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Classic interview - Orbital: “Sometimes we might be halfway through a track, and we think, ‘What about the 303?’”

Orbital
Orbital: Paul (left) and Phil Hartnoll on stage in New York in 1992. (Image credit: David Corio/Redferns)

Sydney’s pedestrian crossings are techno machines disguised as a public service. When the little red man warns of danger, the crossing posts click, like a treated woodblock, every few seconds. But when the green man pops up, the posts produce a short Kraftwerkesque electro-zap, followed by a rapid vollet of woodblock pulses.

Brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll, 25 and 29 respectively, knew that the crossing signal needed to be liberated from the streets of Australia. Now this distinctive Sydney soundbite resides in the rhythm of the Orbital track Walk Now, to be found on their new album.

This release has no title. It isn't called Untitled, it just is untitled [It’s now commonly known as ‘The Brown Album’]. Glad we cleared that up. But the first album was also untitled, so to make things easy, we’ll call the new one Orbital 2. Right then. 

If you haven't been following the music press over the last couple of years, you may be forgiven for remembering Orbital as two blokes who named their band after the M25 and had one Top 20 hit with a minimalist house track called Chime, recording this odd but brilliant instrumental on a four-track in their bedroom.

Some of that is true, though the four-track was only used as a mixer to a hi-fi tape deck. And it all took place in the living room, apparently.

All around my ADAT

The Hartnoll brothers have been keeping themselves busy since their debut, while maintaining a relatively low profile. They’ve released several tracks, notably the Radiccio EP, which features a sample from Opus III’s It’s A Fine Day; toured the USA with Meat Beat Manifesto and Ultramarine; picked up a didgeridoo down under; and been heavily involved with London’s irregular Megadog gigs and the recent Midi Circus tour. 

The Circus, naturally enough, helped promote Orbital 2. The album has a more stripped-down, tighter feel than most of the early tracks (Chime excepted), but this was not a conscious move.

Technology-wise, things have shifted in the opposite direction. The TR-909, TB-303 and S700, all used in the making of Chime, made it into Orbital’s permanent setup in London’s Strongroom studio, along with a glut of other goodies.

One of these is an Alesis ADAT - eight tracks of digital recording on S-VHS tape. This was essential to a substantial part of the album: a 30-minute chunk compromising four tracks segued together. 

“Linking up the tracks is something we always wanted to do,” remarks Phil.

“They’re all recorded live on two tracks,” explains Paul - very much the more talkative of the brothers, it soon becomes apparent - “then SMPTE’d up and the next track linked on to another two tracks. They’re staggered so they're mixed in time. Spare tracks are used for any extra bits we want to put over the top.”

This isn't really the way they like to work, though: “I was worried that we might start getting too fiddly and doing everything eight-track instead of doing it live, when you can do it live,” warns Paul.

Live sequencing recorded straight to tape has been an Orbital practice since the days of Chime. “With the ADAT, you can make any instrument you’ve got essentially seven-part multitimbral; like, you can have seven Roland Bass Lines [303s] all playing the same thing but being modulated differently.”

“It’s essentially for doubling-up lines - or whatever the word is for the eight lines,” adds Phil. (Octupling up?)

“And for analogue synth twiddling really,” Paul continues. “If you both want to be present at the mixing desk when you're recording something, you can't be twiddling with three analogue synths at the same time. So you can lay those down on the ADAT and do all your twiddling, punch in if you muck up. And then it's done for you and you can do everything else live.”

“Going straight on to two tracks would still be our first choice, but we’ve got the ADAT to fall back on,” Phil emphasises. 

Mobius stripped

Orbital 2 begins with the voice of Mobius, relating some improbable science-fiction theory. The voice (from a well-known TV series, all you sample spotters) was heard originally on the first album, but this time it's manipulated into an exercise in phase shifting. When you’ve got a sample like Time Becomes Loop, how can you resist the audio pun? 

“Originally we were going to have just that phrase, but then we went into doing this Steve Reich experiment of having two loops coming in and out of phase,” says Paul. The effect is present on the early works on Reich - It's Gonna Rain, Come Out, Piano Phase, and several other long pieces that drive you bonkers after about two minutes listening. Reich did it with reel-to-reel tape machines running at slightly different speeds; Orbital do it with C-Lab’s sequencing program Creator and a sampler. 

“It was literally done the morning before we went to cut the album,” reveals Phil. “It's an experiment really; working out how to do the out-of-phase thing with a computer. We liked it, but we thought it might be something that people get really pissed off with, so they can skip past it on the CD. It only lasts a minute and three-quarters.”

Setting up for a piece like this is simple (“It was one of those things that happens while someone goes off to make a cup of tea.”): get two samples that are exactly the same, set your loop points, copy one off, and make the copy a couple of milliseconds shorter. “It’s such a tiny amount that it doesn't sound different but when you’ve got them panned left and right and set it off, you really notice the effect,” says Paul. 

“It’s something we want to get into a bit more,” Phil throws in.

Paul again: “Yeah, we’ve got some plans for some Reich ideas, but not with the voices, with single notes: like, getting the [Oberheim] Xpander, starting all six voices with one pulse and different notes, and having them go out of phase and sweep back again, but with six out-of-phase controllers loops as well.”

The effect returns at the end of the album, in the more complex track Input Out. Here, phrases swing from left to right and back - orbiting, even - as well as vary in phase. There must have been a lot of tea drunk that day.

“I've always found the Mobius loop fascinating,” Paul spouts. “I remember being shown it at school and thinking, ‘It has only got one side! How strange’. I'd like a Mobius loop record cover, but I still can't invent it.”

Circle in the sound

The sounds to be found on the album range from the very familiar to the more eclectic. There’s plenty of 303 acid tinge, for instance. The brothers have no reservations about the Roland Bass Line’s ubiquitous squelch.

“When Chime came out,” Paul recalls, “there was concern from certain parties saying, ‘Shouldn't we do it again with the 303 a bit quieter?’. They were saying, ‘Acid’s dead, acid’s dead!’.

“Well, we’ve used it ever since. I think of it more like a fluid, bouncy rhythm device like a favourite drum machine. It’s got a really good feel to it, and I like the quirkiness of the programming. Sometimes we might be halfway through a track, and we think, ‘What about the 303?’. We play a few notes and often it works with what we’ve already got.”

When Chime came out there was concern from certain parties saying, ‘Shouldn't we do it again with the 303 a bit quieter?’. They were saying, ‘Acid’s dead, acid’s dead!’.

Paul Hartnoll

They never tired of the Yamaha DX100, either. Paul: “It’s good for basslines. It appears on at least three of our tracks, including Halcyon. Other people still use it - when I hear it just think, ‘Ah! Solid Bass!’”

But it's the Roland Jupiter-6 - now a bit of a rare sight - that they head for when creativity calls. It's analogue, polyphonic, and totally tweakable.

“Whoever had it before customised it - it's got two outputs, so it's a proper bi-timbral synth,” says Paul. “When you use it over MIDI you get a full keyboard range for each sound. It was a bargain - 350 quid with a hard flight case.”

“The Xpander is the latest addition and is going to be used more…” begins Phil, “...But it's a bit wilder than the Jupiter 6,” finishes his brother. “And we don't use the Wavestation very often. We’ve always had analogue synths - the first things we had were the [Korg] Poly 800 and [Roland] SH-09 - but we thought ‘we’ve gotta get a multitimbral synth for normal sounds like strings’, so we ended up buying a Wavestation.” He pauses regretfully. “I don't know what to make of it though. It got used a lot on the first album, but not this album. You can hear it playing the string-flute melody on Lush 3-1/3-2, though. It's been playing up live. So much so that I want to sell the bugger, just to have done with it!”

What Dad had

When it comes to finding samples the boys take the lead from their dad. “He’s well into that sort of thing - theme tunes and film scores,” says Phil. “When we were growing up he’d have those blaring out all the time. They were a big influence. But we use them as sound sources rather than for riffs.”

Paul expands: “We randomly sample 25 seconds of a piece and invent a quick riff to use (which we often end up keeping), then go through the sample until we come upon something that sounds good, then truncate it down. The sounds in Chime were recreated like that - from an easy-listening LP.

“I like it when you take chords rather than single notes, then muck around with the filters and resonance so it sounds completely different.”

“The E-max really warms the sound up,” Phil concludes.

Other notable samples on the album include a quote from a dodgy ‘70s film in the track Impact - “the guy sounds so desperate, so tragic. We were cracking up when we did that” - and a rich, shifting sitar sound - “there’s a lot of mid-range sweep going on there.”

At the beginning of Planet of the Shapes (or Tapes, if you’ve got a cassette version of the album), there's an extract from what seems to be an old LP, complete with hiss and crackle.

“We made that,” Paul reveals. “We got a horrible effect on the [Ensoniq] DP4, sampled a scratch and used it as an out-of-time loop next to the rest of the music - the loop was three bars and three-and-a-bit beats instead of four, to get the out-of-time effect. It was just an experiment, to see if we could make it sound like a real scratched record.”

“A bit of a laugh really, especially when people have got CDs,” adds Phil.

Then there's the bleeping Walk Now, featuring another Antipodean artifact: the drone of the didgeridoo. “It’s the first thing we did when we came back from Australia. I bought a didgeridoo that I wanted to sample. We used it for our own reasons,” says Paul, aware of the amount of overkill samples of the instrument have received of late. “I was expecting it to be a really big sound in dance music in the summer of ‘92 but you're only really hearing it in records now. It's interesting that it’s taken this much time to appear.”

Capturing the sound of the Sydney pedestrian crossing was a close thing: “I sampled it on the way to the airport on the way home,” says Paul.

On the subject of found sounds, he continues “I bought a portable DAT machine with two PZM microphones. I used to wander around Waitrose and record the whole thing with the mics stuck to the PZM so you get that human hearing thing. It's quite bizarre, standing in Waitrose and turning around really fast; if you listen to it at home and stand in the middle of the room, it's quite disorientating.

“Doing the thing with the pedestrian crossing really made me think I should be doing more of it. I’d like a dictaphone that I could keep under my pillow, so I could just wake up and say, sample that, do that.”

“It’d turn into a tooth,” smiles Phil, drily.

Mime becomes group?

In the 18 or so months between Chime and Radiccio EP, Orbital were gigging and shaping their live sound. Just as they prefer to record things live to tape, so they insist on putting on a show of live electronics.

Paul describes how it's done: “Everything runs from two [Alesis] MMT8s. We have them in Pattern Play, and just change patterns and mute and unmute things. I control the sequencers; Phil’s at the mixing desk dubbing it up.”

The guys take out two racks of synths, plus a Mackie 16-channel mixer for the drum parts and the bigger desk for the synth parts. If possible, they set up at the back of the venue, next to the sound engineer.

This radical step is often met with disapproval from the organisers. “Nine times out of ten they want us to go on stage, due to fire regulations, etc. But it's great when the audience can come up and see what you're doing, and you can hear everybody else hearing it. This way we don't have to rely on monitors.”

Getting into a jam

But for the trouble involved in taking out all the gear and playing back from sequencers only - they don't play any synth parts themselves - why not just use a DAT?

Paul states his case: “Live sequencing can be the same as DAT backing, but there are two fundamental differences, I feel. On the one hand it's similar only if you are using song structures, so it's just like listening to a record.”

“What we’re jamming is the structure and the mix of a song,” reinforces Phil. “We have the drums on one MMT8, the melody and bass on the other. We can mix the drums of one track with the musical output of the other, and have a track that's one minute long or ten minutes long.”

“Secondly,” continues Paul, “hearing a 909 live is not the same as hearing it off tape - it’s better, punchier, more raw.

“I see us more as making up arrangements of our songs, in the way a DJ might, rather than a live spectacle,” he adds. “It's a dance thing where they should just get on with dancing like they do to records. That's why we prefer to be elsewhere than on stage, so if anybody is particularly interested they can come and have a look.”

“Even have a twiddle with the 303 tuning knob!” remarks Phil.

Paul again: ”It’s a looser way of playing than a band with set-out song structures, dare I say it. If you've got guitar, bass drums, with intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse chorus, then you don't deviate. What we do is completely loose. What can happen is one of us does something as the other does something else and the result is completely different to what we both expected and it sends us off on a new tangent. It's a lot more improvised than a conventional band.”

One of the sections they made longer during the Midi Circus was the part in Walk Now where we first hear the Australian street crossing. For several seconds, there's nothing but the intermittent click of the posts. No drums, no synths, just this strange pulse. In those seconds, you realise how bizarre it is that you are in a nightclub, listening to a sound designed to help people cross the road safely. It's a sound that might have gone unnoticed had Orbital not thrust it into this new context.

It makes you wonder how long before we’re dancing to the sounds of the Hartnoll brothers’ shopping trip.

This interview originally appeared in issue 10 of Future Music in 1993. 

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