In Conversation: Ant Miles

In Conversation: Ant Miles

As half of Origin Unknown alongside Andy C and a member of the Ram Trilogy, Ant Miles was behind some of the best known and most fondly cherished tracks in the history of UK dance music. We had the rare opportunity to sit down with Ant and hear how, from starting out as a tape op in Dagenham, he went on to become a key player in the drum’n’bass scene which remains one of the UK’s best loved musical cultures.

Semtek: You’re known of course for your work with Ram and Liftin’ Spirit but how did you get your start in music?

Ant Miles: I’ve always been major into music, learnt to the play guitar as a youngster. My parents were wonderful and got me a Fender Telecaster when I was about 8. I guess by the age of 15 had pretty much learnt what I could from my guitar tutor Chris, and I joined a young rock band, playing covers round Essex. I had several groups of mates that I knocked about with who were all into different kinds of music genres growing up; punk, soul, rock, everything. I have a connection with them all. When I was around 16, my dad agreed to co-invest in a rehearsal studio complex for local bands. So in 1980 we built Druids Studio in Salisbury Road, Dagenham. I finished school and went to work there. I proper loved it, had to get the bands in and out, set up the PA, microphones and stuff. It was always interesting to me the different genres and styles being played there. In 1982, we built and equipped a 16 track recording studio for the bands to make demos really. We were lucky to have a guy called Richard Bull come and join us as the main house sound engineer. He originally worked at SoundWave in Romford. SoundWave made the famous Trace Elliot guitar amps we love today. Richard was also a fantastic guitarist, he became my mentor I suppose, as an engineer and producer, a big brother figure to me.

I started as the tape op. I literally operated the multi-track machine’s stop record, play buttons for the engineer in the corner of the control room. We didn’t have a remote on the mixing desk in those days. It was major stressful, I had to be very accurate, punching record at the right beat and bar for a solo or there was hell to pay. We soon had some well-known artists come and record there, like KLF and The Rubettes, as time went on. Through the Rubettes is how I originally met up with Andy C as he was the son of the bassist Mick. Anyway, I soaked it all up and eventually became able to take on sessions on my own.

So… around 1985, the Atari ST midi PC came on the scene. I had a Mega ST4, as well as the new Akai S1000 sampler and a Yamaha DX5 keyboard. Those three midi units were the winning combination back then. I went to some brief music-tech courses, at the University of London and Gateway Recording School, and I tell ya, it blew my mind with what could be achieved with a sequencer and sampler. I remember reading that Peter Gabriel was taking a DAT recorder everywhere, recording odd sounds for the sampler, that’s the kind of initiative and creative vibe I love. I eventually took the Atari into the studio and became more of a programmer/producer than an engineer. I learnt a lot from Richard Bull and dudes like Nick Coler and Ian Curnow that came and went in the studio. I clocked how they used the Steinberg software, picking up tips and tricks with the Akai sampler and stuff. We soon went up to a Saturn 24 track machine and had all the state of the art outboard like the AMS RMX effects units, and eventually a Trident mixing desk. Richard went on to work with Incognito and Jocelyn Brown on ‘Always There’ and now works as Higher Ground Productions by the way. We actually linked up a couple of years ago, he mixed a production I was doing with an all acoustic band More Like Trees with singer Tali. It was an unplugged live version of tracks off her album. We recorded it in Hornchurch and then Richard did an amazing job with mixes and rescued it for us. It still had the essence of drum and bass, but all live. They were all so talented man. It went out as a bonus CD to Tali’s album on Shimon’s AudioPorn label. Definitely worth checking out that one.

S: So at what stage was it that you started to explore programming acid house and rave?

AM: Around 1988-89 I got the opportunity to create and set up my own recording studio. It hadn’t been set up long when I was round Mick’s house from The Rubettes, loaning him a mic or something, and I heard his son Andy, 15, smashing out breakbeats in his studio. I was like mate, that’s wicked. So Andy brought over the samples and the song file and we ended up with our first ever release ‘Turn On’ as Desired State, 1991. We got on really well together and always tried to push the envelope with everything we tried. The studio was like a sound laboratory! After a couple of releases on our mates’ labels, Andy decided to start Ram Records, which became something to focus on.

We just connected kind of telepathically. We both appreciated what you could do with a drum break. We would get real serious about chopping up every tiny little bit, reprogram it and create a new rhythm. Obviously it’s commonplace these days but at the time, it was kind of cutting edge. Our mates at our local music store PMT loaned us all the latest equipment to try out, and we sampled the hell out of em.

S: Right, okay. So let’s just talk about Valley Of The Shadows briefly. I mean, it’s an interesting one to break down.

AM: It was a really creative vibe in the studio that day, I swear to God that tune came together in like 4 hours. We originally wanted to exploit the Akai sampler’s technology, like time stretching and filters etc. We time-stretched down the pitch of a drum break, layered various other ones together and got a shuffle effect. I guess the sounds always came from everywhere. The vocal was from the TV, we used a basic sine wave bass tone that came with the Akai when you switched it on, and sample CDs. That bell line we used just went on and on originally. I edited it to start at a certain part of the arpeggio, tuned it to 160 bpm and retriggered it. The whole tune was different to what we had been making up until then, so we thought we’d make it the b-side. We were both into early jungle releases coming out at that time, artists like A Guy Called Gerald and 4Hero, so we started a new alias together as Origin Unknown. I remember Andy coming back after he’d first played it out and he was like “mate, it kicked off, it really kicked off that tune”. It’s still doing the rounds today, and with a tearing remix from Chase & Status they did for Ram’s 25th anniversary album.

S: In terms of how much you did aside from the desk and the sampler, was there a lot going on with eq and compression and so on?

AM: In those days we mainly used all analogue stuff. On the mixing desk we had just the one DBX1066 compressor/limiter. We learnt through trial and error really, getting the mix right to master loud onto 12” vinyl.

S: Ram always seemed to have loud vinyl releases, how did you manage this?

AM: Andy started DJing very early at 16 or 17 years old and he was cutting dubplates every weekend. Some would come out fine but some not so much. So he come back and he’d say “right we need to bring that beat down, we need to push that up” and he’d go and cut it again. Then we’d do an ‘A and B’ test, and be like “yeah that’s way better than the last one”. Rob Playford of Moving Shadow and the hard-hitters like DJ Hype, Goldie and Randall all supported and guided us major as well though, they were all such a pillar to our story. In the early days of drum and bass, the early 90’s, it was all very much a family thing, all the DJs got to know each other and swap tunes around.

Basically Andy found a mastering studio called JTS in Hackney. They specialised in cutting reggae and hip hop with deep bass onto vinyl. So that kind of filtered through to what we were making with jungle and drum and bass. What we were finding was sometimes, was that the record would be so loud it would jump, usually towards the end and of course that defeats the object if the fucking thing jumps, do you know what I mean? So we learnt to ease off the volume a bit as the track went on, because there’s less vinyl towards the end of the record where it would often jump. Even then, the cuts were so loud they’d only really play on Technics decks. Of course it was important that you want your tune to be standing up to the one playing on the other deck. But as I say, it’s still all about getting the mix right in the first place and then applying the right amount of compression, not too much, not too little, with a tiny little bit of limiting, trial and error.

S: How did you grow a record’s demand back then?

AM: So we’d naturally get a vibe that a particular track is going to do okay, to go ahead and master it and progress with it as a product. We’d often get like 30 white labels done to make sure they’re not jumping and then those 30 would go out to what I call the elite, which back then was like Goldie, Grooverider, Brockie, Randall, Hype, all the key players in the scene at that time. Of course, that’s when it starts getting grown on underground radio stations and clubs. It was such a lot of fun, to develop the artwork and press sheets and so on. After a length of time we would give it to the distributor, back then S.R.D., and we’d go ahead and press another 300 white promos that does a bit of a broader mailout, one copy to every shop to eventually get a pre-sale figure. Liftin’ Spirit is still with S.R.D. to this day.

S: So those 300, you’re selling into shops or you’re sending them out?

AM: Both really. We would basically do a general mailout and some would go abroad as well. Then we would send out what’s left to all the DJs in our list. Eventually, the distributor would phone every shop asking how many do you want of whatever release and get a pre-sale figure. We were fortunate to have a great relationship with our local record shop Boogie Times in Romford. Danny Breaks and Winston always gave us their honest opinions on a track. It’s always risky financially, but we believed in what we were releasing on Ram and Liftin’ Spirit, and of course we had already got positive reactions from the crowds, where Andy had played ’em out.

S: So before we talk about the kind of nightlife side of it, I’m still interested to know more about what the process was like in the studio with you, Andy and Shimon working together as Ram Trilogy. For example how did No Reality come together?

AM: It was always different on each tune we made really. No one had any particular role, all three of us knew the software and equipment inside out. A typical day in the studio usually started early in the morning after I’d dropped the kids off to school and I’d start developing sounds and basses together to quickly draw on when we were in the flow later. Shimon would often come over later in the morning and start mashing up bass sounds and effects. He would like mind-meld with the EMU 6400 sampler we had, the filters were so aggressive and half the time I’d be trying to save ideas as they flowed so quickly. One trick I had was to keep a DAT machine recording everything that came out the mixing desk. Sometimes we’d capture some wicked sound that happened by chance and be able to go back and throw it into the sampler. With No Reality, I think Shimon brought the vocal sample and most of the sound effects. Andy took what drums we had running and got them tighter and layered. He also played in the bassline that we had developed earlier on and smashed it out the park. I also played in some guitar bits through a Roland VG8. We all kept the vibe going, exploring and trying everything. If one of us had had a major run for an hour or so the other would step up and add or change bits here and there for the next hour or so. Andy was always great at arranging the sections, whereas I like to build panoramic intro and breakdowns.

S: Tell me about when the studio changed from analogue to digital changing to virtual synths and samplers.

AM: Around the turn of the millennium we started using more and more Virtual Studio Instruments (VSTs). Suddenly Andy was making tunes on a laptop while on a plane or whatever. I found it hard to transition over, especially in regard to mixing. It is a totally different science. The other problem was continually trying different mixdown attempts. Back in the day we’d be like “is that it? We happy?” and then pull the faders down on the mixer and start a new tune. Now it was always reloadable, so I found myself going round in circles, mixing and tweaking the eq and compressors, often making it worse. Andy and Shimon are both getting great mixdowns these days but I still struggle with it and miss my old analogue studio. It’s one of the reasons why I kind of drifted off the music scene a few years ago.

S: So have you left the music scene or are you still creating?

AM: Haven’t left, just haven’t been releasing much last few years. Loads of ideas ready to go. I did do a remix of ‘Milky Way’ with Shimon for Ram’s 25th. My life’s been a bit like a record itself though; one side is the wonderful success story, on the flip side it’s the opposite really. You see I’d been in the studio literally day and night for a decade with Andy and Shimon and it eventually affected my marriage. Sadly, we separated in 2002. It hit me very hard and I just kinda stopped. I found myself practically a single parent with two toddlers and my time for music became scarce. Scott took over from me at Ram and sent the label into orbit, winning awards continually, with artists like Sub Focus and Wilkinson.

Actually, this year is my label Liftin’ Spirit’s 25th anniversary… I’m hoping to finally finish a few new bits. Last release was the ‘Visitations’ LP back in 2010. You know, Shimon and the awesome Benny L have been creating wicked new wave jungle style Drum and Bass. It’s going full circle in a good way. Definitely inspired me to go back in the studio. I’ve just found loads of DAT masters of old unreleased and obscure tracks that either never came out or went on the Deep Seven label from ‘92 onwards, I’m gonna re-press a small run on vinyl I reckon, a Liftin’ Spirit Reloaded series.

This year is also the 20th anniversary of Ram Trilogy’s Molten Beats LP. We’re planning to organise some special remixes for a Molten Beats 2 LP release later in November. I’ve been up in the loft and managed to load up most of the tracks in the old gear and get the basic stems down. So far Shimon’s already completed a killer remix of ‘Titan’ and we’re hoping Benny L, Traumatize, Kasra & Inside Info, may also be stepping up.

S: Do you DJ much yourself?

AM: I don’t DJ out there very often. I did play at the last Ram night at The End club in 2008, as well as the RAM 25th anniversary at Printworks club in 2017 and last year I was thrilled to play at Andy’s all night bash at the Wembley SSE arena.

S: How about Liftin’ Spirit, do you plan to revive it?

AM: Absolutely. Liftin’ Spirit was always more of an emotional vibe thing that had its roots in a liquid-jungle style. I don’t want do something that sounds exactly like Ram, I want to try and do something that’s more of a tangent to that sound, something I can get a bit more musical with, but also keep some roughness there in the bass end, 93-95 style. Mate, there’s so much stuff in the studio I’ve started, they all just need finishing really.

S: Any last words?

AM: You know, I’m so proud of our history. For me it’s been an honour and a total blast. To me, Andy and Shimon are more than brothers. It’s great that they’re both still smashing it up today, Shimon with his label alongside Benny L, and Andy C going from strength to strength all over the world every weekend, raising the bar every time.

I just really want to say a massive thank you to everyone who’s supported us over the years. Next chapter is around the corner the story’s not over yet.

Ant Miles’ label Liftin’ Spirit celebrates 25 years this year.

Photographs: Jojo Mathiszig