Sound On Sound interview - April 2004
In producing their complex, abstract electronica, Autechre have taken the idea of the studio as an instrument to new extremes...
Autechre's Rob Brown and Sean Booth have been called the superstars of the electronic music world, yet they operate in near-obscurity. The duo's considerable output has been released on all the formats going — CD, vinyl, cassette, Minidisc, MP3 and DVD — but always packaged in abstract artwork with the absolute minimum amount of information. Generally speaking, only Booth and Brown and a mastering engineer are mentioned, and album and track titles such as 'fold4,wrap5', 'ccec' and '6IE.CR' reveal little.
All this apparent secrecy adds an aura of mystique and otherworldliness to Autechre. This is apt, since their music has few earthly points of reference. It moves between the extremes of delicate, pastoral, ambient soundscapes, and chaotic mayhem full of DSPed-to-death drum machines and generative sequences playing seemingly at random. Rhythms and samples are stretched and twisted beyond recognition and wrapped in glassy digital distortion. About the only recurring, easily recognisable elements in Autechre's music are the occasional fat, analogue-sounding synth patches.
The question is put to Sean Booth whether the absence of information on Autechre's output, and also their media-shyness, are attempts to get people to listen to their music, and stop them conceptualising about it. "Totally, man," he confirms. "That's what it's about, isn't it? We don't do credits because what can we do, thank every single person on earth? Where would we stop? Also, track titles are an annoyance, don't you think? They're a necessary evil, but at the same time we're trying to divert people away from a description of the track. As far as the artwork goes, packaging exists because we need something to pack the record in, and so we make it as beautiful as can. We have some mates who do really good visual stuff, and it gives people something beyond pure sound. But it wouldn't concern us much if we were only dealing with data."
What's In Those Names?
Autechre pronounce their name as 'autecker'. Sean Booth explains that the name came about when the duo were working on an Atari. "The first two letters were intentional, because there was an 'au' sound in the track, and the rest of the letters were bashed randomly on the keyboard. We had this track title for ages, and we had written it on a cassette, with some graphics. It looked good, and we began using it as our name."
Autechre is arguably the most ear-catching of all the fantasy titles that Booth and Brown have come up with. Regarding their unworldly track titles, such as 'IV, VV, IV, VV, VII', from Draft 7:30 or 'Eutow' on Tri Repetae, Booth comments "They're usually jokes. Some of them will be file names. It used to be the case that we had to keep files names short, because in the Atari they were a maximum of eight characters. A lot of titles are working titles, or abbreviations of working titles. Some will be whatever the code number of a track was — many tracks will be given numbers or code names because they're part of a folder of stuff that shares the same characteristics."
Going into details about some of the track titles on Draft 7:30, Booth explains "'6IE.CR' was actually called '606IE,' because it was based on a manipulation of a 606 sound. 'Reniform' is a real word, meaning kidney-shaped, and 'Puls' of course is 'Pulse' without the 'e'. 'Surripere' is the Latin word that's the root of 'surreptitious'. And in 'Theme of Sudden Roundabout', 'Sudden' is actually the name of a place."
Clearly, Autechre have a rather 'otherworldly' way of looking at some music-industry issues. Perhaps the details of their earthly existence will offer more understanding of their enigmatic philosophy and music... Booth is currently based in Suffolk, while Brown lives in London. Both men have studios in their respective residences containing largely identical gear, although Booth's studio is apparently slightly larger and better equipped, and Brown enjoys coming out to the countryside in Suffolk more than Booth enjoys going into London.
Booth is originally from Rochdale, near Manchester, where the duo met in 1987, when both were still teenagers. Booth recalls that he was "doing pause-button edit mixes on compact cassettes, while Rob was doing stuff with turntables. At age 11 or 12 I had already struggled to create sounds on a BBC computer, and I had a little tape machine with which I would record things from the television. Then I used the hi-fi to compile cassette mix tapes."
Like any artists, Booth and Brown have developed a lot, but two important constants remain from their early musical activities. First, neither played instruments or were musicians in the traditional sense of the word. For a long time they worked in a hip-hop vein, adapting and editing other people's material without a conscious ambition to create their own musical identity. Second, they have an intrinsic interest in music technology. Much more than just a tool, technology was, and is, something they appreciate for its own sake.
"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 was taught how to deal with guitarists and compression on vocals," he explains. "But I didn't have the slightest interest in this, it wasn't exciting to me at all. I was thinking about drum machines and effect units and small analogue synths and wanted to know what to do with this stuff. 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. It was the opposite angle really. And so I decided that if I got a rubbish job, bought equipment to use at our house, and had no-one around telling us what to do, we'd make better music."
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."
After a few false starts with small labels, Autechre signed in 1992 with Warp Records, one of the UK's pioneering electronica labels. Their first singles and their debut album, Incunabula (1993), were well received and allowed Booth and Brown to give up any 'rubbish jobs' and become professional music makers. A string of subsequent singles, EPs and albums followed, among them Tri Repetae (1995), which many still regard as their magnum opus, the 'difficult' Confield (2001), and their most recent full-length release, Draft 7:30 (2003). In addition, Booth and Brown are also involved in a collective called Gescom, which allows them to release material more suited to the dance floor, and have applied their remix skills to music by Saint Etienne, DJ Food, Tortoise, Slowly and others.
The development of Autechre's music since 1993 is fairly easy to qualify. Earlier work is more harmonious, ambient and tonal — conventional, for lack of a better word. More recent works have become much more adventurous, with out-of-time playing rhythm boxes promoted to the role of lead instruments. Confield, especially, is full of digital distortion, generative sequences, and irregular rhythms set in ambient contexts.
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.
"It's good to have an interest in things, to go, 'Oh, what does this do?' and 'Oh, I understand that,' or 'Can I use it?'" explains Booth. "Many of the tools I use are the same as everyone else's, it's just that I really like to check them out and get into the nuances of them. I still don't get bored with them. I still enjoy using Sound Edit 16, because it has a couple of features that are really easy to use. Or Turbo Synth is amazing. It's the simplest thing in the world, but it works. Or the 202 sequencer. It's batty, totally upside down, but it's brilliant to use once you understand the numbers."
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.
"I guess it's like with a lot of things," muses Booth, "you need to have the bottle to build the skills you need. A lot of people build skills for just one environment, and they'll just use Cubase or Logic, and that will be it. Whereas I'm a bit of a mutant; it's no hassle for me to stay in on a Friday night and download loads of new software and try it out. I don't see any harm in that as long as you have the time to do it. We're also a bit mutated in the sense that we don't use gear for things that most people seem to think it's best for. Everyone thought the [Yamaha] DX100 was amazing to do bass lines, but we didn't do that for ages. It seemed like there was so much more to them to explore, like they're good for brassy, reedy sounds. You could be working for five years with a crappy drum machine and delay unit and still find new things in there.
"I guess because of our remix background, refashioning what already existed, we are used to working in so many ways and on so many different levels. It's still us applying our personality to what we have available. Today Rob and I often work separately, but we share everything. We meet up with laptops and exchange large volumes of data. We do occasionally swap stuff over the Internet, but it's not the same as when you're there and can talk about what you have.
"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."
Talking 'Bout Our Generation
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."
Towards The Centre
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 8x8 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."
Given all the different pieces of equipment that Autechre work with, one wonders how they draw everything together. According to Booth, the band works predominantly in 44.1kHz audio. "I'll have everything I'm doing on a drive. That's one way in which Rob and I can exchange data. Obviously, with other software you're keeping a lot more than just the audio, but at least the analogue sounds can be captured and exchanged in this way. Sometimes we put things straight down onto our HHB CD recorder. Sometimes we mix it back to the computer so we can do edits later on. A lot of the time we save whatever we can and stash it on CDs and recently DVD-R, for which we're soon going to get a RAID system for archiving."
With a lot of Autechre's material ending up on hard disk, what does Booth think of the claim that producing entire tracks inside of computers means that they come out sounding flat and lifeless? His answer comes back as fast as lightning, "People who say that just don't know how to produce properly. You can make anything you do in the computer sound amazing. It just depends on what you do. Anyone who says that you can't make music sound fat with a computer has just never managed to do it themselves. Because you can do it. Of course there are things that computers don't do so well, like EQ, and it's better to use a stand-alone EQ. But computers do compression really well, and even reverb. Despite the bad press computers and reverb get, I think you can do some very inventive stuff with them. You can make really lush-sounding synth patches using a folder full of reverb plug-ins."
Yet, despite Booth's enthusiastic defence of computers, Autechre also know when not to use them. "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."
Published in SOS April 2004