Easy to Be Hard

THE CLASSIC WARP DUO OF SEAN BOOTH AND ROB BROWN, AKA AUTECHRE, CONFOUND MINDS, EXTEND THEIR MODIFYING WAYS AND GO CIRCUIT-BENDING CRAZY ON QUARISTICE
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Photo: Chris Purnell

As part of the innovative '90s Warp Records crew that included such mad boffins as Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, LFO, the Black Dog and Nightmares on Wax, Autechre holds a rarified position in our collective IDM consciousness. Throughout their 15-year career and nine full-length releases, Autechre's Sean Booth and Rob Brown have ceaselessly stretched their own consciousness years past the sell dates of some fellow electronic music expanders.

In keeping with Warp's singular sound, Autechre's music has remained unclassifiable, typically existing beyond standard notions of beat programming and synth sequencing, often confounding those enamored with stock rhythms, predictable arrangements and easy-to-comprehend production methods. Autechre's reputation as a difficult pair who refuses to reveal their working techniques (much less their equipment) is renowned, and through the years has only grown more entrenched.

“You guys always expect a barbed response from this corner, don't you?” Brown says with a laugh. “But we're humans, too.”

This statement may cause a shudder among those who prefer their electronic music with a humdrum four-to-the-floor groove, but Autechre's latest release, Quaristice (Warp, 2008), is more fuzzy and emotional than you might expect. Working on practically identical rigs in separate cities (Booth, Manchester; Brown, London), Autechre pursued conventional recording methods for past efforts like Confield (Warp, 2001) and Untilted (Warp, 2005), but Quaristice is the result of the duo's live improvisations, recorded largely on its touring setup: Apple Mac G4, Elektron Machinedrum and Monomachine, Clavia Nord Modular G2 and Nord Rack, Yamaha FS1R, Akai MPC1000, Alesis QuadraVerb and Lexicon PCM 80 and 90. Can this old duo learn new tricks? Certainly.

“This album was made from really long live jam sessions,” Booth explains. “When I moved to Manchester in 2005, the first thing we did was set up a new studio with the live kit and record these really long jams. It turned out good, so we just kept doing it and writing new stuff with the same setup. Having that ability and so much drive capacity nowadays makes it easy to record everything. We did two hour-long jams a day. It took six months to edit it all down to six- or eight-minute tracks. Then we would reduce them again and again. We had a lot of different versions to choose from. We were also reusing bits of sequences from other tracks. Once we got them in a rough format, we used [MOTU] Digital Performer for all the editing.”

A LITTLE BIT CLOSER

Booth and Brown still refuse to delve too deep into the production methods behind Quaristice, but they do reveal more than in the past. Brown is the most upfront and personable, while Booth speaks in riddles that eventually reveal some finer points of Autechre's unusual processes.

Where Confield explored algorithms using Cycling '74 Max/MSP, the Quaristice sessions began with the duo recording their live improvisations and ending in Digital Performer. Autechre's fondness for modifying effects and endlessly disguising sounds remained, as did the duo's love of the Akai MPC1000. Algorithms out, Digital Performer in.

“We used all the functions in the Nord Modular and the Nord Rack, but we are not wildly exploring the potential of algorithmic sequence-generation anymore,” Booth explains. “When I feel I am not in control of every event, I tend to not like it. So I have to program things that have very fixed variables and run efficiently without a lot of user input. With Confield, eventually we were able to think algorithmically in terms of the ways the patterns were being produced because DP allows you to get really specific about where notes are, but also you can do a lot of manipulation. If we wanted to move something one percent in one part of the track, it was a cinch to do: Just go in there and deal with the data. It was suddenly really liberating to not have to deal with programming the algorithm in a totally different way just for that one bit or incorporating a bunch of modules that are going to knock everything else off.

“There are all sorts of limitations implied with algorithmic music based on the way the system functions that we wanted to get around,” Booth continues. “That is what the last two albums were about, really. We used almost the same hardware for Untilted as Quaristice, but in a nonreal-time way, where we programmed all the sequencers to run in quite complex ways, retriggering each other and receiving each other's outputs and inputs. That was press and play and leaving it for a while and adding slight bits of unpredictability. This one being live is a completely opposite path.”

ANYONE FOR A GAME?

When Autechre supplied the gear list for Remix, it looked like Scrabble playing squares dumped onto a piece paper. Above notations for various hardware and software components, Autechre scribbled “dju76r,” “ju5t,” “ersh,” “654eb” and “4n7m.” Taking the veritable British piss out of Remix? Responding to our simple demands with a bit of the Mickey? No. Booth and Brown were listing the actual abbreviations used for their gear modifications.

“We don't really have names for them,” Booth admits. “We write on bits of tape what they are. We mostly mod old Boss effects like the RSD-10 and RDD-10; they are two of the finest machines ever made. The Boss effects have a real gray sound to them. We used to use an RSD-10 as a sampler triggered from a Roland TR-606. The Alesis QuadraVerb is great, as well. It is a sick, sick device. Amazing. I don't think people really understand the intricacies of outboard effects. They think they are all the same 'cause they all offer the same range of functions. But it's all about the weird space in between. The reverbs in those rack effects are beautiful, even though they are digital. They've got a gorgeous tone.”

The typical Autechre album features a boatload of multifarious reverbs, including Audioease Altiverb, Waves TrueVerb, MOTU 828mk3 Classic Reverb, Renoise reverb, TC Electronic Native Reverb and Symbolic Sound Corporation Kyma X Reverb. That the duo goes further in the process — modifying hardware often deemed useless by the electronic community at large — only adds to Autechre's renegade status and the richness of their sounds.

“Most of our mods consist of circuit bending,” Booth allows. “These things are so cheap, no one seems to ascribe any value to them. And they are digital, so that makes them somehow not cool. You can do quite a lot with them by crossing over certain points in the circuit on the back. I always come back to those effects because there is a certain magic about them.”

But that's not all. When even considering the potential value of mods, Booth's imagination goes into high gear, causing him to wonder: What if?

“One thing I did recently,” he muses, “was use field-programmable gate arrays. It reminded me of using something like Cycling '74 MSP; it was a really visual way of working. If you could store all the components necessary for most basic synth modules on one board and then use a field-programmable gate array to make it be any module that you wanted, that is a pretty adaptable synthesis system. You could use 30 of them to make the most flexible modular synth ever. That would be quite fun.”

So Many Secrets

When it gets down to actual tracks and production details, Booth clams up. The dripping ice sounds and sci-fi tunnel effects of “Tankakern”? “Akai MPC, Elektron Mono and Machinedrum, 606. Nord Lead,” Booth peeps. “Fol3” sounds like unwilling farm animals being pulled backward through a death chute. Surely Booth could offer a riddle or two.

“It's all stuff that was recorded with an AKG 1000 mic,” he replies, “then processed on a homemade patch, then used as source material and cut up. Just a simple edit job on a bunch of stuff, both physical things and instruments. I can't remember all the sources. The patch itself is running about 50 or 60 samples. Then that got cut up.”

As for the animal-accident-barking-crashing sound collisions of “Steels,” he only says, “I don't want to talk about how we did that 'cause there are some secret techniques involved, but most of it is MPC.

“Certain combinations are unusual, and they strike you and have a real dynamism to them,” he continues. “We like hard and soft sounds at the same time, like an Oberheim DMX or LinnDrum combined with warm analog sounds. I like the way you can bounce them off each other. There are so many ways to combine sounds.”

Brown spills the beans with far greater ease. When asked if Autechre's established ID of using old techniques on new gear — and, conversely, inventive approaches on ancient technology — still rings true, he responds quickly.

“That's true,” he says, “if you don't throw your gear away. We have these phases of finding something that has been forgotten about. Sometimes we start a track, and often it just comes from turning on a Kurzweil or SCSI, which we don't use anymore, but let's do a sample dump and see what we can get going. Suddenly, the architecture of a synth will remind you of all those moments you have had with it, if you like. Then all the power that a synth might have in its engines — that has been forgotten in the cheaper, more mass-produced models — becomes apparent. Everything has its value; it's just a matter of investing the time and making sure the gear still works.

“And because the Nord Modular G2 framework is all text based, apparently,” he adds, excitedly, “the source materials, the patches, are written in text code. A few programmers can actually use MacPython, a low-level Mac editing terminal, to compare old modular text patches and replace them with new G2 modular text patches. You can actually find patches that were made in 1994 that can be opened up and reused, in theory. It is that way of cheating. You just figure out a few distinct command-line phrases, and you've got all your patches available in the new module.”

Inspired by Marley Marl, Mantronix and Art of Noise, Autechre today sounds as unique and as radical as their hip-hop heroes did in the mid-1980s. That Booth and Brown still cite those seminal artists as inspirational says as much about their working methods as their music, and that of their musical forefathers.

“All of those people were hugely creative,” Booth says, “using equipment in ways that didn't sound like anyone else using the same equipment. They did all sorts of things to make their tracks sound fresh. I really tapped into that as a young teen; it made me think, ‘It's not about having all the equipment in the world, it's how you use what you've got.'' We can have one synth and still not know everything about it after three years. And I don't mean its functions, but how you feel about it and the way that it can sound. That can take a long time, especially now that one synth can give you such an array of different things. It still feels totally endless.”

Autechre's Arsenal

Computers, DAW/recording software, mixers

Apple Mac G5/OS X running MOTU Digital Performer
Mackie Onyx 1620 mixer
MOTU 2408II interface, MIDI interface
Shure AuxPander 8×8 matrix mixer

Synths, modules

Clavia Nord Modular G2, Nord Rack mk1
(v2 software)
Elektron Monomachine SFX-60
Korg MS-10, MS-20
Roland SH-2
Yamaha FS1R

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects

“dju76r,” “ju5t,” “ersh,” “654eb,” “4n7m”
AKG C 1000 mic
Alesis QuadraVerb effects box
Boss RSD-10, RDD-10 digital sampler/delays
Lexicon PCM 80, 81, 90 digital effects processors

Software, plug-ins

Audioease Altiverb
BIAS Peak
HairerSoft Amadeus Pro
MOTU Mach V, 828mk3 Classic Reverb
Renoise reverb
Rogue Amoeba Audio Hijack
Soundhack plug-ins
Symbolic Sound Corporation Kyma X Reverb
TC Electronic Native Reverb
Waves TrueVerb

Samplers, drum machines

Akai MPC1000 sampler
Casio FZ-1, FZ-10, SK-1, SK-5, SK-100 samplers
E-mu E-Synth sampler
Elektron Machinedrum SPS-1 drum machine
Ensoniq ASR-10, EPS samplers
Kurzweil K2500S sampler
Linn Electronics LinnDrum drum machine
Oberheim DMX drum machine

Monitors

Dynaudio BM 15As