The Brooklyn-based artist breaks down her singular career at the nexus of audio engineering, music technology and techno production.
"She understands the science of soundsystems in a way that very few electronic musicians do," says The Bunker New York's Bryan Kasenic, whose brief run of parties at Output left an outsized impression on Echiverri, who in turn gave Kasenic a deep respect for her craft; he's gone on to champion her live sets at The Bunker and has put out all of the solo productions she's released to date. But her technical knowledge of music goes well beyond sound reenforcement. While nothing Echiverri does feels quite like a conventional day job, if she has one, it's as a mostly self-taught electrical engineer, working with clients like James Murphy and Soulwax on everything from restoring vintage studio consoles to designing circuits for new gear.
What brings together her engineering work and artistic output is Echiverri's ability to find joy in the maddeningly technical details of music many of us would be happy to gloss over. "Abby approaches work and pretty much everything with an open and curious mind," says John Klett, Echiverri's mentor turned colleague in specialized audio projects. "It appears to me that learning and taking on knowledge is a major dopamine release agent in her chemistry."
Outside of the nightclubs where her live sets have made her a cult favorite, Echiverri's musical life happens mainly in two studios: a basement workshop for her technical endeavors, and a light-filled second-floor setup where she writes and records. In the latter, her modest but purposeful selection of gear—standalone synths and sequencers, a whirring modular system—sits atop a wraparound desk she designed and built herself. (Echiverri has made woodworking her latest technical endeavor.) From her living room, which is sandwiched between the two studios, on the ground floor of her house in Brooklyn, we discussed the circuitous path that's led Echiverri to make some of the most intriguing techno to come out of New York of late, and the from-the-ground-up approach she takes to audio that ensures she's unlikely to have a conventional producer/DJ career any time soon.
You're classically trained as a musician. Could you tell me about that?
Yeah, I think it was a pretty standard Asian upbringing of studying the piano. I also picked up the violin, flute, and took vocal lessons, so it was kind of a wide range of instruments that I just practiced a lot. My siblings also played, and since I was the youngest it was natural for me to take on. My dad was into music, too, and we played together a lot actually. My dad was more into jazz, so during the holidays everyone would just play standards around the piano. It was pretty cute. My siblings and I were in a trio together and we would play at weddings on the weekends to make extra money. Yeah, there was a lot of music in my household.
Do you feel like that musical upbringing is something that you still come back to as a musician, as a producer?
I think the part that I come back to the most is that melody is very important to me in a way that isn't the priority in a lot of drum machine-driven music. That was something that I actually kind of grappled with, because so much of my favorite music was just one chord the entire song, so figuring out a way to get back to different chord progressions in techno music was really exciting for me. A lot of my first attempts making techno or dance floor music was kind of like a rebellion from a lot of the classical, virtuosic, crazy 16th note-type of music that I had grown up with.
What was some of the music that was inspiring that rebellion?
I clearly remember Arthur Russell, "The Platform On The Ocean." Hearing that for the first time, it was kind of mindblowing. There's the cello element, but also [this] crazy synth line the whole time. So that was a big song for me, where I was like, "Oh, this is what a synthesizer is," or electronic manipulation. I don't even know if there is a synth in that song, but just thinking about the cello in a different way and listening to Arthur's music was really important.
A lot of Arthur Russell's music is maybe one chord or a drone, but then with his cello and with his voice, he's literally exploring every possible contour around it—in a way that's very different from how melody plays out in classical music.
Yeah. And also, there is an idea of the perfect tone of a cello and what that's supposed to be. A cello through a pedal was just... I didn't even know what that was when I was a teenager.
What was some of the other music you were listening to around that time?
I got really into Italo disco. That was definitely a gateway drug for me because I liked a lot of disco. I loved Donna Summer. The Italo genre specifically was just a lot more exciting to me because of the use of the drum machine and basslines and very simple repetitive synth lines that were just incredibly catchy. I was obsessed with Alexander Robotnick's output, some of the good side of Moroder. A lot of that was very influential for me.
Did you have any sense of what was happening in the music from a production standpoint? And if not then, when did that come into play?
At NYU. I was a Gallatin student, which meant I could kind of explore any field I wanted to, and I took an intro to electronic music synthesis. We had to learn how to use a tape machine and record some really basic early synthesizers on it, like the EMS VCS3 or the Buchla, and that was kind of my intro. Which is a very lucky intro, because these synths are just so... [they don't] make it easy for you compared to a Minimoog or something like that. A lot of the first synths I was exposed to were modular or required some sort of patching, which was great because it allowed for a lot more experimentation. I was definitely intimidated by it, but because it was part of my curriculum, it would force me to think about synthesis and try to understand it.
How hard or easy was that process of understanding it?
I'm the type of person that reads a manual before I do anything, which is kind of silly, but it wasn't that. It didn't take me that long to figure it all out. I have a weird trait where I'm just not really scared of failure. I think failure is very good, actually, in learning something. Any kind of beginning approach to synthesis requires some acceptance of failure, because failure is inevitable. You just have to be comfortable exploring and making mistakes, and that's something that I try to instil in a lot of people who come to me who are beginners. Just get used to making a mistake, making a bad sound, because there are lots of bad sounds before you get comfortable with being actually creative.
Were you already producing during this period?
I was playing in bands and not really working on solo music, but I was writing a lot of stuff for the bands. I played synths and sang and also sometimes programmed the beats. My band Dream Affair at the time, we mostly attended but also played and DJed at this party called Wierd. We wouldn't talk about music when we went to this party—we'd talk about sequencers and new synths that we had gotten, or new ways to plug in synths. It was like a really cool forum for synth collectors and the analogue music production world. That was definitely a kind of fetish for a lot of people that went there.
Going to a party like that, where you're getting to learn about things in a non-academic context, must've been really inspiring.
Yeah, definitely. So much of that music that came from that [party] and the musicians on that label, [they were] all trying to harken back to this early ‘80s sound and aesthetic while using the same technology. I guess that made me appreciate making music with restrictions, and appreciate vintage gear.
Live performance of electronic music was a key part of Wierd, too, and it's a huge part of what you do now. Did the party plant the seed?
Definitely, yes. All of the artists that played there, there's kind of like an unspoken rule that you can't have a computer on stage. They would bring so much gear with them, and I would love to go to soundcheck and just see them set it all up, because it was just so mysterious to me. But yeah, I don't think I would have appreciated live music as much if I hadn't seen the entire process of making it, making every sound live as it happened at Wierd versus doing mostly playback.
What did you get up to post-NYU?
I was doing some assistant engineering work at a couple of jazz studios—Loove Labs and Brooklyn Recording—plus another studio, Diamond Mine. I was working in nightclubs doing sound, I also worked in a guitar shop; all things around music, as much as I could. But the jazz thing was—I feel like I learned the most about critical listening through that.
What's it like being an assistant engineer at a jazz studio?
Waking up really early. Kind of gauging what everyone needs and having it ready before they have to ask for it—whether that's the engineer or the musicians. There's a lot of weird hierarchy about it. If you're just the assistant, you don't really make your presence known and are just kind of silently making everything work really well and smoothly. You're [working] a lot with artists who are trying to get a very emotional performance, so you have to make sure that they're comfortable, everything's running smoothly and there's no hitches. I was lucky to work at places where the assistant engineer did a lot of the technical stuff, too. You would set up all the mics before the engineer gets there, patch everything on the patch bay and do a basic mic check, and just help get sounds before the artists show.
What do you think you took away from the experience of assisting at these studios?
There's so many things. It's hard for me to think of the main thing. How to speak to an artist is really important. How to suggest they change something without making it hurt their feelings is really important.
You kind of have to make them think it was their idea to a certain extent.
Yeah. In terms of my own music, I learned a lot about taking things out, EQing things out, and how important that is for the mix. Taking your time with mixing. Yeah. That's something I never did.
Doing nightclub sound was the other piece of your post-college professional life. To me, as someone who's never done either, these jobs feel like they'd be at opposite ends of the spectrum. Was that the case?
It wasn't as challenging to work sound in bars and nightclubs. Working with artists, I think, is the same deal, working with egos and that kind of thing. But when you're working in a club or a nightclub, the work is… tuning a system is a slightly different beast, because you have all night to make it perfect. You're working with different source material every night. That could be wildly different.
Your biggest gig on that front was running sound at Output in Brooklyn. When did you start working there?
I think 2013. I was working at Main Drag, the guitar store, and I ran into my old friend Daniel Neumann, who set up the sound for Output, and we hadn't seen each other in a couple of years at least. He just mentioned that he was looking for someone to take over his job at Output. And I was like, "I'll interview for that." I had some experience, but being the head of the department was a new thing for me and [took] a little bit of getting used to.
What did it mean being the head of the department? Were there people working under you? Was it just a lot of responsibility resting on your shoulders?
My title was head of production, although mostly I dealt with the audio, taking care of the soundsystem. And also, if we had any large productions, like an AV show, taking care of that as well. I had a team of sound people that I would [work] with—scheduling, logistics stuff. But also, I was in charge of making sure that everything was working all the time and sounding good, and tuning it constantly.
Output was famous for its Funktion-One system, which was touted as one of their best and most advanced installations at the time. What was your read on the system? What was working on it like?
I think for me, one of the most exciting things was the subwoofer system that they had, which was called the InfraHorn.
I'm pretty sure Output was the first club in the world to have it.
Yeah. I'd show the system to a lot of people who were interested in having it in their clubs.