Liam Howlett of Prodigy explains why Reason, to him, is the best thing since sliced bread.
Anyone who wasn't in a deep coma all through the 1990's would be hard pressed not to remember Essex based dance outfit The Prodigy. They extracted the pure essence of the rave scene, infused it with hefty doses of punk, funk & skunk, wrapped it up and smuggled this package of unbridled club energy into your living room in the guise of chart smashers like Out of Space, Poison, Firestarter, Breathe and Smack My Bitch Up. But where are they now? As it turns out, they're already on the approach for your speaker membranes at 300 mph, dead set on making all the world's decibel meters blow their fuses once more.
Rumblings from the Dirtchamber
We tune in as Liam Howlett, the sonic sculptor of the band, is busy crafting the fourth Prodigy album in the depths of his studio dwelling The Dirtchamber. It has indeed been a while since we last heard from them; 1997 saw the release of The Fat of the Land, but other than the orphan single Baby's Got a Temper - released in the summer of 2002 - Prodigy have been perplexingly quiet.
A six year hiatus, why?
- Well it wasn't a conscious decision or a plan, really; it just happened. We knew there would be downtime after The Fat of the Land - we felt we had reached the pinnacle of what Prodigy was, and I myself had my mind set on taking a couple of years off. And then time just flew by, know what I mean?
About 2 years ago I started working again, but soon realized I needed to shift myself out of the formula I'd gotten into from working in the same environment all the time. I'd written everything in Cubase from 1993 onwards, with a bunch of hardware synths and Akai samplers as my main setup. I sat down and I thought, "well... this is just so boring. How can I ever get inspired doing the same old thing? How am I gonna write a fresh, inspired album? I'm not enjoying it, it's not going anywhere, I hate my studio, I hate all the equipment in it."
For a man with a hardware gear list the size of a small town phone directory, that's a lot of equipment to hate. Liam's winding road through the world of music making is one which many of his generation can relate to; he started out with a simple 4-track portastudio and turntables in the 1980's, soon got into synthesizers, and eventually found himself using a Roland W-30 workstation with a whopping 16 seconds worth of sampling time. The entire first album, The Prodigy Experience, was created on just this one keyboard. As the royalties started rolling in, so did the gear - and soon enough Liam found himself immersed in a machine park with enough electronics to fill a space cruiser. But, as anyone who's been-there-done-that will know, that can be more of a curse than a blessing.
What got you back on track again?
- I bought myself a laptop, which completely reanimated my creative process because I was able to write anywhere I went. At one point someone told me to check out this program Reason, "it's really back to basics, you should check it out just for fun, you know?" So I did - I started out just writing beats on it and approached it in a sort of recreational sense, like you would a computer game. Then I'd go off somewhere like Scotland or New York and I'd take my laptop with me, with all my samples on the hard drive... and then it all just started happening. Reason was just like... it totally refreshed me, it was just amazing. It was like going back to how it was in the beginning. All of a sudden I was writing two or three songs a week, just messing around and having a laff again. I started something with it and got it rocking in ten minutes. That took a lot of pressure off of me. So, to summarize: What got me back on track was A) the laptop, and B) a program that let me feel I've gone back and taken all the complication out of writing music.
A lot of people feel that way; Reason is like a lifesaver for the bored gearhead musician. You?
- Yeah, I couldn't live without it. If Reason hadn't come along I would probably still be in my studio, depressed, going "aww bloody 'ell, don't know what I'm gonna do", you know? I don't want to pat Propellerhead on the back too much, but... Reason has literally changed my life, getting me back in the studio and enjoying it all again. It's taken the monotony out of music making and put it into a format where music should be these days - no big deal, just something that should be fun to do. Creation is always painful, but this is the least painful way I know of.
What do you think it was in the old days that ultimately sucked the life out of creativity?
- It was all so time consuming back then, we were all bogged down in cumbersome processes. I'm not very technical - I come from a hip hop sort of cut-and-paste background and I'm not this big studio guy, it's just all in my head. The technology available now frees the mind in the creative sense; I'm able to think about the actual song a lot more, rather than just going "it's gonna take me an hour to do this or that". Music for me these days is quite punk rock, it's very DIY, very throwaway. I know I'm not creating something that's gonna be around forever. For me and for Prodigy it's all about the quick punch in the face, you know?
So, Reason is pretty much the meat of the sound on the new album?
- Literally everything you'll hear on the new album has been written on Reason. Everything starts there. Eventually we get to a stage where the song is written, and then we - that's my producer Neil McClennan and I - move it into 'Tools where we finish off everything, and that works great since Reason integrates with ProTools really well. Everything that comes out of Reason sounds really good, it's got this sound, I think - a kind of certain... everything sounds like it "locks in" really good, you know? And that sound we got out of Reason is something that we now and again had to go back to Reason to duplicate; sometimes we'd do a thing in ProTools and it just didn't rock it like Reason did, so we'd take it out of ProTools and try to duplicate it in Reason instead.
What are your favorite Reason devices?
- That would have to be the drum machine and the Dr. REX. I use the REX player all over the place and I just love the way you can mess around with a loop, and I love the way you can sync the LFO to tempo and route it to the filter, we use that on the album a lot. As for the effects, the Scream 4 unit is just the best thing for the type of music I'm writing. Definitely the high point of version 2.5 for me. The tape distortion is very good for bass, to give it the edge, it's warm...
What, specifically, don't you use Reason for?
- When it comes to bass sounds, I'm pure analog and I don't use soft synths for bass at all. There's just no substitute for analog. Instead, I'll take an Oberheim, Moog, Korg MS-20 or something, sample a sequence of it playing, rex it up and then bring that back in Reason and lock it in there. I do occasionally use the softsynths to put melodies down - I'd say maybe 50% of the synths, the top line and high end stuff, is Reason. I can't as of yet use it for everything - obviously you can't record vocals into it - but ultimately, what Reason does have by way of limitations is also one of its strong points. It forces your imagination to be more on the board, you have to dig it out of your head rather than just going "well, I just can't do that in there". I never saw it that way, I mean if something you want to do is completely off limits then just use another program, no big deal.
Liam has a wish list for things he'd like to see in future versions of Reason. One would be the ability to automap non-tonal samples to individual key zones in the NN-XT, for creating drum maps on the fly.
- My end note on Reason is, it's got this humour about it, it's like - when somebody showed it to me the first time and said "you can keep on building the rack up..." I was all, "what rack, what're you on about?" I couldn't believe it, it was just such a simple and genius idea. It's so obvious now, isn't it? Love it.
The new Prodigy album "Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned" is slated for a spring/summer 2004 release.