Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Big Score (Amon Tobin Interview April 2007)

Apr 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Bill Murphy

Forget everything you may have heard about the principles of field recording, tape editing and musique concrète that supposedly went into the making of Amon Tobin's latest album. Although the Montreal-based DJ and producer did spend the better part of a year collecting snippets of environmental sounds and live musical performances — making this the first time he'd even touched a microphone in more than a decade of making records — this was no Matmos or Robin Rimbaud project, where the sound library would become the sole basis of an album. As Tobin describes it, he was going for something completely different.

“This was all about transforming sound,” he says in earnest. “It was about changing a sound from its origins to try to make it into something new. It's no different, really, from what I've done in the past — it's just that this time, some of the sounds came from places like a foley room or from field recordings, as well as vinyl. Vinyl still plays a big part in this record. Although I'm interested in a lot of the history of musique concrète, I really just wanted to make good tunes. That was the main objective.”

Going back to his debut Adventures in Foam (Ninebar, 1996 — released under his Cujo alias), Tobin has gradually carved out a niche for himself as an aggressively elastic beatmaker with a keen ear for melody. The musician's sensibility that he brings to DJ culture has not only changed the face of UK drum 'n' bass and experimental hip-hop, but it has also messed with the way people think about sampling and composing in general. As he proved on his breakout opus Bricolage (Ninja Tune, 1997) and the forward-leaping Supermodified (Ninja Tune, 2000), no genre is off-limits to Tobin's exacting — and yet somehow always seamless and fluid — cut-and-paste production style. It could be batucada or baile funk (from his native Brazil), '70s jazz-fusion or avant-garde neo-classical; chances are it has landed on a Tobin album at one time or another.

These influences are just part of the fuel behind Foley Room (Ninja Tune, 2007), which finds Tobin pushing himself toward a more intimate exploration of the essence of sampling — that is, the creation and manipulation of original sound sources — with an emphasis on extreme signal processing and a feel for harmonic structure. The album's title, of course, is a nod to the art of foley sound effects done for film — and there is definitely a filmic mood to much of the music here — but as Tobin points out, this is first and foremost an album of finished songs, and from the get-go, it plays that way. With guest appearances from the Kronos Quartet, drummer Stefan Schneider (Belle Orchestre), cellist Norsola Johnson (Godspeed You Black Emperor!), sound designer and pianist Patrick Watson, bassist Sage Reynolds, harpist Sarah Page and more, Foley Room undulates with a constantly shifting interplay of rhythms, hummable melodies and otherworldly tonalities. And sometimes, you can dance to it.

“I definitely wanted the music to stand up on its own as melodically and rhythmically strong,” Tobin observes, “without it relying on some kind of ‘concept’ or school of thinking. It's funny in a way because I find that my previous stuff is far more conceptually rigid than this record. Throughout five albums, I made things in a really specific way — 100 percent from vinyl — where every single sound existed in a previous musical composition of one sort or another but was transformed and made into a new track. That to me is a constant, and I'm still very interested in that.”


Ideas for the first stage of recording for Foley Room began taking shape in 2005 while Tobin was on tour to support Chaos Theory (Ninja Tune, 2005), which he had recorded in collaboration with UbiSoft Entertainment for the company's Splinter Cell 3 video game. “It just sprung out of nerd-dom, really,” Tobin recalls with a laugh. “I'd been talking to my soundman Vid Cousins for a while about getting very tiny sounds and trying to make them into big, epic sounds. We're just into sounds in general, and I wanted to see what musical things could be drawn out of recorded noises.”

Tobin soon got his hands on a Nagra IV-S portable reel-to-reel tape deck — the latter-day descendant of the ever-reliable and rugged unit that has been used for decades on remote film shoots to capture ambient sound and dialog while on location. Supplementing that with a pair of high-definition microphones by Earthworks Audio, Tobin and Cousins were ready to dive in, criss-crossing the country on a quest to amass as many animal and machine-made sounds as they could get in roughly a nine-month period.

The journey also included stops at several different studios, including the Kronos Quartet's studio loft in San Francisco. Foley Room's opening track (and leadoff single) “Bloodstone” features the string quartet's haunting drones as its central theme (along with Patrick Watson's equally chilling piano figures), but it was the recording experience itself that presented Tobin with a pivotal discovery that added to the song's overall dynamic.

“I sat in the middle of the four of them with headphones and the handheld mics,” he explains, citing the near-total lack of handling noise from the Earthworks pair, “and what was delicious about it was that I could hold the mics out, and if I wanted more cello or less viola, I could just move my hands and have the balance I wanted. It was as if I was turning faders on the desk. I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to record that way [laughs], but one of the nice things about making this record was that I entered it with no knowledge of how you're meant to record things. I just did what felt right at the time, and I'm sure I made some mistakes that ended up being useful for me in later stages.”


Naturally, percussion and drums comprised an essential ingredient in the making of Foley Room, just as they have for the bulk of Tobin's recorded output. Most of the drum elements were tracked with Stefan Schneider at Planet Studio in Montreal — again, primarily using the Earthworks/Nagra setup, along with several overhead mics — and later dumped into Cubase for chopping and sequencing at his home studio (see sidebar, “Visions of a Beatsmith”). One of the more stripped-down, syncopated and yet strangely busy examples is the aptly named “Kitchen Sink” — a throwback of sorts to Tobin's more overt drum 'n' bass concoctions, but with a sophisticated organic feel that recalls Photek's classic “Ni Ten Ichi Ryu” at a slower tempo.

“I had this idea of trying to make quite a liquid song by actually taking parts of the drum kit and submerging them to see if we could bend the sounds by hitting them in different areas,” Tobin says. “So Stef took his kit apart and put bits of it in these vats of water that we had in the studio. We were just dipping cymbals, and he was striking them at different points of submersion, or he'd float these little metal bowls on the surface of the water, and if you struck them with metal sticks, you'd get that lovely bending sound — like when you're doing the dishes.”

Schneider's drums — as sampled and sequenced by Tobin — get another treatment entirely in “Ever Falling.” Propelled by a Brian Wilson-esque vocal melody that churns in a murky staccato (an effect created by manually nudging the original taped vocal on the Nagra), the song gets a psychedelic jolt from the layers of shimmery aftereffects that seem to chase after the individual drums that make up the main rhythm.

“That was a combination of using noise reduction and EQ,” Tobin explains. “Some noise-reduction plug-ins [such as Sonic Foundry's DirectX, which has a Keep Residual feature] allow you to look at the dirt you're taking off a track; I just took that garbled noise from the drum track and ran it through the GRM Tools EQ plug-in, which seems to add a harmonic content when you adjust the different faders. I was left with this really metallic, liquid-y plastic type of sound; I mixed that with the original drum sound and balanced it out so that the drums have this strange sheen to them.”

The processing goes even further in “The Killer's Vanilla,” which features a long freestyle drum break that was meticulously programmed. “It's a mixture of three different kits,” Tobin says. “One of them was recorded with [live drum 'n' bass specialist] Kevin Sawka in Seattle, and then there were parts by Stef and other parts that were just drums that I have. The big crescendo at the end is a programmed mixture of all three — that was all done in Cubase.

“What I wanted to do with that drum pattern was to accentuate the melody,” Tobin continues. “There's really a lot of suggested melody in drums that people don't always realize. When you combine that with what's actually going on in the tune, sometimes you can get some really interesting accents to happen.”


When it came to crafting melodies from the many snippets of performances — as well as pairing instruments with their environmental “counterparts” (such as the surf guitars and buzzing wasps in “Esther's”) — Tobin went all-out with his manipulation regimen. Most of that took place in Cubase, but sometimes it even meant returning to the Nagra to manually flange or pitch-shift the original source material. Since aliasing and unwanted artifacts make digital pitch shifting a tough pill to swallow when a sound is dropping several octaves, the analog flexibility of the Nagra became yet another function to be exploited.

“What's funny is my particular Nagra is a bit of a dodgy unit,” Tobin quips, “so sometimes you can even just switch the thing off, and something cool will happen. I used it all the way through ‘Big Furry Head’ — there's kind of a chuuung! sound there that's just the Nagra being switched on and off. I thought it was a really wicked sci-fi noise, so we kept it.”

“Big Furry Head” swivels, of course, on the recorded growls of live tigers which, when layered over the buzzing synths, plucked harp and eastern-sounding percussive elements of the song, transmit a fittingly Serengeti-ish atmosphere. “They have this quality in their roar that I can only describe as a breaking up in the high end,” Tobin says. “I mixed that with synths to try to create a new synth sub sound. It turned out to make quite a colorful picture in the end, but for sure, it's just about trying to make links between these different sounds and seeing what happens when you put them together.”

“Straight Psyche” presents another mash-up of seemingly disparate sounds in order to craft a new one, but in this case, the source signals were both from played instruments. By grabbing a Hammond B3 organ and a vibraphone and wrenching them into the same temporal space, Tobin conjures yet another otherworldly mood that seems to emerge from the ether of an alien spaghetti western set in the distant future.

“There are these really beautiful harmonics from the vibraphone that just seem to get picked up by the Hammond,” Tobin observes. “It happened in this really quite magical way, where these intricacies started popping up in the harmonics between the two instruments. And that went through a fair bit of processing because I didn't want it to sound like something being played — I just wanted it to wash over the backbeat.”

Citing his original mission of trusting his instincts by attempting to combine sounds that share similar sonic qualities but might have very different origins, Tobin again points to “Esther's” — part of which was recorded with John Usher (an expert at capturing close-miked insect sounds) at McGill University. The track is yet another of several on Foley Room to take advantage of the weird combination of rhythm and angular dissonance that comes from pasting an animal sound onto an instrument; eventually, with enough close listens, one sound seems to enhance the musical qualities of the other until their union seems almost natural.

“I was thinking of the buzzing sound of the surf guitars in that song,” Tobin says, “so the obvious sound to try out was a bunch of wasps buzzing in a jar. Then maybe you mix those together with a motorbike revving its engine — so you get the fast strumming of the guitars picked up by the bike, with the wasps suggesting another crazy guitar sound — and suddenly you've got something that really gels.”


Much like a movie editor faced with the task of assembling hundreds of live-action and visual-effects shots and then merging them into a cohesive whole, Tobin has clearly gone the extra creative mile with Foley Room. As a testament to the lengths that analog sound sources can be stretched, stitched and stomped on in a digital world, this is one album that can find as much appreciation among the old-school electronic avant-garde — represented by such august organizations as France's Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), who invited Tobin to perform last year at the prestigious Presences Electronique festival — as it can among the hungry young mavericks still clawing their way up through the club scene, where Tobin still DJs on a regular basis.

“The performance at GRM was showcasing Foley Room as a bit of a work in progress at the time,” Tobin explains. “It was played over 47 speakers in the performance space at Radio France, which also houses the GRM Institute. It was particularly relevant for me to play there because the GRM had been home to sampling pioneers like Pierre Schaeffer, as well as Pierre Henri, who played at the same festival.”

Tobin is also quick to point out that this album, perhaps more than any other he's done to date, is strictly a studio affair — and thus impossible to present live. “That's been the trouble all the way through since day one,” he says somewhat ruefully. “I've been fortunate though because I've been received very generously from people with my DJ sets. I mean, I feel like the option is there. I could do the whole thing on Ableton or a couple of laptops, but I think of live shows as something that should be worth seeing at the very least. As much as I can appreciate the way different people work, for me personally, I don't find much enthusiasm for a laptop set. It just seems really boring to me.”

Although his fans may not be seeing him onstage with a live band any time soon, Tobin is certainly keeping busy in the studio. A new collaboration with the Dutch drum 'n' bass trio Noisia is already in the can, while a down-low project with Doubleclick called Two Fingers is expected to jump off at any moment in 2007. And of course, he still has to make the transition to the mind-blowing expanses of Cubase 4.

“I really didn't want to try anything too new and untested when I was making this record,” Tobin confers, “because frankly, I needed things to work. But Cubase 4 sounds pretty wicked, and I can't wait to try it out. If it's anything like what the transition was from VST to SX, then I know it will be inspiring.”


When Amon Tobin relocated from the UK to Montreal in 2002, his burgeoning Beatsmith Studio was centered on a Mackie D8B digital 8-bus mixer. “Until recently, I'd been using that for a couple of years,” Tobin says, “which was cool and everything. But for this record, I ditched the physical mixer altogether and used a [Chandler] summing mixer instead. I'd use the basic mixer in Cubase to get my levels, but then I'd do all my EQing and compression with outboard stuff, and before it was bounced to a stereo file, I put everything through the Chandler Mini Rack. It just had the right sound that I needed for this album — really classic.”

Tobin has experienced a reawakening, of sorts, to the advantages of analog gear — a conversion that was brought on, in part, by adjusting his ears to the plethora of analog sounds and performances he'd collected on the Nagra tape machine. Once those and other vinyl sources were transferred to Cubase for digital editing and mutating, Tobin felt he had to maintain the “roundness” of the mix by putting an analog-effects chain in place after the music had gone through the digital realm.

“There are some incredible software emulations of compressors and reverbs now,” he concedes, “but I haven't really found any two that can do what the Chandler TG1 and the Manley Massive Passive can do. With the Manley, you can push things without them hurting you in the same way a digital EQ sometimes does. I'm using the digital plug-ins more for extreme EQing or very surgical parametric stuff. For the main EQ that I'd apply very slightly to a whole track — or if I just want to brighten an entire sound — I'd rather use the Manley. I think I've found more faith in analog gear than I had in the past, so really this album ended up being a mixture of analog and digital processing.”


Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apogee Rosetta 200 and DA-16X converters
Apple Mac G5/dual 2 GHz computer
Nagra IV-S portable ¼-inch tape recorder
Steinberg Cubase SX3 software

Mixer, control surface
Chandler Limited 16x2 Mini Rack mixer
JazzMutant Lemur

Samplers, turntables, DJ mixer
Native Instruments Kontakt software sampler
Numark HDX turntables (live)
Rane TTM 56 Performance DJ Mixer
Roland VariOS sampler/synth
Technics SL-1210 turntable (studio)

Synths, software, plug-ins
Audio Ease Altiverb reverb plug-in
Clavia Nord Electro and Nord Lead synths
GRM Tools ST (Spectral Transform) plug-in package (featuring Contrast, Equalize, Freq Warp and Shift)
Native Instruments Reaktor 5 software
Roland V-Synth
Waves IR-1 V2 convolution reverb plug-in
Zebra 2.1 soft synth (designed by Urs Heckmann)

Mics, EQ, compressors, effects
API 2500 discrete 2-channel stereo bus compressor
Chandler Limited TG1 compressor
Earthworks Audio QTC50 high-definition microphones (matched pair)
Manley Labs Massive Passive EQ
Mutronics Mutator stereo filter
TC Electronic FireworX multi-effects processor

Klein + Hummel O 500C digital active monitors

1 comment:

  1. This interview was posted long ago - Anyhow, I guess I'm not the only one who wondered about the technical background of foley room, which I think presents one of the few innovations in sound of the last years. I really like the openness that Amon Tobin shows with regard to his equipment and ways of working. Great interview! Thanks for posting!

    My favourite: “There's really a lot of suggested melody in drums that people don't always realize. When you combine that with what's actually going on in the tune, sometimes you can get some really interesting accents to happen.”