3 Lessons That Orbital Taught Me

Orbital Live
Phil Hartnoll (Oribtal) @ Stealthunit 5 year birthday, Kaapelitehdas, Helsinki 2008. Photo by Vilhelm Sjostrom on Flickr.

Listening to Orbital’s music taught me three important things that influenced my electronic music production. The British dance music duo of Phil and Paul Hartnoll, who came to be known as Orbital, were critically and commercially successful in the dance music movement of the 1990s — and famed for their live improvisation during their gigs. But listening to their studio tracks taught me some important lessons. One track in particular “The Box” encapsulates these lessons in a single tune.

1. Tell a Story with Your Music

They don’t just unleash a wall of looped beats and call it a day. They create a story that begins, builds up, climaxes and then quits.

In “The Box,” Orbital starts slowly with the melodic theme before bringing in the main beat. By the middle section, the plucked string melody is doubled (an octave higher), then supported with steadily building distorted synths, and then pads. The soft beginning becomes harsh, before a short breakdown gives you a chance to catch your breath, then the final section simply finishes the story with a set of alternate chords. It’s about progression. Change. Flux. A song that doesn’t change, doesn’t progress, doesn’t build up, is boring.

2. Add Layers to Add Interest

While there is much to be said about a single rhythm creating a simple groove, some of the most interesting songs have intricate layers which become obvious only with repeated listens.

Orbital starts off with a subtle gamelan rhythm in “The Box” which begins to get aggressive with the addition of a main breakbeat that pins everything else going on. But then there are the drum overlays such as the extra snare hits, the tom-toms in the background, even the ride cymbal off to one side which help propel the tune forward and give it more density. It’s a thick sound. With every part easily definable. With repeated listenings your ears begin to hear more and more.

3. Create a Mood with Sonic Textures

Undoubtedly, “The Box” is sinister because of the minor key it’s in. Minor keys typically add a dark, sinister tone to tunes. (Although a lot of happy pop songs are also in minor keys. Refer to Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”) But in this case, Orbital follow it up with the use of moody sonic textures.

Think about it: at the start, the plucked string melody is accompanied by an Indonesian gong (gamelan). These are hard, struck percussive sounds which sound exotic and mysterious. Then later on, distorted synths reminiscent of fuzzy electric guitars come in, sounding angry and dangerous. And then that repetitious bassline which reminds one of the soundtrack music to Jaws. The choice of the instruments and patches and samples adds up to a single overall dark and sinister mood. And it’s done on purpose.

BONUS! 4. Wear Spectacles with Flashlights When Gigging

You will be the only light in the dark. And you will look cool. Much cooler than using a handheld Maglite that you hang on your neck.

I’ve decided to take a look at some of the tracks and music that helped shape my musical taste and style. This category of posts will be called Influences. My first installment took a look at how the melodic new age instrumentals of Suzanne Ciani inspired me musically.

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