Beat by Beat: The Distinctive Spectrums of Loop-Based Production - Mixonline

Beat by Beat: The Distinctive Spectrums of Loop-Based Production

Loop-based music: It doesn't sound like a big deal. But the truth is, it's a noisy revolution a virtual democratization of music. More than modular digital
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Loop-based music: It doesn't sound like a big deal. But the truth is, it's a noisy revolution — a virtual democratization of music. More than modular digital recorders or fix-anybody pitch changers, loops and drum machines have changed the face of pop music production forever. Anybody with a creative vision and the ability to record a snippet of noise from one machine to another and program a sequencer or drum machine is now in the running to write and produce tracks for the stars. Because, as Beck said, sometimes all you need is “two turntables and a microphone.” Or maybe that was an Akai sampler and some attitude.

The earliest use of loops is shrouded in the haze of recording studios past. Back in the day, any engineer worth his salt knew how to edit 2-inch tape, punch in manually without the safety net of “undo” and make a tape loop. Magnetic tape strung from machine to machine, and sometimes around the room on mic stands, doorknobs…whatever. Who knows how many great songs this technique was used on? Pink Floyd's “Money” is notable. Toto's “Africa” is said to have used a tape loop of drums run partly around a paint roller. And, of course, The Beatles used loops. The revered Mellotron played tape loops of actual flutes and strings, and probably holds title as the first loop-based instrument. But all of these techniques required expensive studios and knowledgeable engineers. The real revolution began when the first digital samplers hit the street.

The heady days of wildly sampling anything that caught one's fancy and incorporating it into your own music are long gone; copyright protection and just plain innovation have led producers down different paths. Loops have become accepted and expected groove components, found in everything from rap to rock. Here, Mix checks in with a few mix/remix specialists, all artists in their own right, and all known for their creative work in the genre.

SPLICING ASBESTOS

A veteran composer and the sound sculptor behind Meat Beat Manifesto, Jack Dangers has the rep of being consistently innovative with his work. In addition to MBM's multiple releases, he's worked with Public Enemy, Nine Inch Nails, Bush, David Bowie and David Byrne, to name a few. His label (with partner Ben Stokes), Tino Corp Records, has released such innovative records as DHS' Mind Control EP and Bo Square's Sizing Things Up. Checking in with this techno guru at his Marin County home studio, we found him in his most recent phase, working with — no way — analog tape loops!

“It's true,” he laughs. “I've just done a new 10-inch called Tape Music that is all done with tape manipulations, rather than with samplers. You can do different things with tape: For one thing, you can slow it down a lot more than you can digital information — when you tune down a sampler, it just breaks up. And you can feed things back into a tape machine. If you've got like four reel-to-reel tape machines going into a desk, you can feed them into each other and do some amazing things.

“In the same way, you can do things with a razor blade that are kind of random, that you wouldn't even think of doing if you have it all on a screen in front of you. I wouldn't want to do it all the time — cutting tape is terribly time-consuming. But sometimes old technology is more effective for sculpting and molding sounds than just pushing a mouse around.”

On 1998's Actual Sound + Voices, Meat Beat Manifesto's most recent full-length, all-new album, Dangers also made use of older technology, recording some San Francisco Bay Area luminaries playing live at Toast Studios as the basis for several of the songs, among them “The Thumb.”

“Some of that album was improvised live,” he recalls. “I just collected it together and chopped it up. ‘Thumb’ was a huge, extended jam over two days — I was playing bass and Lynn [Farmer] was playing a drum kit with a tambourine strapped to the kick drum. Then we had Bennie Maupin and Patrick Gleeson, who have both worked with Herbie Hancock — Bennie on wind instruments and Patrick on synthesizers.”

The band played to a loop that Dangers had programmed into his Akai 3200 sampler. Room mics picked up ambience, and Toast's EMT plate was used to good effect. The end results went to Danger's home studio for “carving and whittling.”

Dangers pulls sounds from everywhere: live tracks, his own creations and, yes, vinyl. “I like scouring record shops and finding rare breaks. It's working more in a hip hop/DJ style than the techno way of sitting in front of a computer and making beats. I do that as well, but I really like the discovery of obscure things.”

Dangers' publishing company handles clearances for any significant bits of other recordings that end up on his projects. “If it's a spoken-word sample, of course, we clear it,” he states. “But I really feel that it's a pop art, Andy Warhol way of working — taking something that's already there and making it into something completely different. There are levels of what's acceptable, and you've got to do the right thing. If you're sampling a lyrical line, that's different than sampling a bass note from a dub record. I've certainly been sampled enough times, and no one's ever had a problem from me. I can't turn around and sue them if my work is sampling other people's work! It really is an art form; it's ‘Musique Concrete.’ French composer Pierre Henry went over all this 40 years ago with ‘La Reine Verte.’ He combined his music along with other artist's sounds and made his own unique piece, and it's brilliant.”

Sometimes, as on a recent remix for Freddy Fresh, Dangers starts out with a loop supplied by the artist. “It was a big disco loop, which they did clear because it was a huge chunk,” he observes. “I worked a beat around it with a Roland HPD-15 drum machine. Then I added a different bass line, and took the keyboard sound off and introduced it earlier on in a different key.

“It's always different. It can start from the bass line or from a vocal sample from someone's track that they want included. A lot of times, things totally change by the time I'm done. Sometimes when it gets going, all the original stuff ends up muted on the desk.”

Dangers always monitors on Genelec 1031s. His main creative tools, along with four 2-track Studer PR99s, include Emagic's Logic Audio, which he runs on a Macintosh 950 computer. He uses Pro Tools for recording and editing — Recycle is a favorite program of his. Dangers' synth collection combines old and new, including rare modulars: an ARP 2500 and 2600, a Synthi AKS “briefcase,” a Synthi 100, a Roland 100M, an E-mu and some Electronic Music Lab modular systems. Keyboards are normalled to a Mackie 8-bus mixer, but most mixing is done with a mouse rather than faders.

“I like using digital technology like Pro Tools and some of the plug-ins, but I like combining them with analog gear, like a Roland Space Echo and a spring reverb, to put warmth into the music,” he notes. “Some sounds haven't been emulated — they can't be.”

Other favorite effects include a tube Echoplex tape echo, Lexicon PCM 70 and 80, an Eventide DSP4000 and “loads of plug-ins,” including favorites by GRM. “GRM are really cool — strange, morphing, mutating things. They're made by the French company started by Pierre Schaeffer and the group of musical researchers who actually created ‘Musique Concrete’ back in the '50s.”

It's a fine line between a great groove and a boring one; staying fresh is key to the game. While he's always searching out the new, Dangers gets much of his fundamental inspiration from the past. “The idea of looping a beat break is nothing new,” he says. “A composer named Anthony Gnazzo experimented with looping breaks at Mills College back in the '70s. It was a pop art kind of thing. All electronic music really stems from those experimental, avant-garde composers of the '50s and '60s. I've definitely gotten into all that, because it's the roots.”

RECYCLING THE SILENCE

It wasn't easy to catch up with Rhys Fulber. Although the Canadian-born artist/producer/writer's main workplace is in Los Angeles, Fulber, known for his work with his own bands Delerium and Front Line Assembly, as well as with Fear Factory, Skinny Puppy and Sarah McLachlan, spends much of his time in Europe. We finally found him one evening in Amsterdam. He'd spent the day creating tracks for a new artist debuting on Epic Records and was preparing to head to London the next day to record them.

Fulber coined the phrase “digital adaptation” to describe the work he did with Fear Factory. It was a pivotal collaboration; until Fulber hooked up with FF, they were known for straight-ahead, hardcore metal. “The term fit because I was taking their tracks and putting them into a sampler, getting the songs ready to be changed,” he recalls. “That was before I was using computer-based audio — it was just an Atari and a sampler. They were a metal band, but they were very progressive and they wanted to push in an electronic music direction. We were on the same label, and one of the A&R people suggested that we work together. The stuff I'd done with Front Line Assembly was hard electronic dance, so it wasn't too much of a stretch.”

Some might see a wide swing between his hardcore work with FF and the ambient and ethereal projects he's done with Delerium and Sarah McLachlan, but to Fulber, the process of creating the tracks is the same. “The source material is different, but the creative process isn't,” he explains. “It's instruments, loops, phrases and building up from there.”

In his work with Front Line Assembly, Fulber was known for his use of samples, including bits from horror and sci-fi movies. These days, he prefers to create sounds from his own sources. “Back when we were making those records, we weren't exactly selling a lot of copies,” he says with a laugh. “We would literally sample anything and manipulate it. Nowadays, you can't do that. And I've grown beyond it. Now I come up with original source material for everything.”

That source material comes from his own library of sounds, culled from recording projects — his own and ones he's produced — commercial sample CDs and his own synthesized bits. “I grab drum phrases from wherever,” he admits cheerfully. “Just not off other people's records! The source material might be anything — a remix I did three years ago, for example. I'll pull a 2- or 4-bar loop, then take all the hits, cut them into pieces and rearrange them into something new. It's mix and match. To get a big, rolling drum groove, it's really about layering. One little bit may not sound like much, but when you layer four or five tracks together, you start to get something.

“Five years ago,” he continues, “I'd use more straight loops — pull a sample, loop it and that was it. But now everything is chopped into individual hits that I can manipulate. I'll start with a 2-bar drum loop — sometimes even a straight kick/snare program I've made. Then I'll use Steinberg's Recycle program to chop everything into individual hits — every little tick and hi-hat and snare — and move them around. I use Logic Audio as my main workspace — kind of like a graphic editor. If you just layer four loops together, a lot of times it just sounds like a mess. The difference is, when you have control over every hit, you can move them all around until they play off each other and make sense.”

In the beat-making process, it doesn't hurt that Fulber started out as a drummer. “Initially, I was in bands,” he says, “When I got a drum machine and a synth, it became, ‘Oh, I can do everything by myself now — this is way better.’ I do know music theory, etc. I'm not a great keyboard player but I can play chords and basic stuff well enough to do what I do.”

According to Fulber, “Logic Audio is my world.” And recently, this bi-continental producer has gone fully mobile, loading Logic, his Emagic sampler and some synthesizer programs into a G4 Powerbook. “When I'm in Europe, I like to travel to different places — like Turkey and Cypress. Now I can bring my Powerbook and my little Genelecs and make tracks in a fairly professional standard. Before, I had to lug all this equipment. Now I can just show up with a Powerbook. I use Absinthe from Native Instruments and the TC Works synthesizer, which are both excellent.”

Back at his main L.A. studio, Fulber routes his keyboards through a Yamaha 03D digital mixer and records into Pro Tools using Sound Designer. Other main tools include an Emulator 4 sampler and modular synthesizers — Nords and a Doepfer A100. “I like making sounds with old-style, patch cable, analog synth modules,” he notes. “You have to build everything up step by step, and you get cool things along the way. If you're using modern synths, it's all arranged for you — you just turn the knobs. With the modulars, where the EQs and filters are all broken down to the basic elements, it may take you all day to get a sound, but it's great when it comes together. You have to visualize what you want to do, and you're always going to get something different.”

More and more, Fulber finds his skills in-demand for pop music projects. “What was considered outside and experimental is now becoming mainstream,” he observes. “That's what happens. But for me, I just follow what got me involved in this in the first place. I do what I do, and if it comes around, that's great.”

TWITTERING MACHINE

Dave “Rave” Ogilvie has engineered, produced and “manipulated” for artists from Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson to Skinny Puppy, Mötley Crüe and the legendary Einstürzende Neubauten. A longtime collaborator of Trent Reznor's, Ogilvie is acknowledged to be a master of the heavy groove. The question is, with the kind of “been there, done that” credits he's accumulated, how does he keep from getting jaded?

“The fact that technology has made everything accessible to almost everybody makes it very rare that you hear something exciting,” he admits. “It's so easy that it gets boring. A lot of people think they've established a groove that's happening by just grabbing a loop out of Future Music magazine and repeating it over and over. They think they've gotten to the end already — but that's just where it starts! For me, it has to go to the edge. I like bands like Squarepusher or Aphex Twin — some of the more edgy artists who take it to the extreme and turn it into something new.”

A recent project that's sparked Ogilvie's enthusiasm is Japanese band Mad Capsule Market. “What they're doing with loops and guitars is very innocent, very repetitive,” he comments. “It's brilliant because it's bordering on silly, and that made it a lot of fun for me.

“They had rhythm-based loops, then they had guitars on top that were played live, then turned into loops. But the drive from the rhythm wasn't there. It's a problem when you're working with loop-based rhythms with walls of noisy guitars on top of them — the guitars will overwhelm any sort of subtleties. I didn't want to reprogram, so the issue was how to bring out the power that was there.”

To rework the loops and bring out their punch, Ogilvie used one of his favorite tools: multiband processing. It's been an Ogilvie trademark for some time; before multiband gear was available, he routed it on his own using live gig P.A. crossovers. These days, he relies on a Brookes Siren DSS901 and a Waves C4 plug-in.

“If you just work with EQ on a loop, you'll change its quality and integrity,” he notes. “Okay, maybe the loop was lo-fi to start with, but that's its attraction. And if you're EQ'ing to try to bring out the snare drum, or to get rid of a tambourine that was far too loud, well, all of a sudden the loop itself doesn't sound the same. Given that it was a lo-fi sound to begin with, it can actually get destroyed. Hence the attraction of multiband dynamic processors: You're able to find the exact frequency you're looking for and EQ and compress it without changing the character of the loop. It's a very powerful tool — my savior, really. Basically giving me volume control over everything in the loop.”

Rather than chopping loops into bits and rearranging the sounds, Ogilvie prefers to work with combinations of loops, piling them up and adding new, programmed sounds on top. Those new sounds generally come from the library he's amassed over the years.

“I started keeping sounds in 1985, and I've maintained a bank of everything I've ever had,” he says. “Originally, it was on Akai S900, and it's gone through PCM digital tapes, etc. I keep converting and, generally, now it's on CDs. It's hard though, because things you were using three years ago are obsolete; it's like ‘Oh yeah, I have those sounds on…uh oh, nobody here has one of those.’ And if you're in New Orleans and they have to spend a day getting that format from L.A., well…So, now I'm into getting it all onto one drive and backing up to CD.

“Also, while it's true that I have a massive library, it's also true that I use maybe 20 percent of it. Because, depending on the application, the sound totally changes. What you use on one project will sound completely different on another. That's the art of it.”

While some projects still require to be transferred to Emulator 4 or Akai files, Logic Audio's ESX24 sampler is becoming a frequently used system. “The Logic sampler is really handy because of its portability and ease of use,” Ogilvie notes. “Once you put something into the hard drive, which for me is my Powerbook, it's all sitting there. You don't have to carry lots of stuff with you or worry about what format you're going to need for the project when you get there.”

Ogilvie's main setup now is based on his portable Powerbook, but back at his home studio, outside of Vancouver, B.C., he also has a Macintosh G4 that he uses with Pro Tools. Not yet content with the sampling options available for Pro Tools, he switches to Logic Audio for sampling applications. He's also fond of Emulator gear, especially the E-4 and E-6400. “I like the way they handle drums and guitars,” he says. “It's a representation thing. Some other samplers sound good on their own but don't hold up in the track like Emulator stuff does. The E-4 is a fantastic line, its got ease of use and it's very musical.”

Other favorite gear includes Nord Micromodular and Lead keyboards, a Korg MS2000, and an Eventide DSP4000 and H3000. Ogilvie also likes sampling with the now-antique AMS DMX 1580. “To this day,” he observes, “the way that box digitizes is great; whether it's a loop or a bass sample, it's amazing how when you put it in the AMS, it adds a little life and presence.

“I don't like to listen to trends or to copy what other people are doing,” he concludes. “It's not about, ‘Wow, I heard this record that's fantastic, and I want to sound like that.’ Where the fun of it is, and what excites me, is to make something different. It might not be what's going on at this date in time, but it's about making something that I enjoy listening to. The way I look at it, you can make music or manufacture music, and I'm far more on the making music side.”

Maureen Droney is Mix's L.A. editor.

JOSH WINK PUTS HIS FINGER BACK ON THE BUTTON

Josh Wink is a prolific American artist/DJ/producer who consistently tops the Euro dance charts. Working out of his bedroom studio in Philadelphia, he's managed to amass several monster club hits including “Liquid Summer,” “I'm Ready,” “Don't Laugh” and the Platinum “Higher Stage of Consciousness.” His Ovum Recordings imprint features his own releases, along with those from Goldie and Sylk 130, and he's done remixes for Moby, Skinny Puppy, Njoi and Lenny Kravitz, among others.

As Wink puts it, he's always trying to “get the most use out of the dance floor.” To that end, he's recently changed his musical production style, eschewing computer-based sequencing for a return to his programming roots. “I went back to sequencing on old drum machines,” he explains. “Then I got an [Akai] MPC2000 and started using that as my sole sequencer and composer. I'm not even using an interface — just a CV sync box and old-style MIDI in, out and thru to trigger both digital and analog keyboards and other gear. It's fun, and it brought me back to how I originally started making music. I'm working solely with four, eight or 16-measure loops. I sample into the MPC and sometimes I'll re-sample with the Roland VP-9000 — the variphrase processor. That's a very interesting tool for time compression and shifting, and for processing things in general. I create a loop on the MPC, dump it into the VP and process it using the onboard effects.”

The MPC's outputs come up on Wink's Mackie 32.8 mixing desk. He records a 15- or 20-minute pass of the loop to either DAT or Roland VS-1880, making changes — punches, EQ and effects on-the-fly — as if he were DJ'ing live in a club. The mix then gets dumped into Emagic's Logic Audio to edit and resequence on his Macintosh Powerbook computer. “It's a combination process that's working for me lately,” he comments. “I get the groove and the feel of doing it live, and then I get to polish it in the computer.”

Other Wink studio equipment includes a Doepfer MAQ 16/3 sequencer and MS 404, a Korg KMS30, tons of Roland gear from a JD-800 and 990 to a TR-808, -909, a Juno 106 and a Super Jupiter, and more…a Prophet 5, an Akai S6000, a Novation Super Bass Station and Drum Station, an Ensoniq DP4 and an Alesis QuadraVerb.

Because Wink gets a big sound and his tracks have plenty of bottom, you'd expect to find that he works on big speakers in a large room. Instead, his studio is in a row house, connected to other dwellings on both sides. Consequently, he listens quietly on KRK K-Rok speakers with 7-inch woofers, as well as on Sennheiser Linear headphones.

“To me, a lot of engineering is based on mathematics,” he says. “When you know your equipment, you know by looking at the knobs what's what. Also, I now have a frequency-analyzer program; when I drop my tracks into the computer, it can show me if I'm lacking some frequency — I have a digital cue.”

Like Fulber, Wink spends a lot of time travelling, both in the U.S. and internationally. These days, he spends his flight time doing post-production on his laptop. “I used to do a lot of my reading and sleeping on planes,” he says a bit ruefully, “but now with my laptop and all my programs burned into it, I don't get any more sleep; I'm always doing music.”
Maureen Droney