The first time I heard Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’, back in early high school, I hated it. I was in a big classic rock phase at the time, and I had never listened to any electronic music growing up. I had no frame of reference for what sounded to me like cold, ugly noise. But a year or so later it finally clicked, and that song was a gateway drug to the esoteric, atmospheric style of electronica Radiohead were channelling on ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’. I remember asking a friend “what else sounds like Idioteque?” and he said I should listen to Aphex Twin. ‘Selected Ambient Works 85-92’ quickly became one of my favourite albums, and it still takes me straight back to high school whenever I hear it. The same friend also recommended ‘Music Has The Rights To Children’ by Boards of Canada, which he described as “like a warm bath”. Those two albums (along with similar works by Squarepusher, Autechre, and Amon Tobin) anchored my teenaged journey into electronica, and my latest album ‘Music For Spreadsheets’ is a tribute to the sounds and moods of those 90’s classics.
I had to learn a whole new approach to music-making for this album, and I thought I would explain my process here for my later memory, and for anyone else who might be interested.
The first thing that seemed alien and unknowable to me about Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada was the drum programming. Not so much the sounds – I was familiar with programming sampled electronic drums using midi – but rather the detail and fluidity of the parts themselves. They seemed so complex that it would take forever to program from scratch, but also that it would be difficult to do so and still have it feel organic. Reading that these artists used drum machines, I bought a couple of cheap Korg Volca drum machines and taught myself to program and perform with them. There was a bit of a mental block at first, because I was used to acoustic drums, where every note has to be actively played. In contrast, drum machines rely on a sequencer, where a programmed pattern (say, 16 beats) repeats indefinitely. You just input sounds to the sequence, press play, and the drum machine does the rest. This was all well and good, but it sounded a bit static and primitive to me. What got me to understand how you might ‘play’ a drum machine was the Korg Volca Drum, which had useful live performance controls where a single beat could be muted or repeated, or the whole sequence could be replaced, in real time while the sequencer kept looping. As a keyboard player with good finger dexterity, this gave me the ability to make complex, changing patterns that I could never hope to do on a drum kit. I also liked the sound of the Volca Drum, but it unfortunately had a couple of drawbacks that meant I couldn’t use it as the basis for a whole album. In particular, it only had a single stereo output, so it would have been hard to mix the drum machine performance afterwards in my DAW, and the sound design interface was awkward and impractical. In the end I found the Volca Drum most useful as a way to add some random chaos to the drum parts (it’s providing a lot of the glitchy sounds in ‘S15’).
The drum machine setup I ended up using as the backbone for the album was the Erica Synths LXR-02 as the primary sequencer, using its own sounds as well as triggering a couple of Behringer Roland clones (the RD6 and RD9) and the Volcas. Listening back to ‘Selected Ambient Works’ I realised I would need analog hi-hats in particular to give the pleasant fizz of that album. I believe that Aphex Twin used samples from a TR-808, but I wanted to use analog hardware (rather than samples) so that each hit would be slightly different in the way that an acoustic drumkit sound slightly different with every hit. The RD6 and my Volca Beats had me covered for cymbals, while the analog RD9 kick and snare were both beefy and tuneable. This retro goodness contrasted nicely with the digital punch of the LXR-02 and Volca Beats.
The way I would write the drum machine parts was to start with a sequence on the LXR-02 and use the live performance controls (particularly muting and retriggering) to add detail. The fact that I could play the detail in with my hands, rather than needing to write it out via midi, made it feel more musical to me – I’m more of a improviser and editor, rather than a composer. The multiple outputs on the LXR-02, RD6, and RD9 meant I could multitrack a performance and have individual tracks for, say, kick, snare, and hi-hats – and this made mixing a lot easier.
So much for the rhythm – but what about melody and harmony? I think these aspects are really underrated in electronica, and Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada in particular have distinct harmonic signatures that I wanted to tap into. I don’t know enough music theory to explain what those signatures are, but they each use particular chord shapes and simple melodies that evoke a unique feeling. I find that Aphex Twin’s melodies and harmonies feel somehow ancient and elemental, while Boards of Canada are more dreamlike (reminding me of Brian Wilson and My Bloody Valentine). The chords of ‘K97’ are pure Aphex Twin, and ‘H2’ is blatantly Boards of Canada-inspired. ‘X66’ attempts to combine both. I’ve listened to those artists so much (at once point I listened to Boards of Canada every night for a year) that it’s impossible for me not to sound like them, even when I’m not making electronica! One change for this album for me was using sequencers to repeat melodies throughout a song – electronica doesn’t vary harmonically as much as the music I’m used to writing, so I needed to be a bit more restrained with regards to chord and key changes. The melodies and chords needed to be more stable so that the arrangements didn’t get overwhelming with all those busy drum machine parts.
With regards to sounds, I wanted to use polyphonic synth pads with cavernous reverbs to contrast with the spiky drum machine parts; poky, warbly analog leads; and warm, buzzy basses. I used a couple of different synthesizers to achieve this. For polyphonic sounds and unique textures I used the Novation Peak, a brilliant digital/analog hybrid synth. Before I wrote a single note of the album, I taught myself to program the Peak and created about 100 custom patches. I figured that if I came up with all the sounds from scratch, that would help the album feel like more of a unique creation and less of a pastiche. It was also quite helpful separating sound design from composition in this way, because it meant that I couldn’t get too distracted with sound design while I was trying to actually write tracks. To get those retro bass and lead sounds I wanted, I used the Moog Minitaur and Dreadbox Typhon. The Minitaur got me hooked on the Moog sound, and although I have since sold it I now have several of its siblings instead. I’ve sold the Typhon too, but it served its purpose to broaden the sonic palette of the album. The Typhon has a cool feature where you can morph between waveforms, and I used this for the acid sounds in ‘S15’. I’m particularly proud of that track – I never imagined I could pull something like that off.
I used a few other tricks for the sound design of the album – for example, I tuned the kick drum of the LXR-02 to play a deep bass line blending kick and bass for ‘X66’, and I had some fun reamping recorded parts through my guitar pedals to get weird sounds and textures (particularly the Digitech Whammy). And of course lots of fun with plugins in mixing.
Speaking of, I learnt a lot about mixing from this album too. I was using albums like Aphex Twin’s ‘Syro’, Boards of Canada’s ‘The Campfire Headphase’, and Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’ as mixing references, and they each have quite unique mix profiles. In electronica a lot of an artist’s ‘sound’ comes from their own mixes – this is different to what I’m used to in indie rock, where some artists might produce and/or mix their own stuff but it’s far from the norm. The other cool thing about electronica is that there is no ‘reality’ to correspond to, so the mix doesn’t have to feel like a band in a room, and the drums don’t have to sound anything like a drumkit. It means you have to hold yourself to a higher standard when it comes to things like punchy kick drums or heavy bass – you’re competing against pure imagination. I was at one point planning to master the album myself too, but in the end I went with William Bowden (who has mastered my other music) – it’s a good idea to defer to a professional’s skill, room, and gear when you’re running with a limited setup yourself.
Anyway, that’s the story behind recording ‘Music For Spreadsheets’. I wanted this album to do what those other albums I’ve mentioned do for me, which is to calm the brain and soothe the spirit. I think there can be something noble about music made for a specific purpose, and I fully intended this album to be something that you can put on while you need to concentrate on something else. It’s interesting that music that sounds so busy can be calming rather than distracting – it probably says something about my brain, and I’m not sure everyone else has the same response to it! If you do, though, you might find this album handy.