Designing chaos: 7 pieces of gear that helped define Autechre’s game-changing sound
Autechre’s studio and live processes are closely guarded, but the duo have left a breadcrumb trail across the internet that details their complex methods. Scott Wilson explores their musical evolution through seven key instruments.
With the exception of Aphex Twin or Kraftwerk, no electronic act has inspired quite as much discussion on how their music is made than Autechre. Visit We Are The Music Makers – a popular and notorious IDM discussion forum – and there’s plenty of speculation over how specific tracks were produced, what gear was used, and how the duo’s setup has shifted over the years. But process isn’t something that Rob Brown and Sean Booth really talk about for two reasons: some production tricks they prefer to keep to themselves, and the way they make music is continually evolving. In the past three decades, they have moved from using rudimentary, off-the-shelf outboard gear to harnessing a chain of complex, often bespoke software.
However, Brown and Booth have discussed what tools they have used to make their music on a few occasions. Aside from brief mentions in the scattered interviews across the years, they’ve spoken to Sound on Sound at length about their process twice, in 1997 and 2001, and held a huge “Ask Autechre Anything” on the WATMM forums back in 2013. The session includes a mind-boggling amount of information, detailing everything from how they feel about Skrillex to what the most “Autechrean” planet is. It’s so long (106 pages), and Autechre fans are so dedicated, there’s even an organized Google spreadsheet collecting each question and answer.
These interviews prove that Autechre are masters at getting everyday equipment to do extraordinary things. In the early years, they used cheap, off-the-shelf gear, circuit bent or combined in unusual ways. And while Autechre may have moved to software with the Max/MSP programming language later in their career, the fundamental drive behind that move was the same: opening things up, tinkering with them and creating one-off tools that nobody else has.
Below is brief story of how Autechre’s process has evolved, from a cheap £25 keyboard you could buy in a high street chain store to their own custom software patches.
Casio SK-1 sampler keyboard
Heard on Incunabula (1993)
In the late ‘80s, before Brown and Booth were Autechre, they were part of Greater Manchester’s graffiti scene and were dubbing their own electro and house mixtapes. Desperate to make their own beats and edits, they bought a Roland 606 drum machine and a Casio SK-1, a dirt cheap keyboard with sampling capabilities that was known in some quarters as “the poor man’s sampler”. Functionally, it was incredibly limited, featuring basic synth sounds and a 1.4 second sample memory that could only record through the keyboard’s built-in microphone.
Though the SK-1 was basically a toy (Booth said he first remembered seeing it in UK electronics store Dixons for £25), the duo hacked it to their own specifications. Speaking to Sound on Sound in 1997, they describe opening one up and connecting two points on a chip to cross the samples together. “You can get ring modulation, flangers, delays, and all this other timed-based stuff. So we’re going to try and get a switch fitted on the back that can move across the points, that way we can adjust it in real-time in a live situation.” According to Brown, they spilled Vimto (a popular British soft drink) on one SK-1, and the resulting liquid damage caused it to bend itself.
It’s difficult to place exactly where Autechre might have used the SK-1, but the the primitive electronic sound of their Lego Feet album, released on Skam in 1991 and parts of their debut album Incunabula occasionally feature the kind of lo-fi textures you’d get from an SK-1. “When we started out, when we did Incunabula, we had fuck all. One sampler, a little four-track, an Atari getting on towards tri-rep and stuff,” Booth once said.
Roland R-8 drum machine
Heard on ‘Flutter’ (1994)
Autechre have used a lot of drum machines, from the Oberheim DMX to Elektron’s Machinedrum, but one of their most used items is Roland’s humble R-8. The R-8 isn’t held up on the same pedestal as the 808 or 909, but it’s far more advanced, featuring velocity-sensitive pads for jamming out more natural rhythms and the ability to sequence external gear via MIDI. It was this latter feature that Autechre made the most of, most notably on ‘Flutter’, the duo’s musical riposte to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, which outlawed unauthorised outdoor raves involving “repetitive beats”.
“Flutter has been programmed in such a way that no bars contain identical beats and can therefore be played under the proposed new law,” it said on the record sleeve. However, we advise DJs to have a lawyer and a musicologist present at all times to confirm the non-repetitive nature of the music in the event of police harassment.” According to Booth, it was all programmed using the R-8’s pads, which triggered a sampler to create melodies and an Alesis QuadraVerb for delay and reverb.
Booth and Brown continued to use the R-8 as a sequencer for plenty of gear, including a Juno-106, various Nord synths and an Ensoniq EPS keyboard. It was used so much that it eventually gave up the ghost in spectacular fashion, causing one of Autechre’s worst on-stage mishaps. “Once my R-8 caught on fire,” Booth claims. “My hands were covered in vodka so they also caught on fire, and to put them out I starting clapping my hands together, and all the audience started clapping as well, and some of them started setting their hands on fire as well, as a kind of tribute.”
Heard on ‘Glitch’ (Amber, 1994)
Just as important as synths, samplers and drum machines is Autechre’s choice of effects units. In the early stages of their career, they frequently used an Alesis QuadraVerb, a rack-mounted unit that was first introduced in 1988 and featured four digital effects: reverb, delay, EQ and pitch change. Each effect was fully programmable, and allowed the user to alter effects parameters in real time via MIDI.
Effects weren’t an afterthought for Autechre, but a deeply embedded part of their sound. When asked by one WATMM user how they used reverb in their tracks such as ‘Xylin Room’ and Tilapia’, Booth said: “We were doing stuff like making two melodies with slightly different notes or in a different order and then sending the muted one to the reverb and mixing the reverb quite low so you almost can’t tell.”
One of the purest examples of how they used the QuadraVerb is Amber highlight ‘Glitch’. Brown and Booth were able to create the eerie, stretched-out synth sounds that start the track using just a Roland-202 MicroComposer (a sort of cross between a TB-303 and SH-101 synth) and a QuadraVerb, a trick that would be easy to do in software today, but would have been particularly laborious with the effects unit’s tricky menu system. Nowadays they’re more likely to use software such as Max/MSP to make their reverbs, because, as Booth has said, “loads of my reverbs end up sounding nothing like a reverb.”
Heard on ‘R M I Corporate ID 2’ (Mini Disc, 1998)
The Casio SK-1 wasn’t the only sampling keyboard that Autechre used extensively in the early stages of their career. They were also big fans of US manufacturer Ensoniq’s gear, most notably the Ensoniq EPS. According to their 1997 Sound on Sound interview, Brown and Booth modified their model with an operating system custom written by “some nerd in America who writes interesting software,” allowing them to write their own effects.
Booth and Brown preferred Ensoniq gear to the more widely used Akai MPC samplers because they believed they were capable of much more. “Much of the multiple LFO routings and the assigning of controllers to modulate controllers and so on, we can do on the EPS, setting up quite elaborate patches on it really quickly,” Booth told Sound on Sound. “It’s weird that Ensoniq is getting ignored in preference to Akai, which admittedly is a tighter more accurate sampler, but it still lacks a lot of scope for exploration, you can’t really do a lot with it.”
The duo used Ensoniq samplers in plenty of tracks, but the purest example of its weird quirks is ‘R M I Corporate ID 2’, a 2006 track from the sprawling Gescom collective they were involved with. According to Booth, the nine-second track was the result of an Ensoniq glitch the pair liked to exploit. “It was the residual RAM contents of an EPS, revealed by making the loop length too small on an unrelated sample. Those samples hadn’t been loaded into that sampler for months but they were still there living in the RAM.”
Heard on ‘Maphive 6.1’ (EP7, 1999)
If you think touchscreen music-making started with the iPhone, think again: Autechre were doing it long before Apple released its game-changing handset. Released in 1996, the Roland PMA-5 was billed as an all-in-one “personal music assistant”, cramming in an eight-track sequencer, 16 drum kits, 306 instruments, effects and memory for storing up to 20 songs. It also features the kind of stylus and LCD touch screen combo that made Apple’s Newton PDA a laughing stock and effectively killed off interest in touch technology for over a decade.
If you want to know what a track composed entirely on a PMA-5 sounds like, then ‘Maphive 6.1’, from 1999’s EP7 has the answer: quite similar to a lot of other Autechre tracks. It’s rhythmically complex and full of bright synths and there’s something about the chimes and piano sounds that displays more Japanese influence than you’d expect. However, according to Brown, power supply issues make the PMA-5 quite impractical to use. “Don’t get one, unless you seriously want to fly through batteries, it’s a monster for consumption.”
Clavia Nord Lead Rack
Heard on ‘Dropp’ (EP7, 1999)
Virtual analog synths are everywhere nowadays, but when Clavia released its Nord Lead back in 1995, the technology was groundbreaking. “The Nord is fucking tasty,” Booth said in 1997. The Nord Lead (and the Nord Modular series) were some of of Autechre’s most regularly used synths during the ‘90s, appearing on record and powering some live shows (the Oversteps tour in 2010 was completely powered by Nord gear). “People assume that the amount of polyphony equals the breadth of your options,” Brown also said in 1997, “but with the Nord you might have a sound that runs for eight seconds and doesn’t sound the same more than once.”
Several tracks on 1997’s Cichlisuite EP use Nord synthesis to generate the sounds, and they’re used extensively on LP5. One specific example of the Nord’s use is EP7 track ‘Dropp’, a more sedate number characterized by a string melody that wouldn’t sound out of place on Amber. “I think that the Nord has been the most inspirational piece of gear that we’ve worked with,” Brown has said of the synth. “It’s pushed us to get all our other gear to try to emulate it.”
Heard on ‘Reniform Puls’ (Draft 7.30, 2003)
In the late ‘90s, Brown and Booth started to get more heavily into using software, specifically visual programming language Max/MSP. It allowed the duo to cut out the middleman and build their own systems for making music – a complex mesh of sound generators and generative elements that took their sound into the areas traditional hardware couldn’t.
“When I first encountered Max, I thought it was totally head-exploding,” Booth told Sound on Sound in 2001. “We initially got it for making MIDI applications, and it was a way for us to make sequences in which we could manipulate and generate data on the fly. We could do any combination of things. For instance, if we wanted to have a snare sound late, and the bass note as well, we could have the tracks synced and variables sent across. Before then we had to do this manually, but with Max we could connect things in a very literal way. This made it a lot easier to work with drum machines. You could now jam with them during a live set, and get a pattern to slide the timing.”
The duo originally started out using Max for live performance, but brought it into the studio around the time of Confield in 2001, with most of the album coming out of Max experiments “that weren’t really applicable in a club environment.” According to their 2001 interview, Reniform Puls’ from 2003’s Draft 1.30 features generative elements created by Max, which also controls a vocal filter.
Today, Max is almost exclusively what Autechre use. “I just use Max/MSP now, because in Max I can generally build the thing I need, and if I don’t know how to do that it’ll generally be worthwhile learning,” Booth told RA last year. “Intellectual capital or whatever. So rather than spend me money on equipment, I spend me money—as time—in learning how to build stuff.” However, in a Reverb magazine interview in 2008, he had a more grounded perspective on generative music. “It just gets massively overblown because people think it’s dead interesting, but it’s not is it? To me it’s just like a bunch of arpeggiators plugged into each other, going off and we’ve been doing that since Lego Feet days.”
Scott Wilson is on Twitter