On his recently released LP, Runner, for Crosstown Rebels, Spero's battle against translucent modern productions took the form of judicious editing—or lack thereof. Mistakes, improv and field recordings were the recurring themes; the result was ten elegantly crafted pieces that slid up and down the house music register. The album also represented a rare resting place for Spero. If there's one characteristic common to all Glimpse releases—be it the epic overtones of Drifting for Planet E, the craggy minimal of Elephant Skins for Leftroom or the techno pressure of his early releases on Glimpse Recordings—it's that you're never really sure exactly which genre(s) are contained within. We spoke to Spero via e-mail over the past few weeks to get a handle on his music-making approach and the machines that feed into this process.
Top: Sequential Circuits Six Track, Korg Electribe, Roland SH2, Micro Korg, Roland Jupiter 6, Mackie Desk
Bottom: Apple Mac G4, Roland TR-909, M-Audio UC33E, Nord Lead 2, Edirol PC-50 Midi Keyboard
I've read that Jeff Mills was a big influence. Was he the person that first turned you on to the idea of making records, or was it someone else?
When I was a teenager I used to go and see him play at Steve Bicknell's Lost nights. He would be on the line-up with people like Aphex Twin, K Alexi and Basic Channel. It was an amazing introduction to electronic music. I still get goose bumps thinking about some of the early Lost nights: just a massive room with black curtains and a strobe, with Surgeon and Jeff Mills playing all night. It was an incredibly exciting, intense environment. Of course he would drop mixes, but he would always be taking risks and attacking the mix. When you saw Jeff Mills you knew he was the only person in the room who could do what he was doing. He had earned the right to be there and he would entertain.
It's harder to gauge people's skill these days when sometimes they don't write their own music and play from a laptop with everything pre-synched. This is why I prefer playing live; knowing that everything the audience hears has come from me. But still, I don't think people realise I'm playing live half the time, particularly now that many DJs play using Ableton. I have recently introduced my 909 into the live show and it's changed things significantly. You can get so much energy from that machine in a live context and the sound on a big system is completely unparalleled. People really react when they hear raw 909 claps at 125 db.
At the moment my live set consists of Ableton Live, a Roland TR-909, soundcard and MIDI controllers. It's a pretty simple set-up that can be adapted easily on the fly. I often find in clubs I'm asked to set up in DJ boxes with not much space and don't get the chance to do a sound check, so it's important that I can set up in a confined area and feel confident that I can run it without any problems. It is frustrating, though, as there is still a gap between the way I produce music and the way I play which is something I would like to narrow. That said, I have been slightly reluctant in the past to bring my hardware into a club environment since a girl poured Jagermeister over my Nord three years ago in Munich. It happened right at the beginning of my set and is probably just about the worst thing anyone could pour over a synth. It's still sticky to this day.
Since I introduced the Roland TR-909, my live show has changed significantly—it means I can adapt my sets to a situation and improvise parts more effectively. I can also create much more energy in my set when I need to. I have my patterns programmed into the machine that I can flick between and adapt accordingly or re-programme on the fly. I bring in the percussive elements with the decays and the volumes and all of the effects in Ableton are also available on the channel.
I think the 909 is the one machine I could not live without either in the studio or in my live show. I have tried hundreds of 909 sample banks and plug-ins, but I just don't think the real thing can be bettered. In my opinion, there is a pressure to the sound in a 909 that cannot be emulated. Over the last few months I have had to borrow a friend's 909 as mine was being fixed and I have noticed that they all sound slightly different. This aspect makes them even more exciting to work with, especially as there were only around 10,000 units produced, all sounding slightly different. Most of my favourite tracks and the records I grew up with have the drums from a 909 in so it's a machine that is very close to my heart.
Tell me about your first studio set-up.
As with a lot of producers, I'm self taught, so most of my early recordings were made using quite random trial and error techniques that I developed myself. My first set up in 2000 was a G3 Mac running Reason and Peak, a guitar, wood blocks, shakers and a high density microphone that I used to record things to import into Redrum or Dr Rex. I would record instruments, vocals and field recordings and pretty much only use Redrum to construct the track using the decays, pitches and volumes. It turned out to be a great introduction into step sequencing.
From then on I started introducing pieces of kit as and when I could afford them. I think the next thing I bought was a Yamaha DX 7 or a Korg Electribe, then a Nord and so on. I also moved to Ableton after a year as I was not satisfied with the sound engines in Reason at the time. Now I use Ableton to record and edit audio and rarely do much actual work inside the program itself, preferring to do things on hardware, in single takes, that could last up to an hour to be edited afterwards.
I find automating things with a mouse quite boring and very restrictive. For me, it's important that I enjoy the process of making music; and as I'm not particularly interested in computers it makes sense that I would be drawn more towards the machines. I would much rather immerse myself in a piece of kit for a week before I read the manual. I think this way you are more likely to stumble across things that distinguish you from other people that have the same machine. [It's] almost like developing your own vocabulary.
Nowadays my studio is constantly changing as new bits of kit pass through and are used and relate to other bits of kit I have. There are obviously things I will always have that I see as the backbone to my productions like my Jupiter 6, SH-09 and the 909, but a lot of stuff is quite transient, especially with software. I really enjoy the process of saving up, buying and researching equipment, talking to friends and peers who may have something that I'm thinking of buying. I find other producers are keen to share knowledge which makes it much easier to find the machines that suit you if you talk to the right people. Robert Babicz has been very helpful over the years and Matthew Styles has been a really useful source in choosing a modular system.
Buying secondhand hardware: Glimpse's guide
1. Do as much research on the machine you are going to buy as possible. Watch items on eBay for a month so you can gather a good market value. Prices for a lot of vintage equipment fluctuate depending on its demand.
2. Make sure it's the right piece of kit for you. Have a go on one before you buy it over eBay and try and talk to someone who has one. There are also lots of clips/tutorials on YouTube for most machines that can be very helpful.
3. Make sure you have some way of testing the machine before any money changes hands. Test all the sliders and inputs for hum and crackles. Expect some wear and tear on the machines as they may have been in circulation for nearly 30 years.
4. Find out how easy it is to have the machine fixed. Certain pieces of kit are very hard to find parts for these days.
The first serious piece of hardware that I bought was the Super Jupiter MKS-80 which is basically a slightly refined rack version of the Jupiter 8 with some of the Jupiter 6 features as well. This is probably my favorite synth and it has spawned much of my new material. My Planet E release was done on the Super Jupiter MKS-80 the same week that I bought it, as well as all the tracks on my album. It's such a versatile synth, capable of so many different sounds and textures—from pads to leads to acid. It takes a while to get your head round the programming as it works with dual tone patches and it's very sensitive, but the oscillators sound amazing. You also need to make sure you get the controller with it—the MPG-80—as it usually just comes as a single rack mount module. It really is limitless and the sound is incredibly warm and fuzzy.
Let's talk about your working methods. You mentioned earlier that you enjoy jamming on the 909 during your live shows: Does this improvised approach carry over to the studio?
In the studio everything is improvised. Usually I start off with a loop on my drum machine and then move onto the Jupiter 6. I find this process very organic and I'm comfortable with it. I often go back and re-record or just edit long takes that I have recorded. Working this way increases the chance of unexpected things happening. My Jupiter MKS-80 used to crash a lot due to a faulty chip and this would result in some amazing sounds and textures that would be impossible to consciously re-produce—completely original recordings of accidents that can never happen again in the same way.
I play guitar and a bit of keys but most of my tracks are written by experimenting with equipment and just jamming until I hear something I like. Sometimes I go into the studio with a set idea but usually I just try and come up with a loop for fun and then maybe turn it into a track the next day if I'm still into it. I also try to never work on tracks for too long as they always end up turning to concrete and lose their spontaneity. The best tracks in my opinion are when you go into the studio with a clear mind and a precise feeling and you really nail that emotion quickly in a few hours. Almost like a snapshot of exactly where you are at that exact moment in time musically.
So what were you feeling around the time of recording Runner? Did you aim to nail a specific mood throughout the record?
I started the album in Berlin on my own and had very little musical input from the outside as I literally stayed in the studio for four months where I wrote the bulk of the album. I definitely had a particular feeling that I wanted to put across. I wanted things to be un-polished and raw. It was important to leave the imperfections in like tails and smudges. I found a bit of machine hum or hiss really added to the overall feel of the tracks. It's easy to edit or EQ imperfections like that out but I found tracks lost their essence when I did this. This became the common thread throughout the album. I don't think music should be perfectly produced—it needs a bit of grit for me to get really excited. I have always been very drawn to a lot of old blues and jazz recordings, especially the way they are recorded. The aesthetic of a lot of old Muddy Waters records really inspires me.
Do you feel in some ways, though, that these are mistakes you'd notice as the producer but not as a casual listener?
I think they all matter, maybe for the casual listener on a sub-conscious level. I really enjoy detail like that in music; it encourages people to listen harder, which is something that seems to be lacking these days due to the sheer amount of music available. My parents' generation used to listen much harder than the new generation of music buyers.
I noticed a lot of what sounds like movie samples on the album. Does this feed into the same idea of encouraging people to listen that bit harder?
Most of the vocals on the album are field recordings I have made over the last few years with a high density mic. It's a really simple bit of kit that you can fit in your pocket and the results can be really interesting. It's capable of picking up the most minute details that once compressed, effected and mixed into a track can end up sounding like something completely different. One of the tracks on the album has field recordings taken in Sydney Zoo's bird cage that sound nothing like you would expect a birdcage to sound. There are also recordings from cafes in America whilst on tour in Denver of people ordering their food or just day-to-day things around the house or my studio in Portobello Road. As a result, it does encourage people to listen that little bit harder. I find having some white noise or field recordings on one channel of the sequencer can really give the illusion of space in the mix, almost like breathing air into the track.
There are also some spoken word excerpts in the album taken from speeches of people who have inspired me, such as Cannonball Adderley, Smokey Robinson and George Clinton.
I would still make tracks."
Let's talk about your relationship with the studio. Is it always a "happy place" for you or do you have periods of inactivity and/or frustration?
I love being in the studio making tracks. Way more than playing out. It's my hobby and my passion. Even if the whole scene ended tomorrow, I would still make tracks because I love doing it. It's as simple as that. I feel very fortunate to have such affection for something. There are times that are more productive than others but even when you're not coming up with much you're still learning what not to do.
House and techno is not the be-all and end-all for me. I make and listen to lots of different music. I think it's easy to fall into the trap of churning out tracks for the dance floor and being obsessed with the functionality of a track—maybe this is why the shelf life for tracks is so short these days. I really don't like remixing either unless it's for a label I know and work with. I can't see the point in getting a bloke you have never met before to do a remix on your label just to put a name on there and sell a few records. I think it's really important to work with people you know and like.
When you say you make lots of different music outside of house and techno, is this something you're working on at the moment?
It's not really a particular or different project. I write music every day so it would be impossible to release all of it. It's a lot harder to find a home for the more leftfield eclectic material as people prefer to release more functional 4/4-based music at the moment. I enjoy writing different styles as it keeps things interesting in the studio. I'm sure I will find an outlet for it at some point, but at the moment I don't think there is any rush.
I know we've identified Jeff Mills as big early influence on you (at least performance-wise), but whose production styles do you really admire?
At the moment I'm listening to a lot of Afrobeat, artists like Tony Allen and Pusherman are really inspiring me. There is such an amazing groove to their music that is very relevant to house and techno, really loose and organic. In electronic music I would say artists like Shed, Surgeon, Floating Points, Levon Vincent, Robert Hood and Four Tet are people whose records I buy and play a lot. I have always been very into Carl Craig and most Detroit techno—old school and new school. I suppose I am drawn to these artists because they have a slightly similar aesthetic to their music, it's not so polished and they have a certain maverick element maybe. Closer to home, Tom Demac's music gets better and better and his live show is also amazing.
What do you personally feel makes a truly great electronic music producer in the vein of the artists you've mentioned above?
In my opinion the best producers have a story to tell; a way of looking at things, a unique perspective. I also think honesty is hugely important. Being honest with oneself and making music that comes directly from the heart that has not been messed with.