Bomb the Bass
Into the future with RSS, and looking back to programming 'Say A Little Prayer', Bomb The Bass talk technical to Mike Collins.
Bomb The Bass's 1988 single 'Say A Little Prayer' (a cover of the Aretha Franklin classic, with vocals by Maureen) was one of the most refreshing sounds to come out of the Acid House style, with its brilliant TR808 programming and 'dancing' pitched percussion effects. I recently met the man behind Bomb The Bass, Tim Simenon, through a musician friend who'd been working on some vocal tracks at Tim's Digiland studio, which presented a good opportunity to talk about the track in some depth.
When Tim originally decided to do the cover, he used a combination of drum sounds from the Roland TR808, TR909, and CompuRhythm drum machines. "Pascal Gabriel did most of programming using Steinberg's Pro16 MIDI sequencer running on a Commodore 64 computer," he explained. "At that time we had three Akai S900s — it was around the end of 1988, and we were working at Hollywood Studios. We spent a good couple of days on the rhythm track, sorting out the arrangement, putting in odd bars and so forth. In particular we threw out a couple of choruses and slowed it down to about 93bpm, to avoid just making a copy of the original. We kept the track very sparse — just a mix of chords, vocals, and crazy effects like the 'tape stop'. As a result, the sound of the track turned out very different."
I had particularly liked the repeats on the snares, so I asked Tim if they had used a delay unit to achieve this. "We sampled the 808 snare and actually programmed the repeats using lower MIDI velocities on successively repeated snares for effect."
I called Pascal Gabriel to ask if he could let me have a copy of his original sequences so that I could include a transcription with this article (see p28). Unfortunately, he had recently lent his Commodore 64 to a friend, as he is now using Notator on an Atari ST, so he could not let me have the sequences in time.
Alas, the only thing to do was to transcribe the verse drum patterns myself. (I listened carefully to the record, and learned each drum pattern by ear. I then played each part into Performer, starting with the bass drum, then moving on to the hi-hats, shaker, and the main snare drum backbeat. Once I had all this in place, I had to listen very carefully to pick out the offbeat snares and the snare fills, which were the most intricate parts. I recorded these to separate tracks, so that I could adjust the velocities to match those on the record. I used a MIDI'd TR808 to play back the sounds, although Pascal had used TR808 samples on the record. Once everything sounded OK, I saved my work as a MIDI file, and opened it in Finale. It turned out that the verse was 15 bars long, and was made up of two sections. I transcribed each half as six bars of 4/4 followed by one bar of 2/4, but this may not have been the way Tim and Pascal were looking at it. The bar of 2/4 could have come earlier in the sequence, so the music would look different, while sounding the same.
When I mentioned that I preferred the re-mix to the original release, Tim elaborated: "I did the remix with Mark Saunders, who used Steinberg's Pro24 software on the Atari. We used a PPG Wave 2.3 for some of the pad chords, and we had sampled timbales from an S1000 (I think) going up and down playing a musical pattern."
Tim had recently been into Matrix Studios in London to mix a couple of tracks for his forthcoming single release, taking advantage of Roland's new RSS (Roland Sound Space) system. The tracks in question were 'Winter In July', and 'Crash Landing', and I sat in on the mixing sessions to see how Tim used the 3-D sound system.
In case you missed the Radio 1/Tomorrow's World demo, or missed the mentions in previous issues of Sound On Sound, a quick re-cap is in order. RSS lets the recording engineer place instruments or sounds in a 3-D space surrounding the listener — a space which unlike regular stereo extends well beyond the positions of the left and right speakers, and which has depth and height as well as width. No special equipment is necessary on playback — RSS-processed material is intended for reproduction on conventional domestic stereo systems, and the illusion of 3-D is created through the application of some clever psychoacoustic tricks that require more space to explain than this article allows.
The prototype unit which Tim was using was a 4-channel device with two controls for each channel, Azimuth and Elevation. The Azimuth control lets you pan a sound around in a horizontal plane so that it can be placed anywhere in a 360 degree circle around the listener. The Elevation control lets you raise or lower the position of the sounds in a vertical plane. The result is that the mixing engineer has more space available to use to position the various elements of his or her mix.
A rival system to RSS, Q-Sound, has already been used on albums by Sting and Madonna (The Soul Cages and The Immaculate Conception respectively), but it has some significant differences from RSS which may make it less attractive. Firstly, it does not operate in real time, and secondly it can only be licensed for use on a particular recording — you cannot buy the system. However, you can buy RSS. At £20,000 to £25,000, it is obviously out of reach of the average punter, but I can see the hipper studios having them installed, especially if RSS releases prove successful. RSS has already been used on the Stones' live album for audience ambience, and producer Steve Lipson has been using the system with Simple Minds.
The Bomb The Bass team, including programmer Kerry Hopwood, and mix engineer Q, were hard at work on the B-side of the new single, 'Crash Landing', while I was in Matrix studios with Tim. This was a collage of wickedly intricate rhythms, with a heavy ride cymbal and cabasa all the way through to hold everything together. It features swirling flanged Hendrix guitar samples over a TR808 bass drum, with '19'-style news announcements in classic Bomb The Bass style.
Amongst the things which particularly caught my ear were a sampled organ riff taken from a Pink Floyd track, manic laughter (rather reminiscent of 'Wipeout'), and a great timbale break. The killer Jimi Hendrix guitar licks were particularly impressive, but Tim and Kerry said that they could equally well have used their Japanese guitarist Kenji, who sounds just like Hendrix anyway, if he had been around.
The drum track included several long tom fills, and sampled snare rolls. Kerry told me that he had to timestretch different portions of the snare rolls in the Akai S1100 to get the loose fills to play in time with the track. A final touch was a catchy loop, which sounded a little like a Wings melody mixed into the background. The team intended to experiment with the RSS on this track, to try to get some wild effects to match the music.
Tim was keen for me to hear the A-side mix, finished the day before, which he played during a break from mixing. 'Winter In July' features some very soulful vocals from Loretta (Heywood), and my overall impression was of a very moody track with nicely laid-back percussive synths and sampled triangles ticking away. Tim pointed out that RSS had been used to spin some vocal samples from behind and underneath the listener's left shoulder to a point at top right above the right hand monitor speaker; very effective. Perhaps an even more unusual effect was the constant tabla rhythm which appeared to be coming from a position at least eight feet to the left and two feet in front of the monitor speakers. Tim explained that the RSS works best on percussion, vocals, or any sounds which can be placed distinctly in the mix, so string pads won't work too well. He also pointed out that everything works OK if you play back in mono — the effected parts just come out a little louder.
Tim added that he had made several mixes of the A-side, so he could set them aside for a couple of weeks, and then perhaps assemble a finished track from the different versions. The RSS system was being used sparingly on 'Winter', rather than providing lots of very obvious effects, hence the subtle but constant tabla positioned at far left, and just the occasional effect which stuck out in an obvious way, like the vocal sample mentioned above.
Bomb The Bass's early use of RSS arose from their involvement with the world of computer games, when Tim was invited to use RSS to remix one of his older tracks, 'Megablast', for a game on a new Commodore system called CDTV. The idea is that you buy the game on a CD, and listen to the track while playing the game. Tim was very impressed by RSS, so he asked Roland if he could use it on his new single. This prototype was intended to be sent back to Japan after the 'Megablast' mix, but Roland agreed to hold it over for Tim's mix sessions at Matrix.
The CDTV is a Commodore machine which looks like a CD player and which does play CDs, but which is also capable of providing computer software running on your TV set while simultaneously playing audio through your hi-fi. MirrorSoft, one of the leading software houses, have produced one of the first titles for CDTV on CD ROM, a game called Zenon Megablast, an earlier version of which had a computer soundtrack that included 8-bit samples of Tim's original record. For the CD ROM version, Mirrorsoft and the program's authors thought it would be a good idea to use a remix of Tim's original track. A far-sighted person at Commodore, who was already talking to Roland about other matters and who knew about RSS, suggested doing the 3-D mix of 'Megablast'. As a result of this sequence of events, Zenon Megablast is the world's first computer game with a 3-D soundtrack — heavy competition for Nintendo, who are reputed to be considering using Q-Sound with their games!
'Megablast' was remixed at Metropolis Studios by Tim and Alan Moulder. It was around this time that an item about RSS was being put together for Tomorrow's World, for broadcast on 21st March, and as a result of its inclusion in the programme, a shortened version of the mix is available on a BBC Enterprises CD, along with various other sound effects and some more RSS processed material.
Bomb The Bass (who have returned to their old name now that the Gulf War is over, having previously opted to work under Tim Simenon's name while the conflict was on) are currently playing a series of live dates. "We have a couple of dates being arranged in Brazil in between the UK and European shows — probably big shows," said Kerry. "We are trying for a very live show, so we have Keith LeBlanc [from Tackhead/Sugar-Hill gang] on drums, Kenji Suzuki on guitar, Guy Sigsworth on keyboards, and Doug Wimbish on bass [noted for the bassline on Grandmaster Flash's historic 'White Lines']. We will be taking along a rapper who goes by the name of A La Mode, and Tim will be playing sounds from various Simmons pads and Octapads, and using some live percussion as well. We would like the UK gigs to have the feel of a club record session with the visuals of a band, and we will have a DJ with us filling in between the live stuff to keep it going. We are going for a more hard-core sort of sound in the UK, and we will use this experience to help us work out a tight routine for the larger concerts. For the Brazil gigs we'll be taking singer Loretta Heywood, and percussionist Jeff Santlebury, as well."
Interview by Mike Collins
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