"Fuck it. I'll tell you the secret to it all." The artist also known as Special Request unpacks his methods for Mark Smith.
Woolford says he actively seeks an almost childlike kind of naivety when he's in the studio. Whether making four albums worth of rave hybrids as Special Request or one of the many iconic bombs released under his given name, he balances a strong work ethic with what he calls "genuine glee."
"I have something called the chair test," he told me. "If I'm still sitting in the chair when I'm listening back, the tune is shit. Simple as that."
This undiluted enthusiasm explains why Woolford's continued to improve after all these years. From the joys of working with hardware samplers to his method for programming breaks, the ability to remain young at heart in the studio has fuelled every aspect of his success.
When did you first start messing around with music?
When I was really young. I'm adopted, and my parents received information from the adoption agency that suggested I came from a musical background. They said that if I showed any inclinations toward music, they should maybe indulge that impulse. And accordingly they did so. As much as they could at least.
So they'd encourage me with music class at school. That is, when there was such a thing as music lessons at school—it's criminal that they're trying to phase that out now. I went to drum lessons, learned a little keyboard but nothing properly. We're talking around eight, nine years old at this point.
I remember being blown away by the radio at this stage. You know how family life is, a lot of it is spent in the kitchen and the radio was always on in there. Then at night I'd have my little stereo, listening on headphones when we'd go to sleep.
As I got older, I ended up getting into gadgets and constructing things. First it was Lego but then I became obsessed with keyboards. First time I went to look at them in a shop with my dad, we spent a whole Saturday afternoon there. It was in the same place in Leeds as the original branch of Crash Records. Upstairs they had a room full of keyboards. I was like a pig in shit. Blown away.
What hit me the most was some of the Yamaha keyboards had a thing called "custom drummer." You pressed a button and the keys would trigger a kick drum, snare, cymbal and all the rest of it. I can't describe to you how visceral this was, realising I don't have to play a kit, I can just press a button and it's there. Then the guy in the shop is like, "Well, check this out" and he presses a button, metronome starts and he punches in his own pattern. By this point, it was over for me.
We're not talking about kit I'd use now. This is home keyboard stuff, the sort of thing they'd have in schools. But I got this Yamaha keyboard with the custom drummer function and it was life-changing. I'm around 12 at this point and the first wave of British dance records were starting to chart. Maybe a year later or so Bomb The Bass put out Beat Dis. It was a proper British cut-up record, a patchwork quilt of samples all collaged together. That really blew me away, too.
That's when I realised what sampling was. Casio had done this keyboard called the SK-5 and it had a little sampler in it. Cost £80. It had these little pads that'd trigger samples of a dog barking or whatever else they had on it, but you could sample your own sounds, too. I Sellotaped a microphone to the speakers of my stereo and plugged the mic into the keyboard so I could sample my records. It was ridiculously basic, but in hindsight I realise now how important that keyboard was to me. It was basically a toy but it taught me how to collage.
I'd want a stab from an Eric B. & Rakim record or a vocal from the Bomb The Bass album. I'd try and sample breakbeats but there wasn't enough sample time on the SK-5 to get the full loop in. But you quickly realise that if you play a lower note on the keyboard the sample plays lower and slower, and if you hit a higher note it pitches up and speeds up. As a kid I always wanted to speed everything up.
Through this I realised that, if I had an album track with a break I wanted, I could sample the record at 45rpm and squeeze the whole break in then play it at a lower pitch on the keyboard to slow it back down. I'd hold down the record button and let go when the beat was done and end up with a looping beat. That was part of the turning point between mindlessly sampling things, playing them endlessly and it sounding fucking appalling to realising you can re-contextualise and combine sounds from different sources. I recorded some of this stuff and made the embarrassing choice of taking one track to Crash Records and being like, "Look, I made a tune." It was atrocious. Really bad hardcore.
Even though they're hyped again, the E5000 Ultra can be relatively affordable. It's a great shout if you can find one with the additional internal memory and the effects card.
Yeah, I think people have definitely cottoned on to them. If an XT Ultra was in really good knick you could probably get £800 for it. I saw some joker selling one for a grand the other week. But yeah, they are proper belters.
Still, they're not for everyone. I've had friends who had them for a bit but couldn't get the best out of them. Mine had a new lease of life when I did Soul Music because I used it with a Manley Massive Passive EQ, which is proper military grade equipment. Everything I put into the sampler went through the Manely first. This means I could sculpt sounds so that they're booming before they even get in the sampler.
This was especially a big deal with the bottom end. Say you're sampling a sine wave. You run it through the Manley, turn up the gain on the low frequencies and sweep around until your windows rattle. Then once you sample that and play it across the keyboard, it's proper large. When that's cut to vinyl and played on a big rig, that's when you hear bassweight done properly rather than just hoping for the best.
So the Manley was a total game changer for me as well. Once you've had it a few days you can almost tell who else is using it. Some people's sound comes from this EQ. I won't name names but once I got my own I realised "Ahhhh, it's the Manley that does it." I was using the Sequential Circuits Pro One a lot when I got it. I'd sample a bass note off the Pro One, loop it, run it through the Manley and then sweep all the frequencies around. It sounded mental, I'd not heard sweeping like that before. Then I'd sample those sweeps and play them with the keyboard, so once you've got a riff going, those sweeps are all moving around in strange ways.
There's a Special Request tune called "Vapour". It's all Manley and the E-Mu, just testing out the gear and learning the sound. At that point I felt like I'd landed on a combination where I could tell the overall quality was shifting for the better. Everything just got ballsier.
Another piece I run almost everything through is the Maslec MLA-3, which is a multi-band compressor. Another game changer for me. It really enabled me to hear things differently, to pick out new frequencies in the sound. It has a certain effect, not a glue-type thing, but it's almost as though it gives you more headroom in a mad way. I felt it as soon as I got it.
Certain tracks of yours, like "Catacombs" and "Curtain Twitcher," have these morphing synth parts that keep revealing different characters even though it's the same sequence. You might do this by fading between different voices or routing the same MIDI parts to a bunch of different synths. How do you approach it?
That was something I wanted to do for years but I didn't know how to do it. It bugged me. The idea came from an old Radioactive Man tune called "Itisanditisnt." It has this amazing riff that sounds like it's being sent to a million different synths—it just keeps changing and morphing. I realised that, yes, you just send the same riff to loads of different kit. You could also do it with one synth if you keep recording a riff and capture all these tweaked versions which you then layer up and crossfade between. But if you can do it with a few synths, it's magic.
I was doing it this week actually. One of my new tracks, there's a main voice and then a detuned one playing the same riff at a much lower volume. When you slowly bring up the volume of the detuned voice, everything just gets super lush and emotional.
I'm really interested in this type of thing at the moment, making stuff that's complex but evocative at the same time. The beat science stuff, I can do what I want with that. I can make rhythms the way I want them to be. That's not an issue. So now I'm focusing on getting the emotional content into it, to sound naive and gorgeous but also intuitive and human rather than relentlessly mechanical. Obviously there are parts where you want that rigid robotic vibe but being able to combine the two is what's really making me buzz at the moment.
It sounds like you're in a pretty good place mentally when it comes to dealing with the psychological side of making music. Did you ever have a period where you were more prone to comparing yourself to others?
Over the years I lost that thing where you're looking around at what everyone else is doing and viewing it all in an aggressive way. Possibly that's come from just growing up a bit. I want my tunes to sound as good as possible but I'm also aware that not everything is for everyone. Sometimes you think a track you've made is going to smash it in the club and it turns out so-so. There are records that are certified classics to one generation but when you play it to another they're not assed.
Reactions change over time. So if you look at making tunes in terms of utility, that's when you're losing the initial spark of what might have made an idea great. You can iron out all the fun of a good idea by over-engineering it and thinking "What's the mix-down like?" and all that. I would rather hear an amazing idea executed badly than a fucking shit idea that's beautifully executed.