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CONTROL FREAKS

October 1, 2006
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“If I can be brutally honest, I just don't listen to dance music anymore,” says Guy Hatfield (aka DJ Hyper). It's hard to imagine that an artist who makes his living off the dance- and electronic-music genres would make such a statement, but that is exactly what Hatfield tells Remix. On the surface, that statement seems a bit surprising, but when you consider his collaborative new band project (now simply referred to as Hyper) and its debut album We Control (Thrive, 2006), things start making a little more sense.

We Control is an interesting turn for an artist linked tightly with the electronic breaks community. In fact, with the release of mix CDs for popular labels, including Distinctive and Bedrock; a massive two-month opening slot on the Crystal Method's 2004 U.S. tour; and remixes for the likes of Sugababes, Pink, BT and Paul van Dyk, DJ Hyper has become one of the more recognizable names on the scene.

Although We Control is electronic at the core, it was approached much like the production of a band or pop act. Add to that Hatfield's boycott of electronic music and its magazines; his love for rock and punk acts like Descendents, The Futureheads and The Subways; and collaborations with ex-Prodigy dancer Leeroy Thornhill and Pitchshifter's Jim Davies, and you'll start understanding why this record was conceived for more than just the dancefloor in mind.

BROTHERS IN SOUND

Although the name DJ Hyper is associated with Hatfield, there's also a man behind the scenes who helps make all those productions and remixes sound so good. Hyper's production side is controlled by partner John Ross (aka Ronnie), who previously made a name for himself as a member of The Light and PFM, and for his collaborations with Sasha (most notably on Airdrawndagger) and BT. A bedroom producer by trade (Ross made it to grade three piano as a child), the pair has collaborated on tracks for about three years.

But when it came time to create the debut Hyper artist album, there was little direction in mind. The only thing Hatfield and Ross knew from the start was that they didn't want to create a breakbeat album — the genre they were most known for. “We wanted to get away from compilations and put more of my own personality and musical taste in there. [We Control is] sort of a backlash against dance music, and we wanted to really make songs and keep the tracks to about three minutes or so,” Hatfield says.

“I've been in the breaks genre for the last few years, but I'm not a purist of any genre,” Ross adds. “Guy has been a breaks DJ, but I didn't want to make an album of dance tracks. I wanted it to be an album with songs.”

The evolution of We Control from the usual collaboration between Hatfield and Ross into a full-on band project was not the intention from the start of production. Rather, it was more of the duo listening to the skeleton of the tracks and realizing that the music lent itself to vocalists and live musicians. “We went through the tracks, and we realized that we could add a live guitar here or a vocalist there,” Hatfield says. “I bumped into Leeroy Thornhill in an airport and told him about the project, and we kept in touch. He played me music that I liked, and I gave him a few of our tracks [“Ant Music,“ “Twisted Emotion” and “Dirty Mind”] that needed some vocals. We then also brought on other artists like Wildchild, Dirty Harry and MC Xander.”

Despite being full of collaborators, the working process between Hatfield and Ross remained much the same as it has in the past. On a typical day, Hatfield arrives at Ross' studio, and the pair sits down and comes up with ideas that are based around putting together a nice drum, bass and rhythm track, then refined with hooks and synth sounds. “When we started We Control, we had a broad taste in music from multiple genres, and there wasn't movement toward any one sound,” Hatfield says. “We sat down, and if it worked, it worked. We don't try and push a square peg into a round hole.”

But things don't work without Ross at the production helm. “It's really me coming up with the sounds and ideas, and Guy will say what he likes,” Ross says. “Guy's not that musical, and he uses the DJ brain as sort of the music executive. He goes out there, and he has forged his little niche. I sit in the studio and do my little thing, and it goes well together. Guy also has this instinctive ear where he knows what to look for when I work on the tracks.”

START THE REAKTOR

For the album, Ross went mainly in the box for sounds, using Gmedia ImpOSCar software for tougher sounds and ReFX Vanguard for trancelike sounds. But of all the programs Ross used for production, Ross points to Native Instruments Reaktor 5 as the most important to the overall sound.

Despite Reaktor's complex range of possibilities and versatility, Ross prefers to keep it simple. “With this program, you can build your own synths and get really complex,” he says. “But the synth that comes programmed from the factory and the synths [created by other Reaktor users] that can be downloaded from the company Website are great. Easiest of all, you can use the randomize button on Reaktor, and something weird always comes out. I'm big on turning on the programming, wiggling a few knobs, and if it sounds good, we are all set. I'm not one of those geek programmers, and my brain doesn't work that way. If it gets complicated, then my brain switches off. I like big, bold, user-friendly things.”

There are two decisions that Ross cites as key to setting apart We Control from other dance/rock hybrid albums: proper recording and proper compression. Although Ross creates his music in Apple Logic, they decided to record everything at Rollover Studios in West London on a Soundtracs Jade 48-channel mixing desk with engineer John Gray (The Zutons).

“He's an analog-band engineer and uses vintage compressors, analog desks, patchbays and live takes,” Ross says. “I think this gives the record a certain quality sound, and we got a very live, rocky, punchy feel that's more like a band.” Gray also provided Ross with a valuable lesson in how much proper compression lends to quality music. “The holy grail of proper musicmaking is having an understanding of and working out compression; John really showed us this,” Ross says. “Making a good recorded track is about using the right stuff and knowing how to use it well. Good, expensive gear gets the job done better than cheap imitation stuff, and I've since started using the UAD-1 Project Pak plug-ins, which are the best compression emulators.”

THE PRODIGY EXPERIENCE

“It's a bit of a slap in the face of DJing, really,” says an enthusiastic Hatfield when describing his new live show. “DJing isn't faceless, but the dynamic of the crowd is much different, and I love the jump-in-your-face dynamic of a live show.”

When it came time to conceive a Hyper live show, Thornhill's telephone number was on speed dial. The former Prodigy dancer has seen and done it all in the dance-music genre, and above all, he knows how to entertain a crowd, something most dance acts fail to accomplish in the modern laptop era. Fourth in line behind Liam Howlett, Keith Flint and Maxim Reality on the Prodigy totem pole, Thornhill was never content on being just a dancer and left the mega-dance act to pursue other interests, including his own Flightcrank project. It may surprise some that Thornhill actually has a serviceable voice, as best exemplified by his work on the cover of Adam Ant's “Ant Music.” It is the great Hyper live show, however, that benefits the most from having Thornhill onboard. “Leeroy's been there and done it, so he can really keep us at the right energy and tell us how to keep a crowd going and entertain people,” Ross says. “With most dance acts, it just doesn't work; you really have to be a performer. You have to be exciting and look like you are exciting. You can't stand there and noodle. Bands have to put on a show, and this is one of the most important things about Hyper. The whole thing about The Prodigy was, ‘How can we entertain?’ You just can't run through the numbers.”

Technically, the Hyper live show is based around running Logic on one laptop. The basic track elements (bass, drums and synth) are split up as parts in one big arrangement, and then Ross syncs that with Hatfield's laptop, which runs Ableton Live. That enables Hatfield to trigger parts of the tracks live. “The basics of the tracks come from Logic, and we have it come out of a MOTU 828mkII for mixing purposes,” Ross says. “Then we also have a guitarist and drums that we use to play cymbals and light percussion. It's more for cosmetic effect, more than anything, and it makes us look more like a band. Of course, Leeroy is also up there singing and dancing up front.”

Although We Control was released Stateside in September, it had already been in stores overseas for several months earlier and was well received by the press. Despite a busy tour schedule as a DJ and band project, Hatfield says that they are almost half done with a follow-up record, which he claims will be heavier on aggression and guitars. “Look at ‘Ant Music’ and ‘We Control’ as a clue as to where the next album is heading,” Ross says. “We have Leeroy doing a few tracks again and the singer of The Subways [Billy Lunn].” Names on his wish list include Jello Biafra, Pete Shelley and a young electro crew out of Brighton, UK, called South Central.

As a DJ who claims to not listen to dance music anymore, it appears that Hatfield is having a tough time finding music that inspires him. “I play lots of rock tracks in my sets, and I am finding cool stuff at the moment, but it's hard to find people who are like-minded,” he confesses. A question needs to be posed: How will Hyper's fans react to such a hard-nosed project from an artist who they only know from the dancefloor? “At the end of the project, you realize it's going to come out, and people are going to review it,” Hatfield says. “You realize that you really put your balls on the line because people are expecting one thing, and here's something else — but I'm happy with the way it came out.”

HYPER IN THE BOX

Computer, DAW, recording hardware

Apple Power Macintosh G5 dual 2.7 GHz computer running Apple Logic Pro 7
MOTU 828mkII interface

Console

Soundtracs Jade 48-channel mixing desk

Synth

Dave Smith Instruments Poly Evolver

Soft synths, plug-ins

Gmedia ImpOSCar
Korg Legacy Collection
Native Instruments Guitar Rig 2 and Reaktor 5
ReFX Vanguard
Spectrasonics Atmosphere, Stylus RMX and Trilogy
Universal Audio UAD-1 Project Pak

Monitors

Mackie HR824 active monitors

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