Back To The Future: The Orb Revisits Its Roots & Updates Its Methods

The inside flap of the digipak for the Orb’s latest CD, The Dream, lists all the standard verbiage one would find on a traditional release: management and crew listings, artwork details, special thanks, and URLs.
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But it’s the small credit at the top that says the most: “The Orb (this week) are Alex Patterson, Youth, and Tim Bran.”

In a manner more akin to the jazz greats of the ’50s and ’60s, the Orb have become one of electronic music’s most influential acts by enlisting a rotating cast of players that have helped invigorate and redefine the band’s sound. The one constant over the last 20 years has been the ingenious, incongruent mind of Alex Patterson. From the ambient house bounce to grungy marches, Patterson has constructed an emporium of sound atop the cornerstones of dance, dub, punk, and soul music. The Dream teams him up with Dreadzone member Tim Bran, and longtime friend Youth (of Killing Joke), who worked with Patterson on The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld, and U.F.Orb.

“Alex and I have such a strong musical history,” says Youth. “When we get together, we tend to go back to our school record collections and reference things from the early ’70s right through to the last 20 years between those first albums and now.” Stylistic parallels can indeed be drawn between The Dream and Ultraworld—the cover art, for starters—but with two decades of technological innovation separating them, the major differences lie in the production details. Recorded primarily at the Dreaming Cave— Youth’s small studio in the back of his garden—the album was started in Pro Tools. Midway through the sessions, however, Youth switched over to Logic due to its swipecomping capabilities—the likes of which greatly altered the way the group worked.

In the early days, Youth and Patterson would record everything to a 24-track tape machine, and when their two-inch reels ran out, they’d run into a bank of three or four Akai S3000 samplers as a means to archive their jams until more tape could be purchased. Finite digital storage space and the high cost of tape meant the group had to be frugal with their output. While Patterson and Youth initially approached The Dream with a focused thriftiness—an ethic the duo says accounts for the more traditional and minimal song-based approach of tracks such as “Vuja De” and “A Beautiful Day”—virtually unlimited hard-disk space, and the ability to quickly and efficiently comp multiple tracks inspired the Orb to let loose. The newfound freedom resulted in the recording of massive jam sessions. When it was all said and done, about 70 percent of the album’s tracks could be traced to impromptu jams between Youth (on bass), Bran (on keys), and Patterson (on decks and effects).

“I’m the bloke who made all the mad noises,” laughs Patterson, whose mobile phone has now become his go-to sample collection device. “I’m not the one who goes into a computer program and uses something everybody else can get. That’s what makes the Orb unique, I’m afraid to say. It’s got that quirkiness to it.”

If those sample-delic nonsequiturs make up the Orb’s pulsating brain, Youth’s melodic, sub-aqueous bass lines are the legs that propel the tunes forward.

“I was aiming to get a very melodic, Paul McCartney-meets-Air sound on some of the tracks,” says Youth. “On a track like ‘Codes,’ I was aiming for a more Giorgio Moroder homage, and a little bit of Norman Whitfield, but there are also some King Tubby bass lines in there.”

In addition to a Modern Music Status bass—outfitted with a graphite neck and active pickups—Youth used a Gibson EB-2 semi-acoustic that provided the thick sustain that can be heard in a reggae-styled track like “Lost & Found.” Short of a little EQing using Logic’s Low Pass Filter, and some glitch-y amp simulation sounds via Guitar Rig, Youth kept the signal path relatively unaffected. The large majority of the album, according to Youth, was processed in the box. Reverbs were an exception, and for those, the group employed the services of a mid-’80s-era Great British Spring.

“They sound like a reverb, but they don’t eat up the sound,” says Bran of the six-foot long drainpipe, which was used in conjunction with Logic’s Space Designer convolution reverb to create the album’s extraordinarily deep, dubby sound. “We’d run it live on the desk as an effects send, and then record that back into Logic as a take. If you just stick things through a reverb it can get a bit boring. But if you’re playing the reverb off drum loops and spinning delays, it’s like the old dub records from Jamaica. That’s how they used to do it, and that’s an instrument in itself—a performance.”

With such a heady mix of low-end frequencies and midrange samples, it was important to Bran that he kept the mix spacious and clutter-free. Nowhere is this achieved more effectively than in the title track, where each signal was surgically EQ’d to exist in a niche, and then strategically panned throughout the stereo field to preserve clarity while creating width.

“We wanted to make it so that it was like walking into a forest of sound,” says Bran of “The Dream.” “I’d use a little panning to lead you around the stereo field and give you space, but, typically, I didn’t use too many effects. It’s almost like an overture to what’s coming.”

The Dream is one of the richest Orb albums to date, and, at nearly 80 minutes, it’s no light fare. Regardless of who rotates in and out of the Orb, the 48-year-old Patterson shows no signs of slowing down, even if he is traipsing through familiar pastures.

“The Dream is something we wanted to reinvent from the first two albums, and just go back to our roots for a little while,” says Patterson. “We know that period, and we know the sounds we can use to get people’s ears to tweak up. It’s almost like visiting an old friend.”