Gentlemen Without Weapons
Could you make music using only samples from natural sources? Paul Tingen talks to a band who've done just that in an attempt to draw attention to our environment.
Want to sing about today's environmental problems? Why not use sounds sampled from nature instead of conventional instruments? Gentlemen Without Weapons did just that.
EVERY MINUTE AN area of tropical rain forest larger than 20 soccer fields is destroyed by logging, burning, agricultural clearance or industrial development. Don't worry, you are reading Music Technology and what you've just read does have something to do with the issues normally featured in this magazine. It is, in fact, part of the inspiration for a remarkable journey into the land of sampling, sequencing and digital recording. Looking for a rhythm section consisting of a tiger, a peeing rhinoceros, rattlesnakes and a cricket bat? Wondering whether an indrill, a hornbill and a humpback whale could function as a brass section? Thinking of topping all that with some very left-field lyrics about "unconditional love" and "the distorted medium of a fragmented subjective intelligence"? Gentlemen Without Weapons have done it all for you and, to be fair, they've created an excellent album without using the sound of any conventional musical instruments.
The album is called Transmissions. It was released earlier this year by A&M Records and features the collective work of three music industry veterans: songwriter Kenny Young (who wrote 'Ai No Corrida' and 'Under the Boardwalk'), session keyboard player Nick Glennie-Smith (who's played on albums from Tina Turner, Phil Collins and Paul McCartney) and producer/engineer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven (who produced almost all the musical output of The Jam).
On a rainy September morning in London (whose exotic flora and fauna includes exhaust fumes and traffic jams) Glennie-Smith and Coppersmith-Heaven are ready to answer my question about their project. Sitting in a rooftop record company office these two men could he described as an antidote to your average pop star. They're not young or trendy and they're far from sexy. Instead they have integrity, idealism and as their album demonstrates, a good deal of musical and technical talent.
Coppersmith-Heaven begins the story at the beginning: "Kenny had the idea, about two-and-a-half years ago, of producing an album without using any instruments. At that time we weren't sure of what that would mean, but it happened at a time when Nick and I were also looking for something different to do, so we decided to team together and experiment. Kenny had one song written and we started knocking other songs together using samples I'd collected on field trips in Indonesia."
"The other idea we had was to have a record with lyrics that weren't normal pop lyrics, but instead would cover issues that we felt needed attention."
Exactly what those issues were at the time is unclear, but working with natural sounds guided the musicians in the direction of environmental awareness.
Coppersmith-Heaven: "The more we were using 'planet' sounds, the more we started reading environmental information. Looking for sounds, we also got in touch with a whole new bunch of people like wildlife film-makers and natural sound recordists. All these things influenced the album."
(A species becomes extinct every nine hours)
The lyrics on Transmissions cover mainly environmental issues, although there is a heavy presence of new age spiritual ideas explaining the roles of the chakras (Buddha's monkey), the relativity of time and making reference to extraterrestrials. Not your average pop lyric, more something Shirley Maclaine might feel happy listening to. Though I sympathise thoroughly with the contents of the lyrics as well as with the environmental concerns of the band, some of the lines are pretentious to the point of being embarrassing. Are Gentlemen Without Weapons in danger of forcing their philosophies down people's throats?
"A lot of pop lyrics are very trite and boring", replies Glennie-Smith with a shrug. "With our lyrics perhaps there are people who know about these things and find it boring to have them described to them that directly. Probably there are many more people who haven't got an idea of what we're on about and who find it very interesting. But, in the end, the only message we're trying to get across is that if we don't do something about our planet in this generation, it will be too late. And there's a whole movement out there trying to create that awareness."
So the Gentlemen believe pop music can still have an impact on people's consciousness? Coppersmith-Heaven nods. "Very much so. I mean, the Mandela concert was an example of that. But we don't want to be regarded as preaching anything. Our first concern is that people like the music and if they become more aware because of listening to it, then that's great. But the starting point is some interesting songs which are arranged and produced in a new and unusual way."
Which brings us neatly back into the land of technology. In a song called 'Islands of the Future' the Gentlemen quote an angelic entity who says "Do not shun technology that is available. Though it has been abused in the past, in loving hands it is capable of transforming the consciousness of your planet, more efficiently than would otherwise be possible." This might well be the premise of the album; the technology is certainly there and you could consider it to have been used in a loving way.
To start with, the whole recording process was digital - from start to finish. Glennie-Smith scribbled the following signal path in my notebook: planet (not digital, admittedly) - Sony PCMF1 - Fairlight Series III - Mitsubishi X850 Digital Multitrack - RDAT mixes - Audiofile assembly - Sony 1610 master - CD, vinyl and cassette. Result: the sound quality of Transmissions is extremely impressive. It all sounds incredibly clean but at the same time warm and alive. For the Gentlemen the accuracy of digital recording was never an issue. Coppersmith-Heaven considers it hardly worth discussing.
"The digital multitrack sounds a lot cleaner, but I wouldn't say it is cold. The only thing to be aware of is that everything comes back the way you put it onto it. So without the natural cementing that analogue does, we had to be careful that we had the right sound there from the start."
(Acid rain has now affected over seven million hectares of forest in over 20 countries.)
Finding the right sounds and making them work in a song structure was the main challenge presented by music made only with natural sounds. Over 2000 hours were spent in various studios - Lazy Moon, Olympic and Townhouse - and months were spent on field trips to Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Cotswolds Wildlife Park. But before any of this could take place, one-and-a-half years had been spent demoing songs on an Emulator II.
"We got together whenever we were all free to make 24-track demos up at Kenny's place", recalls Glennie-Smith. "Kenny had written four straight songs, 'Unconditional Love', 'Eons of Time', 'Buddha's Monkey' and 'Transmissions' and the rest were put together between us. It was interesting to see how the kinds of sounds we were working with changed the shape and feel of the songs. One day we made the fatal mistake of recording a song with 'traditional' synth sounds because we were running out of time. That took the song into such a different area that we couldn't fit it in with the others so we had to leave it."
"The problems of sampling in the wild are huge: background noises, wind, the animal actually opening its mouth at the right time and saying' something..."
Eventually, however, they did manage to do some more-or-less representative demos, and with these tucked underneath their arms they went in search of a deal. They found Jerry Moss (co-owner of A&M) enchanted with the project. They signed an eight-album deal. But meeting recording deadlines proved more difficult than anticipated.
Coppersmith-Heaven: "We rushed some tapes to the States and then decided that it clearly wasn't working. They just didn't sound exciting and musical enough. We were still trying to cope with lots of technical problems and didn't feel satisfied with the sounds we had."
A&M proved very understanding and gave them time - a further nine months of intensive work.
"We had to fill the range of sound that one is normally used to hearing, from high frequency hi-hats to low frequency bass, only with wildlife sounds and sounds from things we were striking", explains Coppersmith-Heaven. "Some of them didn't have a good dynamic range and a lot of them fell into the same mid-range area. Obviously we experimented with separating sounds by frequency control or pitch, and when that didn't work we had to move to another sound to fill that space. It was a lot of trial and error, and at that time it was sometimes very frustrating."
"With the kinds of sounds we were using it would have been very easy to make an esoteric or new age album", continues Glennie-Smith, "but we didn't want to go into that area. We wanted to create something which had the depth and punch of a good rock album but would sound new and different."
(A hole the size of the USA has developed in the high level ozone layer over Antartica; 20,000 extra deaths from skin cancer may result in the US alone.)
Finding sounds proved to be a time consuming task, even though it always meant a welcome break from the studio.
We went out, often right in the middle of recording a song, to gather specific sounds for parts that we couldn't get to work", recalls Glennie-Smith. "The natural ambience of a sound is crucial to the way it works in a track. We often found that we'd recorded things either too close or too distant. Often, out of 30 to 40 takes of a sound only one sounded right in a repeated sequence."
The sounds were recorded by all three Gentlemen, often on their own, on-site with a PCMF1 and a Shure SM58 mic.
"The F1 is fantastic", comments Fairlight pilot Glennie-Smith, "but it gets a bit heavy after you've been carrying it around for a few hours. That's one reason we're upgrading to using portable DAT recorders. But the problems of sampling in the wild are huge: background noises, wind, the animal actually opening its mouth at the right time and 'saying' something... It was also daunting to realise how widespread use of the combustion engine is; you'd think you were making a sample somewhere in the wilderness and suddenly there'd be this car or chainsaw or an aeroplane somewhere in the distance and you'd start again."
In the end, they were forced to complement their own sounds with some from wildlife film makers and sound libraries.
"Those film makers sometimes spend up to four weeks getting one perfect sound. They lie on cliff edges with microphones hanging over the rocks above a nest for days waiting for the right sound. And there were the underwater sounds, like the humpback whale, which we couldn't possibly have done."
(Lead causes brain damage and lowers the IQ of children. In 1981, government advisers in the UK estimated that hundreds of thousands of children were at risk.)
Another major task was editing all the sounds that had been collected, as Glennie-Smith explains.
"We'd sit down with a tape of sounds and listen for hours, bunging the interesting ones into the Fairlight to sort out later. We stored the sounds on hard disk and made a back-up copy for safety reasons. Of course, we had to make precise indexes of what was there, but it's easier to have them in the computer than on tape because you have direct access to them and can play around with them."
"It was daunting to realise how widespread the combustion engine is; you'd be making a sample in the wilderness and there'd be this car somewhere in the distance."
Coppersmith-Heaven continues, "Once that was done we put them in sequences which might then spur the idea for a song. We were feeding sounds in all the time and then we started playing with them in different ranges to find out where they could appear best. Is it a sustained sound or a rhythm sound? Does it fit better in the bass area or the mid area?"
Glennie-Smith goes into the details of which sounds were used for which parts. "The hardest things to find were animal sounds that were heavy enough to function as drum sounds. The bass drum ended up a mixture of sports sounds, like a cricket bat and ball, blended with people striking cushion heads. We also used a hammer and nail, which was Vic knocking together a barn with a stone floor. A squash ball was used as a backbeat sound, sometimes blended with the hammer. One of the 'snare' sounds in 'Eons of Time' is a rhinoceros peeing. That was a very heavy and interesting sound. We used saucepan lids and copper pans for tom-type sounds.
"In general, we had to do a lot of layering at the bottom end of the drums. One sound would have the right attack to it, but another would sound deeper. The 'hi-hats' weren't much of a problem - we used crickets, rattlesnakes and head scratches. The drums in general ended up sounding closest to normal drum sounds because there is no length in which you can get a texture. But I think they still sound interesting and different."
Transmissions also boasts a particularly impressive bass sound. This was one of the more difficult sound textures to create.
"We ended up using a tiger for most of the album", recalls Glennie-Smith. "We chopped the front off his roar so that we had a constant pitch and then there was this wonderful deep growl. We also used a rubber band which was difficult to record because it was so quiet. On 'Transmissions' the bass sound was just humpback whale. They have an incredible range and sound very big, fat and watery."
(In 1981, the official endangered species list stood at 230. Now it is 35,000 and scientists can't keep up.)
For the master recordings, an Emulator II was replaced by a Fairlight Series III. Glennie-Smith's answer is short and to the point.
"The Synclavier and the Fairlight III were, at the time, the only machines that could record samples with a fidelity that makes them sound three-dimensional. With the demos we did on the E-mu II, every time we sampled, we lost some top and some bottom and we noticed how important the bottom end was. Normally you worry whether things are bright enough, but that proved less of a problem than the bottom end. On the album, all the sequenced stuff and most of the played stuff was done on a Fairlight III. I did play some things on the E-mu II, and whilst we were mixing, the Emulator III came out and it was like 'new machine - great! Let's get it in'. So we did a couple of overdubs with it."
Talking of sequencing, how much of the album was sequenced and how much was actually played?
"All the drum machine and percussion parts, and most of the bass parts were sequenced", reveals Glennie-Smith. "I used the Fairlight Page R as a sequencer, but I used it more as a solid-state tape machine than a sequencer. Computers in music are absolutely fantastic things, but you either use them or get used by them. My idea is - if you can play, then play. Put things down in real time and then change, quantise or edit them afterwards rather than analyse everything into different bars and sections. That can really kill performances, so I always play and never use step-time. Other parts of the album were played manually by me straight onto the Mitsubishi.
"With some people, technology definitely kills the music while other people are very creative with it. It all depends on your attitude and the care you put into things. I still hear things in my head first, and then go to the computer or write things down on paper, and take them from there. I'm always trying different things, always trying to attain my individuality. As a synth player, my favourite workhorse is the Super Jupiter. Used in the right way, technology can be very powerful."
What of the Gentlemen's plans for the future? First of all, there's a second single, 'Eons of Time', which they hope will do better than its predecessor, 'Unconditional Love'.
"We need to sell a lot of albums", says Coppersmith-Heaven. "Part of the royalties will go into a charity trust which we have set up, and there are hopeful signs from A&M that money will be paid into that before we have recouped our recording budget completely."
The Gentlemen have also been working with the United Nations on an environmental awareness project and discussing with the World Wildlife Fund the possibility of putting together videos for educational use in schools.
"It would show how we made the record". - comments Coppersmith-Heaven, "how the tiger and the elephant worked together and in that way, introduce issues like endangered species and acid rain. It would be a novel approach to environmental education."
Finally, there are plans for a live multi-media show. "We thought of having very strange instruments built which could drive sounds via MIDI, and have dancers and singers", says Glennie-Smith. "It could be very interesting..."
(The plutonium dumped in the North Sea over the last 30 years would he enough to bring cancer and death to 250 million people.)
Interview by Paul Tingen
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