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Mixing metaphors

Kenny Larkin

Article from The Mix, June 1995

Tim Barr catches up with the Detroit techno pioneer

Music and violence have achieved equal prevalence in Detroit, home of techno pioneer Kenny Larkin. After finding himself the victim of the latter, Kenny's back with an new album. Tim Barr takes up the story...

Detroit. City of lovers and handguns and music. From Motown and P-Funk through to modem techno, The Motor City has been responsible for some of the most essential soundtracking of the last 30 years. But it also has its dark side. And when Kenny Larkin was shot, last November, it seemed like the undercurrent of violence which has chequered Detroit's history was about to claim another victim. But in spite the seriousness of his injuries, Kenny made a remarkable recovery, and was soon back into the rigorous schedule of recording and DJing which has made him one of techno's most assured, and highly-regarded exponents.

"I'm pretty sure that the shooting was robbery-motivated," he explains. "At the time, I had my studio set up at home. After the incident, I decided it was probably safer to move all the equipment out of the house, and find somewhere else to set it up. Obviously it's not as convenient as working from home, but I feel a whole lot more comfortable with it that way!"

Now relocated to the suburb of Royal Oak, just North of Detroit, Kenny's studio is based around the new Alesis X-2 mixing console, and three Alesis A-DATs. Alongside the usual techno production tools, like the Roland TR909, Juno 106 and Yamaha DX100, there are a number of interesting choices for someone working in the analogue-dominated field of dance music. Kenny used two master keyboards, the Kurzweil K2000, also used by Derrick May and Laurent Garnier, and surprisingly, the Alesis Quadrasynth.

"The Quadrasynth is very clean-sounding, but it didn't exactly blow me away the first time I heard it. The presets sounded to me like the meat'n'potatoes of pop production. They were good, but not very useful for the kind of music that I make. What attracted me to it was the fact that it has a 76 note keyboard. I do a lot of transposing, so that comes in handy. Since I bought it, Alesis have updated the sound banks to include more synth sounds and because editing is pretty straightforward with the Galaxy Plus software that I use, I'm beginning to work with the onboard sounds a lot more."

Until recently, the studio workhorse was the highly-rated Ensoniq ASR-10 rackmount sampler. This has now been joined by the Emulator IV, the latest addition to an already impressive equipment list.

"I'm so in love with this machine," he says, enthusiastically. "What originally interested me was the polyphony and the memory. It has 128-note polyphony, and the memory is upgradable to 128 Meg, so for touring it's going to be very useful. But when I got it, it was so easy to use that, in the past six weeks, it's been at the heart of the studio. It has some really nice features, like transform multiplication, for creating new sounds. If you have two different samples, say a bell sample and a vocal sample for instance, it'll analyse the common frequencies, and combine them to produce something else. It's just a joy to use."

"I use the sampler a lot, but not always in the way you'd think. Often what I'll do when I'm writing a track is create some kind of sequence, and then sample it so I can experiment with different loop points and truncated sounds to make it more effective."

Watching Kenny work at the keyboard, pushing chord shapes almost instinctively, changing programmed loops and pulling tracks together, it's immediately apparent that the success of his music isn't just the product of a well-equipped studio. Over the space of a few hours, he programs the basics of a full track with inspired intuition, building up a melody over a straight 4/4 drum loop, adding a bassline and a lead, before turning his attention to the rhythm patterns. It's a rapid process, but one which exhibits the presence of genuine talent.

"Ever since I was little, I've been into music," he recalls "I had a keyboard when I was young, and I used to listen to songs on the radio and pick out the tune or whatever. That was good training. I kind of developed a good ear for music. Around 1985, I got heavily into house music. I had just joined the Air Force and I was stationed in Florida. I met this guy from Chicago, who had turntables and house music galore. So when we weren't working we'd be playing records and mixing. Eventually, I quit the Air Force to do stand-up comedy. That lasted for six months, until I heard a radio station in Detroit playing techno. I didn't even know what it was; it wasn't house music, but I knew I was drawn to it."

"I started going to clubs like the Shelter and a place called The City Club, I also went down to The Music Institute, and I found that the guy who was DJing was Derrick May. It was amazing, and I realised that this was the kind of music I wanted top make. Shortly after that, I met Richie Hawtin. He had just started spinning at the Shelter, and he was getting heavily into techno. He bought a keyboard and released a record, and that's how Plus 4 started up."

"When I first decided to do records with Richie, I bought a Yamaha DX7S. I had it in layaway for six months — it took me forever to save up the money to get it. That's all I had when I did 'We Shall Overcome'. Then I realised that I needed a multi-timbral keyboard, so six months after that I traded the Yamaha in for a Roland D10. But then, I didn't have a sequencer. And so it I went on. Eventually, I got the Kawai Q80 sequencer which I swear by. It's the easiest sequencer I've ever used. Even though I like the extra facilities that software sequencing provides, I still prefer hardware sequencers. Everybody in Detroit is like that, because most of us learned to program on machines like that. When you first start out they're affordable, and they're so transparent they never get in the way. With computers, I find that the programming actually slows you down."

"I never practise. I don't even have turntables at home. The only time I pull my techno records out is when I'm DJing"

"Nowadays I use Emagic's Notator Logic. I bought the package about two years ago, but although I had read a lot of good things about it, I wasn't that familiar with software sequencing. I had used a computer at Carl Craig's place when I was doing the Dark Comedy stuff, but really it was a shot in the dark — the store had a half-price sale! The learning curve with Notator was really steep, because the manual made no sense at all, but as soon as I got it I knew it was powerful. The main reason I use a computer nowadays is the fact that 16 MIDI channels is no longer enough for me. With the two Mark of The Unicorn MIDI express units, I've got something like 196 channels, so it saves having to worry about running out of room."

Hidden in the rack on the left-hand side of the studio, amongst the sound modules, is one of Kenny's more unusual acquisitions, a BBE862 Sonic Maximiser which is one of the more popular descendants of Aphex's original 'Aural Exciter' range. Opinion is divided as to whether these kind of sonic enhancers actually work in the way they're supposed to. I asked Kenny if he found the unit useful?

"Definitely. You can tell the difference with the BBE, but you have to be subtle with it. If you overdo it, you can ruin a mix. It's one of those pieces of gear which you hardly know is there, but when you need it the BBE can be a lifesaver. Say for instance, I do a mix and there isn't enough bass on it, or if I've mastered a track on poorer quality equipment, I'll run it through the Maximiser and, nine times out of ten, it'll do the trick. I don't have to use it very often, but I wouldn't like to be without it."

Listening to the accomplished product on both 'Azimuth' and 'Metaphor', or Kenny's remix of the recent Carl Craig single 'Science Fiction', it's hard to believe that he ever gets into difficulty with a mix.

"I think I can do a lot better with my production chops. Basically, like everyone else, I've learnt as I've gone along. Unlike a lot of Detroit artists, I don't consider myself a producer. To me, a producer is someone who helps other people realise the potential of their songs. I don't do that. Originally, when I bought the A-DATs, the plan was to work with other people, maybe do some vocal stuff, but it hasn't worked out that way. Recently, my twin brother Kelvin and my friend Clark Warner have started working with me, to help run my Art Of Dance label, so that should free up some time for me to work on production. I'd really like to discover other people and do music with them, but up till now it hasn't been possible."

Kenny's original home setup was configured around a Mackie 24:8:2 mixing desk. However, with an increasing number of sound sources he found that the lack of faders and mutes on the monitor returns was restrictive, and he decided to upgrade to an Alesis X-2. But, though he's pleased with the desk's features, he has had some serious problems with it.

"I'm into my fifth console already. The X-2 is a modular mixer, and when I got the first one, a whole bunch of the pots went bad. Alesis sent me a whole lot of modules to replace the faulty ones, but then one of the modules went down completely. After some persuasion, they sent me another desk, but the automation went down on it. They sent me a third mixer just before I got shot. After I got out of hospital, I plugged it in and discovered that the automation was faulty on that too. It's a real headache, because all the mutes are soft, they work through the automation, so it pretty much means that the mixer is unusable. I've e-mailed Alesis several times about it. All the other Alesis products that I have work beautifully, but I think the X-2 still has too many bugs. Last week, the master module on this desk went down!

"Sonically, the X-2 is fabulous. The features are really good, but I think that Alesis have some serious quality control problems with the manufacturing process. In all the time I had the Mackie, I had no problems whatsoever. In the States, if you have all the Alesis products they call it 'The Dream Studio', but for me, the dream fell through. Amazingly enough though, having said all that, if I had to do it over again I'd still buy the X-2, because the features and the sound are great."

Kenny's immediate plans are to focus on his label, Art of Dance, and its acronym offshoot. AOD. While Art of Dance will concentrate on Techno, AOD will be more house and jazz-based. He's currently working on material for release under the name Yennek, and is also planning to revive his Dark Comedy alter ego for future outings. In addition, he'll be playing live dates in this country with Carl Craig, and will continue to DI himself at clubs worldwide. But for anyone who has ever had the pleasure of hearing Kenny's incendiary skills behind the decks, he has a surprising secret:

"I never practise. I don't even have turntables at home. The only time I pull my techno records out is when I'm DJing. I don't want to get influenced by what other people do, so I tend not to listen to dance music at home. Instead, I'll play jazz — I'm a big Jean Luc Ponty fan. You definitely respond to what you listen to, so when I'm making music I try not to listen to anything else. That way, you get your own individual sound and not just a retread of someone elses' thing!"

The proof lies in the uniquely warm, human sound which Kenny Larkin makes with machines. But looking around his own 'dream studio', he has one final word of warning:

"I've learnt a hard lesson over the years. You don't need all this equipment to make great records. In fact, sometimes it impedes the process of communicating your ideas. At the moment, I'm buying stuff for the future, there are other levels that I want to go to musically. But music isn't about having all this gear, it's about ideas. And great records can be made on one or two cheap synths, just the same as they can be made with a whole lot of expensive gear. The important thing is what you've got to say with your music."

On the RE:MIX CD

Listen to Kenny’s exclusive remake of Goodbye 
Kiss and discover music for your 
mind, body and soul!

Goodbye Kiss (Remake)

"When I finally got the studio set up in the new premises, my
 original intention was to do an album of jazzed-up remakes of 
Detroit classics. In the end, I didn't get round to it, but what I did do
 was a version of the Eddie Flashin' Fowlkes track 'Goodbye Kiss',
which was really big here in Detroit. The main part of the original is
 the bassline, so I programmed that on the DX100, and built up
from there. I had a 4/4beat going all the time to write around. I
added chords from the JD990, and improvised a lead-line on the
 K2000. I also used a lot of delays from the Ensoniq DP4 multi-effects unit, to get the sound the way I wanted it. The drums are
 from the 909, with percussion from the R8 MkII. I actually prefer
 the R8 909 sounds to the real thing, because they're much more
 flexible as far as tuneability goes. On 'Nocturnal' from the 
Metaphor album, for example, the heavy 909 kick is off the R8,
 tuned way down and compressed, so it's pretty effective. But on 'Goodbye Kiss', I used the real thing for a change!"


1 Technics Turntable
2 Kenwood Amp
3 A-DAT 1-8
4 A-DAT 9-16
5 A-DAT 17-24
6 Juno 106
7 Kurzweil K2000
8 Mackintosh Quadra 605
9 Keyboard for computer
10 EMU Emulator IV with 16 Meg
11 Furman Power Conditioner
12 Roland JD-990
13 Korg Wavestation SR
14 EMU Morpheus
15 Tamaha TG 500
16 Tamaha RM50 Drum Module
17 Ensoniq ASR10 Rack module with 8 Meg
18 Alesis 3630 stereo compressor
19 BBE 862 Sonic Maximizer
20 MOTU MIDI Express
21 MOTU MIDI Express
22 Tascam PB32 Patchbay
23 Tascam PB32 Patchbay
24 Tascam PB32 Patchbay
25 Tascam PB32B Patchbay
26 AIWA Portable CD Player
27a JBL 4208 left monitor
27b JBL 4208 right monitor
28a Genelec 1031 A left monitor
28b Genelec 1031 A right monitor
29 Sony Stereo Cassette recorder
30 Alesis X-2 Recording Console
31 Alesis BRC Remote Controller
32 Furman Power Conditioner
33 Lexicon Vortex Signal Processor
34 Ensoniq DP/4 Signal Processor
35 Lexicon LXP-15 Signal Processor
36 LA Audio GX2 Noise Gate
37 Alesis MEQ-230 Graphic EQ
38 Drawmer 1960 Tube Compressor/Mic PreAmp
39 Sony PCM-2300 DAT Recorder
40 Kawai Q-80 sequencer
41 Roland R8-MkII Drum Machine
42 Roland TR-909 Drum Machine
43 Tamaha DX100 Synthesizer
44 Roland SH101 Synthesizer
45 Roland Juno 1
46 Alesis Quadrasynth Synthesizer
47 Alesis RA-100 Amplifier
48 Power User Dual Speed CD-ROM Drive
49 Power User 44 Removable Hard Drive


Kenny's debut album, the critically acclaimed Azimuth, was one of last year's most compelling records. Combining the hard-edged minimalism of techno with a warmer, more soulful jazz influence, it confirmed his position, alongside Carl Craig, as one of Detroit's leading innovators. Characterised by the drifting melancholy of 'My Travels' and the abrasive dancefloor dynamics of 'Wires', Azimuth also includes the breathtaking 'Tedra', first previewed on the essential Virtual Sex compilation. It's one of Kenny's personal favourites:

"At the time, I had just got my Wavestation. I was beginning to think that maybe the sounds were a little too pretty for me, but on 'Tedra' I found a way to make that prettiness work. It's mostly all Wavestation on that track, with some DX100 over the intro and drums from the R8 MkII. The drums are all programmed, I never use sampled breaks or anything. I think it's one of the best things I've ever done. I was in the studio, late at night with the lights turned down, and the way I was feeling just translated itself into the music, it all just kinda tumbles out. I did a 15 minute live version in Tokyo recently, and it was amazing, I felt a real connection with the crowd. It was almost as if they were back in the studio with me on the night I wrote it, with the lights off, going through the same kind of things I was going through. For me, techno is about feelings and emotions, and I guess 'Tedra' is the point where I realised that.

"The album title has a kind of a double meaning for me. Azimuth is the term used for the angle of the heads on a tape machine, but it's also to do with when I was in the Air Force. I used to fix computers and Radar scopes for air traffic controllers. When they're bringing planes in to land, they need to know the angle of the plane in the sky, in relation to the runway and its range. That's the azimuth as well. So it relates in two ways."


Kenny's second album, Metaphor, was released on R&S earlier this year. Marking a shift towards a more percussive and rhythm-orientated feel, where both digital and analogue textures collide to create a distinctive and individual sound, the album is an impressive solution to the problems inherent in making dance music which is viable outside of a club environment. Tracks like 'Soul Man' and the new single 'Loop 2' combine dancefloor grooves with the kind of melodies normally associated with electronic listening music. Elsewhere, as on 'Amethyst' and 'Butterflies', the fusion of jazz and techno develops areas originally explored on Azimuth:

"The album took about nine months to put together. I've never been able to sit down and force a track. It does really depend a lot on my mood. If it's not flowing, then it isn't any use continuing. I guess that's because music, for me, has to do with emotion."

"For most of the album I used mainly the JD990, the Korg Wavestation, the Yamaha TG500 sound module and the Juno 1. There's also quite a bit of DX100 on there. For strings, I always use the K2000. My favourite sound on there is a preset called 'Seventh World Strings'. You can hear that on Loop 1".

"I did the title track in London. I was DJing at Lost, and then I went into the studio for two days. So for 'Metaphor' itself, I used a Roland JD800, a TR808, an SH101 and an Akai S1000."

"The album was originally going to be called 'Catatonic', because when I'm working late at night I'm usually in kind of a catatonic state, half-awake, half-asleep. You don't have all your faculties in gear, because you get lost inside of what you're doing. You get so involved in the music that you forget everything else. In the end though, I changed the name to 'Metaphor', because of the fact that, metaphorically, all the different styles on the album still represent me."

Previous Article in this issue

Monitor Mix

Next article in this issue

Stripes & Stars

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

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


The Mix - Jun 1995

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Mike Gorman

In Session


Kenny Larkin


DJ / Producer

Re:Mix #12 Tracklisting:

02 Yennek - Goodbye Kiss

This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at - Re:Mix #12.

Interview by Tim Barr

Previous article in this issue:

> Monitor Mix

Next article in this issue:

> Stripes & Stars

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