Fun In The Waves | Oceanic
Oceanic were responsible for the biggest selling dance single of '91 — but far from being a one-hit wonder, they're now on the brink of the release of their second album. Nigel Humberstone visits them in their personal studio.
Though most people will think of Oceanic as a new band, the musical partnership of David Harry and Frank Crofts has been continuously evolving for the past decade, a collaboration that's going strong well beyond the perceived 'one-hit-wonder' of their 1991 hit single, 'Insanity'. Two years down the line they've just released their fifth single, with a second album imminent.
When talking to Dave and Frank, or at least trying to — Dave has a lot to say and commandeers most of the discussion — it is more than apparent that these are musicians who like talking about gear. And in charting their musical development, it's important to take into account the correlative relationship they have had with their means of making music — their equipment.
"Basically myself and Frank started ten years ago," reminisces Dave. "We both had CB radios and one day Frank heard these weird blippy sounds and it was me playing with my old Yamaha CS5; a single oscillator, single filter job."
"And I had a Bontempi home organ," remembers Frank. Dave: "So Frank could play chords and I could play these weird sounds with one finger and that's how we got to know each other. We got together and at that stage we had the CS5, a TB303, TR606, Genus X1000 and a Wem Copycat which had four inputs so we'd mix through that and bounce tracks between two old-style cassette decks.
"The Korg Poly 800 was our first real keyboard and it really blew our heads away. We also bought a dodgy music sequencer (XRI 8-track) for the Spectrum computer which used to always crash and was basically crap. So that, for a long time, put us off using computers. After that we upgraded heavily to a Chase Bit 1 — one of the heaviest keyboards I've had; the casing was like solid aluminium and it was huge. We also got a Casio CZ5000, which was a breakthrough for us because, along with a Roland TR707, we now had a MIDI sequencer and a MIDI dram machine; multitimbrality with eight tracks — it blew us away and allowed us to start structuring songs with greater control.
"It was around that time (1985/86) that we semi-created our first band which was called 'Smart Patrol' (title of a Devo song). We really began to get into building songs. We then went for our next equipment upgrade, which was the Ensoniq ESQ1. We actually bought two — just looked at their spec and ordered them straight away."
Unfortunately, announcement of the ESQ1 was rather premature and the band ended up waiting almost a year to get their hands on the units. But why two, Dave?
"Why not? We'd already used an 8-track sequencer on the CZ5000 so we thought why not move up to 16 and MIDI the two together. When they did arrive they well blew our minds 'cos they were far better than we ever imagined they were going to be. Comparing the sequencer on an ESQ1 to the one on a CZ5000 is like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Mini.
"So, along with the ESQ1's, I think we upgraded from the TR707 to a Kawai R100 drum machine. That was one of the first affordable drum machines with velocity sensitive pads and really heavy sounds. The sounds from the R100 actually dictated a lot of the stuff we were doing at that time. It proved very effective for us, plus we had programmable tunability for the first time and that really did start developing the production techniques that we began getting into."
Of course the next major event in music technology was affordable sound samplers.
"At that stage we borrowed an Akai 612 which again blew us away. We were sampling bottles being smashed, as everyone does and swearing into it, burping, farting and getting dogs to bark. Once we got through that initial phase we then saved up like mad and our very first sampler was the Casio FZ1, which up to this day, along with the ESQ, must rate as one of our best buys. The FZ1 opened up a lot of possibilities for us but at the time had a limited library, so we used to stack sounds off our other keyboards and sample them. We got the 2Meg upgrade for it when everybody else was using 128k, but instead of using multi-mode, which we still haven't got into yet, we used to pile loads of samples in and use loads of key splits."
"We used to go out and drink orange juice and save our money — our girlfriends must have thought we were odd but what we were doing was building up this arsenal of equipment which was probably better than most bands who were signed up.
"On the recording side we progressed through various 4-track machines like the Tascam 244, but then went on to get a Yamaha MT44D along with a Seck 18:8:2 desk, which then inspired us to start using sync codes. With the ESQ we were laying down a 24ppqn [pulse per quarter note] code onto track 4 and then syncing everything into the mix with acoustic stuff on tape. So we progressed slowly with the music, and as we acquired all this equipment we thought about going 8-track and got the Fostex A8."
It was at this stage (1989) that Dave made steps to open up a commercial 8-track studio. He approached the Prince's Business Trust and Midland Bank for a grant and loan which enabled him to start up his own business — a MIDI recording studio called The Mechanical Man.
"I'd done a lot of research with questionnaires and all that but the studio wasn't actually that successful and I think I'd overestimated the demand for a MIDI pre-production studio at that time and at the level that I was at. But what it did give us, with all the down time, was the ability to work with the band. It was at this point that we came across Jorinde (Williams) who we teamed up with and started to get some demos together with. We'd been looking out for a singer but with Jorinde it was the first time that we ever got a singer's voice to work with and cut through the big sounding dance music that me and Frank were doing."
Jorinde, a trained pianist with a home studio setup of her own, cut short a music course at Spirit in Manchester to join the band. Next step in the band's progression was the release of 'Insanity' as part of a compilation on 3-Beat records, which was distributed locally in the north west, where Oceanic's track began causing a stir in the clubs.
Dave describes the experience of hearing their music being enthusiastically received in a Warrington nightclub.
"We finally went to Legends to witness it all. The DJ played 'Rhythm of Mystery' by K-Klass and the crowd reaction was so big that I started to feel pissed off, but the DJ then cut in with an accapella to lower everyone down and then kicked in with the beginning of the re-mix to 'Insanity' which is very different to the original version that the clubbers were used to. As soon as the first chords of the tune came in the whole place just went completely mad and when the chorus hit in, the roof nearly came off! It was the biggest buzz that we got, the hairs on the back of your spine were up — unbelievable. It was like multiple orgasms all round, amazing — it was unreal to hear something that you created and see what it did to people.
"It brought home to us exactly what we were doing and made us realise that we were writing music that other people did like."
Dead Dead Good records picked up on the track, it was remixed, put on major release and entered the national charts at number 26. The single progressively climbed the charts, staying in the top ten for nine weeks, with the band being invited for three appearances on Top Of The Pops. Despite all this success, the band were largely overlooked by the music press. I asked Dave why he thought this was?
"At the time there was a bit of a backlash against the dance music scene, people like The Prodigy, Bizarre Inc. and ourselves who I felt were bringing dance music to the forefront. A lot of people missed the point — we were the biggest selling dance single of '91, the biggest independent seller and the ninth best selling single of the whole year. Unintentionally we got caught up with the hardcore dance scene and were therefore labelled as a 'rave' band and that was it.
"Now two years down the line we're coming up to our fifth single and second LP, so obviously we're not just a fad."
So when did the band finally cross over to using computer sequencers? Frank: "The idea of using a computer to write a song just wasn't appealing to us at all. We knew where all the buttons were on the ESQ1 and that was that. We didn't really want to change over and have to learn a new system, but eventually we tried it out."
Dave: "We actually had an Atari ST for a long time without getting any music software for it. In fact we used it to design our T-shirt logo. Another reason we didn't progress onto computer was because we'd had the bad experience years ago with the Spectrum. We'd stuck with the ESQs for the first two singles and being perfectly honest, if you're only using a few keyboards and you're not sequencing your drums then the ESQ is a brilliant sequencer to use.
"So we used the ESQ1 because we didn't need to use anything else. The one thing we did do was to record modulation on one track and then bounce it onto the track that we needed it on, so that we could start saving tracks. Doubling up bass lines was another trick; what we usually did was use two octaves of a bass line and just merge them together. So, as long as you dealt with the tracks properly you could get a lot out of it — we were pushing it to its limits, yeah, but it was still doing the job that we wanted it to.
"On 'Insanity' we were actually using FSK from the ESQ rather than SMPTE to sync the track. One trick that I was using, and I think a lot of people still do, was to get the track ready, bounce it down in time with the FSK onto one track so that it acted as a rough guide. What you could then do was to drop in anywhere in the track, using the guide as a reference, rather than having to go from the beginning of the track each time."
An Akai S1000 was acquired during the mix of the final version of 'Insanity', sneaking in with some specially sampled 909 bass and snare drums.
"I think the 909 bass drum is a bit of a messy sound to try and slot into a track," explains Dave. "So I used a compressor, gate and parametric EQ to do something to the bass and snare that would make it uniquely ours. Then we recorded it through the desk into a DAT machine, which we could then load into the S1000 via its digital interface.
"On 'Wicked Love' (the second single) — that's when we got our publishing advances," laughs Dave with pound signs in his eyes, "so we went down to Hessy's (Liverpool's infamous music store, once frequented by the Beatles) and spent a load of money. We completely bombed them out with our first order. The first was two S1100s with 32Meg RAM and digital interface. We also bought a Korg 01W, Roland JD800 and an S1000 keyboard, so we had three huge samplers all with 32 Meg!"
Frank: "We really did need the new gear for some new textures because we were beginning to get bogged down with the likes of the K4 and Ensoniq." Dave: "The sampling system that we got was like massive; and for a band that don't actually sample (other people's records, that is) it may seem like a bizarre thing to do. But we were using the Akai sound library and broadening our textures of sound really — using sound effects and sounds that people wouldn't necessarily use. So the samplers were coming into their own, and the reason for having so much memory is because when we do a vocal with Jorinde, what we tend to do is record it to multitrack, process it a bit through the desk and then put it into the sampler. Because we don't repeat choruses — we go for the live performance. Once the vocals are in the Akai we can change the arrangements for remix work rather than having to use something like Soundtools. What we ended up doing was ditching one of the S1000's and getting the EX playback version instead. We had originally been using DATs to store the data but ended up getting a DAC optical drive — we've now got three 128Meg cartridges and if we run out of space we offload it to a Sony DATman which is permanently linked up to the S1000.
Technology plays an important part in Oceanic's studio — and especially MIDI, with two devices (Akai ME80P and ME30P) handling the complex routing that feeds the abundant synths, samplers and effects, and the desk muting. Like many people, they have made the odd bad choice of equipment, but they don't upgrade for the sake of it. Utilising what they have and working within those restrictions has been a work ethic that has kept them going.
Dave:"I still rate the Kawai K1 — it's noisy but we still used the flute sound off it for our second single. On 'Moments In Time' we also used brass sounds off the K1 that, once they were treated with the right reverb and EQ, sounded really good. Budget synths can do a good job — the DX27 is still used for its woodbass samples and even though the ESQ is getting on a bit now, it's still got some of the best pad string sounds that you're going to get.
"There's not much you can tell me and Frank about keyboards and programming because we've been doing it for a very long time. You get these 'bedroom boys' now who can quite easily whizz out a track, but we've grown up with the analogue gear, pre-MIDI stuff and the crossover technology. You ask people if they remember a Yamaha CS5 or SH09 and they don't remember them, they've just re-discovered them. We've been through that, you know what I mean, we saw the advent of the DX7, the first affordable samplers like the Mirage and S612. We've seen the Emulator turn from an 8-bit system with 5-inch disk drive into a 16-bit monster machine. We've seen all those things, we've taken note of all that and now we're benefiting from the knowledge that we've accumulated."
Despite Frank and Dave's apparent adeptness at programming and music production, all their knowledge has been gained through experience alone. Neither has received any training and Dave was even refused entry to a local music college due to his tone deafness. Their Wirrall-based studio is now at such a stage that the majority of projects are conceived and concluded there. The working environment is conducive to creativity, with a light and spacious control room, adjoining office (which doubles as a vocal booth) and rooms upstairs for eating and sleeping.
Dave: "We have used outside studios — the last LP was mixed at Amazon (now Parr Street), using a Neve Series 5 desk with f***-off faders and full automation. Now even though I can engineer and mix tracks I had no intention of flying the Starship Enterprise! So we got Ronnie Stone in at this stage, along with Mike Hunter, who nurtured us into the big studio environment.
"But the new single, 'Celebration', has all been pre-produced, recorded and mixed at our own studio, with Ronnie coming in to do the final mix and putting the 'cherry on the cake', as it were.
"The thing we try to specialise in is doing music that's easy to understand and simplistic in its appearance. But when you come to break it down our stuff is actually very complex; we're using complex production techniques and we do go out of our way to make something better if we can. Our music's got that banging hook line that, no matter if you like it or not, is going to get drilled into the back of your head — and that, to us, is one of the traits of perfect pop music. And without blowing our own trumpets — we're brilliant at it!
"Basically, at the end of the day we're not the most famous band in the world, but we're not doing too badly by the ethics that we run our little world by."
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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