Man Made Music
Pete Gleadall runs up a transatlantic phone bill waiting for hip-hop whizzkid Mantronik to finish his hamburger and explain why the TR808 is still his favourite drum machine.
Q: What do you get when you cross a Commodore 64 with an SP12 drum machine?
A: Two-and-a-half grands-worth of junk. Hip-hop maestro Mantronik laments his loss to Pete Gleadall.
In a time when record companies are increasingly conservative in their releases, sounds and techniques normally associated with a minority of the record buying public are cropping up with increasing regularity on records that are selling by the truckload. Take Janet Jackson's Nasty Boys for example; a massive drum sound together with a sparse melody and half sung-half spoken vocals, it's the basic ingredients of Hip-Hop which is now beginning to sell in pretty vast quantities in its own right.
Mantronix are all about Hip-Hop and have no time for that sizeable minority of musicians who think the music is easily produced. I spoke to technical wizard Mantronik, who together with MC Tee (King Of The Rap) make up Mantronix. It turns out that the man behind Mantronix is a big fan of home recording and knows a production technique or two, having produced the Joyce Simms All And All.
I wondered how he had approached the recording of this track.
"I took a little bit of the street and some things from the disco era, the trumpets and the saxophones. I wanted to take some of the things people seemed to have forgotten about and put a street beat behind it, and it seemed to work. I was really pleased with it as it was my first dance record."
All And All was done using the Roland TR 808 drum machine, a sound that has become recognisable on many dance records. I put it to him that the sound was akin to somebody in a garage putting down a demo, and that the freshness of it was what appealed to people. It turns out that he and MC Tee are not big fans of the Steve Lillywhite school of reverb production.
"I can see that people think it sounds different, because everybody who goes into the studio now thinks that a record has to sound tremendous, it has to have a lot of reverb or effects. While they're doing that, I'm doing something different. I like a straighter sound that's drier — it stands out more. Take the Joyce Simms record for example; basically we had no reverb really, just some ambience. I was concerned with getting the vocal across, there aren't any special effects on the record, it's real straight".
I enquire as to his favourite effects in the studio.
"Delays are what I favour the most, I don't like to boom away with a lot of reverb, I generally just add a little ambience; I like my records straight, dry and forward. I've noticed with my projects that when the DJs play the tracks on the radio, they have a little more presence than the average song, because they're dry and straightforward."
Listening to the Mantronix album, called, for a change, The Album, it sounded as if most of the tracks were done using the good old 808 drum box. It turns out I was wrong.
"Most of it's sampling. When I first started with Fresh is the Word and Needle to the Groove that was the 808, but now I'm using the Emulator SP12 (sampling drum computer) for drums. We only cut the two tracks using the 808."
I ask how he finds the SP12, as its pretty expensive over here.
"It's not a 16 bit sampler, but the quality is great, though the first two I had they blew up. See, the company said that I could use the SP12 with the Commodore disk drive, the 1541, but they had the Commodore 128 and new drive out, so I tried the new drive with the SP12 and it fried both my machines, it totally burnt out the insides. But the company gave me a new machine, so I'm saving my samples on the 1541 drive."
The motto here is to avoid the new Commodore disk drive like the plague, unless you wish to see about three grand's worth of Ringo go up in smoke. However, like most bands, Mantronix had more humble equipment to start off with. One track, Bassline, was written about, and used the Roland TB 303, itself called The Bassline.
"It's great, costs about two hundred dollars, although I'm not sure I will use it for future projects."
This leads me to ask what he's currently using for those heavy basslines.
"Ladies was done with the Casio CZ101, but I use an Oberheim OB8, a Sequential Six-Track, occasionally a DX7 and Juno 106 for keyboards."
I asked if there was any synth in particular that he started on when looking for a sound.
"I'm not too crazy about 24 track studios, especially as far as Rap is concerned"
"I don't start with any one synth as a matter of course, I like to start on a sound and get what I want by altering the parameters."
As he seems to be able to get the sounds that are needed, I ask if he takes time to learn all the functions of the gear he uses, in order to stay ahead of the competition.
"We stay ahead because we have lots of ideas. The thing with me is that when I buy a piece of equipment, and I want to use it, I don't read the manual, I fool around on the machine, make mistakes and then I learn from my mistakes. Sometimes I can make a mistake and it can be cool. Y'know, sometimes I get a weird sound or effect and then use that mistake in the track."
Mantronik mentioned that he sometimes used a Fairlight for sound; did he dive in with that and make mistakes, or did he use a programmer?
"I use a programmer, but I'm hoping to buy one, the Series III possibly, because I could do everything on that, and get rid of some of the hassles I'm having right now."
What are those problems — running different machines together?
"No, I use MIDI, sometimes I use Sync or SMPTE from the SP12. A trick I have is when I sample a drum pattern off a record into the Akai sampler, I loop the pattern and get my sequencer to keep it going. What I then do is to play with the pitch control on the Akai, until the pattern plays in time with the track, because it's hard to get the beats to coincide so it's a case of tuning the sample to fit."
If he can think about buying a Fairlight, presumably Mantronix are recording in the bigger studios in New York like the famous Power Station.
"No, I'm using Unique and INS, although to tell the truth, I prefer to record at home now. I'm not too crazy about 24 track studios, especially as far as Rap is concerned."
It turns out that he has just got the Akai 12 track mixer and recorder, a giant portastudio of sorts, and is a big fan of his new toy.
"You can cut records using those machines, and I plan to get a digital deck to master on, an F1 or something. You see with Rap, when you're recording in a 24 track place most of the time you use up 12, maybe 13 tracks, and I feel that if I can get good enough quality out of my board, because I do my own engineering, then I can get the kind of bite that I need at my own convenience."
This man finds 24 tracks too much — a refreshing change from the usual story of mega-stars 'needing' to go 48-track and more. Even better is the fact that two of the tracks on the Mantronix album Bassline and Ladies were done in a humble eight track studio. Does he plan to release tracks he's done at home?
"I've done two cuts for a Jess Sikes album that I'm producing that have been done on the Akai board, and I plan to do some of my own stuff on it too."
Talking of his own stuff, does he find time to work on material for the next album?
"Yeah, but I have a lot of records to do, I want to make a really good job on the next album, but it has to be done within a certain time-span otherwise people would start to lose interest. We have to keep the momentum going."
Momentum being the operative word. On the drum tracks on the Mantronix record, are they recorded like that, or is editing involved?
"I don't know if you've listened to Bassline, but in the breaks where the music stops and the beat starts to multiply, that's editing, specialised editing. It's not like conventional editing where you just measure the tape and cut it where the sound starts, this is like splicing the tape centimetre by centimetre. We can take a snare for example, and triple it like six times faster than a drum machine could do it, really fast edits to get the rhythm we need. If you look at the tape, it's like about 50 edits going past in about five seconds to get certain effects."
With the DMC album selling a million plus in the States, and Ten Records (Mantronix's UK label) paying a large sum for the first Mantronix album, the future looks good for them. When I spoke to them, they were just about to headline the first UK Hip-Hop festival, Fresh 86, with just some turntables and the SP12, promising to be "hard and direct raw Hip-Hop" with "plenty of bass, lots of bass". With their mutated, hi-tech go-go beat, I for one wouldn't be surprised to see them in the charts, selling bucketloads of records and scratching all the way to the bank.
Interview by Peter Gleadall
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