Experiments in Sound and Sense: Radiohead (2000-01) – Equipment

IV. Radiohead – Equipment

“Picking Up Every Last Crumb”

With the stellar development of technology and the studio’s capabilities becoming increasingly limitless since the sixties, it’s now almost impossible for a pop band to retain originality when most innovative recording techniques have become industry standard.

However,  by constructing an album touching on remnants of a previous age; combining the possibilities of instruments that were once pioneering but now sound unique in their senility, with modern techniques that push the technological boundaries, Radiohead fathom a mixture of instruments both old and new, electronic and acoustic, that offers a sonic-context tending to correspond to the unreal and alienated.

For lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood, it is not a question of authenticity:

“a voice into a microphone onto a tape, onto a CD and through your speakers is all as illusory and fake as any synthesizer…. But one is perceived as ‘real’, the other somehow ‘unreal’. It’s the same with guitars versus sampler. It was just freeing to discard the notion of acoustic sounds being truer.”[1]

His childhood admiration for the works of Oliver Messiaen, in particular the Turangalîla symphony[2], subsequently pushed the man to search for and eventually acquire the monophonic Ondes Martenot: a descendent of the Theremin and one of the world’s earliest electronic instruments, exceedingly difficult to find due to outrageous rarity.[3] With Greenwood playing “Ondes Martenot on…just about everything”[4] the album is drenched in the stuff, and to some extent represents Radiohead’s style as a whole.

Of the instruments to feature at least as significantly as the guitar (bass or six-string) is the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, an analog synthesiser prevalent on ‘Everything In Its Right Place’, ‘Kid A’, ‘Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box’, ‘I Might Be Wrong’ and ‘Hunting Bears’.[5]

As one of the first polyphonic synthesisers with a maximum polyphony of 5 voices, its unique tone can be heard crystal clearly at 2.52 in ‘Everything in its Right Place’, continuing then until the end.

Everything In Its Right Place

The monophonic Moog Rogue also makes a dashing appearance, albeit far less prominently, peaking its head up only in ‘Dollars and Cents’.

DAT has the capacity to record at higher sampling rates than a CD, and ‘Idioteque’ harnesses a drum loop that Thom Yorke lifted from a 50-minute Digital Audio Tape compiled by Jonny Greenwood. Yorke admits “Idioteque wasn’t my idea at all; it was Jonny’s.”[6]

This 50-minute experimental piece employed the abilities of the Analogue Systems RS 8500 Integrator[7], an analog modular synth visible on Greenwood’s side of the stage at live concerts.[8] Its’ possibilities are almost infinite in both range and the combination of sounds it produces: from endless 80s synths, through to the simulation of a drum-machine.

If we consider the beginnings of rock music as a means for dance, acknowledging the senseless and largely insignificant lyrics of most early singles, we can draw similarities with Kid A. Of course tracks from neither Kid A or Amnesiac are about to be played in your local nightclub, because as Grove Music states in its definition of dance music, and like IDM, this could easily be “a key sub-genre of dance music which was not actually made for dancing.”[9]

But fronted by distorted and often indecipherable lyrics, whether it is through pronunciation or technological manipulation, Radiohead appears to experiment in fusing the two genres together again in a more modern and contemporary sense of the word. The Roland MC-505 Groovebox is a dance music sequencer that initiated the creation of the more overtly “electronica” songs on Kid A and Amnesiac: ‘Kid A’, ‘Packt Like Sardines In a Crushd Tin Box’ and ‘Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors’.[10] And whilst retaining a hearty combination of MIDI, sequencer/arranger, synthesiser and drum machine; it still lacks a sampler.

Today when one contemplates dance music, electronic associations immediately spring to mind, especially within youth culture. There are numerous resources, many ubiquitous to dance music, which Radiohead exploit to distance themselves from the guitar ‘rock’ of OK Computer, without ditching the guitars completely. The band utilise these instruments merely to provide interest in the musical texture, rather than employing them for specific standalone riffs per se.

Despite their extensive selection of guitar effects pedals, infamous for defining their earlier sound, Radiohead also embarked on an exploration of electronic noises and studio manipulation (using a Macintosh based setup of Pro Tools[11]) that were harder to duplicate outside the studio environment.

This obstacle was jumped, through Jonny Greenwood’s innovative use of the Korg Kaoss Pad in live performances of ‘Everything in its Right Place’. Radiohead “push [ ] [their] material as far as it can go”[12], with Greenwood generating a backing vocal from samples of the original voice, consequently creating interest in an initially minimalist piece.

Most importantly, in terms of experiments in sound and sense all these factors are not genre specific, providing a valuable insight into the ideal conditions for experimenting with seamlessly blending dissimilar genres.

-James Godwin, December 14th, 2010

[1] Doheny, James, Back to Save the Universe, p.92.

[2] Doheny, p.106.

[3] Mcnamee, David (12-08-2009), ‘Hey, what’s that sound: Ondes Martenot’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/oct/12/ondes-martenot

[4] Reynolds, Simon (2001 – 07). “Walking On Thin Ice”. The Wire. Retrieved on 08-01-2010

[6] “Jonny handed me this DAT that he’d gone into our studio for the afternoon… and, um, the DAT was like 50 minutes long, and I sat there and listened to this 50 minutes. And some of it was just (garbled speech), but then there was this section of about 40 seconds long in the middle of it that was absolute genius, and I just cut that up and that was it… [and then wrote the song around it].” Taken from: Thom Yorke Talks About Life in the Public Eye, 2006-07-12, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15226006, retrieved 2010-01-09

[9] Ian Peel: ‘Dance Music’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 5 October 2009), http://www.grovemusic.com

[11] Long-time producer Nigel Godrich says, “We mainly used Digidesign’s Pro Tools for editing and manipulating audio… Pro Tools is an industry standard and has been for years”. http://www.audiohead.net/interviews/radiohead/

[12] Entertainment Weekly, October 24th 1997.

Copyright © 2010. James Godwin. All rights reserved.