Hip Hop... Don't Stop
An in-depth dissection of electro-pop; how to create it, how to adapt it but not how to dance to it.
Electro unashamedly exploits the fact that it is made by a machine. Richard Walmsley shows how you can make a big crash with little cash.
If you have seen Break-Dancers in your local shopping centre, then you will have heard the music playing on the Ghetto-Blasters that accompany them. It's called Electro, a style of music that has emerged from New York's Hip-Hop movement. So far, Electro has received only limited airplay, which is a pity since it continues to attract a wide and committed audience and, very importantly, has begun to influence many British musicians and groups who are finding in the Electro approach, a ripe area for new musical explorations.
Electro is the result of a wide range of influences. In melody and harmony it owes a good deal to mainstream Funk and Soul. However, other crucial inputs have come from this side of the Atlantic, from the British Synthe-Pop of Gary Numan to Heaven 17 and from German synthesiser music, especially the sequencer disco of Giorgio Moroder and the computerised explorations of Kraftwerk. Afrika Bambaataa, a figurehead of the Hip-Hop movement, has described Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express as "... One of the best and weirdest damn records I ever heard in my life." And Kraftwerk continue to wield great influence, with Tour de France being a great favourite amongst break-dancers in the States and in the UK. Add to these influences the adopted musical idioms of Hip-Hop — rapping, scratching, mixing and dub, and you have an exciting new approach to music, resembling Latin and African music in its texture and vitality, and recalling in form the improvisatory, jamming approach of Jazz.
The basic tools of Electro are a drum machine, a polyphonic, or quite plausibly, a monophonic synthesiser and sequencer. However these instruments had been used in Soul and Funk music some time before Electro came about, and it is not the use of these instruments but rather, the manner of their use that defines the Electro sound. Electro has come about largely as a response to mechanized urban situations and computerised leisure facilities, and is in effect, dance music that makes no apology for the fact that it is executed by machines, and which in addition, exploits that fact unashamedly.
Early Electro recordings tended towards a very sparse and obviously basic, but nevertheless fresh, new sound. In fact the music tracks for Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa and Soul Sonic Force, and Play At Your Own Risk by Planet Patrol, both of which were produced by Arthur Baker, were recorded in one night using the modest Roland TR808 drum machine, and with only one effects unit, a PCM digital delay, in the racks. Two, Three Break by the B-Boys, and One For The Treble (Fresh) by Davy DMX continue to develop that style.
More complex styles often arise when Electro merges with Funk or Soul, as in Shannon's Let The Music Play and Xena's On The Upside (both produced by Mark Liggett and Chris Barbosa). Similarly, some producers and artists are using more sophisticated and exclusive equipment — especially on the effects side — with the use of digital delay, gates, reverb and sampling systems becoming more common. The Fairlight CMI music computer has also been applied to Electro; by Herbie Hancock on parts of his Future Shock LP and in Britain, by Trevor Horn who, in his Art Of Noise project, has created an Electro oriented style largely based on the Fairlight's sampling and composing capabilities.
What needs to be emphasized in all this, is that Electro began as a street movement and continues to be patronised on a street (or in this country, a shopping plaza) level.
Although some musicians and producers are using more sophisticated, less accessible equipment, equally effective results can be obtained using basic, cheap units and a certain amount of imagination and some know-how on the recording side. This exciting aspect of Electro is part of the approach of two separate British exponents of the style, Andy Stennett, until recently the keyboard player in Freeez, and Martin Jackson, one time drummer with Magazine and responsible for a large part of the UK Electro LP released earlier this year on Street wave records, whom we are featuring below. Both of these artists have relied on imagination rather than expense in producing Electro, and have been very keen to assert that this is possible for virtually any musician to do.
Having been the drummer with Manchester band Magazine, Martin's music has probably come about as a result of his own percussive musical background. It was not until he had made contact with Streetwave records director Morgan Khan that he realised his music could be termed Electro. Working on the project with Martin were keyboardist Andy Connell and Piccadilly Radio DJ Greg Wilson, and when the trio began preparing the demos for the UK Electro LP as Martin puts it: "We just went in and did what we wanted to do... We didn't know what Electro was."
Real Time, the track which we have included in this month's tape feature, was the one that inspired Streetwave Records' initial interest and which appeared in a somewhat different form on the LP. The reason for choosing this track was to show that Electro can be created "...without thousands of pounds' worth of gadgets." It was completed in a 12-hour session in a tiny 8-track studio in Manchester, using a Lindrum, a Roland Vocoder, and a Korg Polysix (all of which were on hire). The total cost of the session (including the hire of the instruments) was under £200.
One of the reasons for choosing this studio was the surprising fact that it had a Plate reverb, which Martin used to enhance the sound of the rather cheap stage Vocoder, thus achieving the choral effect which forms the backdrop to this track. The final mix was achieved with a considerable amount of 'bouncing down' of drum and keyboard tracks — a limitation which they have now found ways of overcoming.
The budget for producing the U.K. Electro LP although recorded at PRT's studios in Surrey, was again relatively low; a modest £3,000 (not much considering Trevor Horn spends more than that on an individual track!). But it was when Martin met Craig Bevan who had come over from New York to re-mix some of the tracks for release as singles, that he fully realised how Electro could still be produced by the most basic means.
Craig Bevan, who mixes for the B-Boys and The VHB, does all his work on 8-track! This is basically made possible by the Sync Track Technique, which in effect enables him to achieve something close to a 16 or 20 track sound using only an 8-track recorder. The basic method for setting up a sync track is this:
First record a sync track (a driving signal that controls the drum machines on/off and tempo controls) at the correct tempo and duration of the track you intend to record, on one of the inner tracks of the multi-track (i.e. not one or eight otherwise it may have a tendency to drop-out).
This is easily done with a Linn, DMX, Drumulator or Roland TR909 by taking a line from the Sync Out port into the desk. Unfortunately, on cheaper units like the TR808 etc you will need to purchase a sync-to-tape unit for this purpose. Having recorded the sync track, change the line in the Sync Out port to Sync In. Now the tape can drive your drum program on the drum machine while you put the other tracks on the remaining seven channels (the sync track is muted). The drum machine is monitored via the other Line Ins on the desk but never recorded on the multitrack.
So far so good. The real advantage comes when you reach the stage of mixing down onto ¼ inch. Assuming that you have been monitoring from the stereo outputs on the drum machine, now take a line from each individual output (i.e. snare, tom-tom-etc.) into the remaining Line Ins on the desk — there should be enough on most desks to accommodate this — and you can proceed to master, having not only your seven tracks of keyboards etc, but as many as eight or more drum inputs, each with separate Eq's, levels and effects to play with. (See Fig. 1) Thus the drum track reaches the ¼ inch master completely fresh having missed out a generation of tape.
In addition to a wider spread on the upper tracks and a better drum sound (and the possibility of using individual outputs to trigger sampled drum sounds), this also means that the drum program can be perpetually changed right up until the mastering stage is reached. The disadvantages of this method are, that your drum tracks are not preserved on the multitrack and would have to be re-created if you wanted to re-work a track, and that if you want to drop-ins etc ideally the whole track has to be run from the beginning (because the drum program always starts from the top). The latter problem can be solved by recording a guide or click track, which can later be erased before mastering as above.
When Craig Bevan was re-mixing the UK Electro tracks, he wanted to use a New York style reverb sound on the drum track. This would normally have been achieved using the fabulously expensive Lexicon reverb (currently all the rage in NY). However, they could not get hold of a Lexicon and so Craig suggested playing the drum-track through a speaker cabinet in a small room and then re-recording it with a microphone, "...it worked really well," explains Martin, "and he (Craig) reckoned that if you experimented enough with it you could probably get a better sound than the Lexicon."
Such techniques are not totally new of course, since a favourite trick in the rock world has been to feed the sound of a Linn snare through an Auratone (or similar) speaker suspended an inch or so above the head of a real snare and re-recording it in the loo. But the application of such techniques in Electro music appeals to Martin, as he feels that one can become sick of hearing Linndrums all the time. He is currently working on achieving new drum sounds with methods like those described above, in conjunction with cheaper drum units ("sub TR808...") possibly then adding live percussion as well.
Such techniques would be especially useful for enhancing cheap drum boxes that are only equipped with stereo rather than individual outputs.
Incidentally, the small room and Linn/Auratone/Snare techniques can still be used in conjunction with the sync-track set up, provided that the studio you are using is well set up with leads, and you are prepared to do a bit of juggling with lines in and out of the desk. e.g. In the first instance, the set up at the mastering stage would be, Line Out on drum box to Line In to desk on one channel effect send from that channel to speaker in stone room etc, mic in through another channel onto the ¼ inch master. (See Fig. 2.) Also the signal can be equalised and sent to other effects twice, since it is going through two channels on the mixer, and interesting results can be achieved by experimenting with differing Eq and effects settings on the two channels.
Another way that Martin increased the 'live' feel of the drums on the LP was by adding drum sounds sampled and executed on an Emulator. At first a bit suspicious of the Emulator, Martin also used it to achieve interesting effects with samples of voices. On one track, Music, he has sampled various sections of a Bedouin Arab chant, chopping it up and re-arranging it to come up with a completely different line. He is interested in using sounds such as sampled voices and other sounds to replace some drum sounds.
This he has already begun to explore on a track called U-People, in which a guttural shout replaces the snare-drum back beat. Of course, at around £7000, the Emulator is a somewhat exclusive instrument (even hiring it is very expensive and necessitates the purchase of floppy discs on which the samples are recorded) but if you are interested in sampling there are cheaper ways of doing it, about which more later.
As to the future of Electro, Martin feels that although there is still a lot to be learnt from New York, particularly in respect of sound, it has to move away from NY and be adapted if it's to thrive in this country. "It's got to be a little bit more intelligently done...a bit less of a production line." Martin's aim is to produce Electro that works as listening music as well as on the dance-floor. And in case you think that Electro is unlistenable, robotic sequencer music, I should point out one aspect in which his music differs from NY Electro; throughout the whole UK Electro LP they didn't use a sequencer once!
Andy Stennett's first introduction to Electro came about in 1982, when he spent three months in New York working with Arthur Baker and John Robie on the Freeez singles IOU and Pop Goes My Love. He is currently working with brothers Barry and Noel Durdant-Hollamby, on a project aimed (like some of Martin Jackson's work) at a listening as well as a dance audience. It is from this project that Bolectro comes (included on our tape feature), and in addition, Andy has prepared some specific examples of low-budget techniques that can be applied in Electro music.
He is another advocate of the sync track method of recording, though a crucial difference between his and Martin Jackson's style is the use of sequencers, which provide a good part of the back-drop of sound on Bolectro. The set-up for using a sequencer in conjunction with a sync track would be something like this:
The sync track (recorded on the multi-track as before, and sent to the drum machine via the desk and the Sync In port), drives the drum machine which in turn by taking a line from Click Out on the drum machine to Click In on the sequencer, drives the sequencer. A sequence need not be recorded straightaway on the 8-track, but can be monitored while you record other tracks, and then edited or modified if you so wish.
Alternatively, you can put sequencer or manual parts down on the multi-track, and then add another sequence along with the drum tracks at the mastering stage (via the extra Line Ins on the desk). This idea can be pushed still further to dramatically expand the potential of a recording desk, by a splitting the click out signal on the drum machine in order to drive more than one sequencer and maybe even other drum-boxes, to put through the desk straight onto the ¼ inch master. (See Fig. 3.) Like most musicians, a lot of Andy's experience has been learnt the hard way and he suggests a few checks that you should make before getting too carried away with this idea:
(a) Check that the various drum machines and sequencers are capable of driving one another. (This you should check especially carefully if you are hiring equipment.)
(b) Check that the studio you intend using is well equipped with leads and an adequate Patch Bay.
(c) Check that there are enough Line Ins on the desk for your purposes before filling up the remaining tracks on the multi-track.
Bolectro was actually recorded on 24 track, at Vineyard studios in London. Barry Durdant-Hollamby, who engineered the track, shares Martin Jackson's enthusiasm for the Plate reverb. It seems that Electro producers are increasingly turning to mixtures of electronics and acoustics to create effects, and the Timpani-like sounds which can be heard on Bolectro are a good example of this. The actual sound originally came from a medium floor tom-tom which was then sent, via a Pre-Fade on the desk, to a speaker placed in an oak "live" room. It was then re-recorded and put through the Plate with full Eqs on the lowest frequencies. The original signal was muted so that in effect it was only the reverb on the sound that was recorded.
Andy has also included some excerpts (nos. 1 and 2 on the tape), from Electro tracks which were begun using only a monophonic synth (a Roland SH101) and a Fostex portastudio. These excerpts are simply three and four track layers of sequences, recorded consecutively from the SH101, which were subsequently recorded on 8-track with the addition of another four tracks of keyboards, vocals etc. This is how they were done: The first sequence was programmed into the SH101 and a suitable tempo was decided on. Then it was recorded onto Track 1 for the required duration. Then the SH101 was reprogrammed, the tape was run and after the first sequence began to play on track 1, the new sequence was started in time with the tape and recorded on track 2. Two more tracks were added in the same way. (More can be added if you are prepared to bounce-down.) This technique is not aided by any synchronization between tape and sequencer, so the modulation rate must remain exactly the same throughout, and great precision has to be applied to the starting of the sequencer. Naturally, discrepancies arise between the consecutively recorded sequences. To correct these, switch to Sync mode or (as on the Fostex), Line In/Mic on the Portastudio. Then, supposing that the discrepancy occurs at say 55 on the tape counter, start the sequencer at 50, and if it sounds okay, drop-in at 55.
If you want drum machine in your final recording, that has to be put down first on the portastudio. The method is the same as above, except that the drum machine drives the sequencer throughout (or vice-versa depending on what clock in/clock out facilities your drum box and sequencer are equipped with), and the "punching in" or starting of the sequences in done on whichever unit is doing the driving. This method may be a bit primitive, but with a certain amount of patience and skill it does work, and can save on time (...and ££'s) spent setting up sequencers and drum machines in the studio.
The second excerpt on the tape is evidence of Andy's enthusiasm for experimental sounds and of sampled sounds. The "Tibetan Monastery" drone sound and the Gorilla are actually sampled voices, but were done using a modest little unit called a Super Replay, made by Electro Harmonix. This is a real digital sampling system offering a sample time of up to four seconds, which retails at around £500. (There is also a smaller unit available with a two-second sample time at around half that price.) The samples can be modulated by an SH101, or other mono-synth or sequencer (via the Control Voltage input) giving you something very close in capabilities to an Emulator at a fraction of the cost.
The "Tibetan" sound was achieved using the Super Replay in Loop mode. This enables you to make a sample composed of layers of sound, for instance in this case, by singing a note more than four seconds long, then adding other notes. The sample can be made rhythmic (as it is here) by adding shorter sounds and can also be super-imposed with melodic fragments. Sounds can be sampled in at different pitches, enabling you to modulate the sample in different ways. Andy created the other sampled sound in this excerpt, the Gorilla, by sampling in the lowest growl he could make at high C on the SH101. Thus he was able to take that growl some two octaves lower by playing the lowest notes on the SH101. The bird noises were created on the SH101 and the whole track was recorded, without any bouncing down, on a Portastudio.
In his new material, Andy is interested in bringing more experimental techniques into the Electro format. One idea which interests him is the creative use of Drawmer gates to modulate various sounds. He is working on producing percussion tracks by sending various continuous sounds through the unit, using a drum machine to trigger the gates, thus producing a precise drum box rhythm but with a completely unexpected sound. He came across the idea after hearing a beautiful bird-like fluttering voice effect on a Godley and Creme album. "They recorded continuous vocal sound," he told me, "which they put through the gate. Then, using an audi-signal from a microphone, they set it (the gate) to be triggered by the sound of rice being sprinkled onto a snare drum."
For those of you interested in listening to NY Electro, the biggest source in this country (other than imports) is on the Streetsounds Electro compilations. In addition there are the British Electro-orientated releases like Into Battle With The Art of Noise, and New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies.
Electro may be some way yet from being performed in a live situation, but it is created by imaginative uses of quite accessible studio facilities, which can quite easily be applied to other types of music, especially where sequencers and drum machine are being used.