Human League in the Studio
With Martin Rushent just voted BBC Producer of the Year, our interview from his Genetic Sound Studio, where Human League recorded ‘Dare’, must be THE music feature of the month!
Tony Bacon interviews Human League producer Martin Rushent
ONE DAY IN DECEMBER 1981 I journeyed into deepest Oxfordshire to see Martin Rushent, a producer whose name is on every A & R person's lips since his enormous recent successes with, primarily, the Human League, and with Altered Images. As I travelled on the train to Rushent's Genetic Sound studio, the Human League's Don't You Want Me drifted up from my Walkman - Top Of The Pops' number one single for the fifth week running. I got chatting between Walkman sessions to a woman who turned out to be a nurse. She also turned out to be going to the same tiny station as me. "Oh, it's a very pretty place, set in very pretty countryside," she assured me of our mutual destination, "and there's plenty of grand houses. Some very wealthy people live up there."
ONE DAY IN THE LATE 1960s, Martin Rushent joined Advision Studio in London. He'd decided some years earlier that he didn't want to be what his schoolmasters intended, a chemical engineer. He wasn't interested at all. After playing in bands for a while, he went to Advision and developed as an engineer at a time when 4-track was just being phased out, and experienced first-hand the technical traumas of 8-track and the birth pains of 16-track, along with his principal collaborator, Eddie Offord.
Rushent sits now in the study of his house, his secretary Carrie having picked me up from the station and saved me from the clutches of the mutually-destined nurse. The house is a short walk from the Genetic studio, perched in the producer's pleasant rural acreage. Martin picks up the story of the move to 16-track recording from his Advision past. "I think the move from 8 to 16-track was one of the great leaps forward," he explains, "in terms of possibility. Basically though, nobody had a board capable of dealing with a 16-track machine - the machine came before the board! So boards were 8-track boards, and you had to sort of route things through a patchbay and bring things back through echo returns. I suppose that was the best grounding I ever had, back then, now I think about it. Because you had to improvise all the time to make the 16-track system workable, you learnt to use a board in totally unorthodox fashions and that's something that stayed with me ever since. I'm not frightened of using a board in a way that it's not meant to be used, or any other piece of gear. The art of it all is to improvise it, to bend it."
Rushent says he chucked up what was a really good job at Advision in the 1970s, "to go further," as he now puts it. Self-motivation coupled with ambition, among other things, drove him to freelance as an engineer, help build a small 8-track studio which produced a hit or two, and in 1977, during a stint at United Artists' A & R department, to meet up with the Stranglers who, after a few fruitful recording collaborations, provided the basis for Rushent's subsequent success as a producer. Meanwhile in 1977, in a backstreet in Sheffield, the Dead Daughters (one gig, deceased) and The Future had turned into the original Human League, of whom one Philip Oakey soon became helmsman. The League plodded on through such synth-laden work as The Dignity of Labour Parts 1-4, all enthusiasm and detuned oscillators, or the jollier You've Lost That Loving Feeling, with their own synthetic version of the Wall Of Sound.
Early into the 1980s, the commercially unsuccessful Human League split, revealing two separate and commercially successful off-shoots, Heaven 17 and the (new) Human League, to which Oakey has added two women singers. 1981's impressive Dare LP testifies to the band's new-found skills, in tandem with producer Martin Rushent and his gleaming Roland MC8 Microcomposer. The exquisitely crafted and technologically aided slabs of sound, topped off with Oakey's permaflop hairdo, ensured the Sheffield synthesists' success and guided the group to pop stardom.
ONE DAY IN MAY 1981, Martin Rushent sat in Simon Draper's office in West London and played the Virgin boss some tapes Rushent had made at his Genetic studio with Pete Shelley, late of the Buzzcocks and in solo guise the first and then only signing to the Genetic label. Draper was impressed by the all-electronic recordings and Rushent's explanations of the gadgetry employed. The Human League had been signed to Virgin for some time, and when Phil Oakey told Draper of his desire to make his band 'the electronic Abba', the League/Rushent connection occurred. Encouraged, Oakey apparently said that he liked some records by 999 that Rushent had produced.
A meeting took place. Martin remembers that Oakey's initial complaint to him was: "We reckon we're writing hit songs and have been for some time, but we just can't seem to make it work on plastic." Rushent's interest was immediately aroused and the band came down to Genetic for the first session soon after, to record The Sound Of The Crowd, the first League/Rushent single. It sold well - 'the highest the League had ever got by light years'. Thus followed another single, Love Action, and then the Dare LP. Rushent recalls, "We said O.K., we'll go full tilt for it. I said we need an album that's got four, maybe five singles on it, the whole thing." "And," he says, "it worked," and laughs out loud, as well he might.
The Martin Rushent precis
"First of all they demo the song up in their little studio in Sheffield. They come down with a demo that's got drum machine on it playing the basic rhythm that they want to use, and the key synthesiser parts: the bass and the main instrumental theme of the song. That's usually about it, so I get given the bare bones. Then we'll sit and talk for maybe an afternoon about the approach that we want to use, honing up the arrangement, deciding how many verses there's going to be before the chorus, solos, and all the rest. Until we've got in mind exactly how this song's going to be structured, we don't go into any detail about other instruments or stuff like that. But we've got a basic plan.
"The whole thing is written out as we go along. Once we've arrived at a basic plan, we write a straight-ahead bar chart to the song with all the chords on it and stuff like that. The next thing we do is to put a timecode on the multitrack. The timecode's generated by the MC8, the Roland Microcomposer. If the song is 180 bars long, we feed in '180'. If there's any 2/4 or 3/4 bars, they get written in as well. So on the tape we now have the timecode, and from that we can run the Microcomposer which will drive the synthesisers, and we can run the Linn drum machine.
"Having got there, we'll then put down a basic drum track from the Linn with no fills, just hi-hat, bass drum and snare playing the basic rhythm part that we've decided on. Then we'll put the bass on, sometimes manually, sometimes by machine, it really depends on what we want. Also, we get some lovely bass sounds out of an old Korg synth that Phil's got, which is falling apart, we have to bash it to get it working. It's a really early one, only a tiny little job, but we get great bass sounds out of it. It's not programmable because the control voltage and gate inputs aren't wired in or anything. Then we put on the main theme part, often by machine. As we're doing all these things the parts actually get written out on the bar chart, so by the time we've finished the whole record we've got the whole arrangement written out, note for note. Then it's really down to people throwing in ideas: I might think it'd be nice if we had a sort of brass sound coming in here, say.
"The last thing to go on a Human League record is the drums, last of all. And it may mean that we've changed the whole drum pattern that we originally envisaged - we put fills in then, and all the rest of it. That's the last thing, which is totally the reverse of how you used to do it. It takes a long time to make a Human League single from start to finish. One track normally takes about a week. Every note that goes into a Human League record is a conscious decision, as opposed to, 'Well, let's take another guitar solo and hope this is a good one,' where you eventually end up getting something which is good but may not be exactly what was required. Here you can decide, well, I think it would be better if that third note was a G rather than an A, and quickly program in a G and listen and say, 'Yeah, that's O.K.'. Every note has been consciously considered at some point, to create the best effect for whatever emotion you're trying to put over.
"Get Carter is perhaps an exception to the rest of Dare, in that it was done completely manually, there's no computers on that one at all! That's really the only one. It's very simple, almost like a cameo piece rather than a real track. We even used a Casio VL-Tone - it's on Open Your Heart playing the main theme. It's on the standard, flute preset. We programmed it into the memory of the VL and just hit the button at the point we wanted it to play, with the tempo synced up. Sort of a lazy man's way of doing it. For £35 or whatever it's an extraordinary thing. They're laying all over the place here, but we have to hide them away because my youngest son absolutely adores them. That tune that the VL has programmed in drives everybody up the wall, you can't get rid of it! I got a Casio watch for Christmas, and it's got eight alarm tunes in it, wakes you up with Greensteeves or the National Anthem... no, no Human League songs yet," Rushent laughs.
The Martin Rushent method
"The MC8 really replaces the keyboard, it sends out exactly the signals the keyboard would send out if you were playing it. There are three parameters that are important to a synthesiser in terms of the signal that it gets from the keyboard. In fact on some synths there are more than that, but the basic three are: control voltage, which denotes the pitch of the note; the gate, or trigger pulse, which denotes how long the note's going to sound for, coupled with the ADSR which will give you attack, decay and so on; and step time, which denotes the length of time that the note occupies - it may not sound for that long, but it's a crotchet, say, and that's its value. The control voltage is very simple, you just program in all the notes in sequence that you want. Gate time then denotes how long you want each to last.
"All these things are translated into numbers, so your control voltage will go from 0 to 48 which will give every note on the keyboard. With step time, if you value a whole bar at 192, obviously a quarter note's gonna be 48, a quaver's going to be 24, a semiquaver will be 12, and so on. The gate time, which is the time that you actually want the note to sound, or the trigger length to the ADSR - not always the same thing - works on the same basis. So a note that you want to sound for a full bar is entered as 192. If you want it to last for a whole quarter note, it's 48. Or you might have it valued as a quarter note, but you only want it to sound the length of a semi-quaver, in which case it would be 12. See, it's really quite simple. Let's say you wanted a half-note rest. O.K., the length of a half-note is 96 so you'd hit in your 96, but you don't want it to sound at all, so you put in a gate time of 0. You end up with a rest of half a bar long. And you can program the most intricate line - if you listen to the more brassy lines on Dare, say on Love Action or Don't You Want Me, you hear some very flashy playing indeed! You can program in some very sophisticated stuff.
"Hard Times, which is the B-side of Love Action, not on the album, has a brass arrangement which is basically Junior Walker riffs all strung together for the fun of it - all programmed, including the dynamics. You can program tone and dynamics by hitting the VCF and the VCA - obviously, these things are voltage controlled so what you can do is program up another memory on the MC8. You've got eight possible control voltage memories, so you can have up to eight lines playing at once. We only really normally have one line, and then we'll track on harmonies and stuff to that. The other control voltage memories we use to sling out voltages to VCAs and VCFs, to control the tone and the dynamics. There's a lot of that in Hard Times. It's very simple and it's very versatile, the MC8 - and things get better all the time, particularly now as manufacturers of synths are starting to think Micro and build a machine that will work with it. Course, it's only a matter of time before the Micro comes down in price, so that ordinary people doing their demos and stuff at home will be able to afford a simplified Micro.
"There are certain things about the newer Roland MC4 which are better than the original MC8, and there are certain things that aren't so good. We're contemplating getting an MC4 soon for specific jobs, because it'll be faster. Its copy functions are much more usable, much faster, and obviously if you've got a song where large chunks of it are identical, you can just say, 'Copy bars 10 through 14, four times.' It's faster doing that, its delete and insert functions are much easier as well. If you want to delete a few bars because you don't want to use them, or you want to insert an extra piece, with the MC8 it's a fairly complicated procedure. If you make a mistake you can mess the whole thing up. Whereas with the MC4 it's been much more simple to do that. It's people like us going back to them and saying, 'Look, you know, it's a real drag about this bit here,' and they go, 'Oh really?' And no-one could have forseen those things. You can really only store about 600 bars of something fairly complicated in the MC8. Every note takes three bytes of the memory: your control voltage, step and gate. You're also running tone and dynamics as well, so it's five bytes a note. Say it's got 16 notes to the bar - you soon chew up your memory. We'd like to dump all our data from the MC8 on to Fairlight floppy disks."
ONE DAY IN THE FUTURE, Martin Rushent sees music and technology becoming increasingly united. "Soon, I can see the possibility of something like an MC8 being brought out that's very simple to use and cheap," he says. "I think the Wave from PPG has got tremendous potential. It's not yet very reliable in terms of the time code, and whilst it is programmable up to a point they're still solving those problems. But I think that once they've got that out of the way, and the machine runs reliably with an MC8 or an external programming source, then you've got a killer machine. We've got our order in for the moment, they say, 'Here's one you can run with your MC8.' I think we can also look towards a new Linn drum machine in the pro end that will be even more versatile than the current one. I think it will probably have more sounds in it and will be able to do drum rolls. I don't think we're going to get anything totally brand new this year, it'll be developments of what we've already got. They'll be simplified, made cheaper, made more effective. That's probably what we're going to get.
"At Genetic, we want to stay in the forefront of whatever's happening. We act in rather unorthodox ways at times - we enjoy being right on the edge of what's possible," Rushent continues, "and we shall stay up there. It's fun up there, and I think there will be consistent progress in that area. I think we'd like to build a Genetic studio in London - the only thing that is putting us off is the actual cost. The demand is enormous at the moment on the studio here. We're also looking for artists to sign to our own label, Genetic.
"I think video has to be one of the options for us, but we really want to lead the way, or be one of the leaders, in electronic music - I don't think you've seen the end of this by a long way. I think this is really just the beginning. Electronic music can now stand up as a true form, there's no area that it can't get into. Electronic reggae, electronic country music - in a few years time the bulk of film music will be completely electronic, a large amount of it already is. I think that TV advertising will have mainly electronic music. I foresee a shrinking of the number of what one would term session musicians in the industry. The influence of it all is really going to change the whole industry, but obviously it won't happen overnight. It will gradually change. It's a fairly slow process - I would think by the end of this decade, Genetic will be a fairly large, respected organisation, very creative. When I say large, I don't mean thousands of people in a head office in London. But certainly involved at every level. It's going to take a decade to do it."
We'll see about that in 1992. Meanwhile, Rushent has been looking around for 'another artist or two' - recent productions include Lene Lovich (on Stiff) and Leisure Process (on Epic), plus David Rhodes for Genetic. Coming up are album projects for Altered Images and Pete Shelley, and the inevitable Human League sessions. The only problem there, Rushent reckons, is finding two months of their very busy 1982 to record in.
ONE DAY IN FEBRUARY 1979, David Bowie watched the fledgling Human League play at a club in West London. They included his (written for Iggy Pop) Nightclubbing in the set, and Bowie exchanged phone numbers with the group before he left. He said he'd keep in touch. Now there's a thought...
PHIL OAKEY/ADRIAN WRIGHT
IAN BURDEN SYNTHESISER
JO CALLIS SYNTHESISER
JOANNE CATHERALL VOCALS
PHILIP OAKEY VOCALS AND SYNTHESISER
SUSANNE SULLEY VOCALS
PHILIP ADRIAN WRIGHT SLIDES AND OCCASIONAL SYNTHESISER
INSTRUMENTS USED: ROLAND MC8, SYSTEM 700, JP4, KORG 770, DELTA, CASIO VLT1, M10, LINN LM1, YAMAHA CS15
Have you ever wondered how music is actually drafted for the producer's use? It certainly does not appear in a neat edited version as shown on the left hand page! So thanks to Martin Rushent and Carrie at Genetic Operation Ltd for letting us have the arrangement sheets for 'The Things That Dreams Are Made Of' which we've printed here. It'll take a bit of working out, of course, along with the music (from the 'Dare' LP), the staved sheet shows the bar number/repeats for the Roland MC8 (and presumably a guide for the Linn too), and letters indicate bass/chord harmony. See if you can pick out the three themes jotted down, too.
We've also shown the MC8 worksheet for the first 5 bars, giving control voltage/step time/gate time values.
Interview by Tony Bacon