The Move Towards More Synthesis

THE WINTER OF 2014-15 WAS BOSTON'S HARSHEST ON RECORD. Deep snows and PSA's urging citizens to "not expose skin for more than 30 seconds," made everyone a bit of a hermit for a while.

      I spent the month of December barely leaving the studio. My clientele - at the time mostly Berklee students and friends - didn't want to venture out into the cold any more than I did, so I found myself strangely isolated in the midst of the most densely populated metropolis in the state. Fortunately I had a ton of mixing to do for the now released album, The New Review, among other projects. But I spent most of my spare time drastically changing the way I interact with music. 

      Up until then, my full concentration had been on recording analogue instruments to faithfully capture the sounds I could hear. A four piece horn section is recorded with separate cardioid mics in relative isolation with an omni room mic to glue it all together. Pan it, add some compression and a touch of reverb and you've got your sound. 

      That's all well and good for more traditional types of music, especially 60's-ish velvety soul/funk stuff that I was used to working on, but I found myself wanting more, sonically, for clients with smaller arrangements and for my own music.

      I'm not sure how exactly it happened, but one day I found the answer in the form of a square wave from a Nord Lead A1. I was almost alarmed by how pure it sounded which, looking back on it, can probably be attributed to the fact that I was used to acoustic sources that have some room tone. A dry synth tone is so totally isolated that, if you're not used to it, it sounds like it's coming from inside your own head! Mathematical and sterile, but with tons of musical potential. That was it, I was hooked.

      I spent several weeks researching synthesis- something that I previously only had a vague notion of. Analogue vs digital, the unique internal systems of circuitry signal flow... what the heck an LFO was. I purchased a Moog Sub 37 paraphonic analogue synth and went to work figuring it out. I quickly discovered that any noise that can be produced by an acoustic or electric instrument can be created through synthesis- but unlike my then dogmaticly traditional approach to recording, I felt the need to create new sounds that had never been heard before. 

My Sub 37 currently sits atop a 100 year old school desk near my mixing desk. It is often elemental to my writing/arranging process.

       Ever wonder why people think hip-hop when they hear the term "producer" these days? It's because hip-hop is a genera created by producers, for producers in a studio setting in which they have 100% control of the sound. This method of creation was only possible with the advent of overdubbing and is first seen in disco. Producers would arrange a song and then record it piece by piece: Rhythm section, horns, a string section and finally bring in the vocalist, making sure everything was perfect along the way. Then it would be mixed and mastered, often in the same studio it was written in.

      Once electronic instruments were popularized in the 80's, the process of layering well isolated sounds became easier and much more affordable. A producer could have a perfectly isolated 808 kick and snare and bring in, say, a Juno-106 without worrying about the acoustic qualities of the space. They could lay down the foundation of a track at Carnagy Hall or in a wigwam in a wormhole and it wouldn't matter- the sound would be the same.  

      I discovered these qualities after I fell in love with the sound, but I guess the move towards more synthesis was purpose driven to the extent that I love the idea of being able to craft sounds that fit texturally and tonally exactly where they need to sit within the mix. That level of control lets you have the scientific precision that every engineer craves. And as an independent producer who often records and mixes from a home studio, the control over sonic isolation is very valuable.

      Another big change during that period was making the switch from Pro Tools and Logic (more traditional Digital Audio Workstations) to Ableton Live. This introduced an entirely new process for writing and arranging. Recording is a constant battle to capture creativity in the midst of stress, time constraints and technology that always finds a way to go awry. True art is perfect, even when it has mistakes in it because the momentum of inspiration is there. Think about anytime Charley Parker hit a wrong note- he never has because he keeps the momentum going and incorporates the surprises into the music. Jackson Pollock, throwing paint at the canvas- there's a level of control that the artist must give up in order to channel inspiration. Sound is molten until it hits the tape head, but interupt that flow of that inspiration and you'll end up with a track that has a kink in it. Nothing can distract an artist more than telling them to wait in between takes. I cringe when I have to hit the talk back button and say, "one moment, let me find that."

      Ableton is usually known as a platform DJ's use on stage as well as a DAW that people produce their own music in. As such, it is rare, as far as I know, to see it in a studio being used with more traditional, disco era production methods. But I love it because it is a recording platform that I can "play" like an instrument. It's unique "Session" layout is a grid mode that allows me the same kind of immediacy in arranging, writing and recording that the artist needs from their engineer, and because we're both able to be creative in real time, it's easy to find that momentum of inspiration and channel it together. It's also an excellent platform for digital synthesis with it's integrated system, Operator and others.

      That winter I dove deep down the "synth hole" [colloquially dubbed by my friends], and emerged a producer with a brand new lease on the creative process. Fast forward to today, when synthesis plays a critical role in how I develop new tones and textures, experiment with rhythms, and arrange parts. I'm always researching and learning more because the depth of possibilities is really bottomless. It's funny how something that is so often undervalued to most commercial studios can be the perfect tool for endless creativity. If you're a musician or an engineer itching to try something new, I'll warn you to proceed with caution because it can pull you in.