Auxiliary have been blazing a trail with its releases in 2012, and with the release of Synth Sense’s debut LP, the quality carries on undiminished. We speak to the chaps about their approach to making music, and how this album came to be.
Bouncing out of the skies like an intergalactic pinball, Synth Sense’s debut album fizzles and shimmies itself out of the speakers much in the same way you expect androids to conduct ballet - technical, adept, tight, but also warm, expansive and beautiful.
At others, it feels like an electronic fruit fly, bouncing and skipping across a glass pane that overlooks a throbbing, living and breathing metropolis.
Nudging your musical conscience to the past as well as the future, the album “Tomorrow’s World” takes you to a place where the future wasn’t just another alarm clock-heralded descent into another day of tedious regret, a place where literally everything and anything is possible - although, as far as I know, Judith Hann and Howard Stableford aren’t lurking in the CD case.
Nestling well within Auxiliary’s able nest of talent, Synth Sense are Dan Kiley and Ray Lewis, two long-time producers with more outboard gear than you can shake a sonically adapted Hitachi Magic Wand at. Time to be beamed aboard.
How did you first meet, and discover the shared passion for music?
We have known each other for a long time. We both went to the same schools, and were living in the same areas. Secondary school was where we started hanging out though. At this point, we had very different interests musically. Ray was into rock, and I (Dan) was into hip hop from both sides of the pond.
It was around this time in 1994 we discovered jungle. Hearing mix tapes from people at school, that sort of thing. This led onto a long journey that got us to this point today.
Who were your early influences, and who is influencing you now?
Early 1980s synth pop, definitely. Some of our original influences are bands like Leftfield, Prodigy, Radiohead, Ian Brown, Stone Roses, Bjork, Tangerine Dream, Public Enemy, The Verve, Portishead, Primal Scream, The Specials, Pink Floyd, The Clash etc.
When we got into the whole drum & bass thing, we were into artists like Photek, Dom & Roland, Ed Rush & Optical, Boymerang, Jonny L, Konflict, Stakka & K Tee, Kemal & Rob Data, Teebee, Klute etc, who were all doing their thing from the mid-to-late 1990s.
Talking about current influences, obviously ASC and the whole Auxiliary crew, as that is very much who we are and the sound we represent now, but also artists like Gazelle Twin, Mount Kimbie, Roly Porter, William Basinski, John Foxx, Roots Manuva, Fever Ray, Apparat, Ben Klock and Four Tet.
We spend so much time writing music that we don't listen to as much stuff as we'd like, in all honesty.
"The plan from day one was to produce drum & bass."
Outside of music, where do you draw inspiration from?
Most of it is from the gear we work with. Film and sci-fi movies in particular have been a massive influence for us, the future of the world we live in, science and technology and the rapid growth in these areas have also played a key part in the overall sound of the album. The list could go on and on.
How did your production processes evolve over time?
It involved a lot of trial and error; building up the kit list and getting to know each piece and learning how to get the best out of what we own. We never really read any manuals, it's all been a hands-on approach. I think we only ever read one manual, which was our old Akai sampler. Tinker and see what we can get out of it seems to be the best way for us to learn the ins and outs of any new bit of kit. We did try new things like digital desks and VSTs, but we kinda struggled with it and went back to what we loved.
Did the album have a concept running through it? Tell us a bit more about it.
The LP as a whole came together very naturally. We first set about making as much music as possible, with a futuristic, cinematic edge, giving us options to what would work in a track list. We toyed with a few names, one being Tomorrow's World. Soon after that James sent us an idea he had worked on for the artwork cover, and it was perfect. The image fit the title, sound and vision perfectly. It was then the concept was truly born. We then set about making the whole LP seamless, Having no gaps so the LP would play like one piece of music rather than a bunch of tracks going from one into the other. We did this by building soundscapes in between each of the tracks to bridge them all together to make a continuous flow of audio.
How does the creative process work when approaching tracks?
It’s very freely, and very open. We rarely sit down and plan things. We just turn the equipment on and see what happens until something good happens. Freestyle producing.
There have been so many times in the past when we've tried to come up with a plan but we feel it closes so many doors, so it's best just to let it happen naturally and see where it takes us. We both have very similar tastes in what sounds right when we are playing. Usually, we both respond at the same time to a sound, and we know it's the right one.
There's never a specific process for putting a track together though. Certain sounds can form the basis, but often we'd get some beats down first. We often like to work backwards, like we'd fill up about 150 channels then weed out things we don't like. It's like sculpting in a sense.
We have days when we aren't even thinking about it and autopilot takes over. The track just takes on its own life and writes itself. Of course, there's the other side of the coin though, where we have days where nothing happens at all! That's all part and parcel of the process.
"Nowadays with the music we are doing for Auxiliary, there's nothing holding us back."
You produce at 170bpm - what appeals to you about this particular tempo?
This comes from writing drum & bass in the early days, it's been a natural progression of sorts. The plan from day one was to produce drum & bass. We've tried our hands at other tempos, but 170 bpm just seems right. We've always loved that groove you get with drum & bass and hip hop, which is usually about half the speed. There's something that feels right about nodding your head along to the in between hits at 170bpm.
You’ve been producing music for 15 years; what’s been the most interesting change over the years?
Tricky one! The most interesting change over the years as far as our music is concerned is the freedom we have. Before, when things were very rigid with drum & bass, you had to have an intro, a drop, a formula and almost a million and one sounds going off to please people. Nowadays with the music we are doing for Auxiliary, there's nothing holding us back. We have the space and freedom to take the music in directions that weren't previously accepted.
I've played stuff we've done to people and they don't realise it's 170 bpm. People like to label things and they like to understand what it is, but that's the beauty of it. It's just a tempo.
You produce mainly using outboard gear - was this a conscious choice? What goodies do you have in the studio?
It wasn't a conscious choice really. When we start out making music, the software thing hadn't happened yet, so the only choice was to buy hardware and learn to write that way. We had a three to five year break from making music. When we came back into it, everything had gone software. We still had our old gear though, and persisted with that, as it's what felt right to us. There were a lot of new things happening that we were naive to and didn't really check out. We ended up with a bunch of gear that we wanted back in the nineties and also ended up investing in a few bits of software. As time went on, we started using VSTs less and less though, as we just preferred the sounds from our hardware. I don't think we'll ever change, we just love the hands-on approach too much!
Our fave synth is the DSI Prophet '08. Most of our other kit is sat there collecting dust because of how good this synth is. The Jomox T-Resonator is another fave of ours. You can go through so many routing options with it and end up with something completely different than you expect. A lot of happy accidents happen with it. We still use our Emu E4XT Ultra. We love the Z-Plane filters on it and we used it a lot on Sea Of Storms on the LP. The filters are brilliant. Tomorrow's World features a lot of FX from the Emu. We do find ourselves constantly EQing the Emu though, as the midrange isn't too clever in our opinion.
Another one is the Roland SRV, which is a reverb unit. We were using the Yamaha Rev 7 a long time ago, but we upgraded to the SRV and stuck with it ever since. It has a lovely realistic feel to it.
These are probably our most used pieces of kit.
"Our fave synth is the DSI Prophet '08. Most of our other kit is sat there collecting dust because of how good this synth is."
Is there one piece of kit you’d love to get your hands on?
Is there ONE? Only ONE? Haha! There's hundreds! The top of our synth wishlist would be something we could never afford. Probably a Roland System 700 Modular would be a dream machine to have. Modulars would def be top of our list.
What freedoms does outboard allow you to have, and would you ever consider going to software?
Are there any trends that you see appearing in ambient music?
To be honest, we don't listen to too much ambient music. As far as what's going on at the moment, it's hard to say. Ambient means different things to different people we feel, so it's hard to say.
What other types of music would you like to try?
Techno. We really enjoyed doing some stuff recently, so that's something we want to explore. We were never massive fans of techno, but we never explored it at all, but recently we grabbed a few mixes and it's something that excites us.
Would you like to take the project into a live setting, with AV?
Definitely. That'd be a dream come true for us. The visual side of things appeals to us. A lot of times we often get visions coming into our heads when writing, so it would work perfectly. Recently Roly Porter had done a gig in a theatre where everyone was seated and the visuals were synced to the music, like the visuals would distort to the bass etc. That's something we'd love to work towards.
What does the future hold for Synth Sense?
Lots of hard work and exciting projects. We can't say too much just yet, but rest assured, we'll keep pushing the envelope and developing our sound further.
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