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Disappearing Act

12/1/2000

Spring Heel Jack builds a drum 'n' bass empire inside a shoe box.

Acclaimed drum 'n' bass duo Spring Heel Jack is John Coxon (a DJ and pop-music producer) and Ashley Wales (a classical composer). Disappeared (Thirsty Ear, 2000) is the third album this year to roar out of Spring Heel Jack's personal studio in London's East End. "We write music all the time," Coxon says. "If you can find your own space and build up your own studio, then you have the time to write. The studio is a tool, just like an instrument."

Spring Heel Jack occupies a rented room at the Strongroom, a cooperative where it has spent eight years composing, recording, and mixing seven Spring Heel Jack albums and side projects. "It's a shoe box," Coxon says, "a small, self-contained unit. It's tuned to an extent, but it's not the most accurate place to mix." Disappeared was produced entirely within the Strongroom. Only one guest musician, bass clarinetist John Surman, recorded his parts elsewhere. "We sent him an ADAT with two channels of a stereo mix," Coxon says. "His son recorded him playing bass clarinet on our track, and then we put that back onto hard disk and mixed it from there."

Coxon and Wales use samples to create dense, intricate electronic soundscapes. "First, we make a sound world," Coxon says. "Sometimes we start with a loop, or some kind of drum thing, so we can bounce off of something. Often, we'll take out all the drums and be left with this soundscape that we've draped around them.

"We are interested in original recorded sound sources as opposed to synthesizer noises. Look at a band such as Orbital, who are friends of ours; they are around the corner from us, actually. They tend to build up their basic tracks using synthesizers and drum machines, and then the samples are the icing on the cake. They will spend a lot of time going through a synthesizer. Our tracks are the other way around: they start with samples - building up drum tracks from old recordings of drum kits - and then the synthesizer stuff is on the top."

Spring Heel Jack's method involves using the E-mu EIV and E6400 samplers as instruments, and Emagic's Logic Audio as the tape machine. "We used to use ADATs," Coxon says, "but now we have a decent hard disk recording system. We have a couple of [Yamaha] 02Rs and a Mac G4 400 [MHz], which runs Logic with a MOTU 2408 and MIDI Time Piece." Their synthesizers include the Novation DrumStation and Nova, as well as the Roland Juno-106 and JV-800. "We mainly use the two E-mus and the Novations," Coxon says.

"As far as outboards," Coxon says, "we have stuff that we've collected over the years." Two Technics turntables, a Vestax PMC20SL DJ Mixer, and the Roland RE-301 Space Echo also figure prominently. Acoustic and electric guitars, basses, and other sounds are played through a Vox AC30 amplifier, and Disappeared is rife with distortion.

"I like those old Jamaican records that have a lot of distortion on them," Coxon says. "We take samples and play them through guitar effects: the Line 6 Pod, wah-wah pedals, tremolos, and all sorts of things. Obviously, the more rough things that you introduce to the chain, the more levels of distortion you can get.

"I like the idea of making soundscapes that can't exist in real life," Coxon says. "The last thing we want to do is emulate reality. We want to use reality to make something which is extraordinary."

For more information about the CD, contact Thirsty Ear Recordings; e-mail info@thirstyear.com; Web www.thirstyear.com.

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