Forsaking guitars and drums for a wall of keyboards and racked modules, Sub Sub turned a home studio into a hit factory. ‘Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)’ peaked at Number 3 and took everyone by surprise - except Phil Ward, who heard the single pre-release and contacted the band immediately.
'Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use)'. It didn't come from nowhere: it came from the underground dance scene in Manchester and a select bunch of modern musicians who know a good sample when they hear one...
Brothers Jez and Andy Williams, who live on the Southern fringe of Greater Manchester, have a room in the split-level family home in which they keep their toys. On the wall is a Factory serial-numbered poster which reads: "FAC51: Hacienda, Wednesday 12th June. Cabaret Voltaire plus Sub Sub and Amok." And pinned on the notice board is a reminder to come up with proper titles for things like 'Flute Track', ''80s Piano' and 'Princey', because an album is imminent on Manchester's new cult label robsrecords (sic).
So these toys are to be taken pretty seriously. They belong to Sub Sub, and when Jimi Goodwin comes round to play, chances are the fun and games will result in a Top 3 hit single. Between them, Jez, Andy and Jimi conjured up 'Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use)' with a little help from their friend Melanie Williams who sings for a local band called Temper Temper. And having come to the attention of Rob Gretton, New Order's manager and founder of robsrecords, their position in the club firmament was assured.
As they will cheerfully admit, the success story can be traced back to when the band embraced modern sequencing and sampling technology a few years ago. Jez and Jimi are both accomplished guitarists, while Andy's percussive skills are still put to good use in the live set. But the acquisition of the aforementioned 'toys' - a couple of S950s, a brace of MIDI keyboards and Cubase among them - liberated them from instrumental constraints and quite literally enabled them to make the records of their dreams: an amalgam of inspirational moments hidden somewhere in their extensive record collection; the perfect backdrop for their infectious songs; something to seriously dent the Top Ten.
"We started off on traditional instruments and discovered technology," announces Jez after a generous swig of Labatt's. We're in the local hostelry and Jimi's feeling autobiographical. "We knew each other from school, and we used to jam together, but we lost touch until the house thing happened when we started seeing each other at the same clubs."
"We bought the Ensoniq about '88, '89," continues Jez, "we just had to check it out. Being a guitarist, I became interested in getting a keyboard purely through listening to house. That's how I got involved in that side of things. I just got the sounds up, opened the manual, and started to learn how to edit my own sounds, how to get my own thing going. We've always avoided factory preset sounds. It puts you off when you're listening to a record and you can hear a preset..." Jimi agrees: "You've got to get onto them as soon as they come out, if they are really hot - use them before anybody else does. We're not boffins, and we struggle sometimes to get the best out of the JD800, for example. But it's worth it. You've got to get into programming."
Sub Sub are such recent arrivals at the technology ball that the retro-design of the JD800 - aimed at reminding everyone how great knobs and sliders were - means nothing to them. In other words, it's still a damned hard synth to program.
"The sliders and everything were no advantage at all, at first," Andy reveals. "It took us a year to get our heads around the whole thing, there are so many twiddly bits on it." Jez seems to have manuals on the brain, tonight... "We didn't bother reading the manual apart from odd reference points, because it's mind-boggling. After about the second chapter it had lost me entirely." Jimi chips in: "You're just so eager to get on the gear, all you want to know is the basics, how to get some music going. You can go deeper into it later, when you've got some ideas, but you don't want to be worrying about the theory of it before you make some sound...
"Our first single, 'Space Face', was all done on the Ensoniq, with its internal sequencer, and you can hear all the stops and starts, as it switches to the next sequence and so on. But it's more important to get something out and learn as you go along."
The Cubase manual, which they're still reading after two years, has presented equal difficulties for the trio, although they're more than happy with the software itself. "There's two sides to the coin," suggests Jez. "People who use Notator say that music should be heard and not seen - that you shouldn't be encouraged to think visually. But it's a lot easier for arrangements in Cubase, being able to scrap a whole section, or move it..." Andy is cautious: "You've got to be careful, though, because you can just stare at the screen the whole time, watching it all go past, and lose a grip on what you're trying to do." E-mu's Vintage Keys module is a welcome recent addition to the gear. "The Hammond and the Rhodes are just breathtaking..." thinks Jimi. Jez is still concerned about the written word, though... "Now, the manual for the Vintage Keys is dead easy - I read it about two hours or something. With the JD, you get two books, and half of it's in double Dutch. The Vintage Keys manual is refreshingly simple."
As is 'Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use)', of course. Andy: "We wanted to do a vocal track, and we did this track, and we thought 'yeah, this is top', and we were wondering who we could get to sing on it. Jimi knew Mel, he'd been in bands with her before, and we all liked her stuff with Temper Temper, and we just asked her down. It was all done within a few days."
"It was the first time we'd written a song, as such," adds Jimi. "All our stuff's instrumental. We saw ourselves as dodgy techno-'eads, and we thought 'we can't write lyrics'. But we had to do it, y'know, give it a go..."
Jimi agrees that there is a move afoot towards grainier, more organic sounds. "There's even an argument about Akai S950s and S1000s: some people think that when you play a 950 sample in the S1000 it loses its character. That's why a lot of people do a basic loop on the S1000, and when it comes to the bass drum and snare, they put them over the top on a 950. It has a snappier, brighter quality."
For the stage, the trio make a special mix of each track onto DAT, taking out some of the percussion and all of the song's main melodic themes, which are performed live. But they're not keyboard 'players' in the traditional sense, so it's a question of expediency: elements which retain a meaningful visual impact are reserved for live performance, while complex sequences essential for the character of the track are left on tape. "It's not about how proficient you are," says Jimi, "as long as you get the end result."
An abiding enthusiasm for sampling unites the band. When not expanding their generous record collection in the hunt for original loops (Andy wants to be able to go into a record shop tomorrow and spend about £800), they're hard at work on those loops to keep ahead of the game. "We'll maybe drop the loop low in the mix, pick something out of it and re-create that feature over the top. Re-emulating loops is something we do a lot of," says Jez.
"We're not boffins, and we struggle sometimes to get the best out of the JD800, for example. But it's worth it. You've got to get into programming"
Disguising samples is a technique motivated by a concern for originality, as much as fear of the lawsuit. So sample CDs - Jez quotes the ubiquitous 'Funky Drummer' - are a low priority. "We'd rather do editing tricks," he claims, "like moving elements of the loop around, and things like triggering on the offbeat, pushing them through effects, or an LFO, and resampling." And sounding cheap is, in fact, a goal - "the rougher the better," as Jimi puts it. It's speed that counts, rather than polish, according to Jez: "Get a loop off a record and into the sampler, put an effect on it, get it down on DAT, whip a jack lead into the DAT and bung it back in the sampler. We didn't have a mic until recently, and we sampled through headphones - pure buzz and hum. Horrendous. But the vibe's right."
"All that stuff on 'Ain't No Love' - the chatter - is basically me," reveals Jimi, "sped up, distorted, and with a crowd sample behind it, to make it sound like a really cheesy hip-hop sample. And it was done through the headphones in the bedroom. Some things that sound cheap sound right."
Mention of cheap sounds unearths an envy that the band feel of local lad Graham Massey, whose success with 808 State in America enables him to undertake frequent shopping trips over there in search of rare and unusual synths - at knock-down prices. "I want to get old ARP stuff, like Stevie Wonder used to use," Jimi admits. "Great string sounds..."
But having too much gear is potentially as much of a drawback. Sub Sub take a certain pride in working their limited amount of equipment "to the bone", and recognise the profligacy inherent in collecting for collecting's sake. "It's like house," continues Jimi. "All these kids putting tracks out over the years - they've had cheap gear, just the very basics, but it's the ideas that are hot. They're just that desperate to get their music out there, they'll really work what they've got, and get the best out of it."
Sub Sub get the best out of what they've got by building up tracks at home using Cubase, and 'roughly' (rather than finely) honing samples until they have enough information on disk to be able to transfer to a studio secure in the knowledge that they won't have to be in there for very long. Not only are MIDI parts meticulously prepared, but guitar and vocal phrases are sampled and incorporated onto disk too. The whole track can then be transferred onto multitrack in the studio, requiring little more than a mix. Details may be adjusted in the light of the superior monitoring, but the overall picture is established before they leave home.
"Sub Sub tracks are a long process," says Jimi. "Sometimes you turn back to the guitar for inspiration. And if there's nothing happening there, you can go back to the keyboards. As long as you use technology for your own ends, you won't become a slave to it."
Jez concludes on a fittingly celebratory note, and provides an antidote for technophobia as potent as Sub Sub's music itself. "Technology has expanded our knowledge of music. With us, we don't have specific roles to play - we all handle the keyboards and do a bit of everything - and there's no specific formula or style. It's helped us to be diverse, not just the same old monotones, whilst retaining our own individual stamp.
"All our songwriting is through sequencers. I mean, I used to write songs on the guitar, but the progress I've made through using sequencers is incredible. It's just gone mad. People think if you're using technology, you're just doing 'techno'. I hate it when people diss technology, and think of it as their enemy. It actually can help them."
Interview by Phil Ward
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