Let’s start at the very beginning. Can you tell us how you got involved in composing, and what was your very first piece of gear?
My first electric guitar was what kicked everything off for me. Whilst I started out more traditionally with rock music in my early teens it was through building a collection of effects pedals/loopers that guided me into electronic music composition. I didn’t have a computer until I was 18 so before that it was all about building weird fx loops and drone/ambient pieces and then recording onto cassette or minidisc. It was after getting my first laptop, an Apple iBook G4 that I became totally obsessed with learning the ins and outs of how to program and create computer/hardware based music. I didn’t know anyone else really who was doing it and had no idea what I was doing. Just pure trial and error experimentation.
How many different studio iterations have you gone through, and what does your final setup look like right now?
Well for years I just worked out of my bedroom, then moved to having a studio in a spare room. It was just before I started working on my previous album ‘Hollowed’ when I first got a proper studio out of the house and it really gave me a new drive and enthusiasm, and perhaps most importantly a better life/work balance. For ‘Bodied’ I moved into another bigger space, but I would never call where I’m at as a final setup. I’m not particularly precious about equipment. I’ve gone through so much of it over the years, I’ve always tended to use a few specific instruments or pieces of kit a lot and then sold them and moved onto something else.
Tell us about your favorite piece of hardware.
If I had to pick my desert island synth it would be the Korg MS20, I absolutely love it. It’s fairly simple but so versatile. I used it heavily on Hollowed and Bodied, running through a whole bunch of FX pedals. I just find it really inspiring and immediate to use. I like the fact that it has no memory so the moment you’ve moved something, its gone forever. Even though it’s a monophonic synth the whole of the track ‘Vesper’ from Hollowed was made on the MS20, layering up different parts routed through pedals.
And what about the software that you use for production?
I’ve been using Ableton Live since version 4 back in 2005. I’ve been through pretty much everything Logic, Pro Tools, Reason, Renoise, Cubase… But always found myself back at Ableton as my primary DAW. It’s just what I know inside out and after all this time I’m very quick using it which is what matters most to me! In terms of VSTs: I highly rate all the Soundtoys stuff. The Valhalla reverbs are great and an absolute bargain. They cost less than a quarter of what other comparable reverbs VSTs cost. U-He and Izotope both make quality plugins that I use a lot of and then also all of the Native Instruments stuff. I find it funny to think now that there are “vintage” VSTs that I used to use back when I started which I really miss and just aren’t available or compatible anymore.
Is there a particular piece of gear that you’re just dying to get your hands on and do you think one day you’ll have it?
I’d love to get a really nice piano. I’ve just needed the right space for it. My studio is on the basement level of a building so I can’t really get one in there currently. Other than that I’ve been meaning to get a decent microphone, the one I have is pretty inexpensive, it’s fine and does the job but I keep meaning to get a nice posh one.
Can you please share some aspects of sound design in your work?
Similarly to how it has always been for me, it’s mostly built around just pure experimentation. I work in a very instinctive way, feeling my way through ideas as they arrive. The way I work is to create a huge amount of content/versions/takes whatever you want to call it and then hone it down over and over. I’ll get inspired by some happy accident when I unplugged a guitar and it made a weird thud through the fx chain, then turn that into a percussive patch in Ableton.
Something I was very interested in for this album was the contrast in sound between the vast and the minute. I wanted to create very delicate sounds and moments that were counterpointed by brutal intensity. There are a lot of sounds on this record that are recorded extremely quietly and then cranked in volume so you can hear all the imperfections and background noise. The track ‘Fragility’ was all about this principle.
Another aspect is field recordings to give atmosphere and a sense of space. My wife and I made a lot of recordings whilst I was on tour in Japan which I have twisted into all manner of sounds and are to be found throughout ‘Hollowed’ and ‘Bodied’.
Any particular new techniques that you tried out for your new album?
I was keen to do more live recordings for this album. I created a lot of bespoke sample instruments made from acoustic recordings. I recorded some live vocal sessions, which are scattered and mangled across the record. There is guitar, cello, violin and lots more all over it and transformed into new sounds. A specific example of this is the track ‘Cipher’ which is largely made from Cello and Auto Harp recordings. I made a few sampler instruments from flicking and plucking the auto-harp and then pitching and processing in Ableton. I also re-amped sounds coming out of the computer to give some grit and sense of space. I’ve got a nice little Fender amp which is nice to run stuff through to give some character.
What is the most important environmental aspect of your current workspace and what would be a particular element that you would improve on?
Most studios don’t have windows because of acoustic concerns and also just the way studios are often built as rooms within rooms. I worked for over 3 years in a very small windowless studio, and whilst there is something to be said for the creative intensity of feeling like you’re in a submarine, it does get to you after a while… My current studio having some natural light is a big plus! I think I could improve upon my organisation and wiring set up. It’s all fairly boring stuff, but a lot of time is wasted because I’m climbing around the back of my desk plugging in cables or trying to find the right connector etc. Because I work in a very fluid instinctive way I like to just grab equipment and work with it quickly. I’m looking to get a proper patch bay setup so that I can have everything wired-in correctly and more flexibility. It just always seems like such a boring thing to spend my time doing!
What can you tell us about your overall process of composition? How are the ideas born, where do they mature, and when do they finally see the light?
I tend to work very quickly on the initial spark of a piece of music. I feel that the intention of a track needs to come from a place of honesty and integrity and typically the longer you spend labouring over an idea the worse it gets. There is always a tipping point when that starts to happen and I try to be mindful of that. For ‘Bodied’ most of the initial ideas were created in quick bursts of writing either very early in the morning or late in the evening as I was working on other projects in the day. They were quick sketches and then I returned to them later when I had some space from the initial session to craft them into a proper record. I can spend a very long time tweaking and finalising a track, but as long as the core theme and essence of it was there at the start I find it to be the best way of working.
After the piece is complete, how do you audition the results? What are your reactions to hearing your music in a different context, setting, or a sound system?
I listen to music I’m working on a lot whilst walking. It’s good to hear it in a passive setting, just when you’re going shopping or walking to the studio. It’s always great to hear new tracks live for the first time on a decent rig. And also something that can’t be understated is how important it is to just have someone else in the studio from time to time to hear what you’re doing. They don’t even need to necessarily say anything, but I find I listen to my work in a different way if I know someone else is there. I listen with a more critical ear which might perhaps have been suppressed when I’m by myself.
Do you ever procrastinate? If so, what do you usually find yourself doing during those times?
Yes, all the time. I really do work best under a tight deadline, which when you’re working on your own music doesn’t really happen so much… I try to be mindful of wasting time, and so if I’m not really feeling particularly productive and can tell that I’m going to be procrastinating a lot I try and at least take in some useful information in the form of youtube tutorials, production tips, a music documentary etc. And if I’m just really not feeling it, it’s good to just get out the studio and do something different altogether. I do spend long hours in the studio, but I’ve also found some of my most productive times have been when I’ve only gone in for a couple of hours a day. There’s no right way to do things when it comes to creativity!