William Orbit: The Methods and Machinery behind Madonna’s Ray Of Light
From the original underwear-clad party girl to her latest alter-ego – the all-black and tattooed Veronica Electronica in the “Frozen” video – Madonna has made an indelible time-stamp on history with her ever-changing fashion and musical sensibilities. Some of her expeditions have mined more gold than others, but this time she’s really hit the nail on the head.
Ray of Light (Maverick) is her most mature effort to date, by far. Gone for the most part are the sex-me-up lyrics and sugar—pop productions. The words on Ray of tight reflect a first-time mother’s emotional and spiritual growth. And the productions are stunning… a masterful mix oi spiky synths, chopped samples, and stark orchestration. Just as Bjork did with Mark Bell on Homogenic, Madonna met her magical match in producer/songwriter William Orbit. Followers of experimental electronic music will need no introduction to William Orbit. He’s been breaking boundaries in the ambient underground for years. His Strange Cargo series laid the groundwork for countless modern electronic artists, and his remix list reads like a whos who of rock and pop.
Keyboard was invited to spend an afternoon at 0rbit’s home studio recently… a treat, to say the least. He was remodeling on the day of our interview, so gear was piled waist high and from end to end. It was our first encounter with William, so we didn’t know quite what to expect. Born and bred in England, would he fit the typical British I’d—rather-not-reveal-how-I-make-my-music mold?
Turns out he was anything but tight-lipped, or ordinary. William’s a bit of a rare bird. He’s tall, lanky, gaptoothed, and has a set of quirky, rubbery facial expressions that demand your attention. A genuine character, and with no detectable negative attitude, William is as warm and gentlemanly as they come. But best of all for us keyboard types, he’s a veritable gold mine of electronic music know-how. Years after his entry into the international music scene he remains on the leading edge of the experimental curve, and is as vital now as ever.
“WilIiam is a complete madman genius,” according to Madonna. “I’d come to him with an idea of where I wanted to go musically, hum melodies or read lyrics, and then leave him alone in the laboratory. Sometimes he’d go in the direction I wanted and sometimes he’d swerve off somewhere else entirely. We’d end up with trance tracks that were eight minutes long and then keep adding and subtracting until we had real verses and choruses. We really put our noses to the grindstone.”
Despite the fact that Orbit has been on more records than an average musician would in a dozen lifetimes, he’s as passionate about the Ray of Light release as if it were his first. “I don’t mind talking about it at aIl,” he enthuses, “I was so involved in it. I didn’t feel like it was just a gun-for-hire situation. Obviously it was Madonna’s record, but I’m as proud of it as if I’d done it myseIf.”
When we told him how many spins we’d given the disc already, he smiled and said, “This record is meant to be listened to many times, but the thing I’m pleased about is that it gets some people on the first play. If someone asked me if I preferred to have a record that grabbed people by the balls straight away but became tiresome soon after versus one that took forever to get into but kept people replaying it, obviously I’d go for the latter. And normally I do. But the downside to that is things often don’t ever get heard by anybody that way. The pleasant surprise about this record is that there’s an instantness about it, even though it’s definitely meant to be played over a period of time. Another funny thing is that there lsn’t a consensus on the tracks. People will usually agree broadly on which of the songs they prefer, but here there’s a real admitted division. There are some tracks that people generally like, like ‘Drowned World,’ but there are others that polarize opinion, like ‘Shanti.’ They either play it all the time obsessively or skip it on the CD. There’s been quite a lot of dispute, and it’s been murder choosing singles.”
Speaking of which, “Ray of Light” was picked as the second single to follow the hugely successful debut of “Frozen.” The third single “will probably be ‘Power of Goodbye,'” says Orbit.
Here’s what William had to say about the making of Ray of Light, including how he got the job, how the sessions progressed, and what tools and techniques he used to give Madonna her most mesmerizing sound to date.
Being asked to produce Madonna’s new record must have sent skyrockets shooting in your head. Tell us how you landed this gig?
I was talking to Guy Oseary, who runs Maverick, and he mentioned that Madonna was looking for material. It just so happened I had a lot of tapes of half-formed ideas lying around, so when he asked me to send some stuff over I was happy to just knock off a DAT with miscellaneous bits on it.
Was the DAT well recelved?
I sent it to her and she was back on the phone within five days. She’d already starting writing to it. So we had a long chat, and I could tell straightaway that she was serious. I’m quite guarded about people who might take the tracks and miss the point, but I knew she got it. And so I went out there and we started working on the album.
Describe the material that was on your demo.
Many of the ideas were fairly formed. The germ of, say, “Drowned World” was on that tape, although if you compare it to what you hear on the album you’ll hear quite a progression. The germ of “Mer Girl” was on that tape. And so she ran with the ball, threw it back to me, and then for the last stage of the project we worked at Larrabee (Studios in Southern California) in a more conventional way.
When you say “germ,” are you talking about backing tracks with no melodies?
Some had melodic lines, but it really was a whole selection of… It ran all the way from complete tracks, really, to just bare-bones backing tracks on which she subsequently put her lyrics and melodies. They were all different, and that’s why to me the album sounds quite varied. Some people tell me it’s contiguous sounding, but I hear a lot of stylistic variation. The tracks were done in different ways, which I understand isn’t the way Madonna usually works. She normally has a more set approach to making an album. But we didn’t have a strict method of working; we changed it all the time.
Were there preliminary demo sessions before you officially started recording?
We met at her house in New York, and she played me some things that she’d worked on with other people. So we were really just getting in sync with each other at that point. Then we booked time at the Hit Factory in New York City later that week, and that was pretty exciting because that was the first time I heard her sing her parts. And so we proceeded to go through the tracks and rough out what we were going to do.
Were all of your keyboards set up in the studio at that point?
No. Everything was mainly on tape. We were focusing on vocals during those sessions. It wasn’t until later that I went back to England, packed up my gear, and brought it over.
And what gear was that?
How did I know you would ask me that? Oh, it’s all in a pile there if you wanna look at it . It’s not a ton of gear. Most of it is pretty retro; a Korg MS-20, a [Roland] Juno-106, a [Roland] JD-800. Much of the album was done on a Juno-106. You can get so much out of that synth. Also a significant amount of it was done on the MS-20 – the more spiky sounds. A few things that people think are guitar are actually the MS-20. And then there were a few more bits and pieces: a few modules, a Yamaha DX7, a Novation Bass Statlon, a [Roland] JP-8000, a lot of Roland stuff. I’ve always liked Roland stuff.
I have to say, I don’t consider myself a keyboardist at all. You know, I’m a two-fingered virtuoso. Wax pencils play a large part in my playing. I draw on the keys, and I use them to label what I’m doing – what samples are assigned to what key, and so on. Sequencing plays a large part, obviously.
What sequencer did you use on this record?
I started the whole thing on an Atari [ST] system with [Steinberg] Cubase II, I didn’t know that was unusual until about two-thirds of the way through, when people would comment on it. At one point the thing even caught fire. Really. Smoke coming out of it. It was like, “What’s that smell? Oh, it’s burning components.” But the funniest memory was Madonna, who doesn’t do a lot keyboard playing, messing around on a keyboard marked up with grease pencils. I mean, picture Madonna, the biggest pop star in the world, playing with this retro gear that you could buy for $50 in the Recycler. Later in the project, when Marius Devries (of Massive Attack fame) came in to work on a couple of tracks, I was blown away by what he was doing in [Digidesign] Pro Tools. I bought my own system soon after that and now I can’t leave it alone. My friends Rico Conning and Damian Wagner were around a lot during the Larrabee sessions doing additional programming work.
Madonna has said in other interviews that this record was painfully slow to make.
[Laughs] Indeed. It took a long time to do the album, months. And it wasn’t like we were slacking, but there were so many details going in. We actually did have to work fast, and there were many times when we had to move on. One of Madonna’s favorite phrases was: “Don’t gild the lily.” In other words, keep it rough, and don’t perfect it too much. It’s a natural urge for computer buffs to perfect everything because they can, and we were very wary of that. By perfecting, you can lose the character of it, and she always had an eye out for that.
Let’s dissect a couple of songs from Ray of Light.
Sure, but it’s important to point out that they were all done differently. There’s nothing wrong with making albums in a formulated way, but in this instance, it definitely wasn’t that way. It was serendipity. At first I was only in there to do a couple of tracks. It wasn’t clear that I was going to do the whole album, and that, again, led to the sort of disarray with the way it was conducted.
Throughout the record we hear pulsing, echoing effects, some very tightly timed and some more loosely attached to the beat — in “Drowned World” and “Frozen”, for example. Whats your approach to quantizatlon?
Often I won’t quantize at all. I do believe that you can take away… You can make something very unlistenable by quantizing it too much. I play a lot of stuff by hand and don’t quantize it, and very often it sounds better that way. Unquantized rhythms work better when used next to quantized rhythms and vice versa.
One of the drum fills in “Frozen” is extra-expressive, going from what sounds like mallets to hard wooden sticks.
One of my friends asked, “Is that the track with the trash cans being kicked about?”
Did you achieve that effect with filters?
Yeah, it’s all done with filters.
There are wicked drum fills in “Drowned world” and “Sky Fits Heaven”. How do you create those – from breakbeats?
I mostly construct them out of little tiny fragments — a little bit of this and that, but they weren’t off records.
We had a coupte of sessions with a drummer in Los Angeles, and it didn’t quite work out. But Fergus [Gerrand, whose drumming does appear on the CD] is someone I work with all the time; I’ve worked with him for years. So he came to my house in London and put down a load of drums, which I then threw into my system and chopped up and messed around with. But like I said before, I don’t use ReCycle or any of those things. I’m not sure if I want to. I mean, I hear some really good stuff being done with it, but I don’t want to date-stamp things too much. I’mm very cautious about putting out a record that a year down the line will sound date-stamped. So I’m trying to chart my owm course, be it good or bad.
So all of your chopping and editing is done directly onboard the Akai samplers?
My own version of ReCycling, if you will.
When Fergus was recording at your home was he playing along to your sequences?
He was, but they were rudimentary sequences. Dontt forget, the thing with modern recording is that you can work backwards. You can do anything in any order you’d like. It’s like editing together a film, shooting the first scene last, etcetera. Any approach you’d like and Fergus is very good about that kind of thing. He knows that what might end up on the record could be completely different from what he originally played.
In “Sky Fits Heaven,” there’s a nice half-time version of the main drum pattern.
I like messing with time signatures. I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s fun. Why stick to the same time signature? Something I was really happy with was on “Mer Girl.” That so sounds like it’s just an ambient piece of strong scape, but in fact it’s got verses, bridges, and choruses. lt’s more structured than you might think at first listen. And when the fourth verse comes in, there’s this bit where it goes into lots of conflicting time signatures on top of each other deliberately. I
thought I’d try it in a visceral kind of way.
And all of these loops and performances were in your Akai samplers being triggered by Cubase events, correct?
Yeah, but there aren’t many loops, you see. Most are made up of quite small bits. But everything was coming out of the Akais. In fact, what I normally do, is… I use two 53200s, and ultimately the whole soundscape of the track, apart from the vocals, is coming out of the Akai stereo outs and through a valve [tube] compressor. I’m not used to working with automation, and this is the first time I’d fully used it; we used a J-series SSL. I haven’t been north of the faders on an SSL ever until this, but I tried to use the stereo outs of my Akais whenever possible because I like the sound of all that material coming from the same outputs. That’s when the magic starts happening – when the sum becomes greater than the parts. If you break everything up too much, you lose that. So whenever possible I like to run the majority of the material through the same outputs, and subsequently route it through the same compressor, or whatever.
What compressor do you prefer?
I usually use Drawmers; they work perfectly and I like the way they sound.
“Skin” is loaded with expressive pitch-delay effects.
That was Marius; he and I worked on that one. The bit where it kind of drops down is a looped-up guitar – a guitar phrase, looped up and then pitched up and down again.
How did you get the chopped-up vocal effect in the intro?
The vocals are going through a Panscan, a scanning device, on one side only. In fact all the tremolo you hear on the album where it’s panning is an old Panscan. The Panscan puts the signal back and forth across the stereo field, but you can speed it up. And if you’ve just got it on one side, it cuts in and out. It’s an analog device — knobs, not a mouse.
When dld you commit those types of effects to tape — during mixdown or earlier?
I record stuff to tape in a really ad-lib fashion. In other words, I’Il get the gear going and just “perform” it to tape. And on a project like this, with 48 or more tracks available, you become quite wasteful. But the key is that I would subsequently go back, load the best bits into the sampler, and further manipulate them. You get the best of both worlds that way. I’ve been doing that for years; I think a lot of people do that. if people aren’t using tape, or some type of recording medium, they should. In other words, anybody who just runs everything through live sequencer patches to DAT runs the risk of not getting that kind of grungy… I heard this interview with Tom Waits and he said something to the effect of, “If you overwork music, if you sterilize it or pasteurize it too much, then all the nutrients get lost.” That’s what we’re talking about here. I believe you get more of that in analog recording. Then you shove your analog bits into your sampler or computer and further manipulate it. Wonderful things can happen. Best of both worlds.
What’s that Jetsons like flying saucer sound in “Skin”?
The M5-20 is very spiky like that. Like, if you listen to the track “The Power of Goodbye,” that’s got lots of little sounds like that in it. The MS-20 is great. I mean, there’s something about its transient peaks that are very spiky. And you can make that machine scream. Its two filters are very severe.
Are these sounds typically made by triggering one note with a long release, and then working the knobs?
It’s all done with the onboard VCO, and it’s all done in a very analog way, Basically, you have two hands, so you’ve got ahold of two knobs, and you set it up for that golden spot. Every synth has that little G spot where subtle, slight tweaking of two parameters takes you through a huge range of sound. And then you can pick those best performances and stick them back in the samples.
I think people who use lots of plug—in programs don’t always understand that it’s better to start off using different VCO and things on synths, to get your source material, because there’s something more “analog” about it. There’s something about the curve. The human brain can distinguish ever such a lot of information.
The way an analog echo throws its repeat back, for example, and the timing of its repeat versus the way a computer does it. It might be subtle, but we can tell that. That’s something that should not be underestimated.
Then there’s the art of combining disparate types of sounds. For example, the unexpected Middle Eastern flute riff that appears from time to time in “Skin.”
That was from Marius’s holiday. “Skin” was a track that the three of us worked together on [Orbit, Devries, and Madonna]. We had fun with that one, and that flute was something Marius recorded at a market while on holiday in Morocco. In fact, at the very end of that track I faded it early because everyone started clapping at the end of the sequence. It didn’t sound right to hear applause at the end. It gave the wrong impression of the track, so I faded it early.
Tell us about the other aspects of working with Madonna — cutting vocals, for example.
Madonna’s production involvement was a major factor in this record, and it’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked. She is pretty intense when she’s doing vocals, and doesn’t go over things a lot of times. It’s not like ages and ages of takes, She’s in the vocal booth, and stuff happens quickly. I always assumed or thought Madonna was more sort of calculating in the way she did music, but in reality it turns out… There is a level of crafting to get things right, but there’s also an element of serendipity, ust letting things happen, and keeping the vibe going. She’s quite a vibe merchant — a real viber in the studio.
Another thing about Madonna. I’ve never met anybody who has more ability to make things happen like she does. Stuff happens, and she makes it happen just by the sheer force of her will.
Was it generally clear to you and Madonna when a track was done and ready to be mixed?
Well, the thing is, sometimes you do a demo mix… “Drowned World” was a demo mix, for example. It wasn’t supposed to be a final mix, it was a rough, but it worked and that’s what you hear on the record. So in that respect it’s the time when you say, “Well, it’s not finished, but I don’t want to take it any further ’cause it seems to have reached a son of apotheosis. It’s perfect now. Let’s not take it any further and risk spoiling it… Don’t guild that lily!”
Hopefully this record will inspire people to research your Strange Cargo back catalog.
I hope so.
You’ve been so prolific, yet you’re not that old. How do you keep the energy up?
Wheat grass and jack Daniels.
We’re starting to hear remixes of the new tracks on the radio. Are you involved in the process?
I know of a Stereo-MCs one, and Vlctor Calderone, who does stuff out of Miami. But there’s going to be a lot of mixes going on.
Are you responsible for getting the raw material out to the remixers?
To a point, yeah. I have to be, really, ’cause it’s all sitting in my Atari and samplers, and a few tapes here and there.
Now that Ray of Light is done, and doing well, what’s next on your schedule?
Amongst other things I’ll be returning to my Pieces in a Modem Style record. It was withdrawn shortly after release last year due to copyright problems, which are now resolved. I did versions of my favorite 20th century compositions. Composers like Henry Gorecki, Samuel Barber, Erik Satie, and Maurice Ravel. The delay was a blessing in disguise — I now have the opportunity to add some more pieces.
Will this be an acoustic or electronic project?
Both. I use my usual sound pallet but in a very understated way to do these interpretations.
Why do I think we’ll be seeing your name on the big screen soon?
Well I am here in Hollywood, in tinsel town, aren’t I?