Howie B Exhausts Some Sonic Possibilities

The über-producer gets inventive with Bowers & Wilkins...
Howie B

Björk, U2, Tricky: Glasgow producer Howie B has worked with some of the greats. But when he was given a brief from high-end speaker manufacturers Bowers & Wilkins, it wasn’t your average project.

Luxury car brand Maserati’s new Quattroporte model is being kitted out with a luxury B&W speaker system. To celebrate this relationship, Howie was invited to take part in an exciting new venture, which saw him tasked with extracting music from the vehicle. To understand more about this meeting of minds and machines, Clash caught up with the musician to ask him about the process.

"I’ve been running Bowers & Wilkins at home since ’96," explains Howie, who uses their 800 Series, a pair of Classé amps, as well as the CM5s in his studio as near-field. But what happened when he was confronted initially with the (perhaps daunting) task?

"We went through lots of different things, and the thing eventually that we came up with was regarding the engine. Just going and taking the engine and shooting that as a musical instrument.

"I pretended it was a drum kit, really. With a drum kit there’s so many different tones and sounds that come from it, so you use quite a lot of different mics in different positions to record it. I put some inside the car, I put some on top of the bonnet; I put three mics inside. I put one very close to the engine; two on each exhaust at the back. At the end I was using roughly about 10 mics to record it.

"Then, once I had all these channels, I mixed them all down to two stereo tracks. And for me, the best sound was the engine, to be honest."

Revving up the Italian car's engine to various speeds until he had located seven distinct notes, Howie started at a low C and climbed up the octave, from 500 to 5,000 RPM.

"The engine can run much faster than that, but that was the first octave that I found," he explains. "And also, for me, it was the best octave, because it was deep – it meant that I could use it as a bassline whenever I was composing music. So the trick was whether I could actually find that lower octave – and I did, so then I composed from it."

The producer continues: "For me, it was brute and beauty. My intention was to show the brute of an engine with the beauty of melody. That was the way I see the two – Bowers & Wilkins being music-based and Maserati being engine-based, but both of them still having a great style."

‘Note One’, ‘Note Two’ and ‘Note Three’, the resulting three tracks comprising 'Seven Notes', available to download for free at www.sevennotes.com, showcase a distinct subtlety. "It doesn’t sound like a petrol head song… There’s nothing macho about this at all!" he laughs. "But I do like the style and sound of the engine, and for me it was adding the gorgeous melodies and choral things from the folk aspect – putting that over the engine was the great thing for me."

Collecting the sounds that he’d sampled, Howie took to Abbey Road with three-piece band All We Are to record the final product. "That place demands music from you!" he emphasises. "It was marrying the mechanical and the human – that was the ultimate challenge. Nature – we all know nature, and these sounds are entrenched in us. But the newest sounds… in the last 100 years newer things have come into our lives, and I’m interested in recording these things." 

A car engine isn’t the only spot of mechanical sampling that Howie’s turned his hand to. From lifts to aeroplane noises, to trains going over tracks, he has captured the rhythmical sounds of machines whirring and whizzing.

And now, 'Seven Notes' hits up all corners of the globe on a tour where ears and engines collide, with Howie playing live over backing tracks and visuals. "It’s completely different to what I’ve normally done," he says. "It’s a really interesting audience." 

When he’s not out sampling exhaust pipes, the producer has been busy setting up his own label HB Recordings, with a new studio album coming out in November. And if that wasn’t enough, he’s also been writing a film score with Robbie Robertson. You might call him a machine…

Watch a video of the 'Seven Notes' below.

Words: Felicity Martin

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