Purist electronic sensibilities intact, Autechre have constructed their own world of finely-machined sound and rhythm.
Determinedly independent in their musical vision, Autechre have found a natural home at Warp Records. Sean Booth and Rob Brown produce abstract, pristine music of stark beauty that engages both the mind and the heart.
It certainly captured Warp’s attention, enough for the label to include two Autechre tracks on its seminal Artificial Intelligence compilation. Warp then asked Rob and Sean to produce an Autechre album. The result was a lengthy but absorbing Incunabula, one of last year’s most satisfying electronic albums. Autechre’s second album, the recently released Amber, confirms the singular nature of their musical vision and shows them maturing and growing in musical self confidence.
Rob and Sean have been working together since 1987, when they met and discovered a common interest in electro, hip hop and mixing. “We used to do turntable mixes together at Rob’s house and then go to my house and edit and cut ‘em up, imitating early Mantronix stuff with pause-button edits on my cassette deck,” recalls Sean. At that time, Sean also had a Casio SK1 sampling mini-keyboard , which was soon augmented with a Roland TR-606 drum machine (“forty quid, off a mate”) and a Boss RSD-10 sampler/delay.
“We used to put loops into the SK1 and cut stuff up on the turntables over the top of that,” says Sean. “Then when we got the 606 and the RSD-10 we’d put samples in the RSD, trigger it from the 606 and play with the SK1 on top of that.”
Once acid house surfaced, Autechre were drawn to its bold exploration of pure sound. “It diverted our attention because it was so electronic and had such a brutal sound,” says Rob. Sean adds: “Acid showed us that we were more interested in creating original sounds than in sampling breakbeats. To begin with, we’d get most of our sounds off records, but then slowly but surely we started to mess them up so much that you couldn't hear where they were from.”
A Roland R-8 drum machine, Roland Juno 106 synth, Tascam 244 Portastudio and Phonic MRT60 DJ mixer completed the duo’s early recording set-up, with the MRT60 acting as a sub-mixer going into the 244. “We’d put the R-8 through the MRT60’s phono inputs, which have the drums a crunchy distorted sound with a real nice top end,” recalls Sean.
In their pre-computer days, the R-8 played a central role in the set-up, acting as a MIDI sequencer for the Juno and (via its tape sync) a master timing source for the 202, from which they could then run the 606. Nowadays they still turn the computer off and go back to this set up when, Sean puts it, they “want to do something experimental.”
Their first experience of computer-based sequencing came when a friend gave them free run of his studio for six months. They used Steinberg’s Pro 24 software for a week (“it was diabolical,” says Sean) then went on to Cubase for a couple of weeks before settling down with Emagic’s Creator.
“Cubase is a song man’s program, and we’re not song people at all,” Sean says. “A lot of the tracks we do are very loop-orientated, and Creator is designed to be used by people who like working in loops. So we started using that and it was just like using a drum machine, which we were well into - using the R-8 as a sequencer gave us our first lesson in Creator, almost.”
“It was good to learn about MIDI and stuff, but we never came up with any releasable product,” says Rob of their six-month studio stint. “Obviously, we came out with very naive early results.”
Exercising taste and restraint
“We’ve found that whenever we buy a bit of gear we try and lay off it for six months, until we’ve got used to using it,” explains Sean. “It’s only then that we start doing things that are actually worth using; if we start using something immediately, we just do the corniest stuff with it. There isn't one thing about the gear that we’re using now that we don't understand. The analogue synths are second nature to us, and the R-8 is completely our machine.”
These days, Rob and Sean share a house and a home-studio set-up where they do all their work. They have little patience for commercial studios.
“We’ve only really worked in one ‘proper’ studio and we just ended up getting on the desk ourselves,” says Sean. “I don't know - we just don't like working with other people, basically. It's a lot easier if we do everything ourselves. It seems that in studios you have this code of practice that says you have to do things in a certain way. People say to us, ‘you've got this weird way of working’, but to us it isn't weird, it's the correct way of doing things - we’re happier working like that.”
While recording Incunabula, Rob and Sean expanded their home set-up with a Seck 18:8:2 desk, an Ensoniq EPS16+ sampler, an Alesis Quadraverb and an Atari ST computer. “Suddenly we could use all the R-8 outputs, and EQ and send everything separately - it just made us sound more competent,” says Rob.
“When we got the Seck we stopped distorting sounds so obviously through the desk because we didn't want to ruin it! So what we started doing was getting distorted sounds through the MRT and sampling them into the EPS, rather than distorting them in the mix.”
With typical caution, they refrained from ‘full-on use’ of the EPS while recording Incunabula. “We were just starting to learn how to use it,” Sean says. “It didn't change our sound much then, but it has since, because we’ve got more and more into what you can do with the internal effects and re-sampling and stuff.
The new album's got a lot more EPS - in fact it's almost total EPS experimentation! The applications of that sampler are incredible. I don't know why everybody hasn't got one - it's one of the best samplers going, I reckon.”
Sound is usually the starting point for an Autechre track. “We’ll have maybe a handful of sounds and they’ll dictate what kind of rhythm we use,” comments Rob.
“We’re into rhythm and sound, basically,” adds Sean. “In terms of melody, for us it isn't so much about writing a tune, it's more about using the sound at different pitches to create a feel. I suppose rhythm is everything to us. A note is just a sound played for a different length at a different pitch. The R-8 taught us to experiment with pitch and sounds within rhythm structures; we tend to use notes in a very rhythmic way.”
Staging the changes
Rob and Sean’s music acquires new life on stage, evolving from the set to set as they re-program material. “The set mutates each night, basically,” says Rob. “We’ll change the live set at any opportunity we get,” adds Sean. “It just makes things more interesting for us when we play that night.”
Currently, their live set-up consists of the EPS16+, Juno 106, R-8, Quadraverb and Seck desk, with MIDI sync from the R-8 controlling the EPS’s onboard sequencer.
In the studio, neither one of the pair takes on a specific role; however, onstage, for practical reasons, they divide up their responsibilities: Sean controls the R-8 and the Seck while Rob concentrates on the EPS and the Juno. Says Sean: “I’ll do all the drum sequencing and Rob will do all the melodies, keyboard parts and extra little bits. Most of the drums are EPS samples now, but we tend to sequence them via MIDI from the R-8.”
Autechre are one of the most intriguing and absorbing electronic acts around at the moment. With Warp Records they have a label that will give them the time and the space to develop in their own way - independence through independents…