Roland Users Group


Groundbreaking Synth Duo Powers Down

By Greg Rule
Orbital (Photo 1)

Say it isn’t so. The beloved brothers of techno have thrown in the towel. Paul and Phil Hartnoll, collectively Orbital, have officially signed off with The Blue Album, their swansong CD on ATO Records. What a bittersweet bookend to a brilliant 15-year career.

To know Orbital is to love them. The Hartnolls are two off the most likeable, creative, and colorful characters in music. With their trademark high-beam headgear and massive U-shaped synth rigs, Paul and Phil consistently staged the best shows in electronica, while producing some of the most instantly recognizable “signature” sounds on the scene. The brothers balanced many of their spiky synthetic productions with a warm, almost organic coating, and the end result was undeniably theirs. Orbital, we’re going to miss you!

But fear not, Orbital fans. The Hartnoll story lives on. Phil has been actively DJing and producing music for the dancefloor, while Paul has dialed his focus on film composition. It seems certain that solo albums will emerge as well.

RUG chatted with Paul from his studio in Brighton , England , to discuss Orbital’s past and the Hartnolls’ future.

Roland US: We’re sad to see Orbital go, but are thankful for all the great music you’ve made with Roland gear over the years. Care to reminisce a bit?

Paul: Would love to. I’m still using Roland gear. In fact I’m looking at five great big chunks of Roland right now, including a System-100, which I’ve just dusted off and set back up. It’s ready to use again. And I’ve got a wall of proper old Roland analogs that I plan to use in combination with newer gear. Everything is rigged up within patching distance of each other, so I think it’s going to be a lot of fun mixing those elements around.

What Roland gear made it onto The Blue Album?

God almighty. The 303, the 808, the 909, the Jupiter-6, the SH-09, which is still a personal favorite of mine. I know there are so many bigger-sounding synths out there, but we always go back to the SH-09 for bass lines. It just has this direct, head-first sort of feel about it. I even pitted it against an Andromeda to get the bass line, and I ended up conceding and had to use the SH-09. The Jupiter-6 has also been a favorite. It was semi-customized with two outputs before I bought it. That synth was our workhorse. All of our early albums just thrived on the Jupiter-6. I remember doing things for TV, and people would come up and try to put gaffer tape over the logo. I’d say, ‘What are you doing?’ I can honestly say that I’m not the kind of person who likes to display corporate logos and things like that, but I’ve always felt quite proud of the word Roland across my gear.

You’ve always gravitated toward more unusual synths.
Orbital (Photo 2)

Yeah, I was never interested in those all-in-one workstation-type units. But speaking of Roland, I’ll tell you what interests me is that VP-9000, which was incorporated into the V-Synth, correct?

Indeed. The V-Synth is one of the most powerful and unique synthesizers in Roland history. Some people have gotten the wrong idea that the V-Synth is a standard, workstation-type unit, when in fact it’s an incredibly lethal audio-manipulation tool in addition to being a highly playable synth. Ditto for the new V-Synth XT.

To which I say, “Brilliant.” The thing is, I’m really interested in that kind sort of synth. Now that I’m getting into film, I want to bring that type of time-stretched, elastic audio element to film scoring. Nowadays people are doing more and more films where they’re speeding the picture up and slowing it down, and I want to be able to follow that in a twisted-time, musical kind of way. It’s all to do with unusual manipulation of audio, if you know what I mean. The V-Synth seems to be ideal for this. And the quality out of the Roland VariPhrase gear is fantastic. When you mangle a vocal, it’s actually mangled in a better, smoother kind of way.

So film music will become your primary focus moving forward?

I think so, yes. I must admit, I’m writing music as well — just for music’s sake. So I guess eventually there will be a solo album, but I’m not going to rush into it. I’m just going to let it develop over time. And funny enough, I think that this album will use a lot of live musicians and things like that.

And for Phil?

He’s interested in film work as well, but that side of things has always been my passion more so than Phil’s. He might like to do that sort of thing, but he’s been DJing a lot lately, so what I hear from him is possibly making more dancefloor-heavy stuff. But that’s coming from me. It’s also possible that he’ll work on a solo album.

In the last issue of RUG we featured Madonna’s Re-invention Tour. One interesting segment of the show came when a trapeze team descended from the light rig and performed a synchronized routine to your remix of “Bedtime Story.” It’s a fabulous remix that you did a few years back, and that Stuart Price, Madonna’s MD, updated for the tour.

Stuart rang us and said, “You’ve got to send us those Orbital files.” Which was great news, but I had to miraculously dig out the old optical disks from ten years ago and find the old samples and recreate the parts. Stuart did a fantastic job, because he recreated every other part of the track himself. Stuart’s a particularly good producer.

Did you get a chance to see the show, and hear your remix booming out of that massive arena sound system?

Yeah, it was brilliant … especially to hear that big time-stretched “Let’s get unconscious” vocal bit we did at the beginning. It’s funny — we did that without even having proper time-stretching tools at the time.

How did you do it?

It was done with a hardware sampler — triggering the phrase as if it were 30 seconds long by velocity-mapping the start times of the phrase and then feeding it a big velocity curve. With Stuart’s updated rhythms and everything, it really came across nicely. He did a great job.

Tell us about The Blue Album, Orbital’s grand finale. You said in a press release that it was somewhat of a return to the old school for you.
Orbital CD (Cover)

Well, it was. We decided to stop nearly two years ago. It was around Christmas time, so we thought we’d see what we had lying around that we didn’t want to waste. We found about 15 half-finished tracks, some bits from films that we wanted to turn into final versions, and that’s what we did. It was sort of like being a young band who’d never done a proper album before, and you just look at all your bits that you’ve got lying around and you go, “Okay, let’s pick these ten tracks.” So it was similar to that, except in opposite. It was “What don’t we want to leave lying around when all is said and done.”

As for the gear we used, all of the Roland things I mentioned earlier — the 303, 808, SH-09, which was quite well used, the Jupiter-6 — were all on it. We also used the old Roland R-8, a fantastic drum machine. I’ve got that one in the cupboard now. I won’t let go of it. It’s a unique drum machine. Brilliant. It was responsible for a lot of our early rhythms.

It’s safe to say that Roland played an integral role in Orbital’s sound and music over the years.

We couldn’t have done it without Roland gear. It would have sounded completely different, especially from “Chime” upwards. And it’s not just Orbital’s music. If you look at dance music as a whole, where would it be? How would it sound if it weren’t for Roland? I think Roland has been the dominant synthesizer, the dominant sound for the whole of the last 15 years of electronic music. There are lots of other instruments that have their place, but it’s the Roland sound that has dominated. When I look at all of the analog synths that we bought, it was always Roland that comprised the main body of stuff that we’ve had.

Log onto Orbital’s official website at