Dream Producers: The Orb


FIG. 1: Although Paterson (left) and Youth (right) hadn''t collaborated on an Orb project in 15 years, their musical synergy reappeared right away when they started working on The Dream.
Photo: Photography by Chris Davison

The last time Alex Paterson and Martin “Youth” Glover worked in the studio together for any extended stretch of time was the early '90s. Yet when the two got back together at Youth's Dreaming Cave studio — along with engineer (and band member) Tim Bran and engineer-programmer David Nock — for the sessions that led to the Orb's new CD, The Dream (Six Degrees, 2008), the ideas started flowing almost immediately (see Fig. 1).

“I think the overall chemistry between me and Alex is pretty much as it ever was,” Youth says. “We bring different things to the party now than we did then, but it's still a very natural process for us.”

Paterson wryly admits that Youth's influence on The Dream resulted in a different-sounding Orb album than those of the recent past (see Fig. 2). “Youth would come in and wave his little production wand over everything and suggest things — like more vocals,” he says with a chuckle. “I mean, if you've heard the Okie Dokie album [Okie Dokie It's the Orb on Kompakt, from 2005], there's not a vocal in there. And now suddenly we've got an album that's full of vocals and harmonies and choruses and bridges and things — it's kind of, ‘Blimey, what's happening there?''”

Back in the Day

One of the ways Youth influenced the production of The Dream was by convincing Paterson to bring in a number of vocalists, rather than making an instrumental record like the previous Orb release.

There was a time, nearly two decades and nine studio albums ago, when Paterson's mode of creation began and ended with three turntables, a bank of CD players, a few cassette decks, and an Akai 12-track mixer/recorder. As a DJ in the upstairs VIP chillout room at London's Heaven club, he was known for raiding everything from NASA space broadcasts to the ringing drone of Tibetan prayer bowls for his DJ sets — all of it grafted onto music by the likes of Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Steve Hillage (who insisted on meeting Paterson the night he heard his own Rainbow Dome Musick album [Blue Plate, 1979] coming over the speakers), Tangerine Dream, and 808 State. It was the beginning of a new genre called ambient house, and it was the future of the Orb.

The group started out as a duo. Paterson would tap into his vast library of samples, sound bites, and snippets, while his bandmate Jimi Cauty (then of acid house “situationists” the KLF) used an Akai S900 sampler, an Oberheim OB-8 synthesizer, and his studio smarts to massage the whole into what were often beatless, dreamlike soundscapes. But it wasn't until a disagreement between the two sent them on their separate ways that the Orb really took off.

Paterson had been childhood friends with Youth, who had made a splash of his own in the early '80s as the bassist with the postpunk outfit Killing Joke before moving on to become a stellar producer in his own right. Heavily influenced by the low-end sound of dub reggae (which was also near and dear to Paterson's heart), Youth hooked up with Paterson to record “Little Fluffy Clouds” — a 1990 sampladelic club hit that put the Orb on the map.

It soon led to a full-length album (1991's The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld), but by the time the classic follow-up U.F.Orb had vaulted to No. 1 in the U.K., Youth's other gigs had pushed him out of the fold. Undeterred, Paterson soldiered on with Kris “Thrash” Weston, who had engineered most of Ultraworld and knew his way around a 24-track studio (as well as vintage Moog, VCS3, and Prophet-5 synths).

Tim Bran, shown here standing outside the Dreaming Cave, contributed both keyboard playing and engineering on the project.

Preparing for Liftoff

For the sessions that produced The Dream, Paterson, Youth, Bran, and Nock would meet at the Dreaming Cave (see the sidebar “Fertile Ground” and Fig. 3) — usually on a very tight schedule — and would often set up to record almost as a live band would, and track what were essentially jams. As a song began to take shape, any one of the three bandmates might work on seeing it through to the next phase, depending on whose ideas won the vote.

“We'd just throw down some jams,” recalls Youth. “We'd get a live performance and live dynamic going, and then a lot of it was arranged and edited later in [Apple] Logic [Pro].”

“Obviously there might be guest vocalists there, or other programmers helping out,” Bran says, “but the core of the music was Youth playing bass, myself on keyboards, programming, synths, and samplers, and Alex providing the soundscapes, beats, and samples. We all found that way of working very exciting. We did it in very short, intense bursts, however — two or three hours at a time, because we were all doing other stuff. So from 10 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon, we'd just have a burst of creative energy, and then come back to it the next day.”

Can You Gear Me?

Each member of the Orb had a primary setup during the sessions for The Dream. For Youth, that was a vintage 1968 Gibson EB-2 short-scale bass, run through a DI box into the back of a TL Audio Tubetracker mixer for some added warmth before going into Logic. He often detunes the low E string to a D — as heard on the bottom-heavy “Dirty Disco Dub” — and will play the entire bass line on that one string to get a consistent tone, in the manner of Jamaican bass legends like Family Man Barrett and Robbie Shakespeare.

“If I'm on the Logic [Pro] EQ,” Youth says, “I'll just slightly dip the bass and push the mid-tones up to brighten it up a little bit, just to give it a little bit more cut, but not much. It depends. There are certain parts where I might go for a really middly, twangy, reverby sound, and then for other bits I'll just have the normal EB sound. I don't really need to EQ it much because it's quite boomy and round and smooth, with this really pure, deep tone that sustains forever. I just ride that tone and try to be careful not to wobble my finger or use any kind of subtle intonation because that will throw it out.”

As the deviant genius with the massive record collection and the penchant for recording everything he hears or watches on TV, Paterson crafts the sample-based atmospherics that propel any Orb project. For tracking sessions on The Dream, he would bring in a number of audio sources (vinyl, CDs, and even old mix tapes on cassette), which he and Bran would load into Ableton Live and then chop, loop, and arrange. From there, he used a stripped-down DJ setup — an old belt-drive turntable, a Pioneer CDJ-1000 MK2 digital deck, a Korg Kaoss Pad 3, and a basic 2-channel mixer — for his live-in-the-studio takes.

“It was very limited for what I had,” Paterson admits, “but then what we had with the actual software within the computer — that was limitless, what we could do.” Another crucial compositional tool from a beat perspective was Paterson's Korg Electribe ER-1 drum machine, which would be MIDI synced to lock it to a groove and then “played” during a jam, much like any other instrument.

“It's a great thing for actually getting your hands on and changing the filters,” Bran says. “I remember me and Alex putting down a few parts and both jumping on the buttons to get a few rhythms and jam along, basically. A lot of the songs came from just literally getting a beat on the Electribe and me on keyboards and Youth on bass and maybe a singer there sometimes live, and just having a jam and then chopping that about. We'd find the hooks and then build on that.”

Bran would often jump on one of the many analog synths that populate the Dreaming Cave — including a Roland Juno 106 and a vintage Korg MS-20 — but his instrument of choice is a Clavia Nord Lead 2. “Alex would play a record and say, ‘I like that kind of sound,'' and I could pretty much copy the sonic quality of it in the Nord,” he explains. “It gives you that real edgy, spiky digital sound, but you can also really get some nice analog sweeps. I know it really well, so I know straight where to go to get the sounds.”

Dub Gone Crazy

As fans of the deep-pocket psychedelic mixing style known as “dub” pioneered in the early '70s by Jamaican record producers like King Tubby and Lee Perry, Paterson and Youth were on the same wavelength about how low end and freaky atmospherics would interact and mesh together on The Dream. The leadoff title track is a prime example: opening with the distantly flanged guitars of Matt Chandler burbling in the background, the song quickly gives way to synth swells, disembodied voices, vinyl scratches, and nature sounds squeezed through all manner of tape delay and reverb (from Logic Pro's native effects suite) before the bass and beat come in thick.

“We often put the bass through filters in the Korg MS-20 and I'll modulate it manually,” Youth says. He also favors Line 6 stompboxes and Camel Audio plug-ins for various effects. “We'll have a long delay on it that comes back through the desk, and then we'll filter the return of that, and send that to a reverb, all while I'm modulating the MS-20. So you get this four-levels-of-filter-delay thing going on, which can be really good fun.”

Although The Dream is front-loaded with a string of vocal-based songs, the dub thread runs through most of them, emerging full tilt as the album turns progressively darker and weirder. The highlight is “High Noon” — a Shaolin-meets-spaghetti-western trip to the outback that's rendered complete with the twangy guitar lines of Steve Hillage (working the virtual knobs of Native Instruments' Guitar Rig plug-in to their logical extremes). The song cycles through aggressively signal-processed soundscapes that recall vintage Orb circa 1993, tempered with a liberal dose of the electronic dub style à la Massive Attack or, to go truly old school, Mad Professor and Jah Shaka. As Paterson explains it, the adventurous sonic explorations of dub music are in his blood.

“It's been bred into me from growing up with it, really,” he says. “I know the dub sound with my eyes closed — one ear closed, even. It's all the Joe Gibbs style, and King Tubby's style, Scientist, and even Adrian Sherwood. Those are dub engineers, and that's where we really did take it on probably the first six albums of the Orb.”

Voices Carry

Unlike many of the recent Orb albums Paterson recorded with Berlin-based electronics guru Thomas Fehlmann, The Dream flows with a prominent vocal presence from several guest singers, including Aki Omori (on the album's current single “Vuja De”), Helen Boulding (“The Dream”), Juliet Roberts (“A Beautiful Day” and “Mother Nature”), and upstart ragga toaster the Corpral (“Dirty Disco Dub” and “Lost & Found”), who has joined the live Orb lineup on tour this year. Paterson finds it a bit unusual to be so reliant on vocals for an Orb project, but he stresses the importance of how they serve the song — particularly when a sampled passage has to be redone for legal reasons.

“We learned our lesson straightaway [back in 1989] with ‘Huge Ever-Growing Pulsating Brain,'' which used a Minnie Riperton sample,” Paterson says, referring to one of his earliest singles, which ended up on 1991's Ultraworld album. “You can't do that — it's naughty. You've either got to get it resung or replayed or do something original, and this is what we did for the vocal line on ‘Vuja De.'' I got Aki to redo a Liz Torres-style, ‘You Used to Hold Me'' feel — that's where the vocal elements developed from.” (“You Used to Hold Me” was a white-label B-side to Liz Torres's 1987 12-inch “Can't Get Enough” and was actually sung by Xaviera Gold.)

Short of singing in the shower, tracking vocals at the Dreaming Cave is probably about as laid-back and relaxed as it can get. “We've just got a little vocal booth at the studio,” Bran explains. “It's literally just a wooden door with planks in it, and it's not soundproofed in any way. You'd have cats walking through and children knocking on the door to come and see their dad [laughs]. But I think it actually puts less pressure on a vocalist to have that sometimes. You don't have a talk-back mic — you just talk through the door — so they almost feel like they're in the same room.”

Vocals were usually recorded using a Neumann U87 microphone and then processed according to the demands of the song. For Juliet Roberts' catchy hook on “A Beautiful Day,” for example, a bit of compression helped her layered harmonies sit snugly in the mix. “We put her through a real [Universal Audio] 1176,” Bran recalls, “and then maybe through a bit of Focusrite EQ, and then into the Fireface and into Logic. And that was literally just one take. She would be hearing what we heard on the [live] mix and that would be it — no cue mixes or anything. It was very simple and straightforward.”

Director's Cut

Although virtually all of The Dream was premixed within Logic Pro — after getting plenty of analog warmth on the front end, whether on Youth's bass, Bran's synths, or the various lead vocals — some of the final mixes were farmed out to a couple of key personalities from past Orb transmissions. Greg Hunter (an off-and-on Orb traveler since 1990) puts his stamp on “Katskills” and “Mother Nature,” while Andy Hughes (formerly a permanent member of the group, beginning with Live 93 [Island, 1993] and solidified on Orbus Terrarum [Island, 1995]) lends his signature to “Vuja De” and “Dirty Disco Dub.”

Bran points out that he, Youth, and Paterson were happy with one of their own final mixes of “Vuja De” but that Hughes extended, and thus profoundly energized, the song even further. “He added that whole ambient tail-out,” he says. “There's a big long analog chord that holds, and then the track fades out. There were a couple of other ideas I think he changed from the original mix, but basically he ended up sounding more commercial with his vision on it, and I really love it. I know he uses a TDM system — maybe Logic over a [Digidesign] 888 — so he would have had different plug-ins from what we used. He certainly gave those two mixes a lot more clarity and clout.”

Of course, with low end being such an essential ingredient in the classic Orb sound, special attention has to be paid to the elements of the rhythm section when it comes time to mix. “It can be tricky with the Orb,” Youth says, “because there's so much sub coming through the synths and drum programming that you have to have it fitting nicely. You're always compromising the bass guitar with the sub of the synths or the drums, so it's just a matter of balancing it out, I think. Generally, if there's a bit of a clash, I'll adjust my playing [from the outset], or we might EQ my bass later on to compensate.”

For well over a year now, Paterson has been involved in preparing the entire Orb catalog for a massive reissue (with bonus discs, new sleeve notes, and all the bells and whistles), even as he continues to keep his hand in mix projects such as I'll Be Black (2007) for the legendary Trojan label. He still DJ's regularly and is looking ahead to more live gigs with the Orb in the United States this fall — particularly if he can get Youth, who will be touring simultaneously with a reunited Killing Joke — in on the act. When asked if The Dream is an ambient throwback, of sorts, to the vintage Orb sound, he waxes downright philosophical.

“I think it's almost like a dream of the past,” he says. “Maybe this is how an Orb album turned out in the future, if it was an alternative future. Maybe we were doing things a little bit too early for people to get their heads around in the mid-'90s. Now I'm 48, so it's getting kind of difficult to prophesize things that really should just take a natural turn musically. Hopefully, if I can get more people going through my music, they can turn that corner themselves and make music that's not that far down the road from the Orb. Anyway, there you go. That's the ambient answer: who knows?”

(Editor's note: Check out theonline bonus materialatemusician.comfor supplemental audio interviews with the Orb.)

Bill Murphy is a regular features contributor to Remix and writes online content for various music-software developers. From 1996 to 2002, he ran the Axiom label for producer Bill Laswell.

The Orb: A Selected Discography

Okie Dokie It's the Orb on Kompakt (Kompakt, 2005)

It's been speculated that Thomas Fehlmann asserts more of his presence on this album because he was the go-between for the Orb's deal with the Kompakt label. While it's true that the lengthy ambient odysseys of earlier Orb albums are largely absent here, Paterson still throws some beautiful wrenches into the works, particularly on the album's sample-fractured closer, “Snowbow.”

Cydonia (Island, 2001)

Even with its release date delayed by two years, Cydonia was perhaps a little ahead of (or out of) its time, given the critical drubbing it took in the British press. No doubt the group's decision to go with a more song-oriented approach — complete with guest vocalists Aki Omori and Nina Walsh on several tracks — contributed to the discontent, but there are still some classic Orb moments here, including the hypnotic flute runs and hyperprocessed drums of “Promis” and the Tangerine Dream-like synth arpeggios that open the dark epic “A Mile Long Lump of Lard.”

Orblivion (Island, 1997)

Honed down to the production trio of Paterson, Andy Hughes, and Fehlmann, the Orb here delivers a brighter, tightly orchestrated, beat-heavy sound that's by turns mystical (“Ubiquity” and “Bedouin”) and made for the dance floor (“Asylum”). The album also includes the notorious single “Toxygene,” which was originally commissioned — and summarily rejected — by French synth-wave godfather Jean Michel Jarre as a remix of his trance sleeper “Oxygene 8.”

U.F.Orb (Big Life, 1992)

Propelled by the cerebral space-bleep epic “Blue Room” — which features Jah Wobble on bass and Steve Hillage on guitar, and an unheard-of maxisingle form that clocks in at around 40 minutes — this richly recorded suite of fat synth excursions is now an ambient classic. It was also marked by Youth's last contribution to the Orb canon (the driving, Autobahn-esque “Majestic”) and found Paterson biting off samples of spoken dialog with Monty Python-like whimsy (“Towers of Dub”).

The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld (Big Life, 1991)

On the strength of “Little Fluffy Clouds” alone — instantly memorable for its snippet of Rickie Lee Jones recalling the beautiful skies of her Arizona childhood — Ultraworld is a sample-crazy masterpiece, but it's also a double-disc triumph of collaboration. Tracked in no less than six different studios with more than a dozen outside musicians (including Trevor Horn, Hillage, and session bassist Guy Pratt), it's a sprawling odyssey that somehow still manages to sound like a seamless whole.

Fertile Ground

Inside the Dreaming Cave studio, where Youth, Paterson, and Bran would set up and play live, capturing jams that were used as the basic tracks for The Dream.

Located on the near-idyllic grounds of Youth's home near Wandsworth Common in South London, the Dreaming Cave occupies a wooden summer shed at the end of a long, narrow garden — the perfect private getaway for tracking a concept-heavy album like The Dream. Fittingly, Youth likens the studio to the TARDIS time machine from the popular Doctor Who sci-fi series: it seems bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside (see Fig. A).

“I can get a band in there with a drum kit,” he explains, “and I have a small TL Audio Tubetracker [M4] desk as well. It looks tiny from the outside, and then you go in and it's full of old analog stuff and a big Pro Tools/Logic rig. And I actually just replaced the Pro Tools rig with an RME Fireface 800 and kept the Logic native setup when we got into Logic Pro 7 [now version 7.2]. I found that to be faster and better than working on Pro Tools.”

Youth points out that he still keeps a mobile Pro Tools HD rig for recording live shows, but in the end it was the ease of working with Logic that sold him. But Bran, who has worked with Youth since 2004 on numerous projects, including the Orb, says that due to the difference in plug-in formats between Pro Tools and Logic Pro, the transition wasn't totally seamless.

“We're writing and mixing as we go with the Orb,” Bran says, “so a lot of the mixing tends to get done inside the box. I remember that when Youth decided to sell his [Pro Tools] TDM rig, we'd already mixed about half of the album. And I suddenly woke up one morning and thought, ‘Hold it — some of our in-the-box mixes aren't gonna work. I've only got a day to transfer everything to Core Audio.'' I think I even did stems, just to get everything bounced. But it was a good change. We've got a Mac G5 now, and it's even more instant and accessible when you've got the Core Audio [Audio Units] plug-ins, I think. TDM is great, and you can get some really professional sounds, but sometimes you want the mad VST stuff — the one plug-in that some guy has written that you can't get anywhere else.” Bran used Ableton Live as a host when he wanted to use VST plug-ins on the project.

The Dreaming Cave also has a Universal Audio Ultra Pak DSP card installed on the studio's main computer — a 2.5 GHz Apple Mac G5 Quad. Youth's and Bran's favored plug-ins include MOTU's Ethno (used liberally on “Mother Nature,” with Steve Hillage), PSP's VintageWarmer 2, GForce's Oddity and impOSCar synth emulators, and Smartelectronix LiveCut for simulating turntable scratches.

Bran is also a frequent flier at KVR Audio (kvraudio.com), a searchable online database for VST and AU plug-ins. Some of his recent favorites: TAL Dub Delay, Big Tick Cheeze Machine (“a really nice string synth plug-in, especially if you like old-sounding ARP Solina strings”), a TB-303 emulator by Muon Software, and the reFX Vanguard soft synth.