1. Favourite knob or fader or switch on a piece of gear and why?
If I’m being honest, the “feather touch technology” buttons on my Yamaha MT44 4-track cassette machine are just… something else entirely.
Back in the 80’s when buttons n’ switches were more mechanical and clicky, a lot of different “options” were lost to the more common ones. What we have here is a thin ribbon beneath a plastic cover with no click. Sounds bad right?
But when you press the button, it causes whatever mechanical function you triggered in the machine to violently come to life somewhere deep within the machine, causing an almost distant haptic shake, despite the button feeling almost unresponsive.
There’s a creative satisfaction to the physical start of a cassette session, of course, but my monkey brain finds some deep satisfaction in how the button feels.
2. Do you have an ‘almost’ perfect bit of kit? What would you change?
My bamboo Xiao, in key of F. We really figured this stuff out 38,000 years ago, didn’t we?
I needed to buy a new xiao when I arrived in Chengdu a few months ago, and got one at a shop that sounded the nicest. I realized it sounded so nice because I bought one in the key of F, not G, so it’s lower with a substantially deeper, woodier sound.
I don’t have any electric gear I consider perfect. I’m a big optimist and love all the gear I have, but there’s always something frustrating, missing, or something lacking that causes desire. Not enough inputs. Too much menu diving. Too complex. Not complex enough.
But the Xiao? Thousands of years of technological advancement and this baby’s not going anywhere.
The only improvement I could ask for is a pickup mic that’s easier to install and doesn’t require a button battery. Those things are so unpredictable.
3. What setup do you bring on holiday or tour or commute etc.?
Gotta go with a classic. My SP404a’s been going with me everywhere. Lightweight, not too big, runs off AA’s, and swappable storage means I can switch between a dozen projects within seconds. If I’m playing a live set, I’m already committed to bringing a zither around that’s 1m, or 1.6m. the rest of my gear is gigantic and heavy; but with this lil’ guy I could feasibly run an internal mic in, throw on some simple reverb, and have as many backing tracks as I want, all with performance effects… Even without making beats on the go, this thing is a workhorse.
It’s a shame the new one is so hard to get.
4. What software do you wish was hardware and vice versa?
Software to Hardware: I adore Output – Portal. Its interface, it’s complexity, everything about this plugin suits me and the sort of ambience I share with my audience here. If I could get this into a little box with an XLR input, oh man. Feels like game over. I’ve genuinely considered buying a micro-PC with a 7in’ touch screen, programming an auto-launch and building it myself.
Hardware to software: To me there’s nothing more immediately satisfying than how Gamechanger Audio has mastered minimal granular synthesis with the Plus Pedal. I’d love to find some function within a DAW that let me capture the last few moments of audio and mess around with the grain, in such an instantaneous way.
5. Is there anything you regret selling… or regret buying?
I’m not ashamed to admit that my music gear affixation was preceded by nearly 10 years of struggling to know what was right for me. When I was experimenting with a custom electric ukulele in college, I wanted something to make ambience with. I don’t know how on earth I settled on the Electro-Harmonix Ravish Sitar. That’s… like a $300, very specific pedal which they say ‘is an instrument in its own right.’ A sort of synth pedal. I was fascinated by the concept of generating sympathetic drones based on what note i played. In retrospect what I actually wanted was shimmer and freeze.
I never got the hang of it. I still try.
I also had a Line6 DL4 back in the day. I really never got a sound out of it that I liked, but I spent way too much of what little money I had back then, to get it.
Forgive the photo; it’s the only pic I have of both pedals together on my makeshift pedalboard.
6. What gear has inspired you to produce the most music?
The sheer number of micro beats I’ve made on the original Novation Circuit I just got is perplexing. Right now my social media strategy in China is based on quantity, so as much as I want to craft bigger and better songs, posting something new every day is more important for growth. And this thing just churns out ideas and concepts.
I can sit with it far away from my desk, run it off batteries, and even use its internal speaker, and get a little beat together in less than 5 minutes.
Omnisphere may have been what opened me up to the most tangible productivity and hours put in, but as for sheer number of songs, nothing comes close to what the circuit could do for me.
7. If you had to start over, what would you get first?
Given the nature of being an expat, this is a far more tangible and realistic question than normal. I try not to get too attached to my gear because realistically I may need to leave it all behind someday. But I don’t let that stop me from acquiring (mostly second hand) gear that doesn’t fit inside a suitcase. Don’t let international politics ruin your interests.
If I sold it all and started fresh somewhere else, I’d probably start with a Microcosm as my main effect processor, and stick to ambient music for a while. After that, I’d probably start fresh with Elektron, starting with a Digitone. My friend loaned me this beast for the weekend and I’m in love. Then a 404mkII as a hardware unit, and finally pick a keyboard. Novation Summit if I could afford it. Otherwise maybe a Komplete keyboard, A49 I reckon. But honestly I’d be fine with just a Digitone and Microcosm. As long as I can find a dope instrument shop nearby.
8. What’s the most annoying piece of gear you have, that you just can’t live without?
Native Instruments Maschine. Putting 9 hours into tutorials on LinkedIn Learning (of all places) was unarguably the biggest leap forward in my music production skills, but it set me up in a music production environment which is sort of toxic in how un-intuitively it works with other software. No hotkeys, terrible mouse navigation… it’s like I’ve been cursed.
If you’ve ever tried to work with Maschine as a VST within Ableton or Logic you’d know what I mean. It’s great on its own, but my god, it’ll choke anything but the strongest computers.
I’ve tried working without it. Tried learning the drum rack on Ableton, session view… but nothing is as fast and intuitive to me.
9. Most surprising tip or trick or technique that you’ve discovered about a bit of kit?
I made a video recently about using a sampler as a synthesizer, using only its internal multi-effects. It was a simple idea that I had, which really blew up into an incredibly complex and wonderful challenge in makeshift synthesis.
I designed the technique as a means of exploring and internalizing what effects truly sound like (what does a bit crash do to a sine wave?) but now realize it’s a great way to really understand what effects can do. I’d encourage anyone with a fancy pedal or getting into magnetic tape recording to try dropping basic waveshapes through it and listening to what comes out.
Artist or Band name?
Ambient / Chinawave
Where are you from?
New York, New York, currently based in Chengdu, China.
How did you get into music?
Trained in jazz & classic trombone throughout school. I tried music so many times as a kid and never really enjoyed it until I tried ukulele, which led me to mandolin, mountain dulcimer, banjo, then all sorts of folk instruments. While studying abroad I fell in love with the Chinese Zither (Guzheng) and came back several years later to make a career out of playing traditional Chinese instruments in Shanghai. It’s started working out quite well recently.
What still drives you to make music?
I found something that works for me. I discovered a niche with wide public appeal, which is proving to be very lucrative and creatively liberating. Breathing new life into traditional instruments has given me a lifetime of new territory to explore, and my relatively new fixation on gear adds the geeky satisfaction as well. Cassette tapes are scratching the lofi / esoteric itch, and all the brand sponsorships (Eventide, Focusrite, Novation, NI) are offering some real sense of authenticity.
How do you most often start a new track?
I leave my acoustic instruments strewn about the studio. I’ll pick it up, fingerpick til I find a strange new chord, strike up a simple rhythm on a sampled CR-78, and try to record it simply. From there it’ll likely become a demo; if not, I’ll record a video of my fingers while I play, then save it for later. My muscle memory is terrible.
How do you know when a track is finished?
When the call of everything else I’m working on grows too loud to ignore, I anxiously polish up whatever I’m working on, wherever it’s at, and ship it out.
It’s… really not ideal, but it’s better than perfectionism and never finishing.
Show us your studio?
My girlfriend and I have been artists-in-residence for nearly a year now, so we’ve been sort of living out of a few flight cases. Our studio’s nothing to write home about, but the environment outside is unreasonably beautiful.
Best creative advice that you’ve ever heard?
Always be ready to entertain.
It was a practical piece of advice, given to me by a seasoned acoustic musician who was dabbling in electronics. The basic nature of the idea is that you need to be able to make music anytime, with anything, if only your voice, or with any instrument you’re handed.
One time I was the guest of honor for a government project in Wuxi, China, the governer walked in and asked me to play something from my home country. I didn’t have any instrument on me, so I immediately started singing “I Wish My Baby Was Born” by Tim Eriksen. I would’ve liked some accompaniment, but it was what I had on me, and what was in my head at the time.
But the lesson goes deeper than that. Learn to learn, don’t learn to master. Be ready to try any instrument that’s put in front of you. As a left-handed musician, I’ve come to terms with the fact that no one will ever hand me a left-handed guitar at a party and ask for a song. So I’ve learned upside down.
John Lennon said, “I’m an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.” Whatever situation you’re given in life, be the artist and make the best out of it.
You’re never gonna cure your GAS. You’re never going to have every piece of gear you desire, and even if you could, you couldn’t reach it all from one place. And you won’t always have a big enough table. More than half my gear is sitting in a basement in a terribly locked-down Shanghai, I don’t know when I’ll get it back. But I’m making great use of what I have.
So whatever your lot in life is, make the most out of it.
Promote your latest thing… Go ahead, throw us a link
After years and years, I’ll finally release my single this month. Search up Yukes玉刻 on Spotify and follow meet_yukes on Instagram for a look into life as a musician in China. Good stuff, lots of chillout, ambience and fun stuff.