Meeting the music business and business of making music on their own terms saw one London band building a studio as well as a reputation from the ground up. Simon Trask gets in deep with Double Trouble.
From DJing and bedroom mixing in the early '80s to topping the charts and running a commercial 24-track recording studio today, Double Trouble are aiming for longevity in the music business.
IT'S POORLY SIGNPOSTED AND A DANGEROUS place to be if you don't keep your eyes open. What am I talking about? Why, the road to success. Many travel along it, few reach their intended destination. Perhaps those most likely to find success are the ones who progress in a leisurely fashion, stopping off to make friends along the way.
If you're after success it helps to have a reliable vehicle with lasting appeal, one that might even be labelled a classic one day. A flashy vehicle might get you around more quickly, but your car stereo will be permanently tuned to Radio 1, and the barbie doll hanging in the window is likely to have cut loose for a solo career.
DOUBLE TROUBLE HAVE FOLLOWED A long and winding road to success, beginning in 1983 when founder members Leigh Guest and Michael Menson met at a North London college and, discovering that they had a common interest in the burgeoning electro music scene, set about learning how to mix records. Then they formed the Double Trouble Roadshow and began DJing at clubs and warehouse parties around London.
Seven years later, they're successful recording artists with several chart hits under their belt, a debut album just released and their own commercially-run 24-track studio in the heart of London. Located opposite Argents and a couple or so doors along from Rose Morris, Noisegate Studios occupies the building which once housed Denmark Street Studios. But where Denmark Street hosted groups such as The Who and The Kinks, Noisegate reverberates to the sound of dance music. Guitars and drumkits have been replaced by samplers and drum machines, and what was once the live area is now Noisegate's control room.
It's here that I meet the three core members of Double Trouble - Guest, Menson and fellow DJ/musician Carl Brown, who joined the group in '85 - to discover, among other things, how they managed to progress from owning a twin-deck disco unit to a 24-track recording studio equipped with the latest technology. Double Trouble's steady progression to success is in many ways typical of the young 80s musician - surrounded by synths, samplers, sequencers and drum machines and absorbing the Thatcherite entrepreneurial ethic.
The rock musos of old frequently blew their earnings on drugs and booze, and when they weren't driving Rolls Royces into swimming pools or trashing hotel rooms, they were running up massive studio bills recording The Concept Album. If Double Trouble want to run up massive studio bills, they can do so at Noisegate. But the studio isn't a plaything, it's a business which has to make money to survive.
Guest: "Secretaries and engineers need paying, so we've got to get in a certain amount of outside custom. When we use the studio, we charge ourselves for it via our record company, so if we spend 12 hours in the studio we pay for 12 hours."
"That's the only way you can tell what's being spent and what needs tightening up", adds Menson.
"Today", Guest continues, "if we weren't here we'd be working in another studio down the road, where we might not be getting such a good service, we might not get the hours that we want, we might not get the engineer we want - and we wouldn't be able to do an interview in the middle of the day."
The group readily appreciate how much things have changed for musicians in the past decade. And, as DJ/musicians who've been using technology since day one, they also appreciate the profound role which technology has played in the changes.
"Ten years ago you'd have to go to a record company with a demo before you could even think about getting into a studio", says Menson. "If they liked what you'd done and they thought you looked good they'd put you in an expensive studio with a producer, so you'd inevitably run up a big bill. Nowadays you can be the artist, producer and engineer all in one, and you can walk off the street into an independent label with a finished track and say 'take it or leave it'. People in our field have more control over their music because they are the producer, engineer and mixer as well as the artist."
There's a new generation of engineers coming through who are at ease with the technological paraphernalia of the modern hi-tech recording studio. However, when Double Trouble first ventured into studios back in the mid-'80s it was a very different story.
"It's depressing to think about some of the problems we've had", reflects Menson. "Like when you go in for a remix at 11 in the morning and you don't get the first drum pattern down until five in the evening because of syncing problems."
"This was in 48-track studios, as well", adds Guest. "A lot of it was down to incompetent engineers who just didn't understand and didn't want to understand about MIDI. That's what's so good about the engineers who work here: they're trained along dance music lines but can cater for other types of music. They're not scared to turn up the bass and make the needle go into plus six or whatever. It's the overall sound that counts."
It wasn't only unfamiliarity with the technology which Double Trouble encountered in their early days. Studios were also slow to latch onto the new ways in which technology was being utilised.
"It was natural for us to use a sampler for looping breaks", Menson explains, "but for someone who's been playing bass guitar or keyboards all their life, it must have seemed pretty weird. Back in '85/'86/'87 we went into studios to do remixes, but they weren't really ready for it. We'd say 'can you sample off a record?' and they'd look at us twice. They did have a record player, but it was in the corner in a drawer collecting dust, so they'd try to put us off. We always took along equipment from our home studio, because they wouldn't have proper decks, they wouldn't have Pro24, they wouldn't have a sampler. It was like there was a gap in the market that we had to fill with our studio."
When it comes to buying gear, Double Trouble have always had a clear philosophy.
"As soon as we took the decision that we wanted to get into mixing seriously, we got the Technics SL1200 decks and the best GLI mixer we could afford", Guest explains. "Because we always wanted the best, we always overstretched ourselves. We gave up a lot of our personal luxuries to get the gear together."
"We're all here because we love doing what we're doing", adds Menson, "so we want to have the best equipment around us."
The search for the best equipment means that next on the Noisegate shopping list is an Akai DD1000 stereo optical disk recorder.
"Optical disk recording is the future", proclaims Guest. "You've got so much versatility with it, and all your edits are non-destructive. I think we're going to be real sweet on that."
The group's first piece of hi-tech kit was a Korg SDD2000 MIDI-controlled sampling delay, which they bought back in 1985 along with a Korg DDM110 drum machine.
"We used to take the sampling delay out with us and do live sampling off records, which was quite unheard of at the time", recalls Guest. "We developed our own system of cueing. Even then we used every piece of equipment to the maximum. Our mixes were getting away from straight turntable mixing and into tape editing and adding samples. The equipment we had was quite basic, but we did the best we could with it. We knew every piece of equipment inside out and more. We utilised certain features on the sampling delay that other musicians wouldn't have thought about using. That's always been a key element as far as our production techniques go, trying to do things which are original."
Money from running the mobile enabled the group to invest in more equipment, such as a Fostex Model 20 two-track tape machine.
"Tape editing became our forte", continues Guest. "We'd do quarter-inch edits, dub that onto cassette, then record from cassette back onto quarter-inch while adding samples live on top. From there we decided that we had to get a Portastudio."
At that time, Guest was working in a club which just happened to be situated below dance music label Serious Records. He saw his chance...
"I was in this record company every single day helping them out, mailing out records, running errands for them, just to get in with them. Eventually they let us do a mix for them. They paid us £100 for the first one. Whenever we did mixes the money went straight into our studio."
Encouraged by this success, they decided to make the studio a paying concern, and Noisegate was officially born in January '87. The premises were modest, however.
"The studio was in my bedroom", explains Guest. "And my bedroom became a cupboard."
By this time they had a Roland Alpha Juno 1 synth (used mainly for triggering samples on the SDD2000), a Yamaha SPX90 effects processor, a Yamaha RX21 drum machine and a Fostex 250 multitracker. To make some money, the trio started doing jingles and adverts for pirate radio stations.
"We were using scratches, sound effects, delays and echoes... To a pirate station it was out of this world. We sold jingles for £4 for one voice-over. The average jingle takes 40 minutes to voice and edit and put onto cassette, so it wasn't economically viable, but it was getting us in with all the pirate radio stations like LWR and Rock to Rock. When bigger things came along like adverts and gigs we got ourselves in on them.
"The work wasn't massive, but it was a steady stream. There was one year, '87 I think, when I didn't see much club life for four or five months because of doing jingles. We had to service the stations because we knew they'd look after us in the future. At the moment we're preparing a jingle package for KISS FM, which is very important for us to get, and that's the fruits of our labour. We'll only get the job now because we're so experienced in doing jingles."
"And we dealt with them when they were a pirate station, so they give us respect now", adds Guest.
In '87 the group bought their first sequencer, a Yamaha QX5, and a Roland S220 rack-mount sampler, raising the necessary cash by putting out a couple of bootleg mix records called 'Supermix' which were made to look like US imports.
"Another thing we did to earn money was give turntable mixing lessons, which advanced into studio techniques", Menson says. "This was when we had the Portastudio, and there were a lot of people who wanted to get into sampling and recording. We offered them a service where we'd show them how to use a Portastudio and a sampler as well as how to mix. It was teaching them to be what we call a DJ/studio engineer."
By this time the group were also doing remixes, and in '88 they had chart success with their remix of Bam Bam's 'Give It To Me', which was done at Noisegate.
"It was first edited onto reel-to-reel, then bounced onto the four-track, with samples added live on top of that", recalls Menson. "It's personal satisfaction when that gets into the charts alongside tracks done in 24-track and 48-track studios."
Eighty-eight also saw the trio moved to eight-track with a Fostex Model 80 and Studiomaster Stellarmix 12:8:2 desk, while on the sequencing side they invested in an Atari 1040ST and Pro24 III. In exchange for doing jingles, they were also able to get hold of one of the first Sony TCD10 portable DAT machines in the UK, giving them a digital mastering facility in an eight-track studio.
One of the first tracks the group recorded on their eight-track setup was 'Cockney Rhythm' with East End rapper the Rebel MC. This also became their first single, released on the independent B-Ware Records label. Mixing up reggae and hip hop in a raw, earthy style at a time when house music was all the rage, the single suffered from poor distribution and didn't do at all well. Were the group dispirited?
Menson: "We knew we had good foundations, and that's come through for us. We've progressed from the four-track cassette to the eight-track, then to 16-track and now 24-track. We've always gone up step by step. A lot of people jump straight into using 24-track, but there are tricks you can learn from using an eight-track and a 16-track. It's been important for us to go through every stage and learn it inside out."
The group decided to try another single with the Rebel MC, 'Just Keep Rockin''. Following a thumbs-down from all the majors, they were taken up by another independent dance label, Desire Records. The single went on to become a Top 20 hit all over Europe and big club hit in America, while the subsequent single 'Street Tuff', again with the Rebel MC, became not only a Top 10 hit around Europe but the biggest-selling UK rap record.
It was after they'd demo'd 'Street Tuff that the group decided it was time to wave goodbye to the bedroom and set up a commercial 16-track studio in proper premises.
"We'd had the eight-track for quite a while", Guest explains, "and we decided to set up a business plan with the bank, get a cash-flow forecast and all the usual things. We had to prove that it would be a good business. It took two or three months to convince the bank, but in the end we got the loan."
Originally promised a site in Islington, they had all the gear ready but were let down a day before they were due to move in.
"Then we found this place, which was an absolute khazi", continues Guest. "Nobody had been here for a year and a half when we moved in, which was last September."
Although the trio had professional advice and supervision every step of the way, all the rebuilding work was undertaken by themselves and by friends with building skills. Coming right in the middle of 'Street Tuff''s success, they found themselves hustling building materials one moment and performing on Top of the Pops the next.
Initially a 16-track studio with a Tascam MS16 tape machine and Soundtracs PC MIDI desk, Noisegate has since been upgraded to 24-track status with a Saturn analogue multitrack and Soundtracs Quartz desk. However, as well as the 24-track studio they've also provided a more modest eight-track studio, not wanting to break with their old clientele. While the 24-track gets bookings from majors like Virgin and MCA (Adamski was in for several weeks working on his second album) and is used by Double Trouble themselves, the eight track - which the group refer to as the DJ Programming studio - generates a steady stream of business in its own right.
"It was busy from day one", says Guest. "We built the eight-track studio like the old place in south London, so that it had the same feel."
DOUBLE TROUBLE'S DEBUT ALBUM, As One, features vocalists Janette Sewell (who sang on 'Street Tuff' and used to be a backing singer with Simply Red) and rappers The Rebel MC and MC Silk. Each vocalist has been given three tracks, leaving one an instrumental. It's a nicely varied album, yet all the tracks have the distinctive Double Trouble style.
"It's important to have variety", Menson states, "because a lot of people perceive dance bands simply as housey beats or a Soul II Soul groove. Our influences come from soul, rare groove, hip hop, funk and reggae, and that's come out in the album. At the same time we felt it was important not to use loads of different artists, because then there's no continuity."
While their gear has steadily increased in sophistication, the group have managed to keep a raw sound which suits their style of music.
"It's down to effective use of sampling technology, and the way we treat our sounds", explains Menson. "We do use samplers a lot, but that's not to say that we sample other people's basslines all the time. What we do is sample sounds that we like and then create our own music from those sounds."
So rhythm loops don't figure prominently in the group's music?
"In the early days we used to depend on loops quite a lot", Menson replies, "but we've been doing this for quite a while now, so we've progressed. There's a lot of special tricks we use which are hard to explain. It's not even trickery, it's just developing a sample and a sound."
Noisegate isn't exactly overflowing with synthesisers. Only an Ensoniq VFX, a Yamaha V50 and a Roland D110 rackmount grace the studio - no old analogue synths to be found. It turns out that the group have all the synth sounds they want, old and new, sampled and stored on hard disk.
"These days you can buy sample CDs with the sounds of different synths on them, you don't have to get into editing sounds", explains Guest. "Things like the D50 are hard to program, and most people use the presets. We mix together the sounds from two or three different synths to make one overall sound. To make a brass sound we'll use one sound from the V50, one from the VFX and another from the Akai sample library."
Similarly, drum machines don't figure in the scheme of things - again, sampling has replaced the dedicated machine. Additionally the group have hundreds of electronic and acoustic drum sounds recorded on DAT tapes. As with synth sounds, the group layer different sounds to get what they want.
For Double Trouble, working in the studio means everyone being able to turn their hand to whatever's required, as Menson explains:
"One day I'll do the programming, then the next day Leigh will be programming. It's not 'we need some drums, Leigh get over there', it could be either one of us. It's the same with the keyboards and the samplers."
And how do the group set about putting a track together?
"It's normally working up from a drum and bass foundation", Menson replies, "although we like to think of a concept first. For example, 'Just Keep Rockin'' was about warehouse raves, and that's why there are shouts in there and it's very pacy. It's quite a basic track but it's very effective, like a lot of the warehouse grooves are. When you know the idea behind a track you can see there's a reason behind the way we do our drums and so on."
Once confirmed Pro24 III users, Double Trouble have been using Cubase since January. Menson is considerably more enamoured of the software than he is of the computer: "I hate Ataris, they're forever crashing. Cubase is really easy to work with, though; everything's clear and concise, and you can see what's going on. We have the v1.1 update, which has things such as Auto-save, which combats the dangers of the computer crashing. We've used quite a few different sequencers. C-Lab is good, but Cubase is better for our way of working."
The 24-track studio is well equipped for handling MIDI-controlled muting. As well as Cubase's internal track muting, the Soundtracs desk has automated muting which can be controlled via MIDI from Cubase, using program changes for snapshots and notes for individual channel mutes.
"With dance music you have things cutting in and out, and with rap music the whole backing track has to drop out on occasions", comments Guest. "We've done it manually in the past, but now with the computer automation we can put more time into creative ideas. Also, we tend to have sequenced parts running continuously through a song and then mute individual tracks within the sequencer when we need to.
"For our own work as Double Trouble we only put vocals on tape. Everything else comes live off the sequencer, because we have enough channels on the desk. We'll have 48 channels by the middle of August."
In what has become a very common move, the initial release of the group's most recent single 'Love Don't Live Here Any More' was followed closely by a 12" of remixed versions done by the likes of Blaze and the Dynamic Guvnors - all take different approaches. As well-established remixers themselves, what did Double Trouble think of this situation?
Guest: "It's up to Blaze what they want to keep, but obviously they want to put their own mark down as remixers, as would we. We've just remixed the Snap single, 'Ooops Up!', and all we did was use the vocals and a couple of parts that were on the original tape. But that's what's required of a remixer. You don't just take out the bassline from the first 12 bars of a song any more, there's a new era of remixers and producers."
Menson feels that the remix mania will die down as remixers naturally progress to become producers.
"The remixers who have been doing good remixes are now being called in as co-writers and producers", he explains, "and I think that's the way things are going to go. Many tracks have been saved by remixers, so if you think someone's good as a remixer, why not get him in to produce the track from the outset?
"Dorrell and Macintosh do really good remixes, but are they remixing or are they producing? When you're remixing, you find out the good parts and the bad parts of a mix and you accentuate the good and take out the bad, which is production. A lot of good remixers are getting respected as producers, now - especially in America, but it's starting to happen here, too."
With the album out, Double Trouble are planning to do some live shows.
"We're going to do a quarter-playback type thing", explains Guest. "We're not going to go on stage and pretend to play bass guitars. We are the musicians of today - technological musicians, I suppose you could say. We've played all the parts you hear on our own tracks; we don't sample a piano part, for instance. When we're sequencing, everything's played in live. Sometimes we slow down the computer for tricky parts, but we always play in parts live. Although we started out as DJs, we picked up keyboard playing as we were going along. And of course. The Rebel MG, Janette and MG Silk can all do what they do live. Janette recorded the vocal for 'Love Don't Live Here Any More' in one take."
IT'S CLEAR FROM TALKING TO DOUBLE Trouble that they've never adopted a short term view. One way or another they plan to be involved in music for some while to come.
"It's important to have longevity", Menson agrees. "That's paramount in all of our minds. We spent a lot of time on the album. We could have knocked one out before Christmas, but it wasn't important to do that. It was important to do an album which we felt would stand the test of time."
"Because we're so meticulous and critical of our own work, we knew the album was going to take us a long time", continues Guest. "I thought 'How on earth are we going to make ten tracks the standard of a 'Street Tuff or a 'Just Keep Rockin''?'. A lot of people would see that as pressure, but we see it as part of the fun of making music.
"We made 'Just Keep Rockin'' specifically for the clubs and for the love of doing it, and we've had the same attitude with the album and with everything else we've done. If people don't want to pick up on it, fine, but we know that there are people who appreciate the time that you spend on something. A lot of dance bands these days just churn it out, they have one hit and they're gone. This is our third hit in the UK, which must show some sort of continuity and longevity. Now we've completed our first album, and that's a milestone for us."
But while much has changed for Double Trouble over the years, it seems that some things never change.
"The inspiration hasn't really changed", says Menson. "When someone appreciates what you're doing, it gives you a buzz, and you want to do even better next time. When we were doing the Double Trouble Roadshow in the early days and creating our own live mixes, we'd get people coming up to us wanting to know where they could 'buy the record', and we'd say 'Actually, it's a mix'. And we're still on the same buzz that we were on in 1983."
Guest. "The love of the music is the most important thing. Music started out as a hobby for us, and that's the way it is now, a serious hobby. We're in here seven days a week. We know we've given up a lot of luxuries to be here, but if you make music that's good then any money you make is going to come in the future anyway."
And if there's one thing Double Trouble seem assured of, it's a healthy future.
Interview by Simon Trask
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