Bon Harris / Nitzer Ebb
“There is no other DAW with that kind of scope and flexibility with modulation.”
Bon Harris has always been a driving force behind Nitzer Ebb. He also used Bitwig Studio to update their classic sound for the band's current tour. We caught up with him during a break in their busy touring schedule.
The new Nitzer Ebb live performances differ from the earlier years. In what ways did you and Douglas J. McCarthy modernize the concept, the music and the performance?
It had been several years since Doug and I had last played as Nitzer Ebb. We felt it would be good to update the sound a little, and to incorporate some of the approach that I had been enjoying with modular synths – after attending events like Modular On The Spot – hanging out with Eric “Rodent” Cheslak and Bana Hafar, and working in Blackline with Cyrusrex, Brad Apodaca, Anthony Baldino. The idea of improvising more, sonically and musically was very appealing and very much inspired by the above mentioned artists and many other musicians connected to the LA modular/music scene.
We had remained close friends with David Gooday and Simon Granger, two original founder members of Nitzer Ebb. They had been working on their own project, called Stark for several years. Their direction was cool, more raw and minimal electronic, maybe more of a club sound. It felt like a really good idea for a kind of Stark/Nitzer Ebb collaboration. So Dave and Simon reworked a lot of the rhythm tracks, added transitions between the songs and extra synths running live for improvised possibilities.
We really liked the results – it brought a new edge to the songs whilst respecting and retaining the key familiar elements – like the original bass lines and signature musical elements. We found it an interesting balance between old and new, with room to improvise variations.
We were also very conscious of not changing too much, or to avoid having the live-set sound like a collection of remixes. There was a balance to strike there between old and new, and the results and audience reaction have been extremely positive so far.
“We really liked the results – it brought a new edge to the songs whilst respecting and retaining the key familiar elements – like the original bass lines and signature musical elements.”
Which musicians are on stage?
Douglas and myself as always, and we are joined by David and Simon.
What instruments are being used live, physical, analogue and virtual?
We have used a variety of setups, experimenting with different options. Right now we have two rows of 104 hp of modular synthesizers in Eurorack format operated mainly by Simon.
The central modules of that setup are a Bitbox by 1010 music, Noise Engineering Basimilus Iteritas, a Roland 510 complete voice module and 531 mixer module from the Roland System 500 series, and an Intellijel Plonk with a Winter Modular Eloquencer to drive them. The Eloquencer is synced to the main laptop running Bitwig Studio. Other modules come and go from the rack, but those are the mainstays. Previous incarnations of the setup have also included Elektron Digitone,Moog DFAM, Roland SE-02 and Roland SH-01A boutique. Eurorack Modular ends up being practical as it’s very compact and light.
What elements and sounds are played or sequenced live?
On stage, Dave is in control of Bitwig Studio. The above mentioned modular rack also runs in sync live with Simon at the controls. His system is clocked from the DAW via MIDI-Sync being sent over ethernet. Here, he uses the Eloquencer to run sound patches he instantly creates. Other sounds are fixed to achieve a reliable sound foundation. We use the Bitbox, the Roland 501 voice module and the Noise Engineering Basimilus Iteritas Alter which delivers percussion as well as bass sounds. Live, my setup is free running. I play live electronic percussion, triggering sounds from a Roland Octapad. I am mainly using an iPad as my sound module – AUM running Audio Damage and Bram Bos plug-ins and various original samples. The iPad runs through an Elektron OctaTrack for additional sounds and processing. I have a lot of alternative options and sound variations on the OctaTrack and it also runs a stereo backup of backing tracks in case of emergency. David is adding effects, additional synths and live arrangements from our main laptop rig running Bitwig Studio.
Do you use pre-produced sounds of certain instruments which you do not take to stage?
Yes, the use of backing tracks is often unavoidable because many of the tracks were created with vintage modulars or synths that would be impractical to use live. Roland System 700, Roland System 100m, ARP 2600, Oberheim Xpander and other instruments form a large part of the music across many albums, so for now we go with backing tracks on some of the classic songs where necessary. However, many tracks have new original variations running live, so we can switch between the original backing and live variations. That is something we are working on more and more. Eventually it would be nice to have everything updated and running live in some form, but that is a fairly huge project!
Our main sound of That Total Age was the Roland SH-101 with FM-sounds being added in the studio from a Yamaha DX7. For Belief, I bought a Roland System 100m, an Oberheim Xpander and a Yamaha TX81Z – so these are real characteristic sounds we must not miss on stage.
Later on, I embraced Clavia's Nord Modular as well as plug-ins and a Cwejman S1 to my setup. Industrial Complex therefore featured a mixture of real and virtual synthesizers. Unfortunately, the editing software for the Nord Modular was discontinued and I had to look for an alternative. One of the reasons, why I was so happy to switch to Bitwig Studio: The Grid and the modulation system can handle many of the tasks where I previously used the Nord.
Bitwig Studio is the hub of your performances. In what ways is the software being used to modify the mix and the arrangement?
Obviously the non-linear aspects of Bitwig Studio are excellent for live use. We can improvise the arrangement, add sections on the fly.
David came up with the idea to include musical transitions – so each song blends smoothly to the next, semi DJ-style – without a break in the music. Working with clips and scenes means we can keep those transitions organic and improvised. We also make extensive use of the master crossfader in the mixer. We have the original version on the A side of the mixer and various switchable, controllable elements on the B side of the fader. The B side of the cross fader has interesting combinations of instrument and effects switchers with assigned MIDI-controllers. We can easily switch between the original track and new variations with that method.
Do you use instruments or plug-ins in Bitwig Studio?
We make extensive use of the instrument and effects selectors routed through the XY FX container plug-in. That was a concept I developed working on remixes. Rather than having a single bassline, for instance, I would make a group folder with several variations, and assign each of those to a quadrant on the XY FX – with each quadrant assigned to a MIDI-controller. Combined with the master AB cross fader that provided five variations right away that could be freely switched or mixed. Often on the B side XY tracks, we’ll have some kind of semi-random modulation going on – so the variations are continually evolving. That is another obvious great thing about Bitwig Studio: the modulation system, second to none in my opinion and so many possibilities!
What are the essential synth instruments for current tracks or to reproduce the old tracks?
Sampler is an obvious one. We have used that a lot for sampling and slicing original parts, then triggering the slices from a random arpeggiator. Polysynth is very capable of creating a range of analog sounds very close to the original tracks. Also, the drum machine rack is extremely useful. David also uses a variety of effects chains during the live show to add delay and filtering on various tracks.
We have controllers mapped to essential mixer functions – mutes, track levels and so on. That way we can do spontaneous extended versions of certain tracks that lend themselves to that approach – classic tracks like Join In The Chant, Murderous, Let Your Body Learn – they have a lot of room for variation.
Also, most of the set was developed before Version 3 of Bitwig Studio and The Grid! Early experiments have been a lot of fun, so that will come into play more in the future for sure.
As far as external instruments – Malekko Manther, Roland SH-01A and SE-02 for new variations of Total Age SH-101 analog type sounds.
Elektron Digitone for any of the DX type FM-sounds from Total Age and Belief. Arturia SEM to cover certain Oberheim Sounds. Modular synths for variations and original mutations.
What's your studio setup with Black Line?
For Black Line we usually work at Cyrusrex’s studio – it’s generally quicker to list what it does not have rather than what it does – including one of the biggest Eurorack modular systems I have seen! At home I have a compact system including a modular, some hardware instruments and a laptop running Bitwig Studio and VCV rack.
Here, all runs into a big Pro Tools system for recording and arrangement. Roland's System 500 is featured in all my rigs as it’s so similar to my trusty System 100m. I also like Noise Engineering and Harvestman/Industrial Electronic Music oscillators – a lot of grit, variety and originality. Malekko features heavily for modulation – Quad EG, Quad LFO, Varigate 8 and 4+ and Voltage block – that’s an excellent unified system they have developed there. I often use some form of device connected to an Expert Sleepers ES8 – either an iPad running AUM or a laptop running Bitwig Studio. I can process audio or generate CVs using that setup. Some of my preferred standalone units are Malekko Manther, Elektron OctaTrack and Digitone, Roland SE-02 and SH-01A. I like hybrid rigs – a bit of modular, a desktop synth or two and some software. I like the mix of elements and portability.
“I like hybrid rigs; a bit of modular, a desktop synth or two and some software. I like the mix of elements and portability.”
Do you compose in Bitwig Studio as well?
Yes, Bitwig Studio is my primary DAW. The modulation system is what initially drew me to Bitwig – being a synthesist, this is the foundation of everything, and Bitwig Studio has an unrivaled system. There is no other DAW with that kind of scope and flexibility with modulation.
The possibilities with The Grid are now pretty immense! My early experiments here have been excellent and I will be using that a lot more. I love the non-linear workflow, and the icing on the cake, is sound quality.
“The possibilities with The Grid are now pretty immense!”
I was very happy with the quality of the built in instruments and effects. I also like subtle extras, like the ability to work with audio events within clips that allows for huge flexibility when working with non-linear methods in the clip view. Each clip can have a complete arrangement contained within it, and that makes it very flexible for use in the clip view with scenes etc.
I also like the interface and file browser system. I can work very fast in Bitwig Studio which is important to me.
Are there other tools you use to compose and what's your workflow to bring it into Bitwig Studio for your performances?
I will often sketch ideas on the iPad because it is so accessible. Once I have an idea going, I will either bounce the tracks as audio to Bitwig Studio or import the MIDI data work on refining the sounds with a combination of external hardware, external modular synths and software plug-ins.
With the first Nitzer Ebb album, sequencing was carried out just by the SH-101. Since it had just one memory location, I needed to setup the sequence for the next song in between songs during live gigs. Later, we moved on to Roland MC-500 MKII and then made the switch to the Atari ST using Cubase and Dr. T's Kcs – a favorite of Daniel Miller.
I also used Logic for a while but always wished for a nonlinear approach in sequencing. So I was happy to find Ableton Live which was used on Industrial Complex. When I then heard about the modular concept of Bitwig Studio, I knew it was going to be my next sequencer. And to tell you: The sound quality is stunning!
Today, once we are ready to play live, I will break the tracks down into eight subgroup folder tracks: kick, snare, hi-hat, percussion, bass, lo-range music, hi-range music and a misc track. Each of these folder tracks can contain multiple parts with the Folder Group going to an individual audio output on the audio-interface.”
How do you approach the new arrangements of old tracks. Is this done live as well?
For the Nitzer Ebb tracks, I start by sending the existing music to Dave and Simon. This puts a fresh rhythmic take on them and a new perspective – both important aspects after living with the tracks for so many years. That process then might inspire me to add some new things, using any of the gear and methods described above. We’ll then decide whether those sounds will be produced from the laptop rig running Bitwig Studio, or the modular, whether I’ll trigger them live from the Octapad, or some combination of all three.
Is there a follow-up to Black Line's Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities planned or an album?
Yes. Finding time where all the Black Line members are in the same place at the same time can be a challenge, but were are working away remotely on new material, and have plans to have a focused group get together and studio session in early 2020 to finalize some new tracks. Until then we are working on creative remixes and re-interpretations of the Treason tracks. The material is very rich and lends itself well to alternate versions.
What's the typical composition process with Black Line?
Treason was made via a collaboration with a lot of artists. Quite a few of the tracks came from jam type situations. A bunch of us would get together and just start improvising on modular and hardware, and from the lovely chaos, the basics of a song would start to emerge.
How are songs arranged, driven forward and taken to stage?
Songs have been arranged in a more traditional, linear cut and paste way on Treason. More of a traditional studio approach. I’m a big fan of a non-linear workflow, I like to develop ideas off the cuff, and rehearse and re-perform the ideas into final songs. I like the facility that Bitwig Studio offers to turn high quality studio recordings into raw performance material. In the past, maybe you’d rehearse and then go into the studio for final recording. I really like being able to then take those recordings and re-perform, re-process and re-record. I like being more spontaneous these days and letting the subconscious take over.
What role Bitwig Studio plays in Black Line?
Bitwig Studio was still new when we made our last album Treason. Increasingly it’s at the heart of my setup now though, and has been the mainstay of re-worked versions of tracks like Sedition Sedated and various remixes. I’ll take most new ideas to the studio in the form of Bitwig sessions – often with assigned controllers for some kind of performance capability. While composing, I love to improvise in a non-linear form before coming up with ideas for a linear arrangement, which I still find desirable. I often record and sketch out early ideas as fragments. However, while improvisation is great, it also has its limits if you have a vocalist. We need some kind of timeline to structure a song – for us and the listener. So, live we can insert improvisational parts of, let's say 32 bars, but we will then return to the linear arrangement.
Bon, thanks a lot for your time!