|Machine Love: Daedelus
The Monome man takes us inside the box—and explains the many ways he's breaking out of it.
Daedelus' music may not be easy to place in one genre or another, but it certainly provokes description. Over a dozen albums for labels like Ninja Tune, Plug Research and most recently Anticon, the American producer has crafted not just a sound all his own, but a musical texture that doesn't feel quite like anyone else's. It's dense, intricate and bursting with energy, and it bears the unmistakable touch of being stitched together electronically. But it's also living and breathing, at times to a startling extent. His latest full-length, Drown Out, is the perfect example of the human element Alfred Weisberg-Roberts has long lent his circuitry: it's a wonder of complexity, both in its multilayered production and emotional impact.
When we dialed up Daedelus at his home base in Los Angeles, we were keen to get a sense of how he maintains this balance in his music. His approach these days, we discovered, takes the best of both worlds: field recordings are electronically tweaked, 808's hits shape the impact of wholly unrelated sounds and exotic plug-ins send strangely organic ripples through the stereo field. It's heady stuff, but Weisberg-Roberts' obvious enthusiasm for the process made it an easy sell. He also let us in on his history with the Monome, the impressively simple controller that's come to define Daedelus' live performances—and become something like his MIDI-injected Steinway Grand.
To make your new album, Drown Out, you used a combination of hardware and software approaches, right?
More than your average bear, I would say. It's strange how a lot of people are breaking out of their machines more and more, between re-amping, having a signal chain going through 500-series boxes or whatever. I kind of take that ethos a little further in terms of hitting two-inch tape on some of the tracks, and on other tracks using real instruments, but then putting them way back in the box—way more than they probably should be. They probably should be able to roam free a little bit more, but that's my way of going about things.
Run me through the basic signal flow.
So I use Pro Tools as a DAW. Then I end up using—especially for this record—I'm using a lot of other rooms, a lot more interesting acoustic spaces to do the majority of the recording of instruments, and then I brought it back here to do the mulching, so to speak. One of the rooms I used is this place called the Pow Wow Fun Room, which is my step-uncle's studio. He's mainly a surf guitarist. He plays a lot with a band called Los Straitjackets.
I've heard of them, actually.
Yeah, they're one of the groups that has kept the flame alive for a very long time for instrumental and surf rock, basically. And the room is amazing—like the most amazing '50s- and '60s-sounding drums, two-inch tape, all-analog everything. You can actually go mono all the way in and out of the signal chain, which is incredible. No room that I deal with can do that. I also used a room called Pap Pap's Palace, which is a studio space not used too much but it's this guy Amir Yaghmai's studio space, and he did Gaslamp Killers' last record. He was doing some sound-alike stuff for Turkish funk on his last record, and he did it all there as well, so you just get a sense of the sounds that are possible. Like, real psychedelic, fuzzed out madness.
So just to keep track of everything here. You're recording music, you're recording sounds into Pro Tools, and then you're taking the recordings to these other spaces, pumping them into a room, rerecording them—
Sometimes that, sometimes it's the initial impulse gets recorded at the studio, I take it back to my house, do the mulching—
What do you mean by "mulching" here?
I'd like to say that my process, in terms of sample selection and processing in the DAW, is something that's more artistic. But I think "mulching" is probably the better term. I tend to take things really to task—like, I'll really reduce. Sometimes there's an additive process, but a lot of the times it's really reductive. You have a great drum-kit sound, and then I do everything I can to preserve the acoustic fingerprints that make it wonderful. But the truth is I probably manhandle it too much. I'm hitting it really hard with a lot of EQ—reductive EQ—and a lot of compression, which is also kind of reductive in terms of the signal. It might boost the overall signal strength, but you know how it is—it's like actually putting it into smaller and smaller boxes. I also do a lot of reverb treatments that tend to be before compressors, so as much as they expand, they're just limiting the sonic space that things are in. So, mulching is probably a better term than sculpting or some musique concrète term that I could use. [laughs]
I feel pretty confident in being able to take things down that particular process—[reducing], manipulating, sequencing—and then bringing it back to a room and putting it through actual analogue plate reverb, or spring reverb, or just analogue compressors or onto tape, which I feel does bring back some of the acoustic properties of things, or lets them breathe again in a way. And the breath in music is really important to me. Electronics, as soon as they hit these grid sequencers too much, they do lose a bit of their funk or breath or swing, or whatever it is. I'm always trying to increase that human component in the mix, I guess. Are you familiar with the term wabi-sabi?
It sounds familiar, but I'm not sure I know it in this context.
"Imperfect perfection"—I really am a firm believer in that. If things are too smooth, then it's wrong, it's obviously false, the CGI is too perfect and the illusion is too much. So I like it when things are a little bit—you can see the seams.
Is this a more recent development for you?
I used to love drum & bass, for instance, back in the late '90s. And that stuff is like—there's no air, because it's compressed to the max and really pushed to these limits. The highs are the crispiest things, and the lows are the boomiest things, and in some ways you don't imagine that a human made them. The same thing with some of the IDM gestures happening at the same time. All my early recordings were very much short of that. I always found them faulty. I was like, I didn't quite get there but I'll keep on trying. And nowadays, because of just embracing the technological limitations of things, it's becoming like, okay, well, the box is just a beginning point rather than this end place where the mix is all finished and perfect. I've been enjoying that headspace more and more, and I feel like the rest of the world's coming around to it, too. People are interested again in tape manipulation, even if they're not doing it outside of the box.
As much as you've been breaking out, you're still really interested in digital processing. The computer is still a big part of the music you're making. What are the advantages of the digital realm?
One of the main ones I always point to is full frequency. When I used to do stuff with actual instruments, you're dealing in very narrow acoustic spaces, and when you sew those acoustic spaces together you tend to have large gaps, and that's fine. For a rock combo, you have some things chilling at 500 Hz, some things chilling at 2500 Hz, and a vocal somewhere in that mix. You don't need that much fidelity. The song gets communicated. But with digital you can roam everywhere. I can have harmonics that just go up and up and up. That's one of the things I really find to be exciting, that you can tell stories that are at different frequency spaces.
"'Imperfect perfection'—I really am a firm believer in that. If things are too smooth, then it's wrong."
You have those upper-order harmonics with hardware, but you have a lot less control over them.
They're just—they're there. They're something you have to account for, both in your compositional process and then in mixing and mastering. You've still got to create space for everything to live together and not step on each others' toes. You have a lot of decision-making to do, but fortunately the tools are there to help that. One of the tools I started to used for Drown Out that I hadn't used on previous records was this special kind of compressor that, instead of compressing across multiband, compresses along the stereo band. So instead of compressing, like, the higher frequencies, it was more across—like left, right, center and bass being separated, and you could actually deal with the compression scales differently.
That's a really wild mixing tool.
I was sidechaining the sides to react to the middle so they'd actually kind of flap their wings a little bit, which I think makes for a great sound. It really does give you this option of having things more in service of each other. So much of dance music is about the mono space. It's funny: you have all these things that are dancing around, but really they're all straight down the middle.
A lot of club systems mix down to mono anyways—which is wonderfully immersive in its own way.
Yeah. I mean, a lot of people make music that's in service of a space. I still, for whatever stupid reason, want to make music that is good in headphones and hopefully elicits the kind of response that deep listening can provide, even though no one is going to listen to something more than once. Nobody's going to spend the time, but that's okay. [Laughs]
Well, fingers crossed!
I feel a little bit like Don Quixote. It's okay.
A record like Drown Out really begs that kind of listen. And you mentioned audio steganography—coded messages—as a tool you use throughout it. How does this manifest in your music?
Some of the songs, it references that idea simply in the musique concrète gesture of sound that is pulled from life that might have emotional meaning, like the sound of crickets or just the sound of ambient noise. There's kind of a language to that. Or the sound of a skateboard, especially to me, that's velocity to me in a nutshell.
Are you a skateboarder?
I was a failed skateboarder. I was beat up by skateboarders more than anything else.
We have something in common then.
Oh, fresh. I grew up in Dogtown, skateboarder center of the world. There's still something about that click-clack of skateboard wheels on concrete that's very special to me. All of that is field recordings. I thought it was very appropriate, even though it was one of those meaningless gestures. Somebody else wouldn't care, but I really wanted to work with people who I had a personal connection with. This record is a very personal record, so I had to keep that theme going.
Were there any interesting tricks or techniques you used?
You know, a lot of times that these were being recorded, it's, like, an iPhone.
It's a pretty good recording device, actually. The microphone's not half bad.
And one of the main things about any kind of field recording is to be small enough and out of the way enough that you don't raise ire from the thing that you're recording. If you had a Nagra on and you were trying to skateboard around it wouldn't work very well. So it was kind of compromised in terms of some of the sound quality. Some of the stuff had to be rerouted into stereo space, or had to be massaged, basically. I'm fully willing to admit that even though the sound sources are authentically of a space—I know exactly where those crickets are recorded—when it came down to it they couldn't just be let alone. They had to be placed sonically, so some amount of manipulation was happening.
There is a song that more physically does the coded language thing, which is a song that uses Morse code. It's nice because Morse code itself is a rhythmic language. There doesn't need to be anything more than a synth pulse or drumbeat, and yet it's there, it's telling a story to somebody who is listening. The whole point is it doesn't need to be there for the album to become fully realized. But at the same time, it's this layer thing. Every time there's a drumbeat, it means something.
I'd imagine this places some added importance on mixing.
Yeah, things can be lost in a mix. Things are very much in danger of losing their communication just by a single wrong move. A single reductive EQ at a certain place will totally obliterate a message in this case.
So was mixing Drown Out both an aesthetic and an intellectual process? Did you have to balance the meaning you were trying to convey with making music that also sounds really good?
Yeah totally. In this case, I really wanted to take it to a mastering person who could really do that. John Tejada did the mastering on this record— he's a genius of sound. He obviously more works in the techno realm, but techno is a good example of a place where a single changed snare or hi-hat can really change the entire song or the genre of the song. He did a fantastic job of expanding the sound without treading on it too hard.
How involved were you in the mastering process?
I know from experience that if you sit too hard on the mix, if you're there too presently, you're going to lose the opportunity of really taking advantage of what is going to happen [in mastering]. It's is a very important step, but part of the importance is handing it off and seeing your baby go to college, I guess. You have to let go at some point. If you hold on too long, you're going to strangle the thing. I was really interested in seeing where he would take things, and there was just a handful of notes. He really is a genius at sound, and I didn't have to do many notes, other than just pushing and pulling a tiny bit some of the things that were the outcomes and then it was done. It was so easy with him. It's crazy. I've done a few projects with him now, and he kills it every time.
Let's take a step away from the album and talk about the Monome. You might be this controller's most visible proponent. Tell me about your history with it.
I feel so incredibly fortunate that I came up at a time in electronics where there weren't many options. I came from traditional instruments and moved to electronics in a very purposeful way because of the possibilities. But I quickly realized that no matter the sonic possibilities, you're still very much tethered to this box, this laptop, or whatever instruments, and the number of gestures you could make were infinitesimally small. You could move a fader around and basically—like, is the record going forward or backwards? Is the audio high or quiet? That was the range of sonic choices you could make, and no matter how much you could make the sound dance in the box, when it came down performing it, it was pretty limited. I came up in a moment where that was the sonic challenge.
In 2003 I booked a random gig in San Diego, and I saw a young Brian Crabtree and Peter Segerstrom performing at a college with a prototype of the Monome. It's amazing what a single night can do, what a random gig can be. That changed my life, period. Not only was it this, like, incredible moment where I saw that it was able to manipulate samples in a way that I only had dreamed of; I also made a personal connection with Brian, and in essence became a prototype tester for the Monome to go forward. That was 2003. We can go all the way to 2013 now, ten years later, and the machine is still pretty much the same form factor.
How many have you had over the years?
I used the original prototype until 2008 or 2009. At a certain point it became pretty obvious that it was too precious—like, here's the first one ever of this thing. I mean, it's been featured in MoMA now, and it's just like, I really shouldn't be using this on the road. It's going to fall one of these days and smash into a thousand pieces, and some little bit of history is going to be lost from the world, so maybe I'll put this one away and embrace some of the units they were making more recently. The only real changes on the unit have been that it became bus-powered at a certain point, and the LEDs got gradient. But the actual unit itself has stayed pretty static. The software has made leaps and bounds, but that's just the nature of where the internal guts of all these laptops have gone.
How much have you customized the way you're working with it?
You know, I'd like to say that I've fiddled with the software—people like Brian Crabtree and this guy Galopagoose out of Australia have done these great manipulations to the software. But really I'm using it in the true intent that it was originally created. I've added some FX chains to things, just because I felt more comfortable with being able to manipulate things that direction, but really it's those fingers on buttons. The buttons are still tiny, and it still takes a little bit of accuracy and some wherewithal to be able to perform properly. I can't get too caffeinated before a show, or too intoxicated. Things can get messy very quickly.
With your background as an instrumentalist, does the Monome feel like an instrument to you?
Oh my God, yes. I've actually learned over time how much all these different devices feel like instruments. There are some wonderful innovations happening on the controller side that we could talk about, but the actual order of physical controllers that are coming out, they're all the same. Your finger has to touch a button and push it down, a fader needs to move around. The thing that's different is the actual components. I think that the majority of people don't necessarily think about how squirrelly some of these buttons are on some of these devices, especially the cheaper devices. You can actually physically push a button and not have it activate, just because of where you're pushing on the button. There's a squishiness—a thing that I've been made really aware of, that feels almost like how the difference between a cheap upright piano and a Steinway Grand. This is, of course, the cheesiest thing I've ever said, but I really feel like I'm playing the Grand.
I know it's a live tool for you, but does the Monome come into play in the studio at all?
The software options are becoming really compelling on that side where you can get really unique sounds. I haven't used it on this new record, for instance, just because of the way I wanted things to breathe. I wanted a sound that I could then manipulate later rather than feel beholden to there. That is the one thing I've learned when I use the Monome in the studio. When I take those same songs away from the studio space and use them on the Monome, they tend to want to become Monome-ish again. There's just a feel to it. It's probably my own imagination's limitation.
From kind of the opposite end of things, the 808 has been a critical part of your studio setup recently, too.
This is something I'm really happy to talk about, because the 808 is such a storied instrument in electronics. It casts a large shadow. There's whole genres based on just the kick or the snare or the cowbell sound. As soon as you turn it on and start working, you hear every single gesture that's happened in electronic music since its advent. It's this crazy machine of history, and it's really hard not to be beholden to it in that way. I've found myself constantly like, "Oh my god! I know exactly what song did this pattern!" I really liked that fact that the machine itself, although it has all that presence, it still has sounds to give.
Yeah. So have you been trying to use it in ways that take it outside of its usual associations?
It turned up on Drown Out?
Yeah, almost every track has some 808 in it. Sometimes it's not actually using the sound of the 808 itself, it's using the 808 as an impulse source. It has a very specific decay and very specific ways you can manipulate decay. It's actually one of the first drum machines where you could really mess with the length of the kick, and that's what leads to the famous boomy 808 kick, that goes on and on forever. It's very special in that regard, but it also has an impulse.
Are you familiar with the term keyed gating? It's not unlike sidechain compression—in that case you're using the compressor as it's opened and closed or impulsed by a different sound source. Keyed gating is much the same, where you're using a different sound source to open and close the gate. Now, with what the gate is listening for, you have a lot of range and control, obviously depending on the kind of gate you're using. And the 808, with its long kick, for instance, sends a really interesting impulse. Say I was controlling some arpeggiated synths. As much as it might be in the box, because of the kind of control I want to have over the synth, in terms of the exact kind of arpeggiation and how it wants to start and stop, I want to use a more analogue source to open and close that synth sound, so that it feels more real—more fingers on keys basically. That 808 kick has that rumbliness that I wanted to utilize to be able to do that.
That's really cool. So you're able to get the outline of the 808 sound and mold other things to it. It's almost like convolution.
Yeah, it's kind of like convolution. If you have a jumble of instruments in a mix, the compressor is listening to things that we can't—it's listening for what's loudest or quietest. I really appreciate that. There's a communication that happens between all these instruments no matter what that we can easily ignore. And it's funny, it's like—one of the reasons that I don't use Live, the audio engine that it utilizes is actually pretty loud in a mix. When you hear someone performing with Live, that's all I can hear sometimes, is the engine.
It's not known for being particularly transparent. And I think you can also hear Live in rhythms, in the way it quantizes.
Exactly. And I don't think it's a negative, necessarily. It's just a choice that people are making, even if they're making it unconsciously. And it's worthwhile to be conscious of those choices—at least personally I find it worthwhile to be conscious of those choices, and to try to use them for our advantage, embrace it as being an extra sound source even if it's something that isn't supposed to be heard.
Published / Monday, 23 September 2013
Photo credits / Header, Portraits - Dustin A. Beatty