|Machine Love: Laurel Halo
Sounds on the run: we talk gear with the perpetually moving Hyperdub producer.
In her four years of releasing music, Laurel Halo has produced synth pop, electronica, vocal tracks and, most recently, experimental techno. When broadly considered, each of these new angles has made sense, but this hasn't diminished her power to surprise. Roughly this time last year she released her debut album, Quarantine, through Hyperdub, boxing in her earlier synth epics to form claustrophobic, vocally led music that was totally removed from the dance floor. 12 months later and we're moving to Behind The Green Door, an EP that lives in the club but came devoid of DJ-friendly formulas.
"I have a feeling that my music will remain in flux," Halo presciently told FACT in 2010. And it appears that the same is true of her studio time. Off the back of Quarantine's success, which made our top 20 albums of 2012 and was named as The Wire's record of the year, she toured Europe and the US, spending time in various studios across Berlin, London and back home in Brooklyn. The upheaval dictated an ad hoc approach to production. She utilized the gear that was at hand, grabbing opportunities to use outboard compressors and EQs. Halo earned a glowing reputation as a live performer during this time, and her setup—at its core an MPC, a Machinedrum and a Blofeld synth—has been the only constant throughout recent composition. During some downtime in Brooklyn, we chatted to Halo about her travels—sonic and physical—and the unyielding beast that is gear lust.
You've been moving countries and studios a lot recently so I wanted to ask if you have seen it as a positive thing overall, or if it's been more of a hindrance to you?
I would say it's more of a positive thing. Primarily because my home studio is inadequate for the things that I want to do. I don't have all of the gear that I need or that I want, so it's definitely been good. It's great to be in studio environments where you're just flushed with different gear opportunities and recording opportunities. But it's also great to be on the road or out of my home studio, and all I have is my live kit, and then recording with just the live kit and the soundcard.
Does the nature of what you work on differ depending on whether you're at home or in a studio?
I guess I could talk about this recent recording process where I was working on tracks with a drum machine and sampler. Because my recording setup isn't 100% at home, what I've been doing is just getting down sketches and recording stereo tracks, and then maybe doing some overdubs where I'm recording a bass part or a synth pad part in addition to a stereo output from my mixer.
So at home it's been really good to just jot ideas and get the general mood and vibe of the track going, and then when I got into the studio in Haggerston a few weeks ago I broke out all the individual drum parts, and all the individual sample parts. There you had good pre's, compressors and EQs so you can really get in and optimise all of the individual sounds. So now I'm back home [in Brooklyn]. It's a nice place to just sit and comfortably scrub through the tracks and edit, because when you're in the studio obviously your paying for time, so you don't want to just sit there and experiment and play around with different sections.
Are you routine-based in how you work?
I would love to say that I'm routine-based [laughs]. In an ideal world, I would wake up every day at 7:30 AM, hit the gym, be working on music by 10 AM, work for a full nine or ten hours then call it a day, watch a movie, go to bed, then repeat. It really depends, because I find that when I have shows it often throws a kink in a routine. Or if I'm playing a show locally in New York often the sound checks are stupidly early, and for whatever reason the schedule gets broken up. I often like to work in the evening, too. I find myself often not even starting work until two in the afternoon, but then working until 10 PM or midnight.
Do you tend to have predetermined objectives with studio sessions?
I would say that I wake up and think, "OK today I want to bang out a rough arrangement of this track that's already recorded." Or maybe, "Today I want to flesh out some more patterns for this one track," so I do have specific objectives. [But] it can be easy to go on tangents when you're working on one thing all day long. It's easy to spend too much time on things. I'm trying to get into the habit of being a bit lighter about it, and just being open to working on several different things at once, which is counterintuitive for me, but I think it would be a good thing to do so I don't just home in on one sound and tweak it for three hours. It's so easy to do that.
Your new record, to me, sounds like a form of techno. Was there a particular feeling or inspiration behind it?
I guess I just wanted to record what I was doing live. Basically when I got into the studio to record those tracks I found myself playing around with the patterns more, playing around with the samples more, trying to find what was particularly gripping, or dynamic. I wanted the tracks to have this sinister empty energy; I wanted them to sound quite cold. I would say that the A2 ["UHF F/O"] and B2 ["Sex Mission"] are both too warm for the cold goal, but I think in terms of the beats I make, there's definitely a heavy techno influence from different regions. There's a Detroit influence, there's some UK, a bit of German sound in there.
Did you consider the dance floor or DJs when you produced them?
I have heard the tracks out, and I think they do sound good on a system, so I guess the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I was thinking about the dance floor, and I was thinking, "Will this be playable?" when it came to writing the beats and shaping the sound. And also the arrangements in terms of, "You want to have this kind of intro," or "You want to have this kind of moment here." I think that the tracks are still composed-sounding. They're not full-on club tracks—I wouldn't say they're like DJ tool tracks. I was taking my personal background of writing more of the kind of composed, edited style, but mixing it with more of this live, free kind of sound as well.
Was the approach or equipment you used different from what you've used before?
It is different: it's only recently that I've only been using hardware when I play live. I made the transition to a full hardware setup in September of 2012, and the EP was basically made with my live kit. The only things that were outside the live kit were some outboard distortion, tape echo and some additional pieces of outboard gear used during mixing to sweeten it up.
The drums felt more prominent and upfront then I've heard from you before.
Yeah, it's not essential but it's learning certain things like compression, and just figuring out what needs to have the most emphasis, and what can take a back seat, what can control what. It's all pretty important.
With the exception of the B2, the first few tracks I mixed with a friend who had a desk, so we were able to get in and isolate offending frequencies, and also use a little amount of compression so that the kicks and the bass could really have their say. What I think is interesting about getting more and more into the studio world is that you don't necessarily have to have the same technical chops as somebody who's trained as a sound engineer to identify the groove and mood of the track. I think it's important to always have the musical mindset first, and the technical mindset second. Other people are otherwise, but that's just where I'm coming from.
"Basically with me being shit-broke for years [it was] saving what little money I had and buying a piece here, and buying a piece there."
Have you traditionally been someone that's thought quite closely about the overall production value of your music?
That's not my background, I'm self-trained with all of this, and I'm just learning as I go. So I would say that historically my priority has been the musical aspect of it. Playing out live and making rhythmic music specifically has a very particular set of technical requirements that you can't exactly ignore, because if you ignore them, the track would just be flat and won't work.
Do you almost want to think of them as separate processes?
No, no. I think that integrating the two is the ideal. To get so familiar with your gear, and to get so familiar with specific signal chain approaches, that it helps you creativity. If the two can be happily integrated, then that's the ideal. When I was recoding in the studio in Haggerston a few weeks ago, it helps everything feel that much more musical when your sounds are hitting killer equipment and every sound is amazing.
How have you learnt about this side of things?
When I first started making electronic music I read tons of manuals about EQ and compression and filtering and phase and stereo image or whatever. Honestly, you can read as many manuals as you want but it's completely about how you hear it, so it just took years of hearing sounds and finally being able to hear the difference between something that's muddy and something that's not.
It has been really helpful going into studios and asking questions to engineers, and getting bits of advice here and there. Things as simple as what kind of gear to check out. Or maybe someone would have a very simple way of saying, "Well, this is why you would use this technique." More than anything you're just spending the time listening because your ears just get better and better over time, but you might loose the high-end so you begin to make dubby music as you get older [laughs].
Are you quite conscious of that? Do you regularly check your listening situation?
More and more these days I'm being mindful of it. I went and got a hearing test last winter and I have perfectly fine hearing except for a slight dip in the 3-4 kHz range, which I attribute to listening to an inordinate amount of harsh vocals. Surprisingly, the really high end, beyond 5k, like 10k/15k, that stuff is still doing alright. I'm trying to be careful of it, because I do get ear pain from time to time, which I know is just basic fatigue from listening to shit too loud, so I'm trying to get better about listening quietly.
On the kit list that you sent to me, you mentioned that you've been using an Access Virus and a Roland 101 for a while. Why have these two worked out so well for you?
The Access Virus I've been drawn to just because it has a really pure, full sound and it does analogue emulation well, but it also does really contemporary digital sounds amazingly well. I have an Access Virus desktop now, but I used to have a rack synth that I bought previously to this one, and with each they just came loaded with the most awful trance, drum & bass, dubstep kind of presets, just the most awful wobbles, and the most awful stabs you can imagine. But there's a way to take these awful presets and maintain that contemporary sheen and edge but make your own sound out of it and make it sound good. I really like having that slight hint of contemporary sound in the mix.
The 101 I know is a classic and has been used to death, but it just has an amazing tone and you can great sub bass with it, and you can just dive into a giant pool of acid but it's really fun. I have to not totally indulge my acid dreams all the time with it, but it just sounds fantastic. It's really full and nice, too, when you have a mix of analogue and digital sounding parts in the mix because I think that they can converse in a really interesting way.
Do you tend to gravitate towards simpler, more immediate gear?
Well it depends, because the rack version of the Virus is not instant gratification because you have to do a little bit of menu diving and find the parameters that you have to change, so I have some bits of kit that take a little more practice and take a bit more finesse. I would say I'm an impatient person, though, so it is nice to have something like the desktop version of the Virus or the 101 where you just have a control panel full of knobs and sliders where you can instantly tweak sounds.
Building upon what small studio stuff I have, which took work and time and money… I would use a lot more plug-ins and soft synths and stuff like that, and there it required a lot more patience in regards to mapping parameters to a MIDI controller, getting in and editing envelopes in Ableton. There was a lot of pointing and clicking. I feel that a software setup can work brilliantly for some people, it just got really frustrating for me and it's so nice having this tactile approach now.
What do you write your beats on?
In recent times it's been completely the [Elektron] Machinedrum and [Akai] MPC with some additional patterns. I have a Roland TR 505, which granted is kind of a toy, but you run it through a filter and you run it through a ring modulator, and you can make it sound nice and crunchy and weird.
You said it took a while to acquire your hardware setup. Did you quite carefully consider what you invested in?
I didn't have a master plan. Basically with me being shit-broke for years [it was] saving what little money I had and buying a piece here, and buying a piece there. The first bit of really useful hardware I bought was the MPC. I bought it a couple of years ago, and for the first six months/first year that I owned it, it was super cryptic, but then it was kind of one of those light bulb moments where once you used it enough it becomes intuitive. From there I realised how useful it is as a master controller/MIDI brain. It's really fun to sequence MIDI parts with the MPC; I really like the feel of the MPC and the sound of it.
From there I wanted to add a drum machine to it. Previous to buying the MPC, a friend of mine very generously lent me an [Elektron] Octatrack that he wasn't using, so basically I got to use this complementary Octatrack for about 8 months. Before I even bought the MPC and got into the MPC approach of sampling, I was using the Octatrack, which I actually found not so cryptic to use. I think that Elektron could benefit from better-written manuals, but I think that's a common complaint of Elektron users.
Would you buy one?
Yeah, I plan to buy my own Octatrack. I haven't used one since I had to give it back in 2011 but I will be buying one soon. They're massively popular right now, I feel like everybody's got one. They're so deep and everybody can use them in their own way, so it's not like, "Oh, that's a classic Octatrack sound right there," you can make it your own. In terms of investing, I would actually like to see my home setup become a professional setup. There are so many things that I want to buy, that I've used and fell in love with, then I go on Sweetwater and I'm like, "Ouch, that's $600, or that's $6,000." But that's the thing, that's the beauty of this, is that it's endless. You can go as deep as you want with it, and spend as much money as you want with it, so it's something I'll look forward to for sure.
You've been a long-term Ableton user. Do you see yourself continuing this relationship?
Yeah, I mean I have been using Ableton for four and a half years. When I first started out making electronic music I tried out a few different things. Obviously I tried Garageband but it just seemed inadequate. Well, it's not necessarily inadequate: I think people can make good music on Garageband, but it wasn't for me. Then I tried Logic and it made zero sense to me. I tried Digital Performer and it also seemed kind of weird and clunky. I guess I just responded to Live. It has a kind of friendly feel to it. It's not the ideal environment in which to mix necessarily, but it is a really good environment for editing and arranging just because you can delete time, and it's really easy just to try things out either in the arrangement view or the clip view. I used to use the clip view all the time, I never use the clip view now, I just record into Ableton and arrange from there.
So you said that you have completely dropped Ableton for your live show?
Yes, there's no more Ableton in the live set.
What is you present setup?
The live setup that I have right now is the Machinedrum, the MPC, I have got a [Waldorf] Blofeld synthesiser, I got a ring mod pedal, I got a Boss Space Echo pedal and a couple of other pedals that are all in rotation that I play for specific shows.
Would you describe your show as mostly improvised at this stage?
I would say it's a half/half. I have prescribed sample patterns and beat patterns per track, but I have no pre-planned ways of establishing the tracks or developing the tracks—that's all just done completely on the fly.
Have you been someone who is comfortable on stage?
No. I grew up playing classical piano and I absolutely dreaded the performance days. In school I dreaded the final exam period where you would have to give performances in front of people. It made me shake head to toe, and I just hated it. When I started playing live, there's something more comforting about it being your own music, because I feel like I get to know my own music better than if I was learning somebody else's music. At first I was nervous, but it was I bit more comfortable, but as time has gone on it feels really natural. It feels exciting. I always feel nervous before I play a show, ranging from being hyper, to pacing, or to even dry heaving [laughs].
It feels pretty good to just get up on stage and the crowd is excited to see you, so it's an encouraging thing, it's not a negative thing at all. I used to hate performing and my parents are always in shock with me these days, because they are like, "I remember when you used to hate this stuff, and now you love it!" I'm not exactly sure what happened.