In the studio with The Album Leaf

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?
I’ve been making music for as long as I can remember. I started with piano at an early age and moved my way through different instruments throughout my childhood – violin, clarinet, and percussion. I went through the Band and Orchestra program from elementary through my sophomore year. When I taught myself how to play guitar in 9th grade, I was pretty much on my way out of the classical world. I started playing in bands through high school but really fell into a path of touring my senior year while playing in some hardcore bands from San Diego. When I started Tristeza with friends I had met on tour that moved to San Diego, I began to pave the way for the music I make. I think my first piece of gear was a Kawaii keyboard that I used when I was in the Locust. But I have had my 65’ fender mustang and Rhodes piano since around 1998. My first synth was a Roland SH-1000. I really regret selling that synth.

How many different studio iterations have you gone through, and what does your final setup look like right now?
So many. I moved pretty regularly before I ended up in Los Angeles. I had always commandeered a corner in the living room, a bedroom, a garage, etc. It wasn’t until I got to where I am now that I think I really dialled in my studio. My studio feels really good to me right now. I have moved around in it and experimented with different mix positions. But I like how I have it now. All of my synths shoot straight into my patch bay. Some are normally straight through into my apollos. I have FX pedals wired in as well. They’re also normalized for sends straight out of my Apollo. But I can patch anything into them. It makes experimenting really easy.

Tell us about your favorite piece of hardware.
I really can’t get enough of my Novation Peak, and now the bigger version, Summit. Something about the immediacy of dialling in sounds, having easy access to parameters, and creating sounds in a really quick way. The synth just resonates with me in an intuitive way. It has been my main source of sound since I got it back in 2017. The Summit is essentially 2 peaks in one synth. 16 voices and dual sound capabilities that you can either layer, split or use in dual mode. You can route those through different outputs and route the fx through different outputs. It’s really, really powerful.

And what about the software that you use for production?
I’m an Ableton nerd through and through. It has become my workhorse and is my right hand with creating. I can do almost anything I want with the software. I move into pro tools when it comes to laying out and mixing my score work. But Ableton is my everyday software. As for the plug-in world, I really only stay in the FX space. Valhalla, Sound Toys, Fab Filter and K-Devices are always on hand. When it comes to scoring, I get into Spitfire and Output instruments. I don’t have a piano, so I have to rely on the VSTs for that.

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 really want to build a small, concise modular rig. I am late to the game with the modular world, but I have really just been intimidated by the options. I remember when the modular space was coming back into the conversation, and I would see and hear all of these people just making noise. Nothing was melodic. So I wrote it off. Obviously, you can do very melodic sequences with modular synthesis, and I’m really excited to explore that. But I’m slowly dipping my feet into the world. I want to know exactly what I can do with it.

Can you please share some aspects of sound design in your work?
I start from scratch a lot. On my Peak, I’ll initialize parameters and start with a single oscillator and go from there. Once I’ve created a patch that’s inspiring something, I start to get into the world of FX pedals. My main workhorses are the Eventide H9, Too Bam, Bam and Boom, and then the Microcosm, and Vonogon Ultrasheer and Polyphrase. Those pedals have stayed close for a long time. I feel pretty good with them. I also do a lot of sampling and resampling using Ableton’s Simpler. I like to build beats with the DFAM and sample that into Simpler so that I can get further with the sequence. That’s really my chain of creativity.

Any particular new techniques that you tried out for your new album?
A lot of NOISE. I really wanted to make this record noisy. I guess you can call it saturation but a lot of stereo field tricks like random panning. It’s been 7 years since Between Waves, so everything listed above is really all new techniques that I’ve been experimenting with for this record. Most of it was born out of that.

What does your live setup look like, and what do you bring with you when you travel for an extensive tour?
I’ve gone through a lot of live setups as well. This time around, I’m going to be using my Summit, Peak & OP-1 for my synth world. I also trigger samples in Ableton from my summit as well. I’ll be using my H9, OTO Bam, and Microcosm to manipulate audio live as well. The backend, or brain as we call it, is my laptop, mic splits, radial 8 ch DI, a Presonsus stage mixer for our in-ear units, and there’s also a second lighting computer running our light rig that is being triggered by Ableton. Ableton is really the heart of the control, and I’m controlling Ableton with a launchpad. I run Ableton in session mode, so I’m in complete control of the flow of the show. I can control how long we draw out intros, set list, and changes. Things like that. It’s really a rewarding way to perform with a laptop. It makes the laptop a part of the band rather than the band having to flow the laptop. I always keep my laptop off-stage too.

What is the most important environmental aspect of your current workspace, and what would be a particular element that you would improve on?
I need more light. I used to think I wanted this dark studio space, but I really could use more light. That is the only thing I have struggled with in my space. I could also use some plants 🙂

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?
Again it starts with sound. Experimenting with sound. I work in session mode within Ableton, it allows me to just create. Since all of my synths that have MIDI capability can be controlled by Ableton, I often record a bunch of MIDI clips and send them out to different synths, and hardware and just kind of go wherever it leads me. My Moogs (Mother 32, DFAM, Sub Harmonicon) are clocked from Ableton, so I can really get into inspiring writing. I’m always recording too. But once I really start to dial in an idea, I’ll start to print my parts and move over to arrangement to get to work on the production. That’s when I get into EQs, FX etc. It’s hard to say when they finally see the light! I have so many ideas that I have not seen yet. They’ll all make their way out somehow. I’m really torn about releasing a model record these days. I’d love to just make something and post it at the end of the day!

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 spend a lot of time listening. In my car, in headphones, in the house. I think that is part of the creative process for me too. From listening to it out of my studio, I start to hear different melodies, arrangements, breaks, production tricks etc. Everything I do has to go through my partner’s ears too. She always gives me an honest reaction.

Do you ever procrastinate? If so, what do you usually find yourself doing during those times?
I definitely do. And it’s more in the vein of I’m just making a sound. I can be on a film and know that I need to start working on it, but I’m doing something else, playing with my Moogs + 0-coast and Strega and seeing what plugging this output into this input will do to the patch. To be honest, my procrastination really lies in the things I need to get done in everyday life.

What gets you inspired?
Sound truly gets me inspired. It’s what I react to. A patch I created, then sent through this FX chain, then sampled and put into simpler and back out through another FX chain. That method of experimenting inspires me constantly.

And finally, what are your thoughts on the state of “electronic music” today?
I think it’s in a really great place. I feel like electronic music has evolved in such an exciting way. And the umbrella is vast. There are a lot of labels to pay attention to right now that release great electronic records. Berghain, Leisure System, Ostgut Ton, Ilian Tape, Leaving Records, Past Inside the Present, A Strangely Isolated Place. They’re all releasing so many great electronic artists that are pushing the limits. I’m here for it, and I love discovering it.