1. Favourite knob/fader/switch on a piece of gear and why?
My UA Apollo interface’s on/off switch – it’s a big silver lever that goes CLACK in an extremely loud and satisfying way. Apparently it’s actually the same on/off switch they use on their LA2A’s, so that switch has royal heritage.
2. Do you have an ‘almost’ perfect bit of kit? What would you change?
I think everyone thinks it’s very easy to improve on gear, or that a manufacturer was daft not to include some simple feature when in fact it’s anything but simple (or cheap) to add just any old feature. Or that that feature is the thing stopping you from making good music. But as for perfect gear – I guess the Juno 60. It’s very simple, it has nothing superfluous, and it always sounds absolutely amazing. If I would change it, I would take presets off (because it’s so direct you don’t really need them – and of course, yes that’s a Juno 6) – and if I added anything, well I DID add the Juno 66 mod to mine, the best thing being, that it turns a precise DCO machine into a aphexy wooze-machine.
The perfect effect is the LA2A. It has two knobs, it’s set and forget, and it never fails, or sounds over the top.
3. What setup do you bring on holiday/tour/commute etc.?
My iPhone, running Xynthesizr, pretty much just sequencing one blissy dual VCO with 98% echo patch, that I never modify beyond a few basic parameters. That’s all you need. I actually literally played a set at Moogfest on just my iPhone with this – directly connected to the PA through the headphone jack – I just improvised on Xynthesizr for 45 minutes with a couple of other elements for colour. I worked out the kinks about a day before. I can’t believe I got away with that, but I hope it makes a point. In fairness I had spent over a year solid jamming with that app on trains, planes and automobiles. I am always far more impressed with and weirdly, envious of (for their restraint and focus) musicians that have almost no gear, than ones that have everything. I make videos about gear, so it can’t help but pile up.
4. What software do you wish was hardware and vice versa?
I wish Xynthesizr was hardware. I wish the Reason PX7 rack extension was hardware. I wish the Casio FZ1 filter was software.
5. Is there anything you regret selling… or regret buying?
I regret selling my second-ever synth, the only synth I’ve ever maxed out every single memory location on with my patches – a Korg MS2000.
I regretted buying the Novation Nova, which was my first synth. It was way, way, way too complicated for me and I had no idea where to start. I directly swapped it for the MS2000. And while I think the person I did the trade with thought they got the better deal, I definitely did. That was the synth that taught me synthesis. I rinsed that MS2000.
I definitely bought or traded stuff for a Cheetah MD16 drum machine at one point which I remember thinking “what the absolute hell am I doing with this grey door stop”. In fairness I probably didn’t know what I was doing and it was fine, but I’m still not convinced.
6. What gear has inspired you to produce the most music?
Ableton Live. That’s also all you need, but it’s all too easy to fall into jaded patterns of use and habits with it, which you need to be aware of or you’ll end up spending thousands of pounds on a eurorack habit in a desperate bid to rekindle the feeling of “beginners mind” once again.
But mainly, what has inspired the most music is time. Having the luxury of time in which to make music is harder and harder as life goes on and responsibilities grow, and especially the idea of being a full time musician is incredibly difficult to maintain and I’m amazed people do it at all. It’s interesting to consider that many musicians can only become successful through either being utterly utterly dirt poor, or rich to start with – being the only way one could afford the time to become successful. Is there a middle ground?
7. If you had to start over, what would you get first?
A Digitakt. That’s also all you need.
[Editor: And a nice doggie for company]
8. What’s the most annoying piece of gear you have, that you just can’t live without?
Adobe Premiere. It’s a bug-infested rats nest, it’s stupidly basic with audio… but I need it. If it ever truly falls over, Davinci Resolve is waiting in the wings, and is free.
9. Most surprising tip/trick/technique that you’ve discovered about a bit of kit?
The incredible genre-defining boundary-expanding main spooky string riff in LFO’s “LFO”, clearly the sound that inspired the track (because you wouldn’t just magically find that sound would suddenly fit what you were doing, you fit a track around IT) is a straight preset (melody and all) from the cheap as chips Kawai K1. That’s right, one of the best moments from one of the best British dance tunes of all time is a preset. Presets are not “for the weak”. Making a good tune is hard enough as it is. Having FINISHED a tune BECAUSE you used presets is far cooler than having hundreds of half finished tracks where you synthesized every hihat from scratch.
Guitar bands don’t build new instruments for every song – there’s a balance to be struck. You can separate the processes of sound design and song writing – it’s something I’m mindful I need to do more. Either way I accept inspiration wherever I find it.
[Editor: ‘Accept inspirations wherever you find it’ – that is a nicely turned phrase and great advice]
Artist or Band name?
Electro/techno. I’m inspired whenever I think about Aphex, LFO, Boards of Canada, James Stinson, and Kraftwerk. So hopefully I float around in their worlds musically… A bit.
Where are you from?
An hours drive from where Mark Bell was from.
How did you get into music?
A perfect storm of having older brothers to who played me Orbital and RDJ, one of whom had an MC-303 (Yes, MC) which he let me fiddle around with, having access to a stack of Future Music issues in a time before the internet, and being bequeathed several grand from my late great uncle at the age of 16(!) years old.
As you might image I frittered most of that money away on stupid pointless things, but I did spend a massive chunk of it on my first ever music gear and a proper stereo, and I never looked back. That was probably the best imaginable upshot of him leaving me the money, despite me wasting most of it – it’s funny that the right gift at the right time can change someone’s life.
You can see how privileged I was to get that push, and the money, and to be young enough to have the time especially – I lived in the countryside, so there were no friends to see (without a lift) or places to go. It’s good to remind yourself that having access to tools and a relaxed environment and the luxury of time, where you can experiment with them – and to have taste makers like your brothers – is essential to make people who can explore creative pursuits, and I’m lucky I had it.
Ralf and Florian [Editor: Of Kraftwerk fame] were well off, how else would they afford a Minimoog, a Synthi and the time to play it?! Of course now the tools are far cheaper, and the software is free (time is still a luxury). The internet could be like an older brother, but there’s just too much noise. How do you discover your “thing” anymore? I’m encouraged to see that people do discover things like Eurorack, and that’s a route into electronic music for them.
What still drives you to make music?
The knowledge that if I sit down and fiddle around, something good will most likely come of it. And about thinking about those people I mentioned before, sat in their personal Kling Klangs, playing around with tools just like the ones I have, and coming up with timeless music. That always makes me want to try as well.
How do you most often start a new track?
Making music is a bit like sculpture, or seeing a dog in a cloud. I NEVER pre-imagine what I’m going to make. I just start turning dials and pushing buttons until something cool pops out and a little light goes on my head, and then I get an idea of what that blob could be further shaped into, and then I zone it in on that, and then other complimentary things suggest themselves.
At the end of it, you end up with a semi coherent thing and wonder… how did this even start out?
Usually, also the first idea is wack, but the second or third thing you make from all the sounds and sequences of the first is far better. The main thing is to just sit down and play, irrespective of whether you feel inspired (that will happen by playing), and not to be concerned whether you will make anything “good” or not (that is – partially – out of your control).
[Editor: Kinda like how it’s useful to separate sound design from composition, I guess it’s equally useful to separate the process of creation from judgement of good vs. bad... Or maybe ‘separate’ is too strict a word? Perhaps ‘compartmentalize’?]
How do you know when a track is finished?
I 100% do not know this, and I fiddle away at things endlessly. So much so, that I’ve been engineering systems, so that I have no choice, but to accept my first or second real-time pass at something as “it”. If I later decide it really is crap, I’ll just have to make something else. Quantity makes quality.
Show us your current studio
This is half plugged in right now, as I’m trying to find a way to have the stupidest amount of gear in the smallest space.
I feel obliged to say there isn’t (so far, for me) a relationship between having loads of gear and making loads of music. Just like having fifty guitars doesn’t make you a brilliant guitarist. I am not in any way proud of having loads of stuff in principle (NB: Although I love all these things, I’ve slowly gathered it all this over decades, it most definitely did not arrive overnight), and most of the things I own are individually pretty cheap bits of gear. I love these individual bits, both for what they are/do (their market value doesn’t correlate to their coolness to me in all cases) and for their place in musical history, I definitely have the curse of being a collector.
Case in point, I own a DX7 – a proper brown old first edition DX7, and I think it’s utterly amazing for both the historical influence and as a synth. It’s such a futuristic beast, yet fuzzy and nostalgic all the same time. FM synths are extraordinary to me and much more like alchemy than subtractive ones.
But the thing I am actually proud of in that studio picture is that in the last three months I have been working to make it all completely accessible and immediate on (3!) patchbays, so I can actually make full use of it, both for impromptu live jams and recording multi-tracks to computer, and variations thereof. About f*king time. Get yourself enough patchbays to have all the I/O of your studio fully plumbed in.
Otherwise you’ll never use it! I didn’t, and I’ve started applying the “build a system” mentality which I’ve learned through Eurorack, to my wider studio. A well organised patchbay system is essential.
Best creative advice that you’ve ever heard?
A recent one:
“Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.”
I believe strongly that quality is a byproduct of quantity. Just make the music and try not to care if it’s good – in fact revel in making something terrible, if that will help you not give up, just don’t abandon it. Finish it and then see what you learned from it. And if you need an evil, but effective way to force yourself to finish something – bet a friend a significant amount of money (£100+, or more if you’re doing well) you’ll make an agreed deadline. Always worked for me.
Promote your latest thing… Go ahead, throw us a link.
Here’s a video I made about how to recreate a Buchla Music Easel in only 62HP of Eurorack modules. I’m making a whole series of these little mini “Suggested Systems”. Go on and subscribe to the channel if you like nerdy chats about synths and gear? Go on. Go on now:
Also I have a podcast talking to electronic musicians and gear makers, including chats with Scanner, Tom Furse from the Horrors and the wonderful Adrian Utley so far.
Am I allowed three?! Here’s that Moogfest I did on an iPhone:
[Editor: There are affiliate links to the relevant gear throughout the articles. It helps to support this blog. In fact, should you be needing some patch cables or guitar strings. Then clicking on one of the above links and buying any product that you prefer, will help the blog… doesn’t even have to be the ones in the link. Thx]