Tag Archives: digital

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man.


FF Meta on the ZVV Nighttime network map, Zurich

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography (Suhrkamp)

Erik Spiekermann is a consummate pluralist. Able to move, seemingly without effort, between roles as a typographer, designer, writer, public speaker and merchandiser, he was once even a politician – A Green Party member of the Berlin Senate. Spiekermann is the author of Stop Stealing Sheep and Rhyme & Reason – two models of typographic rectitude for a lay audience – and the articulate upholder of standards of public design in many a conference lecture. He is the designer of Meta, one of the most successful typefaces of this decade, and founder of the typeface distribution company FontShop.


‘I am a typographic designer. A typographic designer starts from the word up; a graphic designer starts from the picture down.’


But how, then, does Spiekermann distinguish his approach from that of an avowed graphic designer such as Gert Dumbar?

‘Dumbar always uses space. He can’t have three-dimensional space because paper is flat, so instead he uses cross-sections – he dissects objects in space and puts them on the flat page. He is a spatial kind of image guy: he thinks in theatrical terms. I think in page terms. The page is the lowest common denominator of the book system. The page is the molecule and the atom is the word. You see, I read. I read before I design, and I write. I design outwards from words.’


His conversation is a stream of aphorism and metaphor. On national stereotypes in graphic design, for instance, we learn: ‘France is olive shaped; Holland is triangular, always very pointy and narrow; Germany is very square; and England is round.’ And on being a designer: ‘I am a servant, I’m not an artist. If I was an artist I would be oval, like an olive.’

As a typographic designer, however, Spiekermann is distinctively quadrilateral. His trademarks are a rectangular or braced bar that bleeds off the page and a palette of just two colours – black and red, in the craft tradition. While he is generous with words, Spiekermann is extremely parsimonious when dispensing colour, shape and typographic variation.


He has written that his intention for Meta was that it be ‘neutral design – not fashionable, nor nostalgic’, yet also ‘unmistakable and characteristic’. As far as is possible, these apparently mutually exclusive aims are resolved in the finished version. Meta has a News Gothic base – neutral – with an exaggerated contrast between bowl and counter-shapes for legibility and highly distinctive curved and flared (or ‘pseudo-serif’) stems. The fact that it has become the height of typographic fashion is ironic rather than blameworthy. Meta is a blue-collar typeface, workmanlike, practical, sleeves rolled up ready to do a job. It is well-balanced, neither pretty nor elegant, pragmatic but not unprincipled – not unlike its maker. Spiekermann is contemptuous of modern type which puts geometric harmony before contrast and therefore before legibility (he means Helvetica) and of highly formalised, theoretical design. ‘I detest Rotis,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘It’s overstarched, too perfect. I like to leave some dirt in my work, some imperfection. That’s why I like deadlines and budgets, otherwise the work can be too finished.’

‘Legibility is not communication; but in order to communicate type has to be legible’ is a truism with which MetaDesign likes to decorate its stationery. Another company motto, ‘My role is to communicate my client’s message – not my own’, sounds self-righteous until Spiekermann elaborates by adding the notion of interpretation, removing the conceit of objectivity. ‘What I like to do most is to interpret a message so that people can understand it. At the same time I like to add colour, in the journalistic sense, by using colourful language, in my case visual language.’

This is another compromise, between the mechanical constraints of legibility and the creation of a pleasing visual narrative, or simply of variety – legibility is qualified by readability. Information design and public signage have usually been regarded as zones of pure functionality in which there is no need to persuade people to want to read. But according to Spiekermann, the communication of hard information may be enhanced rather than impaired by the stimulation of the brain’s emotional centres. The trick (the word is used advisedly, it implies sleight of hand) is to add colour without sacrificing clarity. You can see the theory in action in MetaDesign’s timetable for the BVG, with its simple elaborated typography bounded by tectonic elements – bars, arrows, circles, each doing a job of signage – and underlaid by a page-sized circle in a contrasting tint out of which the bus number is printed. There is a manifest danger that this will make the timetable harder to read, in direct proportion to the extra visual stimulus it provides. The dilemma is solved by the change of scale between the display and the text faces, which forces the eye to focus on one or the other, rarely both.

The same principle is applied to the signage system for the newly unified Berlin underground and overground railways. MetaDesign exploits the riot of colour provided by the inherited coding of 19 different S-bahn, U-bahn and regional lines and adds to it the favourite brew of squares, pictograms, arrows and bars to grab attention and indicate direction. The result is noisy, a striking contrast to, for instance, Vignelli’s frankly dreary scheme for Milan or his austere, industrial New York subway signage. Does it work? Nobody knows. Sitting and consistency of implementation are at least as important as typography in a system as complex as Berlin’s city transport, yet MetaDesign has had almost no control over the way its work has been used and there has been no systematic evaluation of its success through pilot programmes. Spiekermann regrets this, of course. Many signs are poorly positioned and carry too much information and he would like to know how effective the system is.

The problem with such projects lies in establishing the boundaries of graphic (or typographic) design: where does graphics end and behavioural science begin? And how are clients to be persuaded to give designers greater responsibility? MetaDesign has provided good answers to both these questions in its corporate design work. But in information design, where the client is usually a state enterprise or city council, political manoeuvring and committee mentality foster conservatism. Spiekermann continues to complain that what the subway signs say and where they are placed are beyond his control.

MetaDesign preceded its work for BVG with a subjective study of how people act on the underground. The designers went to the stations, looked and learned, yet Spiekermann remains suspicious of schemes based on objective scientific analysis: ‘You know what to do from experience and intuition. You don’t have to go down the research route. Cognitive science ignores the fact that people are fuzzy, meaning out of focus – they have all sorts of personal preoccupations and don’t all act the same way.’ Spiekermann prefers to rely on his ‘designer’s instinct’, his informal rationalism and non-aligned, undogmatic common sense. Though he can draw on empirical and quantative studies of legibility and has evolved his own heuristic approach to readability, these lack the force to move German bureaucracy.

To recognise that the education of clients is as important as the genius of the designer is to lose innocence, to mature. The complete designer must be acquainted with the baser skills of persuasion, cunning and diplomacy. Spiekermann, who possesses the first two but lacks the third, used to protest too much that jobs turned out badly because of the client’s short-sightedness. Now, when I ask him what are his ambitions for MetaDesign, he responds immediately: ‘We must become more professional.’ This means, for instance, that MetaDesign now employs a psychologist to orchestrate client presentations and to persuade the designers to work in teams.


The method which might be said to be grounded in the principles of typographic design, consists in devising a framework of constants and variables based on proportion, orientation, spatial arrangement, colour and, of course, type, which combine to form a distinctive but flexible system. ‘A system offers an infinite number of possibilities,’ observes Spiekermann, ‘and a scheme is dead.’

Proportion is the fundamental constant. ‘I always use what we call rational proportions,’ says Spiekermann. ‘There are 20 rational rectangles, for example. The golden section is one, the DIN section another, 2:3, 4:3, et cetera. Proportion is the common denominator of any page or surface and it provides the basic discipline, out of which we derive the grid, and then add colour: the grid for reason, the colour for emotion.’ But Spiekermann himself uses only two colours: red and black. He admits that his colour sense is undeveloped: ‘Maybe deliberately so, I don’t know. But I certainly don’t trust it. I know colours are emotional and I don’t want to make a statement exactly about it, but … ’. For once he is nonplussed, because MetaDesign and Spiekermann are no longer synonymous, though he remains its primary force. He recovers, ‘Uli is our colour woman. She’s absolutely brilliant. She spends half an hour with a Pantone book and comes up with amazing colour combinations.’

Colour is used in a confined way, almost always within rational shapes, most commonly the bar or broken rectangle. Usually Spiekermann – or rather MetaDesign, for all its designers follow the same principle – will bleed the bar to provide a dynamic tectonic element which defies the arbitrary confines of the page. This element is common to Spiekermann’s personal card, his type specimen sheets and forms for Berthold, MetaDesign’s stationery, the Berlin city identity, the identity for Cologne-based radio station WDR, the Berlin railway signage, et cetera. The BVG identity does not include the bleed, but only because the client forbade it.

We spent a long time talking about this device, long enough for Spiekermann to begin to bristle. ‘How can we spend so much time talking about a stupid piece of rectangle?’ But is there not a danger that the elements of the system are too repetitious? Might not the DIN style be replaced by an equally ubiquitous Spiekermann style?

The answer combines attack with defence. In attack: ‘The device is used for obvious reason. It’s tectonic: it’s a roof, it’s the slab across the door. The square denotes territory, and it works like a colon, pointing somewhere , and like a hand on a shoulder it is possessive, saying “this belongs to this”; it represents the corporate embrace.’ In defence: ‘I must admit I am always appalled when I’m doing another tectonic element, but the page is tectonic, the page is rectangular – I didn’t invent it. I agree with you, there is a danger. I have a very limited box of tricks, but it is because they are so obvious and so rational. Yet despite this few people use them because they are trying so hard to be clever or to excel, or they simply cannot see the obvious.’

‘Don’t forget,’ he adds, ‘that I have to stay within my cultural framework otherwise I won’t communicate.’ I am reminded that the cultural framework is German. I think of the Lufthansa in-flight magazine I flipped through on the plane, set in three sizes of one weight of Helvetica, looking about as convivial as a mail-order catalogue for plumbing equipment. It helps me to understand why, when contemplating acts of typographic non-conformity as minor as making 7 point caption type bolder rather than lighter, Spiekermann cannot help a devilish glint coming to his eye. In Germany there is a way of doing things and you diverge from the norm – The Deutsche Industrie Normen – only at your peril.

The strength and flexibility of MetaDesign’s systematic approach is evident in the brevity of its corporate design manuals, which tend to contain a set of principles rather than a dictionary of canon law in which the design of every last item of stationery, product packaging or delivery vehicle livery is set in stone. ‘An identity manual is not stable – it must react to change within the company,’ says Mayer. This approach is symptomatic of the way digital production has transformed the nature of corporate design. Creating systems for use by non-designers is now an increasingly important process, as is the implementation of production systems, the installation of templates, logotypes and pi-fonts, and putting database management systems in place. These are all skills Spiekermann has nurtured since his work with Berthold in the mid 1980s. MetaDesign’s practice is based on the belief that without due attention to this larger part of any corporate design programme – consultation, implementation, training and maintenance – its visible manifestation will be weak and incomplete. The method exposes the fallacy that graphic design is solely about the creation of good-looking visual images – here it is as much about enabling others to create. In stark contrast with the heroic designer / client relationship of the past in which the designer sought direct access to an aristocratic chief executive, MetaDesign seeks consultation at every level in order to command support and participation. As a consequence, its solutions have tended to towards distributed, modular forms and away from monolithic identities.


MetaDesign is marked by consistent ingenuity and quality – Qualität, to use the nation’s favourite expression – rather than by creativity or pictorial brilliance. Indeed, its pictorial work is sometimes heavy and unimaginative by British or Dutch standards, but like Spiekermann himself, most of its designers are trained to start from the word rather than from the image. As Spiekermann says, ‘I provide the grammar. I’m the modest guy in the background. Nobody ever said, “Wow, what a great grid”.’

MetaDesign’s character is derived to a large extent from Spiekermann’s own motivation, which is the promotion of a high standard of public life rather than the private pursuit of transient beauty. He says he became a designer to change things that annoyed him as a citizen: ‘I use the underground every day, I use forms every day, I use my city every day. Street furniture, signage advertising – their standard is a measure of the quality of life. That’s why design, that kind of design, is so important to me – it is the interpreting of data, it is making the world accessible.’


Spiekermann is clearly happiest when the words he communicates can be seen to serve the public good. I suspect that in this respect, he is a citizen before he is a designer. He undoubtedly adheres to notions of ‘good taste’ and is something of an aesthete, but if the typographic designer in him has any moral superiority, it lies in his conviction that the meaning of words is more important than how they look. What words look like matters so that they will be noticed and understood. For Spiekermann, typographic rigour is about the preservation of literacy and efficient communication and not, as with some other sticklers in his own country and abroad, a fetish for what is pure and correct.


The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education by David Bromwich | The New York Review of Books

The Hi-Tech Mess of Higher Education by David Bromwich | The New York Review of Books.


Students at Deep Springs College in the California desert, near the Nevada border, where education involves ranching, farming, and self-governance in addition to academics – Jodi Cobb/National Geographic/Getty Images

The financial crush has come just when colleges are starting to think of Internet learning as a substitute for the classroom. And the coincidence has engendered a new variant of the reflection theory. We are living (the digital entrepreneurs and their handlers like to say) in a technological society, or a society in which new technology is rapidly altering people’s ways of thinking, believing, behaving, and learning. It follows that education itself ought to reflect the change. Mastery of computer technology is the major competence schools should be asked to impart. But what if you can get the skills more cheaply without the help of a school?

A troubled awareness of this possibility has prompted universities, in their brochures, bulletins, and advertisements, to heighten the one clear advantage that they maintain over the Internet. Universities are physical places; and physical existence is still felt to be preferable in some ways to virtual existence. Schools have been driven to present as assets, in a way they never did before, nonacademic programs and facilities that provide students with the “quality of life” that makes a college worth the outlay. Auburn University in Alabama recently spent $72 million on a Recreation and Wellness Center. Stanford built Escondido Village Highrise Apartments. Must a college that wants to compete now have a student union with a food court and plasma screens in every room?


The model seems to be the elite club—in this instance, a club whose leading function is to house in comfort thousands of young people while they complete some serious educational tasks and form connections that may help them in later life.


A hidden danger both of intramural systems and of public forums like “Rate My Professors” is that they discourage eccentricity. Samuel Johnson defined a classic of literature as a work that has pleased many and pleased long. Evaluations may foster courses that please many and please fast.

At the utopian edge of the technocratic faith, a rising digital remedy for higher education goes by the acronym MOOCs (massive open online courses). The MOOC movement is represented in Ivory Tower by the Silicon Valley outfit Udacity. “Does it really make sense,” asks a Udacity adept, “to have five hundred professors in five hundred different universities each teach students in a similar way?” What you really want, he thinks, is the academic equivalent of a “rock star” to project knowledge onto the screens and into the brains of students without the impediment of fellow students or a teacher’s intrusive presence in the room. “Maybe,” he adds, “that rock star could do a little bit better job” than the nameless small-time academics whose fame and luster the video lecturer will rightly displace.

That the academic star will do a better job of teaching than the local pedagogue who exactly resembles 499 others of his kind—this, in itself, is an interesting assumption at Udacity and a revealing one. Why suppose that five hundred teachers of, say, the English novel from Defoe to Joyce will all tend to teach the materials in the same way, while the MOOC lecturer will stand out because he teaches the most advanced version of the same way? Here, as in other aspects of the movement, under all the talk of variety there lurks a passion for uniformity.


The pillars of education at Deep Springs are self-governance, academics, and physical labor. The students number scarcely more than the scholar-hackers on Thiel Fellowships—a total of twenty-six—but they are responsible for all the duties of ranching and farming on the campus in Big Pine, California, along with helping to set the curriculum and keep their quarters. Two minutes of a Deep Springs seminar on citizen and state in the philosophy of Hegel give a more vivid impression of what college education can be than all the comments by college administrators in the rest of Ivory Tower.


Teaching at a university, he says, involves a commitment to the preservation of “cultural memory”; it is therefore in some sense “an effort to cheat death.”

fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines

fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines part 1

part 2

I spend an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. To be more precise I spend a lot of time with someone who spends an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. My (nearly) three year old son is obsessed by it; he sleeps with his Thomas trains, eats with a Thomas knife and fork and wears Thomas pyjamas. The words to the Thomas songs comprise almost his entire vocabulary.


I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the roots of my son’s obsession. I’m fairly sure that he’s unaware of the antiquarian nature of steam trains or that the setting is nominally in a slightly distant past. My son doesn’t seem to care that there are aren’t any traction engines to be found anymore or that men don’t dress in spats and a top hat like the Fat Controller. In that sense the appeal of the books might genuinely be considered timeless. The world they depict is somehow complete enough in itself to form a hermetic, self-sustaining universe.

As any parent knows, children are Utopians. They construct fantasy worlds that run on rules of their own devising. These rules are often rigidly inflexible and uncompromising. The appeal of Thomas then might lie in the precise logic of an imaginary railway network. The simple rules that underpin the movement and actions of the trains might also be the part that makes them so successful. The engines themselves have very limited scope for independent action. They can move forwards and backwards, speed up and down, occasionally break down or have an accident but that’s about it. They can’t fight, or dance or play football or run. They don’t chase villains or solve mysteries and they have no special powers. Although they have been anthropomorphised they remain far more train than human. They are in many ways merely extensions of the way that we often attribute human characteristics to machines, giving them names and celebrating their faults as charming idiosyncrasies.

The engines also depend on humans for operation. In the original stories the relationship of the trains to their drivers and guards is very carefully delineated. It does not intrude so much that the trains become ‘simply’ machines but neither are they allowed any genuine independence. They can only deviate from the control of their human operators to a limited degree, normally with fairly disastrous results. These limitations also extend to the minimal nature of the stories where a fallen tree or a faulty turntable provides pretty much the only narrative hook. The legendarily boring nature of the stories is actually cleverly consistent with the repetitive nature of the engine’s tasks. The text mirrors this, repeating simple phrases in a way that is analogous to the movements of the trains. “Clickety clack went the trucks”, “We did it together, we did it together” etc.

Alongside this physically limited universe is an equally restricting moral one. Unsurprisingly perhaps given the identity of the author of the stories, the Thomas books are filled with simple pieties and swift retribution for crimes and misdemeanors. Instructions and justice are metered out by the all-powerful Fat Controller. Sometimes they get abandoned, like Duke the Lost Engine, or decommissioned or even on occasion cut up for scrap. A bleak Victorian morality hangs over the stories allowing for sentimentality and indulgence but only up to a point and only after the work has been done. The aspiration for the all the engines is to be considered “really useful”, a reward that that confirms both their status as machines and their role within an over-arching morality of duty.

The TV series of Thomas remained faithful to both the storylines and the moral universe of the books for some time. The fact that it was filmed using an actual model railway gave it in some ways an even greater degree of fidelity to the concept than the original illustrated books. If the model trains couldn’t do something then neither could the ones in the stories. The wobbly, home-made aesthetic of the model railway became part of the series’ ‘charm’, an anachronistic 1950’s toy used to recreate the equally anachronistic world of 1950’s steam engines.

More recently the series has been introducing new characters, partly as a way of boosting merchandise sales but also in order to create new plot lines. The relatively recent switch to CGI has produced a more decisive shift though. In contrast to the earlier stories, recent feature length Thomas’ have involved the discovery of lost towns, psychotically deranged diesel engines and journeys to magic islands. This expansion beyond the tightly controlled constraints of the original books pushes the logic of the series’ scenario beyond plausible limits.

In Misty Island Rescue, for instance, Thomas is set adrift on a raft at sea, eventually running ashore on an island that appears to be in the deep south of America. Even more bizarrely, when Thomas’ raft hits the beach the engine rolls straight onto a conveniently placed set of tracks running directly out of the water. Later on Thomas discovers some kind of portal or short-cut between Sodor and Misty Island via a vast hollowed out tree trunk. In other recent films Thomas discovers lost towns (The Great Discovery), battles evil baddies (Day of the Diesels) and travels through yet another portal to a contemporary mid-Western village called Shining Time (Thomas and the Magic Railroad).

These fantastical adventures cause a kind of conceptual crisis in Thomas’ carefully controlled universe. His actions are no longer those of a railway engine stuck shunting trucks but of a buccaneering adventurer. The Reverend Awdry’s pedantic fidelity to the movements of steam engines and railway lines is long gone. The driver and guard have become like those film crews accompanying TV explorers, something that it’s convenient to forget about lest they spoilt the mystique. It’s no coincidence that this capitulation to pure fantasy has come about at the same time as a shift from real-time modeling to CGI. Computer rendering allows Thomas the physical and conceptual freedom to inhabit any kind of environment in more or less any way. Thomas has moved from being an anthropomorphised machine into a human being who just happens to look like a train.

The first half of this post wasn’t intended as a rant against CGI, although it’s true to say that the original Thomas drawings are for more subtle and beautiful than the current animations. The development of computer animation has created a renaissance in children’s movies, particularly from the Pixar studio. It’s interesting then that Pixar’s own fantasy world creations are also most successful when operating in a similarly plausible but defined universe to that of the Railway Series.

Much of the humour and pathos of the Toy Story movies, for example, emanates from a tension between what the toys can and can’t do, and from the fact that they are restricted to a series of plausible movements. Their ability to stretch (Slinky Dog), disassemble themselves (Mr Potato Head) and organise military operations (Bucket O Soldiers) provides action sequences within precise physical limitations Equally important to the storyline is what the toys can’t do, such as Buzz Lightyear’s various heartbreaking attempts to fly. They may be ‘alive’ but they also only exist within a logical extension of their ‘toyness’. As in Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac Critical method, an absurd fantasy (of the toys being alive but still toys) is pursued with complete logic throughout.

The toys also clearly inhabit a human world although they fight for independence within it. This is in contrast to the recent Cars franchise which, interestingly, runs into many of the same problems as the new Thomas. Like Thomas, the Cars concept depends on the anthropomorphisation of machines. Unlike Thomas though the machines in Cars inhabit a people-less world, one where they have replaced the roles, characteristics and foibles of the absent humans. This conceit is wittily explored in the first film both visually (vans that look like Elvis, radiator grill moustaches that suggest redneck tendencies etc.) and structurally (a town designed by and for cars).

The action of the first film is confined to very limited spheres, essentially either the stadium in which the cars race or the isolated desert town of Radiator Springs. The choice of the town’s location is important because it avoids all sorts of contradictions that would occur in a larger and more pedestrian – and thus human – orientated realm. The functions of the buildings in Radiator Springs have been altered so that the generic Italian restaurant has become a garage and the petrol station the local drive-in. This is a car-based universe and nothing breaks the logic or the suspension of disbelief required to follow their anthropomorphised autonomy.

In the second Cars film the action has become global and follows the World Grand Prix, a series of races held in well-known cities. This creates a conceptual problem in that the cities (London, Paris, Tokyo etc) need to be rendered both plausibly recognisable and consistent with a people-less universe. Subtle scale changes are made to the sizes of doorways for instance and humour is found in car based versions of human spaces such as the rough local pub ‘inhabited’ by taxis and delivery trucks. And although famous landmarks have been rather fabulously ‘motorised’ (as detailed here) it remains impossible to imagine what they might actually be for.

But the film still begs some fairly fundamental questions which threaten to derail it entirely. What happens in the mansard roofs of those Parisian apartments? Why have upper floors at all? Who are the double-decker buses for? Not only that but the cars themselves are thrown into a full-on spoof spy movie where they fly through the air, set off booby traps and engage in tyre-to-tyre combat Jason Bourne style. As the cars have become more human, moving beyond simply being machines with characters, the absence of humans becomes oddly more telling.

Not only does the construction of an alternative car based society need precise rules to work but the humour depends on the careful substitution of one set of rules for another. The way that cars move, the things that they can and can’t do is very important. When they can fly through the air firing machine guns and foiling international villains their car-ness becomes far less implausible (of course) but also less important. Similarly, when they inhabit an environment whose underlying logic is clearly man-made (stairs, attics, Georgian windows etc), the suspension of disbelief evaporates.

In a sense, the moral universe inhabited by the Cars is every bit as pervasive as the one in Thomas the Tank Engine. The world of duty, obedience and responsibility delineated in Thomas is no less insufferable than the homilies about friendship and staying true to oneself in Cars. There is a confused environmental narrative at the heart of the Cars storyline too, presumably as an attempt to ameliorate the obsession with motor racing to start with. But children’s stories always have an explicitly moral message. The creation of alternative worlds be they miniature, anthropomorphic or whatever, allows for the creation of precise rules and limits. These serve not only to contain the fantasy but to communicate the ethical dilemmas the stories rehearse.

The ‘system’ which underpins the action is a kind of machine itself, a metaphor for a functioning moral universe where things have their place and people understand their role. Tests to the stability of this universe form the narrative for individual stories, helping ultimately to reinforce the desirability of the system to start with. Character’s that deviate from their roles are punished in the end and learn to accept certain limits to their freedom. This is why Thomas the Tank Engine is such a brilliant conception for children’s stories.

Autechre – Sound On Sound

Autechre – Sound On Sound

“We used to do hip-hop-type mix tapes,” explains Booth, “with pretty intensive editing and lots of loops. We’d use the pause button to create loops, just recording the same section of tape over and over again onto another tape, and then put scratching on it. We went from cassette decks and Walkmans and stuff to multitracking, for a long time using a simple four-track cassette recorder. In 1988 a friend in Rochdale let us use his studio, where we began using an Atari and Cubase and Creator, and machines like the Roland R8 [drum machine] and Casio FZ1 [sampler]. We also acquired little delay devices and this little Boss thing that could do delays and be a sampler. Next we got a Roland TR606, with which we could trigger the sampler. We began making beats then, as well as doing tape editing. Next was a Roland MC202, and we got a Korg MS10 synth, and so things gradually built up.

“At this stage we weren’t really thinking about making music that was our own. What we did was modifying what existed. We didn’t really think about ownership of the music either. It was a few years later, when someone said, ‘Oh, these tracks are good, are they yours?’, that we recognised that we’d almost stopped making sounds that were recognisable. It seemed as if we had been in a grey area for ages, and then suddenly we were aware of actually creating music and playing it to other people, and they were saying it was ours. I think these congratulations satisfied our egos so much, we decided the music was ours!”


Until this stage Booth and Brown had considered their musical adventures a hobby, and were attending further education, presumably with a ‘proper’ job in mind for later. Brown went to art school and studied architecture, and Booth attended an audio engineering and electronics school for six months. While Brown’s experience with architecture would later provide reference points for the structuring of the duo’s music, Booth’s spell at the audio engineering school sharpened his sense of how not to do things.


I didn’t want to learn how to mike up a drum kit, I wanted to know how to use the studio as an instrument.


Booth has talked about “the idea of engineering being beautiful”, and when asked to elaborate he enthuses “Yeah, totally. I think we have a natural ability to recognise harmony and I think this exists as much within an engineering context as it does within music. Working in a studio is really no different than building a bridge from metal girders, isn’t it? Constructing harmony from a load of predefined frequencies is essentially no different. To me it’s all construction, building.”


Trying to pin down Booth and Brown’s working methods proves harder than describing their musical development. Not only do the duo refuse to supply an equipment list or pictures of themselves in the studio, but they are constantly improvising with different bits of kit, often modifying them and using them for purposes they weren’t intended for. This is not some sort of deliberate ploy by Booth and Brown to be pioneering or different, but simply the logical outcome of the sheer joy they experience in experimenting with gear. Booth and Brown like to get dirty and under the bonnet with any piece of gear they can lay their hands on, be it hardware or software, analogue or digital, computer or non-computer.


Whereas most people working with modern technology cope with the sheer overload of necessary know-how by organising their entire setup around one piece of gear and/or software, for Autechre no such rule applies. Because of their hunger for exploring different pieces of gear and different ways of using it, there’s no centrepiece in their studio that dictates their method of working.


“We don’t tend to build up tracks in the traditional way. It happens that we tap in a bass line on a synth, but often we’ll turn it into something else. It’s hard for us to trace the origins of the tracks that we’ve released. Things can be three or four generations down the line before they are used. We also don’t talk a lot about what we do. We’ve been at it for 10-odd years professionally, and six years before that of messing about. It’s very intuitive. Usually when working in the studio it’s like, ‘Do you want to do a bit?’ ‘Yeah, OK.’ And if we don’t like what the other is doing, we’ll say, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ or ‘That compression is a bit over,’ and the answer can be, ‘It’s supposed to be like that.’ There’s not much to discuss really. Mostly what we talk about is how this or that works.”


Perhaps the most challenging and potentially controversial aspect of Autechre’s music is their use of generative sequences. Confield contains more of these than their other works, though they also feature on their latest release, Draft 7:30. Insofar as these sequences involve drum machine sounds they are sometimes referred to as ‘random beats’. The adjective clearly sits uneasily with Booth, who is at pains to point out that the beats are far from random.

“There’s a lot of maths and generated beats on Confield, but we never considered that album very difficult,” asserts Booth. “It’s like pop music compared to some of the stuff we had considered putting out! And even when the beats sound like they are moving around in time and space, they’re not random. They’re based on sets of rules and we have a good handle on them. Draft is really straight, using straight-up normal sequencers and samplers. It’s written note by note, where we know exactly what we put on. Only ‘Reniform Puls’ has some generative stuff, done by Max, which also controls a vocal filter in that track.

“When we do generative stuff we work with real-time manipulation of MIDI faders that determines what the rhythms sound like. A sequencer is spitting out stuff and we’re using our ears and the faders to make the music. There’s no event generation taking place other than within the system we’ve designed. Sometimes we’ll stripe a whole load of stuff down as MIDI data, because there may be a couple of things we want to change. We generate these beats in Max and with home-made sequencers. And there are models of analogue sequencers in the computer that are doing manipulation like gating and compressing some of the beats.

“On Confield we also used analogue sequencers and drum machines, because you can do a lot with restarting patterns. You can hack things and maybe use a control volume to determine what step the drum machine is playing from. Perhaps you send that control volume from an analogue sequencer, so the drum machine is skipping around. And then you get another analogue sequencer to drive that analogue sequencer with a different timing. Immediately you have something that some people would call random, but I would say is quantifiable.

“It seems that for a lot of people, if they hear something that doesn’t sound regular, they assume it’s random. If live musicians were playing it, they’d probably call it jazz or something. But the fact that it’s coming out of a computer, as they perceive it, somehow seems to make it different. For me it’s just messing around with a lot of analogue sequencers and drum machines. It’s like saying, ‘I want this to go from this beat to that beat over this amount of time, with this curve, which is shaped according to this equation.’

“Or you want all the sounds and the way the rhythm works to change, and you don’t quite know how long the transform will take. You can then build a patch to do the transform, and you do it by ear with a fader. We may have one fader that determines how often a snare does a little roll or skip, and another thing that listens and says ‘If that snare plays that roll three times, then I’ll do this.’ We don’t use random operators because they’re irritating to work with — every time you run the process it sounds different. How we play the system dictates how the system responds.”


Of course, even with Autechre’s wide-ranging tastes, some pieces of kit are favoured over others, or have a more central function. This often-used gear includes Mackie 16:8 and 24:8 desks, a Shure Auxpander, and an Apple G4 Powerbook running OS X, running Cycling 74’s Max/MSP, MOTU’s Digital Performer, Emagic’s Logic Audio and Steinberg’s Cubase SX.

The Shure Auxpander is “basically a 8×8 patchbay with knobs instead of patches,” says Booth, “so you can decide how much signal goes into each one. It works kind of like a mixing desk. We use that a lot. Together with the Mackies we’re pretty limitless. Stuff can go back in and back out as many times as we want it to. They say that the Mackies are a workhorse, but I’ve had two break on me. But I really like how quiet they are and how much they cost. Otherwise the amount of money we’d spend on an analogue mixer would probably be what the whole studio costs.”

In addition to their computer equipment, Autechre have dozens of hardware synths, drum machines and effects. “In the beginning we had loads of analogue stuff and tape recorders and so on,” Booth relates. “We still have quite a bit of analogue gear and we still use it. It’s just there, it’s part of what we do, like the 202, the Roland SH2, or Korg MS10 and MS20, real cheap basic techno stuff from the time we were into acid house and dirty sounds. We also still have a lot of Roland gear and pedals and stuff. We even have a few Doepfer modules, the German stuff. I like to be surprised by equipment, and a lot of Yamaha gear still surprises me, especially the old stuff with the bad aliasing. The FS1R is a pretty mean thing.

“We’re still using the Nord Lead 1 v2 all the time, which is really good because you can do loads of beats with it. The version 2 software has rhythm patches, so you can have eight sounds playing at a time on each of the four channels. It means that you can constantly have 32 sounds sitting there, which is nice for gear that size. We still use it live quite a lot because you can do a lot of rhythmic stuff with it. We also collect weird, rare outboard effects. But these are hyper-private. There are things with pure character, stuff that’s vintage. We have some real gems, like a lot of early Boss rack units with beautiful-sounding chips in them. You can get really musical with them, actually involving synth patches. Have a few of them and a patchbay and a potentiometer and a bit of EQ, and you can make album after album. You don’t need computers or drum machines, that’s what we learned.”

Autechre’s hardware samplers include the likes of the Ensoniq ESR and EPS, Kurzweil K2500, Emu E-Synth, and Casio samplers like the FZ1, FZ10, SK1, SK5 and SK100. “Changing them is brilliant fun,” remarks Booth about the latter three, “get the backs off them and a few bits of wire and have an amazing time. We mess around with electronics, and have loads of broken half-bits of gear lying around. I learned some things at college and can use a soldering iron.”

In similar DIY fashion, Booth suggests that the way they use their equipment depends on the way they connect things. “A lot of the time we have the studio set up a certain way for one track, and then we have to completely rewire it for the next track. That’s mostly what we’re doing: putting the studio together in a certain way for each track, and I guess that when we saw Max and later MSP it was exciting. It mirrored the way we used to think about stuff. It was all about connectivity, very much like working with electronics, the same basic principle. We found it really easy to get our heads around.”

Unsurprisingly, Autechre have dozens of programs on their Macs, including Peak, Audio Hijack, Soundhack, Audioscope, Amadeus, MOTU’s Mach V, and many others, as well as a Symbolic Sound Kyma system. “We use anything, man. I don’t have favourites, and I don’t want habits either,” utters Booth. But as always, some things are more equal than others, and Max appears to have been the most influential piece of software in Autechre’s collection, ever since they acquired it in 1997.

“When I first encountered Max, I thought it was totally head-exploding,” recalls Booth. “We came up with some pretty interesting stuff as soon as we got it. It was almost exactly what we needed. We initially got it for making MIDI applications, and it was a way for us to make sequences in which we could manipulate and generate data on the fly. We could do any combination of things. For instance, if we wanted to have a snare sound late, and the bass note as well, we could have the tracks sync’ed and variables sent across. Before then we had to do this manually, but with Max we could connect things in a very literal way. This made it a lot easier to work with drum machines. You could now jam with them during a live set, and get a pattern to slide the timing. We began using Max for live work, and then ended up using it in the studio. Most of Confield came out of experiments with Max that weren’t really applicable in a club environment.”


“There’s nothing better than turning the screen off and just going analogue,” stresses Booth. “You’re not looking at data representation and so you can drift off and just listen. We do this a lot. When we’re putting things down and mixing things and are trying to make things sound right, the screen has to go off. It’s an illusion that totally pollutes what you’re thinking and what you’re listening to. Yes, you can be in the zone when sitting with a laptop. You absolutely can. But you just want to listen and not interact with the device. The worst things are the timeline sequencers where you can see on the screen what’s coming up. That really f**ks with your head when you’re listening.”