Richard Elliott aka Lektroid has been a name to look for in the scene for a number of years now, but something you may not know is that this is nothing new for him. Having had a fair number of releases under the aliases "Brainstorm Crew" and "Wise Ones" during the height of the Rave era, and later in the mid to late 2000's as "Brainstormer"; which subsequently led to the creation of his infamous project in the Electro Bass scene as we know him today, Lektroid continues to gain ground as he builds a solid reputation for being a well-rounded composer, producer, and all around Electronics aficionado. Having built his very own Modular wall unit that would make Keith Emerson tremble at the knees, as well as some other cool gadgets like the "Lektrovox" vocoder, the artist is truly something very unique as his music represents in every way exactly who he is and what he wishes to convey sonicaly. This month, Santino Fernandez got a chance to catch up with him, as the two discuss his early life, career, love for electronics and the current hardware revolution...let's see what he has to say!
Santino Fernandez: Welcome Rich, it’s a pleasure to do this interview with you. We are huge fans of your music here, and its amazing sense of depth and sentiment that it has. Briefly tell us how you got into making music, what were your main influences as a kid?
Rich Elliott: It all started when I was really young. My mum would play classical music to get me off to sleep – I think it was the only way she could keep me quiet, as I was a very talkative child. She tells me that when the music came on I would focus intently on every note; she would explain what the music was interpreting. This was the start of my musical journey.
Around the age of 12, I got into breakdancing after walking through the subway and seeing a couple of crews battling to Incredible Bongo Band’s “Apache”. I then started collecting music seriously, both Funk and Electro – I love those old tracks just as much now as when they were first released. After making “pause/record” mixes with two cassette tape decks, I got a couple of old record players and built myself a mixer (I was very much into electronics at a young age). I then started selling mix tapes at school.
I remember listening to Cybotron on my Walkman while delivering newspapers and thinking to myself how amazing this makes me feel as a listener; I wonder what it would feel like to have made this music and have others listening to it. Around that time, my older brother started bringing analogue synthesizers home – highly collectible machines now, but could be bought for as little as the price of a few beers back then. That’s where the interest in music making began.
As a young teenager, I never had a musical keyboard of my own, so instead I would use the piano in the back room of the local youth club and taught myself how to play by ear. Initially Classical Music which I remembered from my childhood, I then started changing the order of the chords and rhythms and turning arpeggios into chord hits to create my own music. This was while all the other kids were in the main hall beating each other up and doing usual kid stuff. During the week, I’d study electronics and computing at home and in the library. At the time I was in love with my Commodore 64, particularly because it had the best sound chip out of all the 8-bit computers of the day, known as the SID.
Sounds like you were a very interesting kid, very dedicated. No wonder you turned out the way you did! So a lot of people may not know, but even with all of your success in the scene since 2009 or so, this is actually nothing new to you, as you were very successful in the ‘90s during the height of the Rave era with your “Brainstorm Crew” and "Wise Ones" projects, and into the 2000's with "Brainstormer"…can you talk a little about that, and how it all came about?
I continued making music through my teens on my Commodore 64, but it wasn’t until 1989 when I started going to ‘Tekno Dreem’; a club night in the UK, I started producing seriously. I was working with a friend back then who had a load of analogue gear; lots of studios at the time were clearing out their old analogue synths to make way for their beloved Korg M1’s and Roland D50s. We never had anything released, as there was no Internet or means of getting in touch with record labels at the time.
Then in 1992 I met a couple of friends who would help me get my stuff released. We formed a group which we called “Brainstorm Crew”, two of the guys took care of sending demos, organizing gigs, and taking care of finances; we had dancers and MC’s too. I just concentrated on writing the music; I was the sole writer in the group. We then started to land our first record deals. This was during the explosion of underground Electronic/Breakbeat music, known then as “Rave”. My first release was with a smaller label called White House Records, and another with Formation Records; a well known Drum and Bass label, although Drum and Bass hadn’t been invented as a genre at the time I was on the label. Drum and Bass as we know it was a result of DJ’s speeding up the records in the mix to +2 or +4 on the decks, producers buying mix tapes, then speeding up their music to fit the speed of the mix-tape. Then the DJ’s pushing up the speed of the new releases, and so it went on, month-by-month, the whole scene sped up, and over a couple of years it eventually evolved into the genre we now know as Drum and Bass.
These were fun and memorable times while the scene was at its peak, and the underground scene was much bigger then. I was playing many live gigs around that era, but a government ruling ordered riot police to put a stop to all outdoor Raves happening through the weekends, forcefully breaking them up, using tear gas and batons against empty handed party goers; nasty business. As a result the scene slowly went back into the clubs, and the following diminished. I never stopped writing music though, I have hundreds of demos on tapes and DATs with unreleased tracks spanning many underground genres, some I’ve released on recent albums.
Interesting to hear all this, I remember when I started going to parties and hearing the state of things in the UK with the Rave scene; it was quite disturbing. I never knew Drum and Bass started that way either, that’s kinda funny; thanks for sharing that.
So after several years passing, how did you wind up getting back into the Electro Funk music scene, I understand it was always a passion like you said, but what led you to getting Lektroid started and getting on Street Sounds and Dominance Electricity?
I heard about the re-launch of Street Sounds (one of my favourite labels when I was a teenager) on the Electro Empire Forums, they were asking for demos. Despite having a backlog of Electro spanning from the ‘90s onwards which I had never released, I decided to write something completely new, so I wrote “Solar Storm” and uploaded it. It was in a really raw format then but was getting great feedback on the dance floor (I was playing a lot of gigs around that time). I hadn’t heard anything back from Street Sounds, so I wrote a follow-up track, “Modular”. I was in the process of building a modular synthesizer at the time, and used some of my newly built modules on the track; including a vocoder-line talking about the electronics within a modular synthesizer, hence the track title.
After a week or so I got an email from the Electro Empire forum owner (also the owner of Dominance Electricity) asking if he could feature “Modular” on his next compilation, “Global Surveyor Phase 3”. Since I’d not heard anything back from Street Sounds, I agreed to it. A few days later I got a call from Street Sounds, asking for Solar Storm…If two record deals in a week wasn’t enough, Paul Hardcastle then got in touch and asked if I would be interested in remixing his hit single from 1985, “19”, so it all sort of blew up at once.
That’s amazing, but well deserved I’d have to say, your music has something very unique about it; not surprised it all went that route. So now let’s talk about you building synthesizers, a very interesting aspect of who you are as a person and as an artist. You are, perhaps safe to say, an expert in “Do-It-Yourself” synth building, and have done a few very impressive pieces; especially your adored “Behemoth” modular synthesizer. Let’s get a little deeper into the story as to how you got into Electronics and the science behind building them.
I wouldn’t say I’m an expert by any stretch of the imagination; I am more into synth building as a means of owning gear I could never otherwise afford. Likewise with my music production, I am self-taught, so I’m always learning new stuff.
Electronics was a rekindled hobby from my youth. I was about 9 years old and wanted to find out why my transistor radio had broken, I took it apart and for the first time in my life saw a load of electronic components on a printed circuit board. I was absolutely fascinated, so I went straight to the library and got myself a pile of books, and studied. One of those books was about synthesizer construction. I was reluctant to return that one, so I photocopied many of the interesting pages. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time, so I’d often go around the back of TV repair shops and salvage any interesting components from their scrap pile for my hobbies. My first job out of school was in electronics, I was building avionics systems (aircraft communications). I’d often build synthesizer circuits in my lunch breaks, my first was a resonant filter, which I still have – unfinished!
Around 2006 I found a synth DIY forum, and started up my hobby again. Less than 10 years ago the synth DIY community was literally a handful of folks. Since then the whole modular synthesizer scene has exploded, possibly due to the documentary “I Dream Of Wires”. The manager of a well-known music shop in the UK, Red Dog Music, has also informed me that modular synthesizers are outselling guitars. I really hope this trend continues.
Me too, it’s really an amazing time to be alive. I had started making music with computers, and never thought I’d get a chance to actually own analogue gear; hardware is in my opinion, the only real way to get some true inspiration. Though I really appreciate software for recording, very flexible.
So if someone wants to get into doing this, what would be a good way to start? Any good companies to deal with? What would you recommend as a starter unit?
If you want to learn how to build your own gear, I would like to say get down to the local library, but there’s nowhere near the amount of electronics books available now compared to when I was a teenager. Out of the relatively few books available, I would recommend is “Make: Synthesizers” by Ray Wilson. He also runs a website called Music From Outer Space (.com), selling projects from beginner to advanced, one of which is featured in said book with clear and concise assembly instructions. Then there are forums such as electro-music.com and muffwiggler.com – both feature synth DIY sections.
I gotta look into all this more myself, I honestly can’t wait to get into building my own gear, seems like a great way to get even more creative. So now let’s talk about your music, something that is quite fascinating, especially considering much of this comes from what you build. What inspires you to write the way you do? There is a fairly profound sense for life deep inside of you that we’d like to get a feel for. What drives you?
I have a few hobbies other than music, such as mountain biking and astronomy; I guess this plays a pretty big part of my inspiration. Whether it’s an evening of astronomy, or a day of vigorous downhill mountain biking, I can feel music pulsating throughout my body. I seem to get the energy from my more sporting hobbies, and the ethereal stuff is usually the result of observing far off galaxies, nebulae and star clusters. I love unusual sounds, but usually hide much of this away at the back of the mix, which become apparent the deeper you listen.
As to what drives me, people, gigs, and dare I say it, sales; just knowing there is a want for my music and that people are willing to part with their hard earned cash for it, means a lot more to me than making money. So when I say sales, I’m not looking at it from a financial standpoint. No matter how much I make on a release, it’s only ever pocket change compared to what I’ve put into it, not just in monetary value, but also in the time and energy spent; not to mention the many years of errors and experimentation. The returns I get back really are very much appreciated; it helps to fund new synthesizer builds, which end up being featured on my music. I just wish there was a way to personally thank everyone who has supported me over the years.
I think continuing to make this great music is all the thanks anyone could ask for, shows devotion to your craft. And I can agree with what you say about money, it should never be an end with music, but it’s certainly a means to keep it all going forward. Passion and putting true soul into it is what truly counts…and I can hear that ethos coming through in your tunes very much! So what’s the basic studio session like for Lektroid then? What is your general approach to getting a song started?
A good vibe in the studio is the most important thing; the best tracks result from this. Usually creating a sound on a synthesizer is enough to get me started, I’ll then start jamming with it until I have a nice riff or sequence, and then record it and the rest tends to follow. Other times I could be sat at the modular and have some really unusual sounds swirling away, I’ll then go to one of the keyboards and start playing ethereal chords over the top. This usually results in a more ambient track; I’m yet to do an album in this style.
I’ve heard some of your Ambient stuff actually, incredible! Can’t wait to hear a whole album of this. So what are your feelings on this amazing hardware revolution happening, any exciting synths you’ve gotten lately?
Despite building much of my own gear, I still lust after manufactured hardware, and at the moment we are going through amazing times with synthesizer manufacturers. Korg have re-released the classic MS20 and the Arp Odyssey. Roland re-introduced the Jupiter 8, JX-3P, and the Juno in small-scale formats known as the Boutique range. I have them, and they sound just as good as the originals in my opinion. Then you have the smaller companies like Arturia bringing out the Brute series, Cyclone with the TT303 (the original Roland 303 is prohibitively priced these days). etc. etc.
Some of my latest additions are the Roland Aira TR-8 (I did buy the TB-3 and the VT-3, but wasn’t so impressed with them). I picked up an Arturia Microbrute secondhand recently, which I’m really impressed with, that has a huge sound! The Roland Boutique line is my most recent addition though, and I absolutely love this series, I bought all three. Other than that, I have some new outboard gear, noise gates, compressors, etc.
Very cool, you have been taking advantage of all the great releases then. I have to say I am just as excited as you are about all this, really great times for musicians, amateur and pro…Thanks for recommending the Boutiques by the way, the JX-03 is an astonishing synthesizer! And so true about the original 303’s being ridiculously overpriced! We also bought a Cyclone TT-303 for a quarter of the price for the studio, amazing clone of the original. Can’t tell the difference.
So then tell me, having been around since back in the day, do you see the trend of analog re-issues and issues as evolving properly perhaps? Or is there a part of you that is bothered about the way some things are being re-introduced and new things introduced? What’s different to you about the gear now compared to then, good and bad?
I like what the companies are doing, some are staying faithful to their analogue designs, and others are remodeling their old analogue gear digitally and adding some great new features. It’s nice to have both new and old gear in the studio. I’m delighted the classic gear is being reissued. There’s so much of it I’ve always wanted to get my hands on, even back in the day, but the price has gone through the roof. There are a few other classics I’d like to see reissued, any of the Roland vocoders for example (not that Aira effort, a proper vocoder), and also the Korg vocoder would be nice to have. But until then I use my hand built one, which also has a really sweet unique sound.
Definitely, some nice vocoders would be good, the AIRA is cool, but doesn’t let you dig deep into it at all. I saw the one you built, very cool looking piece! So I am sure you have heard the endless debate of Digital Vs. Analogue synths throughout the years, even now you have many people saying the Roland Boutique line sounds nothing like the originals; something I can’t understand because they are as warm and vintage in all their beauty as you could ever want.
To me, there is power in both, the MS2000 alone to me is an amazing evolution of the MS20, and does things amazing to the ear…What about you? What are your thoughts on Digital and Analogue? I know you personally used to also own an MS2000, and now some of the Boutiques. Talk a little about this whole argument and your feelings.
There’s good and bad digital gear, likewise with analogue. I personally think Roland have got it bang on with the Boutique range, I’m really impressed with them, and even if they don’t sound exactly 100% like the originals, so what – nobody’s going to stop dancing because it wasn’t an original JX-3P that made the bass riff… Roland is one of the few companies who have managed to make a digital filter sound great. On that note, I wasn’t so impressed with the MS2000 filter, sounds too “woody” for my taste, not the lush liquid sound you get on analogue filters – particularly in headphones. I had an MS2000, used it on one track (the main bass riff on Solar Storm), then sold it.
Generally I like digital just as much as analogue, they are different horses for different courses. Digital is great for stability in oscillators, but it’s hard to beat the liquid sound of an analogue filter. The Nord G2 for example is a stunning digital modular system, which has pretty nice sounding filters too. To have a setup like that in the analogue realm would take up masses of wall space. Analogue tends to be better for chunkier squelchy phatt sounds, but you don’t always want every sound to be this way when you’re mixing a track. It’s good to have some delicate sounds in the mix so the analogue gear can punch through with a lot more power.
Very true! I have to say, while I can see what you mean about the MS2000’s filter on the low end, I do find that on the high end it creates amazing digital artifacts as you sweep with it; could be part of the error in how it steps, rather than being more liquidy like you say. But those type of "phenomenal" sounds are what makes me think of why I like having both Analogue and Digital in the studio as well; they add something very spacey and almost ethereal to the music. It’s very interesting though the way different people debate the good and the bad of different machines; like now with the Boutiques and other releases.
Anyway, so to get into a little Recording Engineering, have you heard of this “Loudness War”? What are your opinions on how over-compressed and limited music is lately, does it bother you? Your music is quite dynamic, and not overly loud, it would be interesting to get your opinion on this.
It only bothers me as far as listening to other people’s music. Most underground music is generally ok, but you do get the odd track from time to time; I really dislike the sound of brickwalled music. To get true dynamics in a track, you need it in 3 dimensions; stereo separation, a good range of frequencies (each track should have it’s own frequency range, or EQ shelf, not to coincide with anything else). Then there’s the amplitude. This is where the problem lies, it seems that some producers are desperate to have their track the loudest on the radio, mix set, etc. I have had to fast-forward certain tracks on a mix because they are totally brickwalled and stripped of any dynamics, and sound damned awful; particularly on the radio when they are pumped through another set of compressors at the radio station. With all the added loudness maximization, the additional compression squashes the music further into a mass of unlistenable pulp.
The way I write and master my tracks may not be the best way, but it works for me. I’ll multi-track without any compression, maybe add a little musical compression on the drums to make the snare drum ring, but that’s all. If a bass kick is punching through the mix too heavily, I’ll correctively EQ it until it sits in the mix nicely without redlining. When it comes to mastering, I’ll use my compressors to round off any clipping that may occur but only push the threshold just beyond unity gain. Any more than that and the music suffers, in my humble opinion. There’s always a gain control on a DJ mixer, or a volume control on your stereo if you want to hear it louder.
Couldn’t have asked for better advice for the aspiring engineers out there, what you say is spot on! Thank you! So for someone getting into composition and production, what would you recommend as to what to get, what approach to take to make it out there?
Keep it simple, a laptop and some nice monitors are enough to get started. Some nice headphones are useful too for A/B comparison, I’d recommend proper studio-designed cans such as Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, or AKG; avoid the trendy brands such as Beats, etc. As for the computer, I personally use a Mac, as they have exceptional sound right out of the box. I use Logic to sequence & multi-track, but use what you’re most comfortable with. It’s all down to personal preference at the end of the day. If only it were this easy when I started writing.
Funny you mention Beats headphones, what an absolute rip-off! The amount they cost, you can get two pairs of Audio Technicas even, which are also pretty good. We have a set of MH-50’s which are great! Let’s talk releases then, anything new in the pipeline? Any new aliases with different styles coming our way? I have to say it again, I would absolutely love to see these Ambient tracks of yours make it out there; very impressive and profound stuff.
I have loads of unreleased stuff in various genres that don’t quite fit within the Lektroid pseudonym. I often slip one or two of these into a live set to keep it interesting. I have quite a few new Electro and Ambient tracks written, so I’ll be releasing a couple of albums soon, but at the moment, I’m working on my next gig in Slovenia / Croatia. Then later in the year I’m booked to play a live performance at a Modular synthesizer meet in England, which should be interesting. I always write new material for every gig I perform. The way I see it, if someone is willing to fly me out to their country, the least I can do in return is write a track to honor their welcome.
Interesting ethics, I can really appreciate that mentality. So gigs are going well it seems, that’s great to hear. This isn’t the case for many people in the scene, and probably due to high travel costs, and bad economies in many countries not to mention the industry itself. Good luck with those! Hope to see you one day live, I am sure it would be an experience. So then what’s your performance like? I can’t imagine the Behemoth comes along, so it must be a streamlined set up…What do you bring along?
It’s a real shame about the bad economy when it comes to music. Back when I started, you’d make thousands on one EP, now it takes a few albums to get the same back. As for a live gear list, it all depends where I’m playing. When I gig abroad, there are usually limitations on luggage, and also airport security staff tend not to take kindly to a hand built suitcase synth or vocoder going through their scanners; they’re not so well informed when it comes to bespoke music gear, and wouldn’t think twice about destroying it. So I usually take a few low value manufactured pieces, such as a Korg Monotron, a 6-channel mixer with built in effects, a control surface, an iPad and my laptop. I don’t have a problem with laptops at gigs either; it’s all down to the artist how well they are used.
For big events I like to take more gear, for example, the modular meet up I’m booked to play at, I’m likely to bring the Eurorack section of my studio system along, that’s if I haven’t built a new portable modular system by then…
I am sure you will have, seems you are always up to something! What are you building now?
I’ve been working on a few standalone projects recently, since my modular system is now complete. I’ve just finished building a couple of phasers based on Jürgen Haible designs, who sadly passed away in 2011. A company called Random Source took on his estate, and are in the process of re-engineering Haible’s work, since the original files were lost. I was kindly given the job of troubleshooting the prototype boards for them, which I find really interesting – you learn way more when something doesn’t work as intended. Prior to the phasers, I built an MFOS 12-band vocoder and some prototyping gear for my workbench.
That is super cool, what an honor to have them approach you about that. Keep up the great work man, very inspiring stuff! Alright, well this has been everything I hoped it would be, very informative! So in closing, for all the kids and aspiring adults alike, what would you say to them in spirit to make it in the music business? It’s a tough venture, and many simply don’t make it all the way…. What has helped you weather all the corruption and struggles that come along the way?
Nothing is going to happen overnight. I’ve spent my whole life making music, not just because I love it, but my mind is constantly bursting with ideas. If I don’t write anything, I can’t function properly. So for me, it’s a way of life. Don’t expect to become a millionaire from making a few demos, it’s a life-long journey, so if you’re doing it for fame, glory or money, you’re in the wrong business. Do it because you love it. Keep your stuff original, spend loads of time learning your tools, don’t just use factory presets, otherwise you’ll never create your own identity. There are plenty of useful resources on the Internet if you take the time to research, and don’t rush anything. Like anything in life, you only get out what you put into it.
Couldn’t have said it better myself Rich, huge thanks for your time! Can’t wait to hear your new material, and see new stuff you build over time. Keep up the amazing work man, your work is an inspiration to many of us.
Check out some videos by Lektroid:
Interviewed by: Santino Fernandez