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Quietus Mix 55: Suborno's Blood From 25 Cuts
Ash Akhtar , December 29th, 2011 12:45

Quietus scribe Ash Akhtar releases his debut solo album as Suborno, The Instrument, in February. In advance of its release he has recorded a vinyl-only mix for us. Here, he explains the ideas behind it, and how they link to the experience of mastering and cutting his own music

Earlier this month, I crossed through the streets of Hackney Central and made my way to Curved Pressings to have my debut solo LP cut. I sat in on the session with the cutting and mastering engineer Lawrie, and we discussed the various merits of vinyl as he checked the master files, readying the cut. The process of cutting a record has always fascinated me: it’s an exquisite process, seeing music being physically cut into lacquer. Lawrie recently had an old Studer A80 tape machine refurbished, and has started to transfer digital files to tape before cutting directly from the A80 to his Neumann vinyl lathe. He spoke of the quiet and inexplicable beauty that came with the now outdated tape-to-vinyl transfer. 

Obviously, the music industry has changed drastically, and vinyl is generally considered a niche commodity. As recently as the ‘90s, vinyl was affordable, but because of the present lack of demand and the associated costs for independent artists producing short runs, it’s harder for artists and smaller labels investing in vinyl to turn a profit on this frequently overlooked physical product. Compared to digital downloads, this is a huge gamble, and the impact on the buyer means that vinyl tends to be the most expensive format available. When bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers publicly state their latest album has been mastered specifically for iTunes, the thousands of dollars spent on studio recordings only to then focus on selling a vastly inferior version of their product just demeans the entire process. Remember the overblown, brickwalled CD mastering of Californication

Quietus Mix 55: Suborno's Blood From 25 Cuts by The Quietus on Mixcloud

Mastering an album requires someone with (at the very least) the right equipment, great knowledge and experience. At this closing stage of an album, the artist should want the content they’ve invested so much in to be ably cared for. Whereas CDs can handle the vast amounts of information thrown onto them, a vinyl master needs to be sensitively made, or the cutting head will struggle to cut correctly. Hard sibilance, loud ride cymbals, wide bass, a resonant frequency around 1kHz – these factors can all cause the needle to jump out of its groove. Avoiding that is true craft. It’s an art. Much as Mark Kermode reveres the dying art of projectionists in multiplex cinemas, I venerate the work of the vinyl mastering engineer and cutter. I buy vinyl for the extra care, the dynamics - it’s partly why I made this vinyl only mix. Vinyl is the conscientious objector in the loudness war.

I don’t hate MP3s or CDs – I’ve got thousands of both. If that’s what available, fine, I’ll use them. It’s not like it’s possible to take a turntable on the tube to work every day. In Doug Pray’s paean to the DJ, Scratch, DJ Shadow is captured digging in the basement of a vast second-hand record store saying that it was as though he was surrounded by piles of broken dreams. Yet Shadow’s iconic, defining record, Endtroducing, was formed from those broken dreams.

The annual DMC World DJ Championships are now sponsored by Vinyl Emulation software maker, Serato, and DJ techniques have had to change. DJing in the mid ‘90s meant there was a slew of great hip-hop, breaks and beats around. Learning to scratch and beat juggle came with the territory, but the art wasn’t restricted to just hip-hop DJs. DJ Hype used the transform scratch in half time to great effect over his straight-up jungle sets. Now, it’s rare to hear so much as a baby scratch on a hip-hop record – let alone a 2-click flare, orbit or crab scratch. Once, it was the DJ who was the beatmaker: looping and cutting isolated drum breaks from funk, soul and rock records (take DJ Q-Bert’s superb Demolition Pumpkin Squeeze Musik mixtape as a prime example). The DJ that once provided the orchestration for the MC became a DJ with a laptop creating the scene; the pictures that can be anonymously painted from behind a Macbook Pro are stunning indeed. 

But thinking back to when DJs had no choice but to be inventive and improvise on the fly; when they had to respond immediately to the call and response – the need – of the crowd. Harking back to the sets Grandmaster Flash would play in his kitchen – performing flash body tricks by flipping the fader between records behind his back. Is the thrill gained from that greater or less than watching someone like DJ Craze chopping and screwing seamlessly on Traktor? 

By the time DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist’s Brainfreeze mix of funk and soul 45s dropped in ‘99, turntablism had started to bow out of the millennium. From Grand Master DST’s scratches on Herbie Hancock’s Rockit in 1983, the public’s adoration for vinyl manipulation had lasted around 20 years. When The Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty was released in ‘97, they had Invisibl Skratch Piklz member, Mix Master Mike, in tow. With him, they rhymed over one of his old drumming routines, and the track became the breathtakingly old-skool ‘Three MCs and One DJ’.

MMM’s presence on any Beastie Boys’ record since can barely be heard. The rise of the MP3 that began in the mid-90s has marched on since. Vinyl sales plummeted. Napster and iTunes became the record stores DJs could dig in without getting their fingers dusty. Vinyl was rarely sent out to DJs – it was too expensive. With the advent of the MP3 came DJ Software packages like Traktor and Serato. It was the DJ’s responsibility to get to grips with this new technology – a technological advancement that meant the DJ would no longer have to carry around backbreaking heaps of vinyl from gig to gig.

Is this simply a twisted nostalgia? This musical evolution (pray it’s not a revolution) shows no sign of slowing. Back at Curved, Lawrie was telling me about the young people that have grown up having only ever heard MP3s. Their recent discovery of vinyl meant that it was almost as though they were experiencing music anew.

In 2010, I felt something similar when I was selected by Turner Prize winner Gillian Wearing to appear in her debut feature film ‘Self Made’. The film focuses on techniques associated with method acting, and they had a profound effect on me.

This year, I applied those improvisational techniques used in acting to music, and that is what informs my forthcoming album, ‘The Instrument’. But, for me, DJing is different. DJing revolves around other people’s music, and there should be an organic methodology to pull it all together for an audience. A mix represents tastes, influences, loves. A compilation says something about the person that created it. ‘Blood From 25 Cuts’ is an amalgamation of a few of the records I’ve collected over the past year or so. The selections don’t all come from 2011, and those that weren’t released this year were bought this year for specific reasons relating to history, geography, and desire. For example, Public Enemy’s Sophisticated Bitch taught this man, as a young boy, that rock and rap were not mutually exclusive forms. Though many mixes these days generally stay within one genre, I always liked to skip through genres wherever possible. That impulse is reflected in the music of ‘The Instrument’. I don’t aim to mash genres together; rather I aim to celebrate and share them. That seemingly erratic nature feels very much like standing in a record shop: getting excited and rubbing dust off eager fingers. It’s a place where dreams become reality.

The Instrument is released on February 13th. To listen to it, and for more information, head to Suborno's website. More on Blood From 25 Cuts at Suborno's Soundcloud.