It’s a dazzling audiovisual show, with eye-popping visuals, plus an overflowing connection of synths. Orbital share their secrets for live performance and jamming with CDM’s David Abravanel.
The timing is perfect: Monsters Exist was a 2018 production highlight. Now we get to hear how all that studio complexity translates to live jamming: -Ed.
Photos: Matthew Bergman for CDM.
As soon as the two men wearing glasses with headlights on the side come on stage, there’s no question that you’re at an Orbital concert. Even before brothers Paul and Phil Hartnoll take the stage, however, they’re preceded by another tell-tale sign: a live set up featuring copious hard- and software at their fingertips.
For decades, the Hartnolls have made a name for themselves defying expectations for live electronic performance – bringing a sizable chunk of their studio on tour and deftly weaving through live sets that allow them the flexibility to jam. It’s only fitting that Orbital have started releasing regular recordings of their live shows since their 2017 reunion.
Orbital’s live US rig:
Access Virus TI
Novation Bass Station II
iPad x 3 (two for Lemur, one for timekeeping)
Novation Launch Control x 3
Ableton Live 10
Ed.: Got to watch a similar – even slightly larger – rig for Amsterdam Dance Event. This is a truly epic stage show from the kind of veterans with the chops to pull it off. -PK
I caught up with Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll for a walkthrough of their stage setup before a recent show at Brooklyn Steel. It was the group’s first set of American dates in six years (accounting for a lengthy hiatus during which the brothers weren’t in communication), and, despite jetlag, spirits were high.
CDM: Between the Wonky tour and this one, you’ve switched from using Liine Griid on your iPads (now discontinued) and using the original [JazzMutant] Lemur hardware. What are you using now?
Paul: The original replacement for the Alesis MMT-8 [sequencer] was the old-fashioned Lemurs, which – this is better. The touch screens were a bit iffy on those, it was early technology. Then we went on to Griid on the iPad, and now we’re back to Lemur, but on the iPad.
Each track is a Lemur template along the top. The buttons trigger Live – the big buttons are scene changes, and the little buttons are clips.
And a little more dynamic than the MMT-8s?
Oh yeah. When you look at the Lemur, the big buttons that do the scene changes – that’s like changing a pattern on the MMT-8, but we can also turn things on and off within.
Also, you’ll notice that this [points to three Novation Launch Control XL controllers] pretty much looks like an MMT-8 as well. These are our virtual mixing channels, and each song gets threaded through to these channels. It’s a combination of bringing things in and out on the iPads and the Launch Controls.
What I can do – depending on different parts of the set and how I’m feeling – is go through and mute [the Launch Controls] and do it old-school MMT-8-style as well. You trigger things on the Lemur and obviously they start where you want them to, whereas on the Launch Controls, if you’ve got something muted, you might lose count and bring it in halfway through a riff.
I’ve got the drums broken down here [gestures to Launch Control], to punch them all in and out if I want to, and the “stop all” button which is great.
So you’re mixing on stage with the Launch Controls and the Ableton Live set?
It’s all coming out of here [points to interface] and going to the front of house. We’ve got control of volume of all the channels, so we can ride things – if we know that something’s coming in, we might want to pump that up a bit. And then that happens over the PA, but if it’s too much, [our front of house mixer] can bring it down. Or he can EQ each channel to suit the room. Obviously, front of house is the best place for the overall EQ for each channel because he’s hearing it through the PA and we’re not. We’ve got control of the mix of the balance of things, but then it’s also a safety thing. If I push the drums too much, and it’s too much in the room, [the mixer] can tweak it.
How do you decide which synths come on the road with you internationally? I know you’ve performed with the MacBeth M5, but it’s not in the rig this time around.
I still like the MacBeth – I’d love to bring it! But I’d need to do something do it, because we can’t fly with it. Most of the MacBeth box is empty, it’s just part of Ken [MacBeth]’s thing of, “it’s a performance synth, it needs to stand up and be proud!” So what I want to do is take the case off and put it in a different box, a really thin box. Maybe put a gilt-edged picture frame around it? [Laughs]
This tends to replace the MacBeth – the [Arturia] MatrixBrute. It’s kind of angry, like the MacBeth. It’s got more drive stages and things like that than the MacBeth – it’s probably angrier but kind of thinner, but that’s good because it cuts through in the mix live. Whereas the MacBeth is just – it’s fun, bringing something like that, because it hasn’t got any presets so you’ve got to work on the fly, and I love that. The MacBeth kind of forces you to make each sound tailor-made for each gig. But [the MatrixBrute] is good fun live! And of course, so much control – so much fun to be had.
[Starts playing the beginning of “Tiny Foldable Cities”] Most of the sounds in this track come from the MatrixBrute.
And is that how you did it on the studio version as well?
Yeah. [Cycles through sounds]. Obviously I have to sample some of them live.
Do you have audio backups of all of your hardware synths in case one of them goes before or during a show?
We say we’re gonna do it, but we never do it. [Laughs]
We’ve got a backup computer if that one goes down – but that’s, y’know, “hello everybody, sorry we’ve had a computer failure, we’re just going to be five minutes while we change computers. Talk amongst yourselves, and have a drink at the bar.”
So are these the more robust synths that you tour with then – like the Jupiter-6?
This is actually a new one to us. My old one I bought in ‘92, and it’s kind of died now – it still works but it’s a bit flaky. We bought this [new synth] to replace it, because it’s been live with us since ‘92. Is the Jupiter-6 the best synth in the world? No, but it’s got a lot of character, and a lot of our old songs rely on it. I’ve tried to replace with things, but it doesn’t quite work.
Orbital – “Lush 3-1” and “Lush 3-2”, featuring Jupiter-6 on the delayed notes.
What are some of the Jupiter-6 sounds?
[Starts playing lead sound from “Lush 3”] That! I can never get that out of anything else. Not like that.
Orbital – “Impact” live, with the Jupiter-6 sync/crossmod sound.
The other one that I cannot do without is in “Impact” [Starts playing] when you sync it and then crossmod it stays in tune – it would be a terrible noise if you had it synced the other way. I just had my Jupiter-8 modified to sync the right way; Jupiter-8’s sync in the other direction. In this bit it’s kind of like a wavefolder, you know? Crazy sounds that you can’t get anywhere else – very techno-y, kind of clangy.
Orbital – “Belfast”, featuring ascending bubbly arpeggios from the Jupiter-6.
The last thing is in “Belfast” [starts playing], I always need a Roland synth to get that. That’s three of my big sounds.
What’s the division of labor like between you and Phil when you’re performing live – do you have defined roles, or are you often reaching over each other?
We do have roles – I arrange. I’m in charge of a lot of the synth manipulation around this end [points to left side of the stand]. We keep this and this [points to Novation Peak and Roland TB-303] exclusively for Phil, he plays with them.
Is that your original 303?
Yeah [laughs] can you tell? It’s not even silver any more, it’s brown, it’s like a lot of our gear. Our 909 is held together with love and tape.
So Phil does those. I leave him in charge of the drums at this end [points to Launch Control on the right], but I kind of use these here [points to left Launch Control iPads, and synths]. You know this [points to middle Launch Control] is our crossover point.
If I’m busy arranging then Phil might lean over and do some more mixing – [the Launch Controls and middle synths] are the grey area between the two of us.
I would like to start bringing the 909, but it’s just a box too far at the minute. I will do it, it’s the only thing I miss live – we use it a lot in the studio.
Instead of using generic 909 samples, I’ve meticulously sampled my own 909. I think they all sound different, 909s – I can spot mine.
They say the same thing about 303s – that’s why no one emulator gets it totally right.
That’s interesting, because I haven’t noticed that with 303s. We’ve got two and I can’t tell them apart – but maybe they’re from the same batch?
With 909s, there’s definitely different batches of them that sound different. I think it’s more like, there’s three different sounds to 909s, and I’ve had two of them in the past. When I sample my 909 – I don’t round robin it, I keep it very simple – but it sounds right, because it’s my 909.
I do notice the difference if I plug a real 909 in. They drop out as well – they do weird shit! They just lose a kick every now and then, and you kind of turn around and it goes “no no, I’m still here!” [laughs]
So you’re playing the Prophet-6 and the Virus TI a fair amount.
It’s weird – [the Virus is] a strange old synth, I like it. It tends to thin woolly pads and sharp things quite nicely. I use it in some tracks quite distorted, as well – I really use the distortion on it. It cuts through like a guitar.
The horn sounds on “Hoo Hoo Ha Ha” from Monsters Exist, is that a wavetable from the Virus?
That’s actually samples from a session we did for the 2squared album with Vince Clarke. I just cut tiny bits of it, and made a new riff with it.
[Starts playing “Hoo Hoo Ha Ha”, mixing in parts and effects]. One of the things that I really like is this side chain kind of effect. One of the send effects is a big delay, another is a big reverb. But this [points to knob on Launch Control channels] is a sidechain from the kick, but it isn’t sidechaining any of the instruments, it’s just sidechaining the effects return.
What’s playing the “Hoo Hoo Ha Ha” chords?
That’s a lot of people, actually, that I recorded coming out of the pub. I got them all to go “uh”, “hah”, “huh”, and then I made a round robin kind of thing and processed it in Kontakt to make it sort of a robotic constant-pitch thing. And then played chords on it.
As a musician, you’ve got Orbital, you’ve got your solo albums, you’ve got 8:58, you’ve got soundtracks, and a couple years ago you had the album 2squared with Vince Clarke. Is there a difference in the compositional mindset when you’re working on material for different projects?
I’d like to pretend there was but there isn’t. I just go and do my thing, wherever I’m doing it.
Clarke:Hartnoll – “Do A Bong”
There’s a kind of Paul Hartnoll sound signature – like on “Do A Bong” with Vince Clarke, I thought “oh, it’s got Orbital chords”
[Laughs] Yeah! That’s what I said to Vince when we were doing that. He played with these kind of…for want of a genre, “nu disco” kind of things, and he said “what can you do?” I said “I wanna bring some live, sort of wild synth passes” – what I call “stadium house” – to it. You know, that kind of big rave, big chords – with a lead line that’s kind of simple over the top.
How does the live set work visually?
[Points to Ableton Live set] There’s some video triggers here. When I hit certain scene changes, it triggers off a run of a certain visual. So we can set up things perfectly in time, and [our VJ] doesn’t have to worry about when we’re going to do drop downs.
A show like no other
Ultimately, I’m left with the same thought I had when I saw them in 2012 in Berlin, or when watching the DVD of highlights from their 90s/00s Glastonbury sets: Orbital put on an incredible show. The technology might change – and the visuals are certainly more engaging and impressive than ever – but at the core, it’s the same gorgeous stadium-sized emotional melodies that have kept audiences enthralled for nearly three decades.
With the release of the excellent Monsters Exist, Orbital are exiting 2018 on a high note – and 2019 sees 30 years since the release of “Chime”. We’ll certainly be keen to see what happens next!