On Tour With Nitzer Ebb | Nitzer Ebb
Nitzer Ebb are using the tools of technology to recreate their abrasive, challenging sound in a live context. Nigel Humberstone talks to the man who helps to put the show on the road.
Renowned more for a lack of commercial chart success than for their actual contribution to and influence on alternative dance music, Nitzer Ebb have been seen as enigmatic, obscure dark horses of the independent music scene. Despite being overshadowed by Mute label mates Depeche Mode, the Chelmsford duo of Bon Harris and Douglas McCarthy have continued to pursue their own brand of music; a blend of diverse musical styles originally categorised as Euro-Hardcore — before it was considered trendy — and Electro-Body music.
Their last LP, Showtime, marked a distinct watershed for the band, who have progressively built up their songwriting skills, and their fourth and current LP, Ebbhead, sees them at their most mature. As self confessed non-musicians they have sought to use music as an immediate medium of expression, an approach close to the original punk ethic which inspired so many. Formed in 1983, Nitzer Ebb decided that their most immediate access to music was through technology, and consequently theirs is the music of the sequencer and computer age.
In preparation for their 'Ebbhead' tour, which began in the UK last November and has continued through Europe and more recently the USA, the band spent six weeks in a rehearsal studio, perfecting their stage presence and fine-tuning all the technical aspects of their show. I spoke to Steve Toth, the band's long-standing soundman and manager, about what was involved.
"We've done more preparation for this tour than ever before," he explains. "Whilst writing the album I get the guys to think about what they're going to do live — so as they're doing the recording, they're putting down the samples and sequencing arrangements. Then they go into pre-production, which is basically sitting around at Bon's house and just going through program after program, sample after sample, and all the sequences, making sure they're all OK. From there we move onto the rehearsal studio and bring in the vocalist.
"It has become necessary to spend so long because the band have become more musical, and consequently the LPs have got more and more complicated, the arrangements are more complex and there are more samples. So an Akai S1000, with eight outputs, is no longer enough for what we want. We now use three S1000s; two for playback via MIDI and one with an audio trigger."
Although two Akai S1000s are used to play back sequenced backing, only one is used during each song. Whilst one is being driven by the sequencer (a Roland MC500 MkII), the other is loading sounds for the next song from a DAC drive. The development of this core combination of gear involved a great deal of trial and error, along with the frustration of trying to find a manufacturer who was sympathetic towards their aims. Toth catalogues the long tale leading to their current setup.
"Whilst on tour with Depeche Mode in 1990, we used the Atari Stacy, driving an Akai S1000 with PLI hard discs for storage. The Stacy was very reliable, but halfway through the US dates we got a lot of glitches, and there seemed to be a problem in the Steinberg software we were using. It had a tendency to stop midset — which is very embarrassing in front of 20,000 people! So, we thought the next best thing was to get an MC500, because all we need is a storage device. I got two from Erasure [for whom Toth was originally live engineer] and did MIDI song dumps down from the Stacy, using the second MC500 as a back-up."
"We then came up with the system of using the DAC R4000 optical storage unit, which uses 128MB 3.5" discs. We can get the whole set on one disc, and the two 40MB PLIs are used as a back-up. The system allows us, if we want, to change the set list by altering the program change numbers in the MC500. We use the Super MRP software, which allows the chaining of songs with programmed gaps. As well as that, I wanted to have one S1000 running live and receiving MIDI, and the other switched out of the MIDI chain so that there was no chance of error. We 'flip-flop' between the two S1000s and have combined the 16 outputs into eight. As the MC500 starts a song, it sends a program change message to the MIDI patchbay [an Akai ME30P] which, once it's got its load information, switches out the S1000 not being used. So it sits there, loaded, and when the next song comes along it receives a patch change and becomes 'live'.
"No one else that we know of is using this 'flip-flop' system. With the DAC, you can load up to five S1000's simultaneously. We find it absolutely stunning — a very neat little system that works well."
"It's very easy for people to just stand there and say 'it's all on tape, it's all sequenced' but it's not, it's 'live' sequencing with live percussion and vocals."
The two Akai S1000s (with version 2.1 software) both have 16MB memory and are fitted with SCSI interfaces to enable communication with the DAC R4000. Racked alongside these are a Yamaha TX81Z, SPX90, and a free-standing Oberheim Xpander. It is because these pieces of 'essential' equipment are deeply rooted in the band's early development that they feature as dedicated outboard gear.
"Generally we sample sounds straight off the multitrack in the studio, taking advantage of the EQ on an SSL desk and things like that, but with some of the earlier sounds I wanted to go one stage back and use the original piece of equipment. I found that the Oberheim Xpander is a fundamental piece of gear with the Nitzer Ebb sound. Used mainly for bass, fuzz and distorted bass sounds, it is such a unique instrument, and versatile in the way that the oscillators work together. It's the same with the TX81Z, so we brought that along; it also frees up space in sample memory running them live. The SPX90 is controlled via MIDI to treat some of the sounds and provide certain delays which are needed by the band on stage."
Both the band and Toth have put a great deal of time and effort into making the whole 'live' system work, but at times the lack of technical back-up and advice from some manufacturers has been frustrating, a state of affairs about which Toth is particularly scathing.
The increasing complexity of Nitzer Ebb's most recent material, especially that from the latest LP, Ebbhead, means that the S1000's memory is often being pushed to saturation point. One new departure for the band is the use of guitar, played by both Bon Harris and Depeche Mode's Alan Wilder. The latter, along with the indispensable Flood, performed an integral role in the production of Ebbhead. The guitar parts were put through either a rack-mounted Zoom 9030 or an Eventide H3000 Harmonizer, sampled, and then built up bit-by-bit within the S1000.
'I Give To You', a personal favourite, exhibits a very effective minimalist orchestration and string arrangement by Andrew Poppy. For live purposes, and also in order to avoid the costly performance royalties payable to the 12-piece string section if the actual recording was re-used, the song was 're-created' using sampled strings. Consequently, with all the new material requiring more memory, all the sounds needed to be carefully looked at and categorised.
"A method that we've adopted is to dedicate particular outputs on the S1000 to specific frequency ranges," explains Toth. "So Bon and I roughly assign sounds to their relevant frequency ranges, which then means that you may have three or four different sounds coming out of the same output — but then it's my job to balance them. Once we've assigned outputs on the S1000 we then set the levels internally, so that I'm happy with what I'd expect the band to hear on stage. We run a flat balance onstage, so that the monitor engineer doesn't need to be racing around all the time; although he's a mix engineer as well.
"The new songs are a lot more complicated in their output assignments. For example, the track 'DJVD' has three different bass sounds out of one output, in different sections of the song, and requires different EQs. There are two guitar parts, four different percussion loops, and three different effect sounds, whereas an old song like 'Chant' has only a kick, hi-hat, claps and that's it — the bass is off the OBX, the snare is played live along with the metal percussion."
"The increasing complexity of Nitzer Ebb's most recent material, especially that from the latest LP, Ebbhead, means that the S1000's memory is often being pushed to saturation point."
Throughout Nitzer Ebb's career, the band have retained the image of hardcore percussionists, having developed the habit of abusing corrugated sheeting and gas bottles at around the same time as the Test Dept, SPK, and Einesturtzende Neubaten. This has remained a physical and crucial element of Nitzer Ebb's visual imagery and identity — a trademark. For practical reasons, the sounds are now sampled, and played via audio triggering. Simmons pads and triggers were the band's original choice, but more recently they have moved over to Ddrums.
"We've moved away from Simmons because of timing discrepancies and the fact that they were not very robust," says Toth. "The band found the response from the pads was not very good, especially after they'd been used to playing sheets of metal! So I approached Ddrum in Sweden [where Nitzer Ebb have an especially enthusiastic following] and we did a deal with them."
Nitzer Ebb's stage percussion, despite the changeover to Ddrums, has remained fairly consistent since their 1990 tour outing. It includes two setups, one for Bon Harris (two Rototom-style pads and Ddrum Tubes) and a larger one for percussion cohort Julian Beeston. Beeston's setup is split into two 'kits' and incorporates kick drum, snare (and rim), high and low tom pads, and a couple of Ddrum 'Tubes', which, as the name implies, are metal tubes which act as audio triggers when struck. A total of 14 triggers are fed via XLR outputs into two Akai ME35Ts (Trigger-to-MIDI units) which then assign MIDI notes to specific samples in a third Akai S1000. The assortment of drum samples includes snares, toms, wooden blocks, finger clicks and metal percussion.
Toth's experience as a live sound engineer dates back to the early '80s when he worked with the BBC (Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4) on live transmissions and broadcasts. Called in to undertake Nitzer Ebb's live sound following his work with Erasure, Toth has now worked with the band for the last six years. From there he has extended his duties to act as tour manager, band manager, and on some occasions as lighting operator — at the same time as controlling the sound." Despite having the three job titles my profession, as it were, is sound, and consequently I don't now do sound for anyone else." Noting Toth's close connection with the band, I wondered if he ever ventured into the studio with Bon and Doug? "Not in the capacity of engineer, but I do occasionally go in with them. I take the view that live and studio engineers are different breeds and very seldom do you find a person who can do both jobs.
"Through working with the band I have compiled a 'bible' book of descriptions and notes for all the sounds used, so I know what they are and where they've come from. A lot of them are just different noises, but I give them my own names so that we can refer to them easily. Running along the desks channels we have the eight outputs from the combined S1000's — bass drum, hi-hat, snare, then the frequency-divided sounds; low/mid and high, followed by two outputs to which I allocate miscellaneous sounds. Next are the triggered Akai outputs, Oberheim (L&R), and TX81Z (L&R) which carry mainly bass sounds. Finally there is Bon's backing vox, Doug's vox and overhead microphones for cymbals, depending on the size of the venue.
"Doug has a surprisingly powerful voice — he's actually blown out two SM58s. His vocal range, in terms of volume, is quite radical and very noticeable between each LP. Even though his voice has progressed, for particular tracks he reverts to how he originally performed it, which means that I'm having to constantly adjust and re-EQ his voice.
"As a precaution, all the backing tracks are backed-up onto DAT which, in the event of the samplers going down, I will play from the desk. We've only had to use it once, at Reading '91 and, very importantly, we use a Y-split to the monitor desk, not an Aux send, so that the band hear a straight mix without any of my front-of-house changes."
Since Nitzer Ebb are already pushing technology and their equipment to extreme limits, how does Toth foresee the band's future progression?
"I really don't know what's going to happen with the next LP — as it is now, we're up to capacity. I suppose we could go away and put it all to tape, but we don't believe there's a challenge in doing that. I also like to mix live — I don't like to use just two faders!
"Technically, this sort of system could at any point give the band a problem — but they feel that even so they are being fair to their audience, that they have at least tried their hardest. We've spent around £15,000 on new equipment for this tour and have struggled through to get it all working the way we want it to. Both Bon and Doug feel that they are offering a show that they have put a lot of hard work and effort into. Now it's very easy for people to just stand there and say 'it's all on tape, it's all sequenced' — I had that problem with Erasure — but it's not, it's 'live' sequencing with live percussion and vocals. With this type of approach, the variety of sounds can be so different. If you've got just a drum kit, then it's the same kit all the way through — but with Nitzer Ebb there can be up to 20 different kick drums coming up on one channel. The band always use a different kick and snare sound for each of their songs, therefore there's a lot more balancing and artistic thought to be done when mixing it live. But I'm sure that if you had U2's live engineer here he'd disagree with me!"
Interview by Nigel Humberstone
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