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AMON for all seasons

September 1, 2000
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Amon Tobin looks across the San Francisco Bay with a sense of awe; in the distance lies Alcatraz Island, to the right stands Coit Tower, and below spreads the expanse of city that stretches from North Beach to the Embarcadero. Our lookout point is the San Francisco Art Institute, a miracle of design-half rustic Mission-style haunt and half ultramodern cement minimalism. Tobin is in the neighborhood to play a live set at Bimbo's with DJ Food and Kid Koala, but his presence is especially fitting because his music, like the Art Institute, is also a miracle of design-a brilliant melding of old sounds and modern methods, technological innovation and exotic influences.

Amon Tobin: Drum 'n' Bass Without BordersThe Brazilian-born drum 'n' bass artist, who resides in Bristol, England, first began releasing 12-inch singles under the name Cujo in 1995. Since then, Tobin (his full name is pronounced AH-min TOE-bin) has become arguably the most arrangement-savvy composer in his genre, a champion of golden-era jazz drum samples, sweeping orchestral strings, and Latin instrumentation. But while many sample-based auteurs can lay claim to eclecticism, few produce music so rich in detail and scope. Tobin's 1997 Bricolage offered a watershed moment in drum 'n' bass and was followed by the now-classic Permutations; both releases inspired a wave of jazz-hybrid electronic music. In his latest Ninja Tune album, Super Modified, he intensifies his exploration of effects and processing while reaching for samples that evoke a more instant sense of recognition.

The richness, complexity, and tone that have always marked Tobin's BREAKbeats have only increased. Dynamic shards of Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, and Max Roach weave into dreamy trip-hop cuts on "Get Your Snack On" and "Deo," while Ravel-like oboes and plucky, glittering harps soar over chugging cellos and military snares on "Marine Machines." The music truly delivers on the promise that samplers hold out-a postmodern, panstylistic vision, evocative and visceral, cinematic and sexy. And, like the city of San Francisco, Tobin himself is laid-back but righteous, determined to see his vision through but not willing to miss out on the vistas along the way.

It's tough to describe your music as strictly drum 'n' bass; one has the urge to qualify your music as an entity unto itself.

I think drum 'n' bass has gone through a fairly predictable transition in the last five years, away from something that broke every rule it could. It used to be very free-every few months people were pushing the limits of how fast a track's bpm could go. No one really knew what drum 'n' bass was, and it wasn't really popular-it was very experimental. But as the genre grew more defined, you started to hear more recognizable sounds. People restrict themselves to those sounds in order to be affiliated with the genre. You end up with a narrowing process, where things become more and more defined until they actually become very boring.

That's not to say it's not still a strong creative source. It's just harder to find the good stuff now. Almost every record I get through the post now, every drum 'n' bass 12-inch, has a two-step beat and is really dull-but the production is awesome, the compression is there, it's very clear. On the other hand, it's less hip now, particularly in the United Kingdom, so perhaps the scene will go away and move on to the next thing. Then the genre can expand again and become more diverse, once there's less focus on it.

In my relationship to drum 'n' bass, I always take what I love about that music and incorporate it with things I love about other music, like jazz, hip-hop, and blues. I try to make something of my own that will never be in Grooverider's record box or will never feature on the dance floor at Kemistry and Storm. My music will always fall slightly outside the norm, but hopefully it will have longevity because of that. It won't sink as soon.

The relationship between listening and playing is a pretty intense one for traditional musicians; for sample-based composers, the dynamic between what comes in and what goes out is even more tangible. How does your craft influence your listening?

I shift my focus quite frequently-from, say, old strings to harps to bass sounds. I'll get into something for months, then I'll try to explore something else. My focus usually comes from a sound I come across that I can't quite duplicate, so I keep doing tracks until I get close to what I hear in my head. For example, the introduction to the Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs" features sitars and slide guitars; it's quite psychedelic. I was trying to find that sound without sampling the Velvet Underground-to find it in other music-for quite a while. I based the intro to "Four-Ton Mantis" on that type of sound. In this album I focused on drones a lot, those deep sounds that don't really go away but stay underneath everything else, rising up and going down.

I have a weird relationship with sounds that exist in various contexts perfectly happily. I take them out of that context and put them in an unnatural musical setting. The sounds pull away from each other and don't want to be together. My job is to make them work coherently together, and that's where the creative process is for me. I would never take credit for the sounds themselves, because it's all samples from other places. I just try to make connections between sounds, to make a brand-new sound out of existing noises. I usually have a strong idea in my head before I start out, and I find the sounds to fit within that idea: "I want to make this kind of track-where do I go for that?" I'll start scanning through the records I bought on my last tour. I'll find the snare sound and the bass sound I'm after and pull them out from various sources.

Do you mostly target full phrases or smaller hits?

A variety. Most of the time, I use tiny pieces of things. But it's interesting to grab something recognizable as a specific type of music and overlay that with another thing that has nothing to do with that, maybe something very contemporary and urban. That process can magnify the properties of each sound. Part of the point of using samples is that people do recognize the sample, perhaps not exactly where it's from, but the area it came from-the type of film, the type of mood. The fact that it's taken so blatantly out of context makes it relevant. It's a reference.

Do you use the sampler mainly to store sounds that wind up in hard disk audio, or do you work more with MIDI to trigger the sampler?

The way I work is a mixture of both. I sample everything into my Akai S6000. I take those sounds, chop them up, and have them available as raw noises. I put them into Cubase VST and use various effects plug-ins to get the sounds I want, then I resample them so I have various versions of the sounds, pre- and post-Cubase. I'm trying to keep all my connections digital at the moment. My stuff's sound quality will never be that good because I'm always using second-generation sounds-vinyl, specifically-and it's always crackly. It's not like I'm sitting with a 303 and a 909, making beautifully crisp sounds. I'm taking samples off vinyl. With that in mind, I make sure that the process remains as clean as possible, particularly because I'm bouncing back and forth between the processing tools in Cubase VST and the sampler.

When your track is playing, do you look at MIDI commands or waveforms in your Arrange window?

It's all in the sampler at that point. I don't use the audio function on my sequencer much. I just don't need to. The Akai has a lot of memory space, and I like the control you have with MIDI. I do a lot of my programming with the controllers in the MIDI window, assigning them various filters-assigning different filters to Velocity controllers. You can't really do that in an audio waveform. If you have the entire keyboard with a different drum sound on each key, and then you have a different filter assigned to various controllers that you can apply to those different keys, you have a vast range of control. I find this a much more fluid way of working than having to stick to a waveform. I don't use the drum programming tools in Cubase, either. I create drum parts as a MIDI block.

I know of many drummers who have a particular sympathy with your music. Partly it's the choice of samples, but another part of the appeal is how free your drum tracks are. They don't seem as stuck in the measure as most drum loops.

I totally ignore the time signature; that's probably got a lot to do with it. I don't really have any academic knowledge of music. I couldn't tell you if a track was in 6/4 or 7/8 or any of that. I do everything in 4/4 in Cubase, but I'll program the drums how I feel them. I ignore a lot of what's on the screen.

How chopped up are the drum samples?

Very, very broken up. On average, I have 70 or 80 drum samples in a track, but that includes all the BREAK's chops. I might take five or six BREAKs from different records, then chop each of those up into maybe a dozen pieces and mix them up with the other BREAKs, taking snares and kicks from different places and combining them into one BREAK. I map out the drums across the keyboard-usually a couple of keys doing one sound, the next few keys doing another, and everything on one MIDI channel. I program the samples accordingly, tuning and pitching every single chop from each different drum, so that every combination will work. The weird thing is that some of the BREAKs have completely different time signatures, but the way it's programmed they fit together. I don't completely understand it, but it works. I suppose that the smaller you chop something, the more you can control it. It's very finely wrought and quite laborious, but I actually enjoy rearranging rhythms.

What is your DJ setup?

Just two decks-Technics SL-1200s-and a Vestax PMC-06 mixer, which has a nice sound quality. It's not like I scratch; the mixer just has nice outputs. From there the sound goes straight into the sampler. I have so many plug-ins that I don't need anything else between the decks and the sampler.

Do you tune the record a lot before you sample the sound?

Oh, yeah, and a lot of time I'm sampling two records at the same time, especially the stuff with more ambient noise. It's interesting to mix sounds and sample them together to produce a third sound.

Is your waveform editing done on the computer?

No. The control window on the S6000 is big enough to really let me work with the sample. Plus you can take the window off and hold it like a Gameboy, which is wicked. It's the main reason I got the 6000 instead of the 5000. I can keep the sampler under the desk, and with an extension cord I can pace around the room and edit samples.

I've just upgraded my studio, so it's going to sound very flash. I got a Macintosh G4 with a 450 MHz processor, a Midiman USB-to-MIDI interface, and a Sonorus sound card with S/PDIF I/O. My keyboard controller is a Roland. I use a lovely Mackie D8B desk. It's basically the same studio I've always had, just with better equipment.

You claim that you sample all your sounds from the source. Do you have any particular objection to the widespread use of preselected sample CDs like Vinylistics, Drum 'n' Bass Resonance, or the dozens of others available today?

My attitude's not as harsh as it may come across. I'm all about what you do with the sound. But if you're making music to release, you owe it to the people who are buying the record to at least try to use a sound that isn't off Beats 'n' BREAKs #52. Other people have used BREAKs from my albums. I know that, and that's fine as long as I've taken it from the source to begin with. Also, if you take a sound as it was originally recorded, you have more scope to do your own thing with it. It doesn't have additional reverb; other people's takes haven't corrupted it.

In the end, though, it doesn't matter; it's what you do with the sound that counts-even if it is from BattleBREAKs #6. Ultimately, I'm not obsessed with where the sound has come from. I'm much more interested in where it's going.

James Rotondi (aka Roto) plays keyboards, guitar, and other instruments for Mr. Bungle, the Grassy Knoll, and Trilon (with Michael Shrieve). He recently cocomposed the music for Experience Music Project's Audio Immersion Tunnel, and he regularly writes for Spin, CMJ New Music Monthly, Guitar World, and other publications.

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