Thinking Inside the Box

EM spoke with Toby Marks about making the transition from hardware- to software-based production and how it came about. He also discusses his favorite gear, his personal studio in rural Somerset (in southwestern England), and what he looks for in sample libraries.
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For Banco de Gaia, aka Toby Marks, software instruments
inspire a creative resurgence.

Veteran UK electronica artist Toby Marks—who has released albums under the name Banco de Gaia since his first major release, 1994's Maya—is known for rocking dance floors and concert venues worldwide with his eclectic, sample-based music. Marks's relentless experimentation in the studio results in exotic sounding ambient, techno, and house tracks, and his signature sound encompasses numerous elements that he expertly weaves into a cohesive whole, blending voices and instruments from around the world with densely layered synths and beats.

Toby Marks
photo: Eugenie Arrowsmith

In 2004, Six Degrees Records released Marks's eighth Banco de Gaia album, You Are Here, his first studio album in four years (see Fig. 1). During its production Marks underwent substantive creative and technical transitions.

Beginning with his first Banco de Gaia album, Marks crafted his music using Roland S-750, S-760, and S-770 samplers alongside hardware synths, effects processors, and a Mac that primarily handled MIDI sequencing. However, for You Are Here, Marks redefined his established production techniques by immersing himself in software-based music production, satisfied with the quality of currently available software synths and plug-ins, and confident that his dual-processor Mac G4 was up to the task. Marks also assembled a portable, laptop-based recording rig for capturing final vocal tracks with guest vocalist Jennifer Folker for You Are Here in Portland, Oregon.

EM spoke with Marks about making the transition from hardware- to software-based production and how it came about. He also discusses his favorite gear, his personal studio in rural Somerset (in southwestern England), and what he looks for in sample libraries.

Is You Are Here your first software-based production?

Yes. I never actually decided that I would not use hardware [on this album], but I thought I would try not to use hardware, purely for the convenience as much as anything else—having everything on one screen, not having to re-patch things, the whole lot of it. It was great to get away from that and just focus on the creative flow.

I've always worked with a sequencer on a computer. I've been using [Apple's] Logic since it was [C-Lab's] Notator. I already had the Roland samplers and outboard hardware effects [processors]. As the years went by, I found more and more that rather than sticking something into a sampler, it was easier to stick it into Logic as an audio file. On Igizeh [Six Degrees, 2000], which was my previous studio album, there were a couple of songs where the vocals were recorded straight into Logic and I used plug-ins.

This time around, I had a dual-processor, 867 MHz Mac G4 and I had picked up all sorts of VST plug-ins and synths. I got [Emagic's] EXS24 [software sampler], which instantly replaced the Roland samplers because it made them look out of date in terms of power and the amount of RAM they can hold. Just before I finished recording [the album], I got hold of Space Designer, the Logic plug-in reverb.

I finished the first track [for You Are Here] and suddenly realized, "This is almost all software. Now, there's a thought!" It hadn't occurred to me that I could do a whole track with the level of complexity that I wanted [using only software]. I was surprised at how much I could do at this point in time.

FIG. 1: You Are Here is UK-based Banco de Gaia's eighth album release.

You didn't think you could do everything in the computer at this stage?

No. But Logic uses the [Mac's] dual processors quite effectively, which made a big difference. I could quite happily work with only Logic Pro and no other piece of software. If I was on a desert island and that was all I had, I could turn out quite adequate music. It's a good suite of tools.

As I said, I have all sorts of software, which I hadn't really looked into that much, and I wasn't expecting the plug-ins to sound that good. I have a [Roland] Jupiter 8, [Roland] Juno-6, [Clavia] Nord Lead, [Korg] MS-2000, and the [Oberheim] Matrix 1000-all sorts of really nice sounding hardware, and I didn't expect a [Native Instruments] Pro-52, or Absynth, or whatever to sound as convincing or as satisfying. But once I started playing with what I had, I realized that the sounds I could get would be really quite rich.

So, your music greatly benefited from the current crop of software synths and samplers?

One of the attractions of using software was that the sound sources would sound more contemporary. A lot of the hardware I was using was 5 years old, 10 years old, and some of it 20 years old. Because I had been using pretty much the same combination of gear since I started out in the early 1990s, or late 1980s, even, there was a certain similarity of sound in all the Banco albums, and maybe there was a risk that I would make an album that would sound dated purely because of that. It might sound like a typical mid 1990s album, if you like.

Did you draw fresh inspiration from your new software?

Yes. I've always worked that way to some extent—hearing something and then letting that bring up ideas.

How do you build up your tracks?

I start with one of several things. I'll start with two or three chords or whatever, or maybe a minimal arrangement. Or, I might start with a particular lead, probably from the vocal samples, and then go wherever that suggests. Or, I might start with a rhythmic idea and just see where that goes. But usually I start with one element and then that will suggest the next thing—which might be the bass line, the groove, percussion, whatever. Once I hear those in combination that suggests the next thing, and so on. So, to some extent, the nature of the sounds I've been using have led me in certain directions.

A lot of people say using presets is a bad thing, that you should always program your own sounds. I think that [due to] the complexities of sounds that soft synths are producing these days, I see no reason not to start with a preset and then tweak it a little bit. If I use an Absynth preset, it won't sound anything like it would if someone else used it, just because the context you put it in completely changes how it's perceived.

I've heard it said that a lot of today's electronic music sounds alike because so many electronic musicians around the globe own many of the same soft-synth programs.

It depends on how you work. A lot of people write simple music—a drum loop, a bass line, a chord pattern, a lead, and maybe one or two effects. In that case if you're using a preset for your lead sound, it's going to be very apparent what it is. But if you're layering up loads of different stuff, it may not be at all apparent what's been in there in the first place. Presets are going to merge together and create a new whole.

If I had the inclination to purely program my own sounds, I probably would. But the reality is that I usually get in there, turn stuff on, and I want to start actually making some music. I've never actually enjoyed nor been particularly excited by programming. If I know what I'm trying to achieve and how to get there quickly, fine, but to spend hours sitting there twiddling around trying to make a new sound is not what I do at all. I'm more interested in the notes, really.

On this album, I predominately used Absynth, [Native Instruments] FM7, [Steinberg] Model-E, and [Native Instruments] Pro-Five tossed about in little bits and pieces, and lots of samples. With electronics, you can go in so many different directions. I tend to stick with a fairly melodic way of writing because that's what I like to do. I'm working in a mainstream kind of way. Having weird sounds would undermine what I'm doing. I don't feel the need to push things too far.

How is your studio set up, and what kind of room do you have?

We [Marks and his wife] moved out to the country about six years ago, and we found this place here in the southwest, which had a large double-garage and a little workshop in the back, which apparently used to be a blacksmith's forge. I thought we could put a wall in the back and use that workshop as a live room. I think it's 13-feet by 8-feet—big enough for a drum kit, and I can record any live instrumentation that I want to, which, sadly, I've not tended to do much since I've been down here. I end up working with samples and keep intending to bring more human beings in there, but that's the way it goes. [The room is] pretty well soundproofed, so I can work as loudly as I want, as late as I want. I'm very fortunate in that respect.

How has your recent transition to computer-based production affected your studio set-up?

I have a Mackie 32-8 analog console and a 24-channel expander for that, a half dozen old analog synths and digital synths, three racks of samplers and hardware, a pair of 15-inch Tannoy midfield monitors, and Genelec 1019 nearfields. The room was just about big enough to get everything fairly ergonomically laid out and comfortable to reach. Now, as I've gotten more into software, I'm starting to realize this is a huge room. I have so much redundant equipment now, it's quite sad. All this stuff, which I couldn't have lived without three years ago, has become fundamentally unnecessary for what I'm doing.

What do you consider to be your key pieces of equipment?

For this album, the Blue Kiwi mic; you just plug it in and record straight to disk—no EQ, compression, nothing—and when you play it back, you'll hear just what you recorded. I also have a Joemeek TB-47 tube mic, which is based on the [Neumann] U47. It's intended to be very retro. The combination of that with the Kiwi, which is absolutely transparent, means that I'm pretty much covered for vocals, whichever way I want to go. They're both pretty nice for acoustic instruments, as well. I've used the Kiwi for acoustic guitar. But I'm mainly focused on recording vocals. I have an AKG C 1000, and the Audio-Technica AT4033 is a good general-purpose mic to have about. My preamp at the moment is a Focusrite ISA220. I'm using the MOTU PCI-324 card with their 1224 and 2408 [audio interfaces], which means I have S/PDIF, AES/EBU, and, if I need it, 16 channels of A/D [conversion].

Since you create sample-based music, how important are sample libraries to you?

Ever since I started working the way I do, I wanted to be able to work with real people, rather than relying on samples. But the reality is it works both ways. If I hear a really amazing sample it might trigger a whole idea for a tune. So, the downside of working with people is that someone has to tell them what to do, or they'll have to come up with an initial idea. If I'm working with a singer, I always have half a tune written. That's the starting point.

I wish I was surrounded by loads of really incredible musicians from different cultures who could just come in and play for half an hour, and then I'd see what samples I could grab from that. I have worked that way before with one or two people. I'm using sample libraries because it's the easiest, most accessible way to go. I still dream of traveling around the world, recording people, and making an album out of it afterwards.

Do you favor any particular sample libraries?

Whatever I find. It tends to be the more obscure stuff. You don't see the world music sources I tend to be interested in—just the weird and the wonderful. One old Roland CD-ROM is basically just a load of slow, evolving, analog textures by a guy called Ian Boddy, and it sounds like a film soundtrack—incidental music, practically. But it's great. Some of it is ideal for dropping into a space, almost like a color or a hue, rather than a defined object. It's just a shade in the background, which just adds a certain weight or a certain color to a piece.

I like raiding drum 'n' bass CDs and stuff like that for the unexpected. I don't listen to drum 'n' bass very much—it's not my thing at all—but there are some clichéd electronic sounds that sound quite original if you put them in a different genre. It was interesting to raid the clichés of other people.

Matt Gallagher is an assistant editor at EM.