SNAP! to tomorrow
Luca of Snap chats about all things multimedia
Historians of the 21st Century will probably dub them the Godfathers of Multimedia, but for today's record-buyer, Snap! are one of the hottest dance duos around, with a nice line in computer animation. Roger Brown journeys deep into the heart of Soho to corner mystery man Luca, and ask him just what disembodied TV monitors and interplanetary tampons have to do with Techno music...
It seems to be a growing trend, this 'Multimedia' thing. No sooner is your favourite ambient/techno group in the charts and onto a nice little earner, than they start investing in some high-powered computers and video editing software. Six months later, surprise surprise, a Multimedia star is born! And where previously the visual effects to accompany their music were dictated by your diet of hallucinogens, or the space cadet on the lighting desk, now the music is playing second fiddle to hours of tripped-out graphics, which are being sold to you by computer dealers rather than record shops.
If they aren't setting up their own graphics studio, like FSOL, The Grid and Coldcut/Hex, then they're busy exhorting us to buy their interactive CD (Todd Rundgren/Peter Gabriel/Prince) or chasing soundtrack work. With artists as diverse as jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan and ambient slacker the Aphex Twin having expressed interest in the latter route, it's pretty clear the action is hotting up in the mixing of sound and vision.
Snap! have developed this theme for two albums now, with little subsections entitled 'Snap! at the Movies', and two tracks on the new album have already been used in episodes of 'Beverly Hills 90210' and 'Never Ending Story III'. All of this set my critical and inquisitive antennae twitching. Here were a band who had garnered enormous success with 'The Power' back in the hazy summer of 1989, exploited that to the max with the endless remix fever that was 'Cult of Snap' and then gone on to storm the pop charts with 'Rhythm is a Dancer' and 'Exterminate'. Nowhere they were with some kind of a multi-pronged pincer movement, incorporating the new single 'Welcome to Tomorrow', a 3D video at the cutting edge of digital technology, and an album trumpeting the duo's soundtrack work. Where were they coming from? I met Luca, the dark half of the production duo, in a suitably trendy Soho coffee bar and asked him what was up.
"We sold Logic at the beginning of the year to BMG. We had it for five or six years and at the time we sold it, it was the sixth biggest label in the world. When we started out in around 1988, no-one was thinking of having a dance label, and there were no major companies out there able to handle our products. So we had to do it ourselves, and built our own platform for our music. Now we have another company, but it's more into film, 3D information and multimedia. This new company doesn't actually have a name. It's our own private company. We don't have to do anything except pay the rent, so it's more of a fun type thing (Our accountant might be interested! - Ed). We're also looking at computer games.
"We've always lived on the cutting edge of technology and it's something that we'd like to take further. Music will not be the main thing, only part of it. With Logic, it all became a bit stale. We found ourselves employing 20 to 30 people, we had offices in London, New York and Germany and the work got too administrative. The creative process started slowing down, and we started saying 'We've got to get out of this'. We now do everything, from our covers to our videos - the whole look of it.
"We're looking at doing a TV series. We're just keeping our fingers on the pulse. We're also looking at CD-ROM, but I think all the CD-ROMs that are out now are junk. The interactive future lies in cable and satellite TV."
The CD-ROM market has always seemed a bit confusing. Do you have a PC or a Mac, do you prefer to ran your stuff on Phillips CD-i or do you just chill out to cable TV? What format did Luca think was going to emerge as pre-eminent?
"Basically we believe in exploiting all sorts of formats. If I do a record, I want to do it on cassette, on vinyl, CD, Mini-disc, DCC - all the formats that are out. But CD-ROM is still too limiting. The hardware has got to go under at least 100ms. When this barrier is broken and there are newer algorithms invented for compressing and decompressing audio and video at a much faster rate, then I think we'll be able to develop something interesting. I don't think interactivity is something I can choose just for different camera angles. That's not much interactivity. I want to pick wherever I want to be. I don't want to have just A, B, C, and D. It's very limited.
"I just want to type in the BPM change and let the computer do it. I don't want to have to get the calculator out"
"We're also working very closely with Silicon Graphics. In the new company we have nine of their workstations. We have an Onyx and an Indigo with the new 5000 processor, and two smaller indies just for modelling and getting details through with extreme graphics. We're looking at technology in, for example, importing a MIDI file into Silicon Graphics, and I could perhaps have congas playing. This conga pattern would generate movement in the graphics. Basically it's a direct connection between sound and vision. Things like pitch bend can change the colours.
"There's a guy in Frankfurt with a device for this, and he spoke to us about it. He said 'come in, join the team'. He also devised a big room that you could enter and trigger things off just by movement. I only just met him recently. I'm telling you brand new stuff here! We always look for new technology to make our job easier, but we don't rely totally on technology and get lost in it. Brain-to-MIDI!"
The Snap! sound is very clean, with everything placed in the digital domain as soon as possible and manipulated from there. Did Luca and Michael see the sampler as their first musical instrument?
"Yes we do. It is our main tool because we believe in keeping everything in one format. So when the vocal comes in, for example, we have a 16 track Pro Tools, so we can synchronise everything. The Pro Tools is our tape machine, and we record the vocals with it. We usually create a loop on the sequencer that just runs over and over again, and then the vocalist can work the lyrics out and the singing. From there, we put the sections into the sampler. There's a track on the album where we used a guitarist as well. We just sample everything as much as we can. We also sample drums and synthesizer patterns from the sequencer, and chop them up and piece them together using (Steinberg) Recycle. Maybe it's nothing new, but it was exciting for us. It's a very creative process, and it may sound slow but it's not. Especially when you've got two people working on it.
"We were the first ones to integrate a sequencer in the studio as the main working area eight years ago. I started with the sequencer on the Commodore 64. There was a Steinberg program and a C-Lab out ten years ago, then we moved on to the Atari that had 24 tracks, but it was a pain in the neck so we turned to Cubase which we have been using ever since. We work very closely with Steinberg. My input to Steinberg has been things like 'Time Bandit' where you can actually timestretch with BPM. You shouldn't have to type in the percentage to make a timestretch of 4 BPM. I just want to type in the BPM change and let the computer do it. I don't want to have to get the calculator out! I've advised on some of the new functions in Cubase, and offered a couple of tips on the Interactive Phrase Synthesizer. It works really well. I've used the Mac from the very beginning. We made the switch when Steinberg came out with 1.0 for the Mac."
"We work very closely with Steinberg - my input has been with things like Time Bandit, where you can actually timestretch with BPM."
I was beginning to form a picture here. Technology was transparent to these guys, and not a subject in itself. But I was still puzzled by Snap's reliance on songs, as opposed to the instrumental bias of most techno. Was this an attempt to move away from dance or an attempt to bring dance to a wider audience?
"It's difficult to say. We've got slower ones, we've got faster ones. On the whole, this album has come out more musical than some other albums we've done, because of the absence of the rap. Also we write songs! But they're still dance beats, and Michael still owns The Omen in Frankfurt, home to Sven Väth. So we don't see any gap between what we do and what he is doing, it's all about using technology to the limit and not being in awe of it. As Klaus Schulze said, 'A violin doesn't grow on a tree either.'"
The thought of a television show featuring the combined talents of Snap! and the other doyens of the Frankfurt techno scene was beginning to sound intriguing. What style of music did Luca envisage for this as yet unnamed TV series?
"Once again. It's difficult to say because when we sit down to write, it's not like we say what we are going to write. We've never taken our orientation from what's happening outside. Otherwise we wouldn't have been able to come up with tracks like 'Power' and 'Rhythm Is A Dancer'. There wasn't anything like either of those out at the time."
So how do Benito Benitez and John 'Virgo' Garret III, Michael and Luca's writing alter egos, set about composing a Snap! track?
"As Klaus Schulze said, 'A violin doesn't grow on a tree'"
"There's no set formula as to who does what. We all do everything - from the programming to the engineering. It's the first time that we've had the chance to work with two working places in the studio. We have two Macs - one is more for the digital domain, and that's running Time Bandit, Pro Tools etc. The other one is just strictly a sequencer. They are actually linked to each other, so we can both write and program at the same time. Whereas before, one of us would have to twiddle his thumbs, or play a Gameboy, now we can both work at the same time.
"The album took only a month from scratch. It doesn't take more than a couple of days a track. I think that you shouldn't really work too long on tracks. We've been doing Snap! for 10 years. Obviously we had our share of hard labour - working two months on one track. We believe in spontaneity, and if the track gives you some sort of feeling within a day or six hours then it's got something, and if it still sounds good the next day - that's great. But if you sit there jogging on the same spot for hours and hours, you might as well give up and start again - it's much easier.
"The video took a lot of hard work - three months working day and night, so we've given everyone a break for October. We had a motion control camera with film of Summer just on a seat in a blue box, and we figured there must be a way of getting the data of the motion control camera into our Silicon Graphics computer to do the same type of camera moves, so that the world would be in sync with her. So we had to write a new piece of software for that.
"On Jurassic Park, Spielberg did it the other way round. He had a real filmed background, and placed the dinosaurs on top. We basically placed a real person in a 3D environment that would move with shadows, with everything. It's done the other way round. We had to write some software especially for that, a Canadian at Silicon Graphics actually wrote this program for us. It enables us to convert the motion control data into the soft image. We actually import the live video into the computer, and then generate the backgrounds. It looks really easy when you see the finished product but it's like, I used to be a skateboarder, and the tricks that looked easiest are always the hardest ones to do.
"Everyone said at the time it was impossible to do this, it can't be done. It's good for us, because we can find future applications for building film sets, and this is basically something that we are looking at for our TV series. It's a bit too early to talk about the series yet, but it will definitely have something to do with music. We're just starting at the end of this year, and next year we'll probably be in production for that. We'll have to do the music for the whole concept, so it'll be a while before I can say any more about that. Music on TV has traditionally been pretty boring, so we're looking at the whole concept afresh."
Interview by Roger Brown
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