We value the new and the young a lot in electronic music. But developing musicianship requires time, patience, and practice. So to see where electronic musicianship might be able to go, it helps to look to the people who have invested years.
And that’s why it’s worth repeated visits to Lenny and Lawrence Burden, aka Octave One (also aka Random Noise Generation). Not only are they brothers who have grown up together, and can literally complete each other’s sentences, but they’ve been building the technique of how they play since their first 1989 release.
Before we get to that live rig, let’s consider their just-out album “Love By Machine.” It’s an instant classic, but also a master class in production and songwriting.
You can also hear a straight line back to their first, Transmat-era releases. To me, the thing about a lot of the early Detroit classics is that they’re impeccably mixed. Machines sit in the mix like they’re acoustic instruments. And there’s tons of dynamic space, which is part of why you feel the groove.
That goes hands in hand with this fluid pop writing and unapologetic song structure. It’s funny being at live gigs with Octave One. You can see some people singing or nodding along to tunes they recognize. But you also see that “wow, I feel like I know this already” sense from people hearing the tunes for the first time.
In fact, I can’t help but feel like if people are frustrated with too much sameness or lack of advancement in techno, the missing ingredient may be better knowledge of the history. Even if you’re producing something really weird and experimental – maybe even especially if you are – you can learn something from this material.
So, that brings us to their live rig. I’ve watched them play and even gotten my nose up by the rig. But DJ Tech Tools got them to do a perfect breakdown of exactly how they’re playing.
I don’t think everyone should necessarily copy their massive monster table of gear. But it represents really a complete evolution of what you might call a “classic” approach to live techno.
There’s an Akai MPC1000 at the center of the rig working as master clock and master sequencer. The clever bit is selecting both synths with hands-on control, but also subsequencers. The key there is, it allows them to keep control hands-on rather than have everything embedded in a single sequencer with layers. (On some level, you could think of Ableton Live’s Session View as a set of subsequencers, too. But having actual hardware here means independent, physical and spatial controls.)
There are some great boutique choices on sounds, too. The Dave Smith Mopho is prominent, but so too is an early revision of our MeeBlip synthesizer (an SE) and the MFB 522 drum machine. Our MeeBlip is mostly set to one sound – note the large custom volume knob – though some of the other synths have more timbral control. The MFB is a nice choice precisely because it doesn’t sound exactly like a Roland box, but retains its own special custom Berlin sound.
While hardware and software makers I think should look to the MPC1000 as one standard of what sequencing can be, the Roland VP9000 is also interesting here.
It’s really a hardware equivalent of what you might do with a modern piece of live software or drum machine, in that it can trigger pitch- and time-independent loops. (There’s formant-based manipulation, too.) Oddly, actually, a lot of software engines (cough) still don’t support that way of handling audio.
More than the gear, though, I think it’s the “performance” / “mixer” divide that’s really significant – and a hallmark of a lot of successful duos (or, conversely, unsuccessful ones).
What’s really funny in the interview is that Lenny (doing most of the talking) and Lawrence (standing back and filling in when necessary) mirror the way they play.
Lawrence’s mixer approach is more than just setting levels, too. He’s running EQ, and he’s independently controlling effects. I think this also separates Octave One from less experienced acts, in that they can use thaose Eventide H9 or Space effects without drenching the entire mix and losing all detail. And I suspect even some experimental/punk artists might benefit from having that control and contrast.
Certainly, separating mixing and playing is important regardless. Because electronic instruments have to be mixed, it’s just impossible to eliminate that distinction entirely with any success. It’s also interesting that they’ve been doing that since their first gig.
Check out a longer set from them via Boiler Room.
Hope to catch up with their new show.