Low Fidelity

“Low fidelity or lo fi (adjectival form “lowfidelity” or “lo-fi”) is a type of sound recording which contains technical flaws that make the recording sound different compared with the live sound being recorded, such as distortion, hum, background noise, or limited frequency response.” – Wikipedia (16.10.2017).

I always felt, in fact I knew, that something in underground dance music died during the “Loudness War” that kicked off around the time of Blog House, in the mid-naughties. At that time I was meeting up with other Edinburgh producers regularly, some of whom were obsessed with old analogue gear, others had fallen under the spell of the marvels of MIDI, but most of them were making their music entirely in DAW’s (Digital Audio Workstations), like Ableton or Fruity Loops. I can clearly remember one of these producers telling me to “EQ and compress, then EQ and compress, then EQ and compress every channel. Then export the track. Then bring it back in again and EQ and compress, EQ and compress and EQ and compress that. Then, use a VST plug-in to boost your bass.”. The trouble is that this makes your track sound like it was recorded by a bloke with metal hands, trapped inside a biscuit tin. However, for producers like that, and many others, it worked, for a while anyway.

The first time I remember the tin bucket sound becoming popular was in the late 1990’s, during the rise of Drum ‘n’ Bass – which I’ve always felt was all drum (Apart from the one you want – a sodding KICK!), and no bass. I think it’s pure shite, ken? O.K., Goldie’s “Inner City Life” is a masterpiece, fair enough. I did try to get into it though, I really did. I went to plenty of Drum ‘n’ Bass nights with friends with no taste who were lovin’ it, but I was always thinking; “When does it actually kick off?” – Never, is the answer to that question, if you’re curious. Why? Because it’s shite, ken? Don’t get me wrong, I like the odd flash of the “Amen break” as much as the next Raver, and I used to buy Jungle mix cassettes in shops like SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fucked Up) in Belfast when I was a teenager. They were alright, at least most of the tracks had decent bass lines, and an over enthusiastic MC hyping the track throughout in order to keep the energy levels up. However, Drum ‘n’ Bass dispensed with all of that good stuff, and instead decided to focus on sounds that had the same effect on your dancing feet as those created by your Grandmother riffling through her cutlery drawer in search of her favourite spoon. Why? Because they’re all shite, ken? (For the many readers who are by now scratching their heads and wondering why I keep calling them Ken, and for the one guy called Ken who’s loving this article; In Scotland, many people use the word Ken as a short way of saying “Know”, or “Do you know?” (eg. “Helen is pregnant, ken?”. “I ken.”.). I first heard it used in the film Trainspotting and for years, until I moved to Edinburgh from Belfast, I wondered who this character Ken was, and why you never saw him on screen.).

Without a doubt, the Loudness War did, finally, lead to the mass recognition of electronic music in America, through enormous EDM events and kids running around looking for Molly. That’s all well and good, fair play. However it also lead to the rise of Skrillex, the head cutlery drawer sound effects librarian, and his eventual collaborations with (Oh, for fuck sake) Justin Bieber. So, I think that was the final nail well and truly hammered into the coffin of cool that now surrounds, and suffocates, all of those EQ and compress producers. Excellent. Leave them there. Let the good times roll.

While I’m on the subject of horrific sub-genre’s, Trance never did anything for me either. Again, I did try. I went to Passion in Coalville to hear Tiësto play, on the suggestion of Judge Jules. I though it was shi-ite, and I ended up in a small side room, dancing to Breakbeat, along with the six other people who agreed with me. I also went to hear Judge Jules play at Gatecrasher and I just thought “What is the POINT of this?”. Endless breakdowns. A night of breakdowns. People sharing, smuggled in, half pieces of chewing gum (They confiscated chewing gum at the door. It’s still the only place I’ve been body searched for Wrigley’s, and sure enough they found some. So, I lost a packet of Extra in order to get through the doors and have a crap time. I’d have had a better time standing in a bus shelter chewing gum until 5AM anyway, more chance of hearing a fucking beat there at least.). So, again, I ended up in the Breaks Room, dancing to Tomas Andersson “Washing Up”, whist wishing I’d just kept my money in my pocket. Absolute bag of balls. In the spirit of fair play, however, I will say that I’ve been to a couple of major Techno nights recently in both Edinburgh and Belfast, were there has been perhaps just one or two breakdowns during a DJ’s two hour set. When they happen, the crowd lose their shit, and the beat coming back in kicks things off again. One breakdown an hour isn’t enough for me now though. I’ve got a bad back and a dodgy knee that need to be brought into consideration. I might have to develop a new sub-genre specifically targetted at, well, me!

I grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the 1980’s, through the 1990’s and into this new millennium, before I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in the Summer of 2005. By the early 90’s, at the time when I was becoming a teenager, innocent people were being murdered at Raves and house parties because of what religion they were born into. Sometimes the killers would manage to balls it up, and murder “One of their own” instead, and wind up being killed themselves https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Elliot_(RHC) . It was all rather fucked up. However, I’d grown up in a world where the sound of surveillance helicopters in the sky was so frequent that I never bothered to look up after seeing my first few. It was a normal, regular, occurrence to look out of my living room window and see a soldier squatting behind a tree in the front garden, aiming his riffle at a neighbours house. Sometimes, in the dead of night, I could hear gun shots, or bombs exploding in the distance. However, I just got on with life in the same way that everyone else around me did.

When I was in high school, cassette tapes from Raves that had been held in the Ulster Hall, would be copied by everyone with half an ounce of cool in them. I don’t think I ever set eyes on an original tape. Maybe someone’s older sibling had bought one, and then it just got copied, and copied, and copied. This meant that the forth or fifth generation version that I’d end up with would be far from perfect, but still I’d play them all the time. There’s a wonderful archive of these tapes at https://www.youtube.com/user/TokingOnCheese . “Pablo Gargano – MC GQ @ Hellraiser 4 (1993)” was a classic https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHd0Z8gOhPY , I’d listen to that all the time at friends houses when we should have been at school. I guess I must have been 13 then. Anyway, the point I’m attempting to get to with this particular story is not that I grew up in a scary place, but that the pops, crackles and drop outs on these dusty Hardcore Rave cassettes left their mark. I felt they added to the music listening experience, rather than subtracting from it. The music that had already begun to trickle out of Bristol during this time period, and would later become known as Trip Hop, seemed to share my endorsement of the not-so-perfect. With bands like Portishead ADDING vinyl pops and crackles to their recordings, in order to create an atmosphere. ATMOSPHERE! – That’s what’s missing from those ultra clean, over-driven, stainless steel tracks. There’s no air left in them for any kind of ambient effect to grow. They leave us gasping for breath. Pure shite, ken?

By 1995, my favourite year, I was well into going out, and I had my own set of decks. The world I lived in is PERFECTLY captured in a documentary called “Dancing On Narrow Ground: Youth & Dance In Ulster” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dM5TktcXdnk . While I was spending my Saturday afternoons shopping for new Techno tracks on 12″ vinyl in Belfast city centre with my friends, Tricky was releasing his debut album, “Maxinquaye”, most of which had been recorded onto a four track cassette recorder in a squat. Many critics called it the best album of the year, and it still sounds fresh to this day. I like Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” album for this reason as well. Again, it was recorded on a four track, and intended to be just a set of demos. However, when he set about re-recording the songs in a proper studio he realised something was missing, they weren’t as good as the demos. So, he released them instead, and they sound powerful, raw, and evergreen. Orbital recorded “Chime” on their Dad’s cassette deck. The cassette deck ran fast, which meant that the recording came out a few BPM’s slower than intended. If you listen to the original version of “Chime” you’ll hear cassette drop outs and imperfections and, for me, it just adds to the atmosphere, and gives the track a kind of fragile beauty. Something that’s not so robust, and because of that you feel it needs to be treated carefully in case you break it, and lose it forever. The same goes for Aphex Twin’s legendary album “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”, which for many people, including me, is the very apex of Aphex.

The first track that I ever had any kind of success with was called “She Does Porn”. I’m intending to re-release it, hopefully sometime over the course of 2018. So, I’ll refrain from telling you too much about it here, other than to say that the phrases in it were all played by hand. I’m not sure how many takes it took me, but it was A LOT, before it sounded right. It’s a six or seven minute recording, with a recurring phrase that gets added to, and subtracted from, throughout, and this was Ambient Techno I was making, not Free Jazz, so, it had to be tight. I was limited by the technology I could afford, which at the time was a £200 synth and a CD-R recorder. Limitations are no bad thing though, ask Brian Eno. Anyway, the point is, this imperfect track (in my eyes, at least) was the one that garnered more attention than anything else I went on to record over the next seventeen years.

Bill Drummond isn’t alone in preferring the 1988 Pure Trance original version of What Time Is Love over any of it’s subsequent hit versions. There’s just something about that, slightly dusty, grainy, original that hits you right in the heart. I don’t know, I guess if you were a Rocker it’d be like your favourite guitarist taking centre stage for a mind bending solo, and you just think YES, THIS is the shit I’M into. Well, the Pure Trance version of What Time Is Love does that for KLF fans, and many an old Raver too. Speaking of old Ravers, I’ll ’em, “Wind It Up”, this piece that is, with The Prodigy. Laim Howlett’s “What Evil Lurks” E.P. is a stone cold classic. Put together from a home made demo tape consisting of ten tracks, the four tracks that made it onto the XL Recordings release still pack a powerful punch today. Three well received albums followed, the third of which, “The Fat Of The Land”, went to number 1 in the U.S.A., the U.K. and many other countries. After a long break, The Prodigy returned with “Baby’s Got A Temper”, which was shit. It sounded like a fan had made a cartoon version of the group out of cutting and pasting bits and pieces from different points in their career to date. The band disowned the record, and Liam decided to write the next album on his laptop. When I first heard “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned” I thought it was a leaked demo. However, my friend showed me his CD – this was an actual release. None of the three people who had mastered the album had given any of the tracks the 0.5 seconds of silence required at the start of a recording to stop audio from disappearing when it’s exported and played back. This is most noticeable on tracks that begin with a vocal, like the lead single, “Girls”. The opening line begins “‘Magine how it would be…”, but I’m pretty sure that the original file on Keith’s laptop will begin with the word “Imagine”. Anyway, that’s what a geek like me noticed, but what the fans and critics witnessed was a sudden decline in quality content. According to Wikipedia, “The album is among the band’s lowest-sellers. Record labels who distributed Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned dropped The Prodigy after the release of Their Law: The Singles 1990–2005 one year later.”. I know that they have released other music since, but without using Google I’d struggle to name a single track. For me they seem to be a heritage act, more than anything that is vital, or of the moment. Back in 1999 Liam Howlett released a solo DJ mix album, under the name Prodigy, called “The Dirtchamber Sessions Volume One”. It was a little too much on the Hip Hop/Breakbeat vibe to grab my attention for too long, although it does include The KLF – What Time Is Love. What I really like most about the release is the photo on the inside of the sleeve. It shows Liam lying down on his front, in the middle of a studio. He’s wearing socks and sweatpants, and he’s surrounded by records. He looks like any music obsessed kid in his bedroom, and he’s obviously comfortable, and doing what he loves.

Baring all of the above in mind, I recently invested some of the money I’ve made from my “Renewable Energy” release in buying my first ever MIDI controller. I’ve set it up to work with Ableton, and I’ve turned a saved set into a really good DJ rig. Along with the usual line faders, a cross fader and EQ control knobs for each channel, I’ve also added various effects in a separate rack for each channel. In addition to all of that I also have a bank of sound effects that can be triggered by just pressing a button. It’s pretty much all I could have dreamed of back when I was 13 or 14 playing on my decks in my bedroom. Recently, I’ve been searching out some modern   Lo-Fi Techno recordings, where the producer has clearly made the choice to go with that type of sound. I’m going to try and put these together with some vintage recordings where, whether the producer intended it or not, the track sounds Lo-Fi today. The fun part is I’m going to mix this all live, listening through a little pink boom-box, that is clearly designed for children. My general idea is that, if I can make the mix sound good coming through THOSE speakers, it should sound wicked pumpimg out of a decent set up. That’s the plan anyway. If it works out, I’ll post it soon, as my first upload to my Mixcloud account. Until then, I urge you to keep it on the low down. Low fidelity, you dig? You dig!

 

Stephen Clarke 1980

 

 

 

 

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Renewable Energy

I’m currently anemic and awaiting surgery on two parts of my spine. So, it would be fair to say that I’m not in great shape physically. However, creatively, I feel that over the last four months I’ve somehow managed to pick up from where I left off back in 2010. That was when I decided to pack up my life in the city and move to a remote part of Scotland, to live in a little cottage on a large country estate. Although I was being creative during that time and I was still getting the occasional track played on Radio 1, my main interests were hill walking, photographing red squirrel, deer and osprey, and avoiding humans. A year after that I moved to Perth, got married, and settled down to a life of next to no creativity whatsoever. It sucked. My divorce papers arrived last week though. Now, I’m back on my old stomping ground – Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland. It was from here that I had once generated enough heat to have my old club night, Edinburgh Dream Factory, written about in music blogs from America to New Zealand. I’m not sure what it is about the place, but that buzz is back, and it all kicked off with a track called “Renewable Energy”.

Over the Summer months I attended a few major club nights, and cool happenings, both here, and back in my home town of Belfast, Northern Ireland. After a few years of writing poetry and lyrics I was, all of a sudden, overwhelmed with the desire to make an Acid Techno record. Techno has always been my thing. I love all forms of music, but if I owned the only record store in the world and the place caught fire, it would be the Techno records that I would be flinging out of the window to the fire brigade. OK, maybe I’d save “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” by Fairport Convention just as the flames began to torch my ball bag, but that’s it – after that I’d be leaping out through the window, thus saving my own great balls of fire, rather than that record by Jerry Lee Lewis. One day in late July I got to work on my first Techno track in years. In my mind, I wanted to have the same power as “Energy Flash” by Joey Beltram. Of course, actually pulling that off would be impossible, but you’ve got to set your sights high. Bono’s been impersonating Roy Orbison for years, God bless his sweaty leather pants – he’s just trying his best.

I began by laying down the beat. What mattered to me was that it sounded mental, and hard. I wanted to lay down the whole track very quickly in order for it to sound urgent and not overworked. I think the basic parts of the track were all written in ten minutes. Originally the kick drum wasn’t playing the fours, as I’d purposely created something that sounded crazy. I then toned it all down, ever so slightly, in order for it to rock a dance floor. I created a simple acid line, then mixed the whole thing down using tiny speakers – I knew that if I could make the track sound as hard as nails through those, that it would shake the foundations of a club. “Renewable Energy (Live In Leith)” was the first version that I recorded. I played the whole thing live, on the spot, without even remembering exactly what each of the parts sounded like before I added them into the mix. I think it sounds really exciting, and the way great live Techno should sound. After that I panned the various channels – Percussion and Hi-Hat etc, left and right, then I recorded “Renewable Energy”, followed by the “Geothermal Mix”. These were more considered, and aimed towards potential airplay. Beyond that I just had a lot of fun making the rest of the mixes in various styles, but employing the same sounds. I always find the best way to do this is to pretend that you are another producer for the length of time it takes to put the remix together, trying ideas that you normally wouldn’t go for yourself. By the time I’d finished, I had ten different versions of “Renewable Energy”, and they were sounding good.

I decided to go ahead and release it on my own label, Unna2ural Wax. I didn’t have any budget at all for fancy artwork, videos or promotion, but these days that kind of stuff doesn’t need money thrown at it, as long as you have a vision and a bit of know-how. The track was called “Renewable Energy”, so I spent an evening  surfing the web in search of images and videos that had a creative commons licence, and didn’t require being credited to anyone. This worked really well, as there was quite a lot of work out there that fitted the bill, provided I was prepared to spend a few hours clicking through a load of shit stuff in search of it. In the end I was able to piece together two digital booklets – one for the official release, and one for a limited edition that I was going to send out to DJ’s as an advance promotional copy. I also found a load of drone footage that was free to use, and some crazy nightclub graphics as well. From that I was able to create two different videos – one for the Geothermal Mix, and another for the Driving Rain Mix.

Initially I was going to release the record on the 23rd of August, as that was the date that my favourite band of all time, The KLF, were set to return, after a 23 year hiatus. However, impatience and common sense got the better of me – who the Hell would be interested in a new record from me on the same day that Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty arrived in Liverpool in their Ice Kream Van? Not even me. So, I immediately sent out around 23 copies of the Limited Edition, and waited for the feedback. The thing that I found really interesting about that was, I started to get good comments trickling in from New York based DJ’s who seemed to be hooked on the Tidal Mix. Little pockets of people from here and there began to give feedback, all positive, and referring to things like the timbre of the song. So, I had to look up the word “Timbre” before I could grasp what the Hell they were on about. Something that I found odd though was the complete silence from my close friends. Although a lot of them said that they’d give it a listen, they never got back to me about it. Did they think it was shit? Did it intimidate them? Regardless of that, the feedback that I’d received was good enough for me to go ahead and release the full remix album to the world on August 5th. It’s good that I did it then, because just a few days later my health had deteriorated to the point where I had been admitted to hospital. I had no phone signal in the ward I was in, but I had put out a Tweet on my way there, to promote the release, and that seemed to do the trick. By the time I was discharged, “Renewable Energy” had been bought and paid for by music lovers in America, The U.K., Germany, Italy, Belgium and Holland. There wasn’t an enormous amount of individual sales, but what was interesting was that a lot of the people that had bought the album had opted to pay more for it than the asking price of £4.23. Many paid £5.00, some paid £10.00, and a handful of people had even paid £20.00 for the release! I’m still really not sure why, although I’m certainly grateful. Some of them may have just loved the record and wanted to support me as an artist, others I suspect wanted to use the opportunity to donate some money to me, as a way of saying they appreciate what I do – my blogging, photography, poems and lyrics had maybe struck a chord with them at some point over the last year or so, and this was the first opportunity they’d had to give something back.

By the time that The Justified Ancients Of Mu Mu had returned, my sales got another boost thanks to Scaramanga Silk, who not only asked me to write an article, Liberation Loophole ,for his website welcometothedarkages.com about the return of The KLF, which was hugely successful, but he played “Renewable Energy” on his BadMan Material radio show on Hoxton FM as well, saying that it sounded heavy duty through the studio speakers. This spurred me on to do my first mass mail out to radio DJ’s since the turn of the millennium.

The underground success of “Renewable Energy” has given me enough confidence to start pursuing my dreams a bit more. They are relatively modest dreams, as far as Rock n Roll ones go. I’d simply like to be making enough money from my creative endeavours to at least go part time with my day job. I’m happy that finally I’m beginning to build a small, but interested audience, and I’m quietly confident that, with decades of creativity under my belt, I’ll be able to deliver the goods on a regular basis.

“Renewable Energy” by Stephen Clarke 1980 is out now.