|Control Zone - State Secrets|
3rd February 1990
EDITED BY TONY HORKINS
THE NATURE OF 808 STATE IS ABOUT AS readily definable as their musical style. They are a real bond, but as far removed from the guitar and drum based combo normally associated with the tern as could be. In the simplest terms, they are a couple of programmers and a couple of DJs - but of course things are never that simple:
"Everybody does everything, no-one has a set job, everyone has a voice. It's not like anyone's the drummer, anyone the bass player," explains Andy Barker a DJ who does his fair share of the programming. Everything is, in fact, just what 808 State do; self engineering, programming and producing - a veritable self contained unit, even until recently releasing their own recordings.
The group was formed some 1 8 months ago by the two elder statesmen Martin Price and Graham Massey, who initially got together with Gerald Simpson - better known as A Guy Called Gerald since branching out on his own. Martin's record store, Eastern Bloc, had become the centre for specialist dance sounds in Manchester and as such attracted a lot of demo tapes from aspiring local talent (which is who they came across Gerald) and Graham was working in the cafe across the road. The two quickly discovered that technologically they spoke the same language.
"We started putting on hip hop gigs with just the one set of equipment - a TR808, TB303 and SH101 - and about four or five hip hop bands that were based around the shop, under the collective title of the Hit Squad," explains Graham.
One of the crews that participated were two very young DJs with a fast growing reputation, a Casio CZ-1, RZ-1 and a couple of decks - Andy Barker and Darren Partington, aka The Spinmasters.
"The house thing came out of having the gear available at the end of the hip hop gigs," continues Graham.' We started going into the studio to knock tracks out and just built the momentum up out of that."
'Ninety' might be the band's debut album for their new record label - ZTT, through WEA - but it is, in fact, their third slice of 33rpm vinyl. Their two previous albums were released on their own label.
Graham: "We just kept holding stuff back until we had something we thought was worthwhile. 'NewBuild' was the first release. There was quite a lot of DJing involved in the early stuff, scratching live in the mix. There was very little midi gear involved at that stage. It was mostly Roland analogue stuff, running off of triggers and often run live onto a two track. We continued pretty much that way until the 'Deepville'/'Let Yourself Go' single."
These early recordings, made with just a TR808, TR909, TB303, a couple of SH 101's and a Juno 106, attracted both critical praise and underground acclaim, but it was with the six track 'Quadrastate' LP that the band really broke through and scaled the dance charts - the track 'Pacific State' being picked out very quickly by DJs and long before its WEA release as a 45 - securing the major deal. 'Quadrastate' also featured a far greater degree of technical maturity, exhibiting the band's by now full-blown techno sound.
Graham: "After 'Newbuild' we started getting involved with the computer and acquired more gear bit by bit. We continued to work in the same studio, Spirit, a 16-track (TASCAM MS-16) with a TAC Scorpion desk, and we started using a lot of the gear that was coming into the place. We started using Hybrid Arts SMPITE Track - mainly for the SMPTE generation and we still use it. It's just what you're used to, I suppose. We don't program drums on it though, but still use the machines themselves. We've got a Roland R-8 now which we use in combination with the 909 and don't often use sampled drum sounds as we like to keep the sounds really solid. We also still use the internal sequencer or the 909 a lot.
"We're a very groove based band and there is an essential simplicity to what we do but there are no set rules about how we do it. We might have four tracks -running on the Atari, a couple on the 101's internal sequencer - firing it off the 909 trigger (the 909 being a midi machine). We don't write a lot of complete tunes on the sequencer, but tend to fill up the multitrack with grooves and melodies and lay it onto quarter inch in sections and edit up the structure. The quickest way to get from A to B is a razor blade. Some of the editing on 'Quadrastate' is quite shocking but it's quite exciting. We've got a lot better at it though, and want to start editing on Audiofile (AMS's hard disk editing system) which really suits the way we work."
Charting an entirely instrumental single, and a dance track without even a hint of a sampled vocal at that, is no mean achievement. Perhaps it says something about just how much of an effect the acid house explosion has had on public perception of pop acceptability, but it also says something about the band who can produce such an infectiously melodic track without reducing it to the status of elevator music. The sounds may be familiar and common to the techno genre but there are other influences at work here which stood them in good stead when launching a virtually vocal free album at the national charts. To begin with there's a heavy element of funk and a not indecernable degree of jazz. Influences on 808's music may begin with electronics and Detroit but stretch as far as Herbie Hancock and even Miles Davis.
Graham: "A lot of the funkiness is coming out of the bed of the tracks - there's hardly a straight house beat on the album. We get into things like putting sixes through fours, getting polyrhythmic. The SH 101's brilliant for that. The same with the 909, you can get into all that with the half step function on the sequencer. That's why we keep using these machines. On 'State To State' most of the sequencing is on the 909. It sounds like funky piano playing on that track, but it's the drum machine sequencer. We love all these seventies sounds as well; a lot of the sampling is off of seventies funk stuff - Mini Moogs, Fender Rhodes, Clavinets and stuff. For 'Ninety' we actually hired in a Mini Moog and sampled sounds off it for some of the bass lines.
"Sampling is something I think we are quite fair about, there's a real code of ethics. It should be done respectfully and with imagination. Like the opening section of 'Let Yourself Go' is the Love Unlimited Orchestra; but you wouldn't recognize it the way it's sequenced. We'll often build sounds out of micro second samples from records. For a brass section we used a synth sound from a Herbie Hancock record and we took a vocal 'wah' sound from a Carpenters' song (Boney-M are another source of inspiration).
"About 30 per cent of the sounds on the album are down to sampling. It's all done on the FZ-1. It's a great machine, it does just about everything you want of it bar time stretch. We work very fast and often we don't get on top of the equipment the way we should. So we often struggle by with bits of crap like the Pearl Syncussion - one of the original electronic disco drums - we get some great sounds out of it.
"We use the 101 an incredible amount, for arpeggiated top lines and for bass lines. Often we'll build up three layered bass lines on the 101 to get a really fat sound from it. We've also just recently found a way of syncing the 303 through a KMS30 box, which is a thrill after having had to leave it out of things for so long. To avoid the obvious 303 sounds though we've been ring it up through harmonizers and even wah wah pedals. We use a lot of guitar pedals, wah wah, phase, fuzz and a Dan Armstrong Green Ringer (a bad ring modulator) - it's crap but it's brilliant. Put it on something like a piano and you get a wicked wound.
"Studio effects are often just too clean. We do use the D-50 quite a lot though - the sheen sort of blends in with the crap stuff - but we've also started using effects pedals on that, like phasers on the organ sound, something to bring it back down to earth. We'll also play keyboards through amps - like an AC30 - to get a fucked-up sound. A lot of the time it's about your limitations - a lot of the best stuff comes from limitations."
THOUGH the band are still recording on 16 track, a concession to quality is made when mixing.
Graham: "We mix in a really good 24 track with an AMEC G Series desk and better reverbs. Often we're transferring one inch tape over to two inch, or sometimes just firing up the sequencers and relaying a lot of it. A lot of engineers are incredibly fussy about things to do with noise, putting everything through gates and Dolby but when you're doing your own stuff you just want to keep the train of thought and get things down quickly, rather than bothering about all that. I really like the sound of tape, it does something when it all gets squashed up and gets a real warmth. We don't drive things live in the mix, tape gives you your sound."
Just to complicate matters still further 808 State perform live both as a band and also as DJ's.
Andy: "You've got to do live gigs in Manchester to get any respect. Its only in London you can get away with doing PAs. It's like a whole continuous night though, between playing DJing, controlling everything playing over records with synths - it's a complete happening, down to the lighting.
"With the DJ'ing we can slip in some of our own stuff and gauge the audience reaction. We've also got our own radio show on Sunset on Tuesday nights - a complete three hour house show."
Graham: "808 State DJs have got a name for themselves in Manchester. It's very like the Soul II Soul thing with the records, the DJs, the shop and we've got the merchandising side of it going now. Obviously we'll be offered a lot of remix work in the future but we'll only do things that we're really interested in. Already we've been working with a guy called MC Tunes who was part of the Hit Squad crew. (Their first release is at the end of this month). We've been writing and producing his stuff - it's what you'd call Techno Rap.
Band, DJs, production house or all round musical corporation; it's all just matters of 808 State.