Listening in abstraction is really the only recourse for anyone tuned in to the intricate sonic treatments of the British duo Autechre. With an arsenal of noises that can splinter or soothe, depending on the mathematical forethought, Sean Booth and Rob Brown maintain a near-infinite palette of sounds from which to craft their machinelike music. Whatever category the music falls under — dare anyone suggest IDM — it's easy to understand why Autechre is often compared to contemporaries Aphex Twin, Plaid and Oval. But the music is not so synthetic that the human element is completely missing; after all, computers don't program themselves. “Nowadays, with the experience and the hindsight we have of using these bits of systems to illustrate certain mathematical processes or dynamics that we appreciate as an aesthetic in tracks, we'll just put them in manually, use faders or custom-graph everything,” Brown says.
Bucking the current trend of compose-by-numbers software, Brown and Booth create personalized programs to formulate their cutting-edge brand of electronic music. “I think we're just really open with our approach to music nowadays,” Brown says. “You know, we might start working off an idea that one of us started; maybe it's a beat or a bit of software that one of us wrote that kind of allows us to print complex bits of music to our specification. This time, we've just allowed everything to become so transparent that we're, in a sense, penning in every event that's actually occurring.” This time, that is, with their seventh Warp effort, Draft 7.30, a 10-track opus that glitches and sneers its way from song to song. The title is nothing more than it implies: the seventh draft, 30th revision of the pair's final compilation of working tracks. “The working title just stuck,” Brown says. “It seemed to make loads of sense when we looked it up in a dictionary for its true representation, and that was that.”
Straightforward though the album's title may be, the individual track names beg further investigation. If listeners can get their heads around “Reniform Puls,” “V-Proc” and “P.:NTIL” (pronounced pointil), “IV VV IV VV VIII” and “6IE.CR” await. Admitting somewhat bashfully that the song titles are knowingly esoteric, Brown makes no apologies as to why: “That's the way it is — the music's esoteric! For us, when you're making your own music and there's only you to judge it by, to know that it's what you wanted to do or not, a title that actually describes a track would be a ridiculous concept.”
Communicating in mind-numbing onslaughts of ideas and philosophies has been the Autechre way since Brown and Booth made their debut on Warp's Artificial Intelligence (1992) compilation. As their groundbreaking Warp releases Incunabula (1993), Amber (1994), Tri Repetae (1995), Chiastic Slide (1997), LP5 (1998) and Confield (2001) followed, it was increasingly obvious that the pair did not enjoy self-promotion, often bewildering interviewers. Whether the duo has an actual disdain for press or they just like to poke a little fun, it's obvious that Booth and Brown speak the same language — both in conversation and in the studio.
Brown likens their method to a tennis match, with one often putting some beats down first before volleying it off to the other. Sometimes, though, it's a solo effort. “If somebody's on a roll and taking something in a certain direction, then sometimes making your mark in the middle of that can disturb it,” Brown says. It comes down to honesty, trust and being open with each other — qualities that develop not only from 15 years of working together but also from learning along the same curve and sharing similar interests. “I think we learned very early on that what we've both managed to find in one another is kind of special, and we've worked on it, built on that,” Brown says.
That ease of collaboration fostered a smooth studio experience for Draft 7.30. Booth and Brown split their time between two studios, keeping doubles of the more important gear so that they could swap ideas and materials easily enough without wasting too much time. Surrounded by farms as opposed to the bustle of city life, the remote English countryside location of Autechre's primary studio also facilitated the process. Left to their own devices, without friends and colleagues popping by, the pair could really delve into their task, spending anywhere from one to three weeks on each track. “We've got [the studio] networked so deeply, there's just nothing in our way making us make tracks the way they should be,” Brown says.
Considering the near-confounding array of noises and sounds — not to mention the programming — within any Autechre track, it's difficult to reconcile that Brown and Booth start the composition process with something as simple as a loop or sample.
“We've got sounds in the album that are either samples of our own raw cycles off, like, a [Roland MC-] 202, to be able to resynthesize it more than a 202 can, but retain its voice,” Brown says. “We sample a lot of our own stuff as a tool to play back things rapidly or polyphonically or to have more control over, say, an audio slab you'd find in Logic. It's like Pro Tools and Logic and all that: You've got all these tools in one place. It really makes sense to throw things around.”
In addition to self-sampled material and penciled-in compositional elements, Brown concedes that he and Booth “tap things and drop things” for “made” found sounds. “I don't understand the concept of found sounds,” he says. “I suppose if that's just stuff lying around, I mean, it's all found, isn't it? We used to sample records because they had beats that we didn't even have the rare grooves for. It depends on how found you mean.” Understanding or no, Brown has his eye on a powerful but portable hard-disk recorder that's silent and waterproof and will help him secure those sounds not found in his stationary studio. “I've seen some nice HHB stuff — that would be some tasty equipment to use,” he says.
The Autechre lads do have some portable recording equipment and mics — a couple of Sennheisers and some cheap contact mics — on hand. “Even headphones can be a good mic in some respects,” Brown says. “It's like using the magneto [phono] input on a mixing desk that would normally access a turntable: Put line-input signals through it, and it treats it totally different. That's an old trick we used to do on DJ mixes to get things sounding quite good. If you played it quiet enough, the magneto input would kind of amplify it a little, and somewhere in between the excessive area and the sort of infinitely nothing area, you've got something working like a really good filter.”
In terms of the gear that Autechre uses, a single rack unit, keyboard, processor or program doesn't outshine the others; rather, the integration of everything in the pair's studios allows them to churn out their product effectively. Brown insists that the Autechre setup comprises only the most mundane, everyday items: patch bays, half-rack Boss and Yamaha effects units, spring reverbs, vintage and new analog synths, digital synths, old American samplers, more modern Japanese samplers, mixing desks and Dynaudio M1 and BM-15A monitors. “It's so regular, what we've got, I think it's just our ability to get everything out of it, just explore the possibilities of things, like custom networks,” Brown says. “For live stuff, we might use Macs to build little software sequencers that print out complex bits of music to our specification that might incur a lot of mathematical processes. But, say, when you're working in a studio these days, you want every element of control over what you've actually output. If you're going to print out vast amounts of musical data and then actually start to break that apart and re-edit it, it kind of defeats the object, in a way. So we'll keep that for the live domain.”
Brown does own up to using Mac G4s (a vast improvement upon Autechre's first machine, a Mac 7200/90 MHz), Emagic Logic Audio (“It's good for MIDI,” he says) and MOTU Digital Performer, but he is less than forthcoming about specific hardware models. “In a sense, it's hard to be specific without saying it's all about this,” he says. Not simply cagey, Brown and Booth have experienced the ills of revealing too much. In 1993, during their first trip to the United States, the duo met a fan who, after acquiring Autechre's gear list, proceeded to buy the whole lot — a collection that had taken the pair seven or eight years to accumulate. “He'd gotten all of it racked up and framed up and just didn't have a clue how to use it,” Brown recalls. “He was kind of hoping he could get it all going, get it all rocking really quick, and we felt really bad because we knew he was going to spend hours and hours frustrated over some shit that's not happening, that's so simple in retrospect when you've investigated just one instrument at a time as far as you can take it.”
Concentrating on a single studio item before moving on to the next has been a theme throughout Autechre's 15-year career. As young partners starting out in Sheffield (Brown has since relocated to London), that was more out of necessity than anything else. “We could maybe just about afford a new bit of gear by the time we sussed the old one out, add it to the list and then sort of put a lot of energy into learning that,” Brown says. Although that method proved to be a good model for Autechre, Brown admits that approach is somewhat irrelevant now with the proliferation of programs such as Propellerhead Reason effectively giving users starting kits. Nevertheless, the nitty-gritty of really getting to the bottom of a piece of gear and stretching it past its initial limits can reveal professional-level performance at a nonprofessional price. (See the sidebar, “Casiotone for the Painfully Inquisitive.”)
Although Autechre has certainly achieved enough success that the economics don't figure in quite as heavily when looking for new equipment, Brown and Booth still retain their fascination with exhausting the capabilities of a single unit, a bit of advice that Brown offers to those starting out. “I think one bad move is to get a load of gear in one go,” he says. He and Booth haven't been downloading loads of plug-ins, either, aside from a few updates of their main sequencers. “It's like if you're into pen pals when you're a kid: Now you've got the Internet,” Brown continues. “I mean, imagine how sort of almost paralyzing the infinite options might be.
“You see Websites for kids tinkering around with stuff, but back [when we started], there wasn't that much of a society exchanging information that freely, which was kind of a bad thing at the time. But it also meant there were a lot of people living in isolation kind of just finding their own feet on their own terms.”
And in the 15 years since Autechre began skirting boundaries and blowing minds, Brown and Booth have secured their own place on their own terms, as well. “In the studio at the moment, we've just got so much time and space, we can get up whenever we want, stay up as long as we want, make as much noise as we want,” Brown says. “It's almost like when you can turn music up louder, you can climb further in. These days, it's like having a pair of headphones on, yet we've got music coming out really nice monitors.”
Casiotone for the Painfully Inquisitive
In keeping with their tradition of getting the absolute most out of a piece of gear, Autechre's Rob Brown and Sean Booth aren't content to necessarily take a unit at face value. On the contrary, here's what Brown discovered from an old Casio SK-1 sampler:
“If you just get the back off that and cross a few pipes on the voice chip with, say, a little minijack plug or something, you've got real-time-based, almost DSP, function. From what I understand, it seems to affect the clock of the chip, the speed of that clock and how it actually presents that little really rubbish sample you've got in there, reinterprets it, and gives it delay, flange or chorus effects. If they'd have just put a little fader on the front that was connected to a little ribbon inside connected to that chip and they'd disabled all the unsafe methods but allowed you to do all the safe methods, it would have been one of the best, most modifiable samplers on the market for, like, under $100.”