Most people who experienced the mid-'90s dance/electronic-music explosion associate the excitement with hi-octane live acts like the Chemical Brothers, Underworld and The Prodigy, as well as DJs including Paul Oakenfold and Sasha & John Digweed. However, there was another, less glamorous side to the electronic-music spectrum. While the above artists appealed to people who sought to get their groove on at a club, acts such as Aphex Twin, The Orb, Future Sound of London and Banco de Gaia produced a form of electronic music that wasn't necessarily made for booty shaking. These acts produced music that was geared toward a more thinking-person's crowd and placed the building blocks for today's underground electronic music, including the IDM and downtempo genres.
Banco de Gaia (aka Toby Marks) has a long history of producing for the dance-music industry. Marks achieved his most successful release with 1995's Last Train to Lhasa (Six Degrees), a CD that — much like most of Aphex Twin's best work — came before the mainstream dance-music explosion hit a year later. The Banco de Gaia sound was an eclectic stew of worldly beats and rhythms that often played second fiddle to the hook-heavy trance hits of the day. Still, Marks built a legion of loyal fans over the years and has survived the ups and downs of a tumultuous electronic-music industry. Banco de Gaia's new release, Farewell Ferengistan (Six Degrees, 2006), is perhaps Marks' best work since his seminal 1995 album. Like all Banco de Gaia albums, Farewell Ferengistan is more than just electronic beats and rhythms. There's a real purpose to each track, and Marks presents his own thoughts and observations on issues through his music. As with his past releases, he sought out some extraordinary sources to achieve his sound. For instance, have you ever thought about what it would sound like to fly on a NASA space-shuttle mission — from inside the fuel tank? That is just one of the surprises waiting for you on the new album.
TO DANCE OR NOT TO DANCE?
Farewell Ferengistan is themed around the era of the prospector (that is, bankers, investors and shareholders) and the structures and systems of the corporate world. Tracks on the album are influenced by anything from a large desert in Kazakhstan (“Kara Kum”) and an ancient Celtic goddess (“Ynys Elen”) to the 2005 G8 Summit (“The Harmonious G8”) and Rudyard Kipling (“White Man's Burden”). Those deep concepts and complex productions go way beyond what most people expect out of the electronic-music genre. In fact, Marks claims the perception that electronic music constitutes “music made for the dancefloor” has really hurt his music, the industry and some of its finest producers.
“If I say to someone that I work on electronic music, they immediately assume I work on dance music — it's frustrating,” Marks says. “I've seen a lot of producers who have walked away from making electronic music because they don't want to be forced into making dance music. I feel like there is a bit of a backlash. I have a sense that a lot of really good music has been thrown out because there is this blanket hatred for dance music these days. As an individual, I've come to the point where I'm going to write what I'm going to write without worrying if there's an audience for it and without worrying about record sales. All I can do is create stuff that I like. If I'm lucky enough to keep my career going for another year or another 10 years, then thank you very much.”
Although created with profound themes, Marks isn't the type of artist who is trying to shove his own agenda down your throat. “I didn't start making electronic music with the intention of banging on about an agenda and changing the world,” he says. “I just liked dance music. Because of things that are a concern to me, inevitably the music I write is just an expression of how I feel about stuff, and it gets reflected in the music.”
A THOUSAND POSSIBLE STEPS
Farewell Ferengistan was created primarily on a dual G5 running Logic 7.1 with loads of plug-ins and a few of his favorite microphones, including a Blue Kiwi (“because it sounds pristine”) and Joemeek TB-47 Tube Meekrophone. (“It provides for a really fat sound,” Marks says.) In terms of synthesizer plug-ins, Marks uses Native Instruments Absynth 2 and 3, Native Instruments Pro-53 and FM7 and FXpansion BFD Premium Acoustic Drum Module. “I've heard people program with this, and I could barely tell this wasn't a real drummer,” he says.
For outboard gear, Marks uses all the Waves plug-ins as the primary compressors and EQs and IK Multimedia's T-RackS (for drum compression) and AmpliTube. He also makes special mention of the Antares Kantos plug-in, which he believes not many people have picked up on. “It takes an analog signal and synthesizes from that, so basically, it takes an analog trigger rather than a MIDI trigger,” Marks says. “You route the analog source into what you want, and it will create a synthesized equivalent more or less accurately. You can get some really great effects with Kantos, and it's handy for things you hear in the background.”
Marks' musical training is limited to two years of trumpet lessons, and as a result, there is no rigid form to the creation of any Banco de Gaia track. He finds his starting point for a track from anything that might spark an idea — a film, a book or even a chord sequence he heard. Where he proceeds from that initial idea is random. “Why I choose one idea or another just depends on the day, and there isn't a standard way of proceeding,” he says. “My tendency is that there is a first step and one of a hundred second steps and one of a thousand third steps. I add more and more and more until I have a complete stew, but sometimes it works. I spend a lot of time listening over and over and work on what sounds right to me. I'm not sure what the basis is for what sounds right, so I just go with things based on what I like.”
It's interesting to note just how much producing has changed for Marks over the past decade. When he produced Last Train to Lhasa and a number of other releases throughout the '90s, he did not have the luxury of computers and software. Back then, he used three Roland hardware samplers that gave him 20 outputs and 60 MB of RAM in total for all his samples. As a result, he had to think carefully about the length of samples so he could fit them all into the sampler. Now, he can pile up as much audio as desired without constraints and doesn't have to worry about plugging and unplugging wires anymore. “Computer-based production is revolutionary for me because I can have an idea and try it out without worrying about finding space for it. It's a completely different experience for me now,” he says.
One of the coolest concepts on Farewell Ferengistan surrounds the track “Saturn Return.” At the suggestion of a friend, Marks was pointed to the NASA Website, which was hosting MP3s of sound recorded directly from the booster of the last shuttle takeoff. Also on the site were radio transmissions of a lightning storm on Saturn picked up from the Cassini spacecraft. “As I often do, I thought it was such a bizarre concept, that I had to use it,” he says. “You can actually hear the tanks disengage, and the sound drops away into floaty ambient space.” Marks used the bizarre sci-fi analog noises as a starting point of the tune and then got the idea of creating a layered repeating arpeggio much inspired by the work of Philip Glass. To finish off the track, Marks added some drum samples as a counterpoint to the melodic arpeggios. One difficulty that arose was that there were many textures and so much going on that Marks had to dig deep into the EQs to get anything audible. “The three arpeggios were tricky to work with,” he says. “They were essentially the same note, and it's very easy for the human ear to hear this as just one sound, and I wanted people to hear each of the three parts individually.”
Another notable production is “The Harmonious G8.” That track is themed around the 2005 G8 Summit (an annual meeting of the governments of the major industrial democracies) and an older track by Nick Harper called “The Magnificent G7.” Marks' concept was to find one singer from each country representing the G8 and have them improvise doing anything they wanted without using actual words and setting it in the key of G. “The idea I had was to have all these related recordings running simultaneously in this audio ‘Tower of Babel,’ and eventually they would end up on this one note in harmony, which is like chaos resolving into harmony,” he says. When Marks received the first few recordings, he placed them in Logic and lined up the end points because some of the recordings were longer in length than others. The biggest challenge for Marks was trying to balance 11 tracks of solo vocals with different voices and tonal characteristics and getting them to fit together while also standing out. “It was quite challenging in terms of EQ, compressing and riding levels, and I spent a ton of time on the track,” he says.
Inspired by the arrangement of Sinead O'Connor's “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “We All Know the Truth (We Have God)” is the only track on the album with a standard pop-song structure. The original version of the track was created by Marks' friend's band, and the band allowed him to use the vocals to create his own electronic version. Working with the original version was difficult because it is acoustic and not done to a click. The tempo varied endlessly from the beginning of each bar to the end, and it was a tough job for Marks to chop up each phrase in Logic and then retime each phrase to get it to consistently sit with the tempo with which he was working. That meant that some of the notes had moved rhythmically from where they were because the original had a 6/8 feel, whereas Marks' version was a swing 4/4. Finally, he had to move individual beats and get the vocal matched with the rhythm of his new time. “I was really quite impressed with the time stretching of Logic 7 because I thought that stretching every phrase would make the song sound like crap,” Marks says. “But in the mix, this did sound pretty natural.”
It's widely known how much computers aid in the production of music these days, but sometimes producers need to pinch themselves as a reminder of how far the technology has come. Artists like Toby Marks have such a great understanding of music production and a mastery of software programs that this synthetic music sounds flawless and awe-inspiring. Electronic music is cool not because it can make you dance, but rather because it allows you to come up with and execute ideas like sampling from a NASA spacecraft. With the infinite possibilities for production, it's musicians like Marks who will continue to find the inspiration necessary to make music that matters.
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5 dual 2GHz, 1GB RAM computer running Logic Pro 7.1; 15-inch Studio Displays (2)
LaCie 250GB external FireWire hard drive
Seagate 120GB external FireWire hard drive
Mackie 32•8 mixer
Metric Halo Mobile 2882 I/O
Synths, software and plug-ins
Antares Kantos soft synth
Apple Logic plug-ins (ES1, ES2, ESM, EVB3, EVD6, EXS24, Sculpture, Ultrabeat)
FXpansion BFD drum-machine plug-in
Korg M1 synth (used as a MIDI controller keyboard)
M-Audio Oxygen8 MIDI controller keyboard
Muon Tau Pro soft synth (with FXpansion VST-AU Wrapper)
Native Instruments Absynth 2 and 3, Battery, FM7, Pro-53 soft synths and drum-machine plug-ins
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors and plug-in effects
Blue Kiwi mic
Joemeek TB-47 Tube Meekrophone
Focusrite ISA220 Session Pack preamp/EQ/compressor/limiter and A/D converter
IK Multimedia AmpliTube, T-RackS
Waves C1 Compander, C4, De-esser, Enigma, IR-L, L3, LinEQ, LinMB, MaxxBass, MetaFlanger, MondoMod, PAZ Psychoacoustic Analyzer, Q-Clone, RChannel, RCompressor, S1 Imager, TrueVerb
Blue Sky System One 5.1 system
Mission Hi-Fi speakers