Dave Smith is your greatest influence whose name you don’t know. Since 1977, his work has opened up new frontiers in music technology and created entire industries based around his designs. He is known as the “Father of MIDI,” released the first polyphonic and programmable synthesizer (the Prophet-5) as well as the first multi-timbral synthesizer, and developed the first software synthesizer in 1994. After years of working in the new frontiers of software synthesis, Smith returned to the world of hardware and founded DSI, quickly becoming known for Continue reading →
“The ease of recording with software synths is something you can’t deny. But then, the tactility…there is a warmth and kind of an organic element to analog synths that just can’t be replicated.”
Tycho, the brainchild and alter ego of San Francisco musician Scott Hansen, recently released his latest album, the swirling, synth-driven Dive. While it’s been a long time between releases for the artist, the wait was well worth it. Dive is a reminder of what great, textured music can sound like when synthetic and organic elements are meticulously blended with rich melodies and free-moving arrangements. We recently sat down with Scott to discuss the recording of the new record, his home studio, and his vast collection of vintage synthesizers.
I’m really into the new record. I’ve actually read a description that it’s kind of like an instrumental Postal Service. I’m not sure if that’s the fairest description, so I’ll throw the question to you: How do you best describe your sound and the music you’re creating?
What I’m trying to do is strike a balance between organic and synthetic, and also kind of have that … I don’t know. I don’t want it to be able to be nailed down in any sort of way, I’m sure any artist will tell you that. I basically want it to be really evocative and bring out a lot of emotion in people, in this cinematic thing where they can almost draw their own visual backdrop to it as they’re listening to it.
In broad strokes do you think it would be fair to classify Dive as an electronic record or is that too simplistic?
I think if I’m being practical about it, it is. I wouldn’t expect anyone coming from the outside to approach it and call it anything other than that. At the end of the day I know what went into that record and a lot of the techniques and instrumentation are what you would hear on any rock or folk record. That’s there, but I know that the anchor of it is the synthetic element, and I really love synthesizers and creating sounds and all that stuff, so that’s definitely a big part of it. It’s kind of a balance, but I know anyone else would call it an electronic album and I wouldn’t fault them for that.
We’ve mentioned a large part of it is electronic, but is that driving your writing process, the synthetic part of it, or do you work with acoustic instruments during that creative, brainstorming, songwriting time?
I think there was a time when synthesizers inspired me a little bit more than they do now, just because I worked with them for so long. I started learning guitar about six years ago and keyboard became this kind of dogmatic, visual … every time I looked at it I started thinking in the same patterns and it kind of became repetitive; I kept doing this same thing over and over again. With guitar, since I’m always learning, I’m always screwing up or accidentally trying new things, so that’s become kind of an inspirational instrument to me. So now I mostly write on guitar, but then the second I find that inspiration or that little piece of music that gets me going to create a song, I instantly jump over to the synth or the bass and that’s when things really take off.
With this record in particular, I was wondering if you could touch a little bit upon the recording process and how you go about building tracks and building the album as a whole?
There were varying processes on different songs but by and large it’s pretty much the same. I usually start with a little synth part or a guitar part and maybe we’ve got it 16 measures or something and you just kind of listen through it and start playing with other instruments. It’s all about layering and working through that process until I build up this 16-measure thing. It feels like a full song, like it feels like it’ll be a segment of the song at some point and then I start muting and un-muting things and feeling out the arrangement, what I think it’s going to do energy-wise, and then go into the sequence of it. During the process though, a lot of the times that original 16-measure loop, some elements are taken out of it, but it might not even make it into the song. That act is kind of the scaffolding or the framework for what it becomes and then later on, on this album, the cool thing is I would bring in Zac Brown. He’s the touring bassist, but he also played a lot on the album so he played a couple bass parts in there and some guitar parts. He would come in after I have these flushed out arrangements, and would add a new perspective to things. That was a really interesting new way to do things that came about during this particular album.
That’s actually something I wanted to touch upon – whether it was all you on the record or if you did have additional players lending their skills to the tracks.
Yeah, Zac was there. I want to have him involved more on the next record. On this one we didn’t really get to the point where we were working together until pretty late in the game, so it was pretty sparse, but what he did contribute, I think, really made a big difference. His parts break up the flow of the album and it’s not just purely what I would’ve done, and I really like that. Like “Ascension,” he played the second base line on that. Just little things like that, actually, opened the album up and made it feel more diverse than the last one.
I’m wondering if there are any moments on the album where you went into the recording process with a fully realized song, or a portion of a song, before you actually got in there. Or is it all experimental?
I’ve never in my career as a musician really gone in with an idea. I may have gone in with an idea, but I’ve always had a really hard time translating those into a reality. I’ve got my studios under my house and the second I think of something or the second I feel like I should be working on it, I just go down there and start recording. Usually, that’s the thing; I almost always use, not the first take but the first session. I always feel like I’ll record something and think, ‘I’ll re-record it later,’ but you never really get it right. Usually it is kind of the initial inspirational moment that made it on there. It’s really experimental; I would say the process of creating the stuff is just messing around and seeing what fits.
So you have a recording studio in your house?
Yeah. I turned my basement into a studio and that works out pretty good.
I also hear that you have quite the impressive vintage keyboard collection. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve got there?
As much as I love making music, I sometimes wonder if I actually like the gear behind it more. I just love musical equipment like synthesizers, outboard gear, all that kind of stuff. As far as synths, I started collecting them – I don’t want to call it a collection because I use all of them and if I become a ‘collector’ I’ll be pretty disappointed in myself. I started buying them, or acquiring them back on eBay, way back when I was living in Sacramento and just kept, here and there, adding stuff to the ‘collection.’ A friend of mine, Beamer Wilkins, he does some production stuff but he’s mainly a software developer, moved here from Austin, so he didn’t have room at his place and he gave me his whole collection. So now it’s just a joke. It’s a huge room and every single wall is covered in synths.
Is there one that you gravitate towards more than any others; do you have a favorite piece?
Yeah, of course. The Korg Mono/Poly is probably what you hear the most on that album. It’s kind’ve like the Japanese answer to the Minimoog. In the early ’80s they built this cheap version of it, but in doing so they kind of created a whole new beast. I have a Minimoog, and I absolutely love that thing and you hear that on [the album]. Other than that, it’s all kind of a hodgepodge of stuff. I even use a virtual analog. It’s not even real; it’s a digital synth. It’s one of the few digital synths I use, but I really love that thing. So probably those three are the core. I keep thinking if I want to go make an album in some other country, those are the three synths I’d take with me. I’d take a rack of outboard gear and that’s probably all I’d really need.
What’s your philosophy on a lot of the computer-based synths? Do you need the tactile touch of a piece of physical equipment?
I think there are big advantages to both. The simplicity and the ease of recording with software synths is something you can’t deny. But then, the tactility…there is a warmth and kind of an organic element to analog synths. I can’t imagine they’d ever be able to totally replicate it [with software]; I know they’ve come close. I try to be pragmatic about it, if it makes sense. There are actually soft synths on that album. You hear the lead on “Ascension” at the very beginning – it’s actually a CS 80 emulation by Arturia.
How do you translate what you do on record to the stage?
Yeah, that’s been an ongoing process and it’s been difficult. I don’t think I’ve really come to a point where I’m happy with it until very recently. Basically what we do is we have a live drummer, Matt McCord, and then we have a bassist, Zac Brown, and then I have a guitar and a couple keyboards. Basically, I strip down the songs, kind of change them. I try to stay true to the album so we’re actually opening the original album project and we’re being processed through all the same processors. I don’t bring all the preamps and the compressors; we try to emulate that in the box. I’m trying to be as faithful to the music as I can, while at the same time having it be something where the audience can connect and be like, ‘Okay, I feel like they’re making that song right now in front of me.’ I try to strike a balance between those two things. I think the key is having multiple people up there feeding off each other and re-creating it live. When I moved out of the laptop domain – which is what I used to do, just me on stage with a laptop – and got those guys up there, that’s when everything changed and I had a clear vision of what I wanted it to be.
I guess I’m curious to know what kind of shows you guys are playing. Do you fit in with a rock crowd at a typical club environment?
We don’t really play what I would consider clubs, like I used to when I played laptop sets. I think promoters just realize that now with the band and usually clubs can’t support that sort of thing. Now we just play regular venues that any rock band would play at and that’s where we feel comfortable. In a certain way, I want to recontextualize the music and push it even further in the kind of band-rock direction. A few guys up on stage with guitars and drums, and I feel like that needs to be there for me to get engaged in a live show for some reason. I felt like enough of the stuff on the album was played in that way with familiar instruments, that we could do that and still be representing the music.
I know you’ve got a number of shows coming up and there’s been kind of a long time between albums for you. Do you plan on increasing the frequency of your output or is it still going to be a couple of years between records for Tycho?
Well, a couple of years would be great! Last time it was five years! I had to get to the point where I could quit my job a few years ago before I could really focus on this stuff. Now I’m in the place where I feel like I have the ability and the time to do that, and I have another album’s-worth of material here; I just need to sit down and finish it. I’m thinking maybe in six months I’ll start on that and that’ll be out a year after that.
Now, you actually come from more of a visual design background; is that true?
Absolutely. I would say I drew pen and ink stuff my whole life, or at least my whole youth before I had a computer. I think when I got a computer is right when I started doing design for the first time, and that also was when I started doing music. They coincided with each other, but obviously it’s a lot easier to make a living with graphic design, so I focused on that and kept music as a secondary thing for a long time. Just recently I decided to focus more on music for a while.
Would you consider graphic design more of a day job type thing, and music is your passion?
No, I’m equally passionate about both and I don’t really see a big separation between them. There’s some practical separation that’s unavoidable in terms of day in and day out, what you have to do to survive and all that stuff. At this point the whole idea is to work where they converge and the final project will be this audio/visual thing that’s kind of inseparable.
Do you do the artwork for your albums as well?
Oh yes, always. Any artwork associated in any way with Tycho, I always do directly.