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Circuit Building: Bomb the Bass Evades Clinical Sounds With Hand-Built Synths and Analog Mods

April 1, 2010
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bombDance-music producer Tim Simenon has been producing music as Bomb the Bass since the late ’80s, but when the new millennium arrived, he was ready for a break. After releasing Clear in 1995, Bomb the Bass was mostly dormant until 2008’s Future Chaos.

In between, he remixed and produced other groups, including David Bowie, Depeche Mode, and U2. But after shelving the unfinished Future Chaos for years, he finally decided to get it done. “The fact that Future Chaos was never finished was always a dark cloud over my head,” Simenon admits. “I just needed to clear my head and get a life outside of making music because I’d spent 10 to 12 years just before that living in the studio.”

The break did him good. After Future Chaos, his re-inspired musical state spilled into creating his latest album, Back to Light [!K7], and he flew from Amsterdam to São Paulo to work with techno producer Gui Boratto.

In São Paulo, Boratto played bass guitar (later replacing parts with Moog synth bass) over Simenon’s sampling collages. Then they played synths—a Roland MC-202 and SH-09, Moog Little Phatty, and Arturia Moog Modular V and Logic ES1 synth plugins— and then they’d remove most of the original samples.

A drummer named Cuca recorded live drums for “some of the more ambient stuff sitting behind the programmed drums,” Simenon says, and to give a dynamic lift to the choruses. Simenon then took the live drum parts from Pro Tools, created loops, and tuned them to the electronic drums in Ableton Live.

Phase two of the album was completed in Amsterdam with co-producer Paul Conboy, who also sang on four tracks. The other singers—Kelley Polar, Richard Davis, and The Battle of Land and Sea—recorded vocals in their own studios. But when Simenon and Conboy received their tracks, they realized there were more changes to be made to the music.

“The backing tracks would always need reworking so that they matched the quality of what the singers delivered,” Simenon says. “Normally, what they’d send back would sound so good that the backing tracks would sound tame compared to what they just added to it.”

“Blindspot,” for example, went through multiple changes. “The vocal line Paul had in the verses was just killer, but the backing tracks always sounded dodgy,” Simenon says. “Paul and I spent a couple weeks looping the verse parts and playing around with different bass lines until we came up with something that felt comfortable against what he was singing.”

Then they pushed the sounds to the next level. “When we got to a point where we knew what the essence of a track was, we’d re-record plug-in MIDI parts using my handmade modular synth, a Roland MC-202, Moog Little Phatty, and the Minimoog,” Conboy says. “I hate plug-in synths. They all sound rubbish really—no character and usually a horrible response controlwise. I don’t mind using a few plug-in effects on stuff, but all the virtual synths are just toys.”

Conboy built his modular synth using the Moog Modular format of a 5U panel. “The process is fairly complicated, but I built it all from scratch,” he says. “I first built a Synthacon VCF and a Polivoks VCF, then two oscillators based loosely on the Moog, then a bunch of VCAs and envelope generators. It’s constantly evolving really and will one day fill my entire house!”

His vocal-recording process is simpler: He sings through an Oktava MK- 219, into a Neve-designed Amek Pure Path Channel in a Box, and into a Digidesign Mbox. “The Amek is the best investment I ever made—really good quality EQ, compressor, and preamp.” Later, some vocals would get extreme EQ treatment in Logic, with low-end cuts to thin out the vocals. And backing vocals were often hard-panned.

Phase three of the album was at mixing engineer Fopper’s studio, where they broke down the stems to eight channels and ran them through an old 1974 Polygram mixing desk. They also got rid of all the reverb plugins in Logic and replaced them with an AKG spring reverb.

Finally, Simenon and Fopper bussed the entire mix through a modified EQ that Fopper had built from a Siemens cinema amp, driving it for a harsh sound, and then running it at low volume underneath the regular mix. “So we had this really noisy stereo mix of the eight tracks just underneath the eight tracks,” Simenon says. “It gave it a nice bit of air around the whole mix. If you muted it, the tracks sounded skeletal, and when you pushed it back in, the whole track just sounded like it jelled really nicely.”

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