true surround experience of the DVD, but the images, both of the live concert, and the Tomato artwork, as well as the stereo music, are engaging and extremely dynamic. So, after a year's hard work, are Underworld happy with the result? Smith: "Yeah, very. It gave us more than we originally expected. Surround is better than I thought it would be."
Hyde: "I usually find listening to something after the event difficult, but this is the first album we've done where I can put it on in the car and really enjoy it."
As well as the standard DVD section, which is playable on any DVD player and contains the music and visuals, Everything, Everything also contains a special DVD‑ROM section offering several interactive options with which the user can manipulate text and audio. Not only does this provide a variety of Internet links, but it also features its own browser, which can be used to gain access to a site Rick Smith and Karl Hyde will be updating on a daily basis.
Karl Hyde's Live Rack
Hyde's live rack is very complex, according to Smith, partly because the guitarist/singer has several input sources to choose from: vocal mic, guitar, vocoder, Mesa Boogie Triaxis guitar preamp, CD player, and Akai MPC2000. Hyde explains, "My rack and MPC2000 take the clock from Rick's MPC2000, whilst my MPC2000 goes through this little 8‑channel Mackie, so I can turn off or boost things. I select my source via the rack at the top left, which is made by Funktion One. It's really just a channel selector, and the red button in the middle is a mute. Other elements are a TC Electronic Fireworx for guitar effects, Triaxis, Roland GR1 guitar synth, and Roland GK2A MIDI trigger — I have a Roland GR50 chopped up in a slim box behind my guitar. The Drawmer gate is the last in the chain before it goes to Rick's desk. I use the Pioneer CDJ502 compact disc player for text input and occasional sound effects, and I can retrigger CDs, or loop them. The vocoder is a Roland VP330. Both the vocal mic and the guitar are wireless, using the Shure LAL4. Rick decides what he wants to listen to. I can walk up to the desk, and say, 'I'd like to play this,' and he may say, 'That's a piece of shit and it's going off.'"
Underworld Gear List
Rick Smith talked me through some of the most important gear in the studio:
"I use this a lot. Very important."
"Our oldest sampler. It goes on once a year."
"I hardly use it at all. It's a dance‑based synth, and that's what's horrible about it."
"Nice, but hasn't been turned on for a while."
"Handy. It sends MIDI info from the faders and buttons so you can control the faders in the computer, instead of using a mouse. You can also attach it to synths and use it to control parameters."
"Really nice, but not used much. It's great when you have something cooking along, and you quickly want some pad or bass sounds."
"Hardly ever used"
"The DX7 is my oldest and favorite synth. I have a set of sounds that I've programmed and that seem to work consistently. Recently I've started programming it again, but in ridiculous fashion, with sounds just coming out like noise. When you sample it and time‑stretch and create other sounds and rhythms it can be interesting. It's true that most of my synths are analogue. I think most modern digital synths do too much. They fill all the gaps, and make up for a lack of imagination. And tweaking buttons is nice. You have to really struggle with these old synths. You may walk in on Tuesday, and for some reason it sounds shit all day, but the next day it may be sounding great."
"My favourite thing in here. I like the valve sound."
"We've recently taken out a lot of things, partly because things became so cluttered, partly because the plug‑ins that I use in Logic Audio are so brilliant. Audio effects plug‑ins are fantastic things, they've made a huge difference. You can now run a mix in the computer that comes out in stereo, so the size of the console isn't really an issue."
"The most wonderful, beautiful compressor."
"We put whole mixes through this, especially for Beaucoup
Fish, whilst being very delicate."
KARL HYDE'S STUDIO
• Access Virus synth.