Purist electronic sensibilities intact, Autechre has built its own world of finely machined sounds and rhythms.
Resolutely independent in their musical vision, Autechre has found a natural place at Warp Records. Sean Booth and Rob Brown produce abstract, pristine music of austere beauty that engages both mind and heart.
It certainly caught Warp’s attention, enough that the label included two Autechre tracks on their seminal. Artificial intelligence compilation. Warp then asked Rob and Sean to produce an Autechre album. The result was a long but exciting Incunabula, one of the most satisfying electronic albums of the last year. Autechre’s second album, the recent Amber, confirms the singular character of their musical vision and shows them to mature and grow in musical self-confidence.
Rob and Sean have worked 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 them up, mimicking the early Mantronix stuff with pause button edits on my tape deck,” Sean remembers. At this time, Sean also had a Casio SK1 mini sampling keyboard, which was quickly supplemented with a Roland TR-606 (“forty pounds, out of a buddy”) drum machine and a sampler / delay. Boss RSD-10.
“We used to put loops in the SK1 and cut stuff on the decks on top of it,” says Sean. “Then when we had the 606 and the RSD-10, we would put samples into the RSD, trigger it from the 606 and play with the SK1 on top of that. “
Once the acid house surfaced, Autechre was drawn to its daring exploration of pure sound. “It distracted our attention because it was so electronic and sounded so brutal,” says Rob. Sean adds: “Acid showed us that we were more interested in creating original sounds than in sampling breakbeats. At first we got most of our sounds on records, but then slowly but surely we started messing them up so much that you couldn’t hear where they were coming from.
A Roland R-8 drum machine, Roland Juno 106 synth, Tascam 244 Portastudio, and Phonic MRT60 DJ mixer completed the duo’s initial recording setup, with the MRT60 acting as a submixer going into the 244. R-8 via the MRT60’s phono inputs, which give the drums a crisp, distorted sound with very nice highs, ”Sean recalls.
In their pre-computer days, the R-8 played a central role in setup, acting as a MIDI sequencer for the Juno and (via its tape sync) a primary sync source for the 202, from which they could then run the 606. Nowadays, they always turn off the computer and revert to that setup when, Sean says, they “want to do something experimental.”
Their first computer sequencing experience came when a friend gave them free rein in his studio for six months. They used Steinberg’s Pro 24 software for a week (“that was evil,” Sean says) then switched to Cubase for a few weeks before settling in with Emagic’s Creator.
“Cubase is a singer-songwriter program, and we’re not singers at all,” Sean says. “A lot of our songs are very loop driven, and Creator is designed to be used by people who like to loop. So we started using it and it was like using a drum machine, which we were very familiar with – using the R-8 as a sequencer almost gave us our first Creator lesson.
“It was good to learn about MIDI and all that, but we never offered a publishable product,” Rob says of their six-month stint in the studio. “Obviously, we got some very naïve initial results. “
Show taste and restraint
“We’ve found that every time we buy a little bit of gear, we try to lay it off for six months, until we get used to using it,” says Sean. “It’s only then that we start doing things that are really worth using; if we start using something immediately, we only do the most cheesy stuff with it. There isn’t a single thing about the equipment we use now that we don’t understand. Analog 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 where they do all of their work. They have little patience for commercial studios.
“We really only worked in one ‘proper’ studio and ended up 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 on our own. It seems like in the studios you have this code of practice that says you have to do things a certain way. People tell us ‘you have this weird way of working’, but to us it’s not strange, it’s the right way to do it – we are happier to work like that. ”
While recording Incunabula, Rob and Sean extended their home setup with a Seck 18: 8: 2 music stand, an Ensoniq EPS16 + sampler, an Alesis Quadraverb and an Atari ST computer. “Suddenly we could use all the R-8 outputs and the EQ and send everything separately – it just made us more proficient,” says Rob.
“When we got the Seck, we stopped distorting sounds obviously across the desktop because we didn’t want to mess it up! So we started getting distorted sounds through the MRT and sampling them in the EPS, rather than distorting them in the mix.
With the usual caution, they refrained from “making full use” of the EPS when recording. Incunabula. “We were just starting to learn how to use it,” Sean says. “It didn’t change our sound much back then, but it has since, because we’re more and more interested in what you can do with internal effects, resampling and all.
The new album contains a lot more EPS – in fact, it’s almost total EPS experimentation! The applications of this sampler are amazing. I don’t know why not everyone has one – it’s one of the best samplers, I think.
Sound is usually the starting point for an Autechre track. “We might have a handful of sounds and they will dictate the type of rhythm we use,” comments Rob.
“We like the beat and the sound, basically,” Sean adds. “In terms of melody, for us it’s not so much about writing a song, it’s more about using the sound at different pitches to create a sensation. I guess rhythm is everything for us. A note is just a sound played over a different length of time at a different pitch. The R-8 taught us to experiment with pitch and sounds in rhythmic structures; we tend to use the notes very rhythmically.
Staging the changes
Rob and Sean’s music takes on new life on stage, evolving from set to set as they reprogram the material. “The scenery changes every night, basically,” says Rob. “We’ll change the live set as soon as we get the chance,” adds Sean. “It makes things more interesting for us when we play that night.”
Currently, their live setup consists of the EPS16 +, Juno 106, R-8, Quadraverb, and Seck desk, with MIDI sync from the R-8 controlling the EPS’s built-in sequencer.
In the studio, neither of them takes on a specific role; however, on stage, for practical reasons, they divide the responsibilities: Sean controls the R-8 and the Seck while Rob focuses on the EPS and the Juno. According to Sean: “I’ll do all the drum sequencing and Rob will do all the melodies, keyboard parts and little extra songs. Most drums are now EPS samples, but we tend to sequence them via MIDI from the R-8.
Autechre is one of the most intriguing and absorbing electronic acts around. With Warp Records, they have a label that will give them the time and space to develop in their own way – independence from independents…