The Heart Of The Bass
From his formative days experimenting with Torchsong, William Orbit has made good through his remixes and a new outfit called Bass-o-matic. Tim Goodyer watches time catch up with a techno-prophet.
Turning the tables on the DJs moving into musicians' territory, Bass-o-matic are taking "traditional" musical and technical values onto the dancefloor - and into the charts.
THE NAME WILLIAM ORBIT will already be familiar to a select, but well-informed, few. As a founder member of the experimental electronic trio Torchsong, his musical activities date back to the early '80s. Since Torchsong's demise he's been in increasing demand as a remixer, covering artists as well respected and wide ranging as The Cure, Malcolm McLaren, The Human League and Prince.
More-recently, William Orbit has returned to making music of his own. Under the name Bass-o-Matic he's already released two singles, 'In the Realm of the Senses' and 'Fascinating Rhythm' on Virgin records; an album is also complete and awaiting release. He's still making great use of the electronics that formed the backbone of Torchsong and have made him a sought-after - and expensive - remixer. He's also taken an interest in DJing, neatly reversing the current trend of DJs moving into music making. Another more traditional skill Orbit is promoting within the club circuit is that of live music.
The story effectively began back in 1983 with the release of Torchsong's first single, 'Prepare to Energise' on Miles Copeland's IRS label. Along with fellow technophile Grant Gilbert and singer Laurie Mayer, Orbit was pioneering sequencing and vocal looping using early Roland equipment and tape techniques. Already a multi-instrumentalist, Orbit set about learning his way around the formative synths and sequencers of the day. It was a route that was to lead him to build a comfortable 24-track facility in North London he calls Guerilla.
It's been a long haul from the days spent with a couple of cassette decks and "a load of hi-fi bits and pieces". Seated in the Guerilla offices, he identifies the studio downstairs as Guerilla 8 and takes me on a guided tour of the studio's previous incarnations and locations: a squat in London's Harrow road hosted a Teac reel-to-reel four-track, a move to Little Venice saw the four-track make way for a Brennell one-inch Mini 8, then there was a stint in a Hampstead basement... It was the deal with IRS, secured on the strength of demo recordings alone, that realised the cash for the 24-track. The deal also enabled Torchsong to get out a handful of singles and an album entitled Wish Thirty before its members went their separate ways.
Orbit's "way" involved a solo deal with IRS and a couple of LPs. "I think my approach was wrong", confesses Orbit through the exhaustion of the previous night's Voguing Championship and a complete night spent on the town. "The first album I did for them I don't actually like listening to, then I did the Strange Cargo album which I do like, but it's a low-profile project of instrumental music."
Then the remixing began: add Nitzer Ebb, Erasure, S'Express, Oleta Adams, Propaganda, Stan Ridgeway, The Human League and Les Negresses Vertes to the list above and you get some indication of the variety and stature of the artists he's worked on. To get your hands on a Prince multitrack is not only acknowledgement of your musical standing, but a unique opportunity to gain an insight into the work of one of the most influential artists of our time. Yet whatever clues to Prince's genius Orbit may have discovered are destined to remain a secret. "It was definitely a good thing to do", he agrees, but he's not talking. Where you or I might be tempted to enjoy the reflected success of Prince, Orbit dismisses the opportunity. Instead he exudes the confidence of a man who has outgrown hero and equipment worship, and would rather discuss the learning process itself.
"I used to play everything myself", he says, "and I was seriously obsessive about it as well. That's a mistake - when you bring other people in it really juices a project up."
Orbit's obsession necessarily extended to technology: "It eats you up inside", he says, ruefully, "and it caused me a lot of unhappiness. The thing is that a lot of equipment bought by professionals is bought on impulse by people who get paid large sums of money in one go, rather than smaller amounts on a regular basis. The 'aspirant' market - the people who want to be professional musicians - usually get their money in regular weekly amounts, so they have to save for what they want. Musicians don't, they get it upfront in chunks - they get to blow it in chunks, and regret it at leisure.
"I've worked it out of my system finally after being seduced by equipment for years and years. Now I don't really need anything, and when I do I'll search it out, but it took years to get to that state."
AS ORBIT IS EAGER TO POINT OUT, Bass-o-Matic is the sum of a number of talents. Orbit himself is the motivating force, taking care of much of the songwriting, programming and playing of guitars and keyboards. He's joined by singers Sharon Musgrave and MC Inna One Step, and percussionist Fergus Gerrand. On top of this there have been various "guest" appearances, not least from Steve Hillage who played guitar on a version of the album's title track as it appears on the 'Fascinating Rhythm' 12-inch ("He brought his gear into the studio, put this giant crystal on top of it and went into a trance to play. Great!"). The album they have collectively produced showcases a variety of musical styles and influences presented in a dance format. But don't get the idea that we're dealing with a succession of indistinguishable beats and inadequate tunes; Orbit's background has ensured a satisfying course between fascinating rhythms and infectious melodies. Thrown in for good measure are links taken from film and television, and sampled references to a wide variety of musical styles.
The musical "lifts" generally constitute embellishments to tracks rather than their basis - attentive listening will reveal such details as the bongo roll from the Mission Impossible theme. In addition to "straight" samples, there are plagiarised references such as that to Harry J's 'Liquidator' which graces 'Fascinating Rhythm'. The vocal samples, meanwhile, span classic feature films and cult TV series' like Lost in Space.
"You can spot them, but I won't admit to them", says Orbit diplomatically.
Given the fact that the music doesn't depend on unoriginal material, the question raised is why use copyrighted material when it is obviously within Orbit's capabilities to create original material to suit? Why choose to sample?
"It's part of modern dance music - it's based on recognisable icons", comes the reply. "I don't need to copy things, I can do it all, but it's part of the movement.
"A lot of DJs I know only like to work with things that are recognisable, and a lot of remixers put things on that they know other people will recognise as having come off another record, in preference to doing it themselves."
A further copyright question is raised by the inclusion of the track 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Bass' - which bears more than a passing resemblance to Pink Floyd's 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun', from 1979's Ummagumma.
'That's a publishing thing", comments Orbit. "I can't just say it alludes to 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun', so I gave the publishing to Roger Waters. We contacted him and said 'this is what we want to do', he approved the song and it's all legit. It's cool."
"Musicians get their money upfront in chunks - and they get to blow it in chunks, and regret it at leisure."
And then there's the dialogue - possibly the easiest aspect of Orbit's sampling to have avoided.
"I love links", Orbit protests. "I've always wanted to stick links on an album. It keeps the album fresh - I did all those one night just before the cut and it means that there's something inspired about it.
"The samples came from all over the place. I didn't sit and watch a load of movies that night - you can't - but I had bits I've wanted to use for ages."
In addition to confirming his interest in sampling, Orbit's experience recording the Bass-o-matic album caused him to seriously reassess his working methods.
"I've changed my style to work more quickly and spontaneously", he explains. "The album was done in about a month's worth of work. One of the tracks was done the night before the cut and a lot of the tracks are the original demo mixes because they sounded so fresh - when I say demo mixes I put a lot into mixing. I never do rough mixes; I can never do anything that's a compromise, but if I'm working in a short space of time, the adrenalin flows and there are rougher edges. The mixes on the album are mostly like that.
"Sometimes in the middle of a mix I get inspired by something and I work on that instead. Because of that, when I go back later to do 12-inch mixes I discover all the things on the multitrack that I'd forgotten about - that's quite nice."
TURNING OUR ATTENTION FROM ORBIT'S music to the tools of his trade, we find a capable complement of equipment occupying Guerilla studio. Orbit is modest to the point of embarrassment about the quantity of gear, insisting instead that it's not what you've got but how you use it.
"Your readers will probably be shocked by how simple my gear is", he pleads. "For example, I don't believe in expensive reverbs - it's more important to know where to put reverb and where to take it away. Dynamics are very important - that's another thing it's taken me a long time to learn. Sounds are very important; equipment is becoming less relevant."
The two Akai S1000s - both with 8Meg memory, and one hooked up to a 45Meg hard disk - form the core of the sound production he describes as "minimal". The all-important basslines are courtesy of "just" a Juno 106.
The days of lusting over equipment (the same days that saw him building an E&MM Pitch Transposer) are long past. Technology has its place, even if it doesn't necessarily know it. But there are things Orbit is still eagerly awaiting - the demise of MIDI, for example.
"I'm looking forward to optical data transfer" he proclaims. "Serial data transfer over MIDI is just a joke. It outgrew itself years ago, and now it can't cope with the amount of data.
"At the moment I master onto an analogue half-inch Otari; I'm very happy with that and I'm happy editing with a razor blade. I know there are systems that will let you do in software, but I'm happy to keep doing it that way. But when optical technology comes along, I'll be investing in that."
Alongside the analogue tape technology, Orbit is currently running an Atari Mega2 and Steinberg Cubase software. Surprisingly, it took him a while to come to terms with the computer technology.
"I'm a late starter", he says. "We bought the computer and the C-Lab for the studio and hired programmers to operate it. Then I thought 'this is ridiculous', the reason I got into engineering was because it was quicker for me. I had a go and didn't like the C-Lab, so I gave it to my engineer. Then I bought the Mega2 and Cubase and two days later I was kicking myself for not doing it before. Now it's like second nature. It's enabled me to be more spontaneous with music.
"Before that I used to muddle along with a Roland MC4 and then an MC8 - you'd be surprised how basic my stuff was considering the fact that I was doing 'sequencer' tracks as long ago as the first Torchsong single. Since then technology's done a lot of catching up with me. I'm not claiming to have invented sequencing - I got the idea off Tangerine Dream. It's like I did vocal looping long before S'Express did, but when Mark Moore came up, he made a much better job of it. In my mind I listen to that and think that's how I wanted it to be years ago. I'm not claiming anything too seminal, but I used to 'sequence' on tape - slowing the tape down, playing until I ran out of steam, dropping in... I developed this technique using two tracks, filling in the gaps on the second track.
"Serial data transfer over MIDI is just a joke; it outgrew itself years ago, and now it can't cope with the amount of data."
"The way I work now, there are two stages to doing a track: the demo and the mix. The demo is very quick and I just throw everything down. Then in the mixing process, I change things as I go along. Making those changes as and when you're going along makes that very spontaneous too. What's relevant is what you feel then and there as you're mixing. I frequently play along with it - if there's a drum fill or a bit of strings needed I'll play along and splice it into that section."
ORBIT'S RECENT INTEREST IN DJING PUTS it in an intriguingly different light to that cast by the DJ moving into music composition. Where the DJ's dancefloor awareness tells him what the music should do and leaves him learning the dots and the gear, Orbit's musical and technical background leaves him learning audience response.
"Technically speaking, I find mixing and cutting very easy", he claims. "The hard thing is knowing what to play at the right time.
"Tamla Motown was successful because it sold to the women rather than the guys. Men listen to music because of the 'tribal' thing, whereas women listen to something because of what's in there. Tamla Motown was bought mainly by women. People running those early soul clubs realised that women came because they liked the music, and where the women went the guys followed - that's how they packed a club.
"All the women I know who regularly go to clubs are far more discerning about their music than the guys. The guys are there because the women are there. It's the women who go dancing and so if you're a DJ, you watch what they're doing because they're the ones who listen. They're also very readable on the dancefloor; you don't have to give them a questionnaire to find out how they're feeling, you can tell by looking at them and reading their body language. And that's very useful to someone like me who spends most of their life locked in a studio.
"I'm going to start getting my mixes cut onto acetate and try it out. It'll only last about a dozen plays, but then I can come back to the studio and finish the mix."
Can we take it that the DJ isn't signalling the death of the producer, as so many of the old school fear?
"There's always going to be a call for producers", assures Orbit. "No matter what twists and turns music takes, somebody's got to help artists realise their music. Whether that person is a DJ with a grasp of what's working in the clubs is a good question. I've seen brilliant DJs get into serious trouble trying to keep control of 48 tracks on a mix. I struggle sometimes, and I've got a lot of experience. If things are going badly you need to be able to fall back on something."
What of the DJs' influence on the music currently being made, and their cavalier attitude to the technology Orbit once regarded so highly?
"I like records that have been put together DJ-style. I love all the dirt. People like me who have comparatively sophisticated gear and experience find it hard to make music like that. A lot of the stuff I buy is by people who are really inexperienced - your readers with a bedroom full of stuff worth a couple of grand can turn out music that sounds right to my ear.
"What DJs are producing sounds fresh because it's youth music and it's driven by rebellion. People will look back fondly on all this dancing when it's become a bit jaded and it's lost its impetus - like they do over rock 'n' roll.
"But there's going to come a point when dance music hasn't got anything to say", he warns, "because it will have lost that rebelliousness. At the moment it's changing so fast it's really exciting."
Looking back at the formative work of Torchsong it's easy to trace Orbit's metamorphosis into Bass-o-Matic. It almost seems pre-ordained.
"My moment is coming", he says confidently. "I was ahead of my time. I got my timing grossly wrong and there's nothing smart about that; you've got to get your timing right. But I think things are coming my way now. Dance music is opening up; in a sense dance is becoming more mainstream and the mainstream is opening up to dance.
"But there'll be something new along soon. You've just got to keep your eyes open because, by its very nature, you won't know where it's coming from. If you can teach yourself to trust your own instincts as to what sounds good to you, you're laughing. But it takes a while to do that..."
When the next musical wave breaks, it's a good bet William Orbit will be getting his feet wet. Maybe his advice will see you there too.
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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