Fast forward to 2009, and we find Donnacha elbows deep in the genesis of his new recording label, Look Long—wherein the first releases are produced with a computer-centric studio setup. We caught up with the Ireland-based artist to chat about various techniques, ideas and what's gotten him excited recently in the world of music production.
To start out, can you tell us how you got into producing electronic music?
Actually, like most people my age, I discovered electronic music as the first kind of pop music I ever heard. I was born in 1974 and have quite clear memories of music from 1979 onwards. Britain (our main source for pop culture at that time) was just leaving the punk era and entering into post-punk and synth pop. Pretty much everything I heard on the radio or saw on TV was electronic music from Kraftwerk to Gary Numan up to Human League, Ultravox, OMD. Then in the late '80s, acid house was totally mainstream in this part of the world and I remember having my mind turned inside out watching Darryl Pandy in the video for "Love Can't Turn Around" by Farley Jackmaster Funk, I heard "Jack Your Body" by Steve Silk Hurley, I heard Detroit house courtesy of Inner City (I was jumping around my studio to "Big Fun" just this week actually) and then into the early '90s I was listening to Orbital, The Orb, FSOL. Electronic music has been there in one way or another throughout my whole life.
As far as writing/recording goes, I was playing guitar from about 1987-93 and started writing songs for my band in 1989. In 1991 I borrowed a DX7 from my school, a Roland drum machine and a four track tape recorder from one friend and a little zoom multi-effects processor from another friend and I made some ambient music and something a little bit like UK hardcore/trance. Sadly, the tapes are lost.
Then I forgot about recording for a while as I was busy with school. In December 1994 I read an interview with Richie Hawtin where there was talk of 101s, 303s, 808s, 909s and I knew I had to have these machines and, in spring of 1995, I started collecting and recording again.
How I Work
I don't really have a set way of working. Sometimes a sound I'm playing with kicks off an idea, sometimes a rhythm does the same. But it's mostly sounds.
The most recent track I have been working on went like this: When programming new sounds on the Synclavier, I hit on something that I really liked. Once I added some portamento and played it a certain way, it was really Detroit-sounding to me and set off an idea, so I played a line in an unusual time signature played against a regular 4/4 beat. I do that quite a bit these days. I don't have it in front of me right now, but if I remember correctly I think it could be counted something like 4 bars of 3/4 followed by one of 1/4 played over 4/4. I guess that makes it 13/4 over 4/4.
I've always loved odd time signatures since I was a child and clearly remember listening to and loving the pinball number count song on Sesame Street which is full of stops and starts. (If it's not in a weird time signature, it certainly gives the illusion.) I also like things that are in regular time signatures, but sound like they're not. For example, Pat Metheny Group's "So May It Secretly Begin" on the album Still Life (Talking). I love things that you have to concentrate on if you want to count or clap along.
I recently released a track called "Waltz for Chet" which was programmed in 15/4. The underpinning 808 rhythm is completely straight 4/4, but it's the element that sounds like it's in a weird time signature because the melody dominates. The melody can also be counted in 3/4 or waltz time, looping over 10 bars. Some people think the drum programming sounds complex as it shifts so much but actually it's a pretty straight rhythm.
Anyhow, back to the track I was talking about... I was playing this melody against a kick and enjoying it so I recorded the line as MIDI and started to work on the rhythm. I used the D16 drumazon plugin running inside plogue bidule rewired into Pro Tools.
I developed a nice rhythm playing through a Moogerfooger Low Pass Filter TDM plugin in Pro Tools. With the envelope follower set the way I like it, certain sounds like the 909 clap or accented hats open the filter up. The rhythm breathes a lot this way.
I overlaid that with some 808 from the D16 Nepheton, and then I added some composite bass/chord sounds from the Nord Modular but the way I was playing them left a lot of empty space in the arrangement. To fill this, I compressed the 909 track to extend the decay of the kick drum and fill the gaps.
I began to work on the effects using the Eventide H3000 factory TDM plugin. Eventide always made great hardware and now they make great TDM plugins. The original code from their hardware now runs on the TDM DSP chips, so it sounds every bit as good as any of their hardware, plus it's totally integrated into my system. Within reasonable limits I can have as many instances as I want. If I had half-a-dozen or more Eventide processors in my studio it would cost a small fortune!
I recorded the Synclavier chords I was playing earlier. Then I selected a bass sound I really like, also made with the Synclavier and doubled the chord line with that.
I sampled a chord from the Synclavier, put it into Battery and made use of its Hi-Pass filter and LFOS to modulate and pan the sound around. These are all the elements of the track. After this I worked on the arrangement.
All in, the track took about a week to finish.
Most of that was done in the first few days, and then I spent about an hour each day tweaking EQ, effects and arrangement.
Production habits are:
-I use EQ to cut frequencies rather than boost them.
-I use delay to widen the stereo field of certain sounds.
-I sometimes use compressors for artistic reasons such as extending the kick drum decay as mentioned above, but not very often and so far only on individual tracks.
-I stay away from compression on the master buss.
A professional mastering engineer can achieve much more than I could if I were to start doing that so I mix the track to the best of my ability and leave the rest to the mastering engineer which, after all, is precisely his job.
Casio FZ-1 sampler, Roland TR-707, Roland Juno 60, Roland TB-303, Roland SH-101, Alesis effects and a small analogue mixer. Then I shared a really good studio where between us we had a ton of analogue stuff and interesting outboard and a nice Allen and Heath mixer. My stuff was always changing though. Before I even had a mixer I had already bought and sold an OSCar and an 808 and a bunch of Yamaha DX stuff. Buying and selling has been the one true constant in my studio for 15 years. Most of these things were picked up for next to nothing through local ads. The OSCar was bought for the equivalent of about 140 EUR and my first 808 for about the same!
Could you describe your current studio setup?
The heart of my studio is Pro Tools HD running on a MAC which also runs MAX/MSP, Plogue Bidule, some NI stuff, Ableton Live and the D16 909 and 808 plugins. My effects are mostly TDM plugins, and of those I'm mostly using Eventide and Sonnox.
On the hardware side, my current fascination is my Synclavier. There's a very long story behind that one as it was destroyed by a shipping company and completely rebuilt by me from scratch. It's currently working well and I really love it. The Nord Modular has been in pretty steady use since 2001, I just got rid of my Nord Lead 2x and there's a Korg Prophecy knocking around in here at the moment, some hardware effects and an old DAT machine as I'm compiling some early material. The DAT seems quite quaint now. Most of the other Roland stuff has been sold or is stored in the attic. I don't like to have too much gear present in the studio at one time as I think it can be overwhelming. I prefer to concentrate on one or two machines and push what I can out of them and when I get bored I change things around.
Do you live near your studio space?
I have my studio in my house. I never know when I'm going to feel like working on something and if I had to travel to get to my studio, I think that would be a disincentive. Also, if I get frustrated while working, I have my dogs here and we just head to the beach for a big walk. I go back to work and they go back to sleep.
If you had to prioritize and sell everything except for 5 items (not including monitors / mixer), what would they be?
I'm constantly buying and selling but three things that will probably never leave here are my Pro Tools HD, Synclavier and Nord Modular.
How often does your setup change?
At least three or four times a year with pieces coming and going during that time.
Can you describe how you are using the Monome?
Right now I'm not using one, I sold my 128 as I was on the waiting list for a 256. I missed my chance with that by not acting in time so now I'm waiting for the next run of the 256 which I believe happens in June of this year.
What apps are you using with it?
At the moment, I'm starting to build my own MAX patch with the 256 in mind. I'm going for a combination of generative rhythms, step sequencing and probability-based effects manipulation.
Do you use any other "alternative controllers"?
I've tried a lot of them; I've had two Tenori-Ons, two Lemurs, some Percussa Audio Cubes and a Monome 128. With the Lemur, I found that the flexibility didn't really compensate for the lack of tactile feedback and it was also quite time consuming to build interfaces. The Tenori-On hurt my eyes, the Audio Cubes were VERY interesting but weren't suitable for the purpose I had intended for them. That was my fault, not Percussa's. Bert, the guy who designed them was very cool to deal with. In the end, my favorite was the Monome and good old-fashioned knobs and sliders.
Are there any new audio or music production technologies out there that get you excited?
Well, I'm interested in instruments and their particular idiosyncratic behaviors. For me, the only real weakness of most software "instruments" is that you end up controlling them with generic controllers and I think the sense of working with an instrument is lost in that case.
My Synclavier is a software instrument running on a custom computer that's about 30 years old. However, the keyboard's touch button panel turns programming it into a pleasure. It looks fantastic and is without question an instrument in the truest sense.
With that in mind, I'm very interested in the new Native Instruments Maschine. It seems to solve this problem and provide seamless interaction between interface and software and in that sense it becomes an instrument. I think they're sending me one next month and having watched the videos on the Maschine microsite I can't wait to start working with it.
I'm also interested in Ableton Live 8. In particular I'm interested in Max for Live as I've been using both Max and Live for many, many years. In fact, I used to teach courses in Max MSP at university. The new Ableton physical modeling instrument "Collision" looks particularly exciting, You need to upgrade to V8 to run it but I think even if that was the only reason you upgraded you'd be happy. Of course there are also lots of other reasons to use V8 and I'm looking forward to integrating it more with my Pro Tools and Max. I've previously focused on Live as a performance tool but I find myself using it more and more in the studio these days.
Lastly, the APC-40 from AKAI has me very excited too. The integration with Live follows again this "Total Instrument" direction I mentioned earlier. I had been considering building my own hardware controller like Robert Henke's Monodeck but I think I'll wait until I've tried the APC and see if it can save me a lot of time and effort. I was drooling looking at a video demo earlier today.
Do you have any tips to share with the bedroom producers out there?
1. Don't use compression unless you know exactly why you're using it and even then, go easy!
2. Try everything you want and then use whatever you want to do whatever you want. Don't worry about what anyone else is doing or what anyone else is using. Do things your own way.