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08 July 2019

VFT at 30. Thirty Years of Variable Frequencies.


Part two of my 3 part series of articles documenting my musical journey from start to the present day. This part of the series ties in with a recent interview that Richie Hawtin gave to Fact Magazine. You can read it here.

My time at Plus 8 coincides with the era that is being discussed in the interview and I was fortunate enough to be there to witness first hand some of what took place.

I visited Detroit and Canada 4 times between 1991 and 1994 and was able to see Richie's label and studio evolve over that time. So I guess you could call this an alternative or an outsider's perspective.

Part 2.

Plus 8 and Probe Records 1991 - 1994.

In December 1991 I took my first of several trips to the US and Canada as I went to record at Richie Hawtin's studio in Windsor. I remember the first time I landed at Detroit Metro Airport and being picked up by Richie in an old beat up car he was driving.

I had brought a piece of equipment with me from my own studio, namely my CZ101 synthesizer, which I was now an expert at programming.

Richie was impressed with the imitation TR909 drum sounds that I had programmed in the synth. I had made convincing recreations of all the 909 sounds apart from the cymbals and hi hats.

Richie's studio already had an impressive array of synths when I first visited, with models such as a Roland Juno 106, and JD800, and a Promars MRS 2.

There was also a Sequential Pro One lurking in there and my personal favourite at the time, the Korg Wavestation AD. There was of course also the obligatory TB303 and also an MC202.

The full complement of drum machines were also present with TR808, 909, 606, 707 and 727 all accounted for. There was a Yamaha effects processor, I think it was an SPX900 and an Akai S950 sampler.

Monitoring was done on a set of Tannoys, the model number of which escapes me but I remember they had the tweeters in the middle of the bass cone. They might have been these ones in fact.

Everything was controlled by a Kawai Q80 hardware sequencer. There was no computer there in the early days. I think Richie either borrowed or hired an Atari ST when I visited the first time because all my tracks were on Atari ST floppy disks.

I recorded my first release for Plus 8's sister label Probe, under the name of 0733, (the then telephone area code for my home town Peterborough.) The tracks were written and arranged by me and produced and engineered by Richie.

Post editing of tracks was still being done by tape and razor blade. I remember sitting and watching Dan Bell on one occasion as he was splicing tape and turning it around to create back edits.

My first visit to Canada was brief, just 5 days, but it was enough time to get the first EP done and I would be back again in less than 6 months for a more lengthy 2 week stay.

Plus 8 studio December 1991. (1)
Top left to right: My Casio CZ101, MC202, TR909, TR808. Second shelf: Kawai Q80 sequencer, Korg Wavestation AD, TB303, Roland Promars. Bottom shelf: Roland JD800 and Juno 106.

Plus 8 studio December 1991. (2)
Mixing console, effects, DAT recorder, Akai sampler,
patch bay and reel to reel tape recorder used for editing.

1992 (From Our Minds To Yours Vol 2).

I returned to Canada again in May 1992. The purpose of the visit was to record a track for the second Plus 8 album 'From Our Minds To Yours Volume 2.'

I landed in Toronto this time and stayed at (Plus 8 co-owner) John Acquaviva's place in London Ontario for a couple of days before heading down to stay with Richie in Windsor again.

There had been some changes since my last visit. Richie had bought himself a new car, and in the studio there was now an Atari Mega ST computer in the corner and also a Casio CZ3000 synthesizer - the bigger brother of the CZ101. Richie said that it was my CZ101 that had influenced his decision to buy the CZ3000.

Finally in the middle of the room there was a new Allen & Heath mixing console that Richie had picked up from the UK and was immensely pleased with.

On this longer two week visit I got to hang out with Richie while he was doing day to day stuff such as running the label, shopping for vinyl and I'd also accompany him to his DJ residency at a club called Vertigo in Windsor.

I visited the legendary National Sound Corp in Detroit where pretty much all Detroit Techno masters were cut, and I had the privilege to meet the late Ron Murphy, whom I got to see in action at the cutting lathe whilst telling me about all the Motown artists he had worked with in the past.

Richie was also a regular customer at a record shop in Detroit called Record Time, which sold all the latest Detroit releases and anything else you can imagine.

I remember finding it interesting watching a bunch of young guys in there eagerly going through the UK imports and flicking through a bunch of what we would now call old school rave and early Jungle tracks on labels such as Reinforced and Moving Shadow.

I remember thinking how I could probably get all those records for dirt cheap back home! I never imagined that UK rave was generating interest outside of the UK, and especially in Detroit, but clearly it was.

I was listening to a lot of rave and early Jungle back then myself even though I wasn't producing it. You just could not escape it in the UK at the time, plus I used to play a lot of that kind of stuff at my DJ residency back home.

Richie also used to play a variety of styles at his DJ residency at Vertigo, focusing mostly on the popular US and Canadian club tracks of the day.

Picture I took of Richie Hawtin DJ-ing at club Vertigo early 90's.

The purpose of my visit, as I said, was to record a track for the second Plus 8 album. I was a bit concerned for a while that I might not come up with anything because I never had anything prepared or any demos with me so I was just going to have to write something on the fly.

One evening Richie and Dan Bell went out to a club and left me alone in the studio and that's when I recorded the track 'Location'.

I remember sitting there noodling away on the Wavestation AD. I began playing some chords that I had made up at home a few weeks earlier and then laid some synth lines over the top with my trusty CZ101 and it all just went from there.

The track was arranged inside Richie's Atari Mega ST using my own copy of Steinberg 12 sequencing software. The 909 drum machine was triggered from the computer along with all the synths.

The track was finished in a few hours and by the time Richie and Dan had returned home from the club I had already gone to bed and was out for the count!

My second visit ended with me going back to stay with John Acquaviva in London Ontario again for a couple of days before departing from Toronto and returning back to the UK to continue my new DJ residency at a club called Shock.

(Look out for details about the Shock Rave club DJ reunion online event coming soon.)

Plus 8 Studio May 1992.
Taken during the recording of From Our Minds To Yours Vol 2. In the bottom left can be seen the rack containing the Wavestation AD, effects processors and Akai S950. The new arrival Atari Mega ST in the corner and my Casio CZ101 on top of Richie's JD800.

John Acquaviva and me. Toronto May 1992.
Both looking young and fresh faced!

1993 Visit number 3.

I returned for a third visit to Windsor in the summer of 1993 to record another EP for Probe records. Like before, I bought a few things with me from my own studio to integrate with Richie's set up.

Some of the tracks were already written but at least one track was written from scratch in the studio. Richie christened one of my tracks, 'Synthetic Emotions' because I didn't yet have a name for it.

Speaking of names, this was the time that Richie named his studio UTK. I think I was the first person that he told.

I remember I was sitting out in the back garden having a cigarette when Richie came out and said that he'd just thought of a name for the studio, 'UTK', which stood for 'Under The Kitchen'.

I remember querying whether the studio was actually under the kitchen because I always thought it was under the living room!

1993 was also the year that technology was getting more sophisticated and things were moving on apace. By now Richie and John were editing tracks on computer based systems.

I remember sitting in on an editing session one evening and I was bored to tears because it was just the pair of them staring at waves on a computer screen.

Something that was way more interesting however were the parties that they were playing at. I remember attending an underground party in Detroit in a disused shop or something where Richie Hawtin and D Wynn were playing in one room and John Acquaviva was playing in another.

I don't remember much else other than I got quite intoxicated that night and I was feeling pretty rough the following day. I do remember sitting in the garden the next morning nursing a hangover whilst trying to have a conversation with Richie's Mum!

I noticed that Richie's music started to become way more minimal during this time and I remember he would be in the studio surrounded by all this equipment but would only be working with a TR606 a TB303 and some effects and that was about it.

This was around the time of the birth of Richie's alter ego 'Plastikman' and what I was witnessing were the early stages of this.

Back in Blighty.

I caught up with Richie and John again towards the end of 1993 when they both came to the UK. I went down to meet them both in London where we stayed with a couple of guys who worked at Mute Records.

At this time Plus 8 where securing a partnership deal with Mute which I presume was the main reason Richie and John were in the UK.

They both also had some DJ gigs booked on the south coast. I remember accompanying them both to a town called Bognor Regis which was home to a now legendary club that was called Empire (now sadly no more.)

As we were all travelling to the venue I played them both a new hard as nails demo that I had been working on.

I will always remember that night. Richie was driving the hire car, John was in the passenger seat and I was in the back. I handed the tape across to the guys and wondered if they would like it because it was a pretty hard track.

Richie put my tape in the cassette player and turned it up full blast. Next all I could see was Richie and John frantically nodding and talking to each other, then Richie turned the volume down looked over at me and said, 'you're the fucking man!'

From that I presumed they liked the track. The track I'd played them was a demo of something that didn't have a name yet so Richie suggested that I should call it 'Arrival'.

The Arrival - original 1993 demo.
An extended clip of the original demo of The Arrival.

I played the track again the following day at Mute Records and this old guy came up to me and asked if the track was mine, so I said yes, to which he replied, "it's really good. I like it".

The next thing Richie's getting all excited and asking me if I knew who that was? To which I replied no. So he informed me that it was non other than Daniel Miller, the producer of Depeche Mode and head of Mute Records. . .

What did I know? I was never really into Depeche Mode! ;-)

Detroit - Windsor. Visit number 4, 1994.

I flew out to Detroit metro airport again in March 1994 for a brief 10 day visit to record my next EP and to re-record The Arrival in Richie's studio, the idea being to improve on the rough cassette demo.

While the re-recording of the track came out OK, I felt it had lost something in translation and had not come out quite the way I had hoped. If anything the new version was lacking some of the raw energy of the original cassette demo and at the time I couldn't put my finger on why that was.

I also noticed this problem with at least one other demo that I had recorded to cassette and then re-recorded in the studio, a track called Intelligentsia that was recorded the year before.

In retrospect and with a few more years' experience under my belt I realised what the missing component was. Saturation.

Prior to 1995 I was recording everything straight to cassette, at quite high levels, which was causing the tape to 'saturate', resulting in a pleasant musical distortion. The principles are similar to electric guitar players when they overdrive their amplifiers.

This new version of Arrival had been recorded straight to DAT with little processing other than a bit of reverb and delay.

Recording to a digital medium like DAT forces you to keep the levels from distorting because unlike analogue tape, digital distortion sounds awful and not musical at all, so any saturation, distortion or other 'warming' effects have to be added to the signal separately.

There are many devices on the market, both hardware and software that are designed specifically for this purpose.

Fourteen years later in 2007, I revisited the track 'Arrival' once again and with the help of modern day technology I was able to re-create it, along with the same drive and energy of the original version and with the benefit of extra clarity.

But there will always be something about those old cassette demos. . .

And so 1994 would turn out to be my final visit to the US and Canada as a Plus 8 artist and I was by now getting the urge to start my own label after having spent so much time around Plus 8.

I spoke with both Richie and John about the prospect of me starting my own label and they were both very supportive and encouraged me to go for it.

Before I returned home Richie gave me a Korg EX800 synthesizer module that he didn't want but I didn't keep it for long because I didn't quite gel with it.

I part-exchanged it a few months later for something called an Evolution EVS1 which was a more powerful machine being capable of several methods of synthesis. However it was cheap and suffered from poor build quality and it died on me about a year after I got it.

One of the tracks I recorded for my final Probe EP in 1995, Cross Section, was actually recorded at home and made extensive use of the EVS1 before it decided to stop working.

Part Three: Formation of Fine Balance Records.

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