July 16, 2012

Studio Apartment #2

Introduction: Jon Bernson is the prolific San Francisco based multimedia artist behind Exray's, Rays Vast Basement, THEMAYS, a collaborative project with Tim Cohen called Window Twins and numerous soundtracks for theater and film. Studio Apartment is his first column for Decoder. The column is his effort to document and understand recording spaces; what they are and how they can function in the life of a musician. We couldn't be more honored to have him on the team. Look for new installments roughly every month. -Co-Editor, Dwight Pavlovic

Ross Peacock and Cyrus Tilton are about to speak on behalf of Mwahaha, a style-consuming musical brigade from Oakland, California. Mwahaha just released their debut album, but their rare combination of order without borders hints at years of backstory. As with all good bands, you'll be disappointed by descriptions. Read the book. See the movie. Choose your own adventure. Form your own conclusions. The music of Mwahaha is a visceral experience that has both immediacy and layers of meaning that continue to fold back on one another. [All photos by Sophie Maher.]

Describe your basic studio situation.
Ross: Our recording studio is in a compound known as M+M Studios in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, CA. We have been in this space for awhile, along with about 14 other bands and it has really become home for us. We have our own space there along with White Cloud, Religious Girls, tUnE-yArDs, Naytronix, Clipd Beaks, Elephant and Castle, Racxxns, Consolidated Electric and Creepers. The space has really become a place where bands have cross-pollinated, shared members, gear, ideas and contributed to each others' albums; kind of an extended musical family where everyone is comfortable and open to share with each other. This is kind of the dream situation I always wanted when I moved out here. It took some time, but right now it's a really inspiring situation. Some really great improv sessions with members of different bands have come out of this setting, some of which have been recorded and will eventually hit the outside ears.

Ross: The layout of our studio depends on whether we are recording or rehearsing for shows. When recording, the setup shifts according to what we are working on. When we're rehearsing for shows we setup in the studio like we do on stage.

What is the main program or device you use to record?
Ross: The main program we use for recording is pro tools 003 rack. Also we use a Tascam 4 track here and there.

How linked is your recording process with your writing process? Explain how they interact.
Cyrus: Very linked. Probably due to the fact that no one in the band is a classically trained musician, we all rely completely on what we hear and the character of the sounds, rather than following known 'rules' or music theory. We make gut reaction decisions based on what tracks are on the table and what those tracks need in order to sound balanced or interesting. Whatever sounds we end up with during recording inform every track thereafter. Personally, I have an awful memory, so without Protools and recorded tracks I would never be able to recall what I've played. I don't write a ditty and keep it in my pocket for later. I'm a slave to the hard drive as far as composing and recalling goes. Of course I write masterpieces in my head on my way to get coffee, but whistling a tune into my cell phone (to remember later) hasn't seemed to work for me yet.
Ross: Very linked indeed... often for me it's about having a mental map of the different ideas that are around at the time, or have been laying around for awhile. Sometimes writing feels like a puzzle, except with songs you can take pieces from other puzzles you're working on and use them to finish a completely different puzzle. If we didn't record all these pieces we'd forget them very quickly.

Talk about how you're making some of the music you're working on right now.
Cyrus: We use our instruments and gear to apply textures and tones to fill things out, so to settle into something that feels right, we tend to favor live jamming. This gives everyone a chance to get a grasp on the sounds and apply whatever tones or playing styles work for the overall sound. Due to the fact that we have so many options with gear (pedals, synths, samples, etc.), it's nice to have some time to try things out and experiment. Our other method is layering. Someone will lay down a track, like a drum machine beat, and then hand that over to the next person, who will play a bass line, then a synth, and so on. This method is also about responding to what sounds we have in front of us and treating it like a painting where things get added, subtracted, repeated or tweaked to make a satisfying composition. We have no problem at all in adding. We burn through Protools tracks and hard-drive memory. Subtracting is the tricky part. We are all very picky and critical, so narrowing things down is where the real work begins.

Can you share a sound bite or a soloed track from something you've made recently?
Ross: This is a short piece of drum machine from a long track we're working on. It's a Yamaha DD-6 drum machine that Nathan (our bass player) circuit bent.

MP3: Mwahaha - Drum Sample (Sample)

Do you draw inspiration from other mediums beside music?
Cyrus: I feel like I draw inspiration from everything: movies, art, natural and industrial sounds. Last week I was in the redwoods and heard a bird call that I can't get out of my head. I still want to transpose it to a guitar or synth line. We are probably mostly inspired by gear and gadgets though. Knobs and buttons tend to give us that warm fuzzy feeling, sometimes even from just a picture. Instrument porn. I guess you could say consumer electronics are an inspiration. Another inspiration is the notion of creating sounds that you hope people will dig and connect with.
Ross: Bathynomus Gigantes is a song off our new album that came from a period when Nathan and I were working on music for Cyrus' first solo sculpture show. We had been really buried in the album, and then took a break to work on a live set that would accompany the sculpture. From this we came up with the closer for the album.

Describe a favorite item of hardware or software and why it's important to your recordings.
Ross: Everyone in the band has their own favorite piece of gear or way of manipulating sound; we all respect each others methods. On our new album, the Korg MS20 was used a lot for filtering (guitars, drums, vocals). Actually we tried to run everything and anything through the MS20s' filters. Taking a simple drum machine line and running it through the MS 20 is often the beginning of the song writing process for me. The Jomox XBase 09 was the main drum machine used on the album. I love this thing. It's analog; not many bells and whistles, but the tones are so damn fine, along with a built in LFO filter. Another is the Yamaha CS-15. Thick, velvet tones. Cyrus recently got the Machine Drum which will probably be used quite a bit on the next album. Lets see what he has to say.

Korg MS20

Cyrus: Not necessarily important to our recording (yet) but I LOVE my Elektron Machinedrum. It is so flexible for experimentation but has enough limitations that you won't get lost in the rabbit hole forever (which can happen with software). Every time I turn it on, I find new tricks. It's the sampler version and I'm just barely getting into that part of the machine, which opens things way up. Also has some crazy input filtering and gating which is just way too much fun. And buttons and nobs. Mwahaha is all about hardware.

Jomox XBase 09

Talk about the way you like to sequence [the recording of] your tracks.
Cyrus: We tend to start with percussion. The next step is a toss up between a bass/synth line or a melody. A lot of times we perform and record the gist of the idea, then go back to the beginning and re-write/perform the tracks to make them more cohesive or appropriate to the overall sound. This way you can add interesting textures and turns that you may have omitted on the first round for the sake of leaving options/space open the others to add. The part near the end is where you can make bold decisions about a sound because you know what's sitting around it and you're responding to the whole during your performance (rather than the building blocks).

Can you send us a song exemplary of where you're at right now?
Ross: When we finished the album we went right into figuring out how to perform it live and recreate all the layers, harmonies, etc. As far as new songs, we have pieces we're working on and I think we're trying to let what comes naturally guide us for our next album. (Reading what I just said, I feel like I have said nothing, but I'm going with it.) Here is an electronic track I've been working on. Not really the direction we're going, but another type of music we enjoy making. Right now I'm calling this one Berlin.

MP3: Mwahaha - Berlin

1 comment:

  1. Nice interview process. Informative, loved reading about the studio and creative process. Tracts and photos are a wonderful addition. Felt like I was there!