The Rhythm Method
From the Midlands' techno culture comes the hardcore sound of Rhythmatic. Simon Trask investigates one of the bands on the ground floor of Britain's fastest-growing musical movement.
Nottingham based dance duo Rhythmatic are set to make a Beautiful Mess with their debut album. Yet "mess" hardly describes their approach to technology...
Question: when is a home studio not a home studio? Answer: when it boasts a collection of gear which would do a professional studio proud. Of course, if we're going to be literal about it, a "home studio" is simply a place in the home where music can be recorded - a definition which covers everything from personal multitrackers to 24-track setups. In general, however, the term still has certain less-than-professional connotation.
Rhythmatic's records certainly don't have "home studio" stamped all over them, yet they've all been recorded in group member Mark Gamble's home studio. To date, Gamble and partner Leroy Crawford have released three singles on the Birmingham-based Network label. A fourth single, 'NuGroove', is due out in the New Year along with the duo's debut album, the delightfully-titled Splat! What A Beautiful Mess. Gamble has also been compiling an album of Art Of Noise remixes done by the likes of 808 State, LFO, Youth, Prodigy and, of course, Rhythmatic for China Records.
Rhythmatic's dynamic, inventive, exciting music is anything but a mess - beautiful or otherwise. Rather, it's characterised by a sharp, precision-tooled technological sound with a diamond-hard sparkle to it which fascinates even as it cuts into your mind. Tight and ever so clean, the Rhythmatic sound manages to be finely-detailed without ever being overly busy, thanks to a keen sense of space and balance and a sophisticated ear for orchestration on Gamble and Crawford's part. Time to pay a visit, then, to the place where Rhythmatic's music gets recorded.
To look at, there's nothing special about Mark Gamble's house in Nottingham, nothing to set it apart from the other houses which line the street. Inside, however, lurks the recording setup which prompted the opening question. If you cast your eyes down the equipment list at the end of this interview, you'll see what I mean: a proverbial Aladdin's cave of hi-tech goodies. Every home should have one, maybe, but I'm not about to knock on any other doors on the off-chance.
As I sit with Gamble amidst all this gear, he reveals that his first piece of electronic gear, bought some six or seven years ago, was a Casio VL tone. Talk about starting with the basics. But it was enough to get him enthused.
"I'd run home from school and play with this thing all the time", he recalls. "Then from there it was a Bontempi keyboard with the preset rhythms, which at least was polyphonic so I could play a few chords. Then me mum, I got her to buy me a Technics SXK200, which was the latest home keyboard in those days. That's when I started really getting interested in playing music, so I started a band with a couple of mates on guitar and bass and me playing this keyboard with drums on it. It was never a gigging band, we were just jamming, learning to play. It was basically rock stuff, with funky guitar - because I didn't know better."
Gamble didn't have the Technics for too long ("Thank God"), progressing to his first synth proper, a Juno 106.
"The 106 brought life into things - it was starting to sound like records", he says. "From there it was just adding bits and bobs until I got my first sampler, which was the X7000, and I was in love with that. It was a big jump from having one analogue sound to having any sound you wanted, and that opened up so many avenues." Then house music came along, and Gamble found his musical direction: "Suddenly you didn't have to go into a 24-track and do a glorified full production with orchestras and a real band. You could do it at home with a computer and a drum machine - which is basically what I had."
Those of you who know your house history will be aware that Gamble was once part of a group called Krush, who had a chart hit with 'House Arrest' back in '87. The track began life as a demo that Gamble put together at home using his Juno 106, Akai X7000, Alpha Juno 2 ("The last good Roland keyboard, as far as I'm concerned") and a borrowed TR808. He gave a tape of the demo to a friend, who unbeknown to him took it around the record companies. FON picked up on it, got in touch with Gamble, and the next thing he knew he was working on the track through the Summer of '87 at FON studios with DJ Cassius Campbell and singer Ruth Joy - his first time in a 24-track studio. By September, they had a vocal version and a club 12-inch version. FON put out an initial club run, Phonogram picked up on it and got them to add more vocals and samples to the seven-inch version "to make it a bit more commercial", and a couple of weeks later the track was No. 3 in the national charts.
Today, Gamble has a platinum single from the BPI, commemorating UK sales of 'House Arrest' in excess of 250,000 copies, on his studio wall. His first ambition, he says, was to achieve chart success. Getting interviewed by Music Technology, he goes on to reveal with a broad grin, was his second big ambition. Things can only get better from here on - an interview in Hello magazine, perhaps.
Despite the success of 'House Arrest', Krush foundered on record company indifference with their next single, which did well in the clubs but never got a commercial release. In retrospect, it was probably for the best. The group got off Phonogram and found themselves with plenty of time on their hands, no record company pressures to deal with, and money "rolling in" from the success of 'House Arrest'. Through '88 and half of '89, Gamble was able to build up his equipment collection ("I got an Akai MG1214 12-track, a Soundtracs T-series desk, an S1000, an S950 and things like that") and work on new tracks with his Krush partners.
Eventually tracks were touted around the record companies. A few offers were made which the group didn't consider good enough, and all went quiet again. However, while they were in London remixing a Maureen track, 'Don't Hold Back', in the last quarter of '89, Gamble went out to a club and heard Unique 3's 'The Theme' for the first time. It was to set him off in a new direction.
"That track changed the whole sound, for me", he recalls. "House had suddenly gone into a totally new, manic sound. I came back to Nottingham and I just had this buzz to do loads of tracks, and in about two weeks I'd done ten tracks which were more manic. I thought 'It's time that you can do anything. Anything goes'."
At this point Gamble's Rhythmatic partner-to-be Leroy Crawford came along. In fact, the pair had released a single, 'House Reaction', under the name T-Cut-F on Kool Kat (parent company of Network) back in '87, around the time of 'House Arrest'.
"Leroy came up with the name Rhythmatic and suggested we go to Kool Kat, I said 'Let's go for it' and it all developed from there."
Surrounded by the gear which gamble has collected over the years, you could be forgiven for thinking that he's more interested in collecting than making music - that he might even be... a gear bore. After all, how many synths and drum machines do you need in this era of digital samplers!
Gamble turns out to have a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude, being more interested in what he can get out of the technology than in technology for its own sake. Only too willing to 'bend the rules' in order to exploit the possibilities of the gear at his disposal, Gamble will happily use equipment in ways the manufacturers probably never foresaw, let alone intended. Ways such as (mis)using the digital EQ in Sound Tools to deliberately induce severe digital clipping of a recorded signal in order to create some mind-blowingly distorted sounds and concussive rhythmic passages, which he'll then add to his sample library as raw material for possible future use. Others such as taking advantage of a software bug in Ensoniq's EPS 16 Plus sampler, whereby an extremely short sample loop produces all manner of weird and wonderful noises whenever you hold down a key. Again, these noises are sampled for possible future use.
"I actually made a track out of a 909 snare drum which I copied 50 times and made into 50 different sounds. Chord sounds, bass sounds, snares, bass drums, hi-hats, everything. Totally unbelievable."
Unlike some hi-tech musicians, who get paranoid about divulging their sampling and sequencing secrets, Gamble is refreshingly open about what he gets up to. He happily gives me a practical demonstration of both of these rather wayward methods of creating new sounds, as he does of one way in which he uses his sequencing package of choice, Creator ("The ultimate dream in sequencing"). After quickly working up a spiky bass sound on his Jupiter 6, he plays a short riff into Creator, then selects the sequencer's edit list and starts altering the MIDI data at random, changing pitch, velocity and duration values and deleting some of the notes. Then he goes back to the main page, copies the edited track several times, sets different delay values for each copied track, merges the tracks, tries the result out in several different octaves, switches to the edit list for some more random editing, then returns to the main page again and adjusts the track's transposition parameter in real time while the track plays.
"Sometimes you'll have a track going and you'll just start messing around in real time with things, and it's like 'Wow! I'd never have played that'", he observes. "Creator's great for doing things on the spur of the moment like that."
Gamble often records the results of his live manipulations into his trusty Yamaha QX5, as Creator won't record one track while another track's parameters are being altered.
"I was always a Yamaha sequencer fan", he says. "In fact, I started off with a QX21, and it was solid, the timing was perfect. Creator's fine, but I still believe that the QX5 has the best timing of any sequencer in the world. A lot of the time, once everything's been sequenced on Creator, I'll transfer the drum parts into the QX5 and have it running alongside Creator. That way, Creator's freed from all the hi-hats and percussion and stuff, so it's got more time to concentrate on the rest of the music."
"Suddenly you didn't have to go into a 24-track and do a full production - you could do it at home with a computer and a drum machine - which is what I had."
Not that timing problems are always down to the transmitting end of things. There's the MIDI response times of the slaved instruments to consider - as Gamble is all too aware. He once bought an Emax I to use as his main sampler, but returned it to the shop after four days and swapped it for an S50 because its MIDI response didn't give him the tightness he wanted.
"If you want drums tight then get an S950, S900 or any Akai sampler", he contends. "The S1000 isn't as tight as the 950, but it's still good."
Gamble leaves most of his monosynths and drum machines casually strewn around another room, rather than have them clutter up the studio. He has no need to keep them connected up, because they rarely get used as instruments in their own right. Instead, they're used as sound or rhythm sources - Gamble likes to work up a sound on one of the synths, or perhaps a rhythm on one of the drum machines, and then sample it into one of his samplers, as he can then chop the start of the sample to get the tight attack that he likes.
One drum machine which he does keep in the studio is a recent purchase: a Yamaha RY30.
"They've got about 99% of the Voices usable, and even the ones that aren't can be with a little editing", he opines. "It's a powerful machine, and there's a hell of a lot of scope with that mod wheel. There's never a pattern goes by without the mod wheel getting spun. Also, you can get some very techno-y kind of effects out of it, mainly with the tambourine, using the resonance in conjunction with the filter cutoff and the decay. It's a crap resonance, but it's got its own sound. I'd rather have a proper resonance, though. It's an excellent machine - the best drum machine for a long time, definitely."
However, drum machines aren't Gamble's only source of drum and percussion sounds - he'll also sit down with his analogue synths and program percussive sounds on them.
"I did a really good kick drum on the Jupiter 6", he recalls, "a serious bass drum sound, like an old '60s bass drum."
Once he has a drum sound programmed, he'll sample it and use the sampler to give the sound a harder edge: "I'll go into the front of the sample a bit so that it clicks it, but it's a useable click and it gives the sound more power and punch."
Gamble's favourite sampler for getting creative with sounds is his Ensoniq EPS16 Plus.
"The onboard effects are absolutely stunning, really really powerful", he enthuses. "The volume it can pump out, as well, because once you've sampled you've got the boost, it goes through that and you can put it through distortion and it's like 20 times louder. Plus you can route that signal through wah-wah and control it from the pitch wheel. Amazing. I've used that for a few rave tracks."
He also takes advantage of the 16 Plus's resample-with-effect feature: "I'll bung a bass drum sample through reverb and distortion, resample it and do the same thing to the new sample, keep on building it up. You can get some amazing sounds. One problem with the machine is the amount of times it crashes, but I don't care, I think it's an excellent keyboard."
Gamble's main synths are all analogue Roland: Jupiter 6, Jupiter 8 and Juno 106. "My favourite at the moment is the Jupiter 6. It's harsher than the Jupiter 8, you can get a bright, buzzy sound out of it if you want. Creating bass voices, really hard-power sounds is easy. I use it a lot for hard, fast rave sounds.
"Every time I turn the Jupiter 6 on, I know that I'll get what I want out of it, whereas with the SY77 I'll be flicking through maybe 200 sounds and thinking 'I'm not getting the right one here'. People make the mistake of wanting the latest keyboard with the latest sounds and getting rid of a keyboard they may have had for ages and were in love with, then finding they haven't got the sounds they want. I've made that mistake myself.
"The SY77 is great for sound effects and tinkly stuff, though, and for real sounds. I used the 'Tutti Frutti' orchestra sound the other day; it's a preset, but I don't mind, I'll use any sound. I do like creating sounds as well, but it is awkward on the 77; the only things I'll do are change the algorithms and the feedback amount. The good thing about it is that the parameters are MIDI-controllable using System Ex."
In order to achieve the clean sound characteristic of Rhythmatic, there's one processor that Gamble always turns to: "The Symetrix 511A is excellent for cleaning up a track. The only bad thing it does is to take off all the ambience and just leave a dry sound. But I really like that anyway, so I bung stuff through it all the time, unless it's a low volume track, then sometimes it's just too much. Sometimes it takes off the click at the front end of sounds, so I just take it off and leave the background noise going until the track's done, then solo each channel until I find the noisiest tracks, gate all the noisy tracks until I'm left with a reasonable output, then bung it through the 511A and it really cleans the whole thing up. You can turn the track up and it's like 'Where's the noise?'.
"The 511A's also good for cleaning up noisy sounds, like the TX7's. You can get some really powerful bass sounds out of the TX7. One time I spent a whole day just programming different bass sounds in. There's one bass voice I did called 'Chonk' which is ultimately funky. One thing about the TX is that the envelope is tight, the front end is so tight it's beautiful. But it's crap for bass end, and the sounds are noisy, so what I did was bung 'em through the 511A to get rid of all the noise and then sample them."
It's a commonplace observation that the dance music world is fast-moving, but things are getting ridiculous. Gamble has apparently felt impelled to speed up the tracks on the Rhythmatic album since they were recorded, simply to keep up with the expectations of the rave audience.
"At the moment the clubs are like 500 miles an hour", he explains. "And it's great, I get such a kick out of it. When I've been out in the clubs, I've noticed that the DJs will get a record and automatically put the varispeed on +8, which is strange when you hear it done to one of your own records, but the crowd don't care, they're just dancing. Eventually you're going to get tracks that sound like a tape being fast forwarded. That'll suit me fine, 'cos the fester it goes the better I like it."
Rave music has already been called 'heavy-metal house' - if the tempo gets much faster, perhaps it'll turn into thrash house. Gamble likes the idea.
"I'd love to do a seriously heavy rock track rave-style", he enthuses. "I've got some excellent rock guitarists online for that. Rock rave, that would be something to work on. It's all about power and energy, how much power you can pack into five minutes."
Or five seconds, maybe. Rhythmatic: fast forwarding into the future.
Interview by Simon Trask
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