Busy rascal: Interview with Hal Ritson

When he's not replicating samples for star producers, he's carving his own niche in witty, flamboyant dance music.
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When he's not replicating samples for star producers, he's carving his own niche in witty, flamboyant dance music.

The graffiti on the exterior of the building says “I love you Jason”, “Siobhan forever” and – with perhaps a little too much vehemence – “I HATE STEPS”. Where else can this be but the Hit Factory, the former home of PWL records, where producers Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman formulated the careers of Kylie, Banarama, Rick Astley and – yes! – The Reynolds Girls.

Now known as Vineyard Studios, its current tenants include one Hal Ritson, composer, musician, and head of MofoHifi Records. “I have some paperwork that says the booth was for vocals and ‘Where Pete Sleeps’,” he reveals. Ritson has been credited as the “performer who has played on the most electronica genre records”, mainly through his line in replicating samples for dance producers.

He never received formal training, learning the tools of the performance trade from being in a covers band at university. “I would like to say I can play everything apart from double reed instruments at least badly.” With Nathan Taylor, he’s also one half of pop culture-mocking dance outfit Young Punx, who have a new CD out this month.

When you come to your studio, do you ever stop and think, wow, this is where Kylie and Jason recorded?
Not so specifically, but places do have souls. I like to think there is some continuity over the decades of ‘pop’ here. If you listen to those early SAW records, they might now be mocked as lightweight, but at the time they were a masterstroke: edgy electronic production from American gay clubs, the most underground dance beats, and someone famous singing a simple hook over the top.

It’s the formula that the KLF wrote about in that book [The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way), 1988]. Pete Waterman nailed that. And it’s still going on today, be it a pop song over a Disclosure backing or in commercial dubstep.

Your new Young Punx album includes the centrepiece All These Things Are Gone, a 14-minute work-out referencing 60 items which have ‘disappeared’. Concorde, DDT, Spangles, cigarettes at work…
They are only associated by the fact they are gone: personal, trivial, massively historical or philosophical things. The Crazy Frog next to Miles Davis next to The Cold War, for instance.

The rest of the album is the same theme explored a different way. We go to an era in musical history and record a song based on the game rules of that point, trying to be as genuine to the spirit of the original/influential tracks, as much as possible: correct instruments, arrangements, recording equipment and playing styles.

For instance: Heart Of The Night has a 1980s vibes and uses an ‘80s SSL 4000E desk and early Lexicon digital reverb 4080L. Harlem Breakdown (70s horn funk sound) uses a Coles ribbon mic. Detonate (jungle-style live drums combining a 60s breakdown texture with more modern production) employs a Telefunken U47 from 1960, one that had been used on many a session by The Beatles.

The barrier for music production is now very low, as is the barrier for releasing music, because of things like SoundCloud – hence a lot of music-making has become very homogenous. So what we wanted to do is, find these things that ‘have gone’, revisit former methodologies, and work with them in a modern studio.

How much were you able to maintain the authenticity on the tracks?
Certainly to mic selection, EQing, mic positioning, the physicality of playing, how you would hold the drum sticks and so on.

Where was it recorded?
Equipment is expensive and hard to maintain. I have a friend who runs a studio called Rock of London, he basically collects all sort of vintage stuff. I did a first session with live musicians there, telling them, ‘The year is 1972, the location is New York. How would they have done it that day?’ Steve’s got an SSL and a Neve room, and we just plugged into whatever felt appropriate. I must mention Kowloon Kickback which uses a Federal AM-864/U Compressor from the ‘40s for drums and horns, and a single early P48 mic from the ‘60s for a raw ‘Gene Krupa’ drum feel.

A 1940s compressor?
Yes. The Federal is a real hunk of a compressor, too. Now, a compressed audio signal could travel further than an uncompressed one while maintaining intelligibility. So the second point in the Federal manual is how to destroy it in case it might be captured by the Germans.

Was the album worth going to all that effort, or do you think, "I could have done all this with Omnisphere and Cubase?"
Commercially I don’t think the people in the street will give a damn, but when you get to your third album like us, you can go, f*ck it, I’m doing this for me. So was it worth it? Yes!

Your day job is playing keys and recreating samples for others, including Dizzee Rascal, Black Eyed Peas, Rudimental, Rizzle Kicks, Avicii and Gotye.
Outside of the Young Punx, which is my pressure-free vehicle for fun, I tend to perform a bridge between ‘real musicians’ and the world of electronic producers, who don’t really speak the same language. They have great production skills: they’ll know they want a string quartet, say, but they have no idea how to work with one, so they end up sampling it.

Then the record company commissions you to reproduce an authenticate facsimile of the sample, without incurring expensive fees from the original recording.

Are there any samples that are really hard to replicate?
We get wound up by [dramatic pause] f*cking dub, because all the records have a woolly, mushy sound. When it’s just a big, gorgeous modge, there’s no way to differentiate what is coming from where.

What is the most pressing issue of the state of the recording world at the moment?
The things that we sell, no one buys. And everyone’s trying to monetise a career. I think we’re in a technology gap at the moment, where the old technologies have run their course, and the new ones are here, but they aren’t quite good enough. Everything can be done, but not quite well enough to be compelling. We need to get to a point where you have access to every track you might want, but it’s of the quality of sound like it used to be – not an MP3 – and you had some kind of tangible association with the music [like buying vinyl].
Image some kind of William Gibson future where we’re all operating in cyberspace, where you can own a record in the virtual world and it’s as compelling as it is in the real world… But at the moment, we’re kind of in a shit cyberspace.




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