|Machine love: Luke Abbott
The Border Community producer talks at length about making music with a modular synth.
Luke Abbott fits so seamlessly into Border Community it's almost hard to imagine the label without him. Like many of his labelmates' output there are moments in Abbott's 2010 standout album, Holkham Drones, where it sounds like his machines are right on the edge of control, burbling like they are about to make a break from his studio into the Norfolk countryside. Synth lines scream through unpredictably resonant filters while drum hits endeavor to remain in time. But for every sound that appears uncontrollable, there is a perfectly formed melodic sequence to remind you of quite how accomplished a musician he is.
Given that his music is full of happy accidents, it should be no surprise that a key element of his packed studio is a Eurorack modular system, an increasingly popular synthesizer format that allows the user to configure the voice architecture in a near limitless fashion. This approach can lead to wild, unpredictable results, but that's exactly the point. Abbott doesn't want to create music he can imagine: he wants to end up with something he can't possibly have envisaged.
Tell me about the MIDI controller you built.
It's pretty simple really. It's a lot more basic than most MIDI controllers that you buy, but it's solid. I've had so many things break on me—I've had one of these APC 40s, and that kind of stopped working. This Evolution UC33 used to crash on me. I had another [Evolution] one here—the screen broke, the knobs stopped working and the buttons never functioned properly. [I had a] Faderfox which was really good for ages until all the knobs got smashed off the front. But this is really simple. I've used the highest quality potentiometers I could get so they feel really nice.
And big knobs!
And it's got big knobs on it which is what you want when you are playing live, isn't it? It's something very tactile. Everything is one function per control because encoders never last very long—they always go really slow and then they don't respond properly. I hate multifunctional things for live performance. It does its job really well.
Is it based on anything, or did you completely design it yourself?
Well, the board—the brain—is a Doepfer board you can buy. I mean there is very little I've done other than assemble existing parts. I designed the face plate, and that meant that all of these potentiometers kind of sit really nicely. It's powered off USB as well, so it's pretty easy to make them really. They are not complicated. The challenge is more in terms of the construction. My woodwork skills aren't very good, but making something solid was my main aim.
I see you use a modular. What do you find appealing about the format of modular synthesis?
Everything about it is just right, really. I love the idea of instrument that you have to reconfigure every time you want to make something with it. It's like an open-ended instrument. It's so versatile. You can use it to do almost any musical task that you can think of. The composition process starts with building the instruments almost every time so you're never stuck with [this feeling], "I've got a drum machine and synth and therefore I'm going to have a track that's got drum parts and synth parts." You can be like, "Right, I've got a bunch of voltages and a bunch of things and I'm going to plumb them together in a way I haven't done before." It allows you to be more free in terms of where you start and where you want to get to.
I read that in 2000 there were two or three Eurorack developers or manufacturers and now there are more than 50 this year.
It's awesome! It's really good! But also it's not that hard to get into—it's relatively simple to make things for it I think. I mean I've made a couple of things that work with it. I'd like to make something I could sell actually. But I've got more things to learn.
What would your module do?
Well, the drum module is probably the first thing I'd do. I've been building another little synth with my friend Phil. It's a bit like this Makes Noise Pressure Points thing. It has a four channel touch plate, but it has four oscillators that you can set to a specific pitch and then the touch panels kind of bleed the voltages between the oscillators so you can pitch bend them by touching the plates, which I found really useful. I found using oscillators for drum tones really useful because you can bend the pitches and do weird things with them. It's tactile, you can play it like an instrument but you don't have to have any training. You can just make noise! It's great! The modular [in general] is something you can really make you own I think.
How do you sequence your modular? Obviously I can see the Pressure Points, which is a sequencer, and the MFB SEQ01, but do you usually do it internally from the modular?
I do quite a lot internally, but I also do quite a lot of MIDI sequencing from the laptop. I've got a couple of other laptops I can use as well. Usually I leave this one running, just to record parts. For drum sequencing, I can do most of what I want to do on the SEQ01, and [sometimes] the Pressure Points.
I have this voltage addressed track and hold switch [Doepfer A-152] which is really good for doing pseudo-polyphonic parts. You can use it like a complicated switching mechanism to send voltages out to many different oscillators from the same source. So, for example, I could send a monophonic MIDI part to one of these MIDI CV interfaces and then send that to six oscillators, and it'll be playing an arpeggio on a six voice polysynth. But you can treat each of those voices separately, so you could have each one with a different waveform or working with different tunings or one of the oscillators could be distorted or whatever. Its very different to working with something like the Prophet where you have the same six voices. It's has different possibilities.
If you run these analogue systems oscillators at very low frequency speeds, you can use the pulse outs as drum triggers and then you can sync them together and use the pulse width as a swing quantize control, [which allows you to] do some very weird things rhythmically. That, and the shuffling clock multiplier as well. A lot of the time it's about experimenting with creating CV trigger patterns and stuff which is really fun. I mean, it's too much hard work to call it generative, but in the sense that you are using things to help you get to a compositional point that you couldn't by yourself it's kind of like a generative system I think.
I guess you wouldn't be able to sit there with MIDI doing exactly the same thing.
No, it's one of those things that would be a pain in the arse if you were trying to do it with MIDI because everything in the computer's trying to behave and be perfect. But when you've got three oscillators running at incredibly low speeds, and you're trying to make them sync with each other and also sending them weird CVs to the pulse-width shape, they get confused and things happen. So you end up with these weird, swingy drum rhythms.
There are lots of mistakes in it, but that's the glory of it. There's that moment when you've been playing with it and it sounds really messy, then all of a sudden it comes together in a way you hadn't expected. Your ears prick up. Getting to those points is easier and more fun when you do it this way. I could never sit down and write this without having something like this to play with. And also sonically as well, having a really nice synth like this Prophet 600… The different sections of it are configured in a certain way and the level between those sections is predefined in the way the manufacturer decided it should work. I can't change that. It's a fixed entity. But if I want to boost the volume of an oscillator so much that when I put it into a VCA it distorts, then I can do that in there. Distortion is really important to my production I think—finding out how different modules distort and where their limits are.
I see you've got two of the (Doepfer) Wasp filters that are kind of along those lines; gritty and distortable.
Yeah, they're weird sounding when you start driving them really hard. They're cheap as well, which is good. I might get another one when I get another case. They don't self-oscillate which is nice I think. The resonance is more about tone. The resonance on the one next to it—the [Doepfer A]105 which is like a Korg MS10 clone—sounds like another oscillator coming in, but on the Wasp filter it sounds like more of a tonal control.
You mentioned that you have only recently acquired a quantizer module. So you weren't quantizing your CVs previously?
No, and on my album there are some really off notes in parts. Badly tuned things, but that's fine. I would often start with these really distorted synth parts and record it really roughly and then I underpinned them with really clean FM synth VSTs and stuff, just to kind of shape the sound or to have another element. Often when people talk to me about my music they assume that I work entirely in this way and don't use any digital stuff, but I think its about 50/50 with my production generally. I'll use this stuff as a starting point, because it's an exciting way to compose and to find ideas, but I'll do just as much in the computer afterwards.
Do you think when people argue about analogue versus digital it's a bit naïve?
It's ridiculous! It's stupid. I just don't get it. Analogue's got certain nice stuff about it, but digital has got certain nice stuff about it. Why would you make them into these things that are opposing each other? Why work exclusively in one or the other? No one is making you do that! It's such a dumb thing to do. I don't get it.
There is quite a lot of crossover between analogue and digital within a modular system as well.
Yeah, I just think it's a waste of time people worrying about that type of thing. And, also you read so much stuff on the internet... You've got these idiots on internet forums arguing over sound quality of audio interfaces or different summing buses on different DAWs, and I'm just thinking, "Go and listen to some Django Reinhardt recordings or Robert Johnson." They were recording through crappy microphones onto crappy tape and there's loads of noise, but it's an amazing performance and it's an amazing piece of music. If you have a computer, for like no money at all you've got a recording studio way above the spec of anything before 1964. People made amazing records on much more basic kit than I've got here. I'm not going to worry about whether the summing bus in Live is 64 bit or 32 bit. I don't care! Sounds fine to me.
You seem to have a lot of equipment here. How much do you end up doing in the box? You said it was 50/50?
Yeah, I think 50/50.
And that includes synths, mixing…
Yeah, everything. Sometimes I'll send tracks out through the modular or into the tape recorder through that BBE thing. You can get a VST of this—that was £50 and the VST is more than that—so the hardware is cheaper.
So it's a maximiser?
Yeah, it's like an exciter. It pulls apart the harmonics so you can supposedly hear more detail. If you use it too much, you completely destroy anything you are listening to. I use this tape recorder quite a lot, often I put a whole mix here. But if I go through the sonic maximiser first, it compensates ever so slightly for the faults of the tape recorder. It fills the bass out a little bit and just opens up the top. I try not to spend too much time worrying about the end sound because anything that gets released is going to go to a mastering engineer. It is quite an addictive thing to do mastering things, but it's much better to have a mastering engineer do things for you I think.
You mention the tape machine. What is it about tape that you like?
I think I just like noise quite a lot. I think it's an underused musical voice. It's something which is present on old recorded music because it was inherent to the medium and now, just because we can record things without it, people assume that you don't want it there. But I think often it's as much a part of what the music is about. Putting things on tape is a great way of gelling sounds together. One of the nice things about analogue gear is that there's no point at which they'll stop working. It's more a gradient of gradually distorting to the point of uselessness. For example, if I had some drum sounds that were too clean I can throw it onto tape, and it's going to have a slightly dirtier more compressed sound.
It naturally does two or three things that I would want to do to certain sounds anyway, so it seems to be the right way of doing it. That's a particularly nice sounding tape recorder though. That [pointing at his other tape machine] reel-to-reel is so lo-fi it's almost unusable. I hardly ever use it, but it's beautiful so I keep it in the studio. I've got a bunch of other Walkmans and stuff, which I use from time to time so I've got probably six or seven tape recorders in here… But that Nakamichi is brilliant. I love it. I was so happy when I got it. Just the other day I played a friend who is a sound engineer some mixes that I bounced. He couldn't believe that they'd come from tape cassette.
So is Ableton your DAW of choice then?
Yeah, definitely. I love it. I've been using it since version 3. I was using Cubase before that and I never really enjoyed it. It was the same feeling as when you open up an Excel spreadsheet—slightly depressing. I think Ableton takes advantage of what computers do really well, plus the workflow is incredibly fast so you have to spend less time dealing with the computer. The routing in the mixer is perfect. I do a lot of sending in and out, and it's nice not having to worry about it. Also, it's really the only sensible program you can use for live performance so it's nice to have this really familiar aspect of the studio when you're playing live.
I also really like the built-in effects. I use them a lot. The utility things like the compressors are great for doing sidechaining. The EQ I use quite a lot. The utility one has a stereo spread option I really like. Specktrum is really useful. It helps me pick out which harmonic I want to cut out. It can be a little bit difficult monitoring sub frequencies in a small studio on small monitors, so it's quite useful to have a visual indicator that you've put way too much bass on something. Yeah, I think it's great. And also the Max/MSP integration…
I was just about to ask you that.
Yeah, I'm not a big programmer. I used to use Reaktor a lot. Now, I'd rather not open up MAX if I can get away with it as it takes me so long to get my head around what I want to do. But it's very useful to have the tools to build certain small utilities for when I'm playing live, like muting certain MIDI notes within a drum part or something. I really like it.
I'm yet to get into that part of Ableton.
Oh, it would take a whole lifetime to get into it properly. That's why I can't be bothered. James [Holden] is a really good MAX programmer. He's built some great things in it, like little sequencers and stuff which I've used a little bit.
"I used to play drums...
I still strive to put that kind
of feeling into drum parts."
Talking of James Holden, I went to see the Caribou Vibration Ensemble gig recently where he bravely took his modular on stage. Is this something you'd ever consider doing?
I've done it once. At my album launch I had that small case with me with some different things in it. It's fine as long as you aren't going on an airplane I suppose, as it's quite a lot to carry and it's very delicate. As versatile as a modular system is, it's maybe not the best thing to have in a live situation because it takes quite a long time to set it up.
[Also] with the modular, you end up playing with the same thing for 20 minutes. I don't think people really want to hear that! I don't think I'd be able to keep people's attention. You have maybe 10% of the audience who would love it, but then everyone else would be bored to tears after ten minutes of the arpeggio pattern. I wouldn't mind. I'd be alright. It would be quite a gimmicky thing to do—I can't imagine it being practically useful.
I don't think it was gimmicky when James was doing it, as he had a single function in the Caribou Vibration Ensemble. He was there to play awesome arpeggios. But since I'm playing by myself, it doesn't make sense. I'm more of the mindset now that I want to take things with me on tour that are cheaper and that—if they're broken—I don't mind.
Apart from Ableton, is there any particular software you use?
The Ozone plug-in is for mastering effects, but I use it usually as a channel strip, it's really, really good. Its harmonic exciter is excellent, but everything about it is excellent. The multiband dynamics are actually so well detailed you can use it as a really good distortion effect. If you pull out this panel you can get the release and attack times down to nothing and you can really dial in harmonic distortions really precisely with it. They don't advertise that, but you can do that. Also if you are working with a modular system or the Prophet 600 or a lot of things that have mono outputs, and you want to get some stereo spread, especially in the upper mids or something, it's really good for that. The loudness maximiser I think is the nicest one I've ever heard.
I see you have a MFB drum machine there and quite a few MFB drum modules. What is about the MFB drum sounds that you like?
They're not the Roland drum sounds. (Although I particularly like the CR-78 and TR-66.) I don't really like the 909 sounds. Some of the 808 sounds I use quite a lot because they are very basic noises to start with. But I don't know... It's very difficult to get drums right. I find it really hard actually. It takes me a long time to find drum sounds that I like. I'll just as often do stuff in the computer with samples. Or I'll usually mix them together, like I'll get something very basic happening in the hardware and then I'll kind of flesh it out with things like samples in the computer. I used to have a Vermona DRM1 MKIII, and I used that so much on my album that I sold it [afterward] so that I would force myself to stop using it. I felt like it was really the character of the record or something so I felt… maybe it was a dumb thing to do? I do miss it.
You felt like you had to divorce yourself from something that is so integral to the first album?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm not trying to make the same [thing] again. I've got these Analogue Solutions ones, and I've got a few other ones up there that aren't plugged in at the moment because I don't have enough room. I only really use the noise output from this snare drum module. (Just because I don't have another convenient noise source in the modular.) The BD78 I use a lot and the snare drum I use quite a bit. The MFB snare drum is much nicer than the Roland ones—they sound more broken or something. The bass drum thing has a lovely noise and drive distortion on it.
The 522 sounds alright by itself but I generally put it through this crappy cheap DJ mixer that distorts quite nicely with it. You can get much more interesting kick drum sounds through it, because this channel is kind of broken. Drums have as much to do with distortion and EQing as they do with the sounds you start with I think. It's difficult to get drums to be repetitive without feeling repetitive. I think I'm very particular about it, because I used to play drums in bands before I got into electronic music. I still strive to put that kind of feeling into drum parts. I want there to be some kind of movement.
"I don't want to make more
club music or club sounds."
Do you process the drum sounds through the modular a lot?
Yeah, at the moment I've got... Well, let me play you something. These drum sounds are just things being gated through the QMMG. So audio channels are coming out of the computer from this and this is just like a weird drone part I did with the modular which is pitched down like three octaves or something so it has a really heavy bass to it. And it's all crammed through the Ozone.
It's going into the limiter hard, so the levels stay relatively even. And then it's going out of the computer into the QMMG, taking the signal into the FX6 to pitch it up—because it's got a pitch shifter on it. That's how you get the two different sounds. Then it's got the Vactrol gating on the QMMG, which is doing a kind of VCA with a tail and at the same time a low pass filter on it as well—which gives it a really natural drum sound like the Buchla Bongo trick. But then because this sound is kind of like a slowly changing drone some of that character kind of becomes like an expressive drum part. It almost disappears there… and then comes back in…
What are you using to gate it? Triggers from…
Triggers straight from the SEQ01. And then you can just play stuff because the drums already have that thing happening to them. They have a life to them, which is nicer than just hearing a sampled loop or something which is static.
Or a TR machine?
Yeah or another… I don't want to slag off the Roland drum machines because they are amazing. But the 808 has probably defined the music that we listen to today in so many ways. Hearing a clean 808 through a sound system still has that really amazing energy and a really contemporary vibe about it. It's just that I don't want to make more club music or club sounds.
So much dance music seems to be preoccupied with having clean, upfront punchy drums. I don't really listen to any music that has that. I prefer things where there's like a covering of... like... I can't think of any words. Take that Container LP recently. Amazing, amazing techno. Really distorted and lo-fi but really enigmatic at the same time. You know the drums aren't particularly punchy, but they sound incredible. They sound so much better than a lot of minimal techno!
Published / Friday, 16 March 2012
Photo credits / Katherine Mager