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It is a game of hide and seek. Somewhere tangled up in the patch cables, masked behind cascading frequencies, flickering between the LED lights, you know it’s there. It is an auspicious search – sifting through tones to uncover a mysterious and elusive place, yet if you press too hard it can simply disappear, evading your grasp just when it was on the tips of your fingers. You start with endless corners to turn, but can suddenly find yourself stuck in a dead end. You retrace your steps, back-track, make the smallest of changes to recover what was, and just when you think you’re onto something, you scrap it and begin the search all over again.
You want to be surprised. You want to find a place you’ve never been and you know that a sound can take you there. Somewhere within the instrument that you’re wielding there is a combination of harmony and tone that will make you feel new, but you have to be centered and ready to recognize it when it reveals itself to you.
The recent creations from Chaos Emeralds, a synth-based band in which I work with with my neighbor Daniel Ellsworth, is one of the many reasons why I love to work in a hybrid recording situation using analog synthesizers. This new collaboration began with Daniel bringing in song demos that he wanted to develop further – it was typical for him to have tracks started in Logic using soft synths combined with sounds from his Nord keyboard, and while I am certainly no purest and have gobs of software synths myself, the instinct was to try to beat those sounds by using my analog gear.
My first instrument of choice is typically my guitar. I can usually manage to strangle out some gleeful, wrenching noise to my satisfaction. For keyboard, however, I am more of a programmer: mostly using a combination of performance and MIDI editing. I’ve been working in Ableton Live for the last few years and I feel very free in this DAW. I love being able to mess with tempo, pitch, and loops instantaneously. Daniel, on the other hand, is a piano player first and foremost, so it’s a real treat for me as producer to have his skillful improvisation on my DSI Prophet. For what eventually became “Animal Kingdom,” a recent favorite Chaos Emeralds song, I started out by simply cutting together a bit of a drum loop for us to play over.
When you aren’t really sure what key the other guy is in or what the intention is, you just know how it sounds to you and so you react. I would grab improvised riffs from Daniel off the keyboards through a Neve preamp for some extra texture, and then quickly manipulate them in Ableton. Pitch shifting is a huge part of the sound – taking that classic, warm, fat analog tone and skewing it a few steps further just to see what it sounds like. In turn, I would then play that back to Daniel for another round of improvisation. We are both inclined towards melody and ‘hooky’ parts, so each of these passes added layers of ear candy. Working in this way, neither of us was ever over-informed on what the other was doing. To this day, the track still feels fresh to my ears partly because it would be near impossible to recreate it exactly the same way.
A big part of what gives “Animal Kingdom” its organic pulse was having an arp part from the keyboard be the tempo guide for the rest of the track. As the song developed into different sections, verse and chorus, this pulsing arp would drift pleasantly rather than slavishly locking to a MIDI tempo. Electro music can get stale really quick if it’s not breathing, so the Prophet and Ableton were quite complementary in this instance. It allowed me to field and organize the unique performance of the analog keyboard and player.
I’m not a particularly gifted communicator in the studio. I prefer to just try something rather than talk about what should happen next. The truth is that I don’t usually know, at least not in a way that I could easily put into words, so attempting to explain it instead of just trying it seems like a waste of time, which is why this method works so well for me. Most of the time I’m simply waiting for the song to develop and lead the way instead of forcing it. Embracing digital recording means I can paint a picture with audio faster than I can explain my own thoughts most of the time.
I want to build momentum. To feedback on what is there and what will be. I like to start from scratch on the Prophet and dial up the type of patch I’m needing because nothing is a momentum killer like scrolling through 500 presets. People start checking their phones or wondering what’s for lunch. The Prophet and analog keyboards in general react directly to each control – roll back the attack and the sound smoothly creeps in, lay into the aftertouch and the pitch wiggles a bit in response. It’s very tactile and feels like an extension of your own fingertips. Being able to quickly get to a place of pure expression can be the difference between having a great new song or getting stuck in another dead end.
“Animal Kingdom” (watch the video above) was found in that quick back and forth, the interplay between myself as producer on the computer and Daniel as the player on synth. We created something joyful and vibrant using digital and analog gear to bring our wild sound to life, and so can you.
Nashville-based indie-pop musician Kyle Andrews is a previous Performer cover artist. Always innovating, his video for “Sushi” involved 1.4 million interactive tiles and thousands of YouTube video stills, gaining accolades at the Guggenheim’s YouTube Play Exhibit. Hit single “You Always Make Me Smile” inspired an epic viral music video in which 4,000 people engage in one of the world’s largest water balloon fights. These musical feats are made all the more remarkable due to the fact that Andrews remained, for all intents and purposes, a one-man operation: a bedroom recording project that slowly went global. For more, visit kyleandrews.com.
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photos by Savannah Scruggs