Early Tools & Tech
Matt teamed up with Jonathan More in the mid 80s, when both were DJs on the rare groove scene and became pioneers of hip-hop and electro. Their first joint endeavour, the Solid Steel radio show, has been running ever since, and they have created a raft of ground-breaking musical cuts. They decided to set up Ninja Tune in 1993, after a trip to Japan and are renowned purveyors of innovative, eclectic and unforgettable sounds.
Matt welcomed us to Space Lab, his studio and nerve centre in London, and we asked him what exciting projects he is currently working on.
I split my time between working on music with Coldcut, having some input into the label Ninja Tune, but mostly that’s taken care of by our wonderful Ninja tribe, headed by Peter Quicke, and things like Ninja Jamm which is a software development, plus multi-media research and audio-visual software performances, developing tools for that, which is my particular interest. So we do all kinds of work here.
Matt has seen, and helped create, huge changes in music technology, and we asked him to tell us about his tools and kit in the early days, as well as his latest gear.
The landscape of musical equipment and the whole environment has changed immensely in my lifetime. I’m actually 50 years old so I started messing around with synthesizers and computers in the mid-70s and I built my own synthesizer with a friend out of a kit plan in Practical Electronics, I think that was the magazine. Maplins was around then, which is where we bought a lot of the components.
Going to university I got interested in DJ-ing, in learning to scratch and mix, and so that led on to what you could call “turntable tricknology” - mixers and decks as creative tools, but I was always very into the tech side of things as well. I think that gave me a sort of leg up perhaps compared to other DJs, because I knew what a multi-track was, I knew what an echo chamber was and so I was able to get various bits of gear, and plug them up and sort of add those on to DJ-ing, to take it to another level.
Luckily for Matt and Jonathan, the gear revolution was starting to happen just as they were starting to make music like their smash hit remix of Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full”.
Around the time Coldcut started, technology was really exploding, especially for music, the advent of cheap sequencers and samplers for example, the Atari computer with sequencers. We used C-Lab Creator - Cubase and C-Lab (the forerunner of Logic - ed) were the main ones around at that time. And samplers, everyone else had an Akai, which was probably the industry standard kind of cheap sampler. We had a Casio because they gave us a free one. And also a Casio drum machine which you can hear on some of our old records.
You can glimpse some of their set-up in this video of Doctorin’ The House which was a top ten hit in 1988 and features lots of samples.
I’ve always been really into the kit, and I think with my background in computing, it was pretty easy to see that things were just going to get bigger and better and faster as technology snowballed, and that brings us to today when really one can have hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of equipment, which previously would have had to be in hardware form. It was very expensive, took up a lot of space, always going wrong. All that power, all that creative technology, can now be made available on a laptop or on an iPad, on a portable device in the form of software. And I think that’s a wonderful thing.
Matt has an open-minded attitude towards gear, rather than insisting on the superiority of some formats over others.
“We made our first record using a cassette deck and turntables”
I don’t get involved in holy wars, as they’re sometimes called, between what’s best, analogue, digital, hardware, software, to me they’re all just useful tools. You know, we made our first record using a cassette deck and turntables, and that started Coldcut so we kind of proved that we can do it with any tools.
However, I do think it was a great breakthrough when this cheap technology became more widely available. Because samplers have been around for quite a long time but a Synclavier used to cost a couple of hundred grand so obviously that wasn’t available to most people, me included, and the kind of musicians who could afford that tended to make quite boring music. With some honourable exceptions - Art of Noise deserve a mention there.
The democratisation of music-making through cheap technology was a massive factor and of course that’s still rolling on today and it’s something that, with our app Ninja Jamm, we’re still pushing as well because it’s about letting people have access to the fun of making music, making art, playing with sound, without any artificial barriers.
Ninja Jamm - work in progress
Matt’s first love was computing, and he was one of those who saw the possibilities of information technology quite early on.
In the 70s I got interested in computers and I read a book called The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner which was the first sort of cyberpunk novel, if you know that phrase. And it really turned me on to computing. The other book was The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, which really had a massive influence on the way that I saw the world.
I was very interested in science and biochemistry and genetics, and that book kind of made the connection for me between genetic code and digital code, and also the idea that you could use computers to model behaviour and to make games on. So this was all quite heady stuff in the 70s for a spotty teenage youth, and I really got quite drunk on all those ideas, and so I taught myself to computer program, because this book, The Shockwave Rider, sketched out that the future was going to be about computers and networking.
I went to college, I did a biochemistry degree but in the end I ended up doing a computing option and I got a job with a computer company, Logica, in London, after I finished my degree. In the comms department. And I remember, oh it always sounds so old school now, but a guy showing me video playing, from a record, what looked like a record. I went wow, you can store a video on a record! And he said, yeah, we can send it down a telephone line. I said how do you do that? He said well we just send the parts of the picture that changes so this is video compression. This was 1984 and these ideas were, you know, really cutting-edge.
At first, he was only aware of the possibilities computers offered in terms of graphic art and communication.
I got very inspired and excited by the possibilities of using computers for creative purposes. I remember at Logica one day the guys set up a camera, and it was just a black and white camera, and they took three scans of a colour painting, using three filters, and then built it up on this early computer graphics device, as a colour picture, I asked why are you not using a colour camera? They said well we can’t afford one because they’re a hundred grand. But a black and white camera’s cheap, and by doing three scans we can build up a colour picture using a black and white camera. I thought that’s clever, that’s a hack.
And I think things like that inspired me to realise that there’s always a work-around to get the result and you can push the technology that’s available at the time and use it perhaps beyond the original purpose it was designed for. So that was very inspiring and I guess the core realisation was that computers were not just about word processing and spreadsheets and documents. These were early days even for that, there was a box upstairs at Logica which was called Lisa, and this was one of Apple’s very first offerings, and that was quite a revelation seeing that, actually. And being able to draw on it, use bitmap graphics on it. I was also working on a computer graphics system called Flair. So the idea that computers could be used as creative instruments was what really dropped for me
But the potential for making music with modern technology was what ultimately appealed, and Matt has experimented with plenty of different kit.
Getting into synthesizers in the 70s, it was well maybe I could make music without having to learn to play the bloody piano, which my sister was doing, it looked a lot of work. And quite a large part of it came out of being lazy and just wanting to save myself time and yet get the result.
In the end it didn’t save any time but it provided a way in for me which I’ve used and bolted various things on to, to sort of make my own, I suppose. So laziness and frustration with the limitations of not being able to play, of not being some amazingly great rock musician who all the girls love. Those can be good motivations for pushing one forward, so definitely don’t forget about using the negative, what might be labelled as negativity, as a positive fuel sometimes.