“Instead of sitting in a bedroom with three keyboards and a sampler, we were sitting in a studio with 30 keyboards,” says the Chemical Brothers' Tom Rowlands.
On their sixth album, We Are the Night (Astralwerks, 2007), the Chemical Brothers delve deep into the world of ancient '70s- and '80s-era synths, making all their squiggly sounds and technical challenges a part of the joy of music making. The London duo of Rowlands and Ed Simons has always worked it out with classic sounds, but We Are the Night finds the Brothers exploring some of the oldest synths imaginable, such as the ARP 2600, Roland System 700, EMS Synthi AKS and VCS3, Moog Minimoog, and the rare Dutch-made synth, the Synton Syrinx, and its more recent sibling, the Synton Fenix.
“We've always used those synths,” the easygoing Rowlands recalls. “But this time we really got into the combination of those wild synths and a computer and Logic, doing very long sweeps of playing with those synths and editing the results easily on a computer. Back in the old days, we would have a synth running and sample it into the Akai [samplers] and then create a segment like that. But now we have the freedom of having it all in the computer; we can do a long 20-minute jam playing around with the synths and then edit the highlights and use it in a track. If anything, it's a coming of age — the precision of the computer with the unreliable and unrepeatable nature of synthesizers. It's a dream combo.”
We Are the Night changes course from the Chems' 2005 treatise, Push the Button (Astralwerks). Where that album gloried in massive funk beats 'n' breaks, We Are the Night clings closer to four-on-the-floor terrain. Where Push the Button produced a stadiumlike soundfield, We Are the Night reflects the mind of a nocturnal DJ. We Are the Night eschews the globetrotting DJ ethic in favor of a purer experience: the club as nest, sanctuary, and altar — a virtual home away from home.
“I was really surprised,” Rowlands says. “People were around when we mastered the album, and they were just dancing the whole time. It's only right at the end of the record that there is any moment that lets up. It just pushes you all the way to the end. A lot of this record seems to jump straight at you as being music that's going to make a room full of people dance. We have always been a dance band, but in this case there is less jerkiness to it. There is a nice psychedelic pulse.”
“Hedonism and abandonment have always been themes of what we do,” the at-times-persnickety Simons adds. “That is what is good about being in a club and getting completely absorbed in music and the headspace that creates. It's an escape from whatever reality you are in. That's the joy of psychedelic music. There are lots of different albums we could have made after two years of being in the studio. This is the one we felt like giving to the world at this moment.”
While admitting that they no longer hit the clubs like they did in the '90s, Simons claims that the experience has stuck with them, that they don't need to maintain residencies or work the tables at local one-offs to stay connected.
“That feeling of how a record can fill a room with sound, how a beat can affect people, how little nuances in music work, how one sound can take over — that is not something that you need to experience every Friday night,” he says. “That is something you know and think. The studio we use helps; it's the Neve Room at Miloco Studios. It has these amazing monitors. They are whacking good monitors, a combination between Dynaudio tweeters and ATC drivers. We insist on going there; it is integral to re-create that club experience. We have been to more expensive studios, but nothing quite matches them.”
Beyond the Miloco Studios' monitors and tried-and-true Chems gear like the Culture Vulture, SSL AWS900+, EMS Synthi Hi-Fli Analog effects unit and various Akai samplers, the sound of We Are the Night is all about the synths. Without further ado, Rowlands and Simons divulge the ins-and-outs of their synth collection.
“We have the normal black-and-white 2600,” Rowlands explains, “not the really rare one, the Blue Meanie. All the modules inside that one are sealed in plastic. The ARP 2600 is a synth that you can play, and something good just seems to happen. It's quite simple, yet inspirational. Synths like the Minimoog and the ARP 2600 were successful because they were simple, but you could achieve quite complicated things with them. It was the days of improvements over the big modular systems, which could seem incomprehensible. With those, it would take 10 minutes to get a normal lead sound, but with the 2600, you can touch just a few things, and you will be playing and having fun. Sometimes in the studio you want that difficult challenge of making a sound, and you want to spend three hours. Other times you just want to have an idea and then do it. The ARP and the Minimoog are those machines. They want you to touch them. The 2600 has one of the best distortion sounds; the preamp in it has a setting where you can choose the distortion from times 10 to times 100 to times 1,000 on the input. Anything that offers you 1,000 times the input — whoo! You do hear a big difference.”
“Unlike the other gear, this is a brand-new synth, really,” Rowlands says. The Chems used the Monomachine as well as Elektron's drum-machine cousin, the Machine Drum. “We really love it. It's all over the album. It's actually set up like a drum machine but with proper synthesis. So you're writing a bass line, but if you've grown up programming on something like a Roland TR-808 with the flashing lights, you will be comfortable with the Monomachine. For each step you can tweak so much; there are hundreds of parameters for each step. You can really get into messing around with it. I really like its sound. It's very different from the other synths that we've got. It's digital, and you can make very lovely sorts of things, and it can do very hard, rough things. It's on ‘Saturate''; that track is practically all the Monomachine. You can start playing with the Monomachine straight away. Then you may wonder how you do other things later. [The options] are just different sound sources you can use, different synthesis options that you can use within the Monomachine. I can't remember which ones we used — not the voice modeling program, though. It is digital; it is just different.
“The way you program it, you can automate each step. The first step, you can have it tuned to X tuning. Then you can have the decay down, and you can have the LFO modulating it one way and the distortion pushed right up. For step two, if it is a 16-step sequence, you can have all those parameters set completely different. Then the third step is completely different as well. You can end up with totally mad sequences, something you couldn't physically do on any other sort of machine. And it looks cool, more importantly!”
“We like that company,” Simons adds. “A lot of people are obsessed with making things that have already been made or copying the software. Elektron is trying to do something new with nice, quality hardware. They are really individual-sounding machines.”
“Our engineer has that on constantly in our studio,” Simons says. “The VCS3 has its own speaker on it. We might be trying to do a complicated mix or program something, and the EMS is always squeaking in the background. ‘Can't you turn that fucking thing off?!'' This has been going on for 10 years. But it's good.”
“It is a modular synth, and usually with modular synths, you have to know what you are doing,” Rowlands explains. “But because this is the one with the little matrix panel in it, you just get your patch pins, and you can stick the pins in anywhere. It's really good fun in that you don't have to get annoyed. You can be very quickly gratified even if you don't know what you are doing at all. You can put pins in like spelling your name or something, and you'll get the sound of your name.
“The sound that starts ‘We Are the Night,'' that is a classic EMS. It's on all our records really, from the beginning. Even if we are not using the synthesis bit of it, we always use it to put sounds through. It has such a good filter, nice reverb. And on that track and other tracks, we always play the Fender Telecaster through it. Probably the sound of our records is an EMS and an Eventide Harmonizer.”
Read more of the Remix Interview with the Chemical Brothers
EMS SYNTHI AKS
“The same synth as the VCS3 but in a briefcase,” Rowlands says. “The AKS has a sequencer built into the lid of the briefcase. It's the coolest synth, just not a big monster one. It's like jet-age synthesis. You can take your briefcase with you, though not on the plane these days. It has built-in speakers as well. So you can be on the move and play with it. It makes all the Doctor Who sounds; it's the late-'60s British synth. It's the maddest sounding — not so good maybe for melodic patterns, though it has done that on our tracks before. It really excels at big, horrible, spiraling, squashy, splurgy sort of noises.”
“The Minimoog conjures a period of time — early house music,” Simons says. “It's warm sounding.”
“It's easy to get something you can play around with on the Minimoog,” Rowlands adds. “On ‘Surrender,'' we had it in the studio, and we hit upon a classic house bass sound; that led to writing the pattern for that song. It's an inspirational machine that makes you want to play it. Some instruments are not as inviting to play, but [with] that one, you just sit in front of it and mess around, and you'll find something and record it.”
“That machine totally inspired one of the songs on the record,” Rowlands recalls. “The sounds on ‘Burst Generator'' are almost entirely from the Jupiter-8. It has a brilliant arpeggiator in it. If you set the clock for the arpeggiator externally and have your sequence running with it and then set the arpeggio on Random, it can make great sounds. Like we had this good chord sequence, but it sounded a bit normal. Then we played our chords through the arpeggiator set on Random, and it did mad things. It made it sound exciting. Then it was processed quite heavily through some different boxes. It's on ‘Das Spiegel'' quite a lot. You play something into it, and it can sound quite straight. Then you add the Random stepping through, like, four octaves, choosing where it's going to be on its own. With synths that have a Random capability, you get things that you wouldn't expect.”
ROLAND SYSTEM 700
“That is not really on the album,” Rowlands says with a laugh. “I just wanted to see if you could get one! [Remix rented some of the synths for the Chemical Brothers photo shoot.] We have one. It's actually only on the end of the album, on ‘The Pills Won't Help You Now.'' It's got an amazing filter on it and a phase shifter. I put some synth from Logic through the filter and the phase shifter in the 700. That was what we'd been aiming for. At the end of the track when everything swells up, we were having a lot of problems making that sound good. The 700 has the nine oscillators and many filters. It's got a good panner on it. Quite an expensive panner.”
“It costs a million pounds!” Simons says.
“A fantastic synth!” Rowlands exclaims. “It makes an amazing noise. Its filters are totally different. It was made by people who had an idea of how filters should work. It's another synth where we were playing it and not MIDIing it up. Instead of having a pitch wheel, it's got a touch-sensitive little black thing that you press harder. It's not a strip but a little black square; it's about the pressure you apply and the way you apply the pressure. It just roars! It's just a normal mono synth. It looks a bit bigger than a Roland SH-101. It's a legendary synth, but it looks quite normal. It sounds totally different than anything else.”
THERMIONIC CULTURE VULTURE
Another secret weapon the Chemical Brothers used on almost every track of We Are the Night is Thermionic Culture's Culture Vulture — the Chem's tube-driven distortion unit par excellence.
“All the synths went through the Culture Vulture,” Rowlands reveals. “It drives the signal through its tubes in different ways. You put a synth through it, and it sounds 10 times better. Before we went to main mixing, we recorded just about all the synths through the Culture Vulture. It gives everything a bit of dirt and makes it sound less clean and a bit more real somehow. That is the sound we have been usually getting but through quite complicated levels of distortion and overdriving the Neve desk and EQing and compressing it. But with the Culture Vulture, you just plug something in; there are three different tube settings and two knobs, and you just play around until something happens. I don't know how it works. I have lost my mind in this gear pit!”
SAME-OLD SOFT SYNTHS
What with all this ancient synth gear and tube-driven distortion, you might think the Chemical Brothers are against the soft-synth revolution. You'd be 90-percent correct. “There is a total turnaround happening with soft synths,” Rowlands believes. “Everyone who uses them, their records all sound the same. Dance records really do all sound the same.”
“We're getting old, so they all sound the same,” Simons adds. “But they actually do all sound the same!”
“First, you had all those minimal German records,” Rowlands states. “All those sounds loaded up in Reaktor make a drum beat that sounds a bit like those German records. In some ways that is good — it's a very quick means of making music. It shouldn't matter how it was made. But we only hear records that all sound just like each other now. It's a bit boring. But there is no reason you can't take those things and make something different. It's about your ideas. That is the bad thing about synthesizers — it makes people that haven't got them think that they need them. We didn't have them when we started. You could just buy two records and put one on top of the other, and that was good enough. That is the trouble in talking about these really expensive and rare synths. [People think] ‘I won't be able to do that until I get that'' — but that is not how it works.
The Chemical Brothers' return to the simpler club sounds of their youth — of a time when Rowlands and Simons lived for New Order and Blaxploitation soundtracks, Kraftwerk and Eric B. & Rakim — signals their full-circle maturation. Adults with separate lives and children (well, three for Rowlands), the Chemical Brothers' We Are the Night shows the duo operating as savvy businessmen after all — intent on selling records, establishing their legacy and ultimately, communicating and connecting.
“We want it to connect to people,” Rowlands says. “When you are DJing, you have to be aware of how the music works in real life. If you do live in a rarified atmosphere, and you remove yourself from everything, you will make a very different record. But we are still concerned with making music that has a form and that people immediately get. We still want that basic response to music — to have something that connects. Maybe through DJing is why we are still concerned with that, and maybe that is what gives you relevance; you are still aware that this music has got to have a function. We want people to go mad. That is a high aim for the music.”
WE ARE THE GEAR
Apple Logic Pro 7 software, Mac G5 computer
SSL AWS 900+ console
Samplers, drum machines
Akai MPC3000, S3000 (2), S3000XL (2), S6000, X7000 samplers
Casio RZ-1 drum machine
E-mu E4 Ultra (4), E64, SP-1200 samplers
LinnDrum drum machine
Sonor Mini-Movement drum system
Synths, software, plug-ins, instruments
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
ARP 1603 sequencer, 2600 synth
Clavia Nord Modular synth
Doepfer MAQ 16/3 MIDI analog sequencers (2)
Elektron Machinedrum, Monomachine
Elka Synthex synth
EMS Synthi AKS, VCS3 synths
Fender Deluxe Reverb amp, Jazzmaster guitar, Precision bass, Telecaster guitar
Korg Mono/Poly, MS-10, MS-50, MS-2000 synths
Moog Memorymoog, Minimoog synths
Native Instruments FM7 soft synth, Kontakt soft sampler
Oberheim Xpander synths (2)
Octave Cat, Kitten synths
Parker MIDIFly guitar
Roland Juno-106, Jupiter-6, Jupiter-8, SH-101, System 700 synths
Synton Fenix, Syrinx synths
Vox Phantom XII 12-string guitar
Wiard 300 and 1200 Series Modular synths
Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Chandler Limited TG1 compressor, Germanium preamp
Electro-Harmonix Graphic Fuzz effects unit
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor
EMS Synthi Hi-Fli analog effects unit
Eventide DSP4000, H3000 Ultra-Harmonizers
Ibanez Analog Delay
TC Electronic FireworX, M5000 multi-effects processors
Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture
Dynaudio ABES subwoofer, M2 speakers
Miloco Studios: the Neve Room