Nightmares On Wax legend George Evelyn talks Logic, Maschine and beats
18th Nov 2013 | 11:37
The NOW main man explains how his live-meets-digital sound evolved
As someone who's been at the heart of the comedown, chillout sound for over 20 years, it seems fitting that George Evelyn – aka Nightmares On Wax – has settled on the blissed-out Balearic island of Ibiza.
Brought up in Leeds, Evelyn and former partner Kevin Harper established the NOW name with the Downbeat club night before releasing their 1991 debut A Word Of Science. Going solo, Evelyn followed that four years later with the still-acclaimed hip-hop-meets-early-morning classic Smokers Delight.
"People naturally assume I'm in Ibiza because I make music that's been labeled chillout," says Evelyn, who is comfortably ensconced in a 17th century farmhouse somewhere on the north of the island, "but I'm here because I wanted a change of life. Seven years ago, me and my wife went back to Leeds after a holiday in Thailand and I just thought, 'I need to be somewhere different.' My family enjoys a wonderful quality of life out here – the fact that the island is at the epicentre of electronic music every summer is completely coincidental."
Understandably, Evelyn has made full use of that coincidence, building a new studio inside his 400-year-old home and steadily building up the Wax Da Jam night at Ibiza's oldest club, Las Dalias. He's also just recorded the seventh NOW album, Feelin' Good, for Warp – Evelyn is their longest serving artist.
"I wasn't worried about making a 'phat' album or a 'this' album or a 'that' album," explains Evelyn. "I just wanted to make an album from the heart – an album that made people feel good. This might sound like a load of mystical bollocks, but I honestly believe that, when we feel good, we remember who we really are!"
Are we supposed to believe it was pure coincidence that Nightmares On Wax ended up on the island that kickstarted chillout?
"It's true! Honest! Me and my wife just wanted to go somewhere different, but somewhere that allowed me to carry on doing my job. We came here in 2006 for family and for life – not for the music.
"But, of course, once you're on the island, you can't really ignore the music because it's so deeply ingrained in the landscape. And I'm not just talking about the parties you see on TV; there's a musical spirituality to Ibiza that only becomes apparent when you spend time here.
It becomes part of your imagination, and it was certainly part of the writing process when it came to making the album."
That's understandable. Bet you've got a cracking view from the studio window. Wide blue skies, the gently twinkling Mediterranean, bleached white beaches…
"Unfortunately, the studio hasn't got any windows! When we first saw the house, I thought, 'Where do I put the studio?' There's a windowless room right at the heart of the house and that single, square room was once the original 'house' – the rest has been added over the last 400 years. It's also where they used to hang the meat because it's the coolest room. I kinda liked the idea that the studio would be the beating heart of the house.
"On top of that, it's got half-metre-thick walls, so I didn't need to do much soundproofing! It's my little musical cave."
Did you transfer the whole Leeds studio over to the island?
"In these onboard days, there's not really that much to transfer, is there? You unplug your computer in one country and plug it in somewhere else. The thing is, I decided to get a bit clever, didn't I, so I ordered a brand new TL Audio VTC 16-channel valve desk and a set of Dynaudio Air 20 monitors. So, there I am in a completely new space with a new desk and new monitors. It was as if I'd completely reinvented my sound and I spent the first few months just getting my ears used to all the new gear.
"The biggest challenge was bringing over all the vinyl. I've now got the room set up with the vinyl lining the walls, adding a bit more soundproofing and providing inspiration. I haven't had all my vinyl in the studio since I was about 20. When I look through all the stuff in here, it's like reading a diary of my life!"
When you chatted to Future Music, back in 2003, you were an enthusiastic Logic convert.
"And I'm still on Logic. For me to change, someone would really have to convince me that a different platform would seriously improve my life. I'm not saying that Logic is perfect – for instance, I wish it wouldn't develop a mind of its own every few weeks. Some days you switch it on and it's randomly changed the key of certain bits of a song. So, I switch off and switch on again. No change. I load an earlier version of the song. No change. Right, time to make a cup of tea. You come back after 15 minutes, switch it on and everything's back to normal. But that's just computers, innit. Glitches are part of daily life.
"Probably my favourite bit of Logic is the Channel EQ. A lot of digital EQs are a bit too… digital. It's very difficult to make them sound subtle. But Logic is great for just shaving things here and there; slightly tailoring sounds to fit in their correct audio pocket. The desk has got a wonderful valve EQ that really warms up the sound, but I do the final nips and tucks on Logic.
"Whatever sound you're working on, you shouldn't be getting too extreme with the EQ. If you're having to spend 20 minutes EQing a sound to make it fit, then it's probably the wrong sound. If I stick a sample in a song, it's because I like the sound of it. What's the point of EQing it into something completely different?
"My favourite bit of Logic is the Channel EQ. A lot of digital EQs are too digital - but Logic is great for shaving things here and there"
Do you go easy on effects, too?
"I've not got every effect under the sun, but the stuff I've got does a decent job. Everyone needs a great reverb and I regularly find myself reaching for ADverb. The Waves plugins always work brilliantly and the Abbey Road stuff is there to add that final sprinkle of sugar.
"It's been interesting to watch software and plugin development over the last ten years. There's always going to be some hardware in my studio, but we're now at a point where the quality of the plugins is just ridiculous. When I was working with Robin [Taylor-Firth, long-term NOW keyboard collaborator] on the album, he said, 'Have you heard the Miroslav Philharmonik strings?' He started playing away and, immediately, he's on a completely different level to anything I've ever heard before.
"And then there's Melodyne! I hate the way it's affected almost every modern vocal, but as a piece of software, it's just unbelievable. When you look at what it can do in terms of the actual manipulation of sound, you realise just how far we've come since those early samplers.
Does everything come out of the computer into its own channel on the desk?
"Yeah. I bring out three or four stereo pairs – everything like drums, keys and percussion on their own pair – and the rest in mono."
It's only a 16-channel desk. You never run out of channels?
"Run out of channels? I don't think any song on the album had more than 12 or 13 tracks! I always like to leave a couple spare, just for emergencies. Personally, I like the simplicity of working with a desk. Each button and fader has one job to do; they don't do three different things. And, most important of all, I like the fun of using a desk. Isn't that one of the reasons we all got into music in the first place, to have a good time?"
There's a hell of a lot of live stuff on the new album: Zero 7 vocalist Mozez; virtuoso jazz drummer Wolfgang Haffner; M People percussionist Shovell; keys from Robin Taylor-Firth; string arrangements by Sebastian Studnitzky…
"How did people used to make albums in the old days? They'd hit record and bang some ideas down. So that's what we did. We recorded some stuff here at the house and spent quite a bit of time at UFO Studios in Berlin – that's where we recorded Wolfgang's drums and the string orchestra. I wanted to take that old-fashioned approach and marry it with what the digital age has to offer.
"Alongside the live stuff, there's me throwing samples everywhere and tinkering away on the Logic synths like ES1 and ES E; they're great for those restrained pads that fill out the space underneath a song. Of course, if you want to get radical, you can twist them into much more digital shapes and add something to what's been recorded live.
"We've got some really wonderful livebass on the album courtesy of Paul Powell,but I like to stick something digital on occasional, accented notes. You've got realbass, but every now and then, a note will gooff somewhere different.
"In many ways, the sound of this album –live meets digital – is the sound I've been searching for since day one. The live stuff isn't just random add-ons to what is essentially an electronic album. The two are equal partners, like a good marriage."
How much do you play around with the live stuff once you've got it in the computer?
"I'll play around with arrangements, but I will never, ever mess with the timing. I honestly can't see why anyone would sit there for two hours, pulling a percussion loop into what you think is perfect time. If a human has played it a certain way, I like to leave it exactly as it is. You've got to remember that you're capturing a feeling, and nothing is more important than that feeling.
"Obviously, if a take sounds shit, we'll do it again, but once we've all agreed that we've got the take, that's it – no more tweaking."
You've been sampling stuff since the late 80s. That must be one hell of a sample library you've got in your little Ibizan cave!
"Some of it is still on floppy disc and – you'll like this – I actually fired up the Akai S950 for a couple of tracks on this album. Plus there's a whole ton of stuff on various optical drives that really needs transferring over.
"Sampling is kind of how I first started making tunes, and I have to admit that my sampling world was shifted on its axis during the making of this album. Someone mentioned Maschine to me a couple of years back, but I had a look at it and thought, 'Nah, it's all a bit plastic fantastic.' Then, Native Instruments showed me what it can do, and I just went, 'Oh, my God!'
"I love my MPCs – I've still got the 60 and the 2000 – but they were never the most user-friendly of tools, were they? Maschine just sort of closes that big gap between the MPC world and the Logic world. Mind you, the incorporation within Logic could be a bit better. Nothing messes up a songwriting session more than having to think, 'Right, how the hell do I do that?' But that's about the only moan I've got. It is a great beat tool."
Earlier on, you talked about not spending too much time tweaking sounds. Does that go for beats, as well? How long does it take you to get a decent NOW groove?
"With the beats and the bass, it really is all about finding the right source material. Once you've got that, you have a conversation between the two… Well, that's how I think of it, anyway. Do the two sounds go together? If they don't, they probably shouldn't be having that conversation at all.
"As for processing loops and beats, I try to keep that to a minimum. For a start, they'll be going through the desk, so there's some nice valve warmth added there. There'll be a little bit of EQing in Logic and then I've got a couple of Empirical Labs Distressors, which are great for just finding the exact space that a kick drum needs. If it's popping, I'll put it through there and it suddenly seems to sound OK.
"I'm a big fan of the Empirical Labs outboard. I've got a Fatso, too, which adds a bit of valvey tape emulation. If you put together the desk, the Logic EQ, the Distressor and the Fatso, they would be the calling cards for this album. They're the things that gave it substance.
"Actually, I'd probably add one more thing: a fader. There's always so much talk about EQing and compressing a sound to make it fit, but sometimes, all you need to do is turn it up or turn it down. Don't overthink every problem and don't get too scientific about every sound. Sometimes, the simple answer is the one you're looking for."
Feelin' Good is out now on Warp.