The Stereo MC's' Connected was for many the album of 1992; their live shows are currently one of the highlights of 1993. Phil Ward makes his own stereo connection and discovers just what it takes to get the balance right.
The Stereo MC's may have graduated from home 8-track to SSL studio for their latest album Connected, but they still take a defiantly rough and ready approach to music and equipment. Rob Birch and Nick Hallam speak out, on both channels...
"This is the studio, right here", says Rob B. But he's not showing you a desk, some monitors and a multitrack. Or even a computer. He's pointing, with that gaunt, pointy frame of his, at the Stereo MC's record collection. "I sometimes go to Reckless Records in Islington, and maybe the Record & Tape Exchange, but the music they play gets on my nerves and I have to get out of the shop. But I usually spend a couple of hours in a record shop, at least." Whatever the lawyers might say, constructing new music from snatches of old is a convenient, immediate and highly fluent method of working that won't go away as long as the equipment exists to do it.
Furthermore, to an outfit like the Stereos, steeped in hip-hop's street-level groove kind of thing, it's actually preferable to do it this way rather than getting bogged down in technology's other propensity for meticulous programming. Now heavily promoting their third album, mainstream success is theirs, but they've lost none of the sense of urgency and inventiveness about working which made them such an attractive prospect for British hip-hop back in the late '80s.
All this is in spite of the fact that the 8-track machine which recorded their last album Supernatural has since been superseded by their own 16-track, and that the recording budget now secures them plenty of time in commercial studios - SSL desks et al - to develop the material on a much broader canvas. In the basement of their South London home, singer Rob Birch and DJ/mixer Nick Hallam (a.k.a. The Head) catch their breath and look back on the making of the album which has propelled them to their newly found status of Proper Pop Stars. The interview, by the way, is actually in stereo: Nick is sitting on the left, and Rob on the right...
"Connected was all started here," begins Nick. "Every track started with a loop, a break, and we probably filled about 11 or 12 tracks on the 16-track. I'm sure we had about 20 songs with 12 or so things on each song, but then we took it into the studio and started putting the live music on it. So every track changed; the original thing was down on every track, and was developed from there; we probably got rid of some things but kept the basic stuff."
The Stereos have also graduated from sampling on a single Bel BD320 to the wonderful world of the Akai S1000 - an inevitable move and one they don't regret. At the same time, greater use of the fully fledged multitrack studio is expanding their horizons still more, as Nick explains. "We bought an Akai before we started recording this album, which certainly helped. With so much stuff on disk, some of the tracks never even got to tape. But mostly we started tracking once we got into the studio; now we always take it into the studio to develop the music. You can just EQ better, and there are more live instruments, like trumpets, and Owen's drums, which you just can't record at home. And vocals are so hard to record at home, because you just can't tell what it sounds like when you're doing them in the same room. Also, we make a lot of use of compressors, so a good range of those is another advantage.
"We started in a studio which we don't like to talk about, so we won't, and ended up in a place called The Workhouse in the Old Kent Road, which is probably the nicest studio we've ever found, in terms of how it sounds, and the general vibe there. There's an old SSL desk, and the other main ingredient was definitely the engineer, Al Stone. We'd worked with him once before, at Olympic, and we asked him to finish the album with us. It was great, he got all the sounds we wanted, and it was the only time we've had an engineer we could trust. We could leave the room for a few hours, and know that it was in safe hands."
Rob is in complete concurrence. "Like Nick says, we'd never been with an engineer before where we hadn't wanted to do some EQ'ing ourselves. With Al, I could trust him to get much better sounds than I could, whereas I'd always felt before that there was something missing in the sound. As soon as you suggest something to Al, he'll find exactly what it needs. He has a really good way of balancing the music up so that everything comes through in the right places." "Which was really important on this album," Nick adds, "because it meant that we could think about the basic songs, rather than worrying about whether the snare sound was right. We weren't preoccupied with whether the engineer was doing his job. Before, we'd always taken such an active role in the desk and so on, and it was good to sit back a bit. Although we were still totally involved in the sound and stuff; it was just a bit of breathing space."
The suggestion that 'sitting back a bit' somehow confirms them in the role of producers is met with a quizzical look from Rob. "We don't really know what all these roles are, we just kind of do the music, the whole thing, and getting Al in was just to help us get the sound right. He's got a real feel for what we're doing. We did once have a guy who put down this really nice Hammond for us, and the tape machine was up the spout - not at The Workhouse, I hasten to add - but they didn't even check to see if it had recorded properly while we were tracking, and the next day we found out that half the tracks which we thought were groovy Hammond were blank..."
"I hate sloppy engineering," adds Nick, "people erasing stuff and so on. You'll add a trumpet, or something, and go in the next day and find that the guy's recorded over it. That's so basic... It's really important, because you're relying on spontaneity, and to keep spontaneity you've really got to be on the ball. With Al, he's recording stuff even when you don't know it, because he knows that something could happen and he's on the case. He's quick as well; before you know it, he's done the backup, and everything's safe without it being a chore."
Spontaneity is at the heart of the Stereo MC's' music, which stands ultimately as a testament to the triumph of the human touch over the mechanical. In the studio, they wilfully avoid the potential distractions of technical intricacy, and show a healthy disrespect for the blandishments of hi-tech. But spontaneity, as Nick will tell you, is not a matter of cutting corners. "Ironically, you get it through hard work. You reach a point where you've done a lot of the basic work, and you go through days when you don't actually record anything - like when Rob's working out lyrics - and when you know that it's working you try and do things quickly, like doing the vocal right in the first take when it's fresh.
"We'll maybe run the tape for three days while Rob's writing, and once he's got the whole idea we'll try and get it down in one. Usually we end up having most of the music, and doing the vocal last, so that having worked on the backing track while Rob's been psyching himself up for the vocal, once the vocal's down the track is ready to mix. And we'll mix it there and then, we don't record everything and then say OK, we'll mix them all starting next Tuesday. You're honing it all the time, always working towards the final mix. That's why it's hard for us to do remixes, even with a recall on the SSL. While we're doing the album, we're totally immersed in it, and then it's over, and it's really difficult to get the same feel again."
"And," adds Rob, "each track has a different vibe while you're making it, so if you leave it to stand after all that fine-chiselling you'll lose it. You should mix it while you've still got the vibe that the track has created."
Although samples and their creative manipulation are still their stock-in-trade, the Stereo MC's talk and behave as much like a live band as any guitar/bass/drums outfit. Far from being apologists for technology, they simply take it for granted as being at the disposal of the modern musician, and are as comfortable on the stage as anywhere. Nick, for example, is quite clear on the matter. "I don't think we're very studio-oriented at all. We like it rough, and there are ways of doing it well and keeping that roughness. We don't get a computer and say, right, we're going to program this beat, so it does this at that point.
"A lot of the time, things are just running all the way through, and in a way the mix is the performance. We might use the recall for basic things, but often, after six hours of putting this bit here or that bit there, we'll just go, fuck that, totally break it down, and go with someone's vibe on how it should run. Because you can start getting really bored when you're using that machinery. More often than not, either Rob or me will get a vibe on it and we'll just break it all down and do a really rough mix all the way through, and it'll have the spirit preserved."
Suggest to Nick Hallam that this means it'll have all sorts of imperfections preserved, too, and he'll offer a reply with which I, for one, will not argue. "Imperfections are quite often the very things that make a record good," he says.
Now that's a rare attitude, these days. As is an almost complete lack of interest in conventional sequencing, even though the music of the Stereo MC's is, unquestionably, technologically constructed dance music. "We use an Alesis drum machine, just the MIDI notes from that to loop things. We hate all those things with onscreen editing," Nick admits.
Rob is even more disparaging: "A sequencer where you program a whole song from start to finish - that don't make any sense to me. Mixing is doing it with your hands there and then: pre-programming is like thinking about it rather than feeling it."
"We've often been in the studio," continues Nick, "and there's someone with the screen up and everything, and they haven't even put anything down on tape and they're running the whole song, with all the vocals. And it's so boring; before they've even mixed the song, everything's in its own little compartment. To us, putting something down onto tape actually makes it sound better, you can start relating to it more.
"It's like, if you had an idea for a painting in your head, it doesn't really mean anything until you start to put paint on canvas - that, to me, is what recording is all about: sticking something on 2" tape. It sounds good, and you get this organic thing that can grow and grow. Sequencing takes so much longer, as well; every time we've been in a studio, the engineer's tried to bring that one on us. He says, I know how to do this, we'll use C-Lab. And an hour and half later, you're still waiting, and when it is running you find yourself shouting 'there! there! that beat there!' and you see him pulling this little thing over and it's like watching someone playing Nintendo! Our method is more instantaneous - although obviously you've got to fiddle around with all the loops to get them in time and so on.
"We've still got two Bel samplers, so if the Akai's full and you're running loads of stuff, you can just whack a couple of other things up, just experimenting. Basically, we run the Akai off the Alesis, and the 808's connected up through this other box so it'll run from the SMPTE box and the Alesis, and the 808 will trigger the Bels. I guess, with a lot of the really hi-tech equipment, we just got a bad vibe on it from people in studios not being very good with it.
"To be honest, I don't see why it's necessary to use C-Lab with an S1000 - you can just mix it, there's no need to program parts for it. Often, we'll put loads of stuff down, and when the vocals are finished we might re-sample something that we've sampled before, and just loop it and put it in a different place, or something. Typically, we'll move, say, a trumpet to fit around the vocal. It changes all the time; it's horrible making a decision on the drum beat at the outset."
"I don't think we're very studio-oriented at all. We like it rough... A lot of the time, things are just running all the way through, and in a way the mix is the performance"
Rob agrees with Nick's observation that tape compression is aesthetically beneficial, and points out that committing sounds to tape also preserves an all-important element of performance. "It does change on tape; if you've got it going in your headphones straight from the sampler, no matter how much you try it all sounds so precise; then you shove it down on tape and it becomes totally fresh again. You bring it up, back from tape, and it just sounds different, and sparks you off. It's important to capture the feel of where you put the drops in and everything, and whereas sequencing is like a calculation, tape is an actual recording of an event, and you can do the drops so they just feel good."
Of course, it should be pointed out at this stage that there is one crucial element in the Stereos' sound which is as live as you like, and which exerts an ever growing influence as the band move into the realms of bigger studios and wider tape. That element is drummer Owen If, who began as a suitable onstage addendum but whose role has developed. Nick explains: "Owen gets involved as soon as we're in the studio. Obviously, we lay down the basic stuff here, but he's part of it even from that point - sometimes he brings his pads down and plays along with the samples, but generally he's just here.
"In the studio, his drums are set up all the time, all mic'd up. Or even with just a vocal mic set up in the room, we'd have him coming back through the desk on just a couple of channels, and he just plays along all the time. And we'll say, let's have a listen to what Owen's doing, and just record a bit of it, maybe sample it, or let him run through the whole track. The tracks develop bit by bit, and one of Owen's drum beats might suggest something else, like a different bassline. It evolves like that."
"In a way," Rob interjects, "it's like a band jamming, but with a different way of doing things. Running the tracks is like playing the songs over and over again, and you start to make slight changes and improvements."
"And they still evolve after we've recorded them," continues Nick. "Sometimes we'll develop something live and think, well, it might have been good to have that on the track when we recorded it. We can't do songs live before we've recorded them, because we write them in the studio while we're recording. Then, on tour, they'll change: I'll mix them differently, or Rob does some different vocals, or Owen has something else going on, or the girls do something new. But in general I think it's better not to tour songs before recording them, because when Rob does his vocals in the studio, the first time they see the light of day is on the record, and you've caught it in its basic, pure state. Sometimes things you do live, to excite an audience, don't work so well in the studio." "It's very rare that they do," concludes Rob. "Constantly thinking, I could have done that better, is really boring; it's a real muso factor, that concern with precision. It's better to keep things in their raw state."
But you still value being able to re-interpret songs live, and not do exactly the same versions every time - which is not the same thing as getting wrapped up in 'muso precision...' "Absolutely," says Nick. "Even from when we start rehearsing, we change the songs for live performance. Basically, when we're mixing, we have in mind how we're going to run the samples live, so we do special mixes onto DAT - like all the drum beats, then the basslines, and so on - so I've got every song split into eight different loops. It's taking it down to the basic elements for on stage, and we'll miss out all the little fiddly bits. I can then have maximum effect over each part, live. I've got a 16-channel Mackie, and two Akai S1000s with hard disks, so I've got 8 channels for one side and 8 channels for the other side, and I can change it all every night."
There's no doubt that Connected is a particularly melodic pop/hip-hop crossover, and that this has been largely responsible for the album's success. But Nick is swift to refute any notion that this represents any sort of calculated commercial compromise. "I think we've always thought in terms of songs, it's just that we did it more successfully on this record than before! It's hard to write a good song, but when you do it lasts a long time." "Yeah," says Rob, "I think that's the way we're progressing. It's quite rare to actually get something that works, that has something. Even my dad thought that 'Connected' had something about it..! And when your dad says that, it must have something about it.
"But actually, very little time is spent working out melodies - they're very instantaneous little ideas, and most of the melodic stuff was the original inspiration for the songs. That was the way our music was naturally going. You don't really write melodies, they just kind of flash into your mind as you're listening to the music. Same with lyrics; you can't really do it unless you're feeling the vibe." Nick sums up, and once again it's impossible to disagree. "Our records have always had song structures, never just a breakbeat with a regular rap. I think that's why we sound different."
Interview by Phil Ward
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