Keyboard Magazine

Trim the Fat

How much gear is too much? For Liam Howlett of the Prodigy, whatever came between him and his analog synths had to go.

With the huge success of Fat of the Land (XL/Mute/Maverick) in ’97, the Prodigy finally got worldwide recognition for their part in creating the style that became electronica. Their trademark sound — heavy breakbeats and often-comical spoken-word samples — had earned them gold status in the U.K. by the early ’90s. But it was Fat that took them from Blighty’s club circuit and put them into arenas around the world.

As a result, Liam Howlett — the true keyboard prodigy behind the name — suddenly had money. Loads of money. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow! I can buy anything now. I can get a Roland System 100 and all this fat ’80s analog stuff,’” he recalls. So, he went out and did just that. “I think that was the thing that made the whole process of making the new record [Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned, Maverick/XL] really difficult to do,” he says. “I had too much equipment in my studio.”

Howlett also struck up a relationship with Korg, who gave him boxes of gear that began to stack up. He’d taken a year off and wanted to go back in the studio in 2001. But when he got there he hit a wall: “I got really freaked out by my gear,” he reveals. For the next year, he stared at his gear-packed studio, thinking, “Where the f**k do I start?”

He tried to push through, but after many months he’d only come up with a few tracks. “Baby’s Got Temper” was released as a single in July 2002, but he knew, as did his fans, that something was wrong. “‘Baby’s Got Temper’ was a disappointment,” he frowns. “It wasn’t a good record. It lacked energy and was kind of a sonic description of the band at the time. It was very dark. I wanted to throw all those tracks away and get back to the idea of [using] more analog electronics. The whole of those recordings had quite a rock-breakbeat sound with a lot of guitars. I didn’t use my analog gear so much; all of my favorite s**t, like the Oberheim Four Voice, Korg MS-20, Roland Jupiter-8 . . . all those wicked analog bits went spare.”

Howlett spent the next four months locked in his home studio in the country. “Essex is not the best environment to write a Prodigy album,” he laughs. “It’s very relaxed; very mellow and beautiful.” He kept wishing he was back in the early days with just a Roland W-30, an Akai sampler, and a couple of sound modules.

“I had thrown all these tracks in the bin, so I had no album and it was a pretty scary time,” he shares. “But, I was really hopeful. I kept thinking, ‘Tomorrow’s the day I’m gonna write a tune.’”

Eventually, producer Neil McLellan pointed out that he hadn’t actually done anything. “He told me, ‘I’ve got to get you out of this environment. We’ve got to go to London.’” Howlett finally agreed: “I knew it wasn’t going to happen in that studio.”

Changing Rooms

He locked the studio door and moved the whole operation to London, taking only his Oberheim Four Voice , Korg MS-20, Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture distortion unit, Thermionic Culture Phoenix compressor, Manley EQP1-A EQ, and an Akai Z8 sampler. “The good thing about the Z8 is it goes directly into my computer with USB,” he says. “I never really got into the SampleCell stuff on the computer. I like to have the hardware where I can trigger the sample with a button. I hadn’t made the total transition to computer world. I was scared of Pro Tools, even though I had it and Apple Logic as well. But I didn’t want to use those programs, they seemed too technical in a way. I liked Propellerhead Reason, though. It was more like a computer game.”

A friend showed him how to get around Reason on his G4 laptop. Howlett liked how easy it was to use. “You could get ideas down really quickly,” he says. “I started to just do beats on it to start with. I’d take the laptop into my bedroom.” He wrote the tracks “Spitfire,” “Wake Up Call,” and “Girls” in bed. “I had this really cozy environment set up with my DVD player playing Moonraker or The Spy That Loved Me, and a cup of Jack Daniel’s.”

For his daytime work, Howlett moved into the new studio, Muse, in a rough part of London’s East End. “At night you don’t walk down the street,” he says. “In the daytime, I’d walk down the street and just get inspired by the noise of what was going on around me. Instead of buying loads of music and just going to see bands play, which is how I got inspired for the last record, I really liked the idea of getting inspired by the s**t of the street. It was great!”

One night, while Howlett and his wife enjoyed a romantic dinner in a restaurant, he heard music coming out of the kitchen. He inquired what the music was, and the chef wrote down the name of Iranian singer Gholam Hossein. After getting his own copy of Hossein’s CD, he sampled some drums from that song for the beginning of “Medusa’s Path.”

Back In The Studio

Finally, Howlett got into a groove in March, 2003. He’d spend all day in the studio with Neil and his Pro Tools engineer, Damien Taylor. “I was re-energized,” he enthuses. “We did ‘Wake Up Call’ with Kool Keith, as my response to ‘Baby’s Got Temper.’ I wanted put a psychic alarm clock in my head and remember what the Prodigy was all about, all the cheeky samples and fun dance music.”

After his night sessions in his bedroom, he’d bring the fresh tracks to the studio and say, “This is what I did last night. Bang! The tracks would explode out of the speakers.” Things had to be tweaked, but once he had the basic demo, he could export it to Pro Tools, then do overdubs with his analog gear and lay down vocals. As he progressed, Howlett found some of the sounds from the Reason soft synths less satisfactory. “I might have used the soft synths from Reason on the demo tracks, but I would never have used them on the finished track. They don’t have the warmth that the analog s**t’s got.”

While he played all the instruments and did all the programming, he did take a step back once tracks went into Pro Tools. “I left all the button-pushing up to Damien,” he says. “I got too bogged down on ‘Baby’s Got Temper’ with the technical side of things. If you know me, it was quite brave for me to let go like that.”

Aggression + Trash = Sexy

Howlett didn’t want the new record to be too similar to Fat of the Land, but he didn’t want to lose the signature funky-punk sound of the band. He succeeded in keeping the energy and aggression of the previous albums, but also infused a little sex into the mix. “Hot Ride” seems to distill it best for him. “I did the instrumental before I hooked Juliette [Lewis] up for the vocals,” he says. “I recorded a live drummer in the studio. I wasn’t bothered about getting the mix perfect with the drums. I got it roughly right and balanced it out, but I wanted to be sure to keep that raw sound. I knew what I could do with it once I got it into Reason, so I didn’t bother with compression. I chopped it up and had the separate hits, but it kept the room tone as well. That gave it the raw live sound I was looking for.”

In the end, Howlett triumphed over his option anxiety and gear blindness, finding a balance of manageable software and analog goodies. He smiles as he talks about the journey he made from his room full of gear to the laptop in bed. “When it gets right down to it,” he admits, “I’m quite technophobic.”

Big Guns?

Liam Howlett knows how to get some pretty huge sounds out of a small cache of gear. The sharp objects used on Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned:

Apple Mac G4 laptop
Propellerhead Reason
Digidesign Pro Tools
Korg microKontrol
MIDI controller
Korg MS-20
Akai Z8
Mackie 32•8 8-bus mixer
Manley EQP1-A EQ
Oberheim Four Voice
Thermionic Culture Culture Vulture stereo tube distortion unit
Thermionic Culture Phoenix stereo tube compressor

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