The Italian Job
Rapino Brothers | The Rapino Brothers
Kylie and Take That’s remixers talk technique
Somewhere in the depths of London, an illicit Italian remixing crew cranks out popular hits for high-profile criminal minds including Kylie Minogue and (gasp!) Take That! Undercover agent Rob Green infiltrates their operation and comes face to face with The Rapino Brothers...
The Rapino route to remixing is by no means direct. Marco Sabiu and Charlie Mallozzi may both originate from Bologna, that hothouse of Italian dance production, but their musical backgrounds couldn't be more diverse.
Charlie, the loudest and craziest of the duo, started off doing 'thrash metal' and later progressed to avant-garde jazz and finally dance.
So why this peculiar change?
"I was more interested in avant-garde jazz like Zorn and Naked City which is very uncommercial stuff. Then I started going to clubs, and I heard all these dance tracks and thought 'Aha! There's some elements of it on the dancefloor.'"
Charlie's musical beginnings weren't exactly orthodox, which is why he was always into the more underground musical styles.
Marco, on the other hand, is the main music man. Classically trained as a pianist, to this day he insists on using a full-sized, weighted action digital piano for dumping all his ideas into the sequencer. It's this chemistry between their tastes that goes a long way towards explaining their success. Marco's technical and musical knowledge is tempered by Charlie's more off-the-cuff ideas, which go with the flow rather than follow a rigid pattern.
Before they met, Marco had had some success in the dance music area:
"I did a lot of dance stuff in Italy. I don't know if you remember that song 'I love my radio, my midnight radio.'" (Fits of laughter). "Actually I was doing quite well, I had a couple of number 1's." Charlie gleefully followed this statement with: "And then he met me!"
The big step towards moving to London began when the boys met John Moss, the drummer from Culture Club. Sadly, the tentacles of the Mafia extend to the Italian music industry, and Charlie & Marco were making house tracks without getting paid for them. This, they say, is all too common. John Moss suggested they might be more successful in Britain, and, in the three years they've been here, they've never looked back...
I was expecting the Rapino workshop to be a dingy little hovel stuffed with old synths and wires. Not the case. The studio is situated beneath a management business in a prime west London site, very near to Regents Park. It's clean, well set out, and not overrun with rubbish and equipment like my houseproud editor had warned. The Rapinos know what they like, and need, and keep the studio as simple as possible. But that's not to say that their equipment isn't advanced. They've some of the best software and recording hardware around.
The nerve centre of the studio is EMagic Logic Audio, one of the new breed of combined sequencer and d-t-d recording programmes, run on a Power Mac. Logic Audio's 4 tracks of audio recording and comprehensive editing facilities make for a music production tool that's second to none. Previously, they had been using Passport Mastertracks which, although very simple and capable, they surrendered for the superior Logic Audio.
On screen, Logic Audio looks very similar to Cubase. The patterns can be strung together in the same visual way, and when used with a colour monitor, as the Rapinos do, it makes the screen much easier to follow. The screen can be arranged to suit the user, and you can even run a video while you work! (A function which the Rapinos love).
The audio tracks are generally used for vocals and drum loops. The BPM of the samples can be changed instantly with the timestretch function, a digital trick which doesn't pitch up the original sound at all and is beginning to filter through to the DJ scene. The pitch of tracks can also be altered - as a whole or in small sections to correct a dodgy note.
These functions can be reached via the 'Time and Pitch Machine', which offers a 3 dimensional picture of the speed and pitch parameters. Along with the on-screen MIDI mixer, this makes the program an absolute doddle to use. On the audio tracks you can use EQ, and change the frequency as if you were tweaking the filter on an analogue synth. If you have a drum loop sample in the computer, you can change the groove and even the whole pattern if you like, and all the time the loop keeps a surprisingly natural sound.
"I really have to learn some more about the sequencer. I know some stuff, but not everything, so I'm going to read the manual some time. I hate doing that," Marco admits.
As Marco shows me around the equipment, Charlie hedonistically spreads himself over the studio floor, occasionally taking a drag on his 'Rebel Yell' Bourbon whiskey. With this evocation of the rock'n'roll lifestyle, he strikes me as the Keith Moon of the Rapino Brothers.
"Producers tend to get specialised in one sound and that's very wrong. That's the mentality of the 80's."
As far as effects go, the guys don't really have that much, and don't use MIDI controllers on any of their units, preferring to "play" the effects while mixing. In the rack, there's a stereo Sony delay unit and a Lexicon harmoniser, which are mainly used for "Vocals and stuff!" Also in the collection is a new Aphex gate, a BSS compressor (which is used on everything that goes out of the master outputs of the desk) an old Boss SE50 which the brothers like for its dual effect processing and cheapness, and an Alesis Micro-Compressor, which they use all the time on the Minimoog basslines.
As far as sounds go, the boys are pretty much happy with their setup. They have several of the ubiquitous Proteus units. Marco explains: "The Proteus 1 is good for percussion sets and pianos, Proteus 2 is good for orchestral sounds, and the vintage unit has all the old organs like Hammonds, and other sounds like the Mellotron."
Underneath these is that old sampling workhorse, the Akai S1000, which is used for drum loops and percussion sounds. The S1000 has seen years of use since they bought it, when it first became available in Italy. They also have 2 Akai DR4d multitrack hard-disk recorders, which are often used for vocal overdubs. Below this is a patchbay, a simple but essential item of gear; "10 years we've been doing all this, without a patchbay", says Marco. "Which is always patched the same", jokes Charlie.
The only other item on the rack is the headphone amplifier, which serves their vocal booth next door. Marco uses a Yamaha PP100 piano as a mother keyboard. "Because I am classically trained, I need a weighted keyboard."
Beside the computer is a small MIDI mixer. The Rapino Brothers find it invaluable for changing levels through the computer - instead of fumbling around with a mouse, they have physical, 'hands on' control of the mix.
As far as keyboards go, they love analogue. They take pads and arpeggiated sounds from an Oberheim OB-8, which they often put through the gate, and trigger with a hi-hat for extra percussive effects.
Then there's the old Akai AX-80, which the Brothers like because it sounds reminiscent of the Prophet 5. This has 2 oscillators and is useful for strange, random envelopes, strings and pads. For bass, the brothers swear by their old Mini Moog, on which they usually use the same basic waveform and just change the Attack and Filter to suit individual tracks.
Overall, the star of the show has to be their brand new desk. It's a Mackie 32 channel, 8-bus mixing console with a 24 channel add-on expander.
They truly love this desk. It was the first one in the country, and cost them £3,600 plus £2,100 for the expander direct from Mackie. The desk is incredibly compact, and it's hard to believe they have 56 channels at their fingertips in such a small unit. Charlie says...
"We prefer to mix on this than on a Neve or an SSL in a big studio. They forget about the monitoring in all these big studios, they don't actually get it quite right."
I then asked Charlie if he enjoyed doing most of the mixing: "Not really. Marco prefers to do that - I'm just his drinking buddy, really!" As far as they're concerned this expanded 8-bus Mackie desk is one of the best around at the moment.
The brothers have done a lot of production and remixes since they've been in Britain. Up to now their name has mainly been associated with commercial dance, with remixes for the likes of Danni Minogue and Take That. It may sound cheesy, but credit must be given because they're pretty damn good at it.
"We were basically sampling people's voices off acapella records"
Aside from the more commercial remixes, they've been working on some underground stuff. With Alan Vega of Suicide, the seminal 80's New York electronic band, for instance, as well as their own ambient music for an album project. (An example can be heard on the RE:MIX CD).
Are they really into Take That, or did they just do it for the money?
Charlie: "It's not really the money, I mean, I like those things, I like the concept. I know you don't." I diplomatically suggested there had been bands like Bros and Take That since time immemorial.
Marco: "Bros were good, man, they were good!" Charlie explained: "What's good about Take That is that they have a very good songwriter in Gary Barlow, so it's more than that."
At the time The Rapinos were offered Take That, they specialised in remixing, and had a hit under their belt with Kym Mazelle's 'Love Me The Right Way'. Nick Raymond of RCA asked them to do a remix of 'Could It Be Magic'. The snobbery of other mixing houses made them pass up the chance, but their loss was the Rapinos' gain. The boys didn't even know who the band were, all they knew was the existing 7" mix needed help.
The subsequent success of the Barry Manilow hit opened the door for the Rapinos to cross over to the pop end of the industry. For Take That, the song went straight to number 2, and some would say it helped make the band huge. Charlie: "They're still rewarding us for that, so it's our fault. Sorry Guys!"
Marco & Charlie's old stomping ground of Bologna was also home to legendary house bands like Black Box.
Charlie: "Those records were really quite casual, actually. There was no other music that Italians could do. We're not credible maybe for producing rock and roll... We started doing these records where we were basically sampling people's voices off acapella records etc. We'd say 'Oh beautiful voice' and then sample the shit out of it. Stealing has always been a specialised thing in Italy. We're more into writing at the moment."
The Rapino Brothers' writing association with Kylie Minogue began as an A&R idea from Keith Blackhurst of Deconstruction records. He and the Rapinos got 'trashed' together one night, and in an alcohol-induced haze, they decided it would be a great idea to work with Kylie Minogue.
When Keith Blackhurst told the boys that he wanted them as writers and not producers, they jumped at the chance. And so Kylie started working with them. From what I hear, singing and writing was not the only part of the deal for her. She ended up cleaning the studio and doing the washing up!
Charlie: "At the time we were living in pretty much of a shithole down the road. Marco and I slept over there for a year and a half - the bed was literally under the desk. We had a pet rat for a while, and because we couldn't kill the bastard, we decided to adopt him! There were bottles everywhere. You name it, it was on the floor. Kylie stepped out of her limo into this mess, and we thought 'She'll never get into this'.
Actually she loved it! We wrote 3 or 4 tracks together, and 2 of them were used on the album." 'Automatic love' is a kind of James Bond film track, while 'Love is on the line' is a dance track, and will be released on Kylie's forthcoming album.
Now and again the Rapinos take a break from samples and digital recording, to experiment with live and acoustic bands. Planet Claire's 'Somewhere', and BND's 'Don't ever go away' both have a sort of folk/indie crossover flavour about them.
Producing songs like these requires sampling longer chunks of drums, to enable them to rearrange the patterns as they please on the computer. The guitars get the same treatment, and vocals and extra drums or percussion sounds are added to the mix on the sequencer. It may seem unorthodox, but it allows the producer tetal flexibility and control over the sound.
When you consider they're creating such a big, 'acoustic' sound with only a few boxes, it's absolutely staggering. But as mixing desks become cheaper and the price of the micro-chip gets ever lower, there will be more and more people producing professional band recordings in this way. If it sounds great, why not?
"They forget about the monitoring in all these big studios, they don't actually get it quite right."
Charlie on production: "The main problem these days is that producers tend to get specialised in one sound and that's very wrong. That's the mentality of the 80's. A producer should help an artist to make their own record, to give them a vision of what they can do, rather than just give them a sound. Every producer has his own story. With Kylie for example, we were asked to write uptempo stuff and we wrote a ballad - because we were in that mood that day."
People like the Rapino Brothers can certainly give us some inspiration. Quite apart from the innovation of their production work, they're paving the way in creating professional sounds with a minimum of equipment. In this environment, the only limit is your imagination.
On The Re:Mix CD:
03 Rapino Brothers: Hibernation 412
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #4.
Interview by Rob Green
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