We recently had a chat to Tim Shiel ahead of his appearance at our Input event this August. Not one to pigeonhole himself, Tim makes music via his own projects Faux Pas and Telling, and is a member of Gotye’s live band, having worked on turning the Grammy Award-winning Making Mirrors alongside Gotye himself. Tim takes us through some of the techniques and tools behind his solo productions, and shares some anecdotes of life on the road with Gotye.
What are 3 great or interesting tracks (or artists) you’ve added to your collection in the past month?
DEAD TIMES “Inner Gold” – two young dudes from the States who make music thats sort of somewhere between experimental sound design and R&B. They’re pushing production ideas a lot further than some of their peers and I really dig it – this track has a real glacial feel to it, its addictive to listen to. Lots of R&B type stuff going around at the moment but I feel like these guys have a really unique take on it.
BRIGHTER LATER “The Wolves” album – This album is slowly spreading around via word of mouth, it took me a little bit of time to get to it but I’m so glad I did. Its a project in Melbourne thats centered around two girls making lush and intimate folk music. Again, there’s a really serious level of detail and texture, so much thought has obviously gone into every single sound that they use, but the end result still feels effortless and timeless. Beautiful voices and really accomplished songwriting too.
JON HOPKINS “Immunity” album. Really gritty textures and big pulsating rhythms, punctuated by unexpected moments of emotion and clarity. Just a beautiful, personal record from start to finish. I wish I could make music that sounds like this!
What is your usual gear setup for making music?
I use Ableton Live, and a bunch of soft synths, drum samples and virtual multi-sampled instruments that I’ve collected from around the place. I use a combination of Ableton’s native effects and third party plugins. My primary source of note input is a Nord Stage 2, which was also my touring keyboard with Gotye, it also has some good sounds inside it. In addition to this, I make noises predominantly with the following items: a guitar which I use in combination with a Roland GR-30 MIDI pickup system, an iPad with a few apps on it (at the moment I’m in love with an app called Samplr), my voice, and a Teenage Engineering OP-1, which I use not just for synth and drum sounds but also for frequent FM radio sampling and effects.
Playing live, what is your most used piece of gear and why?
I have a beaten up Akai MPK mini keyboard which I’ve had for a few years now. I was using it as my main controller for the Gotye show before upgrading to the Nord, and it was also the main controller for my solo shows in 2011. Though obviously you wouldn’t (and couldn’t) play Rachmaninoff on it, its such a useful little battler of a device -having access to two octaves of a keyboard, eight drum pads, and eight faders, all on a controller whose footprint is only slightly larger than the spread of an outstretched hand – it allows for some pretty flexible and adaptable setups, and means I can move from playing keyboard lines to triggering samples to adjusting parameter values very very quickly. Its also super portable and reliable. Plus they are cheap and easily accessible in most cities which makes replacing them on the road really easy. The Nord became my main keyboard with Gotye once I started playing more keys parts lives, but still have a big soft spot for the Akai and I use it all the time when writing too.
What do you find you spend most of your time working with, Audio or MIDI?
At the moment its probably a pretty even balance between the two. There are great strengths in both. When I made the first Faux Pas record, which is made up mostly of old samples from records and found sounds, I wasn’t using MIDI at all simply because I didn’t even really know what MIDI was or that soft synths existed. I was using Sony Acid (it was called Sonic Foundry Acid actually) and my workflow mainly consisted of mouse-and-keyboard cut-and-paste waveflow editing, sometimes to the grid and often not. I made that whole record just by layering audio and manipulating it via time-stretching, pitch and old-fashioned cut and paste – there was no performance element nor any programming. Once I got into using Ableton I more or less swung completely the other way, I became deeply interested in soft synths and I also felt completely liberated by MIDI controllers, being able to get hands on and play instruments and manipulate parameters and envelopes physically felt like it unlocked a different kind of musicality for me, which I wasn’t accessing through just audio editing. So the second Faux Pas album is almost entirely MIDI-programmed soft synths and electronic drum kits, with only a little bit of audio recording (guitar and voice) and some but not a lot of cut-and-paste style waveform editing. Now I’m really happy to be striking a balance between the two, and trying to move seamlessly between both.
What are some of your favourite features of Ableton Live?
Probably simply its ease of use and flexibility. I now feel like I spend very little time battling the software – even right from when I started working with Ableton Live, I felt like it was simply enabling me to be creative, and never getting in my way. And its such a deep program that I’m always finding new tricks and features, just by talking to other users or watching the way they work (no two people approach Ableton the same way). I’m looking forward to learning a few new tricks when I come up to Sydney for Input!
What’s your favourite new feature in Live 9?
Its very subtle but I actually really like the improvements to Live’s EQ Eight. It sounds better and has a built in spectrum analyser, so making quick but meaningful adjustments to elements in a mix is easier. I’m also a fan of a lot of the sound content thats been made available for Live 9, in particular the Cyclic Waves pack made by Cycling 74, and also the Soniccouture packs that are available. Some really evocative, unexpected sounds and textures are buried away in there if you go looking.
The desert island question – if you could only have one plugin, what would it be? (both Ableton and 3rd party – one of each)
Ableton – It has to be ping pong delay doesn’t it? I’d find a way to hack it to have infinite feedback and just listen to those triplets bouncing back and forth until I died of starvation or sunstroke or being eaten by something or someone.
3rd party – SoundToys Echoboy.
And what if you could have one piece of hardware?
Teenage Engineering OP-1.
There’s a lot that goes into making music, in 2013 the producer is often also the engineer, performer, programmer, session player, mixing engineer etc. What part of the music making process do you enjoy the most?
Because I don’t have a linear workflow and because of the nature of the music I write, I don’t tend to think of myself as having different roles that I can delineate. Writing, producing, performing and mixing all sort of happens simultaneously when I’m working on something, I tend to shift in and out of these modes constantly without even thinking consciously about it. It all happens at once, and at the end of the process, there’s “some music”. I do very much believe in the idea of ‘flow’ or being ‘in the zone’ – the trance-like state when you are so immersed in the energy of what you are working on that time seems to stand still and it feels like you are just living inside this moment that you’ve created. The goal for me is always to get into that zone as quickly as possible, and maintain it for as long as possible – it is when I’m at my most productive and its always in that mindset where I have ideas and make connections that resonate with me long afterwards. Its addictive, that feeling – its magic. Its also, perhaps not coincidentally, the same feeling that I’m chasing when I’m listening to music. Not so much spiritual but definitely transcendent.
Your sound from ‘Faux Pas’ to ‘Telling’ has changed quite dramatically, what do you see as the influences & reasons you went in this direction?
Maybe it was to find a bit of peace while on the road, but I spent more time than usual listening to folk music and ambient music last year. A lot of the music I was listening to was full of space but also rich in texture – I was drawn to records like “The Disintegration Loops”, “Zauberberg” by Gas, as well as weird old folk stuff. So I think I’ve probably gained a bit more appreciation for the space between notes rather than the notes themselves – silence which isn’t silence, negative space – which took me a while to get to. I’ve also just always wanted to write songs and have people sing them, which is part of what we’ve been trying to do with Telling. Write great songs.
Give us a memorable moment from your recent touring as part of Gotye.
When we were sound checking at Letterman, Paul Shaffer literally appeared out of nowhere, gestured at my stage setup and said “Hey man, cool setup, I really dig it.” I was so stunned by the fact that he was real that I didn’t realise that he simply wanted to have a conversation until it was too late, and he vanished into thin air.
Describe the process for getting one of your songs from conception to completion. (how do you start writing, how does it develop from there – basically a chronological log of a songs journey).
I think its really important to not lock into just one method of working, but having said that I guess I generally tend to start with a sound that inspires or intrigues me, whether its a field recording, or a preset on a soft synth, or an old sample, a guitar line, it really could be anything. It could be a fragment of an idea sent to me by a friend, a vocal line or a beat. From that initial point its just about following wherever it takes me – the sound might suggest a melodic idea which I’ll investigate, or some manipulation of the sound might bear out a rhythmic loop, or often I’ll just slam it against another sound I have in the vault and it’ll be the juxtaposition of the two that excites me and then suggests another direction. It is very difficult to describe the creative process, but I guess I know from talking to other people that I tend to approach writing perhaps in a more non-linear fashion to others – I don’t start at the start of a song and work to the end, I just start with a sound, then add more sounds, and eventually an internal logic emerges. I do liken it to sculpture even though I’ve not really pursued sculpture in any way – its just a matter of throwing things together and then shaping it into something that feels right. I tend to succeed in making things that I like when I am not thinking so much about why it is the way it is – I try not to think much at all really, and just be guided by my instincts and trust that my intuition is going to lead me on to something I’m happy with. Am I engaged, do I feel something? I try to follow that feeling always.
How much of your music is derivative of sampling vs programming / synthesis? where do you dig to source your sampled sounds?
I tend to be drawn to sampling rather than synthesis. I reckon some would maybe characterise it as laziness, but I tend to just want to immediately access musical material and not get hung up too much with the technical side of things in the early stages of creation. I’d rather skip a few steps and get straight to the fun part, which means I’m drawn to samples (not so much samples from records any more, but more broadly I just mean, “audio content”) because they generally already have a lot of detail and context embedded in them.
When it comes to soft synths I’m much more likely to tweak a preset than to try and build something from scratch – I’m not patient enough to build something from the ground up, and perhaps because I did start out by building these collages out of other people’s music, I’m not as precious about the idea of who made what. Like, I know people take great pride in building their own synth sounds from scratch, and (nobly) are trying to find their own ‘sound’ by building something that no one else has built, at a sort of molecular level I suppose. For me I am very comfortable standing on the shoulders of others, and like the idea that its the execution and arrangement of my ideas that generates my music’s unique ‘character’ (if it has such a thing) rather than the fact that I can say I built every single sound from scratch.
I source sample material from a few places predominantly – my MP3 collection, the Internet, field recordings (mine and others), stems ‘borrowed’ from friends, live recordings of myself playing guitar and synths. I also like resampling myself, pulling old mixes and ideas directly into new projects and just generally trying to complicate and combine things. Young Frankenstein.
What’s coming up next for you? (something under you Telling moniker, with Gotye, or something else altogether?)
I’m really just rolling along at the moment and trying to stay open to whatever opportunities come my way. I have a lot of material I’ve been working on over the past few years, and I’m still making my way through all of it and trying to figure out what I can do with it all. In the meantime I’m really enjoying collaborating with other people, doing some co-writing with friends as well as some mixing and production for other people’s projects.
Tim discussed the process behind turning Gotye’s album Making Mirrors into a live show using Ableton Live, and went further into his own production techniques at Input: Industry Insights for Independent Producers on August 10 at FBi Social. Watch the video of his talk here.
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