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Man Machine

Article from Music Technology, July 1991

The line between man and machine is blurred; today there exists an entity whose purpose is to make music. Simon Trask discovers that its sights are locked on the dance charts and it absolutely will not stop.

The man behind Man Machine talks about playing live with technology, the expressive power of machines and the value of chaos - and reveals an intriguing sampling technique.

THE RURAL TRANQUILLITY OF BERKHAMSTED may not seem the most likely setting for a meeting with Man Machine. Nonetheless, I am in a delightfully-scented country garden on a warm, sunny day in May, about to meet a man who takes to the stage looking like Robocop.

The man behind the sometimes soothing, sometimes frenetic but almost always melodious sample-based electronic dance music on Man Machine's debut EP and CD, Step Into Time is one Ed Stratton. But why are we meeting in a garage?

All is revealed as I leave the sunlight and fresh air behind him and step into another world - the world of Man Machine. Stratton, however, is a quiet-spoken, undemonstrative but friendly man who exhibits no obvious signs of being anything other than human.

In case you haven't guessed by now, Stratton has converted his garage into a private recording studio where he can work on his music in his own time. It's here that he composed, played, programmed, produced, recorded and mixed the ten tracks which make up the Step Into Time CD (six on the EP).

Stratton's background is in both music and engineering. He learnt to play classical piano as a teenager, but a realisation that he wasn't going to make it as a concert pianist coupled with an increasing interest in science and technology led him to want to become a recording engineer. After taking Surrey University's Tonmeister music and recording degree, he landed a job at Capital Radio, where he worked as a music engineer for the next eight years.

A combination of hearing Paul Hardcastle's '19' and discovering what MIDI was all about drew him back into making music himself, and in 1985 he bought an Ensoniq Mirage, a Yamaha QX1, a Yamaha RX11, a reverb, a delay and a six-channel keyboard mixer, and started recording jingles for Capital Radio. However, it wasn't until he teamed up with a friend from university, Vlad Naslas, that his musical career proper began to take shape. As Jack 'n' Chill, the pair recorded one of the earliest British house tracks, 'The Jack That House Built', in late '86, inspired by Farley Jackmaster Funk's 'Love Can't Turn Around'.

"I just knew that if I could make a really good house record it would set me on the road to success and I could pack in my job at Capital Radio", recalls Stratton. "And that's what happened."

But not until February '88, when 'The Jack That House Built' reached number six in the pop charts on second attempt - a previous release had seen it climb only to a modest 48. However, after one more single as Jack 'n' Chill, 'Beat in the Heat', and forays into remix work with the likes of Mantronix and Black Britain, Stratton and Naslas split - Stratton to concentrate on producing his own music, Naslas to concentrate on producing other artists.

"Rather than try and work out what I should do next, I just followed my instinct and made a track that sounded like I wanted a track to sound", Stratton explains.

The result was the Kraftwerk- and electro-inspired track 'Man Machine', which came out under the name Man Machine on Rhythm King's offshoot label Outer Rhythm around two years ago. For Stratton, the concept of Man Machine allows him to bring together his main interests outside music: the paranormal, science-fiction films, robots and space travel. Man Machine is not so much a name as a persona which Stratton adopts whenever he puts on a live show, kitting himself out in futuristic garb that would do Robocop proud.

Stratton started playing live in clubs about a year ago, taking a scaled-down version of his studio on stage with him and playing sets lasting around 40 minutes. To date he's done about 35 gigs up and down the country, playing mostly in Scotland and the North of England, but also venturing abroad to Paris for a couple of gigs.

Although all the music is down to him, Man Machine is not a one-man act. Stratton is joined on stage by Danny Price, a Ballet Rambert-trained dancer who was once part of a breakdancing team known as Broken Glass which toured the world in the days of electro fever. Price's role is to act as a combined MC and dancer, helping to whip up the crowd and get them involved in the set. Together they've built up a good reputation for, as Stratton puts it, "firing up a rave", and it's this reputation which has led to the offer (not finalised as of writing) of a support slot on OMD's UK tour in July - and with it the opportunity to reach a wider audience. It's an opportunity which has been well earned, not least because Stratton has had to learn the hard way the dangers of bringing a mass of technology onstage.

"On the second gig I ever did, everything went wrong", he recounts ruefully. "I thought I'd prepared for everything. I'd bought a lot of extra gear to go on the road, flightcased everything up - taking particular care of the Atari computer, because I'd heard so much about how temperamental they were. But I wasn't prepared for things like the atmospheric conditions in the club, or getting a nasty mains spike up the backside of the computer whenever too many lights were switched on or off at once.

"Because the club was so sweaty I was having problems loading sequence data off of floppy disk. I solved that one by getting a hard disk, which of course is environmentally sealed. In order to protect against mains spikes I bought an SBC UPS500 uninterruptible power supply, which is just a huge nickel cadmium dry battery that provides a 500 watt AC power backup. You plug it into the mains so that it's getting a trickle charge, but if the mains drops for just a split second, enough to crash the computer, it won't affect you because you're actually running off the battery. Also, if you lose the mains completely you can run for half an hour even with 500 watts going through it. You can literally plug all your gear into it in the middle of a field and start working away."

Protection enough, you might think. But in order to cover the eventuality of the computer crashing for other reasons, Stratton also invested in a back-up system: an Elka CR99 MIDI data recorder.

"I recorded the whole set into the CR99 from the Atari, then onstage I'd start the Elka in sync with the Atari and if the Atari crashed I could just flick the MIDI routing on my Quark 999 MIDI Link over to the Elka. It only happened once, at the Fridge in Brixton, and it took me a little while to realise that the Atari had crashed and I needed to switch over to the Elka, but it worked."

On stage, Stratton uses a Simmons SPM 8:2 MIDI-controlled mixer in place of his studio-bound Studiomaster desk. Although it offers fewer channels than the Studiomaster, in another way the SPM is well suited to the demands of Stratton's music.

"You can do very complex and rapidly-changing mixes with it, all controlled from the computer", he explains. "I've got a Yamaha SPX90 and a Korg SDD2000 on stage, and they're constantly changing programs as well. You can imagine that to program all these mix changes, effects changes and all the rest of it took a long time. When you think there's about 160 samples in total in the six numbers that I do in the set, and there's about 24 Programs running them all in the S1000... it's pretty complex, but it works.

"I want my music on stage to sound like it does on record, but obviously there are differences because I'm using far less mixer channels onstage. I've managed to get it pretty close, though. At the same time, playing live you need to be able to respond to the crowd."

"For instance, I can fire in a lot of the sci-fi effects, and even get people who are on stage dancing to fire in a few samples as well."

Which brings us to the interesting question of how much of Stratton's set is live and how much sequenced? For some dance acts, "playing live" means playing and/or miming along to a DAT backing tape - an approach which is ultimately as unsatisfying as it is inflexible. For Stratton, using Cubase live involves more than just hitting the Enter button at the start of the set and letting the sequencer run.

"Cubase is very graphic, and you can see exactly what's coming up", he says. "What I'm doing is I'm following it on the monitor screen and muting different tracks so I can play the easier stuff live. Also, because Cubase is running live I can play anything else I want, so for instance I can fire in a lot of the sci-fi effects that I use live, and even get people who are in the crowd or up on stage dancing to fire in a few samples as well. Apart from anything else, that proves to them that it's live! Also, I can do things like stop the sequencer, fire in a load of effects on the sampler, then start the sequencer again - that's a standard effect for whipping up a crowd.

"There's also the option to mime stuff, but you've got to choose carefully what you mime - if it's something that's not humanly possible to play, you just look stupid. But basically my set is a mixture of live playing, miming, and the computer doing the rest."

Other features of Cubase which Stratton finds useful for live work include being able to program a Stop command at the end of each track - which allows him to start the next track at any time simply by hitting Enter - and being able to assign his track start locations to the Atari's Function buttons - which allows him to quickly call up different tracks at a soundcheck.

BUT IT'S BACK HOME IN HIS GARAGE STUDIO THAT the Man Machine spends most time interfacing with his machines. Sitting amidst his gear, he muses: "I suppose, if you think about it, a studio is just another instrument - but a very complex and unpredictable one. If you can master it to a high degree, you can play it like a virtuoso violinist - you can be a virtuoso MIDIstudioist!"

As it is on stage, the centrepiece of Stratton's studio setup is Steinberg's Cubase running on his upgraded Atari Mega1. Although he uses an (expanded) Studiomaster Series 5 16:8:2 mixing desk in the studio, there's not a multitrack tape machine in sight.

"Although I was working with tape at Capital Radio, I hated the limitations of it", Stratton complains. "'The Jack That House Built' was done on tape, and every time we thought of a way to improve the track we had to go back and record it all again."

These days, not even vocals need to go to tape. Instead, Stratton samples them in sections into his S1000 and then sequences them from Cubase.

The sound-generating gear basically divides into two categories: digital samplers and analogue synths (see equipment list).

"I haven't got any digital synths", he admits. "I used to have a DX7 but I got rid of it because I just didn't like the sounds it made. Analogue is much more expressive. It's also the hands-on thing, it's being able to tweak the filter cutoff and resonance on things like the TB303 and the SH101. I'm dying to check out the JD800, though - I'm really looking forward to having a tweak of all those sliders."

Bassline duties at Electric Rain - as he calls his studio - are handled by a combination of Juno 106 - "everybody in dance music knows that that pumps out a hell of a lot of bass" - and analogue bass samples on an S1000 and an FZ1 - "mostly Moog basses". Similarly, his drum sounds come from a combination of a TR909 drum machine and a large collection of drum samples. In fact, Stratton is something of a sampling junkie, and proud possessor of a sample collection which occupies some 1500-2000 3.5" floppy disks. I kid you not. He has yet to invest in a removable hard disk unit, preferring to spend his hard-earned cash on more RAM for the S1000.

"Because my approach to writing dance music is very sample-orientated, I have built up an absolutely massive library of sounds", Stratton proclaims. "Many is the time I've spent ten hours a day, for more than a week, just collecting samples from any source I can find."

Besides instrumental sounds, Stratton has been sampling speech and atmospherics from his large collection of sci-fi films almost since he first laid hands on a sampler. A sizeable number of these sci-fi samples, together with sampled breakbeats, vocal hooks, bass sounds, drum sounds and a great deal more - all heavily orientated towards the dance production market - have now found their way onto a sample CD which goes by the unlikely name of Zero-G Datafile One (see the advert in MT).

"I've included a lot of weird sci-fi electronic effects that have got some sort of rhythmic content, and therefore can be set against a beat", Stratton elucidates. "There's also a lot of atmospheric stuff, which is great for hardcore techno tracks. Then there's a lot of speech which is great for drop-ins, and there's tons of vocal hooks and effects which have come from countless 24-track music sessions that I've engineered in the past, where I've managed to get hold of snippets of vocals."

But doesn't he feel that by making all these samples publicly available in a readily-accessible format - for a price, of course - he's losing the element of exclusivity which was formerly attached to them?

"I believe there's no point in holding back sounds", he replies. "I can make them all available, but you've still got to be creative to be able to use them effectively.

"There are a few samples I didn't put on the CD, only because they're key samples to the tracks on my album and I didn't want to water down their effectiveness. But that's not to say that I've saved the best for myself, because I haven't."

"You're taking somebody's incredibly expressive, human playing and putting a chord change underneath it which can bring tears to your eyes."

Nor is Stratton reticent about explaining his sampling techniques. What is perhaps his most intriguing use of sampling is also the one which has had the strongest impact on his music. It all began with a broadcast of Japanese shakuhachi music on Radio 3 one evening. Liking what he heard, Stratton stuck his cassette deck into Record before going out for the evening. The recording then kicked around in his studio for the next eighteen months before he dug it out and decided to make use of it.

"I went through the whole recording and sampled phrases, each three or four notes long, and then made up a melody out of those phrases", he reveals. "I had to work out what key they all hinged around, which wasn't very difficult, and then tune them, and once I'd done that I used time compression and stretching to get the notes to fit one tempo; fortunately all the samples were all pretty near to 120bpm."

These shakuhachi phrases have become a characteristic element of the Man Machine sound and style, appearing to a greater or lesser extent in four tracks. Stratton has used the same technique on the floating, dreamy title track 'Step Into Time' - only in this instance he sampled the mournful sound of the duduk, an Armenian wind instrument which sounds like a cross between a viola and a human voice. The source - an album on Brian Eno's Land Records by Djivan Gasparyan called I Will Not Be Sad In This World - is credited in the liner notes to Step Into Time.

"I chose maybe ten phrases which I liked because they did things to me, then I sampled them", Stratton recalls. "In the end I used about six or seven of them, and the rest I ditched because I just couldn't make them work in the track.

"It's definitely a technique worth exploring, because what you're doing is taking somebody's incredibly expressive, very human playing, which at the same time is very simple in terms of note content, and then putting a chord change underneath it which can bring tears to your eyes. If it's a simple melodic note sequence, you can fit it over a whole range of chord sequences and create amazingly different moods. It's a very enjoyable way of creating a track.

"Let's get one thing straight, though: I don't claim to be the writer of those little snippets of melody. This is why the royalties are quite rightly going to the guy who played the duduk. I'd love to know what Gasparyan thinks of what I've done with his music. I know what Brian Eno thinks of it. My publisher played the track to him as part of the process of getting Land Records' permission to use Gasparyan's music, and he said it was a brilliant use of it. I was really chuffed about that."

In fact, where sampling is concerned, Stratton feels that honesty is the best policy - at least for obvious steals.

"I think everybody should be able to sample everything as much as they like, as long as they're honest about it", he says. "Usually if you ring a publisher up they feel quite flattered that you've used their music and that you want to seek permission. It's when you don't ask permission and then they find out that they start demanding lots of money, because there's a certain element of anger in there.

"On the second Jack 'n' Chill single we had a little whistle from Ennio Morricone's Fistful of Dollars soundtrack. We only used it about three times, but we paid Morricone 10% of the track. We got his permission to use the sample before releasing the track, because it's fair enough if you use somebody else's music.

"Unfortunately, when I recorded the shakuhachi music off the radio, the tape ran out before the end credits came on, so I don't know who the performer was. I would love to know, though, because he deserves 20% of the royalties, although I put a lot of my own creativity into the track. You can't take somebody's expressive playing and pretend it's your own, because it's not."


Akai S1000 Sampler (with 8Mb RAM)
Casio AZ1 MIDI Remote Keyboard
Casio FZ1 Sampler
Cheetah MK5 MIDI Controller Keyboard
Ensoniq Mirage Sampler
Jen SX1000 Synth
Oberheim Matrix 1000 Synth Module
Roland Juno 106 Synth
Roland SH101 Synth
Roland TB303 Bassline
Roland TR909 Drum Machine
Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus
Sequential Prophet 2002 Sample Module

Atari Mega1 Computer (with 4Mb RAM)
Groove Electronics M2CV MIDI/CV Interface
Ladbroke 50Mb Hard Disk Drive
Quark 999 MIDI-Link
Steinberg Cubase ST Software
Steinberg SMP24 SMPTE/MIDI Synchroniser

Aiwa HDS1 Portable DAT Recorder
Aiwa 87M Stereo Amp
Kenwood DP5010 CD Player
Kenwood KX770W Twin Cassette Deck
Kenwood KT660L Tuner
MCI JH110B Stereo Tape Machine
Quad 306 Amp
QED SDR four-way speaker switch
Rogers LS7T Monitors
Signex CP44J Patch Panel (x2)
Studiomaster Series 5 16:8:2 Mixing Desk
Studiomaster Series 5 four-channel expander (x2)
Studiomaster Series 5 five-channel expander (x2)
Simmons SPM 8:2 MIDI-controlled Mixer
Sony DTC55ES DAT Recorder
Yamaha NS 10 Monitors

Akai EX90R Digital Reverb (x2)
Akai AR900 Digital Reverb
Drawmer DL221 Compressor
Korg SDD2000 Digital Delay
Roland SDE1000 Digital Delay

PERHAPS NOT SURPRISINGLY, GIVEN HIS ATTACHMENT to the name Man Machine, Stratton believes in the value of a symbiotic relationship between man and machine, in which the machines aren't just there to do man's bidding but to assume a creative role themselves.

"It's the expressive power of electronics and also the explosive power of electronics that I'm so fascinated by", he explains. "I'm all for creating music that is totally unlike anything we've experienced before. To me, that's the most exciting aspect of working with machines. You can create music with machines which you personally could never have dreamt up.

"I believe that man should look on machines as a really useful tool for creating new experiences in music, instead of thinking of them from the old musician's point of view - as something which should only be there to serve the musician like a traditional instrument, or from the avant-garde classical guys' point of view, where they give the machine a few rules and literally make it write the music.

"In between that you can have something where you're trying to get the machines to come up with things but you're always guiding them, always channelling your own creativity through them, letting accidents occur but using a bit of logic to work out where the accidents are likely to happen. 808 State are very good at doing that.

"I think at times you have to let some chaos in when you're working with machines, you've got to say 'That sounds really good; right, we'll have that in the track' instead of saying 'but what channel, where will I put it, how will I use it?' - never mind that, it's in there, that's enough, now go on and find something else. You've got to have mad days, otherwise you'll never come up with enough good ideas in one go to be able to create a living, breathing track that people will be able to relate to. It's just going to sound like the product of a logical mind, lifeless.

"Also, you can get stale very quickly if you work on your own, and because of that I don't like to do too much in one go. If I'm trying to write, I can tell when I'm starting to lose it - usually after about an hour! Then I just go and do something else for a while - like walk round the garden."

So do robots dream of electric flowerbeds? In Man Machine's world, anything seems possible.

Previous Article in this issue

Tascam Porta 03 Ministudio

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Yamaha RY30

Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Jul 1991


Man Machine

Interview by Simon Trask

Previous article in this issue:

> Tascam Porta 03 Ministudio

Next article in this issue:

> Yamaha RY30

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