Future Music interview with Arthur Baker from 2006
7th Nov 2012 | 12:50
New York master-mixer Arthur Baker talks shop with FM back in 2006 and tells us how, with his technology, less is sometimes more
Without delving into too much of a nostalgic trance it's fair to say that Arthur Baker helped forge the whole cut and paste sampling ethos that still pervades to this day; from his groundbreaking collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa on the seminal Planet Rock (hell, the man had the nerve to sample Kraftwerk before anyone else had time to even think about it!), to his integral part in persuading New Order that an instrumental they had called Blue Monday was worth fleshing out with lyrics (not to mention his production on their tracks Confusion and Thieves Like Us).
"I don't see how you can stop the downloading thing now."
Baker has continued to bring his unique vision, and not inconsiderable sonic talents, to bear on a plethora of floor-fillers. Baker's Put The Needle To The Record remains one of the most sampled records ever (just ask Bomb The Bass and MARRS) and its use of samplers and breakdowns set the tone for countless imitators to follow. Although a mainstay of the New York dance scene (his Return To New York party nights are the stuff of legend) Arthur Baker has also applied his production/remix skills to a CV's worth of big-name artists, ranging from The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan right through to the honeyed-tones of the very reverend Al Green, as well as renewing his working relationship with New Order's Bernard Sumner on the highly-regarded Electronic project.
The good news is that Arthur Baker's latest offering, the rather compelling single, Glow (featuring the vocals of Ash's Tim Wheeler) is a stomping return to form with its heady mix of pseudo-Motown drums, noisy guitars and driving sequences, all topped with Wheeler's trademark vocals.With an album's worth of material promised in the very near future, Arthur Baker took time out from his current production duties with electro-noiseniks Pink Grease at Mute Records' London studio to shoot the breeze with FM about Glow, computers and just how the groove was built back in the day BC... i.e. Before Computers.
How did your collaboration with Tim Wheeler of Ash on your track Glow come about?
"I worked with Tim on a track called A Life Less Ordinary back in 1998 or so, which I produced for Ash – it was the same week that Princess Diana died in that crash. I initially met them in Dublin where they were opening up for U2, and we went into the studio five days later where we cut A Life Less Ordinary. I haven't worked on a record with them since, but I've stayed friends with them all.
"Maybe about five years ago or so I started work on this album, which I wanted to do as a solo album but featuring different vocalists and more guitar-y stuff, so I came up with an instrumental track, gave it to Tim and we went into the studio and did the guitars and vocals. We played it to various people like Geoff Barrett and Daniel Miller (Heavenly & Mute Records supremos respectively) who were all into it but, because it was a one-off, no one ever signed it. Basically what happened is that we'd periodically see Darren Emerson (former Underworld groove-meister and now label-boss of Underwater) who's a friend, and about four years back he said he wanted to do a mix. So I'd send him the track in parts then he'd lose the parts, years go by and I get Si Begg and Roy Kerr (aka mash-up specialist The Freelance Hellraiser) to both do mixes whilst trying to get a deal for the project.
"Last year I bumped into Darren again and him, Tim and myself had dinner and we kinda said ... 'Darren, you own a label, why don't you put the fucking record out?' So Darren ended up going and doing a mix, then Tim and I, since we'd been living with the original for nearly five years, decided to go in and cut a new mix from scratch, which is what we did. So the one that's going to be the single version is my newest mix."
Was it a conscious decision on your part to move into more guitar-orientated territory when you're perhaps still more renowned for your dance-floor excursions?
"Yeah, definitely. About five years back I started getting back into guitars within dance music. Not that it had ever left but I felt like I was kind of bored of dance music without organic instruments in it. When we did the original Glow track it was before a lot of this other guitar/dance stuff was happening."
Any favourite studio tools of your trade?
"Well, I pretty much just work with Logic now, and go in and do it on my own. Right now I'm producing a band called Pink Grease for Mute and I'm using some Pro Tools for that. In general, though, I prefer to work with Logic as it's much quicker for me to use. Pro Tools is better for recording 'live', but as far as doing dance records is concerned then it's Logic all the way.
So how long have you been a Logic user?
"Probably about six years now off and on. I'm not a total expert on it by any means, but I can make records with it."
FM was interested to find out how your studio methodology has changed since the days of the seminal Put The Needle On The Record?
"Oh well it's got to have really. I mean nowadays anyone with a computer has a digital studio. On the new version of Glow we went into a studio and cut live drums then beat detected them and hooked them up within the computer. There's still that element of live drums and guitars which I like though. I do still like to hear those live instruments on a record. With the Pink Grease project we did a lot of the rhythm tracks at Toerag Studios, so it's good to mix the new technology with some old technology."
You're credited with being at the birth of sampling and the resultant cut and paste culture – what kind of equipment forged those early cuts?
"Yeah I guess that's true. When that stuff came about I was like 'let's make rap records without the rap' so we made all these instrumental collages. Back in those days I was using the Emulator 1 & Emulator II, then all the Akai samplers like the S700, S900 then the S1000. That was all the gear you needed."
Do you feel a little sorry for Akai in these days of software samplers?
"Yeah, the software samplers have kinda taken over but why would I feel sorry for them? Over the years I've given them a lot of my money and now I don't have to. That's technology. I think it's a little bit of bull to be nostalgic for old equipment – for old synths maybe, but not for old samplers. Maybe there is a different character to them, but I'm not running after it that's for sure. I use the ESX24 sampler in Logic and I really rate it. It's all about usability really – if you can use something quickly and get your ideas down straight away, then it's worth having."
Did people initially freak when you were experimenting with cut and paste techniques in the early 80s?
"Yes and no, because the people I was working with were all on the same sort of wavelength anyway, so we weren't working with BBC-type engineers from the 50s! We were working with a lot of hip-hop people who were more like 'oh wow ...you can do that? Lets do it', and they were very open-minded and positive about trying things rather than saying you couldn't do certain things."
Do you still like to mix on a desk or do you keep it all in Logic now?
"I mostly tend to do it in Logic but on this current project we'll probably put it through a desk. When I used to use desks it would be more a case of you'd have everything running all the way through and you'd do the arrangement live. You don't really do that now. I'm not a purist about mixing-desks or any other gear – it's whatever's there at the time. Back when we were making those early records we used anything that was there. Sometimes now you have too much shit at your disposal – Planet Rock was effectively made with one drum-machine, one synth and one delay."
"Seriously that was it. You didn't need any more – sometimes the more you have, the more decisions you have to make. With Planet Rock there wasn't even a sequencer so it was all played live by hand. There was no Emulator then so I think we ended up using a Micromoog for all the effects and the bass sound. We used a Prophet 5 for the strings and a Roland TR-808 for the drums. There was a Fairlight system that just happened to be in the studio, so we used it for the orchestral stabs and explosions. The electronic voice was done with a tight feedback on a really tight delay through a Lexicon PCM41, and we had a Sony reverb all going through a Neve board."
If pushed, what are your favourite bits of studio gear?
"There are some plug-ins I really like such as Steinberg's Groove Agent, which is really good. Arturia's ARP2600 soft-synth has some great synth sounds, and the Korg Legacy collection with the old MS20 keyboard is excellent too. Over and above that I use Logic – it's really pretty simple. In the interviews I've been doing for Glow the one thing I haven't really mentioned is the whole file-sharing, instant-messaging and MySpace technology, where people can now be in touch with each other, making music and swapping ideas over the net. I think that's a major technology for making music because you can really swap stuff around now.
"I'll be working on a track and can send a couple of files worth of ideas over to someone in New York who then works on it and sends me something back the same night – you can collaborate with someone on the other side of the world and to me that's really exciting."
Are there any other bits of software you use on top of Logic? Does the likes of Reason appeal to your dance sensibilities?
"I have Reason and use it sometimes. I do really want to get into Ableton Live for the DJ thing. I used to love ACID (didn't we all!), which is what I was mainly using when I first started making Glow. Since I moved to being totally Apple I'm now trying to take some time to totally learn Live. I didn't used to like DJ-ing, but I very much come from a DJ head. I know what the breaks and beats should be like. When I was doing the bigger remixes some of the shit I was doing back then was definitely creating new things. I remember when I did the 12-inch mix of Living In A Box with all these drops in it where everything would come out except for the drums or the bass-line, and people were saying 'you can't do that – people wont know what to do there'. So they made me cut out a whole bunch of the drops, but nowadays that's where it's at!"
"There's no reason why anyone with creativity and half a brain can't make music."
Any thoughts of the download culture?
"I think it's exciting. Put it this way, for me to go and buy the Rolling Stones Greatest Hits for the seventh time doesn't make sense – I'd rather download it. I've bought it six times already! I've downloaded songs from various sites that aren't iTunes and the bottom-line is that it's mainly stuff I've already bought in the past, so I don't really feel like I'm stealing from anyone. Obviously with dance tracks you hear about things then they get downloaded, so somebody is losing out on that money and it definitely hurts in a way. No doubt it'll be the same with some of my music, but basically I think the whole business is going to end up being much more live and merchandising orientated, so the music will become almost free in a lot of instances as a way of promoting the live gig or the t-shirts. I don't see how you can stop the downloading thing now."
Any advice to aspiring producers amongst the FM readership?
"Nowadays it's so much easier. Back when I started you had to go into a studio and work your way in, become a tea-boy and sit around for years learning your trade. Now you just have to get a cheap computer and some cheap software or whatever and start making records. That's what dance music always was – dance music is home made house music. When you're doing that there's no reason why anyone with creativity and half a brain can't make music."