Heart To Art
Secrets of samples and songs
Pete Phillips discovers the rhythm methods of Scritti Politti
Electronica was never an obvious conclusion for Scritti Politti. At Punk's peak when Green Gartside conceived the notion, synthesisers were generally played by men in capes, and electronic percussion was called a Syndrum and beaten with monotonous regularity on Rose Royce records. But just as Green had been seduced by the irreverent politics of Punk Rock he also developed an affection for precise Pop and the exploitation of magic machinery that gave his music that perfect sound.
By the end of 1980, Green, an inordinately tall Welsh intellectual, had grown tired of Scritti's random rhythm and scratch 'n' sniff guitar and began a search for a sound that could combine black music and pure Pop.
His quest came to an end when he met David Gamson and Fred Maher. Gamson was something of a technology fetishist and spent a lot of his time fiddling with the ever-developing synths he came across in the studios he was working in. Maher was a drummer playing with avant-garde collective, Material, and on the occasional Lou Reed album. On paper as Green admits the collaboration sounded, "bizarre and possibly quite horrendous" but all three felt a common chemistry and began to write together.
The first fruits of the new Scritti's labours were released in the form of three singles. These grabbed the attention of both schoolgirls and technocrats alike. For while the Green-struck nubiles were wondering where this tall, blond chart-entry had been all their lives the more machine-minded amongst us were marvelling over the drum sound on Wood Beez and the sparkling synth patterns on Absolute. Another question that reared its head was that of Green's ethereal falsetto.
Was this man a victim of varispeed at birth? Green has answered this one a few times before. "The sound comes from me," he says through gritted teeth, "it's all my own. Actually after listening to other vocalists in studios my voice is quite untreated. I like to keep the sound as pure as possible."
Listening to Cupid & Psyche 85' the first album by this incarnation of Scritti, Green and his cohorts have achieved an unprecedented purity. The sounds are simply outrageous and the quality of the rhythm tracks is leaving drummers and programmers nonplussed, deeply envious and very inquisitive. So Green - what makes these rhythms so much of a cerebral experience?
"Technically it was an amalgamation of AMS samples, Fairlight, Simmons, DMX, and Linn to name but a few! It was very important to get a good groove on the tracks but principally the rhythm tracks, although we all discussed it the sounds were Fred's department."
"I think the one thing that made the rhythm's so good was the SRC," says Fred, "For example in pre-SRC days it was very difficult to get rhythms to move in the track. You could never get push or pull because the resolution on Page R is so limited. It dictates pretty well where the sounds stops and starts and gives you very little movement either side. You always ended up having to go to Loop Editing Page and rearranging frames and so on but that can be pretty time consuming.
"We tried having everything synched up through a Mini Doc," adds David, "but that was hell too. Every time you wanted to overdub something you'd have to take the track back to the beginning. Then you'd decide that you didn't like the sound or you'd programmed it wrong. We'd always discover that the track was like 5msecs late from the bass drum and nothing lined up right."
"So the SRC was a real blessing," says Green, "it definitely gave us a lot of freedom. Whether or not you call it human feel is a matter of opinion but it certainly got a groove."
Indeed during the recording of the album Scritti all but ignored the ubiquitous Page R which comes as something of a relief to these pages.
"Page R is very simple," says Fred, "and it can be a real pain in the ass. Getting tied to 1/16s of beats or even 1/32 of a beat can be very frustrating."
So the Fairlight was used primarily for sampling. Something that Fred had studied in some detail in his native New York.
"I did a course on the Fairlight," he says. "There's this place in New York, called the Public Address Synthesiser Studio - PASS - where they have loads of synthesisers and drum machines and some DX machines and some really wild old modular stuff. The idea of a course there really appealed to me so I signed up. Basically the Fairlight course consisted of this guy taking you through the pages and familiarizing you with them. It wasn't terribly in depth but then I think you'd really have to own a Fairlight to get to know it completely. I learned a lot about Page R but some of the things you can do with samples using the other pages are amazing. Some very clever tricks."
"The Fairlight is very user friendly," contributes David, "if you put it against the Synclavier it has the certain warmth. But whereas Page R is very simple if you flick through the pages you get to NCO which is the composing language page and it's so daunting! The whole screen goes black and it flashes up, 'You have come to the NCO Page.'"
"This way demons lie," laughs Green.
"Oh, yeah" says Fred feigning terror, "NCO is just scary. It makes Page R look like a child's drum machine."
Virtually no real playing surfaces on Cupid & Psyche '85 as Scritti decided to sample the majority of instruments.
"All the brass is sampled," says David, "The guy in the studio we used in New York had some great samples. They were the only good samples he had so we re-sampled his samples and made up a composite sound with that and some saxophone and trumpet we sampled off a multitrack."
"A lot of the guitars are sampled too," says Fred. "We get the players to play each string straight and then we'd sample all the various characteristics you get when you play a guitar like string bend and vibrato and slides from one fret to another. That was another area where the SRC was invaluable. It would have been virtually impossible to emulate real playing if you were limited rhythmically."
But what of the ethics of sampling? There has recently been a great deal of inter-band bitching regarding sampling off records. Tears for Fears have claimed that Band Aid organizer Midge Ure had openly admitted to them that he 'borrowed' one of their tom tom sounds for the Feed the World single. Depeche Mode were so impressed by a particular Frankie drum sound that they sampled it and used it on one of their own singles. And the stories that surround the Frankie camp where sampling is concerned have become legend to say the least.
Would Scritti have any qualms about adopting sounds from other records? "We wouldn't do it," says Fred, "principally because it's such a pain in the ass. It's almost impossible to sample a single sound off a record. I mean how do you isolate the sound? Sampling a drum sound off record makes no sense to me whatever. Once the sound is on a record it's normally covered in so much crap that you wouldn't use yourself, you wouldn't even consider sampling it."
"The only way I think it would be feasible," contributes Green, "would be if you sampled a very sparse recording off CD and then you'd be very lucky." "Half the art and pleasure," he continues, "is creating the sound yourself. It seems pointless to plagiarise sounds and then call them your own."
Back to the rhythm tracks: how were the multiplicity of machines actually utilised?
"Well once we decided on a bass drum sound," says Fred, "we'd build the tracks up from that. Then you'd get me banging things in toilets and sampling them. We actually used quite a lot of Linn because I still think that it has some very good chips in it. We got into composite sounds as well."
"Christ, did we get into composite sounds!", says Green.
"We went pretty overboard at times," laughs Fred. "I think the point where we realised that we'd gone too far was when we were sitting there listening to five tracks of snare and we still weren't happy with the sound. Eventually we scrapped the whole fucking thing and went with a Linn sound pretty well on its own. It wasn't the snare sound mind you. The high hats we wanted to make very obvious machine sounds and that was a composite of Linn and DMX. It's a great sound especially as most of it was played in real time. You had this real machinery sound being played with all that human feel. I kinda liked that."
Although Fred relied heavily on drum machines he also augmented that rhythm tracks with some Simmons SDS7 playing.
"It's a great kit," he says," and now they've got the '9 out. It's always the same, just when you get really happy with a piece of equipment they go and bring out something that's a hundred times better. The '9 sounds terrific. Like a smaller version of the '7 with a better memory and better samples," he says explaining the kit to the rest of the band, "and snare sounds are meant to be something else. Apparently the snare itself is amazing, it's got three different chips in it so you get a different sound depending on how you play it. You can either play a rim shot or a cross stick or a straight hit and the snare knows what you're doing. What's really good about it is that you can get all that stuff and add it to your 7 and you can also MIDI it up to a DX7 and play actual notes on the kit as well as the sounds."
The DX and MIDI revolutions obviously opened a plethora of avenues for Scritti who, at times appear to be aspiring to some sort of technical zenith. In this rush to attain the ultimate sound one would have thought that DX and MIDI might be old news to them but they still have very kindly words for the venerable innovations.
"When you MIDI four DX7's with a DX1," enthuses, David, "some of the sounds you get are beyond words. Sometimes we'd just stand there and listen to these incredible sounds we were making. We didn't even intend putting them on the tracks but just to listen to them was a joy."
"But again with that sort of thing we went over the top," says Green, "we ended up MIDIing together eight synths just to get two seconds of sound and then you'd realise that the sound didn't work in the context of the actual track and you'd end up using a sampled guitar or something."
Another sound that has left a lot of Green's contemporaries green with envy was the album's bass sound. David explains.
"We used MiniMoog for a lot of the bass," he says,"they're just the best. They've been around for years but they haven't been topped so far. You just switch it on, sort a couple of filters out and you have an instant bass sound. Just add water! On some of the tracks I mixed it with some DX. I've got a JL Cooper CV/MIDI Converter so I can play the MiniMoog from a DX which is pretty good. Saves you walking around."
"That's like the new Syco PSP thing," adds Fred. "It's like a really neat trigger box got a lot of functions that basically save you having to get up and fiddle with your synthesisers or whatever. But basically," he continues educating the band again, "you hook up your Simmons pad and if you put this PSP between your pads and you SDS7 then it increases the sensitivity. It actually changes the sensitivity curve to give you something like the sensitivity on the new Simmons kits. And you can control the sensitivity like you can on a synthesiser or something like that. Jesus it's getting impossible to keep up with all these advancements!"
Whilst on the subject of state of the art a few names of new equipment get thrown up for discussion.
"I think once they get the Linn 9000 together it's going to be really good," says David. "The power supply is meant to be a bit dodgy for Britain at the moment and they're going to change that. But the dynamics on it are very good and apparently they're going to expand the memory. It'll definitely be worth owning then."
"The Emulator II?" asks Fred, "great machine. Horrible library. Given the time I think it would be a very useful tool. Basically it's a sampling machine and so it's just as good as the samples that you put into it. But as far as being able to mess around with the sounds and spread them across the keyboard is concerned it's a great instrument."
"I suppose it's not an instrument in the traditional sense," says Green, "but I really like the Yamaha Rev 1, it has a certain something. I like the Sony DRE2000, a great reverb unit."
"I love all of them," enthuses David, "but the Lexicon 224X really gets my vote. It's just got this range of sounds and a real richness that I think a lot of the others don't have. On the other hand I really like the very digital sounding ones. The plate on the Sony is wonderful and that's nothing at all like the 224."
"It depends very much who's hands they're in as well," agrees Green. "I loved the way Gary Langan (engineer, Art of Noise member) really grabbed a reverb. No respect for its price or craftsmanship. He just makes it do exactly what he wants it to do. I can't abide that over-cautious reverence with which people treat expensive equipment."
But as Green puts it, Scritti Politti will "continue to exploit any necessary equipment to enhance the songs". And as David and Fred continue their hunt for the perfect sound will Green continue to sing from the heart and not the stomach?
"I sing from my head actually," he says, "my stomach will continue to swill in lager as ever and my heart..."
"My heart belongs to the new Fairlight," blurts David, "and full bandwidth synthesisers. Full bandwidth synthesisers!"
Literature, excess, Marxism maybe. But a synthesiser? Green is hanging out with stranger people these days.
Interview by Pete Phillips
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