Not literally this time, I'm afraid. But thanks to Ed's new webpage, we can all take a peek at his studio and see what equipment is used to create the DMX Krew sound, right down to the choice of monitors and USB interface! You can listen to audio clips of his impressive modular synth, read his thoughts on the Bel digital delay unit and even listen to the click-track of his beloved MC-500 sequencer. It's a delight for all fellow synth-geeks and tekky-trainspotters to feast their eyes and ears on. In honour of the occasion, I recently interviewed Ed to discuss his musical heritage, his career and the timeless joys of hardware-based electronic music production....Gutta: Before we talk about your studio, perhaps we could begin with an overview of your music tastes. For me, one of the fascinating things about DMX Krew records is the way they seem to trawl through my own musical upbringing. I sometimes wonder what specific styles and records 'shaped' you as an artist. What were you listening to back in the '80s?
Ed DMX: I've always had a blind spot about "genres", or whatever. I could never have told you what "type" of music I liked as a kid, but looking back it was mostly things like Kraftwerk, Howard Jones and Herbie Hancock that I was buying. I mean records with synths and drum machines, and not records with guitars. But I didn't realise it at the time. I just listened to the charts on Sunday and bought the singles I liked a lot. I totally wore out my 7" of "Tour de France", and I remember going to WHSmiths every Monday for weeks before Harold Faltermeyer's "Axel-F" came out, asking for it. I had heard it on TV. But I never would have said there was a fundamental difference between, say, Kraftwerk and The Clash. It was all pop to me, its just that I liked Kraftwerk and I didn't like The Clash.
G: Yes, when you're younger it takes a while before you start to actually 'define' what it is that you like. Then you begin to analyse the sounds in your head. There comes a point where you go from just listening to 'pop music' and begin to focus on certain styles. Like me, I guess your head must've been turned by all the new 'dance music' sounds that started appearing in the mid-late 80s....
DMX: In the late '80s I heard the odd house or techno tune that made the charts. Dave Pearce played them on the radio, along with things like M/A/R/R/S or Bomb The Bass, etc. I kinda liked hip hop although Public Enemy was too heavy for me to start with - I liked the stuff that was just rapping over a simple drum beat and a bit of scratching. But I also liked embarrassing stuff like Level 42, and a lot of things like Parliament, Earth Wind and Fire and so on, that I used to scour record fairs for. Those records were cheap in the mid-80s - they weren't collectible yet.
G: Some very familiar memories there...although I'm not prepared to admit liking Level 42! Had you already started making your own music at this point?
DMX: Well, as a kid I had a little Casio and then a Yamaha Portasound keyboard, and there was an electric organ in the dining room - wow, that dates me and puts me firmly in the middle class!! I was always into playing on them, then as I got older I got slightly better things, like a cheap Boss DR-110 digital drum machine around 1988. Then I got a Roland SH-101 out of the local paper from someone in 1990 or so, when you could pick them up for about £70.
G: My first analogue was a Moog Prodigy, bought from a local music shop for £90. Hard to believe they were ever that cheap! I imagine the SH-101 must've been a turning point for you...
DMX: Yeah, I remember hearing one for the first time and having it explained to me that it was how you made those noises on Acid House records. I had been wondering why I couldn't make acid tunes on a Yamaha kids' keyboard!
G: So how did the studio evolve from there?
DMX: The first setup you could really call a "studio" was the SH-101, the Boss drum machine, a Yamaha DSR-2000, which is an FM-based, almost-preset home keyboard with a basic drum machine and sequencer with no quantise (!), and a tape deck. When I left home at the end of 1991, I went to college in London and you could still get a grant in those days, so I got mine and blew it on an Akai X7000, which is a keyboard sampler with a tiny memory - much worse than even an S900 - plus a Roland TR-707, which I used mostly for syncing the SH-101 to MIDI, though nowadays it's starting to look like a classic drum machine! Then a Roland MC-500 sequencer, which has 4 tracks! I still use it to make almost every track.
G: Really? You never went down the Atari/Amiga sequencing route?
DMX: No, I have never used a computer to sequence my synths.
G: Presumably you must've bought some outboard gear with your grant money as well?
DMX: Yes, a Yamaha FX500, which was a very cheap multi-effects unit, and a Fostex 2016 mixer. Everything came secondhand from Loot because ebay hadn't been invented yet. I should add that I never finished the course at college....
G: Ha! It's good to hear that the Government basically financed your first studio! What kind of records were you listening to by that time?
DMX: Leaving home is a big thing and getting to London and hearing dance music properly was amazing for me. I spent £100 on records for the first time when I got the grant, and I bought in all the big rave anthems on R&S and XL, plus things like 2 Bad Mice, Eon and so on. I bought 27 records in one go at Unity Records on Beak Street. You can tell it was a big deal cos I still remember it was definitely 27 records.
G: Presumably the move to London, along with the grant money, helped to focus your ideas?
DMX: I didn't know what kind of music I wanted to make before moving to London, just that I liked music and did it for fun. Kraftwerk and funk were the biggest influences before then. But the whole rave and acid thing was a big deal cos it showed that it was possible to make some good music on cheapish synths. Before that I was just realising that I was never gonna make a whole P-Funk or Kraftwerk album using a couple of keyboards, then this music came along which was totally satisfying but existed inside the limitations of having been made on a couple of keyboards and a drum machine.
G: That right...it was great music that seemed to be achievable within a limited budget...
DMX: Yeah. It's hard for kids to imagine now but you had to get hold of so much money in order to make music back then. Even the cheapest old seconhand junk was totally unaffordable. Nowadays you can just get a PC and some hotware and you're away, which is a good thing in a lot of ways, although there are arguments that having to work like hell for something makes you appreciate it more.
G: I take it that after the grant ran out you had to work a 9-5 to finance your musical dream?
DMX: I worked in record shops and music tech shops, working inhuman hours and never going out, so that I could save money to buy equipment.
G: Presumably you were also sending demos out to labels all the time?
DMX: Yeah, I decided to have a go at getting a record out and sent out a lot of demo tapes.
G: Here's where our paths diverge, cos I never managed to carve out a career in music. What do you think were the main factors that helped you to establish yourself?
DMX: Detroit Techno and early Rephlex were big influences at that time, but I think a turning point for me was realising that I would never make a better techno record than Jeff Mills and deciding to try and make records that sounded like old electro instead, because nobody else was doing it. I thought I had better find a niche for myself. It's quite Darwinian, isn't it? And that seemed to work cos I got a couple of records out, and I think it's due the fact that I stopped trying to sound like everyone else who was selling dance records at that time.
G: Returning to the studio, from experience I know that a hardware set-up tends to change and evolve over time, selling things to buy new things, etc. Is there anything you've ever regretted selling over the years?
DMX: No, but I miss my Moog Source. That was an awesome keyboard, but it kept breaking. Every time I got it fixed it cost about £100. I spent a lot more repairing it than it initially cost me so in the end it had to go. Aww, but it was great when it worked.
G: Conversely, are there any machines you're still longing to own?
DMX: An Oberheim DMX!! Just for the coffee table, not for using particularly. And an Oberheim Xpander but I can't quite justify it to myself.
G: Are there any machines in your current set-up that you couldn't work without?
DMX: The MC-500, cos I know it so well. I can sequence really fast - it would kill the vibe to have to use a computer instead.
G: Yet you've mentioned to me before about using Reason and making grimey tunes on a computer. Would I be right in saying that you're one of those artists who straddle the hardware/software divide?
DMX: Not really. I almost never use software, although I did have a little affair with Reason when it came out. It's nice because you can save what you're doing and go back to it later, which is impossible with analogue. But I try to think of music as a hobby, and enjoy the time I spend making music, and not let it become work. That leads me to use "real" equipment because it's fun, and easier on the eyesight too.
G: So do you use the computer software just for very specific applications/projects/styles?
DMX: Well I did make a few grimey or dubsteppy tunes on Reason, but I also made some very '80s music with it, kind of as a game or challenge with myself to see if I could do it. I ended up spending ages moving all the notes a bit out of time and adding hiss to make it sound like tape, etc. It's possible to make it sound believable but it's a lot of work. It's funny, because it's the opposite process to recording using analogue, where you're always trying to minimise noise. But the computer's awesome for recording and editing stuff. Before, you had to write down massive lists of things on bits of paper like "move fader 3 down halfway at the beginning of bar 72" and try and do them while you were recording. Now you can just jam away for 20 minutes and then edit out all the rubbish bits. Plus you don't have to sell all your belongings to pay for reels of tape like in the old days!
G: Apart from the obvious 'hands-on' interface, what still attracts you to analogue synths that softsynths can't provide?
DMX: Well, that's it - it's hands-on, battle stations, plus you can edit sounds very quickly. It's fun, you get to stand up and walk around the room, you get to play an instrument, you can have mates round and have a jam, you get to use your ears more than your eyes. Also I find you get a sound very quickly that sounds natural in a mix whereas my experience of computer-based synths is that you have to work hard to get them to "sit right" in a mix... but I haven't got a lot of experience with software. I wouldn't like to diss it, I just have more fun with my synths and have some kind of emotional investment in them. I can tell you a story about where each one came from and how I got it and what happened at a gig with it or whatever. Not just "I downloaded it". Plus I like playing keyboards as opposed to moving blocks around a screen.
G: Do you find that there is a more creative exchange with these machines? I mean, do they suggest sounds/ideas to you? Do you find that you build a 'relationship' with them?
DMX: Yes, my friend Nick always says that synths are like members of a band or a choir, each with their own "voice". They definitely each have their own sonic character, but on the other hand, the first thing I did on Reason sounded exactly like my old analogue tracks, so I guess a lot of it is to do with your way of working, or what you aim towards, which comes from inside you.
G: Does the analogue gear's limitations help to focus creativity?
DMX: You can be creative with synths or with a guitar or with a computer, it doesn't really matter. They all have limitations as well as strengths. I just happen to be into synths. I know what you're getting at - some great tracks have been made with a TR-808 and a TB-303, but I think if you've got 8 different synths in a room, it's less limiting than, for example, guitar, bass and drums...
G: For someone with an '80s fixation, I'm surprised you don't have a Yamaha DX-7! Have you experimented much with FM synthesis?
DMX: Yep, there's a TX81Z tucked under the MS10 - go and take another look!
G: Oh yeah! That little rack module underneath the Korg! What's your opinion on it?
DMX: I like how it sounds. It's not analogue, but it's not like Virtual Analogue, which is trying to be something other than what it is. It is unashamed digital, and it sounds cool. But it's really hard to program so I'm afraid I mostly use the famous old presets. By the way, I don't really have an '80s fixation, I am just a bit old! You make me go all defensive and want to write a list of the records I like from 1990-2006......
G: We'll save that for another time! Speaking of Virtual Analogue synths, I notice you mentioned that you sold your Korg MS2000. I had one myself, but sold it as well. V.A. synths just don't cut it, do they?
DMX: Yeah, it was shit for me. It was okay for doing uk garage/grime basslines but you can use a computer to make that kind of music anyway. I found I was only using it to make a hi-hat or something so I figured I could use the money for something better, which I did! The vibe of what you're using is important too. I like all the old-looking stuff. Futuristic things from the '70s and '80s are so much more futuristic-looking than contemporary futuristic things...who said "futurism isn't what it used to be"?!
G: Completely agree with you there, Ed. Despite the obvious attempt to give the MS2000 a retro style, it looks and feels crap compared to, say, the Korg Mono/Poly. I used to own one of those too, and I really regret selling it, along with my beloved Roland Juno 60.
DMX: Yeah I like both those synths. The Juno is one of those things that "on paper" looks really rubbish but somehow comes together in real life to be a really nice musical instrument. The Mono/poly is like a poor-man's Oberheim 4 Voice - a lushly weird piece of design.
G: Returning to the present, your recent output on Rephlex seems to have a taken a slightly different - dare I say 'mature' - direction. Has your mission statement changed significantly since the early 'retro-electro' angle?
DMX: I don't really have a "mission" but what I want to do musically changes all the time. Sometimes I try and copy things I like and get it sufficiently wrong for it to sound interesting - I hope! Lately I have been trying to invent something that is my own sound. These days I am more aware of how things are perceived by others and the divisions between styles, and I have more production skills. In a way this is useful, and in a way it's a shame to lose that innocence, or what they call "beginner's mind" in zen - the state of having no preconceptions. When you don't know the "right way" to do something you've got more chance of coming up with something original. At the moment originality is quite important to me. It hasn't always been.
G: Coming back to that point you made about making music as a hobby, that's an interesting attitude from someone who's lucky enough to still be able to make a living from electronic music! Could you finish by describing a typical day in the life of Ed DMX?
DMX: Um, these days I get up in the morning, check e-mail, eat breakfast etc, then any of the following: lots of e-mailing to arrange gigs, flat-hunting, making music, preparing for gigs, burning cds for people, accounting-type boring stuff, visiting friends....weekends usually involve going to the airport or train station with a box of records or a laptop traveling to a gig, which is what pays the bills. Basically I am a jammy sod.
G: Too right!! Oh, one last thing, Ed: I love all that vinyl scratching in the clip that accompanies your SL1210 page. Is that really you on the decks? If so, that's some serious skills you got there, bruv!
DMX: Yes, but I confess there was lots of editing. That's a few hours' worth of scratching with all the shit edited out!
End with a song, as they say. Ed's generously donated an exclusive tune to accompany the interview - a tasty little dubstep-aware analogue number which, like all Ed's best work, takes his sound FWD>> whilst simultaneously casting a wistful eye BWD<<
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