A Room Of My Own: The Beatmasters
Another chance to drop in on musicians in their personal workspaces. This month, Paul Ireson catches up with The Beatmasters.
"We used to be famous," jokes The Beatmasters' Paul Carter at one point during our chat. Indeed. Back in '88/89 The Beatmasters were among a clutch of dance acts who showed that artists in the UK could be as exciting with their own brand of melodic house as the genre's Chicago-based originators.
Anywayawanna didn't quite manage to be a great album — though dance music is not a format that lends itself to good albums — but it had more than its fair share of memorable tracks, mostly hit singles at the time: the exhilarating 'Burn It Up', 'Rok Da House', 'Who's In The House', and of course 'Hey DJ', which launched Betty Boo's career. It's taken until late '92 for a second album (Life And Soul, out now on Rhythm King) to appear, however. In the meantime, The Beatmasters' name has cropped up on a good many records next to a remixing or co-producing credit — most notable of their various projects has been their involvement with The Shamen, working on every release since 'Move Any Mountain'. Life And Soul was actually completed over 18 months ago, before the duo of Manda Glanfield and Paul Carter, now separated from third founder member Richard Walmsley, became so heavily involved in their present schedule of remixing.
"Now we have to squeeze our own stuff in among the other projects," says Paul. "It used to get a bit frustrating and exhausting to constantly come up with new stuff — I think this has quite refreshed us."
But relative anonymity is not something that seems likely to bother the pair — the concentration on product and the rejection of a market based on personalities was one of the things that attracted them to dance music in the first place. "Now, for example, groups and artists are having one-off hits, and are totally unidentifiable. No-one has any idea what anyone looks like. That was all part of it — I always thought that was part of the fun, the fact that personalities didn't matter, that people got into the music," says Paul. "Record companies, however, prefer to be able to sell artists and bands, because then they sell loads of albums."
We're talking in a small programming suite on the top floor of Strongroom studios. Until about a year ago, The Beatmasters had long-term use of the studio's one such room, which they'd used since Anywayawanna days — it proved such a success that Strongroom built three more. A Soundtracs MR-series desk with Tannoy Little Gold monitors sits at one end of the room, and at the other is the Beatmasters' collection of keyboards and samplers. Incorporating as it does a Casio CZ101, Roland JX8P (with a broken key), Emulator II, and EPS16M (with a hole in the front panel where one of the push-buttons should be), it's hardly state-of-the-art, but it gets the job done. In between the desk and the MIDI gear sit an Atari ST running Cubase, and a Technics SP1200 turntable surrounded by stacks of records — mostly dub and reggae.
The programming room is used for writing and a certain amount of recording, though most serious sessions take place at Matrix studios. "One Little Indian put us in there to do the Shamen stuff," says Paul. "At first we were horrified, but we got to like it — I like the sound of it, and the people there." Quite apart from a soft spot for Matrix, another reason for working elsewhere is that the suite in which we're now sitting is proving increasingly popular with Strongroom clients, so it's not always possible for The Beatmasters themselves to use it.
"Our whole entry to the music business was through this equipment," reflects Paul, "through that [points to the Emulator]." "Yes, that cost us £10,000. Now you can get one for next to nothing," adds Manda. Their first steps into the music industry involved writing music for commercials. "We got into that through a combination of the technology and the fact that there was a demand for street music in advertising. It was the '80s, and youth culture was at its absolute zenith. Prior to that we were non-musicians really. Club-goers." But hearing hip-hop in clubs prompted them to try it out for themselves. "We just thought 'we could do this — this sounds easy.'"
"At first it was a lot of rap, a lot of hip-hop that influenced us," continues Manda. "Then when we started hearing Chicago house in clubs, we thought 'hang on, let's stop doing commercials and do this instead.'"
It's earlier music, however, that preceded house, that seems to be making its presence felt in The Beatmasters' current remixes. "We're actually getting quite influenced by a lot of early '80s synth pop at the moment," says Paul. "I think it's because of the monosynths and so on — it's starting to sound like Depeche Mode/Human League/Spandau Ballet."
The distinction between 'remixing' and 'producing' is so fine as to be virtually non-existent now. "In effect we're co-producing The Shamen," says Manda, "although not in the sense that we're all there in the room at the same time."
"The distinction between remixing and producing is becoming increasingly blurred," agrees Paul. "What was a remix a few years ago is not the same as a remix now — now it very often involves completely remaking a track..."
"...but at the same time you have to respect the song and make the most of it," continues Manda. "With The Shamen it's not like we're doing 'dance remixes' where you can completely de-construct the song — take a little sample from here, repeat it over and over for a couple of minutes over a different backing track, which gives you a new song which would work on a dance floor but not on Radio 1."
So how do you approach it? Paul: "We listen to the song and decide which bits we like — we never do anything we don't like, because that would be too depressing. We decide what to keep and what to replace, and then work from the rhythm track up, and get the basic groove sorted out."
Manda: "With 'Boss Drum', we listened to the track over and over, and because of what it's about it suggested a sort of tribal rhythmic idea..." "...hundreds of hippies raving around bonfires — a lot of people banging things and chanting," picks up Paul.
Manda: "I think our mix of 'Boss Drum' gives the whole song a lot more meaning than the album original, and The Shamen are really into the whole idea of rhythm being this primal thing — you know, 'motivating rhythm of life...'"
On the subject of who they would or wouldn't work with, Paul says that "There are some people we definitely wouldn't want to work with. We were asked to do a mix of a rock band recently, and the brief was to produce a mix between the B52s and REM. We turned it down. I mean, to be asked to sound like somebody else is a bit odd, and it's not really our bag. I mean, we are making dance music. People have this idea that dance music is really limiting — but they're usually just old rockers." It's certainly true that rockist snobbery towards dance music still persists — is it really any less stupid to ask The Beatmasters to produce rock tracks than it is to expect The Rolling Stones to try their hand at house?
"I find it really bizarre that it's still going on after all these years," says Paul, seeming genuinely bemused. "There are still a lot of people in the music industry who can't understand it, probably because they can't deal with a formula that doesn't sell many albums."
It's axiomatic that dance music is singles-oriented rather than album-oriented. Life And Soul, however, does seem to be an attempt to make a more coherent and mature album — there are more tracks over five minutes in length, and more serious lyrics. It turns out that this is more accidental than intentional.
"I think this one is just less naive," suggests Manda. "When we recorded Anywayawanna the whole dance scene was very 'come and get it' kind of thing. It's different now."
But is there still any music out there that excites you in the same way that early rap and house did? "No, not in that primal kind of way," says Paul. "But there are lots of interesting records, and every now again house music takes a quantum leap. It constantly re-invents itself, and a lot of things appear because the technology allows it." Manda picks up on this: "A lot of what you're hearing now is basically because of timestretching on the S1100 — because you can get those really fast beats without them sounding horrible."
Running down the checklist of equipment in the programming suite, it seems that Paul and Manda aren't too keen on throwing out their old gear, with their original Emulator II and SP1200 still in use, alongside Roland JX8P and Casio CZ101 synths, and an Akai S900, Ensoniq EPSM and EPS samplers.
"The whole thing about new technology is that there's so much of it," says Manda. "I mean, I'd rather wait until people start talking about stuff that's good. We don't need all the latest stuff — we've got a setup that works. You hear about the things that are really worth having. It takes a lot of time to learn a new piece of equipment, and find out whether it's really worth having. We got the upgrade information about version 3.0 of Cubase. There was a long list of differences, but it's all stuff that's completely useless to us."
"Apart from the S1100," agrees Paul, "we're using pretty much the same gear that we were four years ago."
The JX8P is something of a mainstay, regularly providing important sounds. A broken key, however, means that it's always played via the EPS. A Casio CZ101 also works hard. "It's actually very easy to change the sounds on it, and the funny little organ preset is good. Basically, we just use the synths we have here, and [OSC] Oscars when we need them — and we still use the Roland TB303 as well."
With The Shamen, a very important part of the band's sound is treated guitar. "The guitar is in there," says Manda, "though it's manipulated so it's not just like a regular guitar playing. You get this dash of live playing with the synth-pop stuff — we kind of mechanise the guitar." The technique involves feeding the guitar through a noise gate, but triggering the gate with a specially programmed percussion track. The result is "very central to the shamen sound. We don't always do it with the guitar — we'll quite often do it with sounds from the JX8P."
Though the S1100 — currently stuck in another studio — is exceptional in being a new addition, it's certainly proved an important one. "When we're remixing we just stick the whole song in an S1100, and manipulate it from there," says Paul. "About the only thing we use multitrack tape for is timecode to drive the SSL. We never even start running the tape machine until five or six hours before we're due to go home on the last day — just for a few cuts, fader levels and rides, and a fade at the end. I think in a way that automated desks are actually becoming less important."
Mastering is on to analogue half-inch, with DAT as a safety. "We just prefer to cut from an analogue master," says Paul. "Don't ask us why."
"Well, I think it's that you know what you've got with analogue. What you hear is what you get. With DAT, the sound is being interfered with and interpreted." But surely any recording process does that.
Manda: "I can't tell the bloody difference between half-inch and DAT. And I don't like having a master that small. We lost one once, and it turned up three weeks later in someone's jacket pocket."
"There's something solid and trustworthy about analogue," continues Paul, warming to his theme. "It's old fashioned, but..."
"...you're just an old fashioned guy, really..."
"But we haven't really been around long enough to pick up those die-hard habits! We're children of the digital age."
Manda: "Yes, we ought to be at the forefront of technology."
I'd say they were doing fine where they are now.
Interview by Paul Ireson
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!