The Beautiful People
Hendrix rises again - thanks to two musicians, a helpful bureaucrat, and a rack-full of Akais
If '60s were '90s, Jimi Hendrix would be brandishing a sampler and using technology to the full in creating his unique brand of music. In his absence, the Beautiful People have given us a clue as to what might have been. Chris Kempster tells the story...
Obvious idea, isn't it? Make an album of dance-based songs using samples from the back catalogue of the world's greatest rock guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. Others may have thought of it. Maybe they were put off by the legal complexities in gaining permission to use the samples, or perhaps the genius of Hendrix was just too intimidating to try and live up to. Anyhow, it's taken a couple of Surrey musicians to put the idea into practice, and bring Jimi's music screaming into the 1990s.
The Beautiful People, consisting of keyboardist/programmer Luke Baldry and guitarist/vocalist Dunc Kane, released their cleverly-titled album If 60s Were 90s last year, after months of hard graft in their Farnham-based studio. The album is now being re-released along with some extra remixes by, among others, PM Dawn and Youth. It's testament to the craftsmanship and integrity of the duo that their album still sounds fresh today, and not a bit the 'rip-off' that they were consciously trying to avoid. The skilful blend of technology and traditional rock music should ensure that the album lives up to the hopes of Dunc and "last a few years".
If 60s Were 90s contains over 50 samples of Jimi's guitar, vocals, spoken word, and crowd noise, all fashioned into a collection of contemporary grooves. But how did the Beautiful People set about the seemingly impossible task of gaining permission to use the Hendrix samples in the first place?
Dunc: "We did one track, called 'The Experience', which had a lot of Hendrix on it - guitar, vocals, and speaking - which we pressed up as a white label, and I dropped off a copy at Eric Clapton's house [just down the road from Dunc's place]."
Apparently Eric liked it so much that he wanted to release it, but things came to a grinding halt when Clapton's manager got involved.
"Eric's manager said that we'd never get permission [from the Hendrix estate] to use the samples, so I said: 'If I could get the rights, would you put the record out?' And he said: 'Yeah, okay, here's the number'."
So Dunc sent a tape off to the Hendrix estate and soon got a call back from Alan Douglas, the man in charge. He told Dunc he liked the track, then uttered the immortal line: 'You wanna do an album?'
The rest, as they say, is history.
After getting the go-ahead for the album, Luke and Dunc decided that an updating of their equipment was necessary, since they were finding the limitations of their existing setup unworkable.
Luke: "We had a [Roland] S50 sampler, and I was running the sequencer software on it, but you can't go over to the sampling section and edit samples while using the sequencer - you had to boot up the disk again. It also had very limited memory. To get the best out of it we had to lay the samples onto the [Fostex] M80. We'd put the rhythm section down, then start working on the vocals, and of course, when you decide that you want to go back and change the arrangement, you can't. You have to go through the whole process again, and it was a nightmare. It took us about three months to do just one track."
The arrival of an Akai S1000 with 10 Meg of RAM quickly changed things for the better and, in effect, made the whole project possible. Armed with the Akai, Luke and Dunc began to work on a batch of songs and match up samples with grooves. Tracks were taken to 50 or 60 per cent completion, then left for a week while the duo got on with other things. Surprisingly, far from spending all their time rummaging through countless reels of unheard Hendrix multitrack tapes, the Beautiful People grabbed most of their samples off CD.
"We got about 70 per cent through the project on normal samples from CD," says Dunc. "That was part of the thing, to show what could be done. That's what sampling is about - taking samples off the record or CD, not a cheaty way of doing it. The album should be an inspiration for people who are into sampling, showing how far you can go. Credit should go to Luke who spent hours in front of the sampler getting things right, showing how clean you can get it."
Yes, okay, but there must have been some samples that didn't come off CDs.
Dunc admits: "We then got to a stage where it was a little bit more difficult, yes. The guitar solos - all the tracks have guitar solos except 'Get Your Mind Together' - all of those were multitrack solos. We also used the vocals in 'Feel The Heat', 'cos we were having real trouble finding a lead vocal for that one."
Trying to pin Luke and Dunc down on how they constructed tracks is difficult - a reflection of the fact that there was no set formula. Songs evolved in an organic fashion, through trial and error as much as detailed planning.
"A lot of the time," muses Luke, "we'd have a drum loop, so we'd instantly have some kind of groove, and we'd have a pretty good idea, 'cos we'd listened to the samples a helluva lot, what speeds and what feels the different samples were, and roughly how they could be fitted in. Basically, it was matching, loops to chunks of samples, and seeing what other samples could be put together with that, and taking it from there."
The general working practice, though, was to sequence everything up and then start replacing sequenced parts with live instruments.
Luke: "Once we'd got the drum loops, keyboards, basslines, a bit of backing vocals, it was like - start again, real bass player, real drummer." Because the same parts weren't sequenced or played live on each track, there's a refreshing variety of different feels on the album. Taking drums as an example, Luke explains:
"All the tracks were done differently - a few of them are all totally live drums. Some of them, like 'Rilly Groovy', are a big multi-sample. Basically Robin Goodridge [the drummer, now with Future Primitives] played along with the loop, and like a real human being, went in and out, and we chose the best, tightest bit of drumming and sampled it into a six-part sample. We did cymbal and tom overdubs to make it progress a bit, but all the time I had full control over the levels, 'cos I did a six-track sample.
"If you do rock music, you always end up with a similar type of sound - but if you bring rock and technology together, then suddenly there are other possibilities"
"Other songs where we tried it with live drums, like 'Feel The Heat', we couldn't get it groovy enough that way, so we took all the live drums out and programmed Robin's sounds [after sampling them] over the top of the loop to give it some ambience and space. Then we just edited it until it was close to the loops.
"Something like 'Happiness (On The Wind)' was completely programmed, whereas 'Stone Crazy' was pretty well all live. It makes a different sound, gives a contrast."
The Beautiful People's studio, Kiln 1, is located in a huge hanger of a farm building - though only part of the structure has been converted for studio use, with the control room and live room situated on the top floor. Taking pride of place in the control room is an Allen & Heath Saber desk with 32 inputs, but this wasn't the desk the band used to make If 60s Were 90s.
"On the album we used a Soundtracs PC MIDI, which was good," says Luke. "But sometimes it was hard to get a good sound out of it, especially when you're doing samples. The EQ made them seem harsh - whatever you'd do with it, there only seemed to be one sound you could get out of it. It's definitely a professional-sounding board, but it's not really in a professional-sounding price range."
The Saber desk has become a favourite among those who prefer a traditional split console, as opposed to in-line designs. What attracted Luke to it?
"I'm not particularly bothered whether a desk's in-line or split, but I happened to see this desk and liked it instantly. The EQ on this desk is very good, and even better on the Saber Plus. Although it's not an in-line, it's still very compact for a 32-channel desk - it's nice to have a bit of room. The Sigma, which we were planning to buy, was half as big again."
The Saber also features MIDI automation. How did Luke put it to use?
"All mutes were recorded into Cubase. I use programs ['snapshots' on the Saber] to clean up the front end, so I'd have one program with nothing on, then the next program with the first thing that comes in, then the next program with the whole thing. Or maybe more, if the track is more complicated. But obviously, you can record all the individual mutes as well, which I put in on the fly. I try to get it right without editing, which you can do, but it's so much easier if you can get it right first time."
And MIDI muting is used not just for cutting out noise, but for changing the arrangement of songs, as Luke reveals.
"All the programs go onto one track on Cubase, and then if I use individual mutes, it will be to change what was on tape. You might have two guitar tracks, with one where you like everything except the solo, and the other one where the only bit you like is the solo - you just swap them over using the mutes."
In a world full of ADATs, Luke is still happy with his analogue multitrack, a Tascam MSR24S with Dolby S noise-reduction: "I have used ADATs but I must admit I'm not very keen on them. The only viable alternative to the Tascam would be three ADATs, but if you're used to working with an open-reel machine that works as fast as this one, running sessions is so easy.
"Maybe when some new software comes out for the ADAT, so that they lock-up really quickly, then I might think about it then - though I'm tempted to add one to the system, just for the extra tracks. When you're mixing it's nice to have all your effects on tape, so when you come back to mix it next time, it's so quick and easy to stick it back on. Also, we don't have the luxury of four or five Lexicons - we've just got the one, so in that instance you lay your effects on tape."
And lest you think Luke is just some old analogue romantic...
"The quality of digital recording will undoubtedly be better, but it's what you put down on tape that's more important. For me, the issue isn't sound quality, but cost and convenience... Eventually, we'll stop using analogue because digital will be so much cheaper."
Although they make use of the latest technology, the Beautiful People are no strangers to conventional recording techniques, either. Bass, drums, and vocals were recorded for the album, and a fair amount of experimentation took place in the quest for the right sounds.
"We were holding up a kick drum and hitting it with beaters, cushions, all sorts"
"On If 60s Were 90s, we decided to experiment with any sounds we could make out of the kit that weren't normal sounds," says Luke. "We were holding up a kick drum and hitting it with beaters, cushions, all sorts - in the end we sampled the kick drum, and mixed the cushion and the beater, and then that was programmed."
How was the kit miked up?
"Me and the engineer, Pely, had an AKG D112 on the kick, Shure SM57s and SM58s on the toms and snare - whatever we had around really - and a pair of ElectroVoice EV308s as overheads. Now I've got AKG 414s and C451s, which sound great."
Recording the bass parts was straightforward enough: "The bass was DI'd, perhaps with a touch of compression. Gavin George's bass was a Music Man which sounds great whatever you do with it. Ideally, though, I'd experiment a bit with miking cabinets up, and maybe have a mix of miked bass and DI'd bass."
From recording audio to recording MIDI. Although now using Cubase, Luke used Notator on the album:
"I liked it then. I could never get on with Cubase v2 - it's only with version 3 that it became easier. Because Notator's very pattern-orientated, after a while I started using great long patterns, the length of the song, as opposed to having lots of small patterns, and that way it's a lot easier to copy parts across. If you're gonna change something, as you're supposed to on Notator, with lots of parts running, to change the arrangement is an absolute nightmare. But once Cubase incorporated the same parameters, where you can change velocity and delays and everything like that, it was much better than Notator. So I changed over to Cubase after the album."
Cubase seems to be more suited to the way Luke works, anyway...
"When I'm doing dance tracks, I'd get my parts sorted out and then copy the whole of that, mute them all off, then copy the thing for the whole length of the song in ghost parts - so it's one big grid. As the tracks are running. I'll open things up, say the hi-hats or whatever, and bring them in or out as I want them. It makes it easier when you're doing lots of work with DJs - it's easy for them to sit down and do their own arrangements."
Not afraid to re-invent their existing material, the Beautiful People have asked several well-known remixers to have their wicked way with selected tracks from If 60s Were 90s, and the result can be heard on the extra disc contained on the re-released album. Part of the idea, as ever, is that the remixes might get the band's music heard in markets that would be out of their normal sphere. Says Luke of PM Dawn, who remixed the album's title track:
"They're known for sampling people, and doing sort of dance-influenced stuff, which isn't a million miles away from what we've been doing. But they're a lot more commercial - they try for the big commercial market, whereas we're trying to do something a bit different. Their doing a remix might enhance the number of people who listen to our record."
Other remixers on the album include Well Hung Parliament ('Rilly Groovy'), Ben Mitchell ('If 60s Were 90s') and Youth, whose remix of 'Comin' To Get You' is featured on our re:mix CD this month.
The remixes, though, are just one side of the coin for Beautiful People, whose prime interest is the mixing of technology with rock music...
"If you do rock music, then there's only so much you can do - you always end up with a similar type of sound," says Luke. "But if you bring rock music and technology together, then suddenly there are a lot of other possibilities that you may not even have thought of, and that's what interests me. By using the dance influence, you can make things groovy."
What does the future hold for the Beautiful People? Artists like Jimi Hendrix don't exactly fall off trees, but this doesn't deter the band.
"We'd definitely like to do another sample album, but there aren't many things we could get permission for. We do have someone in mind, though."
Pressed on who this artist or band might be, Luke hedges his bets. "We'd like to sample... well, we don't really want to say yet."
"The quality of digital recording will undoubtedly be better, but the issue isn't sound quality - it's cost and convenience..."
Oh, well. We'll just have to wait and see who's next in line for the Beautiful People makeover. One thing's for sure, though. Whether it's the Stones, Marc Bolan, or the Floyd, the resulting CD will definitely be rilly groovy.
On The Re:Mix CD:
3 Comin' To Get You' (exclusive Youth mix)
This disk has been archived in full and disk images and further downloads are available at Archive.org - Re:Mix #1.
Interview by Chris Kempster
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