My Tech: `If you don't try new things, you never learn ...'
Jon Sevink of the Levellers talks to Jennifer Rodger about his favourite gadget: the Roland MC303 Groove Box.
Tuesday 17 March 1998
I went to Gary Marshall, who runs a shop in town, and he said here was this great thing called a groove machine, which is kind of like a drum machine and a synthesiser in one. It is also a sort of a sampler, so you can have birds twittering and telephones and helicopters. I was playing it with a big biro between two forefingers because I couldn't judge the spaces between fingers properly, so biros helped me to play stuff in correct harmony.
On the album, we used it for background parts and strings, and it took off from there. We put on rough bits that my violin would have done. Being in the studio, we use tech all the time. But this was the first time we used it to create an instrumental sound, and it was originally a fill- in thing so that the recordings weren't devoid of violins. This was useful for the rest of the band. We thought we would abandon the parts as they were meant to be guides, but a lot ended up staying. They sounded really good. In some cases we binned the incredibly expensive string section and used the synthesiser.
It never sounds the same, but if you don't try new things then you never learn how to do different things with the music. We took it further and played in bass notes and bird noises. It was the first time that we actually found something that sounded good with the rest of the music. We had tried synthesisers before but they always sounded quite cheap, bog standard, with 12 different string noises that have 11 rubbish ones.
The groove box is designed to be used as a cross between a DJ's tool and a musician's tool or for someone playing at home. It's got a tiny little keyboard, with only about a dozen keys so that limits what you can do. But it's quite good to be limited sometimes. At a flick of a switch you can get a string right down to low synthesiser pads. There are all these knobs and changes, so noises that you find from its own internal sound sources you can play around with and come up with your own customised sound - like make a string sound go into an elephant's fart.
It's funny with all those gadgets, there is so much stuff packed into a box that it is a question of, "oh my god, how does it work?", then realising that it is dead easy. I have only used a tenth of what it is capable of. A lot of people sneer at it, especially in techno circles.
Sometimes it seems to go out of tune, but it has never gone wrong. With time, the amount of bashing on keys will probably make it fall apart. I would like to transfer the inside to another box because it looks really Japanese, and could do with having a bit of fur on it. We talked about using it on a live set, but it's so small that you could hit the wrong keys, which would be a bit embarrassing, really.
The studio is packed with gadgets. I am always on the lookout for new bits and pieces. I use a lot of computers for music. But I don't like them because they are always breaking down.
The rest of the band are technophobes and I am the only one who is technoliterate. If we were all embracing tech it would be a disaster, everyone would turn up with new things saying "I want to use this and I want it louder".
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