Native Instruments "Bill Lloyd Interview", 2007

Glamorous alternative stars Placebo have achieved longstanding success with a distinctive signature sound that combines elements of electronic styles with the power and straightforward attitude of a rock band. Topped off by the extraordinary voice of singer Brian Molko, the band delivers thrusting rock songs as well as epic, neo-romantic compositions. Placebo have been on tour almost constantly, taking breaks only to produce new material. Guitar Rig 2 and Kontakt 2 are both used heavily in the band's setups for songwriting, studio production, and playing live.

Bill Lloyd, the band's sound designer and additional live musician, took the time to give us an interview and share some inside knowledge from his creative work. As an expert sound designer and analytically-minded musician, Bill has been a part of the success story around Placebo for almost a decade by now. Analog synths got him started as a keyboard player and his sounds and snappy synth lines have helped shape the sound of the band's albums "Without You I'm nothing", "Black Market Music", "Sleeping With Ghosts", and the 2006 release "Meds". He is working closely with the three core band members in songwriting sessions and sound design. During Placebo's extensive world tours of the past couple of years, Bill has stepped into the spotlight and contributed as additional instrumentalist, playing bass, guitar, and keyboards.
NI sits down with Bill Lloyd to talk about how the company's flagship sampler, Kontakt 2, has helped bring Placebo's studio tricks to the stage. Bill also explains his approach to organizing his samples and designing his synth sounds for the live show in Kontakt 2. What's more, we learn that the whole songwriting for "Meds" was conducted with Guitar Rig 2 as the exclusive guitar processor.

Interview: Florian Grote

Bill, you've been a part of the Placebo live show for quite some time, and rumor has it that you play an important role in the studio as well. Could you elaborate a little on your function within Placebo?

I was with Placebo since the beginning, like ten years ago. I saw Brian, Steve and Stefan in a pub and started to go around with them. I worked for a record company at that time, so I passed their tapes around and that's how their management got a hold of their music. I had a van, so I drove them around a lot. Then they started doing bigger gigs and they wanted someone to do sound, so I did that and the backline as well. Things got bigger, and they asked me to play about six years ago. That was the first time I was in the studio with them, at the beginning and the end of the second album. On that tour, I played bass and keyboards, using an old analog synth.

Then, on the next album, I was in the studio with them the whole time. Actually, I did the writing session as well, it was the first thing I did for that album. We held up in an old basement studio in London called Matrix, which doesn't exist anymore. We just set up a small multitrack, mainly playing live to DAT but multitracking a few things on an old 8-track machine. I did the mixing on that setup and helped them get the right sounds. I also played some bass parts, sampled sounds, cut loops, and did some equalizing. Essentially, my part has always been that of the band's own sound designer.

And you mainly used analog gear at that time?

It was analog gear for the most part, but some hardware samplers as well. We had a lot of old synths like the Korg Poly 800 and Mini 700, and a sampling keyboard which we distorted the hell out of to make it sound cool. We also used a lot of delay on these sounds.

Are you active in any other projects right now, or are you with Placebo full-time?

It's a full-time job, yes, I am constantly on the road with the band. So, I don't have much time to do anything else. When I'm not on tour I'm helping the others with home-recording and doing stuff in the studio.

Which are your responsibilities in the live show?

I used to play guitar, but we've got a second guitarist now, so he is backing up with the guitar. I just play keyboards and bass now.

From your point of view as long-time sound designer of the band, how has Placebo's sound evolved over the years?

It certainly has more electronics involved, which happened gradually from the second album ["Without You I'm Nothing"] on. It already had a few keyboard and synth lines on it, then on the third album ["Black Market Music"] there was more and on the fourth ["Sleeping with Ghosts"] even more than that. It became really electronic then. The last album ["Meds"] was quite simple, but there are a few loops and synth lines, and a few old keyboards on it as well. I think this album is certainly more raw, but the one before this one had definitely a lot more electronics involved. But I don't think anybody would say that Placebo is an electronic band or even an electronic rock band for that matter, it's still just a rock band that incorporates electronics and synths.

Nevertheless, I always felt that your sound was very much influenced by electronic music as compared to bands with, for example, a strict punk attitude. Even on a more raw album like "Meds", Placebo is still an electronic-sounding band in my opinion.

Interesting that you think that.

Well, I think you can clearly hear that Placebo's recent productions were conducted with profound background knowledge of electronic music.

Yes, that is definitely the case. But the electronic elements are not too prominent, they're more like textures and other things that electronics are quite good at.

So, how did you come across Native Instruments software?

Well, I've used quite a few things from very early on, like the Pro-5 and other early NI products. I liked them a lot, especially the emulations. After the production of "Meds", which has a lot of strings on it, we were looking for a live solution. The hardware sampler technology was getting a bit old, though it was very good and very roadworthy and didn't fail us very often. But, basically, the memory just wasn't up to scratch anymore for our purposes. Also, the load times were quite long, even on the newer models. If something went down, it would be a nightmare. And I wanted the versatility that a computer can have, basically having a lot of stuff going on at the same time.

So I did some research as to what would be the best solution. What I wanted was just a sampler, without having to work within a sequencer program. Flood and Dimitri, the producers of the album, both recommended Kontakt, because they both used it. They told me that you could load up samples in multi mode, so that was a good start. I found it quite easy to use, too. I bought one copy to get started and get my head around it. I liked what it did, liked the user interface as well, so I stuck with it and gradually learned as I went along.

Do you use Kontakt mainly to reproduce the string sounds from the album?

No, I use it for synthesis as well! Actually, I don't have anything but Kontakt on my side, and on a couple of songs I play synth lines. I've got a little MIDI-controller with 49 keys and I have assigned its sliders to synth parameters like delay, cutoff, resonance, distortion etc. It works great as a synthesizer for me as well.

How do you organize your sounds for a live show?

Each song has got its own sound within a multi. I assign a sample to each key and then just have to remember which key plays which sample in the song. There are a few rather electronic songs where I hit a lot of loops in realtime, and I just have to remember where they are. The others are all one-shot samples. I also have pedals running the loops as well as clicks for the drummer. I can just toggle the loops with on/off pedal information. Additionally, I have assigned a volume pedal to the loops, so I can bring them in and out of the song when I need.

Have you also experimented with more complex modulation assignments in Kontakt, like envelopes on filters and the like?

Yes, definitely. I've got envelopes on nearly all the samples, to control timbre and release times, for example. Works quite well for me. The drummer actually has got drum triggers as well that are assigned to sounds in my program. Just one Kontakt runs all this, the loops, the synthesis, the drums, and I've got a piano in there as well.

And you also use Guitar Rig with Placebo?

Yes, absolutely. I have used it in the writing sessions for "Meds" with Brian. We just put it on bass and guitar, and it worked great in that environment. We had a little setup on a barge in France. It was just a couple of guitars, one controller keyboard and a laptop. We used Kontakt quite a bit for samples and Guitar Rig on all the guitars. It was fantastic! I especially like the Plexi and the Tweed, they are very good. And the Bass PRO is pretty good on bass.

Do you usually start from scratch with your own presets?

Absolutely, yes, I love tweaking! I've got some templates that I use to start from, like clean, distortion, spacy sounds and such, and then I just go from there. It's fun, as it's so easy to add and subtract the modules. Alex, the guy on the other side of the stage and the band's second guitarist, uses Guitar Rig live as well. It's his main system, actually. And it works really well! It's nice because Brian and Stefan have very hard, punky sounds, and it's good to be able to get different textures. I think the computer generated sounds add a nice texture. They have their own sound, it's just a bit different, probably more controlled.

What implications do you see using computers on stage or in the songwriting process?

It's for ease, really. You can do things in one application that used to take a few synths and samplers. And the laptops finally came up to speed as well. You couldn't have done it two years ago, but now you can.

What other Native Instruments software are you using?

I use Battery as well, mostly on demo productions. I love it, it's great! It's the best drum machine I've tried.

After all this extensive touring, will you have some time off later this year for songwriting and sound design and things like that?

Yes, we finish touring in September. There will be quite a big break hopefully. And then Brian wants to do some writing and studio work at the end of the year, so hopefully I will get a couple of months off. Also, I will set up Steve at his house electronics-wise. Stefan is pretty crewed up electronically, he doesn't really need my help. But I got him a Guitar Rig from you guys to use at home, so I'm sure he will have fun with that.

Sounds great! Thank you so very much for the interview and all the best for the tour and the break later this year.

Cool, no problem!