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Dearly Beloved

Beloved

Article from Music Technology, March 1993

Jon and Helena Marsh in their natural habitat


...We are gathered here today to witness an album of dance-flavoured, optimistic songs from husband and wife team Jon and Helena Marsh; the cosiest home studio in captivity; and the joining together in holy MIDI of sequencer and sampler. And synth. Amen.


It looks very tidy now, but at one point this flat was a sea of bubblewrap within continents of cardboard boxes, rippling the residential calm of this particular corner of South London on the day The Beloved's home studio arrived. With a successful album finally behind them, Jon Marsh and Steve Waddington somewhat surprisingly went their separate ways, and it was Jon's particular home that took custody of the name 'Beloved' - and delivery of the aforementioned cardboard boxes. After several years of '80s guises, beginning with a 1983 trio called 'The Journey' through and including phases of psychedelia and New Order-ish technodance, Jon and Steve went to a rave, blissed out and embraced the '90s. With 'The Sun Rising', a single to see out the last decade and herald the dawn of the new, The Beloved caught the mood and commercial success followed. Having 'arrived', it was as though a point had been proved, and they parted.

But The Beloved was not to be a solo act: Jon's marriage has seen to that. It's now a compact husband and wife team, and the studio nestles snugly beneath their superannuated bunk bed sending invisible rays of electronic warmth up into the nuptial chamber. It's a juxtaposition of work and rest that must represent the shortest commuting distance known to man. And woman. Jon and Helena Marsh can literally fall out of bed and start programming. They've brought it all back home for a reason, and that reason is mainly to do with control. Surrounded by, it must be said, a particularly tasteful line in chattel, protecting with all its being the sanctity of house and home, Jon and Helena discuss their domestic arrangements. It's hard not to feel a certain envy.

"The main reason for building a studio at home," begins Jon, "was because when we made Happiness, and the Blissed Out remix album, we were working with real programmers - including the producer, Martyn Phillips - and it became so fundamentally obvious how reliant we were on these people - particularly me, doing all the keyboards. I really didn't have the slightest idea how it was all working. Playing the parts was fine, but hooking it all up and getting things exactly how you want them... you can come across as a bit of a control freak, but if you can get yourself into a situation where you can do it all, the next step is to then get people back in to program for you - but at least you understand exactly what all the permutations are."

"And, of course, it saves so much time," points out Helena. "If we had new tracks that needed to be demo'd beforehand that would involve going into a studio, working it all out, putting it all in - a good two or three days." "Yeah," says Jon, "when you've made an album and four or five videos, and you've sold quite a lot of records, and you realise you're still massively unrecouped with your record company, you start to be a bit more careful with your spending. And Helena's really good at that - when she saw how much things were costing..." "Unreal..." she confirms. Jon continues: "To have somebody come in who's not been involved before, and just look at the figures and say 'this is absurd, you're wasting so much money', it's very revealing. You're not trying to run everything on a purely business level, but there has to be some control, because it's a scandalous waste of money. Studio time used well is justifiable, but just to sit around and do half ideas is a waste."

Helena's perception of her recently acquired music biz 'in-laws' puts you in mind of that episode with the Emperor and his new clothes. "Jon just trotted the figures out like it was a few pence, because he was so used to it," she says. "But the fact is," Jon points out, "that you're paying back all your recording costs out of a fairly small percentage, and you have to sell an awful lot of records to do that. We sold a quarter of a million copies of Happiness and nowhere near recouped." So the record company must be happy with the home studio arrangement, too? "It's in their interests, really. You could take the extreme attitude that all record companies are scum, and they just want you in the stocks, massively in debt, so you'll do exactly what they want - but realistically they're not just going to throw money at you forever. Making records is a very costly exercise, and you have to account for what you're spending. Having produced the new album ourselves, we were entirely responsible for our own budget. The amazing thing was that we brought it in £2,000 under! I don't think they knew what was going on, because nobody's ever done that..."

When you consider that the home studio was used for pre-production only, and that Jon and Helena still did their fair share of studio-hopping and engineer-hiring once it was done, their acumen seems even more impressive. The obvious cost-cutting of working at home was confined to those tentative first stages, as Jon explains. "You have to take it out quite early because of equipment restrictions. Most of our synths are not multitimbral, and we're using a lot of old analogue gear, so you're restricted straight away unless you're going to multitrack. You can only have the Juno playing one sound, or the Moog playing one sound, or whatever. You could sit around sampling the sounds, but it's quicker just to define the basics and carry on. Once you've got the nucleus, it's time to move on. What we did with all the new tracks was start with a very simple idea, coax it along, and take that basic idea from here into the studio, put it on tape and start developing it." "We made huge changes," Helena confirms, "once we were at that stage. It's constantly evolving, and it's so easy to make changes at every stage, this way..."


For 'this way', read 'using digital technology', which, as Jon recognises, can make endless tweaking just too tempting by half: "The thing that ultimately disciplines you, and stops you from doing that until the cows come home, is getting other people in to play. We spent about two months here, writing tracks, plus a week's multitracking just to try them out, and when we went into Sarm West we had 12 songs which we stuck one by one, as they were at that point, onto tape. After a few days trying out some ideas, we started getting in guitarists, other keyboard players, or Paul Waller to do extra drum programming - just to get a bit of input from other people. Although we weren't conscious of it at the time, that stops you from completely rewriting the track beyond recognition. What they put onto it defines the way the track's going to go; it's really good to get strong players in. Our guitarist, Neil Taylor, has worked with Tears For Fears, and we thought he'd need several days to do everything. But he did eight tracks in a day..."

Helena was particularly impressed: "He'd just got back from LA and driven from the airport. He'd been working on the sort of album where you go into the studio for three weeks, and maybe get to play for four hours. So we got him at just the right point, where we'd dragged him out of this and he was raring to go."

"Once those things are down," concludes Jon, "it gives you something that you can't really alter - you can sample it, and play around with it in that way, but if you start doing that with guitars you really start to lose the feel. The only thing we might do is move a whole section, because it might fit better elsewhere in the track. And we could do that before there were any vocals, especially. Neil would say 'what's the chorus?' and I'd say 'well, there isn't one.' Or he'd ask me to sing it to him, which was probably an awful experience for him and why he got everything done and out of there so quickly! But by and large that interaction really helped to solidify the backing tracks. And it helped us to try and keep a good balance of acoustic and synthetic sounds."

Striking the right balance between human and machine is the critical mass in Jon's fissile imagination, and quantising is right at the core... "What's good about quantising is that if you play something and you know it's a bit all over the place, to put it back you quantise it, and when you go into 'edit' you can drag notes or parts, almost at random, and just put them slightly out. If you look at it before you quantise, you can see the parameters where you've gone out with your playing, then quantise, and maybe go back to the same areas and pull a few out again. It's a sort of de-quantising, along the lines of mistakes you'd make naturally, so that it isn't too clinical. But it's still better than your playing. Unless you're a brilliant keyboard player - and I'm definitely not - you're always going to be reliant on something like quantising. And if you like sequencing in itself, it's even better. I mean, one of the joys of electronic music has always been that totally mesmerising, sequential feel, whether it's Tangerine Dream or The Who - like 'Baba O'Riley' or the intro to 'Won't Get Fooled Again'. So sequencing and synthesis have really important uses, but again it's about knowing the ratio of real time to quantised time."

Jon's feel for electronic music goes back to the days when he had just one monosynth and used to make up endless basslines with the arpeggiator, a process which he still loves, and gives high priority. "I think that's what distinguishes good club music from the rest - it's not the drums, it's the bass. The bassline and sound really make or break it, because it shows a little more insight into the minds of the people who are making the record. It's certainly one thing I would always undo the quantising on, unless it's a very straight arpeggiated line. Play it in for a few bars, quantise it, but then loosen it back up. There's not a bass player out there who could play it that tight. It must be fluid, and slightly uneven in terms of bar counts. Those are the touches that I get excited about, anyway, and it's probably a good thing that nobody notices. Maybe every 7th or 13th bar, there'll be a tiny note moved a little ahead of the beat, just to push it.

"We try and use different drum sounds. Despite the fact that we're always on the lookout for a 909, we still haven't got round to buying one, so..." ("...probably a good thing," comes Helena's voice) "...so ultimately we use far less than most other house records. There's no 909 hi-hats, whereas they're so predominant on so many records it's just got silly. It's ceased to be creative. I think the standard of British house is appalling; I can't understand why it sells so well. But there's still a lot of really good stuff coming out of New York. I suppose the reason we like it is because you can trace its soulful origins; it grooves, it swings. It's not just colour-by-numbers records, like most European house."


So which is best for achieving the mystical state of 'groove' - looping or programming?

"It's an either/or situation. One of the things that might be responsible for the way that house music has gone a bit lame and repetitious is that everyone did start using loops all of a sudden. The better house records had this incredibly creative programming, using just drum machines. There's a tendency to simply take a loop, and because it's got a whole dynamic range within it, people think 'right, that's fine, that's the drum track'. It's got a kick and a snare, a lot of ambience, and that's good enough. And sometimes they sound really good. But they work best, I think, on slow tracks, because there's a bit of space, you can hear what's going on. Once you take a loop from an old funk record that was originally 80bpm, and you timestretch it up to 125 or something, it's all a bit manic. You could quite easily just program it. When you're doing club mixes, looping things does tend to make it more authentic-sounding, and, again, it works best on slow stuff, like a lot of rap records which consist of that one loop going round and round, with that hypnotic effect which is so good. But apart from anything else, the more loops you have the greater the chances of somebody coming after you with their solicitor. We've been a victim of that before."

It wasn't a drum track - which tend to be harder to spot in the general melee - but the very distinctive soprano loop in 'The Sun Rising', which landed The Beloved some way up sampler's creek without a paddle. Jon shrugs. "We had to credit it on the album sleeve, after the first batches had been released. If you buy it now, it says 'Samples taken from the Hyperion Records Recording of "0 Euchari" by Emily Van Evera'. I mean, it's a 13th Century piece of music, but it was the singer... we got stung for the copyright in the performance, not the music.

"There's a couple of samples on the new stuff from very old Beloved albums - not me playing, I'd stopped drumming by that point - just for the ambience. We'd take the loop, split it into beats, and take the ambience from a sound. A half-beat might be just the ambience from a kick and a snare, which quite often is the best thing about a loop - that dreadful hiss and scratchy top-end, which isn't anything at all other than years and years of copying. Sometimes you decide to get the CD with a favourite loop on it, and it doesn't sound nearly as good as the ropey old cassette that you took it from in the first place, with that appalling noise on it. It is very important to dirty up the clinical side of technology. The only people who have ever made pristine records which sounded absolutely brilliant were Kraftwerk. Everybody else has always tended to sound like, well, just a load of machines."

If ideas are worked out using a sequencer, when, in the Beloved scheme of things, does a backing track become a song?

"In the car," Helena answers cryptically. "Jon sings to the backing tracks on the way to the studio. There's a structure by that stage, so there may be an idea of a melodic part or first line, or sometimes a title."


"Actually," Jon expands, "I'll just go off in the car anywhere, and try things out, and I'll come back and say to Helena 'right, it goes like this, and she'll say this bit's good, or that bit's good, but change that... so I have to go off in the car again! It works really well because you can just churn out ideas for the vocals, and then go on and severely produce it. I've really enjoyed being able to concentrate just on ideas, and let someone else take the decisions about what works. You've really got to trust somebody to do that. Sometimes it's just a word that needs changing. I suppose that makes it sound a bit calculated, but there are times when you feel there's something wrong with an idea or a performance, and you don't know why."

Another good reason for singing in the car is the neighbours. Jon and Helena are decent, law-abiding folk who are far too responsible to go sticking Neumanns in the bathroom. Besides which, that would introduce an unsavoury multitracking element into the neighbourhood, and Jon has other ideas. "Really, the next step is to get premises to put it all in, and have it comfortably set up for multitracking and vocals. Having met other bands who do a lot of stuff on 16-track at home, I know that quite often they end up re-doing the whole backing track in the studio but keeping the original vocal take. We just don't have the soundproofing to even consider that option here; we'd get the cars going past the window - which you could say is authentic, but I'm not so sure."

I begin to describe Jon as a songwriter, whose love of dance music has inspired him to forge solid pop songs out of the electronic styles of house, but I'm quickly aware that it may not be a description he recognises all too clearly. "Are you talking to me?" is, in fact, his exact response. Even Helena's intervention fails to elicit any further self-examination. "What does it say on your passport?" she asks. "You don't have to say any more," comes the evasive reply. But it's part of wider misgivings about labelling, as Jon eventually reveals. "Classifications are really risky. Not because I'm afraid to say what it is that we're trying to do, but it's all got to a stage now where music is subdividing into categories like it has in America. If you're perceived of as doing dancefloor music, you're quite often going to be treated with derision by a large section of people. Yet when we make club records, the one thing that people nearly always say is that they like them because they're songs. A track like 'A Thousand Years From Today', which is probably our favourite, is a house track, rhythmically, but as a song it's a real 'natural'. That track was put together so easily, proving that things that come most easily are the best, and if you have to keep working and working at something then there's something missing.

"On the other hand, 'Sweet Harmony' came out of a different song altogether, called 'All Of My Life', which was the same tempo. I began changing the bassline completely - which is something I drive people mad doing, by the way, even at the point of mix - but the funniest thing was that we had a complete backing track, and I'd done a guide vocal and there were two other keyboard players who'd done a lot to it. And a tiny, tiny part of what they did is now on 'Sweet Harmony', but they didn't recognise it at all. There's just this swirly sound from the JD800; everything else changed, including the key. They're there, in spirit, but they wouldn't know. So, really, songwriting has to be the most important thing, with production. And it's something Helena and I can do together. Without wishing to exclude the rest of the universe, it's a very satisfying way of working. Being self-sufficient is everything, even though some of the best parts of the album are due to the input from other people."

Which brings us back to control. Which, in the end, somebody has to wrest in this messy business called music. And it really should be people like The Beloved, because although 'Sweet Harmony' was, by Jon's own admission, somewhat cobbled together - in contrast to the 'natural' songs that come easy - the damn thing did climb to Number 8 in the charts. Their instincts were right. Maybe it's the bunk bed. "There was just something a bit naff about the original," says Helena, "but Jon wouldn't let go of it because so much work had been done on it, and he couldn't just throw it away. It got to the stage where it was actually irritating. But the drum track was really strong. So I gave him half an hour to come up with something better, or the song was gone forever. And he did. And the record company immediately wanted it as the first single!"

Equipment

  • Atari Mega 2
  • DAC R4000 hard disk
  • Seck Model 18:8:2 MkII mixer
  • Akai S1100 ("A massive thank you to Martyn Phillips, who gave us access to his library to get us started...")
  • Alesis SR16
  • Roland TR808
  • Roland Juno 60 (Jon: "Without doubt my favourite; I've had it for ten years. Such an easy machine to use")
  • Roland TB303
  • Korg T3 ("Good for bass, which I'd never have thought - but you've got to jump in and take the effects off, of course. It's good that the effects are in it, but they should be off by default; you shouldn't have to switch them off before you can use the sounds. There's no way, when you're multitracking, that you can use any sound with a major effect on it.")
  • Sequential Circuits Prophet VS ("The sounds are really rich, but the editing's a pain, having to press so many buttons to get at something. Plus you can't monitor the wave forms as you're editing them. But the preset/programming debate is the same as the digital/analogue one, or quantised/unquantised, or machine against real person - if you mix and match all of them, you end up with something really good. If you start laying down hard and fast rules... it's like saying there'll be no black notes, and everything's got to be in C major!")
  • ARP 2600
  • Mini Moog ("When Steve and I split the gear up into fairly equitable groups, he got the Moog, so we had to buy this one. Haven't completely got the hang of it yet, but it looks good...")
  • Yamaha DX100 ("Brilliant. It's really noisy, and some of the presets are so horrible, but the bass sounds are wonderful, especially on things like the 'wood piano'. By mixing that with the Mini Moog, you can get the ideal bass sound, with both warmth and bite")
  • Casio CZ101 ("Cartridges wanted, please", says Jon)
  • Alesis Quadraverb
  • Yamaha SPX900
  • Nakamichi Harmonic Time Alignment amplifier
  • Technics SL1210 MkII x 2 decks
  • Numark PPD DMI750RM pre amp/mixer
  • Sony DTC1000ES DAT
  • JVC TDW30 cassette
  • AR Red Box monitors


Recommended listening

Albums:
Where It Is (1987)
Happiness (East West, 1990)
Blissed Out (East West, 1990)
Conscience (East West, 1993)

Singles
A Hundred Words (1986)
This Means War (1986)
Forever Dancing (1987)
Happy Now EP (1987)
Acid Love (1988)
Loving Feeling (1988)
The Sun Rising (WEA, 1989)
Hello (WEA, 1990)
Your Love Takes Me Higher (East West, 1990)
Time After Time (East West, 1990)
It's Alright Now (East West, 1990)
Sweet Harmony (East West, 1993)


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Publisher: Music Technology - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

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Music Technology - Mar 1993

Artist:

Beloved


Role:

Band/Group

Interview by Phil Ward

Previous article in this issue:

> Incoming Data

Next article in this issue:

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