When Underworld’s Rick Smith and Karl Hyde realized time (and perhaps life, at least as recording artists) was passing them by, they knew that drastic measures were required. Appraising their own catalog, from 1993’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman to 2007’s Oblivion with Bells, Underworld wondered if they still had the goods intact, much less any goods to deliver.
“Sometime in 2009, I started listening to German electronic music again, especially La Dusseldorf,” Karl Hyde recalls while driving the Autobahn between Berlin and Leipzig. “That music blew me away again. This is why we like synthesizers! That German sound was chemical, alchemic. Machine music was an animal; it was just a strange animal. I started to fuse those ideas together with a rediscovery of the enjoyment of melody. Then I wondered, ‘Is this allowed in Underworld?’ We needed to change things radically. We wanted to redefine what was okay in the Underworld sound of palettes and instruments.”
What Underworld needed was a youthful shot of adrenaline, which they eventually injected into their 10th album, Barking (OM Records). Calling on the best dance producers in Europe and the U.K.—High Contrast, Dubfire, Mark Knight, Dean Ramirez, Appleblim, Al Tourettes and Paul van Dyk— Underworld realized that reinvention was just a matter of letting down their guard and opening up Logic.
“Collaborating with different producers came about as a result of 20 years of being inspired by remixes of our music and wanting to enter into a musical dialog with the remixers,” Hyde continues. “But it was always after the album. We’ve frequently benefitted from dialog with other musicians, but Underworld has typically been a closed shop.”
Tamla Motown Machine Music
Underworld are old-worlders, when you get down to it; Hyde, raised on Tamla Motown and power pop, Smith on New Wave and Kraftwerk. It wasn’t until they discovered DJ Darren Emerson that Underworld truly ignited, with Emerson adding acid house and dub excursion beats to the Hyde/Smith melodic brain trust. Underworld’s Barking isn’t as radical a departure as Dubnobasswithmyheadman; that was a first salvo in the so-called electronic revolution of the early ’90s, of which Underworld were founding members. Barking shows reinvention, reinvigoration, and a rethink of what made Underworld great to begin with.
“Our last album didn’t give us material for the live show,” Hyde admits. “Our set was starting to sound pretty old. It didn’t lift our spirits. It was time to move on.”
Barking is easily the duo’s best album in a decade, perhaps the best since the mid-’90s classics Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants and the singles “Born Slippy” (from the 1996 soundtrack, Trainspotting), “Pearl’s Girl,” and “Moaner.”
How did Underworld find new fulfillment where previously there was none? Like the Roland VP-330 vocoder they’ve used since the late ’80s, Underworld simply needed a retrofit. Cue the roll call of collaborators who shook up Underworld’s world. But first, a look at the Pigshed process.
Tracking in Underworld’s three studios in Essex, England—the communal Pigshed, and Hyde and Smith’s respective studios—they began writing with guitars, synths, various drum machines, and vocals. Identical setups of Apple Mac Pro 8-Core Intel Xeon computers, Apple Logic Studio (versions 7, 8, and 9), Midas Heritage 1000 consoles, and assorted plug-ins were replicated at each studio.
“We used every possible means of making a track,” Rick Smith reports while “squatting on a concrete block outside the tour bus” in Salzburg, Germany. “From playing live, to playing individually and together, and sequencing. Sometimes I worked with just a trackpad on a Mac PowerBook because I was on a plane. I love electronics, and how you can manipulate real sounds. Live takes with real instruments are particularly intriguing because of what’s available to manipulate digital audio.”
While recording, Smith used the Midas console as a summing amplifier, bringing up the audio through three RME interfaces, and 24 channels of stems. A month before they were ready to finish the album, they set up an identical computer system at mix engineer Simon Gogerly’s studio, Hub II. “He uses an SSL AWS900+ 24 channel hybrid console,” says Smith. “The mixes were printed from Logic through RME through the SSL to Pro Tools [7.4 HD2 Accel].”
Underworld relied on both software and hardware synthesizers. Soft-horses included Logic ES2; GForce ImpOSCar, ImpOSCar2, String Machine, and Oddity; Sonic Charge’s Synplant; Synthogy Ivory (piano); Rob Papen BLUE; and Native Instruments’ Battery 3, FM8, Reaktor 5, and Massive. Hardware synths Clavia Nord Lead 1 and 2, Moog Minimoog, and Yamaha DX7 MK1 still reign at the Pigshed.
“Logic ES2 is all over the record,” Smith says. “I love the GForce soft synths, too—particularly String Machine, which is a glorious modeling of dozens of ancient string machines. String Machine was particularly lovely and multiplied on ‘Always Loved a Film.’ The producers of that track, Dean Ramirez and Mark Knight, added analog Moog Voyager, which was significant to the bass midrange pulse; that was mixed in with String Machine playing the vamping chordal thing. Dean did what he called ‘an homage to Rick’ at the end of ‘Always Loved a Film’—a bell sequence. That was amusing and nice.”
The Roland VP-330 vocoder is Underworld’s longest-running usable piece. They just can’t shake the hardware addiction. “I always play the vocoder in by hand, either as a live part or working bar by bar, mostly for vocals,” Smith explains. “It works particularly well with Karl’s voice, either as something really subtle that just involves tracking his voice in a particular way, or to draw the melody out of the note he’s singing, or to use as a kind of mad harmony.
“Bass-wise,” Smith continues, “I used the ES2 in combination with [Spectrasonics] Trilogy. One of my favorite hardware synths is the Yamaha DX7 MKI. People think it’s ’cause I like bell tones. But actually, it’s the organ principle behind the DX7 that appeals to me—the idea of layering sine waves in particular tunings and harmonic clusters. I’m a still fan of breaking down something into components that are sine waves in a sense, and thinking ‘What do I need here? Which octave and in what quantity?’”
Smith favors Logic’s default plug-ins (“They’re cheap and not so processor hungry!” he exclaims), and also uses Waves’ Gold Bundle, but he’s hardpressed to explain Underworld’s groove machinery. “It’s difficult to name a main drum machine,” Smith says. “The sounds come in from [iZotope] iDrum, [FXpansion] Guru, Logic’s Ultrabeat and ESX24 sampler, and Drumazon, which is this TR-909 modeled plug-in from D16 Group. I use all of that, really, with some Addictive Drums, a live drum plug-in.”
After instrumentation, the most important element in any Underworld track is Karl Hyde’s unique vocals. More narrator than singer, Hyde’s a commentator, not a frontman.
“Unlike in the ’80s, when the singer stood in front of the bass and the drums, I envision Underworld as the bass and drums out front and the singer in the back,” Hyde says. “It’s the singer’s job to support the rhythm section. And to listen to the rhythm section as one would a film director to figure out where are the spaces that I can use to enhance the rhythm and what is the rhythm telling me to do.”
A careful musician, Hyde loves a challenge. A former session guitarist, he enjoys meeting a producer’s expectations. Hyde’s vocal approach for “Louisiana,” the lone track on the album that didn’t involve an outside producer, evolved over 36 months. “The vocal in the first verse and first chorus of ‘Louisiana’ are original recordings from three years ago; the job for me was to match the vocals in the second verse and chorus. That meant not only using the same microphone but also the same mic position, the same attitude in my head, the same lip shapes,” he says. “I worked out that I sat down, kind of slightly hunched forward. Then I sang. It took weeks of sending takes back and forth to Rick. And finally, there was something wrong in the sound. I realized I was singing across the mic, not at the mic. I originally recorded it in a much smaller space, where there wasn’t enough room for me to sing at the mic. In general, there were lots of demands made on our musicianship—a fascinating project in that respect.”
Smith supplies microphone and preamp details: “We used a Neumann TLM170 for Karl, quite an old one. In terms of a mic pre, Karl used an Apogee Mini Me at his home studio. In my studio, it was the Midas console preamp, or possibly a Focusrite ISA 430 MkII Producer Pack. We use that at the Pigshed, or a gain just going directly into the Midas console and the internal preamps and EQs. That creates a beautiful analog circuit.
“The Neumann is a good fit with Karl’s voice,” Smith continues. “Often you’re making a choice in what to pursue at what time. There are times to be experimenting with mic technique and placement, and there are times to just get a great vocal down as quickly as possible.” “The Neumann allows me through,” Hyde adds. “It’s more transparent to my voice. When I listen to the results of the recording, the Neumann sounds like what was coming out of my mouth during the session. It captures the resonant cavities of my body and my bones vibrating. It captures the breath.”
EQ and compression were applied by one of three rusting vocoders, and various plug-ins. “The single biggest effect on Karl’s vocal is the VP-330 vocoder,” Smith says. “Roland also makes a V-Synth, a rack-mounted emulation of various vocoders, and it’s beautiful. But it doesn’t do what the old VP-330 does. Also, there’s an effect in Logic called Scanner Vibrato, a modulation effect. It’s a fairly drastic effect . . . it almost introduces a constant vibrato.
“In terms of compression,” he continues, “Eiosis’ E2Deesser is one of the very few software de-essers that actually does the trick. Beyond that, it would be anything: Waves Renaissance, or default Logic channel plug-ins. My engineering skills only go so far, which is not a bad thing. When I hit a sound that I feel is happening, then that tends to stick. If there is tweaking needed beyond that, it’s not always tweaking the plug-ins or the settings—it might be the addition of another set of stuff to deal with the sound that already exists.”
Once the tracks were completed, the co-producers (enlisted with the help of executive producer Steven Hall) received the songs via email, and the party started all over again.
“The collaborations were largely done on the Internet,” Smith says. “That was fantastic: You send your thing off, you get something back. But in terms of deadlines and keeping communication moving quickly, it was difficult. The different sequencer formats, or even if one of the producers was using Logic, as we do, there would be issues of plug-in compatibility. It was an unbelievable amount of work, really, trying to reconstruct and rebuild tracks, and keeping the quality, trying not to just reduce and go down in generations. It involved email, chatting on the phone, and often just bouncing their ideas off sections of a particular synth or plug-in.”
The Breakdown: Smith Vs. Ramirez
Producers Dean Ramirez and Mark Knight collaborated on two tracks: “Always Loved a Film” and “Between Stars.” Ramirez spoke from his Creator Studio in Sheffield, England.
“Mark Knight and I thought the basic tracks needed more contemporary drums, synth work, more drama, etc.,” he says. “The work was done but the production wasn’t there.” Working with Logic on a Mac Pro 8-Core and an SSL G Series desk, Ramirez constructed new bass and drum parts, rearranged vocals, and introduced a breakdown section and a new outtro with numerous software and hardware effects.
“The bass sounds came from the Moog Voyager; Nord Lead 3, which is the more MIDI, detuned sound; and Spectrasonics Trilian,” Ramirez confirms. “The actual chords came from three different synths: One is the Circle (Future Audio Workshop), another is GForce’s VSM. One of the main plug-ins I like is SoundToys Decapitator. I have a Thermionic Culture Vulture, too—it’s a valve distortion compressor that fattens up the sound no matter how hard you drive it. The Decapitator is a plug-in version of that. I ran everything through the Decapitator to fatten it up and make it warmer sounding. That’s the problem with digital synths and plug-ins; they can sound sterile.”
Ramirez replaced Underworld’s drums with sounds from his own sample library (“We liked Underworld’s TR-909 sounds, but they sounded 10 to 15 years too late”) and created a breakdown using a hidden guitar part. “The breakdown didn’t exist initially, their arrangement was quite linear,” Ramirez recalls. “We wanted to keep that big, euphoric moment, so we stripped it down to Karl’s guitar, which was originally buried very low in the mix just as a thickening element. We really liked it, so we made the guitar into the main breakdown element. There was a middle eight-vocal bit, we put that over the breakdown. And Rick hated that bit! He was really against it. We had to fight with him to put it in. After a few months, he admitted he liked it.”
Born Slippy, Born Again
“Born Slippy,” the 1996 dance anthem used as a soundtrack to the misdeeds of four Scottish lads in Trainspotting, introduced not only Underworld, but a new sound: ethereal, layered synths; lashing, deeply booming beats; and weird, cut-up vocals reminiscent of a military commander shouting orders in his sleep. Fourteen years later, Underworld can fondly remember the past, assured they still have a future.
“I do see Barking as a reinvention,” Karl Hyde states. “It’s a redefining of the group. At the end of our last tour, we were playing an old set and it was sounding very tired. It felt wrong; it didn’t feel like a group being true to itself. It was time to move on. Now we walk out onstage and it feels like I’m in an exciting, vibrant group that I would’ve dreamed I could be in. And what’s better, it’s with the same people.”
Gogerly in Hub II.
Simon Gogerly: Mixing Barking
Grammy Award-winning mix engineer Simon Gogerly has worked with U2, Gwen Stefani, N.E.R.D., Massive Attack, Tracey Thorn, and New Order, among many other artists. Calling his Hub II studio home, Gogerly says, “Rick Smith was very keen to have the all tracks in progress at the same time, which was an unusual approach.”
Underworld weren’t looking for uniformity across the tracks, Gogerly explains, but to maintain similar levels of quality and detail. “We did want consistency in areas of bass lines and bass drums,” Gogerly says. “We would have to be careful about making sure that we didn’t have a track where one bass drum was much more subby than one on another track. So I used highpass filters and basic EQ plug-ins to make sure we had a certain consistency. Quite often, we would split up bass sounds into different frequencies, and generate sub-bass to add to an existing bass frequency with MIDI or the Moogerfooger lowpass plug-in (Bomb Factory Moogerfooger Bundle).
“We used Microphaser in Logic on Karl’s vocals quite a bit,” he continues. “It gives vocals a really nice stereo quality. It helped widen the vocals and add movement. It seemed to compliment what Rick did with the vocoder, as well. In general, I try to have movement in the stereo field. I keep drums static: maybe a little panning on the hi-hats and percussion, but kicks and snares are up the middle. Little details, sequencers, effects, they would most of the time be moving to take you somewhere else.”
Gogerly created an illusion of space in what he calls Underworld’s “epic tracks,” judiciously using reverbs and EQ to balance the mix. “We used Logic Space Designer quite a lot for reverb,” Gogerly says. “I used impulse responses from the Bricasti M7 [reverb] and imported those into Space Designer. I love the sound of the Bricasti; the impulse responses for it sound 99 percent like a proper Bricasti. That meant I could use a lot of the presets and types of reverbs that I use when I normally mix. That was particularly beneficial for this record because there’s a lot of use of generated space in it. I’ve used Lexicons for many years, but when I heard the Bricasti, it sounded open and clear and natural. It’s one of the best reverbs that I’ve heard.”