|"Anaconda", "Pacific State", "Sueño Latino", and the Story of a Sample That Keeps Coming Back|
8 September 2014
You may have noticed a peculiar sound ricocheting through pop music recently: a springy sort of trilling noise, the kind of thing you could imagine being used as a sound effect in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, perhaps one involving pogo sticks.
by Philip Sherburne
You know what I'm talking about? No? It's like a hyena with hiccups, maybe, or a chicken being tickled, or a castrato dangling from a bungee cord. No? OK, have you seen Amadeus? It also sounds a little like Wolfgang's laughter in that, which in turn sounds a little like Tiny Tim's cackle in "The Viper". If we really want to go out on a limb, you could even compare it to Jello in a hurricane, which is a thing Tiny Tim sings about in "Tiptoe Through the Tulips". Which is to say it sounds a little giddy; a little loony, even. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
In any case, that sound is all over the place lately. It turns up in Rustie's "Up Down", off the Glasgow producer's new album Green Language, and it plays a major role there, too, setting up a manic sort of call-and-response pattern with D Double E's cry, "It's gonna go down!" (Buh-loo-bi-dee-doo! Buh-loo-bi-dee-doo!) The sound recurs every two bars, like a cuckoo clock on speed. By the end of the song, we will have heard it 62 times.
You can also hear it, fleetingly, in Nicki Minaj's "Anaconda": it sneaks in around the 3:14 mark, just as Nicki says, "This one is for my bitches with the fat ass in the fucking club," and it warbles half a dozen times through the song's closing bars. It's less conspicuous than in Rustie's song, but its elastic wiggle feels appropriate, given the context. And the sound turns up in yet another recent song - a new Tuff City Kids remix of the Glasgow producer Sparky's 12-year-old track "Portland", a cornerstone of the scene that gave birth to the Numbers label. The subtitle of the Kids' (Germans Gerd Janson and Phillip Lauer) remix holds an important clue to the identity of our mystery fillip: "Tuff City Kids Looney Mix". That's right: the sound in question is a loon.
As it happens, this is not the first time this bird has yodeled its way into popular music. Way back in 1989, it turned up in two different songs that received heavy play in Ibiza discotheques and British raves alike: Sueño Latino's "Sueño Latino" and 808 State's "Pacific State". And those songs, in turn, set off the avian chain reaction that continues to this day.
Sueño Latino, despite the name, actually hailed from Italy. Their eponymous single sampled liberally from Manuel Göttsching's E2-E4, a staple of kosmische krautrock that exemplified the kind of eclectic, ambient-leaning music that was popular in José Padilla's sets at Café Del Mar and Alfredo FIorito's at Amnesia, but it was that loon sample that really lodged in the brain. It was intended, I suppose, to lend some kind of rainforest cred—never mind the fact that the loon is a native of northern latitudes rather than equatorial climes.
808 State were another case of Balearic displacement, right down to a title that pointed to an ocean located on the other side of the world. They were English—from Manchester, to be precise. But "Pacific State", released on Trevor Horn's ZTT label, summed up the lysergic, Fourth World vibe of that Second Summer of Love with a combination of African percussion, Chicago-influenced drum programming, and a forest canopy's worth of bird song.
In both songs, the loon sound serves as both a rhythmic accent and a spot of tone color. In that sense, it's roughly analogous to the iconic James Brown and Lyn Collins "Think (About It)" sample that animated so many songs of the same era, beginning with Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock's 1988 hit "It Takes Two". The loon may not have become quite as ubiquitous as that sample's signature one-two punch ("Woo! Yeah! Woo! Yeah!"), but it certainly came close. Following "Pacific State" and "Sueño Latino", the very same sample turns up in dozens of songs: Mr. Monday's beatific "Keep On (Piano Groove)", History featuring Q-Tee's shuffling "Afrika", Glenn Underground's deep house cut "Entercourse of the New Age", LTJ Bukem's nervous "Demon's Theme", and Techno Brewster and DJ Iceman's breakbeat hardcore Tangerine Dream rework, "Tangerine Dream On".
But where does the sound come from? What was a loon, a bird most closely associated with the Great Lakes region, doing in Italy and Manchester and Ibiza? In trying to find the source of the sound, I stumbled on a thread on the DJ History forum - a trove, by the way, of deep cuts featuring our feathered friend - in which a user going by the name of Suenomartino (!) suggested that the sound came from the E-MU Emulator II, an early sampling keyboard from the mid-1980s that had an enormous influence on the shape of pop and dance music.
The Emulator wasn't the first sampler to hit the market but, priced at around $8,000, it was cheaper than the pioneering Fairlight CMI, and as such it helped popularize the very notion of sampling. To get a sense of how groundbreaking the instrument was, consider that its owner's manual found it necessary to render "sampling" in scare-quotes. At that point, the term hadn't become common parlance even among electronic-music aficionados, much less in the culture at large. In the introduction to the manual, the instrument's creators patiently explained, "Rather than synthesizing sounds, the Emulator II digitally records ('samples') real-world sounds into its memory. If you want the Emulator II to sound like a piano, sample a piano; if you want it to sound like a barking dog, sample a dog."
A user didn't have to record the sounds herself, however; an extensive library of sounds was developed for the Emulator II, both by E-MU Systems and third-party developers like Northstar and Optical Media International, and packaged on diskette and, eventually, CD-ROM. Many of these presets were deployed in the pop music of the time and have gone on to achieve iconic status: see, for instance, "Shakuhachi", a Japanese flute used in Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" and, later, Enigma's "Sadness".
The loon was one of these presets. According to a user on the Gearslutz forum, the loon sample came from the Emulator II's factory-issued library disk #22, "Wind Chimes / Birds / Stream", a set recorded by the sound designer and new age musician Richard Burmer. (The vintage synthesizer dealer CEM3374 has archived a list of the Emulator II diskettes here.)
I had hoped to track the loon back to its source, but Burmer died in 2006. I did manage to reach E-MU Systems' Dave Rossum, who cofounded the company in Santa Cruz in 1971, when he was still a graduate student in microbiology. "I do remember the loon sample," he told me, "and of course Richard Burmer was a good friend. But I don't personally have any more details on the provenance of the loon sample." Given that Burmer grew up in Michigan, it's tempting to wonder if he recorded the sound close to home. I like to imagine him hauling his recording equipment out into the middle of a lake at dusk and trying to keep the canoe steady while the birds set up a racket around him, but I guess we'll never know; nor will we ever know whether he knew the impact that disk #22 had on popular music.
If the sound originated with Richard Burmer's preset for the Emulator II, however, it seems to have spread across other formats and instruments. In a collection created for E-MU Systems' Emax, a seemingly identical sound is packaged as "Loon Garden". (Those same libraries are now available for contemporary software formats from Digital Sound Factory.) When I emailed various members of Sueño Latino to ask where they got the sound, they gave me conflicting answers. Claudio Collino wrote, "I think it was a preset for the Akai S900. (The same disk also had the chimes sound that was present as well on the record.) Simple, distinctive and very effective. I fell in love with it right away." His bandmate Ricky Persi, however, says that it came from the E-MU Emulator II.
And 808 State's Graham Massey told DJ Mag in 2007 that the loon sample in "Pacific State" came from an Akai sample demonstration disc. When I emailed Massey to confirm the sample's source, however, he said that he now believes it came from an Emulator II sample library. I had contacted Massey in the interest of a simple fact check, but his response turned out to be a goldmine of information regarding sample libraries, acid house, and the "Fourth World" fetishisms that gave Balearic rave music its distinctive cast. Here it is, in its entirety:
At the time of recording "Pacific State", 808 State were three heads: Gerald Simpson, Martin Price and myself. Martin brought "The Loon" to the table. I think he heard it on a Bootsy Collins album, What's Bootsy Doing, which had just come out. I always thought it was an Akai Library disc, Wind Chimes Birds & Streams, but it would seem it is the Emulator II Library.
There is a theory that Akai licensed that library for the S900 series. The sampler we used for Pacific was the Casio FZ 1 and it's probable that the studio had copies of various sample libraries reformatted for the Casio. Casio had its own similar disc with thunder, rain, ocean, birds and insects. We had recorded over that particular disc thinking we would never use such new age nonsense. Floppies were expensive and not easy to buy, so we re-used them.
I’m not sure which came first, "Pacific State" or "Sueno Latino". I can honestly say I wasn’t aware of that record until afterwards, but Martin was onto every release because he had the Eastern Bloc record shop. I remember after the event they were often played together by DJs in a mix because they shared the loon. I also remember a couple of bootleg attempts at Pacific coming from Italy. The only thing they had right was the loon, so again, the sample library was common.
The Vinyl Telegraph was fast back then, even without the internet. The record we were most aiming to fit alongside, at least in my head, was "Open Our Eyes" by Marshall Jefferson. It was a massive tune at the Warehouse Parties and Clubs in Manchester. Its mood was tropical and humid, opening up with a full sample library of waterfalls streams and shakuhachi. I remember 808 banned any use of shakuhachi, a Japanese flute that every 1980s keyboard seem to have as a preset. It always struck me as funny that the Canadian loon - a very northern temperate bird - was our jungle mascot.
A typical mix cassette in my bag at that point would have pointed to the fact that bird song and B-movie jungle music was not unusual. Anyone will tell you what an Exotica nut I was back then. Exotica is a kitsch 1950s Hollywood view of third world music; its biggest artist was Martin Denny, whose albums were littered with fake bird calls and insect impersonations by a man called August Colon. Other copyists followed such as Arthur Lyman and Eden Ahbez.
Other electronic bands such as YMO and Throbbing Gristle also referenced Martin Denny in the '80s. I think Exotica lived on into the 1970s in the fusion genre - artists such as Santana, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and Airto Moreira who would use similar vocal and percussion FX, like bird whistles, duck calls and cuica drum, and lush analogue synths for imaginary other worlds. And of course the common use of soprano saxophone, which "Pacific State" features. We would have loved Mati Klarwein to do our album covers. One of the first artists we did a remix for was Jon Hassel, who must have recognized our Fourth-World bent and reached out to connect.
Our pet loon got a second wind when the KLF used the extended ambient ending of "Pacific State" as an element in the Chill Out album. Chill-out and ambient would recycle a lot of 1970s new-age-type music - music we had been familiar with, such as Rainbow Dome Music by Steve Hillage, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Tangerine Dream. ECM jazz records, such as Egberto Gismonti's, were again full of nature sounds. We had all lit a few joss sticks and listened to double albums of echoing flutes in Egyptian burial chambers - well maybe not Gerald, who was at least 10 years younger. But the Venn diagram of our combined record collections met in a lot of places; everything became re-contextualized around the campfire of technology in 1988. - Graham Massey
The question remains, why has the loon splashed back down into our present-day musical landscape in such great numbers, like some migratory bird with a quarter-century breeding cycle? Because it's definitely back with a vengeance: in addition to the songs from Rustie, Nicki Minaj, and Tuff City Kids that I've cited above, the loon has also turned up in Coyote's "San Carlos", Discodromo and Massimiliano Pagliara's, "Samba Imperiale (Cos/Mes vs. Max Essa Remix)", Lord of the Isles' "A2B", the Mood Hut producer Ttam Renat's "Messages", and even Cut Copy's retro-raving "Footsteps". And that's just in the past three years.
Rustie didn't respond to my request for a comment, but given the tropical themes running through Green Language - bird song and running water are audible at several points in the record, and of course there are those crazy flamingoes on the cover - the loon sample's accidental Balearic qualities make for a natural fit.
Tuff City Kids' Phillip Lauer told me that he first heard the sample used in 808 State's "Pacific State", but the sound hit close to home for more mundane reasons. He wrote, "The truth is that my studio is right next to an old church tower with bells and everything, and every year a family of Turmfalken (common kestrels) uses it as their breeding spot. The kestrel cry always reminded us of the loon sound, so Gerd found the WAV somewhere." Gerd Janson added, "Of course, it fit right in with the kitschy breakbeat house version we aimed for with the Sparky remix."
It's worth noting that not all musical loons share the same Balearic lineage. In addition to the Bootsy Collins album Massey cites (where, truth be told, I don't hear it, but that's a lot of detail to sift through), there's at least one other pre-1988 instance of Burmer's sample: "Miracles", from the Detroit R&B group R.J.'s Latest Arrival. And not all musical loons were even hatched from the E-MU: long before the sampler was invented, Gino Soccio laced his single "So Lonely" with the bird's eerie cackle, way back in 1979. (That feels significant, if only because Soccio made Italo-disco, yet hailed from Montreal, within the loon's own natural habitat; it seems likely that Sueño Latino had his example in mind when they dialed up Burmer's sound in their sampler.)
How fitting then, that when the Hamburg house classicists Smallpeople included a song on their 2012 debut album called "The Loon's Groove", they decided to set the bird free, as it were. Instead of resorting to the standard sample, they invoked the loon's iconic call with a richly woven tapestry of field recordings. Tracing the sample to its source may feel, at times, like a chicken-and-egg paradox. But at the present moment, there's no doubt that Gavia immer is in rude health. Long may it jibber.