I’ll break them down, no mercy shown
Heaven knows it’s got to be this time
avenues all lined with trees
picture me and then you start watching
There’s a lot of piano on the Aphex Twin’s album ‘Drukqs’. Often referred to as the Ambient tracks or even the Classical tracks. Extremely pleasant, often slow, with lots of harmonies. Some of the tracks are straight piano – strotha tynhe, avril 14th, father – and some have the piano sound altered, offering metallic rattles, woody clunks and textured thwacks. These are the classic sounds of the ‘Prepared Piano’, an instrument invented, in 1940, by the American Experimental composer John Cage. A piano is ‘prepared’ by placing small, everyday objects in the strings. When Cage first did this the objects were screws, bolts and pieces of ‘weather stripping’ (short strips of felt covered plastic used for draught-proofing windows).
Cage believed that music should be made of sound and silence – any sounds, not just notes – and the only characteristic common to both sound and silence is duration – length of time. Silence cannot be high or low, loud or quiet, harsh or smooth. Silence is silence – absence of sound – it can last for a short time or a long time and that’s it. Sounds also have duration. All sounds stop (actually Cage discovered two sounds that don’t) and the fact that they stop enables the phenomenon of rhythm. If sounds didn’t stop, it would be extremely difficult to make rhythms. Having decided that rhythm was more important than melody and harmony and that all sounds, not just notes, could be used to make music, Cage began to work with percussion. His group played conventional orchestral instruments – drums, rattles, cymbals etc – and invented a few of their own – automobile brake drums, kitchen utensils, household objects etc.
Most of the strings of a grand piano are usually grouped in threes, the exception to this are the bass notes, where the strings get longer and thicker, which are grouped in twos and, the very low notes, which are single strings. The fact that each note is a tight group of three strings enables small objects placed between the strings to be held in place by the tension in the strings. A screw or a bolt or a pencil rubber will simply stay put when it is inserted into the piano strings. And when such an object is gripped by the strings it changes the sound that is produced when the piano hammer strikes. No longer is there a clear note, with identifiable pitch, there is instead an exotic rattle, ping or thud like an instrument from Africa or the Far East.
The dance had an African theme and Cage was asked to write music that had a flavour of Africa. So, using only his piano he tried to find scales and groupings of notes that had this kind of sound. He couldn’t do it. The notes were not working. It was notes themselves that were problematic; the piece didn’t need conventional notes, but notes were what a piano produced. “I decided that what was wrong was the piano, not my efforts, because I was conscientious” Cage wrote later. He needed some way of changing the sound of the piano. Cage and seen and heard the results of extended piano techniques devised by his teacher Henry Cowell. These involved plucking strings inside the piano, strumming across the strings and rubbing a darning needle along a string. The effect of these techniques changed the sound of the piano creating interesting harmonics and, what were then, new sounds. Cage tried some of these ideas and then experimented with household objects placed inside the piano. He tried resting a metal pie plate on the strings. It gave an interesting sound but it bounced about. He tried an iron nail inserted into a group of strings but it fell out. He knew he was moving in the right direction. The thread of a woodscrew would hold it in place if it was twisted into the space in a group of strings. Similarly with a bolt. Cage had hit on the right objects. Later he recalled, “I was delighted to notice that by means of a single preparation two different sounds could be produced. One was resonant and open, the other was quiet and muted. The quiet one was heard whenever the soft pedal was used.”
Having prepared his piano he set about composing the piece. This was done relatively quickly. It starts at a furious pace, buzzing and rattling and pinging like a collection of thick tin cans. The rhythm is strident and very clear with a strong pulse. It’s like clockwork, acoustic techo. Music for windup toys. As the pace slows, weird bell-like tones shimmer and resonate like some early 80s digital synthesizer in its gurgling death throes. Cage had hit upon a fabulous new soundworld.
There are many pieces, written by Cage (and others), for prepared piano. The Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48) are a collection of short pieces written with rhythm and durational proportions (phrase lengths, numbers of bars, repeated sections) as the main structural element. Music for Marcel Duchamp was composed in 1947 and was used to accompany part of the experimental film ‘Dreams That Money Can Buy’ by the Dadaist Hans Richter. Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra (1951) completely extends the classical idea of a concerto and the role of the solo instrument against the orchestra.
What music meant was no longer clear. Melody, harmony and the idea of memorable tunes disappeared. New sounds, dislocated rhythms and dissonance were the ingredients of the new music.
Nearly sixty years later Richard James was in a BBC studio taking part in a Radio 3 programme called ‘Mixing It’ which no longer exists. His music was being played along with the usual fabulous eclectic mix that this programme offered. One of Cage’s prepared piano pieces was played and Mr Aphex’s ears were drawn to the extraordinary sounds. He enquired about the prepared piano and how it was all done. Many other techno artists would have probably prepared a piano and sampled some of the sounds, but not Richard James, he knew this simply wouldn’t work and that any results of this process would be crass. He bought a grand piano that can be played by computer. It’s called a ‘Diskclavier’ and it’s made by Yamaha. It’s exactly like a straightforward grand piano but the keys can be controlled by a computer via MIDI – the musical instrument digital interface. Richard James cannot read conventional musical notation and he cannot play a keyboard so, in order to make the piano and prepared piano pieces that appear on ‘Drukqs’ he prepared his Diskclavier according to the principles established by John Cage and programmed the playing using a computer. The results are there for all to hear. It’s a real piano on Drukqs, not a sampler or a synthesizer. Richard James has brought the sound of the forties into the 21st century.
“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.”