Every month 5 Magazine’s Man & Machine features talks about musical machines with the men & women who love them.
This month we focus on live instruments and production, in our talk with two members of dance music’s most resilient live act: John-Christian Urich and Ethan White of Tortured Soul (Facebook | Twitter).
Do you remember when you made your first recording? I guess that would have been your first band demo, right?
Christian: I was a percussion major at State University of New York at Purchase when they introduced a major called “Studio Composition”. That covered all of the major things like piano and theory, and you got credit for recording in the studio. There was still a 2 inch machine in the studio. There had been drum machines, of course, but in terms of creating any sort of a full production, MIDI instruments and software were just starting to come into the picture. So I started recording live instruments before producing any sort of electronic music, or stuff that was software based, or instruments that weren’t sequenced.
It’s really been a long, difficult road continuing to make electronic music ever since then. It’s hard to get the cool anomalies that come from recording live. It becomes harder and harder to create music that isn’t perfect, in the way that you can make music “perfect” today.
[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″] It’s really been a long, difficult road continuing to make electronic music ever since then. It’s hard to get the cool anomalies that come from recording live. It becomes harder to create music that isn’t perfect, in the way that you can make music “perfect” today. [/quote]
Ethan: The first demo I ever did was in my friend’s basement with a little mixer, some mics and a boom box. Somehow we did a demo that way. The first studio demo I remember making was with DAT tapes, which were kind of like the first digital medium to get popular in studios after tape. In fact they coexisted for a long time. It was a tape, but it was digital, like a VCR tape that stored digital recordings.
So tell me about where you work. When you record vocals and live instruments now, are you in a commercial studio or does someone have a really high-end home studio you use?
Christian: My home studio has enough stuff in there for me to work and edit – I have Logic 9 (I haven’t upgraded to Logic 10 yet), a desktop, and a laptop I can carry to different places if I’m inspired. I also have a separate studio where I go to record vocals, but it’s kind of a second home studio because I share it with another guy. When it comes to recording drums for stuff we decide needs actual live drums, I go to a commercial studio and record drums there.
Ethan: Similar situation here. I’m down in New Orleans now. When I was in New York, I had about five different spaces. Some of them I lived in and built myself, some of them were live-in studios, and I worked out of a couple of commercial studios.
I was in some really weird spaces through the years in New York. I was in one space that was a room in a furniture building company, attached to a warehouse that was run by the Longshoremen of Red Hook. Someone would periodically flick a switch and my power would go out. I would be sitting in this room in the middle of a warehouse, pitch black. I started keeping a flashlight next to me at all times and if I had someone over to record, I had to warn them that, you know, at any moment the power might go out.
Now I’m down in New Orleans and rent a house which has a separate and fairly soundproof space attached to it. It’s a pretty comfortable, big space. I have a similar set up to Christian: a nice little home studio, and all around New Orleans are professional studios with great equipment and pretty affordable prices. I’ve been to almost all of the studios here to record, actually. If I want to record on a real piano (I don’t have a real piano in the house) or I want to record on a Hammond B3 Organ, there are a lot of options here.
You live in different states now? I didn’t know that. Do you collaborate in the same room anymore or is it all done remotely?
Christian: It’s mostly done remotely. With “Can’t Keep Rhythm From a Dancer” (Beatport), we did a little collaborating on a balcony in Prague. We tweaked the rhythm on the verses when we had three days off in Prague between a couple of shows.
Ethan: The majority of it is internet-aided collaboration. Dropbox, texting, IMing, phone calling – “I think you should try some stuff on this now.” But the majority of songs start with Christian, since he’s the songwriter and singer in the group. So he’ll write a song, create a demo…
When we all lived in the same city, there were a few more songs per album that started out as more of a jam or an idea at a rehearsal or something like that. Still not the majority of the songs, though. “How’s Your Life” from the first album started as a jam. We recorded it at Christian’s place at the time – what was that thing called? The Roland…
Christian: That was the Roland VS… it might have been the 1680 at the time. To this day I’ve still considered getting that back because I liked the pre-amps on it. It made it sound so chunky and warm.
Ethan: It’s a stand-alone digital recorder – it looks like a mixing board but it records onto a hard drive as well. I don’t think they’re nearly as popular now that computers have become so powerful at doing the same exact thing. During their time they were really handy machines that you could use right there in your own home. But that started out as the 3 of us just jamming on these riffs we came up with and Christian wrote a song to that jam.
Christian: But do you remember, Ethan, how that jam came about? It was a live jam, then jammed again…
Ethan: So it was “re-jammed”.
Christian: “Re-jammed.” Right. We were playing for a party for a friend of mine I went to school with – he was one of the firemen that was assigned to the World Trade Center on 9/11. It was like a house party for him because he’d been working for like 6 weeks straight. Maybe a little bit of the tone of that song – the somberness and the seriousness – comes from where the germ of that song began.
[quote align=”center” color=”#999999″] Electronic music is so prevalent, not only in underground dance culture but also in popular music. The result is that people are used to hearing “computer-perfect” music now. That is the norm, and it’s the norm even in what sounds like “live” music. [/quote]
Do you record your gigs at all? Even for your own use?
Christian: We do but it’s really a pain in the ass to get a good recording. A lot of times we’ll have a good technical recording but we’re not totally happy with the performance, or we’ll have a great performance and the recording won’t be very good. One of these days when we have like 10 days we’ll bring someone with us and make a great series of recordings. It’s really an endeavor. It’s costly, and you’d be surprised how each venue might have their own set of rules and don’t want this happening…
Ethan: Yeah and you’re adding to your day. On a tour, those are long days. You’re adding at least an hour if not more to your day to make sure you’ve not only soundchecked the live part but you’ve soundchecked the recording as well.
But what Christian mentioned about not being happy with the performance – I think that touches on something that’s happened to us as we’ve evolved and become more critical of our recordings. Electronic music is so prevalent, not only in underground dance culture but also in popular music. Like if you hear a pop rock group on the radio – don’t think for a second that’s a real live recording. If they haven’t been completely programmed, they might as well have been. They’ve been chopped up, layered, replaced…
The result is that people are used to hearing “computer-perfect” music now. That is the norm, and it’s the norm even in what sounds like “live” music.
It’s strange because it changes the way you hear actual live music. Even if you listen to some classic old disco – it sounds awesome, it sounds very in the pocket, but if you’ve been listening to a lot of electronic music, disco will start to sound messy. When I was younger it sounded like the tightest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. That standard has changed the way we hear our own recordings. When we listen to a live show, we’re much more critical of those inconsistencies in all the instruments. We’re not DJs. We’re live musicians. We have to fight that desire and let it be really live and organic.
That’s one of the reasons I think there’s a backlash in favor of analog instruments and a DIY aesthetic in electronic music lately. It’s weird to say it, but I often find myself missing the grit and texture – a kind of “human” element to electronic music that’s absent with mathematically-perfect digital recordings.
Ethan: Yeah, you have to remember that a lot of the early electronic music was done on machines that weren’t as steady. The timing wasn’t as steady. The early MPCs not only did their own swing – which is an intentional inaccuracy in the 16th notes – but the machine had flaws in its own timing. It wasn’t as rigid as something programmed on a computer, which is extremely exact.
You come through town a few times a year, you’re always on tour and from what I’ve heard you’re working on a new album now too. Do either of you work on any other projects aside from Tortured Soul?
Christian: NO! JUST TORTURED SOUL! [laughs] Uh, yeah, I guess we do. There’s an R&B song that I wrote a number of years ago that just got recorded by a Japanese group called Blue Swing. There’s a song that a singer featured on, Danni D’Andrea that we’re going to release on TSTC Records. We did a remix for a production that Ashley Jana sang on. I also co-wrote a song with Bluey and sang on the Incognito album Transatlantic a couple years ago.
So we’re not doing Tortured Soul 24/7. It’s more like, maybe… 23/6?
Ethan: Yeah, the other stuff just seems like a hobby. I do play gigs with local musicians here in New Orleans sometimes. They’ll tell me they’ll pay this amount and I’m like eh, I don’t care. If you’re nice and it’s going to be fun, let’s do it. It’s almost like a hobby.
I do some recording work for other people as well. Maybe the most notable thing in the last year or two is a group called the Analog Players Society from Brooklyn that does kind of electronic world music. They were featured on Fresh Air or something and went to #1 on iTunes’ world charts for several weeks. Those records I’m kind of all over. Some of them are just all me, just soloing or whatever. For remixes, just did one for a New Orleans band called Waterseed, and hopefully we’ll release that on TSTC. And I just did a remix for Zaki Ibrahim from South Africa.