Musical trends come and go but the hi-nrg beat goes on and on... David Bradwell talks to the hi-nrg production team who've released more records in the last 12 months than Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
Top British production team of the moment are Stock, Aitken and Waterman, right? Well, Ian Levine has released 40 hi-nrg singles in the last year and still the relentless beat goes on...
Listening through a collection of the work of revered hi-nrg and dance producer Ian Levine seemed a pleasant enough prospect. As the main underground force in British club music since the Northern soul days, first as a DJ at the Ritz Ballroom in Manchester, and then as writer within, and mastermind of, a genre that seems on the brink of revival, a quick review of recent Ian Levine 12" singles and compilation albums seemed harmless enough. But then, when you consider that in the last 12 months he's had 40 new releases (making Stock, Aitken and Waterman look positively dilatory) and that these have generally involved a variety of personality-free studio "concepts", the task seems slightly less inviting.
Despite a certain lack of sonic variety, this is the man behind Evelyn Thomas's international seven-million seller 'High Energy', the man who owns three record companies, and a collection of 50,000 records, the man who has defined a sound and adhered to it whilst being the musical director at London's Heaven, and the man called upon by Bronski Beat, the Pet Shop Boys, Bananarama and Kim Wilde among others for his skill as a remixer. As such, he's able to hide behind a reputation built on his past success, yet the workload seems to be ever increasing. It was, then, on a rare quiet afternoon that I managed to stop the producer for a chat about his music and his technique, and to rediscover the origins of hi-nrg itself.
"People say hi-nrg is a dead concept, but take a look at the charts and you'll see that each of the last five No. 1 singles has had a straight on the fours dance beat", comes the reply before my question is even voiced. Levine is a big man, with a big house in West London, and a slightly unnerving, almost anxious manner. Returning from a telephone conversation ("That was Jimmy Ruffin"), it is evident he has a very quick temper. In an interview in The Face he described a good hi-nrg record as:
"...very hard to define. As long as it has a fairly fast rhythm - something between 120 and 140 beats per minute - it has the potential. But it's also the consistency of the beat, and what I call the concept of light and shade; to be exciting the record has to build up to peaks where everything is playing at once, and then drop down to areas where it's not, as if the floor had suddenly dropped away from under you."
Despite this, Ian Levine productions lack the sharpness of Italian Euro-disco - in the mould of the Pet Shop Boys - and the crossover commercial appeal of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. It's time for him to answer a few questions, a task he does not particularly cherish, although he quickly warms to his subject. First of all, what equipment does he use to create his records?
"We've done most of the stuff on the Fairlight III - since December 1986, when Lillie Yard got one of the first prototypes from Syco. In mid '87 I went to Paradise Studios in Chiswick, because they did me a very good deal and because they too had a Fairlight III.
"We write the songs on the Fairlight - although it takes a lot longer and costs a lot more money than using a piano at home - because otherwise, as soon as you go in and put down the bass and the drums, the song sounds different. I get much closer to the feel I want by putting down a bassline and a drum track and building the song against it, so that it is structurally right on the Fairlight. I have a few bars going round and round, and then construct on top of them."
LEVINE'S MOST PROMINENT cowriting partner is Fiachra Trench, but in recent times he has been working with an American called Steven Wagner, who tends to orchestrate less, and favour fewer of the '70s-disco style flourishing show-tunes that characterised Trench.
"We've just done this thing together with a new group we formed called The Backstreet Raiders, which has vocals reminscent of Wham! over a track which is more like the Taylor Dayne single."
It seems that Levine will follow any musical direction which could rake in the cash. He proudly relates how his song 'On the House' by Midnight Sunrise was the first British house record, even before Chicago house had hit the British charts. His preference for black female singers has been compromised by commercial pressures, and his record company, Saturday, has just released a medley single called 'Pump up the Motortown', which is "very commercial and easy to sell".
"I went through two phases as a producer", explains Levine, "one in the '70s where I was producing a lot of orchestral disco records with big string sections, and then, after a four-year gap in 1983 I made 'So Many Men, So Little Time' which sold two million. My idea for this in 1983 was to use the best technology available at the time to create an authentic disco record, using electronics, but not to sound like Giorgio Moroder. We used a Roland MSQ sequencer and the Linn II, and synthesised the whole song apart from the piano; everything else was primitive synthesisers. By the time I recorded 'High Energy' in 1984, the First Fairlight was out, so that was all done on the Fairlight. In late '83 we used the early Emulator, and when the Emulator II came out we did some stuff on that. On Seventh Avenue's 'Ending Up on a High', we recorded eighteen tracks of backing vocals which we then sampled into the Emulator II. It didn't sound so good, but it was a lot easier and quicker than using quarter-inch tape."
Despite having access to the best equipment currently available, Levine still prefers something that's quick to program.
"Levine: Hi-nrg has to have light and shade - to build up to peaks and then drop as if the floor had suddenly dropped away from under you."
"When you consider the difference between the old Linn drums, then the Linn 9000 and then the Fairlight, there has to be something which is quicker to program. What is good about songs on the Fairlight, and the way you can now program for yourself is that you're not tied down to those old sounds. In 1983 and '84, everything sounded like Linn - it all sounded the same. It was better than the earlier drum machines, but still the Linn toms and the Linn congas were awfully repetitious, because there was very little you could do with them."
The essence of an Ian Levine production has become, in his own words, far too recognisable. This has led to a conscious attempt to change his more obvious trademarks "...lots of backing girl choruses, sequenced strings and brass, strong wailing female vocals, on the fours beat, a combination of two or three different hi-hat patterns, and a solid, regular hi-nrg bassline". The "new" style, however, is still aimed at much the same market - the changes being cosmetic rather than musical. Nicky Price, of Bolts records, a specialist dance label, observed that Levine's formulae work in a club environment but fail to cross over to the radio and charts in the same manner as Stock, Aitken and Waterman, who come from a similar hi-nrg background. Surprisingly, Levine himself agrees.
"My sound", he explains, "is a fusion of '60s Motown, '70s Philly, late '70s disco in a Donna Summer vein and '80s electronics all rolled into one, always relying on strong backing vocals and a good strong hook. It's down to formula and sound - the sound has certainly worked for me, but I'm tending now to over-arrange my stuff. In the studio I like to fill the tracks up in an arrangement, and then prune it down in the mix. But I always find it easier to mix other people's records than my own, because I'm inclined to be much more brutal, which makes them much more exciting."
Talking of remixing other people's records, Levine reveals that as long as there's a sync code on the tape, he will always fully re-record the drum program on the Fairlight. In fact, the drum track is home for one of his favourite tricks in a mix, that is, triggering a gun shot sound with a quick repeat on it, on every snare off-beat. As well as this he uses copious amounts of congas and cowbells in certain places, keeping the rhythms going as the music dies away.
"Another favourite trick of mine is to take out the music, trigger the snare on the wrong beats, and make everything that should be happening on 1 and 3, happen on 2 and 4 - changing the whole structure around by just putting the beat in the wrong place. I've always prided myself when doing remixes, on providing something which sounds nothing like the original."
Despite working with the technology daily, Levine admits to being a bit nervous about the technicalities.
"I've always been a musical person", he says. "I create musically what I want, for my engineer to find sounds for."
TIME THEN, TO take a walk down the road to Paradise Studios and have a chat to Phil Da Costa, whose job it was to engineer the 40 singles made over the last year.
The setup at Paradise is impressive, with an equipment list living up to the studio's name. As well as the Fairlight Series III, there is a Kurzweil Midiboard and 250RMX, PPG Wave 2.3 and Waveterm B, a MIDI Minimoog, an Oberheim Xpander (the list goes on...), centred around an Apple Macintosh Plus running Mark of the Unicorn Performer and Composer software, along with various librarians and editors. Unlike most studios which feature a separate programming suite, everything at Paradise is integral to the control room itself, greatly enhancing speed and efficiency during recording. In addition, the Fairlight can also be programmed from another room upstairs, which means that it doesn't lie redundant during mix days. I find Da Costa friendly and cheerful and keen to take over where Levine left off.
"My job? Well, when Ian writes songs, he has a few ideas for basslines or drumbeats, and a title. I come in at that point and possibly listen to a few records he wants to take influences from, and then program the bass, snare and hi-hat into the Fairlight with a few bits of percussion. Ian would then work out a bassline, and that again would go onto Page R of the Fairlight.
"Da Costa: People say that real drummers are hack, but I don't care - a lot of people get fooled into thinking it's a real drummer when it isn't."
"My involvement is basically in operating the equipment. Once the chord structure is worked out we have the basic track, which then goes on to 24-track. That's when I stop programming, and start my engineering.
"As far as sounds go, I do all the programming - in the case of a bass sound, we firstly have to decide if we want a guitar sound or a synthesiser. If it's bass guitar, we go to one of the samplers, which would be either the Fairlight or the Kurzweil, and more often than not, mix an analogue bass sound with it.
"Rather than just using, for example, a D50 preset, I'll always try adding a few things on top, like some samples off the PPG, or a sound off the Oberheim - trying to create something which is slightly different, so that it doesn't stick out as a preset.
"Other things I do include mono-ing the reverb, and putting it over to one side, and mixing several snare sounds together at different pitches to create one. I do a lot with SMPTE, delaying and advancing it to create a feel - advancing things, or making a track seem like it's lagging behind."
Drum programming, though, is where Da Costa's real insight lies.
"We do have one drum machine knocking about, but the Fairlight is our drum machine, albeit a very big one. Lots of people say that real drummers are back, but I don't care. For example, house music is total machine. Drum machine programming is becoming very clever now though, and a lot of people get fooled into thinking it's a real drummer when it isn't.
"You have to take meticulous care with every beat. The hi-hat pattern takes a lot of time, but it's very important because that is where a drummer's expression comes from. Also, with things like double bass drum beats, you have to get the velocities right, so one sounds quieter than the other. With snare drum fills you have to make sure that the velocities and the attacks are all at the right level. You just have to put things in the right places - like tom fills and cymbals - doing them, imagining that you are a drummer, and what you'd hit. Also, you shouldn't have a hi-hat when you're doing a snare drum fill. Little things like that are important; although the average music lover in the street won't realise why, he'll just feel a bit better about the track.
"On top of this, there's the drum sound itself, and the drum kit is probably the most sampled sound in the world - so if you can get the real drum sound across, and get the right reverbs, you can make it sound very much like a real drummer. It's amazing actually, because all you need is a Mirage or an S900, and suddenly your drum sounds are so much better than the average machine - you can spot a drum machine snare a mile off. All you need is a mate who's got a snare drum, stick a microphone in front of it, 'Boff!', and you've got a nice clean snare drum sample."
DA COSTA ISN'T over impressed with some of Levine's records, however. "You can't physically release that much and expect them all to be good", he observes, "but they were all nice little songs and I'd leave here at night and be unable to sleep for them going round in my head. I don't think Ian ever wants to make tomorrow's music - all he wants to do is write for today, or even yesterday. But to do that he's using the most sophisticated equipment he can get."
Without his engineer in support, the whole process would take much longer, if it were possible at all. Levine relies on his technical back-up as much, if not more, than any other big-name producer in the business. But he has the personality to make people listen to what he says, and take notice of the work he produces.
This, then, is only one facet of the Ian Levine story. He is also rumoured to be president of the international Doctor Who fan club, with every episode on tape, along with Battlestar Galactica, Hill Street Blues, and St Elsewhere. In addition, he is still a disc jockey at Heaven, and has one of the largest collections of Tamla Motown records in the world. Few people release such a quantity of music in such a short space of time; consequently it is hardly surprising that much of it remains underground. But with hi-nrg influencing an increasing number of the most successful chart singles, Levine's importance as a producer cannot be underestimated. He is currently hard at work mixing at the Skratch studio in Chertsey with his mix engineer, Robin Sellars.
Meanwhile, anybody interested in discovering some of the best examples of the genre for themselves, could do worse than examine the three Nightmare compilation albums, or the Euro-Dance One compilation on the Bolts label. Other names to look out for if hi-nrg does re-emerge as a chart force, are Andy Grant, Kelly, and Mirror Image, who are about to release a very dubious house medley. Levine himself has plans for a 60-track Hi-nrg Classics compilation which should be released very shortly. This could indeed become a classic.
Interview by David Bradwell
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