19 Ways to Number 1
19 ways to the top: exclusive
Our Joe Public is rarely well informed; The Sun does its best to ensure that. Was he aware four years ago that one Paul Hardcastle, needing a diversion from the business of selling hi-fi, was attempting to master, with the aid of one finger, the intricacies of a Korg Delta synth? Six months ago; was he aware that the talents which had been latent in the hi-fi salesman were providing the driving force behind some of the freshest Brit-electro around? The answer is no. But things must have changed, because now not only does our Joe know that the average age of the combat soldier in the Vietnam war was N-N-Nineteen, he has also dispelled the vague suspicion that Paul Hardcastle is an American with a speech defect. What has happened you ask? Paul Hardcastle has arrived, that's what.
The history of the man is that whilst still a synth novice, he joined Britfunkers Direct Drive, and began to build up a reputation for himself on the British dance/soul scene. After a brief fling with an outfit called First Light, he released an innovative electro single called Rain Forest, a combination of Planet Rock type rhythms and jazzy lead lines, which while being repelled from the British charts at 41, went top 5 in the American dance charts.
But 1985 is the year that will surely stand out in Hardcastle's memory, since over the last six months his rise to prominence has become truly meteoric. Continued association with Direct Drive resulted in his producing their No 1 dance hit, Anything, and his burgeoning status as a producer has enabled him to score a top twenty hit with his remix of Third World's Now That We've Found Love. But all this would have meant little without the success of 19, the first true electro collage record to make No 1 in this country, and which at the time of writing is scoring near bulls eyes in charts across the world from the US to Australia.
In constant demand to do interviews and make personal appearances, it's interesting to consider that at one time a big question mark hung over whether Paul's record could ever come into existence. The track had already been completed before any attempts were made to apply for rights on the documentary from which the commentary of 19 comes.
"It took ages to get clearances. It was quite a hassle really. At one stage people were just telling me I had to scrap it, but I just said No Way!"
And perhaps it's just as well that Hardcastle stuck to his guns. The collage approach has been around for some time, but it has never been the cause of such commercial success until now. For Hardcastle the crucial factor in the success of 19 was the subject matter.
"I don't think anyone's gone as far over the top with such a strong subject matter as I 'ave."
You can't help but be a little in awe of this down to earth East Ender whose intuition has yielded such rewards. But if success has drained him somewhat it doesn't look set to affect his methods of working. Not one to become dependant on hi-tech, his attitude is accessible, unmystical, and is a testament to the fact that the techniques one has to resort to as an amateur can still be part of the creation of successful and up to date pop music.
Paul's home studio which began three years ago with a pair of cassette decks, now comprises a 24 track Aces desk, Prophet 5, Roland Jupiter 8, Mini Moog, Emulator II - his latest acquisition - and a Linn. The studio however is basically for getting the actual music tracks down, and he has made no efforts to acquire anything but the most basic outboard facilities, a Yamaha R1000 reverb to be precise. The mixing is done at Sound Suite studios, where Paul is assisted by Alvin Clark whom he describes as "one of the best engineers in the country".
This approach combines the advantages of being able to work at home in hassle free surroundings in the early stages of recording, with the obvious creative advantages of a studio equipped witha computerised MCI 24 track desk, AMS delay and reverb, and all the other miscellaneous outboard usually found in a professional recording studio. The flexibility of the set up must obviously more than compensate for any minor discrepancies which may occur during the recording of the music.
"Obviously there's a lot better desks on the market than the Aces but for the price of it you can't really complain. It gets me by, put it that way."
Most of Hardcastle's mixes and Re-mixes, both for himself and for other artists, are automated, that is to say he uses the computer to record levels etc. However when it came to 19 only the original 7" and the Destruction mix were done using the computer. This is because not only does he record many different instrumental fragments onto the same track (in succession that is, not bounced down), but also at any time during mixing he might stop the tape, look for an available track, and add another synth line or whatever. Thus at the time of writing (Paul and Alvin are about to start on a German re-mix), the original multi track is so full that there is no space left, and so the computer cannot be used.
Mixing is therefore done by hand and the German re-mix, like its predecessors will be done in stages for best results. A segment is chosen from somewhere on the multi track, a chorus section for instance, then that segment is put on a repeat function whilst Hardcastle experiments with the sounds he finds there. Once he is happy with what he has rehearsed it goes down onto ¼" and will later be edited together with more segments that have been similarly compiled. The resulting piece of music is likely to be made up of twenty to thirty edits - not necessarily in their original sequence - and the time taken to complete each re-mix has grown from about 8 to 18 hours.
The whole process may sound a little over complicated, and it is to the team's credit that the final results sound fresh and uncluttered. The fact is, to recreate a track from such an elaborate multi track is a complex business.
In spite of the fact that he owns a Linn, Paul chose to use the Roland TR808 for the drum track of 19, an interesting choice, and one not particularly obvious to the listener.
"I used the 808 because it was the sound I wanted more. A Linn is great but it doesn't give you too much of an electro sound, it's too realistic! I love the 808, it's a classic. Ideally what I'd like to do is get all the sounds out of the 808 made into chips for my Linn, because the 808 is a pest to program."
Hardcastle did make some attempts though to disguise the identity of the drum machine. The handclaps, perhaps the 808's greatest asset, were gated to reduce their rather long decay length, so that a bit a silence would always come before the next hand clap. The snare was replaced by the snare of a Linn 2, triggered from the 808.
"Also sometimes I add a bit of white noise to the snare by playing it onto a track from a synth, just to make it sound bigger. And I've found ways of using the AMS to make the sound much bigger."
Paul has been described as "an impatient programmer" and his drum programmes tend to be very simple and repetitive in their original manifestations. The AMS DDL is used to provide variation on the various rhythms, especially the bass drum rhythms. Effects used on 19, were setting the delay to a semi quaver's length so that instead of a steady four on the bass drum you get sixteenth notes in succession. A reverb with a long decay time could then be added to the original bass drum but omitted from the echoes for extra effect. Another effect used was to make the echo fall on an existing beat so that phase elimination would occur.
The voice on the original 7" of 19, had got there via Paul's video, suffering from the effects of radio transmission, and four generations of tape. The Aphex Aural Exciter was used to put the Zap back into it. Later mixes took their commentaries from master tapes sent over from America by the company who had made the original documentary. The only sampling of the voices were the D-D-Destructions and the N-N-Nineteens, which were done on the Emulator.
Paul describes himself as a Prophet 5 man, and therefore, it is fitting that virtually all of the synth parts on 19 were played on Prophet 5, with just a few odds and ends played on DX7 and Mini Moog.
I 'ad a Rev 1 Prophet 5 which was great though it was dead unreliable. The memory didn't work at all so I really learnt well how to get my sounds back! The bass on 19 is Prophet, because to me you can't beat the bass sound on the Prophet for nastiness. Everyone says the Mini Moog is the best, but the Mini Moog is a warmer sort of sound. For real guts Prophet is great."
Orchestral stabs sampled into a Fairlight or Emulator have become a depressingly over used feature in recent pop and electronic music. Rarely however have they been used with such economy and to such effect as on the closing sections of 19. Where did they come from I asked, more out of sheer curiosity than anything else?
"Oooh dear, that could be incriminating couldn't it? I don't want to put that in, I don't want some writ turning up on my door. Mind you I don't think it's anything to really worry about, it's not stealing the music, it's just like stealing a drum sound."
Sequencers have traditionally provided the engines in electro styles of music, and 19 is one of the most successful electro singles to date. But in fact it has no sequencing on it, since using sequencers is not a major part of Hardcastle's approach to recording.
"I hardly ever use sequencers. I mean I'm not the world's greatest classical keyboard player, but I do find that a lot of things I could use sequencer for I can actually play, so I prefer to play them. Sometimes I get a bit bored trying to programme a sequencer. Obviously for a couple of things you could use a sequencer, but I don't believe in letting them takeover."
In fact generally, Paul feels that one of the bad things about recording and production styles these days is over use of sequencers.
"There are times when you really do need a sequencer because it sounds better sequenced and really electronic, but you get more feel from things played manually, especially bass lines."
Another thing that does not play a major part in Paul's approach is MIDI. You may have noted that with the exception of the Emulator II, his keyboard collection is still heavily biased towards analogue synths.
"I never use MIDI at all to tell you the truth. If I want something to sound bigger I just double track it on the multi track. But I don't think I'll ever want to put five keyboards together, two at the most for a nice stereo effect."
19 is a true electro record. All the sound effects were done using Prophet 5 with the exception of one acoustic effect, a bell recorded backwards which accompanies the words, "You're 18 and you're wearing somebody's brains...".
In spite of the modesty of his home studio, this hasn't prevented Hardcastle from completing his recordings there. The Direct Drive record, Anything, was recorded there with only the Yamaha R1000 in the racks. The secret of this approach is that he likes to make the initial tracks as close to the final outcome as possible.
"I like recording stuff how it should sound in the end. I mean in my Emulator now on sample, I've got a really nice sounding snare already with Lexicon on it, so that's one thing less I need a Lexicon for. I've also got cymbals and things; I don't actually have to record acoustic instruments."
Sadly, for many musicians the fiscal rewards of success are often a cue for a descent into musical self indulgence, rather than simply being a chance to escape the creative restrictions imposed by limited finance. Whether Hardcastle will be an exception to this only time will tell. But while he is planning to move his studio to bigger premises - in his words, "to stop the neighbours from banging on my door late at night" - his plans for investing in new equipment seem very modest. In the past he could never afford a DX7 in addition to his Prophet 5, and this is a situation which he now plans to remedy, since although he really only uses it as a glorified pre-set synth, he cites the DX7 as a great instrument for beginners and professionals alike.
"Oh God, I hate programming the DX7, I really did detest that; it was such a boring job. But they've got some great preprogrammed sounds in them like the flute and the Rhodes. I don't like the bass, to me it's just a low frequency noise. The FM makes a lot of hiss, which can be a problem, but normally I'd get over that by gating it, or by lowering the frequency response when I'm eq-ing."
For the time being in fact, Paul is going to concentrate on getting to grips with the Emulator II, which he sees as the most exciting prospect in electronic music today.
"I'm more into learning how to use all these machines than I am in practising. It's lucky that I don't want to spend all my time practising 'cause I'd never 'ave any time to do that either."
Another spin off from the success of 19 is Hardcastle's enhanced status as a master of the re-mix, and whilst it is true that this is mainly the effect of record companies who have commissioned remixes from him cashing in on the success of 19, he was in fact consolidating quite a reputation in this sphere prior to the release of the single. So much so in fact, that in addition to the aforementioned Third World remix, and also a remix (on Stiff records), of four classic Ian Dury tracks, Hardcastle's impressive roster of remixes regularly includes tracks by hot American funk and soul bands, such as Change's Oh What A Feeling.
The secret of his success could perhaps lie in his abilities as a musician (he claims to be able to play not only keyboards, but also drums, guitar and bass) for his approach to recreating a track goes beyond simply twiddling knobs and pulling faders.
"I don't just remix things, I usually play on most of the stuff. I fatten up the bass lines and put new drums on. Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, I actually played the Linn onto the track, rather than just setting it up and letting it play itself, because the track was varying about a bit.
It's good to know that Britain can produce a viable contender in a field that is becoming dominated by megalithic all American figures, and indeed Hardcastle's claims not to be influenced at all by American producers. He doesn't even seem to have any notion of transatlantic differences, having recorded on both sides of the divide.
"There's not much difference between British and American studios. They do seem to 'ave a bit more equipment; where we've got one Lexicon they'll have two, with three AMS's and stuff. But I think I'm a good alternative to an American. They usually just send things up to New York for a remix, but I've got to the stage where I can give them a good run for their money."
The record buying public are a fickle lot, and they show favour to musicians and pop stars in ways which seem to defy all logic. All too many of those finding themselves in the limelight believe that they understand how it has all come about... and come a cropper as a result. The question of how to follow 19 is one that Paul is not taking for granted, but while he realises that the collage type approach still has a lot of possibilities, it seems unlikely that he will resort to it again straight away.
"I'll look around for something that hasn't been done before. I mean, although I say this myself, I was the first to take the Planet Rock type of things a stage further by taking that sort of backing and putting a jazzy sort of thing over the top. That's why Rain Forest worked so well, because it was different. It's the same for 19; it worked because it was different."
In fact readers, we might look forward to something not just different, but completely different from Mr Hardcastle.
"What I do will depend on what sort of ideas I get next. Me and Lenny Henry have been experimenting together and that will be totally different to what 19 was all about. I really like going from one thing to another, it keeps me fresh."