Sound On Sound
Essex dance outfit The Prodigy have long outgrown their pure rave beginnings, and their recent number one single, 'Firestarter' points the way to a new, even harder sound. PAUL NAGLE tackles some burning topics of modern music-making with the group's aural architect Liam Howlett...
With album sales at over the two million mark, The Prodigy (Liam Howlett, Maxim Reality, Keith Flint, and Leeroy Thornhill) have reached heights unscaled by many other artists making out-and-out '90s dance music. Remarkably, the group has achieved its success without becoming enmeshed in the trappings of stardom, or having to devise an image suitable for the teenage music press. Despite their increasingly uncompromising take on dance music, the band continue to enjoy both critical acclaim and popular success -- and all without losing the respect of their hardcore underground following, too. I tracked down The Prodigy's musical mastermind, Liam Howlett, at his home studio in darkest Essex to see how the band create their music, and to discuss their new musical style, which is continuing to develop as Liam works on the forthcoming, as-yet-untitled Prodigy album.
Liam Howlett's Earthbound Studios is an impressive sight. The initial impression is of a Mayan temple populated with hi-tech keyboards and samplers -- and then you notice some of the other, somewhat incongruous decor: the spiral staircase, the enormous TV, and the full-sized Dalek, seemingly awaiting revenge on the evil Americans who reduced Doctor Who to a bit player in a soap...
Once I had got used to my surroundings, I resisted an urge to start the interview with questions about The Prodigy's 1991 hit 'Charly' -- after all, times have changed considerably since The Prodigy were seen as the head of a brief musical fad by the name of 'cartoon techno' for sampling phrases from a British 1970s child awareness cartoon and layering them over a techno backing. When the band's single 'Firestarter' hit the number one spot recently, with its stark video and hard sound, it seemed that a very different chapter was beginning in The Prodigy's career.
I began by asking Liam to elaborate on the reasons for the group's progression from their early, commercial-sounding techno style to something altogether grittier: "When I started on Music For The Jilted Generation [The Prodigy's 1994 album -- Ed], I found a new vibe with the alternative dance scene. Alternative music as a whole, really, incorporating rock, hip-hop, and the more dirty side of dance music -- not clean stuff. We started as a rave act, because that's what we were into then, but as time passed, the rave scene went under, and we got bored with the whole thing. It became a bit of a joke to us, and then, one night in Scotland, on stage, in front of about six thousand lunatics with white gloves on, I found myself thinking, 'What am I doing here? I'm not into this'.
"I hoped that people would accept Jilted Generation, as half of it was quite safe, but the other side, the unsafe part, was the better side: 'Poison'; 'Their Law'; the really dirty stuff. After I'd finished writing Jilted, I basically reassessed the whole thing, and thought 'yeah, that's the more credible side' and ditched the corny rave thing. The new direction is a whole mixture of good street alternative dance music."
Given that The Prodigy's new material is, by Liam's own admission, less overtly commercial than their first offerings, I wondered if he and the band had been surprised by the runaway success of 'Firestarter'?
"I was very surprised, but I was more surprised that more people didn't comment on how we'd gone away from what we were doing before. A lot of people thought it was the best thing we've done, especially people at Radio One, who did support it quite a lot -- maybe to show that they were more in touch with youth culture.".
Of course, many bands progress musically, only to find with dismay that their changing style alienates their original fans. However, this problem just doesn't seem to have affected The Prodigy. I wondered if Liam had any ideas why this hadn't happened to them: "We never look for success, but I'd say we're at a level now where we've got a following, and people respect what we're doing. The records don't have to be really commercial every time, as long as they follow the Prodigy rules -- that they're hard and 'in your face'. That's what The Prodigy's music is about, whether it's got guitars on it, or whether it's industrial, techno, or whatever. For an album, I guess, you might have the odd track where it's a bit more soundtrack-based, a bit more string-orientated, or more ambient, but with singles, it's pretty in-your-face stuff."
Like many successful techno artists who have appeared in SOS, Liam is actually less bothered about owning the newest studio technology than you might expect from the hi-tech sound of his music. It would seem that keeping up with the latest developments is important to him (see the 'Reluctantly Upgrading' box), but so is keeping everything in perspective, remembering just what all the gear is for, and who's in charge of it. "I've never got too much into the technology. I try and keep the studio quite basic, you know. I was scared of going too much into hard disk recording and editing, and all that. Mind you, Maxim tried to sell me his ADAT the other day, because he's just bought a Roland VS880, which he says is really cool. I might think about getting one of those..."
Despite Liam's slight reluctance to deal with hard disk recording, sampling plays a crucial role in the creation of The Prodigy's music; sharp-eared listeners will already have spotted the Art Of Noise and Breeders samples that feature in the 'Firestarter' single, to take just one example. In fact, Liam's favourite kind of studio gear becomes very clear during the interview: "The samplers. They are the most important thing to me -- I'm really creative with them. My modules are more just for filling in after I've already got something going on the samplers, to thicken things up and so on; I never go to a module to start a song off. I try and get some loops in the sampler first, get something strange happening, and build up a track from that. I can pull samples out of any records and twist them round to make them fit into my music; at the moment, I've got this thing about '70s rare groove and funk for drum and bass guitar loops. I just love the natural feeling. On the new album, there's loads of things like that which are not obvious funk, just loops in the background that give it a natural feel. I'm not into the heavily-programmed, typical techno sound, with bass drum and clean hi-hat; it's got to be slightly screwed up for me, really...".
Although he uses many common synths and sound modules, Liam always strives to broaden his sonic palette by applying heavy effects processing to the basic sounds he uses, in keeping with the 'screwed-up' approach: "That's the key. I love my Boss SE70s. I did have an Yamaha SPX1000, an ART Multiverb and an Alesis Quadraverb, but because you can get awesome distortion sounds from the SE70, I sold all the others. The SPX1000 is just a crap industry-standard thing, with no special effects whatsoever, so I got rid of that. A grand for just a reverb unit and delay is a bit of a waste of money really... So, I've got four SE70s, and I programme the hell out of them. I've really gone mad with them".
Liam also declares himself a cautious fan of analogue synths, but not to an obsessive level. Furthermore, he did not hold them in particularly high regard until recently, with irritating consequences, as he explains: "I'm not a real 'analogue head', but I know now that there is no substitute for analogue sounds. I did something really silly about a year ago -- I had loads of analogue gear: Roland Jupiter 8 and 6s, and a Minimoog... and I got rid of them all! The Jupiter 8 had been superb, but it started to break down. I played a JD800 in a shop, and thought it was pretty cool; it seemed to have the analogue feel. So I thought I could get all the analogue sounds on other equipment -- and the old stuff did seem to be sitting there not being used a lot. As soon as it went out of the door, I wanted it back again; when I got the JD800 home, I knew within a week I wasn't happy with it. I'm definitely getting the Minimoog back!". To complete the changes to his musical gear, Liam ejected the unsatisfactory JD800 shortly afterwards as well, although a year later, he did fall for the JD990 (see the 'Liam On Selected Equipment' box).
As for the direction in which technology is taking music, Liam doesn't necessarily see every new development as being a step forward: "I definitely think it's getting too easy to write music these days. Take this new thing, the Quasimidi Raven. I tried it and just couldn't believe it -- I thought it was a stupid machine, personally. Some of the sounds were good, but in about 30 seconds, I'd written a Euro song. I just couldn't believe that you can have a complete song in such a short time. I'd never buy anything like that; I'm a sampler man, and that's where the interest is for me, not in these pieces of equipment. The more gear that comes out like that, the easier it becomes to write music -- but the more difficult it becomes to write good music. There are even modules where you don't need to process any of the drums; they're all there and ready to go. That does annoy me slightly, because it devalues a lot of the work that you put into it. For me, to move slightly away from that sound is better; I'll try to find another sound, by going deeper into the dirty side of it, so that people can't just buy equipment and have our sounds ready to go".
I asked Liam if there was any need to go to other, larger studios, or if it was possible to create tracks entirely at Earthbound that were suitable for commercial release. "Each track differs really. With 'Firestarter', for example, I did the entire mix of the backing track here, but without the vocals (see the 'Now With Added Vocals' box for more on the genesis of the 'Firestarter' vocals) -- I couldn't get a good result with the vocals here. So, I ended up taking my DAT into the Strongroom [London-based studio], where I work with a guy called Neil Mclennan -- he's the only person I can work with as far as mixing goes, because he really understands what I'm on about, and he's got some wild ideas himself. So we put the vocal down, and maybe only needed to EQ the DAT very slightly. We recorded the vocal there, and added the mad backward sound effects, and then we just EQ'd the track a bit more in the cutting room". Liam goes on to explain that some of the material for the new Prodigy album has been done in its entirety at Earthbound. "We've just done a hip-hop track with full vocals on. It's up on the desk at the moment -- it sounds finished, and I've done it all here. Sometimes you can get a good sound here, sometimes you can't."
The Prodigy have remained committed to live playing over the years, and have established a reputation second to none for high-energy action. Liam has no illusions about the value of performing: "Next to the studio, it's the most important thing. Our music is music to perform live to; when I'm writing, that's what I'm thinking about every time. When people think of the band The Prodigy, they don't think of me in the studio, they think of the whole thing on stage. The live side has been especially important over the last three years; I think we've really developed into a better live act than we were. As far as doing shows in America is concerned, if you're a band, you have to play live if you want to sell records".
Liam reveals that producing the Prodigy sound live presents interesting challenges. As with much of his studio work, he relies on his samplers -- he has both an Akai and his Roland W30 on stage. "Some of the tracks are very complicated, and you couldn't have all the equipment on stage to run them live -- so when I've finished a full mix of the song, I strip down elements -- for example, in 'Firestarter', I take the guitar out, because we've got a live guitarist who plays off the backing. I've got all the other samples on the keyboard, and Keith is doing the vocals. 'Poison' is done in a completely different way; I've sampled about 10 different 8-bar sections from the record, then I literally play it in live. I don't know anyone else who does that. It's probably a crude way of doing it, but it's so cool, because you can change things really quickly, and it's how good I am at playing it that makes it work. A couple of times my fingers have slipped off the keys -- that's all part of the fun of being live!
"Some bands' music is fairly simple -- Orbital, for example. They probably think as they're writing, 'here's our equipment, and we've got to do all this live' -- so maybe they're slightly limited. For me, the main thing is just to get out there and do a good show, not to worry about, say, doing a certain bass drum live. That's not the important thing.
"I could never mime to a DAT, though -- we've turned shows down where you're not allowed to run up a whole live section, and you've just got to stand there. We have to feel like we're actually producing music there and then on stage, so it can be different every time."
At only 24, Liam has accomplished much, with no sign of letting up yet. Work is progressing on the untitled new album, with five or six tracks pretty much finished, and work on the others underway. I asked about the future, and if Liam has many unfulfilled ambitions. "Once the band finishes, I've always said I'd like to get into soundtracks. I'm starting to make my way in there now. One of my friends, who edits our videos, is doing a film, which Keith's going to be in too, so it should be quite cool." As my tape wound perilously close to the end, I asked if Liam had any useful advice for struggling musicians out there. After a moment's pause, he grinned. "Keith always says: 'You can never have too many SE70s'. That's a good final quote."
Although Prodigy tracks have included vocals before, the 'Firestarter' single featured lyrics written by Liam and Keith, which Keith then added to Liam's backing track. Liam: "With 'Firestarter', me and Keith wrote the lyrics together. I'd done the track and played it to him, and he said he'd really like to get some lyrics on it. I was quite surprised, because he's never done it before.
"He came round a few days later, sat down and we eventually got over the embarassing situation where everything you say with the lyrics sounds terrible. Once it's on record, it doesn't matter what you say [laughs]. On other tracks, I come up with lyrics, then I might get Maxim to come over. Maxim writes a lot of his own lyrics as well -- like the new single 'Minefield' -- he did the vocals on that."
• Aiwa DAT
• Akai S2800 (10Mb each) samplers (x2)
• Alesis Quadraverb multi-effects
• Boss SE70 multi-effects
• Dynatek 270Mb Hard Drive
• Korg Prophecy monosynth
• Roland W30 Sampling Workstation (x3)
• Roland SH101 monosynth
• Sequential Circuits Pro One monosynth
STUDIO GEAR RECORDING
• Boss guitar pedals (distortion, overdrive, phaser, flanger)
• Boss SE70 (x4)
• Drawmer LX20 compressor (x3)
• dbx compressor (x4)
• JVC hi-fi amplifier
• Mackie 8-buss 32-channel mixer
• Morley Wah pedal
• Roland E660 digital EQ
• Sony DTC1000 DAT
• Squier Fender bass buitar
• Tascam DA20 DAT
• Technics SL1200 turntable
• TLA Audio Valve EQ
• Akai CD3000
• Akai S3200 (x2)
• Roland W30 sampling workstation
• Clavia Nord Lead
• Emu Orbit
• Emu Proteus World
• Emu Vintage Keys
• Korg Prophecy
• Roland JD990 with expansion boards• Roland Juno 106
• Roland TB303 (x2) one with MIDI retrofit)
• Roland U220
• Emu SP1200
• Roland TR808
• Roland TR909
COMPUTING & SOFTWARE
• Apple Power Mac 7100
• Cubase for Macintosh
• KORG PROPHECY
"The Prophecy is one of the few things that produces big distortion as far as a ready-to-run synth goes. It's at its best on stage, though I've used it on just about every track on the new album so far. The programming is so open, it's great for resonant sweeps, and the ribbon is quite handy. You can also record filter changes over MIDI onto the Mac. There are so many different things you can do with it. It's not the type of keyboard I'd go to to start a song with -- it's better for distortion and feedback sounds. It's a shame it's only monophonic -- it's got some good string sounds."
• EMU ORBIT
"I've only had this about three days... I must admit the drums are good -- with most sound modules you never get good drums, do you? I haven't really got into programming it yet though."
• ROLAND U220
"I've had that years. That's one of my all-time favourites for strings; the strings on there are a Prodigy trademark! If anyone puts a bit of chorus on those strings, you get the sound from 'Out Of Space' straight away."
• EMU VINTAGE KEYS
"I'm not that impressed with this, really. I went through a stage of going into my local music shop, and every time they had a new bit of equipment, I convinced myself I needed it. I had to get out of that. I've used this a couple of times -- on Jilted Generation I used it on about three tracks -- but I'd sell it any day."
• ROLAND JD990
"A year after selling my JD800, I did buy the JD990, which I think is really good. I've got all the expansion boards for it, but I don't use many of the analogue sounds off the vintage board -- it's mainly used for textures and strings. It's got a good distorted guitar, too."
• ROLAND VP330 VOCODER PLUS
"I've got this upstairs -- I borrowed it from a friend to record some stuff for the new album. I think it's one of those things you can use a couple of times, and then throw in a cupboard. It's got some nice strings on it, but you can't get many sounds from the vocoder. The typical '80s electro voice, but not much else."
• EMU SP1200 DRUM MACHINE
"The original hip-hop drum machine. That is fat! I'm really into the hip-hop scene, and did a lot of research into the equipment they used to get that real heavy sound. A guy from our record company went to New York and got this for me for my birthday; it was a really good present. It's so nice, just for single drum hits."
After many years using a Roland W30 workstation for all his sampling, Liam has recently obtained an Akai S3200 and CD3000. "I've had the W30 for three and a half years or so, but I still use it. The sampling has a nice raw quality about it -- the Akais are sometimes a bit too clean. I've got an S1100 on loan at the moment, as my CD3000 is in for repair."
The W30 also used to perform all of Liam's sequencing duties, but here, too, the Roland has yielded to newer technology, namely Cubase on an Apple Power Mac: "I did Jilted Generation with the W30 sequencer, but afterwards, I thought I could do with getting a few more tracks. Cubase has helped my writing quite a bit. I was so stuck with the W30 I never really thought I'd need more than 16 tracks. Also, I was worried I'd change the way I wrote. Now, I try and write the same way I used to on the W30; for example, I try not to copy too many things. I might write something and do an 8-bar section instead of one bar repeated, which is what most people in dance music do. The worst thing is getting stuck in an 8-bar loop -- you stick Cycle on, come up with something good, and it goes round and round. Then you get stuck into a groove, and it takes you ages to actually write the song. I try not to use Cycle too much -- just until I get a few ideas, then I turn it off."
For Liam, the choice of Cubase and the Mac was refreshingly uncomplicated: "Cubase was the obvious choice -- just because it's the most widely-used program. It wasn't out of any need to try and be clever -- I don't think it's the program you use that counts, it's what you've got in your head. Leeroy bought the colour version, but I'm not really into that -- although maybe I just didn't like the look of it because he's got a smaller monitor".
Liam's choice of computer platform was made in a similarly simple way, although he did have strong opinions on the Atari ST: "I didn't want an Atari -- it's crap! I did buy an Atari, plugged it in once and thought it was just too slow and dated. A friend suggested the Mac; I got that and thought it was much better. The art packages on the Mac are great, too. I haven't got any yet, but I plan to work on my own sleeves eventually."