Graham Dunning is a self-taught techno producer and DJ. His lack of traditional training and penchant for the experimental has made his setup weird and wonderful. This unique style he created is termed, ‘Mechanical Techno’. The variations on the turntable make him equal part engineer to musician.
By focusing on how sound becomes music, anything and everything can be used. Ping pong balls were employed in his boiler room. And of course, his methods are analogue.
Using this setup, he releases tracks that are littered with crackles and tape hiss, usually the unloved, discarded mess of production. His music has been released by the likes of Entr’acte, Seagrave, Tombed Visions, with his most recent album titled, Music For Climbing Walls. The UK, Europe and Canada are the countries he plays in most, both solo and in ensembles.
We caught up with the inventive producer, who also teaches Experimental Sound Art at the Mary Ward Centre in London, to run us through his studio.
1. PRAH Studios
This is one of the setups from one of the tracks on the album, which I recorded over the course of a week at PRAH studios in Margate. For each track I would build the setup in a different way, let the machine run and mix down a live dub to stereo. Back home a few months later I edited out the best bits and that became the album.
2. Sampling records
Most setups start with one of these modified records. The sticky-back-plastic obscures most of the disk so you just get a quarter-bar snippet of the original sound per rotation. This generates rhythmical samples with a fair amount of unpredictability, clicks and pops, and also a lot of textural record crackle and surface noise from the plastic. I generally have two of these in each tower, using the second tone arm shown here.
I only use white labels in this project. Dance music is quite fickle and fashions can change very quickly: lots of once precious records get thrown away. But it also constantly recycles itself, sampling and referencing its own history. By using these records I’m following that process using physical objects.
3. Drum triggers
The beats are sequenced by records with nuts and bolts through them in different patterns. As the record rotates the pegs flick the dangling contact mics in a rhythm. The contact mics trigger various drum modules – shown here is the Nord Drum.
4. Drum units
I like to mix up analogue and digital sources for the drum sounds. Tom Richards built the analogue snare drum generator: it has two noise sources that sound really thin and crispy. The drum synth in the middle I built from a kit: it’s intended to make disco space-tom sounds, but can do a pretty hefty 808 style kick too. The Nord Drum is great for shaping new drum sounds: it’s digital but analogue modelling. Great all round really: kicks, hats, snares. It even does some quite nice FM sounding bell tones.
5. Optical synth triggers
On the end of the two scissor-lift tone-arms are infra-red reflection sensors. As the record spins and the white bands pass they switch a 5v gate signal on and off. I can send this to various synths: the turntable makes the rhythms but the synth generates the sound. The arms are adjustible height meaning they can each be reading a different record at the same time. The control box was designed and built for me by Tom Richards.
6. Analogue synths
I’ve had the Yamaha CS-5 for ages and love how it sounds: classic 70s analogue synth sound, it’s great for bass but the CV runs on a different scale to the others, meaning I have to stick to one-note basslines in general.
It took me a while to get to grips with the microbrute but I know how to get the sound I want from it now. Surprisingly good for sub, it can get kind of acidy too. The great thing about it is being able to play the sequencer with gate on/off signals, meaning I can play patterns with the optical trigger as well as single notes. This really opens up a lot in terms of making phasing patterns over a bar in length, for example.
At PRAH Studios there was also a Moog Mother 32, which is all over the album making the lovely 303 squelch. Again it has its own sequencer, so can play different phrases according to the rhythm of the record.
7. Optical trigger records
The patterns on the records are designed on a computer and printed with a plotter cutter. Each disc can have several patterns on it, kind of like separate tracks on an LP: Moving the tone arm in or out can create different patterns.
I made up a few dozen new pattern- and sampling- records for this studio session, this is a few of them. Working out how to combine them in agreeable ways (through trial and error) is a big part of the process.
8. Mixing Desk
Everything goes into the desk to be mixed down to stereo, as a live dub. This mixer has three aux sends, which is ideal for dub effects. Sweepable EQs are useful and sound musical. The big-range faders are really handy for live mixing a track.
9. Effects boxes
Again a combination of analogue and digital FX, from very cheap and cheerful like the battered old EQ, to clean and precise like the Cathedral reverb. The Memory Boy can be good for dub delay but a bit unwieldy sometimes, so I tend to pair it with a compressor. The Monotron delay is really grotty and adds a lot of texture, also gets pretty wild if you let it run away.
I’ll tend to use the tremolo and phaser on slow settings to give a bit of automation to the timbre of certain sounds, so the longer looping sections change by themselves over time without me needing to be constantly tweaking things.
10. Spring reverb tanks
Proper spring reverb tanks are essential to dub production, and I love how tactile and malleable they are. I’ll often augment them with different objects to change the sound – shown here a bone found on the bank of the Thames, and a hexagon of red felt. They also sound fantastic feeding back, so I’ll sometimes have them on an aux send to do that.
Graham Dunning’s new LP, Music For Climbing Walls, is out now.
Buy it here.