Technique: Darkstar ‘News From Nowhere’

Technique: Darkstar ‘News From Nowhere’

The on point Warp trio and producer Richard Formby talk us through the making of their elevatory second album, track by track.

1. Light Body Clock Starter

James Buttery: Light Body Clock Starter was a track that I wrote on the acoustic guitar. That’s how it started. Then added a little vocal loop. It took quite a long time to get it to work from that place. We added all kind of instruments and took them off. Added drums and took them off. In the end in the studio we had this 4 minute piece that was a little bit noodley. So we decided to chop it in half and arranged it quite a different way.

“We got into the studio with Richard and he put it all through tape and made it sound even more like you were waking up and the sun was rising.” Aiden Whalley

Aiden Whalley: It started off with James’ ‘wake me up’ lyrical vocal line. And from an early stage we envisioned it as the starter of the album, because the lyric was nice and strong. But the music behind it was bit moody and we wanted something a little but lighter. And we had this thing running through about clocks ticking and mechanisms. I started messing around with arpeggios on these chromatic sounds and scales. We came up with this ascending motif arpeggio and started fleshing it out a little bit and gave it to James (Buttery) and he started messing around with the sonics and the production of it all. And it became quite a lengthy tune. And we got into the studio with Richard and he put it all through tape and made it sound even more like you were waking up and the sun was rising. Then for the album, once we’d pieced the whole thing together and we knew that was the intro for the album we thought we’ve got so much going on in it and it goes on for so long, we can condense it down. Really just use the parts and not repeat them so much and condense it into a 2-minute track. And that was the opener to the album.

Richard Formby: The track originally started with the sound of clock chimes. I took two sections of these and ran them into an old Akai S950 sampler. The samples play from the start and loop back on themselves at the end, playing in reverse, then before reaching the start they loop again, and so on, backwards and forwards. These samples were then blurred further with tape delay using a Revox B77. The sound of the clocks is still there, the loops and Revox gave them a kind of washing to-and-fro feel. The vocals are also processed with reverse tape delay. This involved reversing the vocal track and recording it through echo. The vocal and echo are then re-reversed so that the echo anticipates the voice. The drone is an Indian harmonium which has a natural tremolo effect built in. This is a purely acoustic sound. The song was originally twice as long. We decided that, as this song didn’t need to go anywhere except to lead into track two it made sense to cut it in half and just keep the sections that worked best.

2. Timeaway

James Buttery: Aiden came downstairs one day when we were in the house and said “check out this keyboard part I’ve written”. Me and James where like, it’s really really cool. From there we built up this track. We were kind of playing this pop song structure. We wanted to do something that was straight but weird in other ways. We used a lot of vocoders on that track to effect the vocals. To make them sound kind of, like they came from another planet.

James Young: Timeaway Aiden wrote very quickly on a keyboard. We had like one chorus on it. We didn’t quite think it was working, so James added another chorus and then I got the file and messed around with it in Pro Tools. We were all adding bits and bobs to it.

James Buttery: We tend to pass tracks around and all contribute. It’s like sculpting. You start with some clay and keep chipping away until you’ve got the finished thing.

James Young: We used a drum program on Reactor for the beat, which was odd as it’s not the normal way of sequencing beats. It’s a bit random. It fires sounds out and you have to draw on graphs to get it to do what you want. That’s how the beat came about. We took it to Richard and he was able to process it on reel to reels.

“We tend to pass tracks around and all contribute. It’s like sculpting. You start with some clay and keep chipping away until you’ve got the finished thing.” James Buttery

Aiden Whalley: I was just playing on the keyboard one day. And I got a four chord sequence and thought, what would it be like if I broke the chords down and added a note in between them. And I tried to make it more of a cycle, in note form. It just came. The chord sequence is nice as it is but when it was broken up a melody rang through it. It was on a loop. I’ve got a real fascination with good loops. If something loops and it’s satisfying just keep it going. And then, all of sudden the vocal melody came as a result of that. It was really organic. We had it on a harpsichord originally and we’ve gone back to it for the live show. But the harpsichord doesn’t appear on the record, we’ve changed the sonics around with James (Young) messing around with different sounds for it. I’ve always listened to good songs. A track that reminds me of it is like Golden Brown by The Stranglers. Because of the arpeggio and the vocal on top of it being quite simple and you’ve got to get your voice behind it and sing it with a bit of attitude. At a very late stage, James Buttery came up with a little melody for the chorus. We only had an understated chorus at first and it was quite poppy. But this was more like, let’s just go for it and it’s worked really well.

Richard Formby: More tape delay in the background, lots of vocal processing, built from loops and samples but with a glockenspiel added.

3. Armonica

James Buttery: That’s another track that started on the acoustic guitar actually. And then we had half a track, the first bit with the surf drum beat and acoustic guitar. When we got to the studio Richard had this old 10-80 digital multi tracker. Apparently the chips in these things are really rare. You can’t get them and people pay a lot of money for them. It’s basically adds a very short delay, which means it repeats the sound several milli-seconds after the original sound. It creates that kind of strobing vocal sound. Someone in Belgium said they would never play that to their children because it was too scary. The second part of the track Aiden and I were really trying to send it off in a different direction. So we used a lot of different techniques. A lot of that track happened quite organically with the guitar but that second half we crafted in a programming way. We looked at all the scales. It’s kind of a bit more classical in it’s composition, that part.

Aiden Whalley: This was track that when we got our extra 10 weeks with James, he came up with it. A verse and instrumental chorus type thing with a few little melodies. And we really liked it but we didn’t know how to finish it. Me and James sat down for a day and I was describing to him what I had in my head. What if it’s very straight, what if it kind of went off as if it was kind of disintegrating into this wobbly arpeggiated thing, disintegrated into this bubbling wash of sound. And once we’ve gone through that section, whack back in to the riff and beat again. We tried it and we were tweaking it and tweaking it. And it had not quite reached it’s potential. But once we got it in with Richard and running everything through tape, it worked perfectly.

Richard Formby: The vocals are processed through a modulating very short echo, and with the Revox again. The actual echo from the Revox is not in the track but I played the tape the echo was recorded on, changing the speed as it went along, and ran that into the track. I thought it was a bit too mad at first but the band decided it was just the right thing. The guitar already had an effect on and it went through further processing to make it a bit more extreme. Quite a few different versions of the middle and end sections were tried out until we settled with the finished arrangement.

4. _

James Young: It was tough one, as James (Buttery) had wrote it. We really liked it but we couldn’t make it fit. I think I spent maybe even the most time on that track. Trying out all sorts of things. We tried loads of different things because we really liked the vocal melody and that was the strength of the tune but we couldn’t get the production right. But that was when Richard really took control of that track. How comfortable he was with his equipment – he knew what to do.

James Buttery: He understood that we had this idea it should be ethereal and otherworldly but we couldn’t get that out of the instruments. I think he’s obviously very experienced. So he knew reversing guitars and putting them through tape delays would work. We did the Jimi Hendrix approach where I played it backwards and then we reversed that. Electric Ladylane style.’

Aiden Whalley: With a three minute track that was quite a complicated procedure.

Richard Formby: This started as James B’s acoustic guitar and vocal song, and essentially this is how it ended up. A lot of overdubs were tried and discarded. The guitar track you can hear has been processed through tape delay forwards and backwards, and at different speeds about 4 or 5 times, delaying delays etc. James had to rearrange the chords to the song in reverse order so that all the processing would not alter the songs structure.

5. A Day’s Pay For A Day’s Work

James Buttery: That was a piano thing I wrote. That was the only thing I wrote in Clapton. The flat that we did ‘North’. That was literally a piano track that literally came out and I recorded it. I was quite lucky that I pressed record. We had spent ages because we couldn’t get the chords right on it.

James Young: It had a 4 /4 beat on it at first. The first version was changed to a more ¾ or 6/8 shuffle. We put that on to fit the chord, added choirs. We didn’t get the chorus until right at the end of our sessions. We were lucky.

“In the studio, a lot of thing we wanted to do with Richard was to capture air moving.” James Buttery

James Buttery: When we were trying out the different time signatures on that track, the different feels. I did this thing called ‘time-stretching’ on Pro Tools, where you can adjust the length of a sound, the piano chords, to make it fit to the beat. By accident it made this quirky artefact that shouldn’t really be there but the software introduces. It sounded like an old tape or something. I remember Richard – one of the first thing he said when he came round to our house was how he noticed that sound. How it sounded like it had been recorded on tape and buried in the ground for years and dug out. In the studio, a lot of thing we wanted to do with Richard was to capture air moving. We’d made all these demos with soft synths. And there is so much difference between a recording that’s not composed of individual sounds recorded in their own space with a microphone. And when you put them all together it’s the cumulative effect. It’s a much more three dimensional sound. All of our demos where really flat and didn’t have that. Going back to what I was saying about the piano, we recorded his piano and tried to recreate this thing that happened by accident. So Richard basically did things you shouldn’t do to a tape machine, and that’s how we got that sound.

James Young: I was using a lot of Reactor and KorePlayer with a lot of chromatic sample instruments. So we liked what it was doing but we felt it could have more depth. So we’d take what we had from KorePlayer and he’d process it through tape. So it was a real mixture.

James Buttery: On ‘North’ a lot of the sounds where synth based, so on this record we’d make our own instruments. Multi-sample libraries. On the track Young Heart’s in the breakdown, we sampled my voice singing ‘ohhs’ and pitched it across the keyboard. We’d made drum sample libraries out of furniture in the house.

“I switched the machine off and on again very quickly, and grabbed hold of the tape loop as it was going round, yanking it back across the tape heads then letting it go again.” Richard Formby

Aiden Whalley: This existed for a long time. James wrote the chords and came up with the verse melody. And I’d done some choirs on top of it and came up with a little keyboard part. And we had this before we went up north. It existed while we were writing all the other songs. And we knew it was good but we didn’t know if it had a place on the album. Sometimes we’d include it in the selection and sometimes it wouldn’t be included. And there was an on-going thing, where we’d not nailed the chorus. And probably a few days before we had to go finish the album we had to grind it out and get a chorus on it. Sometime if it had to be done, we’d be there playing the keys, asking each other if it was working. And then James would come down and he like ‘none of them are good.’ And we’d be like ‘we knew it’. We got a nice little melody going and got the chorus on it, which is quite Beach Boys. But it suits the tune because the tunes got a kind of glance backwards to 60s pop.

Richard Formby: James B had altered the tone of the piano making it glitchy. It sounded to me like something from another time and place, a found sound maybe. I took James’ piano track and ran it onto quarter inch tape and simulated wow and flutter on playback, manipulating the tape with a cotton wool bud, pulling it away from the tape heads and gently touching the tape spools. The choir sound was put though a Watkins Copycat at fairly high level, and I switched the machine off and on again very quickly, and grabbed hold of the tape loop as it was going round, yanking it back across the tape heads then letting it go again.

6. Young Heart’s

James Buttery: That was the first track we all agreed would be on the album. We made a demo of it and it was written pretty quickly.

James Young: Again KorePlayer played quite a big part in the original demos. There’s this thing we used called ‘Choo’ – which is like a steam engine sound type thing. That was on it.

James Buttery: When we got into the studio we used a lot of Richard’s gear on that. He’s got an old Korg analogue synth. And we used the AKAI MPC – S-1000.

James Young: And it’s broken, there’s no light in it. So Richard has to use a little torch.

James Buttery: A lot of things actually don’t work…[laughs].

James Young: …he’d be like ‘this is great guys but it doesn’t work’.

Richard Formby: This was left almost as they wrote it, but with the addition of Korg Lambda string machine, Wasp synth, Akai S950 sampler. I have to say at this point that in my studio, most things work most of the time but there are no guarantees.

“I wanted to try something breezier and not so sad.” Aiden Whalley

Aiden Whalley: That was a riff I came up with on the keyboard. I gave the idea to James and he came up with the bassline and vocal on it. James [Young] does take them and play around with sounds and production and puts the beats on it. It started off as a little idea and after the three of us had worked on it for a couple of days we had a tune. We were in the idea stage we all agreed that tune would be on the album. It’s still a little bit melancholy but it’s a bit more energetic and the way I was thinking we should try and go. Doing ‘North’ and going through the same kind of chords and creating the same kind of emotions, that melancholy style. I wanted to try something breezier and not so sad. That was the first tune that we though ‘that will make the album’. That became one of the less bright and optimistic ones. The sentiment of the vocals is about a girl who is not being treated so well in a relationship.

7. Amplified Ease

James Young: That was one of those days when me and Aiden where downstairs messing about. It’s basically a loop from the KorePlayer synth. We put it through an Eventide Eclipse unit. We processed a lot at home before we got to the studio. The Eventide is a vocal harmoniser but we’d put drums through it.

Aiden Whalley: Me and James sat down one day and got a loop on the go with a nice sound.

“That was one of those days when me and Aiden where downstairs messing about.” James Young

Richard Formby: Not really anything I can add about this. I think mostly processing with the Eventide Harmonizer. Most of the work went into the arrangement and in making the sounds they already had fit together better. I think there’s a fair bit of S950 and Revox action at the end, the drone section.

8. You Don’t Need A Weatherman

James Buttery: The bass on that track is quite prominent. That’s a Wasp synth by Electronic Dream Plant. A original 70s one. It would go out of tune sometimes and they are a bit temperamental. Actually, I think we used that on every track that’s got bass. It’s a really nice sine wave sub thing. Also, in that track with the vocals there’s a lyric that repeats ‘seal the fate’. Live, I sing that double time. But in the studio, I think I sang it at double speed and he slowed it down. Can’t remember how he did it, he was doing something with tape which wasn’t effecting the pitch but was effecting the time. That’s how you get those crazy vocal layers in that tune.

Richard Formby: Like Amplified Ease, a lot of the work on this was with the arrangement and sound quality of the bands original version. The loops that they used were really great, inspired I think, but often they would be quite harsh sounding, almost brittle. Sometimes a process of softening and enriching them was necessary. The loop vocal section is Aiden. I got him to sing the line at the same pitch but twice the tempo. These two versions are in there along with the fast one recorded to tape and played back at half speed

9. Bed Music – North View

James Buttery: Bed Music was written when I was in bed with my back brace on recovering from a compression fracture. L1 vertebrae. I was getting the itch to write tunes because I had been laying on my back for ages. That got written there and then in about 10 minutes.

James Young: I put a beat on it just through samples I’d found. I wanted to make it quite weighty. I remember writing the lyrics on a really hot summers day.

Richard Formby: This went through quite a bit of agonising over the arrangements. The whole song was chopped up and middle sections became choruses and endings became middles etc. There are a few keyboard overdubs using Wasp synth etc.

10. Hold Me Down

James Buttery: Aiden started that track. We spent a lot of time with the vocal effects on that track, as we really wanted to make it sound ethereal. Like a voice coming out of the sky talking at you. We used the Eventide on that a lot. Richard has got some melodic percussion on that. Aiden’s playing glockenspiel and there is also a pedal organ on that track, you pump it with your knees and your feet.

James Young: Aiden had wrote the vocal line and I added the backing track. I asked him for the chords and I put the chord on an arpeggiator. We used that as the bed then and Aiden effected it and Richard and James put the chorus on after the verse.

Richard Formby: The main loop sound was put through the Revox again. It’s a delay, with a rhythmical outcome, but it has other qualities it brings to the sound, bringing out different harmonics and overtones as it feeds back on itself, adding and cutting certain frequencies as the sound passes from channel 1 through the mixing desk, into channel 2, back into the desk, back to channel 1, back to the desk and so on. Aiden’s pedal harmonium is a highlight, an unprocessed century old church hall instrument working together with loops and effects. The very end part is James B’s vocal sampled on the S950 and played on the keyboard.

Warp released Darkstar ‘News From Nowhere’ on 4th February 2012

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