Monday, October 12, 2009

Tech Interview: Portion Control

It's not often that we have the opportunity to talk to genuine electronic music pioneers, but if anyone is deserving of that title, it's Portion Control. The British band was among the first of the electronic wave of industrial music in the early 80's and subsequently served as inspiration for seminal bands such as Front Line Assembly, Depeche Mode, Skinny Puppy, and countless others.

After disappearing for awhile, Portion Control made a return to the music underground in 2004 with the critically-acclaimed release "Wellcome". They've since continued releasing albums and recently put out a retrospective of their post-reformation material entitled "CROP". I had the chance to talk with Portion Control's John Whybrew about the band's past, present, and future and the gear they used along the way. (Be sure to read through to the end of the interview for a chance to win a free copy of "CROP"!)

WAVEFORMLESS: Portion Control first formed in 1980, a decidedly different time for electronic music technology. Can you tell us a little bit about your studio set-up and the instruments you used most in those early days?

PORTION CONTROL: Our first synth was an Arp Axxe bought from Chase Music near Euston Station, London. They were one of the first synthesizer importers. We added a Roland CR78 drum machine. As our sound darkened, and to record "I Staggered Mentally", our principle synths were the roland SH-09 - a single oscillator machine with just PWM, ramp, square and noise waveforms. Despite these limitations it became a Portion Control workhorse machine supplying many leads and bubbling/noise effects. Next the Roland RS-09, which was a string/organ synth best heard onOut of Order”. It was possible to blend organ and strings into some sort of a pad sound then fatten it further with the onboard chorus. The drumatix drum machine, (Roland) TR-606 and the now-legendary TB-303 bass line were deployed on drum and bass duties. Both boxes were bought on day of release, from London’s Camden town rock shop. Roland had developed a 5-pin DIN sync connection which locked these two silver boxes together. The other synthesizer, and breaking the Roland monopoly, was the Moog Rogue, a cheap analogue subtractive monophonic with two oscillators that continuously drifted, but gave it a thick unison buzz. Best of all, we could force it to feed back on itself and it created some huge saw sweeps - “He is Patriotic” is a good example - as well as pretty good bass tones and screeches, and higher pitched washes that contributed to the overall character of the material. “Sex Crimes” shows these to good effect. The sample and hold feature allowed us to experiment with pulsing tones and throbs which were synchronised manually. The manual had a spare A4 patch sheet which we photocopied to carefully record the slider and switch positions. Effects were spring reverb, Roland Space Echo, rack reverb, MXR guitar distortion, and a phase pedal. Sampling was initially via the mainframe developed, Greengate Sampling System, then an Akai S-950 and a S-1000. The only other synths we owned were a Korg Monopoly, Roland Juno 106, Firstman bass sequencer, Roland MC202 (our faithful sequencer for “Step Forward” and all the Illuminated 12” singles), and a Yamaha TX81Z. We borrowed synths from Chris Carter and Ed Ka-Spel as well as utilising any studio equipment. The principal studio we used for the “In Phase” material was owned by Pat Bermingham who engineered and owned the record label. This was a 2” 8-track set-up.

WAVEFORMLESS: In 1980, there weren’t very many bands doing similar music to what you were doing. I know it’s a cliché question, but I’m always curious to hear who the influences were for pioneering bands such as yourselves.

PORTION CONTROL: Our principal influence was the UK punk/post-punk scene. Wire and the Pop Group were firm favourites. Outside of the UK, Chrome became a point of reference

WAVEFORMLESS: How did people react to your music back then?

PORTION CONTROL: I remember recording for a local punk compilation album and we turned up with 2 boxes, a Roland CR78 and Arp Axxe , and the engineer had only ever recorded guitars before. Quickly, a small industrial/electronic scene was burgeoning and we were accepted into that scene, although our traditional song structures and reliance on rhythms still set us aside. Our appearance on the "Elephant Table" compilation cemented our connection with the UK industrial scene. We spent some time in Europe, Germany, Holland and Belgium playing a set mainly from "I Staggered Mentally" – as rhythmic electronics was beginning to establish itself…

WAVEFORMLESS: What is your fondest memory of these early days?

PORTION CONTROL: Early 1980’s Living at 319 Kennington Road was a good period. We had Lustmord, SPK, James Baddiel (Funky Porcini), Chris and Cosey and Nocturnal Emissions all within a 2 mile radius.

WAVEFORMLESS: Now, nearly 30 years later, you’re still making music. How does your modern day studio approach differ from the old days? Are there any pieces of gear or techniques that you’ve held onto since the beginning or have you totally changed your way of working?

PORTION CONTROL: The main difference is that the studio has become the home and computer. Also, songs can be saved and recalled with ease. By and large, synthesizers behave as you would expect and there is less cabling and connections. The principals of synthesis haven’t changed – which is an advantage although there seems to be a trend in excessive modulation routings at the moment… When I think back to the days of paper patches, CV and Gate connections and wandering tuning I am glad they are behind us. We had a policy of selling any gear as we updated and consequently now we have no hardware at all

WAVEFORMLESS: Although there were a couple of spans of inactivity, you’ve been making music as Portion Control, Solar Enemy, and a handful of other projects for most of the past 30 years. When you’ve been making music for that long, how do you keep things fresh? How do you keep the inspiration flowing?

PORTION CONTROL: Our inspiration comes from everyday events along with our love of the technology. Like many groups, we always feel that we aren’t quite at our full potential. In 2004, I contacted Dean, as I felt that we could re-activate Portion Control. We met in London at the Henry Wellcome exhibition which became the influence behind “Wellcome”.

WAVEFORMLESS: Can you take us a bit through your song creation process? How does a typical Portion Control song take shape?

PORTION CONTROL: A Portion Control song usually starts with a simple kick pattern followed by a one or two bar step-programmed bass line. Strobe is a recent favourite, Z3ta an old favourite, as well as Reaktor (user ensemble) Viral Extinction. Then, the other drums are built up. Often I'll add a one bar note and flick through presets on our synths adding LFO, gating, phasing, distortion and bit reduction until a rhythm or sound fits into place. Meanwhile, Dean works on the vocals, which are laid into the track, and the arrangement is worked on – small snippets of found sounds, samples or effected synth parts are added – distilling the arrangement. We use hard quantized sequencing, often with unchanging cycling patterns to form the tracks basis. Sound shaping and effects play a major role on a track by track basis. We are conscious not to over embellish - an easy trap to fall into with today’s powerful sequencers. If we are working on a CD we keep writing tracks, constantly reviewing them until we have 10-12 with enough variety to form a product. These are then worked on simultaneously until finalized. As a result, we usually end up with lots of small 1,2,4, and 8 bar parts which aren't used in tracks but are archived into our sample libraries for future projects. Dean also programs ideas in Reason on his laptop – mainly bass lines and rhythm parts which I then work into finished tracks

WAVEFORMLESS: I’m assuming you’ve at least partially embraced software as a part of your music making, as even in the old days you made use of an Apple II for sampling if I’m not mistaken. What are your favorite pieces of software these days, whether it’s a DAW, effects, soft synths, etc? How do you feel the modern software instruments compare to the hardware synths you used earlier in your career?

PORTION CONTROL: Favourite piece of software is very difficult. Native Instruments Reaktor is great especially if you delve into the user ensembles. The FXpansion DCAM Synth Squad is as good as software gets (at the moment). Lots of bass and presence - just push up that drive knob! Guru, also from FXpansion, is great. It works well with any samples, allows more sound shaping than anything else, and you can just drag the MIDI or even render the parts and drag them into your DAW. From our earliest beginnings, we were early adopters of new kit and so it’s natural that we were quick to embrace new software. In 2004 when we released “Wellcome”, we had a number of listeners refusing to believe it was made with software only.

WAVEFORMLESS: Tell us a bit about the mixers, audio interfaces, mics, and monitors you favor these days.

PORTION CONTROL: We use Genelec powered monitors, a Focusrite Sapphire LE card. Rock 17” Laptop with Resolume for live graphics. A fast quad core PC with 2X26” monitors. The only recorded content is vocals.

WAVEFORMLESS: What computer platform and DAW?

PORTION CONTROL: We use PC’s and a number of different DAW's which all have different strengths. Ableton we bought recently at version 8 when group tracks were added. We had been skeptical about Ableton's reputation as a DJ tool, but the more we use it the better it gets, especially for cropping loops and creating song sections. We also like Reaper for sound design as it's very stable and light on resources and we have a few macro commands to render MIDI to audio etc. We also use Acid Pro 7 which is good for arranging samples as you can see lots of tracks and the stretching, slicing, snapping is excellent. Lastly, we have Cubase, which we have used from its early days on the Atari ST - just hate the price of updates and it seems so bloated and counter intuitive nowadays. We did also use Sonar, but it just proved unreliable and would freeze when using some more demanding Audio Damage plug-ins. The biggest single most liberating factor has been that we can mix and master ourselves to have total control over the final product. Our set-up is completely different from our beginnings where sequencing was in its infancy – and we don’t miss anything from this period apart from our naivety in song writing – which added character to the early material.

WAVEFORMLESS: Is there a piece of gear or software that doesn’t exist that you’d like to see someone create? Do you find any frustrations working with computers and software in general?

PORTION CONTROL: My frustration is with different DAW’s having strengths and weaknesses - having to satisfy so many varied users. I would like to see a DAW that combined the basic workflow of Ableton with the audio arrange part of Acid and the mixer/eq/mastering from Cubase or maybe Pro Tools. Oh yeah - with the support and community of Reaper. The complexities of having everything working correctly is a natural frustration of using computers for music making, but I do believe that it’s never been better or more powerful than now and the hardware software debate is rapidly becoming pointless

WAVEFORMLESS: The music business itself has changed a lot just in the last ten years. What’s the most difficult adjustment for you in adapting to this new environment? Conversely, what are the advantages you see nowadays?

PORTION CONTROL: Portion Control has never been a commercial concern. Perversely, we sort of hate the music industry, so it’s been good to see its excesses come to an end. My real fear is for independent labels as the majors fight for percentages from selling catalogues to phone and download/streaming companies. I guess it is disappointing that music doesn’t play such a pivotal role to younger people as they grow up, but equally the music industry has done nothing to help itself. By and large we listen to it in an inferior format now. The advantages are that for a modest sum you can record your own projects, keep full control, and post them onto the internet for access by anybody. Where the music industry will be in 20 years is an interesting thought…

WAVEFORMLESS: If someone invented a time machine and you could go back and give one piece of advice to the “you “of 30 years ago, what would it be?

PORTION CONTROL: That’s a good question! With a simple answer - stick to your principals and don’t be influenced by others opinions.

WAVEFORMLESS: Lastly, let’s look to the future. What are you current and future plans for Portion Control?

PORTION CONTROL: We are working on a new CD for release in early 2010. The tracks are being finalised at the moment… We are hoping it will be our most accessible release so far…with our usual trademark style, of course…


Portion Control has been kind enough to donate 5 copies of their "CROP" release to give away to Waveformless readers. (UPDATE: WE HAVE OUR 5 WINNERS! CONGRATS TO JESPER, JOSHUA, JOHAN, DRE, and PAUL!) We've been discussing something else special for Waveformless readers in the near future too, so keep reading!

Portion Control Official Website

Portion Control MySpace


MetaSektion said...

Tom, thanks for this interview. PorCon is one of my absolute faves, and your article illustrated their working methods brilliantly.

Felipe Boreli Filho said...

GREAT interview, Tom!

mangadrive said...

Always great to hear talent talk about music.

Also good hear someone agree with the DAW situation.

Anonymous said...

Great interview and a great read. Enjoyed your blog a lot lately - and your gig in Melbourne a while back (got to see legendary Dave Foreman onstage with you, met cute girls, fantastic night)!

It's interesting that the more "veteran" members of the electronic community love their plugins so, while those of us who're a bit newer fawn over analogue hardware that drove them nuts. I think there's love for both here :)

Tom said...

James - Thanks! We're hoping to make it back to Aus again. I agree that a mix of both hardware and software is ideal. Although I definitely am using more software these days, hardware is so much more fun to program.

Anonymous said...

It'd be great if you did... We've had some good promoters and tough promoters here, but been very lucky to see bands like yours, Destroid, Covenant et al many thousands of miles from their usual stomping grounds. I even remember the first VNV tour when my old band played support (I remember drunkenly abusing Ronan Harris for not dressing up on stage like the brat I was).

As for hardware vs. software...I tend to have better ideas for patches with a physical interface...and there's something about recorded sound...but there's no question the latest crop of softsynths are pretty good.

ronymelson said...

PorCon is one of my absolute faves, and your article illustrated their working methods brilliantly.It's interesting that the more "veteran" members of the electronic community love their plug-ins so, while those of us who're a bit newer fawn over analogue hardware that drove them nuts.England's Portion Control have cast all others aside and become, once more, the preeminent electronic act by which all others are measured. With "Welcome" they showed an experimental flair no one would ever have suspected them of harboring. It was a well-timed return, 2004 had it's share of fine audio releases but none were quite as captivating, few showed such a wealth of styles and guises.

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