When Sheffield’s Central Processing Unit wanted to reissue two lost bleep techno classics from the genre’s ‘90s heyday it hit a snag: the master tapes were nowhere to be found. Instead, the label’s founder chose to rebuild them himself from scratch, using as much of the original gear as possible. Oli Warwick finds out how it was done.
Reissues of classic, sought after records are big business right now, especially for labels looking to capitalise on the demand for house and techno rarities. Most labels will just spruce up the original masters, but Sheffield-based Chris Smith had to to take a different approach when he embarked on a reissue project for the 50th release on his electro and techno label, Central Processing Unit: he remade the tracks from scratch.
The tracks in question, Detromental’s ‘Move’ and ‘Rewind’, are steeped in the dance music heritage of the Steel City. Released on white label in 1991, the tracks were a product of the region’s legendary bleep techno scene, which spawned Warp Records. “[The record] was played alongside tracks like Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Testone’, ‘Dextrous’ by Nightmares On Wax, LFO’s ‘LFO’, all of those,” Smith explains. “It just blended in as if it was part of that family.”
While Nightmares On Wax and LFO enjoyed storied careers off the back of their pivotal early releases, Detromental remained a local curiosity lost in the mists of dance music history. It was only through a comment on a Facebook post of ‘Move’ that Smith was directed to one of the original producers: Dean Marriott, better known these days as coiffured tech-house producer D. Ramirez.
As it turned out, Detromental was the work of Marriott (who was just 18 at the time) and another Sheffield native, Lloyd Douglass. Though limited runs of the records made their way into local record shops, the music never saw an official release and the two went their separate ways. After Smith reached out to Marriott to enquire about getting hold of the original masters for the tracks, Marriott believed them to be lost, foiling Smith’s reissue plans.
Undeterred, Smith suggested to Marriott that with a bit of guidance he might be able to rebuild the tracks as faithfully as possible. Armed with a list of Detromental’s original studio hardware, bleep techno production techniques and his own collection of vintage gear, Smith remade ‘Move’ and ‘Rewind’ for 2017, housed in a Warp-style purple sleeve as a nod to the heritage of the tracks.
But where would you start with such a unique project? Oli Warwick spoke to Smith about the painstaking process of recreating two classic bleep techno tracks from scratch more than 25 years after they were first recorded, from the synths he used to finding the record the original vocal sample came from.
Austin Bambrook says on the Discogs page that he set up the studio, which had a big analog TEAC console. Did Detromental use some high-end gear making these tracks?
Yes. It was done in Lloyd’s loft – he lived in a big house and he turned the loft into a recording space called Trapdoor Studio. I’m not sure, but he must have had a really decent job back then because he could afford some of the best kit around, like the Roland Juno-60 and SH-09. Samplers back then cost a fortune, and as you said, that huge TEAC desk wouldn’t have been cheap. I think they were quite lucky in that respect because I just couldn’t afford anything like that back then when I was trying to make music, so it just didn’t happen.
Why did you decide to rebuild these tracks?
My heart was set on finding the DATs. I got so enthusiastic about it, I thought, “Dean, next time he comes to Sheffield, I know he’s gonna find em,” and it just never happened. I just said to him, “Dean, what if I rebuilt them?” I’ve got a decent studio now, so I did it, I just burrowed away for a couple of months and then sent him the demos, and he just went, “Oh my god, you’ve actually done it.” And that was it basically. I really had my heart set on it and I thought it would be great on CPU. The purple cover’s a cheeky nod to Warp. There’s definitely love behind it rather than just, “Let’s churn out another reissue.”
Was Dean involved throughout the rebuild process?
No. He just gave me a list of kit and some suggestions. I mixed that with my knowledge of what a lot of people used to make tracks like ‘Testone’ and ‘LFO’ back then. I used to be friends with Mark Bell [late co-founder of LFO], and Mark always used to chat about what he used for what bits to me, so I had a really good grounding of where to start.
How did you begin the rebuild?
The first step was getting the original track recorded [into Ableton] and onto a track, and then putting loop markers around a section I wanted to get stuck into. I started with the drums and mapped all the hi-hats, snares, rim shots, kicks in Ableton, and sent the MIDI out to the Roland TR-8 drum machine. Then it was tuning the tone, and then tuning the decay, so then when you start doing A/B testing you think, ‘I’ve got it, that’s exactly what it should be.’
What drum machine did they use originally?
There were a lot of hits from the Yamaha RX5 drum machine. Dean didn’t say there was a Roland R-8, but I think there was. I think he got the 909 kick from the R-8, because he never mentioned that he had a 909 or 808, so I was able to substitute most of the hits with a TR-8.
Did you have an RX5 and did you use it?
I’ve got an RX5 and I tried, but there are so many different tuning combinations, and the RX5 is quite a high spec drum machine for the time. It was one of those rabbit holes I didn’t want to go down because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and that would have tied me up in knots. I just stepped back from it and thought, “Actually the TR-8 sounds fine.”
What made the TR-8 was a good substitute?
The original tracks both had 909 kicks in, so the TR-8 could deliver that perfectly. There were some snares which were like the 909 snare as well, in both ‘Move’ and ‘Rewind’, and what I think is the RX5 snare in ‘Rewind’ I replaced with an 808 snare, and it sat in the mix much better in my opinion, so I didn’t fight against it.
Sometimes MIDI mapping to the grid in a DAW compared to an in-built hardware sequencer can have different results. Were there any issues with groove at all?
I did try a few different grooves, but what I ended up doing was slowing the WAV file right down to see where the peaks were hitting at the very moments where the MIDI notes needed to be. Dean used an Atari ST [for sequencing] where there was no groove, so it was quite the 4/4 standard rather than any groove. Luckily he didn’t use an 808, where not only is there swing and the groove functions, but also voltage variation that can knock the timing out.
How did you approach the melodies?
The bits I had trouble with, I would loop a section and put a tuner on the track. The tuner will reveal the notes being played, but for the pad in ‘Move’ there were multiple keys being pressed, so beyond the tuner I had to look at the peaks in the spectrum analysis. You can turn the spectrum grid to notes rather than frequencies, and if you look at where the peaks are, those are the notes which are being pressed. I had to do a lot of forensic analysis of the pad using tuners and spectrum analysis. A lot of the other parts I was able to just jam and get it, and then just tweak the odd note when I played the original next to it.
What was originally used for the bass and bleeps on the tracks?
Dean said that he had a Juno-60, and I believe the Juno-60 was 60% of those tracks. The sub bass and the bleeps are definitely the Juno-60. When ‘Rewind’ starts it’s got a pizzicato plucking synth noise – I think that’s the SH-0, so I was able to use my SH-02, which is the slightly better version of the SH-09.
The funny thing was, after doing the drum tracks I actually did the pads, leads and bass and everything with a Nord Lead, and then started substituting bits for the original instruments. The Nord could actually do a pretty good job just on its own, but I thought for authenticity I’d use the originals.
Why did you use the Nord to start with?
Because that’s my main workflow in the studio. It’s like four synths in one, it’s got four outputs and it’s four part multi-timbral so I can get all the riffs playing at the same time from the same machine and they can all be wildly different in tone. The Nord just got me going quicker, then I could keep the MIDI information from the Nord parts and send that out to the original kit and capture that.
When you were turning to the Juno-60, for example, was it easy to get the right sub bass sound out of it?
Yeah, because those sort of sounds are perhaps the first sounds you try and get when you buy the synth, so they’re very familiar to me. I’ve always been jamming and making that sort of music. Again, the bleep noises, it’s just pretty standard stuff. They’re almost pure sounds with hardly any shaping of the envelopes.
Is there an aspect of trying to put yourself in the mindset of Detromental when they were making it? Perhaps they were just trying to get a quick hit out of the machines at their disposal?
Exactly. There’s one key difference with today’s music. That bleep stuff, you can’t hear the bass on a mobile phone or a laptop. New music today, your bass has a bit more tone on it so the mobiles can pick it up. Back then they were purely thinking of clubs and big soundsystems.
So the Juno-60 was one of the key ingredients of the bleep scene?
Yeah, I think so. There was some more obscure stuff around. LFO used a Jen SX1000 I think. I think they’re Italian analogue synths. They had no MIDI or CV so whatever you played with those was just by hand and then recorded.
It sounds like the pad on ‘Move’ was one of the more challenging aspects of the whole process. Listening to the pad on the original track, it’s a very multi-layered sound, isn’t it?
There were a few techniques I was trying to get it sounding right. I had an inkling that it was the Kawaii K1, and Dean confirmed that. He kept saying it was the first preset, but it wasn’t the first preset. You can mix the wave layers on the K1 and I had a really good go for a good month, all the combinations I could think of. I could have gone around in circles for a long time.
There’s a possibility that the original pad was just one chord sampled, and then the chord was played on the sampler with one key to make the different chord changes, and that there’s samples woven into the original chord as well. It was a real rabbit hole.
Why did you think it was the K1 that was used?
It was very reminiscent of LFO’s ‘LFO’, which used the K1 pad, and that was just a basic preset. It was the white noise that gave us the clue. There’s also a sound like an arpeggiated random waveform almost reversing and then going forwards woven into the pad, and one of the wave layers inside the K1 does that, but I couldn’t get it doing what it was doing on the original record. There were so many different combinations of it, I decided to just withdraw a little bit and just go for a cleaner sounding chord.
How easy was it to track down the vocodered “move your body” sample in ‘Move’?
I said to Dean, “Do you remember where you got the sample of ‘move your body’ from?” And Dean was saying, “It’s Maurice Joshua,” and I’m going, “No it isn’t.” I asked the question in a track ID forum on Discogs actually. After a few days, someone came good and posted Bomb The Bass, so I actually purchased it off Discogs and recorded it in from vinyl.
Was that an obvious point in the process where it made more sense to use a modern technical approach rather than replicating the original sampling technique?
It would have been sadistic to fire up a sampler when I can just put it in the Ableton track. I think Dean said he had a Roland sampler, but it was an avenue I didn’t need to go down because the computer can handle the samples now.
Was there any particular treatment you needed to do to the sample for it to have the right sort of feel?
The original sample is heavy stereo panning and obviously back when Dean sampled that straight into the Roland it would have come in as mono. When I actually transferred the sample into Ableton I used the Utility plug-in and dialed down the stereo width to zero, which essentially makes it mono. There were some EQ tweaks too. They’d taken a lot of bass away from the sample so it didn’t muddy up the rest of the mix, and you can do that really easy now in Ableton with the nice EQ plug-ins.
How do you feel about the end results? Are you happy with it? Are there any shortcomings you can hear?
I’m really happy with them. I reached a point where I was going round in circles and had to tell myself to stop. I put a percentage on them for accuracy. I would say ‘Rewind’ is 95% accurate, and ‘Move’ is like 90% accurate. But that’s just me being a bit anal.
Where these ‘rebuilds’ have been produced with some of the benefits of modern technology, do you think that affects the end result?
It does. The originals were mixed on an analog desk straight to DAT. There is a huge difference when you are mixing. I’ve not even got a mixer anymore, just a big rack-mount soundcard where all my synths can go directly into the computer – that’s a totally different beast. The way the voltages mix together, an analog desk is more forgiving of any mistakes. With digital, you’ll get muddiness or conflicts quite quickly, because it’s just so pristine that you have to be a bit more accurate.
What did you take away from the process? Did it teach you anything else about your own hardware and studio techniques?
The thing it revealed most was the talent of the original artist. I’ve come out of it thinking that anyone that wants to get into production should try and reproduce their favorite track to see how hard it is and learn [from the process]. It’s quite grueling, but then you turn to your own productions and you’re armed with such a vast array of mixing techniques and knowledge, it can only be a good thing.
Oli Warwick is on Twitter
CPU Records will release Detromental’s ‘Move’/’Rewind’ 12″ on August 18.