The Mercury Award-winning 1997 album New Forms by Roni Size & Reprazent helped propel drum & bass from the underground firmly into mainstream consciousness. Talking from his Bristol studio, Roni Size explains how that album was created, and discusses the ways in which technology has informed and changed his sound in the years since its release.
Can you tell us about your first music-making experiences? Did you start with turntables and dubplates, or samplers and tape machines?
It’s really fascinating how it started. I’ve been watching a series called The Get Down, which is about the origins of a lot of aspects within music. I knew a lot of that stuff already, but there was a lot I didn’t realise that I didn’t know. Watching that filled in all those little gaps for me: I was between 12 and 14 when that stuff was happening. I had two older brothers. One had a sound system and used to toast on the mic, my other brother was into hip hop and scratching.
We used to have a double tape deck and would try to get the tapes to sync together, but it never really worked. We had an old Yamaha P-300 belt drive deck and a Realistic mixer, and we’d try to scratch with that, which was hard work. We would watch a lot of movies like Wild Style and Babylon, and through those we saw glimpses of that world. One day, our local music shop on Gloucester Road in Bristol got a Yamaha RX17 drum machine, and we’d go in and start programming beats on it. We couldn’t afford to buy it – it was a case of going into these environments, or finding someone who could afford the gear, and going round to their house.
My cousin moved to America in 1981 and he used to send over records for us – super disco breaks, and things like that. At our local youth club, we did a raffle so we could buy a drum machine and that was the first time we had something we could call ours. I learned it inside out, but after that we wanted a sampler so we did a sponsored walk so we could get an Akai S950. After that, we managed to get a Technics turntable and a Gemini mixer, and that was our setup. I would spend all day on this equipment, learning how it worked.
Was there a specific reason you chose the Roland S-330 as your sampler of choice during the New Forms period?
I was torn between the Akai which was all quite intricate and the Roland which had a screen so you could see everything. But in the end I went with the Roland – you could do samples that went forwards and backwards, or take a one-second sample and stretch it out. You couldn’t do that stuff on Akai at the time. There was still only 14 seconds of sampling time, but you could have ghost notes and that was the trick. The quality of the Roland wasn’t as good, but you could do so much more with it. So we had the S330, a Tascam reel-to-reel, a Studiomaster desk, a Kawai sound module, Notator, and a set of NS10s. That was the sound. I made some of my first jungle tunes on that equipment.
So the technical limitations of the equipment you were working with at the time had an impact on the way you made music?
Absolutely. As soon as you ran out of sample time, that was it. You would get to a point where you had to stop after 14 seconds of sampling. You’d add some kicks, snares, and hi-hats, maybe one string sample, a vocal sample, and you could loop up some bass sounds.
Have you completely moved away from hardware samplers?
No, I still have my Roland 760s. I have a massive library of stuff that I still use on them. I still use ADATs, that stuff is still at the heart of my system.
There’s definitely a lot to be said for imposing limitations on yourself, but it’s good to be able to have more scope too, with software for example. Do you find that you can get bogged down with all the possible avenues you could go down with modern technology?
Who doesn’t? As you go on, you do want to do more. “Imagine if I could sample twice as much,” – that sort of thing. We discovered there were newer samplers, so we got two S330s and an S550, a TX81Z bass machine, and a 32-track desk . We were in our element.
At that time, we were broke. We’d be making these tunes all day, and then we’d DJ at night. So you have to cut the tune, drive to London, and then play it. It would take an hour to save onto floppy disk so sometimes I’d just leave my equipment on. Sometimes if there wasn’t enough money left on the electricity meter, I’d get home and the electric had run out. The tune had gone. But I had a version on dubplate or DAT. So you made sure you did the most you could do for that version, because you knew there was a good chance the original file wouldn’t exist when you got home. It wasn’t like “Version 230” of a song – that’s another way the technology would make you stop. The sound is what it is: You didn’t get a chance to change the mix.
It doesn’t get more vintage than this
So at what point did software start to become more of a feature of your approach to production?
We got a very early version of Pro Tools, and we just thought it was like a massive sampler. We went to America, and people were telling us, “No, it’s just a tape machine,” but that’s not how we saw it. Back then there wasn’t much Native Instruments stuff around, but there was one instrument powered by Kontakt called Cult Sampler that I loved. In fact, I spent the last few years bugging the guys at Native Instruments to try to find a copy. Then one day I got a call to say they’d found a serial number while cleaning out the offices! It doesn’t get more vintage than this. It’s got all these old-school drum machines in it – all the sounds I ever wanted back in the day.
The move towards software could arguably be said to be inevitable, or at least a lot of people found that to be the case. Was it just that software was more flexible?
We used a lot of hardware samplers, and we started to notice a latency problem. We spent a lot of time trying to get breaks all syncopated properly, and we worked out that if we could look at the waveforms in Pro Tools, it would be easier. But that also changed the sound: We weren’t used to the sound of digital. It was brighter, we couldn’t get as much bass out of it at that time, whereas with hardware we would still be red-lighting everything.
So how did you deal with that issue of the results sounding different with digital? Did you consciously try to recreate the older sound?
We had two setups, and we had to be creative. So, for example, if we had a long vocal, we’d have to chop it up, map it across the keys, and then play it in. But that was a vibe and it sounded great. And that’s what a lot of people have gone back to doing today. We used to have a lot of “happy accidents”. All your MIDI channels would get changed, and suddenly the piano part is playing a synth line – but it sounds great. That’s something that happens much less with software and all its stages of undo.
We’d be learning a new digital setup and trying to make things happen with that. We did a whole album – Breakbeat Era’s Ultra-Obscene – with Pro Tools. By the end of that, we’d figured it out. So we lost a bit of something in that move, but we also gained a lot. I could phone up Si John or Clive Deamer [bass and drums for Reprazent, respectively] and get them into the studio, and we were making our own breaks. I’d track these guys to ADAT, then go through and choose the bits I wanted, sample those, and then fire them back into Pro Tools. That was the secret of getting the right sound, and I still do that now.
Do you think people’s approach to making music is very different now to how it was then?
There are kids out there in their bedrooms who have been brought up on zeros and ones. They look at music differently to how I do – it’s completely different. It used to take us about 14 minutes just to timestretch one sound, and if it didn’t sound right, you’d have to do it again. They don’t use outboard, they just know the zeros and ones, and they come up with some great stuff. It’s their natural environment. To me, I still need to use my hands a bit here and there.
Do you think that’s part of the reason drum & bass has become so much more electronic over the years?
This is just my belief, but I think people have forgotten what jungle and drum & bass is supposed to sound like. It’s not supposed to sound like house, reggae music, or hip hop. It’s supposed to be influenced by them, but not sound like them. Drum & bass now is influenced more by pop, which is why it sounds the way it does.
I always believed that this music could command large audiences. In some ways, the sound never really changed – it was the arrangements. The arrangements were always based around music for DJs. At some point, some people started introducing pop arrangements, and that’s when the doors were kicked open. There are no arrangements on New Forms.
As part of your live show you use KONTAKT, and KOMPLETE KONTROL keyboards. Can you tell us about how you use them?
When I do my show I’m in a lightbox, and I have two Komplete Kontrol keyboards linked to two laptops running Kontakt. I have all my songs color-coded using the Light Guide on the keyboards. They’re cool, because I don’t have to put sticky tape all over the keys – when I change a patch I know where my sounds are going to be. Kontakt is like the heartbeat of my studio. And on stage, it’s my main source for all my sounds.
Studio pictures: Hollin Jones
Live picture: Joe Docker