Rex The Dog takes us on a modular adventure

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British dance DJ, remixer and producer Jake Williams (aka Rex The Dog) sold a heap of records in the mid '90s as one half of the duo JX, who had two Top Ten UK hits: Son Of A Gun and There’s Nothing I Won’t Do (feat. Shena). Further collaborations surfaced in the late ’90s, including dance supergroup Planet Perfecto with Paul Oakenfold, and the club hit POW, in tandem with Kris Menace.

In 2008, Rex The Dog was born - the secretive identity a result of Williams’ passion for artwork and animation. The album The Rex The Dog Show saw the light of day in 2008, prior to the electric canine embarking on a longstanding association with the Cologne-based label Kompakt. However, by his own admission, Williams is not the most prolific of artists, likely due to his lifelong obsession with analogue synths and, a little more recently, the rabbit hole known as Eurorack.

Some people might not be familiar with the success of your first project, JX. Did that set you up for the future?

“JX was in a period of time where there was no internet and no real piracy, so if you had a successful record, you did make money. I bought a flat, and that was the smartest thing I’d ever done. It meant I didn’t have to earn that much money to keep going, and never had to get a real job. JX was very much a singles thing; the last release was around 98, and after that there was quite a big gap. It felt like that was the end. After that, I did the Planet Perfecto record Bullet In The Gun with Paul Oakenfold, and a track called Diamondback under the name Mekka. I was never very prolific - I just have these fallow periods where I’m not very inspired.”

So how did that lead to Rex The Dog?

“I’ve never talked about it publicly, but I was ill with leukaemia in 2001. So I was out of action for a year in hospital and ended up having a stem cell transplant. It was a crazy, life-changing experience, and I needed another year to recover and reconnect with the idea I wasn’t going to die. Then electroclash started to bubble up. Clubs like Nag Nag Nag started, so I explored that. It was very retro but really exciting, and there was a club called Ghetto around the back of The Astoria that had a DJ called JoJo De Freq, who played this really precise techno synth music, which I was totally thrilled by. Then I got this synth, the Korg 700S, because Daniel Miller talked about it being the synth he made the track Warm Leatherette with. So I tracked it down on eBay and used it to make the first Rex The Dog single, Prototype.”

Is it a good synth?

“It’s fucking amazing. It’s got a great basic sound to it, a great filter and two oscillators, which you can detune. The other amazing thing is that it’s got a repeat function. There’s a lot you can do with very little, and the synth’s very inspiring to play around with.”

Your first album, The Rex The Dog Show, was released in 2008, but you never followed it up?

“I feel like I’ve followed it up with EPs. The speed at which I work doesn’t lend itself to being an album artist, and it was a collection of a lot of stuff that had already come out. If I aim for another album, it may take me 106 years. I do appreciate albums, but I feel there’s a lack of necessity, and I like the functionality of a club record. Now I’m working on an EP for Kompakt, and my label relationship is fantastic.”

What other synths have you kept from that early period?

“I got the Korg 700S in 2003 and then the Juno-106 for £300 from Turnkey in London - it was the first time a label gave me some money. The Juno is an incredible synth; it’s polyphonic, stable and has a lovely rich sound. It can do great warm pads that sound like The Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls. The keys sound great high or low, and it has a chorus section. You don’t have to work very hard with it.”

And you followed that purchase with a Roland TR-909?

“That cost £600, and I bought it from a guy out of Loot magazine. I still use it for the kick and the hats, but these days I’m modular-obsessed and have a DIY module kit called the NeinOhNein Kick, made by Hexinverter Électronique, which is basically a clone of the 909’s kick drum circuit, except you can tune it over a huge range, make the attack very tight and pitch it all over the place.”

You also have some semi-modular synths?

“I have the ARP 2600, which I think came out in the mid 60s and was a contemporary of the Minimoog. I got it from researching Depeche Mode and, again, Daniel Miller. I think it was his second synth, and all the bass drums and a huge amount of the synth parts from Depeche Mode’s Speak And Spell album was made on that. The ARP Sequencer, which I also have, is a partner to the 2600, and I’ve used it loads, especially on my early remixes for Depeche Mode and The Prodigy, but the last time I turned it on, black smoke started coming out of oscillator one, so it needs to go to the synth doctor.”

I’ve used it loads, especially on my early remixes for Depeche Mode and The Prodigy, but the last time I turned it on, black smoke started coming out of oscillator one, so it needs to go to the synth doctor.

Presumably, it's machines like those that sparked your interest in modular?

“Absolutely. Before I got the 2600, I was worried that I wouldn’t know how to work it and would never be able to learn - it seemed so daunting. But once I did, it was definitely a stepping stone to modular. I built my Eurorack module piece by piece, starting with a little tiny case, and bought a Korgasmotron filter, which is fantastic. It’s made by a company in Canada called Intellijel, run by a guy called Daniel van Tijn who’s a real innovator. I sit the Korgasmotron next to the ARP and it gives it a little bit of extra functionality.”

Eurorack has exploded - do you think that’s due to its affordability?

“I think a lot of people view it as quite expensive, but because you can build it bit by bit, it’s manageable. The cost of the modules really varies, but a really simple utility - like a small Doepfer ring modulator - would cost under £100, which is very good value. A voltage sequencer might be £150-200, but esoteric things like an Oscilloscope might be more expensive. Any module that cost more than £350, you’d need to find a really good use for it.”

What would you recommend as the basic entry point for most people?

“There’s a signal path, which is the same as in any analogue synth. You have the oscillator section that generates the fundamental tone, and then you’ve got ways of turning the sound on and off, which is the amplitude, so you’d want a VCA and an envelope to open and close the amp, and maybe a filter, although that’s not entirely necessary.”

What modules are you enjoying using at the moment?

“Triple Wavefolder by Toppobrillo is just fantastic. Wavefolding is a method of making a new waveform shape from a very simple shape. If you put a sinewave into it, it kinds of ripples the waveform, which can give you really exciting, almost digital-sounding DX sounds, but with infinite modulatibility. And I love the Doepfer Wasp filter. Dieter Doepfer is the originator of Eurorack - it’s his format, and he’s an amazing figure because he’s enabled this whole thing and still makes these affordable modules. He’s very generous in the sense that he’s thrown the whole thing open - you can even email him with a question about something and he gets back to you. Anyway, this is a clone of the filter from the Wasp synth and it’s under £100 and sounds so dirty and weird. Bang for buck, it’s really cool.”

Some people are afraid to venture into modular, because they’ll spend so much time flicking switches and patching cables that they won’t ever make any music. Do you have to be disciplined?

“I think it’s a risk, because you can go down a rabbit hole, noodling and trying to find the right sound for something. It’s a few steps further from a hardware synth - they’re step one and modular’s step seven, but the reason I’m into modular is that it’s fun. With hardware you can have happy accidents and surprises, and you’ll stumble across things you weren’t expecting. All the favourite things I’ve ever done were those I didn’t think up - they just sort of happened when I was twiddling knobs or playing something but got it wrong. The room for happy accidents with modular is even greater, but there is a risk it gets in the way of songwriting. You may not get melodic ideas down quickly because it’s hard to get an exact melody out of it. Conceptually, it’s a different kind of play and they don’t necessary gel together. To find a four-bar melody just using modular isn’t the quickest way, so you’ve got to have a curiosity about what they can do.”

You have a Mackie mixer below your Eurorack system…

“The mixer is how I manage all the synths. It’s a Mackie LM3204 and it’s very compact. It’s got 16 stereo channels, so I can get all my analogue synths into it and then feed them into the computer to record them. It’s very easy, you just push a button and it will assign a synth to a particular output that’s connected to the computer. People rave about having an analogue stage in your signal path, but I don’t really think of it like that. For me, it doesn’t add anything - it’s just a way to manage all the signals. I don’t use the EQ or send effects, and I don’t mix on it either, but I can set the levels and route the synths into the computer, which is a much more important tool for me.”

We forgot to mention a couple of the hardware synths you’ve got, like the Roland SH-1…

“Well the SH-1 looks amazing and sounds amazing. I’m going back in time, but I used its bass sounds for my remix of The Knife’s Heartbeats. It’s got lovely pulse-width modulation. It’s just another Roland that does its job really well and has a different character to the other SH synths - it feels a bit deeper than the SH-101. The Sequential Circuits Pro One is also a classic, but the keys are a common problem. There’s a rubber thing inside that holds the keys there, but it perishes over time. I bought a new set but haven’t got round to opening it up, so now the keys double trigger [laughs]. There’s literally nothing I’ve got that hasn’t been for repair or service.”

 

Just as well, perhaps, that you’re using Logic and are still a big fan of soft synths?

“I’m using Logic, which I’ve had since I stopped using the Atari ST and Cubase. Before that, I was on the Roland W30 workstation, using its internal sequencer. For processing stuff that I’ve recorded in, my favourites at the moment are ValhallaDSP’s ValhallaRoom and ValhallaShimmer, which are great reverbs. A trick that I like to do with this is to set the pre-delay - which is the gap before the reverb starts - to a musical amount of time, and then it acts like a delay. You hit the note, then there’s a gap and then there’s the reverb, which creates little ghost notes. Otherwise, Soundtoys’ EchoBoy analogue delay is really popular for a good reason, because it’s great for tape delay-type things and even has a Space Echo setting.”

You have some VSTs made by Expert Sleepers, who also make Eurorack modules…

“Yes, they do a whole suite of plugins called Silent Way, and they’re really useful utilities for linking your computer to Eurorack. The module will get its signal from my soundcard, which comes from the ADAT output of my MOTU audio interface, and by using these plugins, you can basically treat the modular as a soft synth. I don’t know how I would use modular without it, because sending MIDI from your computer and using a MIDI to CV gate converter is a bit shonky and you don’t get good timing. With Expert Sleepers’ hardware and software, the timing’s fantastic, and they don’t just do plugins where you play the synth - you can send an LFO from the computer to modulate something.”

[Diva] is the only soft synth I’ve ever used that really feels like it’s a hardware synth. It’s got such logical controls, and no bullshit graphics to throw you off the scent.

Do you use any soft synths for sounds?

“The only one I use is u-he’s Diva, which is so impressive. It’s got Juno-sounding patches in it, and it’s the only soft synth I’ve ever used that really feels like it’s a hardware synth. It’s got such logical controls, and no bullshit graphics to throw you off the scent.”

You have a nice pair of Focal speakers. What’s behind that choice?

“I was using Spirit Absolute 2s, which is a passive speaker from the mid 90s and they’re not good speakers. They don’t show you anything below 70Hz in a useful way, but I wouldn’t have known what that was a few years ago. I can’t say I’ve been happy with any mixes I’ve done. They don’t sound as good out at a club as other people’s mixes, despite me A/B-ing my stuff against them in the studio,
and I don’t think mastering is a magic bullet to be honest. So I researched and demoed a few different speakers, and Focal Trio6 Be seemed to be the best fit for me. They weren’t cheap, but you don’t need a subwoofer as they go down to 45Hz and have two modes that you can turn on and off with a foot pedal, changing the characteristic of the speakers entirely to create a hi-fi-range speaker.”

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