The Magic Circle
Phil and Paul Hartnoll are Orbital, and their pioneering brand of user-friendly electronic dance music is a lot more fluid than the traffic on the motorway that prompted the name. So Phil Ward avoids the M25 and heads straight for the heart of the P&P music factory
With a new album and a travelling MIDI roadshow, Orbital are at the centre of a major movement in post-rave, technologically inspired dance music. And don't you dare accuse them of miming...
Phil Hartnoll scratches his bald head.
"There was a load of wires coming out of the floor. Dunno what they were doing. So we covered them up with a box." Orbital have taken over a room in the depths of London's Strongroom Studios in order to record their second album, and this is just the sort of no-nonsense solution they provide for all the technical problems that can beset yer modern dance combo. Just as well Micky Mann is there, too: a seasoned keyboard tech with the likes of The Shamen and Meat Beat Manifesto, Micky saved the day by providing the box. What a boffin.
The Strongroom is something of a pop factory. I have myself encountered OMD, Betty Boo, someone with spiky black hair, and Beats International, within these hallowed walls. "It's nice just to meet people on the stairs," says Phil. "PM Dawn, loads of dance people..." Not all of them have toured with Orbital, but there is a growing legion of like-minded electronic acts that either have or will tread the boards with the unhirsute duo, whose long-held belief in the stage as a forum for sequence-driven styles is beginning to take root in wider and wider circles.
The new album, simply entitled Orbital, is likely to spread the word even further. Although a product of the studio, even here the music's conception and execution bears witness to the duo's highly intuitive relationship with the sort of gear that still has many people stuck on page one. To the sequencers has now been added 8-track digital recording, in the shape of the Alesis ADAT, but of course the state of this art as well as any other has been effortlessly absorbed into the Orbital way. Phil's brother Paul Hartnoll throws it a casual glance.
"The ADAT's great, but to be honest it makes little difference to me whether the music's coming back off the ADAT or straight from all this lot," he admits, pointing to a pretty solid wall of MIDI paraphernalia. "It seems really transparent. The only multitracking we do is for analogue synths, that's what I wanted it for - so that you can sit there, have the whole mix running live, and have up to seven analogue synth parts that you've taken particular care to modulate and change throughout the whole track. Whereas you just can't do that if you're trying to do a live mix at the same time, flicking delays on, and panning and so on."
Phil reveals the true extent to which the ADAT has been absorbed into the flow. "We've got these three tracks, for which we recorded a stereo mix onto a couple of channels, then the other mix onto two more channels, then the third one on two different channels again, and we've been trying to mix them all in sequence. And the space on the other channels is for all the other little bits that link them." He outlines a diagram with his hands that in a certain light could be mistaken for the British Rail logo, but I think I know what he means. Paul clarifies further. "...So you can run the whole LP one track into the next, like a DJ, but you can select what to mix much more flexibly."
Right. So the ADAT is as much an editing tool as a recorder. But tell me more about layering analogue synth lines... "The first thing we did," Paul begins, "was to lay down four Roland basslines. I like to collect Roland basslines! I've always wanted to try at least four running live, and by overdubbing on the ADAT you can finally hear what they sound like. It's particularly interesting if they're all doing the same sequence, and you try and copy the modulation that each one's doing. You always get it wrong, so you get this really weird interaction. And if you pan them hard left and right, and then just pan the other two slightly, it really warps around. Strange... One thing we've noticed is that it doesn't flange: when you layer two things on the ADAT next to each other, and pan them, like, in mono as opposed to a stereo pair, it doesn't phase. It's like having a 4-oscillator Roland bassline."
Assistant Micky Mann's collection of gear augments the Orbital spec nicely, and sits patiently on the opposite side of the studio. Micky has an S1000, and a pretty handy source of added inspiration it is, too, but the brothers' favoured sampling tool remains the Emax II. Paul extolls: "I like it because it's just like an analogue synth. Once you've got your sample in there, the treatments you can apply are great. It could do with a bigger display, but it's fine. We've got it up to 8Mb now, and there's a 40Mb hard disk as well." Speaking of displays, Paul and Phil have definite views on current synth design. Like, for example, why analogue synths are so popular... "It's because they're so accessible," declares Paul. "All the controls are there in front of you and you can muck around with things as you go along. That's the reason we got the ADAT - you can muck around on the Jupiter, put it down, and if it's a good 'pass' it's there on the ADAT. It just gives you..."
Somebody presses pause. Phil punches in his own word: "Twiddlability."
"...Yeah," continues Paul. "I mean, Roland have responded to some extent with the JD800, but I think they'll bring out a better one. The JD800 was kind of a test run, I think. I really think they're going to bring out a synth which is 16-part multitimbral instead of just five, as well. The Wavestation is good, but it's terrible that they didn't put resonance control on it. I think that's outrageous, really, on a modern synthesiser. It's the one thing that stops the Wavestation from being an absolute monster.
"I don't like menus, generally. You can be really on a roll, in the middle of writing something, and you think, yeah - let's get that sound out of the Wavestation, and then it's: sigh, stop what you're doing, fiddle about... whereas if it's the Jupiter, you leave it running, the sequence is going, and you just twist it around, mould the sound, and you can just save that, then try another one out. It's quicker.
"It's quite obvious what's happening. I just went out and bought this Oberheim Xpander: it's a 6-part multitimbral analogue synth. It is compromised, but at least it's got the capacity to instantly press up six controls on six knobs - that's good enough."
And what's good enough for Orbital is good enough for me. Phil's description of their working method is a bit worrying, though... "It's all over the place..." Paul offers a few more cohesive clues. "It might derive from a drum beat, a weird efforts unit, anything at all. If you find a weird effect, put anything through it. It could come from anywhere. Take the drums - it just depends. All our drum machines, apart from the R8, run off the computer, so sometimes we have loops of 32 beats, another loop of one beat, things like that. But I do like using the R8 off its own internal memory, and just using the computer to arrange program changes for it, because I really like the edit features on it. You can get a limited amount of control through the computer over, say, the pitchwheel, but I much prefer to adjust the pitch on the R8 itself. Like, putting in a constant hi-hat, doing the pitch on it, and recording that over a bar. You get all sorts of strange things happening. And you can't transfer that into the computer. So the R8 always runs by itself."
People tend to stick to the sequencer they know. Not many people could offer a detailed compare-and-contrast between C-Lab and Cubase, for example. Paul Hartnoll can. "I think I might change from C-Lab to Cubase, now. The thing I didn't like was having to go up into a menu to transpose - you know, transpose... how many?... Ok... and if you didn't like it, go back up, do it all again - whereas C-Lab always had that little block on the side. But the new version of Cubase has that little block on the other side, so there's nothing to stop us, really." Phil agrees. "Cubase is much better for arranging: you can get an overall picture so much easier. They tried, with C-Lab, with that block arrangement, but I do like to be able to see an overview."
But one new toy for the album project - the 24-channel mixing desk - is not quite so satisfying. "The new desk is leaking!" complains Paul. "It's good in most respects, but these master faders pick up the effects returns whether you like it or not. So if you've got just one bass drum going, with a ping-pong delay on it, you can always hear ping-pong delay. It's very slight, and we're going to finish the album with it, but when we've finished I think we'll swap this desk. I think that's a bit of a design fault, really. When we go back on the road, we'll take our old 16-channel Studiomaster - get it serviced and keep it purely for live. It's getting a bit crackly, and all the nuts and bolts are a bit rusty from sweaty nightclubs."
If Paul sounds a bit like a sentimental old muso expressing concern for his trusted instrument here, it's because the Studiomaster desk is a trusted instrument as far as Orbital are concerned. Live reviews of the duo have always noted how Paul and Phil convey the image of a two-headed, four-armed beast emanating from a bank of electronics, an image stemming naturally from the fact that the mixer is the focal point of their onstage activities. Maintaining maximum interactive control over the live sequences demands that the pair cut and boost the night away, creating a strong visual impact as they literally 'play' approximately eight channels each shoulder to shoulder.
But software sequencers of any denomination are left out of the touring requisites, and according to Paul this is as much an artistic as a practical step. "I don't think we'll ever get to use a computer on stage, actually. It's always more rough and ready, live. We use two MMT8s. We don't have song arrangements, we just have the MMT8s in Pattern Play, so we can punch different patterns in and out as we go along."
Which is what Orbital are famous for, of course. "It's great," continues Paul, "because you can have tracks that you haven't finished, and go out and try things. I mean, you can have all the parts, but no arrangement, and sometimes you can get a bit stuck in the studio. So you take it out live, start the track, and think, right - where do we go now? You watch the audience, try and relax into it, and just punch it in. What we tend to do is have me there with the two MMT8s, and Phil on the mixer, so we've both got control of punching the tracks in and out. It can sometimes be a bit of a sparring match, but it sends you in a new direction and it's always interesting. We've both got the power to change it at the press of a button."
"Also," adds Phil, "if a track's going down well, you can carry it on for as long as you want. And if we're doing an old tune, it's always different to what you've got at home if you've got the record. It would be an incredible coincidence if we arranged it the same way as on the record, because there are so many variables. It'll never happen like that. It's a different approach: it's live, therefore it should be more spontaneous, I feel."
Paul continues. "A band that uses guitars, bass, drums and vocals sticks to a very rigid format, in fact, although some bands will wig out at the end and have a jam. But it comes out differently because they're all still manually playing. They have to be more structured, really, because they're all playing together, whereas what we do is more spontaneous: I can punch something in or out, and it doesn't muck up what Phil's doing. It might surprise him, but it won't muck it up. We're less inter-dependent. Sound-wise, everything's still flowing properly, and you're free to try different things.
"We don't stop when we play live, either: you can use the two MMT8s to change from one track into the next and leave a bit of the other track in, so it's continuous. It's all on one 8Mb stretch. When we're getting that ready for a gig, we sometimes add extra sequences in. Then we might come across something in the sound check that sort of 'writes itself'; but in general the basic parts remain identifiable.
"At the end of a certain track, we used to go into this particular Roland bassline, and we started adding bits of other tracks into it until it was a full-blown track in itself. Finally I had a definite idea of a sample to finish it off. All of this happened either setting gear up or taking it down, on the road."
Paul expresses the somewhat ambivalent Orbital attitude towards the use of DAT on stage. "It's a bit disappointing if it's purely electronic music and there's no interaction at all, not even playing or singing over a backing track. Audiences are wise to it, I think, and they do feel disappointed if they can shut their eyes and hear exactly what they would hear playing the records at home. It's important to us that the live situation is a performance, an event."
But the last word goes to Micky, who's had plenty of experience of good old-fashioned Luddites. "People are always asking, before and after the show, 'do Orbital mime?'. We had a bouncer at one gig who got really angry about all the keyboards that weren't being touched, even though they were all being triggered from the sequencers. And there was one punter who spotted a DAT machine - which was recording the gig - and triumphantly pulled out the mains lead. You should have seen the look on his face when the music just carried on playing..."
Interview by Phil Ward
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