Oceanic interviewed | Oceanic
Merseyside's pop trio on presets, jingles, Nirvana and 2 Unlimited
Pop muzik: New York, London, Paris, Munich... and Birkenhead. The rave scene has spawned countless experimental duos and trios who program the whole lot at home. But for every ten of these acts, there is one that finds a proven pop formula using the same techniques. Oceanic are chart material; a trio - David Harry, Frank Crofts and Jorinde Williams - who use their preset-friendly keyboards as a library of commercial sounds. On moral grounds, they never sample other people's music - not even the work of heroes Steve Lipson and Trevor Horn. From their Merseyside-based Mechanical Man studio, where Dave and Frank also operate as remixers and producers, three hit singles and an album have issued forth in just over a year, and following an intense period of choreographed media exposure Oceanic are in a better position than most to comment on just what it takes to get there. Phil Ward takes a cruise...
David: "I'm a big fan of presets. I know people go on about programming new sounds, but don't forget, if they put lousy sounds into a synth at the factory, no one would buy the thing."
Frank: "I completely agree. There's no point in changing the sound if it's right, and we've got so many keyboards that we'll always find a sound that works. For example, there's a couple of brilliant piano sounds on the SQ2 that work almost anywhere you might want a piano. There's a lot of scope to program on the JD800, it's true, but buttons and sliders can be as off-putting as algorithms."
David: "It's not that we don't understand synthesis - we used to experiment with single-oscillator mono keyboards to get different sounds ten years ago - but you don't need to know what an LFO is to get a good sound. A lot of people buy a keyboard because they like its preset sounds. I mean, we blend sounds together, but we're not concerned with being fulltime sound programmers. Do those people who make brilliant sounds always make good songs? We can create a sound from scratch if we have to, but because we know the characteristics of each keyboard we can start in the right place and look for a certain type of sound that we're after.
"Usually you'll want to change the envelope - especially on string sounds, where the attack and decay is critical - so we do program to that extent. On the 01/W, we've got several patches of the same sound with just different envelopes for different songs. And occasionally we'll brighten sounds up with the filter, rather than relying on EQ. But we never touch FM synthesis. We've got a DX21 and TX7, but only for the sounds, which are more often than not used as tonal characteristics of a composite sound, so you seldom the hear the preset on its own.
"But even the cheapest presets can work, especially in complicated sequences that you could never manually play. Take the MS6: it's a really thin, cheap sound, but if you expose it correctly it can sound great. The more complicated the sequence, the simpler the sound has to be. Once you've got some great, thick, chorussed pads, there's not much room left in your overall sound canvas. But the MS6 can occupy its own little space and do really complex, melodic 16ths, for example. There's a balance between notes and oscillators all the time."
Frank: "If someone goes into a keyboard shop with 15 hundred pounds, knowing what type of sounds they want, they'll try a few keyboards and buy the one that they hear those sounds coming out of."
David: "Me and Frank are experienced buyers - and we still get impressed by sounds we hear coming out of factory-programmed synths."
David: "Here's proof of the quality of presets: you can switch on the TV, wait for the ads or a theme tune, and play spot-the-keyboard. And the real flagships over the last 10-12 years have been the DX7 for Yamaha, the D50 for Roland, and the M1 for Korg - you can spot them a mile off. And that's because they've been used - successfully - in their untampered states. How many times have you heard Digital Native Dance off the D50? The point is these are useable presets, and jingle writers know how good they are. And, of course, TV jingles are an art form in themselves. They're like pop songs - in fact they're harder than pop songs.
Frank: "If someone asks you for eight seconds of pure power that's going to make someone go out and buy his soap powder, to turn round and actually do it you have to be an absolute expert. We've done a jingle for radio recently, and it's only 12 seconds long and sounds like nothing. But it took a lot of very hard work."
David: "You've really got to make sure there are no flaws, because a flaw in something that's 12 seconds long, which is going to be repeated and repeated, well, you'd never get away with it."
David: "Pop music is essentially the same. People think it's easy, but if it is so easy, why isn't everyone with a keyboard in the charts? Of course, there's a lot of luck involved, and we've had some of that luck, but equally people don't make it because they don't get it right. 2 Unlimited get a hard time because the songs sound similar, but believe you me, it's the hardest thing in the world to do a brand new song and make it sound like like your last one. If you want it to be new, but close enough to have that same identifying stamp, that's as hard as hell.
"And people slag it off, but that's pop music. People buy it, they know what it's going to be, they like the 2 Unlimited way of doing things, You can't tell the punter in the street that he or she is wrong. You can't say 'don't buy that because it's simple', or because it only took someone half a day to do - that's not the point at all. The point is if people like it, it's working and they'll want more. It doesn't matter if it's 2 Unlimited or Nirvana. And people want the same continuity from a band with credibility, like Nirvana, as others want from straight pop."
David: "Pop music, in its simplest form, is not about being able to play guitar at 600mph behind your head. There's loads of people who admire heavy metal who don't have a clue what the musicians are actually doing, and they certainly don't have a clue what we're doing, and yet they use a so-called appreciation of musicality to slag us off and claim superiority. The best rock music, like Nirvana, is really simple.
"You can't miss their choruses. It's a chorus, no two ways about it, and it's usually set in a different key from the verse, which is played down to emphasise the chorus even more. I think there are a lot of similarities between Nirvana and Oceanic. We're into the same dynamics as a way of keeping the listener's attention."
Jorinde: "It's hooks that always get you going, it's hooks that matter. I like to chill out to The Orb sometimes, but all the stuff that really reaches you has a powerful hook."
Interview by Phil Ward
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