As their hit single 'Perfect Beat' proves, Bronski Beat are more than capable of producing enjoyable, dynamic electronic pop. Mark Jenkins talks in depth to Bronski's Larry Steinbachek about how they encompass modern technology in their recordings and live performances.
When Jimi Somerville left Bronski Beat to form Communards, many pop pundits saw the end in sight for the electronic trio. But with a new vocalist, a hit single with a successful film tie-in, and a new album on the way, it looks as if the band will be with us for some time to come. Bronski's Larry Steinbachek took time off from rehearsing in the band's new 16-track studio to speak to Mark Jenkins.
Bronski Beat's latest hideaway is a cramped room off London's Denmark Street, right at the centre of the music retail world. Here they've installed a Fostex B16 and a stack of synthesizers, and are busily rehearsing new songs and new ideas.
We spoke to Larry Steinbachek, who with Steve Bronski has formed the instrumental side of the band since its inception. Steinbachek has a good technical background, and had quite a few insights to reveal on the subjects of demoing, electronic multitracking, composition and live performance - in other words, making it all work on stage as well as it does in the studio. But we asked him first to bring us up to date on the band's current work.
"At the moment we're working on a new single. We're doing about three tracks, one of which will be the single and the other two will go onto an album, depending on which one comes out best. Usually we get our ideas together here and cart all the equipment into a studio when we're ready to record. Up until quite recently we were able to get it all in an estate car, but once we got a couple more DX7s, that was impossible."
"We usually set up all the gear in the control room and only do the vocals on the studio floor. Our new singer Jon usually works with us in the control room because he tends to get more of a feel for the track if he can actually feel it thumping him in the chest rather than listening on headphones, so we wait till the last moment before putting it over cans."
I asked Larry to explain the basic keyboard set-up the band were using, to which he replied "The basic keyboard set-up isn't basic at all! ". As it turns out, the most important recent addition has been their Yamaha QX1 sequencer.
"The QX1 has been very useful because we can connect up a DX7, take turns putting down ideas, then take the results into the studio, listen to what we've got and change the structure around. On the last few songs, for instance, we've spent a day on each one working out the structure, what key is best for Jon to sing in, and refining the bits that weren't played very well before we put it onto tape."
But isn't the QX1 approach a little non-musical? A few users have complained about the amount of typing involved!
"No, it's a boon actually, because rather than having to write things down by hand, you just type into the QX1 and it turns out the whole song from beginning to end with the structure you want to hear. Because I'm a bit more technical than Jon or Steve I don't have any problems with that approach. In any case, anything we have in the studio is there because it's a tool, it's not to replace a method of working at all. Quite often I find I can't relate to a piece unless I can manipulate it in the way the QX1 allows you to do."
"Steve's more of a musician though; he wants to play something and make it come back without thinking about it, without having to adjust the quantisation or whatever. So I think it's a tool that's enabled us to develop our music in the best way - Steve's performances are still there but often I've manipulated them a bit."
Having established themselves with an electronic sound, the band now feel more able to combine acoustic and sampled sounds in their music. But their keyboard set-up remains very impressive, with a good combination of digital and analogue units.
"Usually we just use the Yamaha TX816 rack for basic writing, but I think if you did a whole track with DX sounds it would be a bit thin. So we MIDI it up to a MemoryMoog, a PPG, our producer's Emulator II, in fact, whatever's lying around, depending on the sound we're after. We MIDI together as much as we can really, and we can also tie in our analogue synths, a Sequential Pro One, an OSCar and a MiniMoog."
"I've always been interested in electronic instruments. The first synth I got was a Wasp, and I've always liked experimenting with tapes and multitracking, so for me the direction of our recording has always been electronic multitracking rather than guitar-based things.
I couldn't play guitar - I tried but I was a dismal failure - and when I met up with Steve he was playing guitar and we came up with some nice songs together."
"It was a good combination of guitar and electronics, plus we taught each other a bit about chords and things. By the time we got our sound onto tape, there wasn't much of the guitar left - Steve's enthusiasm for the synths had really taken off."
Now that the band have access to the most sophisticated equipment, do they feel that their sound is evolving in any particular direction?
"No, it seems that every song is totally different, which hasn't happened in the past. We tended previously to just stick a drum machine and sequencer down and build up over that, but now we use less obvious sequences and build up passages by playing them and using the QX1 to repeat certain sections. We're also using more guitars and more acoustic instruments and pianos. We've got a drum kit in the rehearsal room but it belongs to another band who share the place. Steve plays drums, but they don't fit in much now (although they fit very nicely into the samplers!); they're a bit noisy and unwieldy and we like to be sleek and streamlined!"
So how would a typical Bronski Beat song be built up - would the drum pattern be an obvious starting place?
"Not really - most songs start with an idea for a bass line or a melody, and Steve Bronski comes up with a chord structure. We put down the drums and bass then build up the chord structure so that Jon has something to sing against. Quite often Steve will play a guitar part, but he's a bit shy about actually recording them."
Surely guitars are redundant now that the band have access to sampled guitar sounds?
"Well, I've sampled some guitars for solo stuff, but if we're in the studio and Steve's there, he'd play it, because you can't replace the guitar even if you can use the same kind of sound. But it's useful for someone like me who can't play guitar, because I can hear a guitar part in my head, get it how I want it on a keyboard, then get Steve to actually play it."
"Basically, we don't want a sample to emulate the real sound but to make a surreal version of it, like a guitar part that couldn't possibly be played or something transposed down about four octaves. We do make a lot of our own samples, and we're having some updates to the PPG's sampling software done at Turnkey, but we've also just got an Akai sampler which is really good. The trouble with the PPG is that only I could use it because I was the only one with the dedication to read the manual!"
"We use our producer's Emulator II for long vocal samples and flying in choruses, although on Perfect Beat we felt that the quality wasn't quite good enough so we sampled some chorus and repeat vocals into an MDB Window Recorder and a Publison. Then we triggered them off the QX1, so you get some really neat triple repeats and things."
One positive aspect of the band's singles is that they don't go over the top with the scratch effects. Is that an intentional policy?
"Well, Perfect Beat was done rather tongue-in-cheek because it started off partly as a parody of a Divine-type single. But we loved it and we thought 'Is this serious or not?'. The song's there, the production's a bit tongue-in-cheek in places, but we could have gone over the top much more than we did!"
"That song came out of a jam session in a rehearsal studio called Jumbo. We didn't have this place at the time and we'd always worked by sending Portastudio cassettes to each other, because we had nowhere to set up the gear unless we booked a rehearsal room."
"London Records were approached by Palace Pictures who were distributing 'Letter to Brezhnev' because the music for the film soundtrack wasn't very good in places and they wanted something more modern. We went to see part of the film and Perfect Beat seemed to fit the big disco scene well, because it's about going out and having a good time."
"But the version in the film is one we did in New York which we weren't very happy with, whereas the single is actually the demo version with a new vocal and a few bits and bobs added."
More on Perfect Beat later. Meanwhile, a look around the Bronski Beat rehearsal room reveals a Fostex B16 multitrack, Sony PCM-F1 digital recorder and new Soundcraft Series 400 desk in addition to all the synthesizers and stacks of effects. But how far can tapes from the budget 16-track be taken?
"I've produced F1 masters for solo stuff on the Fostex and we've done demos for other people, but the band hasn't taken anything directly from it. The B16 does have the quality, and I've heard tapes done on 24-track which don't sound as good, but although we'd like to master from it, too much depends on the other equipment you're playing it through."
"The Yamaha QX1 and the TX816 live right by the mixing desk because they're the brains that everything else triggers off. The MemoryMoog and DX7 are the most used instruments for immediate sounds when working out an idea, particularly for Steve Bronski who likes to get to a sound quickly. I tend to have the analogue synths like the Pro One and the OSCar together, and the drum machines are littered about wherever we're working."
"We have a Yamaha RX11 drum machine but I'm a bit disappointed with that. For a start the memory is a bit limited, and because a drum machine is used like a sketchpad, it's very frustrating if you can't get enough bars into it. We use a LinnDrum with standard chips - our producer has some alternative sound chips too - and a Roland TR707 and 727 which are really good. They're amazing for the money, and we've just got an Octapad (Roland's MIDI drum pad set) which allows you to record drum patterns through MIDI onto the QX1."
The Octapad sounds like a useful item to have lying around - how's it used?
"What we wanted to do with the Octapad was to record percussion parts onto the QX1 which we could then edit and play off any drum machine. We've been using it to play in things like conga parts, and if we're slightly off time we can correct it afterwards. You can create things that can't be easily programmed into the drum machine, like very fast fills, and also programme dynamics on the 707 and 727 which you couldn't otherwise do. So the Octapad can help make a 500 quid drum machine sound like a Linn 9000!"
"Each pad can have a different MIDI note value which corresponds to the sounds on the drum machine, and there are four preset memories which you can alter to use four alternative drum machines. You can also trigger the pads externally from, say, a LinnDrum, if you wanted to double the sounds or convert them into MIDI information."
And what's in the effects racks?
"The all-important Drawmer gates and compressor-limiters, which we use for sequencing sounds by keying the gate from a 16th beat tape pulse. They're not really used for keeping the synths quiet - we don't find the DX7s excessively noisy, and the Dolby C noise reduction keeps the Fostex B16 very quiet. Most of the DX parts end up on the TX816 rack anyway, and that's even quieter, probably because the power supply is more stable."
"Also in the rack we have an ART pitch transposer which we use with the guitar for harmonies or for modifying sounds to get a really low octave. That's useful for spreading and detuning sounds too, although we don't use it much for vocals. There's a Korg programmable digital delay which has been with us from the beginning, an MXR-01 24-second digital reverb which we're just about to get an update chip for, and an Electrospace Spanner which is quite intelligent in that it can count beats and pan a signal every second beat, for instance. Also, there's a Garfield Mini Doc synchroniser which we thought would be very useful but which we've never touched -there always seemed to be an easier way to sync things up, even before we went over mainly to MIDI."
Isn't the Spanner quite an exotic item for a demo studio?
"It's a useful thing to have around. I like to put a vocal delay into it and pan it around to get a good vocal spread. It makes all the difference between just bunging any old sound down and getting a finished effect, because we do tend to put a lot of effects straight onto tape."
"It's great now because there are so many effects that are MIDI-addressable, like the Window Recorder. We can just control them off the QX1, and if there are any timing problems you just edit the pattern a little. The information's always there and if you want to change anything you just reload the QX1 disk."
"The real dinosaur of the set-up is our MemoryMoog. It's very unreliable in terms of the power supply because you've got 18 oscillators running which generate a lot of heat. On tour last time it failed quite a lot, but we've just had it updated by Croft Electronics to fit the sequencer option and we'll use it in the studio from now on. They modified our MiniMoog as well by adding CV/gate inputs and we got a Roland Analogue-to-MIDI convertor for it."
How about the PPG? Couldn't that be a little unwieldy for demo purposes too?
"We haven't used the PPG much since we've been in here. I tend to shy away from complicated technology because Steve feels left out if I'm in the corner typing away and saying 'It's going to be fantastic boys, just wait another hour!'. I bought the PPG myself, so I'm going to keep it at home now. But it's a very flexible tool which fits in well in terms of sequencing - every instrument does things in a different way, but I'm very happy with the PPG, it's been very reliable."
"We've used a Fairlight a couple of times with a hired programmer, but it's never really been the solution to what we wanted. I suppose we're against the sort of music where you have to be a typewriter addict to get into it - the PPG only has ten buttons, but on the Fairlight you have to have a pretty thorough knowledge of the machine, and I don't even know what QWERTY is!"
At the time of writing, the Frankfurt Music Fair is just a few weeks in the future. What would the band like to see released in the coming months?
"More or less what is going to come out, I think. More cheap sampling, and I'm interested in the pitch tracking idea. I believe Yamaha and Casio are doing something along those lines, and I've seen the IVL Pitchrider and Fairlight's Voice Tracker. That sounds great for playing in an instrument, converting it to MIDI and recording it on the QX1. For instance, Jon could sing in some melodies and get them to play back on a synth, and we'd have our basic performance."
Do you believe that sampling has a future?
"I don't think it's a passing fad, but it's expanding into the area of digital storage now, which will do away with multitrack recorders and record everything digitally, something I believe AMS and Lexicon are working on. Sampling can only get better, like the Synclavier's stereo sampling, but if it becomes cheaper and better quality too, it'll depend on what people do with it. If people are just going to do 'N-N-N-N-Nineteen', everybody will be sick of sampling!"
"When we sample sounds on the Emulator we always convert them in some way. I'm not a great lover of just putting things in to spit them out exactly the same. I want things to sound different; the whole point is to manipulate sound whether you're sampling or putting something onto tape, varispeeding it or compressing it. I'm not interested in just taking a photograph of something, although sampling is very useful for that if you need it."
As the band develop more advanced studio techniques, how do they hope to reproduce their sounds on stage?
"I think we'll be using the QX1 on stage and I hope it will work very well. It's just to get more of a live sound from the machines - if you're using backing tapes, you get a certain amount of hiss and the set is always in the same order every night, whereas if you're running the machines live you can do what you like with them, use effects and do things differently every night. The PPG will deal with the more complex sampled sounds because it has eight-way multi-sampling. That will be enough for most of a set, because we don't use straightforward sampled sounds too much. If we wanted a string sound I'd rather go for a MemoryMoog or DX sound. Real string sounds coming from a keyboard player seem odd if you're playing live, because people don't believe you're playing them! On the last tour, Steve Bronski was playing some of the drum sounds from the DX7, and people just couldn't work out what was happening. So you have to be careful."
"We both have remote keyboards, a Yamaha KX5 and a Roland Axis, but I just feel a bit of a twit using them. I find the keys on the KX5 are too small, although Steve likes it, and the Axis is very good from the MIDI point of view with a lot of programmable functions, but I'm not sure that it looks good on stage because it's so big."
"I've used the Axis on TV shows to jump around with, but I'm not sure whether I'll get into it live yet. It's a bit gimmicky because you're so used to playing an upright keyboard, and I think guitar synthesizers will make the crossover between string and keyboard instruments much more effectively. You don't feel so bad if you have something to strum, and although we haven't got around to using a guitar synth yet, I know Steve's very interested."
Bronski Beat have obviously thought long and hard about the technical demands of their music, but if they're anything like the rest of us in the business they'll have at least a few unfulfilled desires. So what's the next step equipment-wise?
"Well, although we've just established the 16-track rehearsal studio, we would like to have our own 24-track studio next. We'd intended to build one by this time and had all the plans drawn up, but then thought maybe it wasn't such a good idea. We needed to write together as a trio all in the same place, and if you have a 24-track you have to get other people in all the time to pay for it. So this place is perfect for the moment - we can get all the sounds in here, we can programme for our live work and go to the studio with the floppy disks and work on them further. So we'll be here for a while before we go on to a larger studio, and even then we'd still want to incorporate the 16-track set-up because it does work well - it limits you to thinking about not putting too much on."
What about some of the buzzword instruments of the last year such as the Ensoniq Mirage and Prophet 2000?
"We've only read about them - they're not something we need at the moment since we have the Akai sampler which is under a grand, and as long as you have the MIDI keyboards around, that's all you need. As far as disk storage is concerned, the Prophet 2000 seems better, but I think I'll wait to see what comes out this year because it's going to be so cheap."
"We don't have any factory disks for the Akai, we've just been taking our own samples. Sometimes we take sounds from the DX7 to double them - we could do that with the TX rack, but the Akai gives more of an analogue effect because of the reduced bandwidth. It makes everything that bit warmer, soundwise, particularly once you get the LFO on to add some vibrato."
In closing, we asked Larry who the band were working with at the time, and what plans they had for the immediate future.
"There's an album due for March/April, so we'll be going into the studio in the middle of January. We'd like to go into Music Works again because it's a very nice place to record, and we hope to go to Hansa Studios in Berlin to mix. Our producer, Adam Williams, is very much in tune with the way we get sounds together, and he wants to find somewhere comfortable to work in."
"We met Adam after we'd been in New York doing the Hundreds And Thousands album and Hit That Perfect Beat with Mike Thorne. We were a bit unhappy about going back to work on old tapes with our old producer so soon after Jimi Somerville had left - there was too much reminiscing going on and it just didn't work out right. Mike's an amazing producer and he's obviously done very well for us, but it just didn't work any more, so we came back with this rather disappointing track called Hit That Perfect Beat and decided we had to find a new producer."
"We had no ideas who to use, but we'd often talked about the Eurythmics and I said 'Why don't we find out about the guy who helped them out?'. I didn't know who it was, but it turned out to be Adam and we went up to his 8-track studio and copied the Sony PCM-F1 tape of the song's backing track onto his 8-track with an SMPTE code. Then we took the 8-track to a 24-track studio to add vocals. The SMPTE code went onto the F1's audio track, which is separate from the stereo sound, which means you can run backing tracks from the F1 in sync, so it's very useful. It's very cheap and great as a master storage medium." As Larry enthused about the merits of the Sony PCM-F1 we prepared to leave, stopping only to catch up on the details of his latest recording project.
"I'm planning a trip to London Zoo this week to record some animal noises onto the F1 to use as samples. My favourite animal noises are ant-eaters' toenails. When they walk they make a clicking noise you know - a bit like castanets."
So there's a tip to impress your friends when the new Bronski Beat album comes along. Just keep an ear open for those ant-eaters' toenails!
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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