Making of synnack v2.5

by Clint on September 4th 2010

The new synnack release, v2.5, is finally out and available in 2 formats from our label, Force of Nature. A free MP3 version, and a FLAC version that features an additional track, custom artwork, and of course FLAC quality audio for $4.99.

This new release represents some significant differences from v2, and anything I've done before really, so I thought I'd document the gory details for anyone interested in the who/what/when/why behind the new work.

In a thematic sense, v2.5 was inspired by a number of things. Originally from the TV show "Lost", I became interested in "Number Stations"; mysteriously repeating short wave radio broadcasts. I also stumbled across a compilation documenting actual occurrences of Number Stations captured by amateur enthusiast. Though I did not use any of those recordings in the actual songs, many of the more enigmatic track titles on v2.5 give a nod to these recordings.

Consistent with the past few releases, the artwork for v2.5 contains original works by me that use abused and correlated images from my family. The v2.5 art contains zoomed abstractions of a pen and ink drawing by my father of an old plantation home in my native New Orleans.

WIthout a doubt the most influential events though were of a technical nature.

1) I met and started working with Dave Jones of Attack Sustain. I met Dave originally because he was a fan of synnack and came to several shows in Boston. I recall finding several posts where he referenced synnack on a blog and I contacted him and introduced myself. I think he may have emailed me to report something whack with too. I forget which was first. Lucky for me, Dave has an amazing studio of analog/modular synths in his studio, subHarmonic. Lucky for me, he was completely open to the idea of working with me as a member of synnack. I have used and abused synthesizers for many years before I met Dave, but never analog modulars. For modular synthesis, I had really only used Reaktor. Dave is a master with his gear and has taught me a lot about this way of working. Writing with modular hardware was pretty new to me and coincided eerily with the next few events.

2) I became friends with Bauke Van Der Wal of The [Law-Rah] Collective. I believe I met Bauke through my increasing work with Force of Nature. I mastered a label compilation that included an exclusive track he did as a follow-up to a former release on the label. Since then I have grown to consider him a friend and have enjoyed many conversations where we debate music formats, process, and outcomes with experimental music. I think most people familiar with The [Law-Rah] Collective would see a strong influence in v2.5, but I bet they wouldn't guess that the music is not what inspired me, but conceptual curiosity fueled by our conversations.

3) Max for Live came to be. Max for live is a music software geek's wet dream. It allows you to use Cycling 74's Max/MSP graphical programing environment directly inside of Ableton Live. The ability to not only write your own plugins easily, but manipulate the very character of your sequencer through direct API access is pretty amazing.

4) I became fascinated with "live recordings" and increasingly bored with "drawing music". It's hard to remember at this point which one of these events came first. I think my interest in releasing live recordings started years ago and came up again with Bauke. Specifically, I had read articles by well-known producers from the past who talked in detail about how to "capture" the best recordings. This idea had become really foreign to me. For the past 10 years that I have been exclusively doing electronic music writing had become something very far removed from recordings. For most electronic musicians, a song starts with clicking on File/New and ends with File/Export. In-between there's a whole lot of clicking going on. Sure you may "record" a take of yourself playing a controller into a midi clip in the sequencer. But how often would I never change anything about the sound, or move the midi notes around to "fix" them after that? The idea of recording a synth performance straight to audio with no chance to "fix" it became pretty compelling to me. So much so, that it inspired a whole new series of free releases in the works. See: Spontaneous Sound Design Recording. Using analog modular synths lends itself perfectly to this approach. There is no saving on a modular.

I have always done experimental styled work (see v1.5), but never in this way inspired by these events. As a result, here's how v2.5 was done:

1) During very early Ableton Live 8.0 beta, I began writing things by recording myself playing around in Live directly to disk. Because I was using the beta version where there's no guarantee anything you save will ever open again, nothing was saved for later editing; forcing myself towards spontaneous "recording" but using only software. Roughly 20% of what you hear overall on v2.5 came from this technique. My first Max for Live device, LineFO, was used on some of this. You can download it on

2) Dave and I spend 4 days recording custom circuit bent instruments and analog modulars in subHarmonic Studios. 75% or so of the sounds you hear on v2.5 came from these recording sessions. Most of patches in these sessions were done by Dave and recorded by me. I would have a feed of his mixer into Ableton and selectively record clips into Session View as he went along patching things. He didn't' really know what i was recording versus ignoring. And I had little idea what he'd do next. Some of these recordings (I believe it was the second day) were done by Dave and I both creating a big patch while noting specific modulations we could do over time, then recording takes of us tweaking them. At some point I picked up a bass guitar and zoned out playing it for a while, which ended up making it on the release as the only non-synth instrument used.

3) I then spent MONTHS (i.e. way too long) organizing these hundreds of clips into one massive Ableton Live set. Most of the work was just listening to the clips and naming them based on what characteristics they posses. Where they harsh? Bright? Dark? Rhythmic? I also color-coded them in this way too. This was a tedious but required step for what happened next.

4) To create the final tracks, we then worked in my studio, 0xf8 on method to perform with all these clips directly into finished tracks. I wrote a new Max for Live device that would change the color of a clip upon being played. So I could ensure during the performance that no single clip would get fired twice. Then I did a series of live recordings using an Akai APC 40 where the clips where fired and live dub-inspired mixing/effecting techniques were used. The results of this live performance (there was a few sessions of this) in 0xf8 Studios resulted in the finished tracks.

5) I really did very little in the way of mixing. I wanted to keep the "what happened, happened" spontaneous vibe and be true to the overall idea of live recording. No presets were used of any sort on this release. In fact no MIDI sequencing was used either. The rhythms you might hear were either from LFO's or Control Voltage modular sequencers. I never File/Saved any of the original material done with software. The release is truly what happened at the time these sessions took place. (this will make performing this stuff live really fun let me tell you). The majority of what remained was mastering, which is way more difficult with this kind of music than more traditional styles. There is little to no line between mixing and sound design decisions, and song writing decisions. Is that noise supposed to sound distorted? Does that drone sound better over-compressed? or should i "fix" it? etc.. Took forever to be happy but I think the end result was worth it.

Here are some specific details, per track. At least this is what I can remember at this point. Just about all of these could have "and about 100 Doepfer A-100 Series modules"

  • StartFragment:000001 - The name comes from header information found in a particular instant messaging client. The bulk of the drone you hear came from recorded modular stuff fed through one of the Michael Norris plugins (dronemaker?)

  • E9.Magnetic.Fields - Definitely some Metasonix tubes on here. No memory of the rest.

  • M7.** (tone sequence) - Most of the low drone is a TipTop z3000 through a (slow) lfo'd waveshaper. Pretty sure the Vostok was used for some of this too.

  • VOLMET - I think this entire track was done with live recording technics using the default Ableton instruments. (Operator, Analog, and Collision I think). I also took some of the VOLMET remix that Martijn from The [Law-Rah] Collective had sent and mashed that up and put it in here. This song ended up being some sort of bizarre incest with the remix version. It's probably best that I don't think about it.

  • E14.4F.control - Not much memory of this one. Oh, the droney bit at 1m is the tube stuff again, but I did something to it in Ableton to make it less nasty sounding. The end OSC bit that fades in quickly was the Vostok again heavily pulse modulated. Also think the Suit & Tie Guy Waveshaper was used towards the end.

  • Short Waves Lost - This track is a combination of live modular recordings, and experiments Dave did with Csound. The title is a nod to the Lost series influence. I also think the final track ended up sounding exactly like something that should have been used in the Lost soundtrack. The remaining 5% or so of the sounds you hear on the release were made messing with Csound or something similar.

  • initial S (memory) - The only song to feature a stringed instrument. This is the bass guitar stuff I zoned out playing and accidentally recorded. No real memory of what Dave was doing to create all the synthy bits behind it.

  • Air is Mass - This was done pretty much entirely by recording myself playing with Ableton Live's "Grain Delay" effect. No memory of what was used as the actual sound source. Some of the droney bits are from Dave's modules (shocking)

  • rapid dashes (R10) ** - Ultimately v2.5 used only about half of the material Dave and I recorded in his studio. For the rest of it, I decided to throw all the remaining Ableton clips into one file, and use the "Follow action" feature to randomly play threw them rapidly as a track on its own. Outside of some live recordings of drones laid over the top (using Ableton's Analog, I think) all the sounds you here are made this way. This was actually harder than it sounds. I had hundreds of clips of huge files trying to trigger randomly at 32nd note speed which was certainly causing problems for my studio machine. Continual recording and bouncing to get this final result. The final track still reminds me of what R2D2 must be thinking.

  • Bimodal - Dave had recorded a demo on his own of a modular patch he'd created. I quite liked it so I took it and duplicated it, reversed the duplicate and added a few things. This was way late in the overall v2.5 release process so I decided to just add it to the FLAC version as an exclusive song for people who buy that version.

  • EndFragment:000001 - The name comes from header of instant messaging client again. Most of the audio was created in Ableton by messing with the bands of the Live 8 Vocoder effect and recording the results in real-time into the Voxengo Recorder vst plugin.

  • Well. if you got this far, clearly you could only be my mother. (Hi Mom!). Having documented this I feel I can finally move on to the next project. Katrina here I come.

    -Clint, Sept 2010

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