Modal Electronics Backstage: James Bunton, Part Two
Part 2 of our Backstage Blog Article with producer, mix engineer and composer James Bunton, discussing his influences, studio gear and of course, the latest addition to his studio, ARGON8.
How does the writing process differ between artists, how do you adapt yourself to the needs of different clients?
Every artist I work with and every collaboration I’m involved in is different, and that’s a really wonderful thing. I try not to assume that since something worked with one artist that it will by default work with the next, and I try to let each session and experience I am a part of have a certain amount of newness to it. For me, the best way to know what someone is thinking is to ask them questions – so I end up spending a lot of time trying to ask the right questions of artists so that they’ll give me the information I need to come to wherever it is they’re at. Not only does having direct and explicit answers make things more clear for me and allow me to do my job as a collaborator more effectively for the artist, but being heard and listened to works to give the artist the sense of empowerment and autonomy that they very much deserve and are entitled to in the artistic process. To me, asking questions is a total win-win for all involved, so I try to do that as much as possible when working in collaboration with others.
How does a track start for you – what is the spark that kicks off the rest of your production?
I’ve found that the musical entities that seem to last the longest and hold my interest over time are the ones that are led by the song itself first, with the production ideas following later on. I think that good songs are what impact me the most. There are many pieces of music that I’ve put on and been absolutely blown away by the production of – the captures, the mix choices, the creativity in the sounds and the techniques used are exciting and engaging. But I find that kind of interest has an expiration date, and when I return to those same songs a few months later I don’t have that same initial level of engagement with them. The novelty has worn off, for lack of a better term. But the tracks that I put on that are built up around a song that speaks to me at its foundation and in the writing itself – that’s the music that I return to again and again, feeling the emotion of the composition each time. It doesn’t matter how the snare snaps or the kick slaps – the song itself guides everything, and touches me in the most meaningful way. So, the best productions that I’ve been involved in all stem from the spark of the song itself and follow it as it leads. That’s how I try to approach things as much as I can.
“I think that the cycle of creative ebbs and flows is a very natural thing and a natural part of the creative process itself.”
Instead of treating a less creative time as a block or something that needs to be remedied as soon as possible, it seems to be more valuable to just give it the time and space required to let it play out, and to look for and embrace the value that comes from resting and taking breaks. The ebbs will pass, and the flows will always return again when the time is right. Accepting this helps to make both phases more enjoyable. In the same way we think of the waves of the ocean as a part of the tides whether they are ebbing or flowing, these ups and downs are all a part of the greater creative process and should be embraced as such.
“Using the technologies available to us in the right way at the most ideal phase of the creative process is a consistent consideration, and ongoing balance to be held whenever possible. “
How does technology impact your creative process?
Technology impacts my creative process very much. The advances we continue to experience in technology today are exciting and inspiring! I think that it’s absolutely incredible what we can accomplish with the tools we have these days. As a result, I can easily get distracted by the next new thing, or the new ability to accomplish a sonic feat that was once unthinkable. It’s easy enough to always want the next new thing, and to never stop and really get to know the tremendous technologies that are already available. In dealing with technology, I do feel like it’s important to try and put restrictions in place at various stages of the creative process in order to not get distracted by the technologies themselves, and instead stay focused on what the technologies are making. For example, when working with artists at the initial stages of song development, I try to have them send over their songs in their most bare bones form, void of any technology or production additions. That lets us both focus on the songs themselves before exposing them to all of the amazing things that technology has to offer. I see a lot of artists starting to use technologies to aestheticize and produce a song before it’s even been written, and I think that’s something to be aware and cautious of. Using the technologies available to us in the right way at the most ideal phase of the creative process is a consistent consideration, and ongoing balance to be held whenever possible.
“I’d remind people starting out that community, relationships, and collaborations are always going to be important for making the best work, and an essential part of having sustained careers in the industry”
What has your experience of the industry been like thus far and what advise would you give to anyone just starting out?
Working in the music industry in North America on the studio / production side of things, it’s clear that the environment favours certain people over others. No doubt about that. It’s consistently dominated by straight, white, cisgender males, and that can reduce the place that others see for themselves in this industry before even considering entering into it, and that’s not okay. I’d remind those who are just starting and getting into it, that anyone can do this – at the end of the day, it’s all a series of learned skills that anyone can acquire should they want to and have access to the time and resources to do so. I don’t think that it’s something that some people are born with the ability to do while others aren’t. There is a myth of meritocracy in this industry, and an overemphasis on the accomplishments of individuals instead of an emphasis on the importance of the collectives and communities that individuals find themselves succeeding and flourishing in. I’d remind people starting out that community, relationships, and collaborations are always going to be important for making the best work, and an essential part of having sustained careers in the industry. It’s important to take care of your community and look out for the best interests of everyone in it at all times – when everyone is looking out for each other, caring for one another and welcoming to all, everyone is better for it. Never underestimate the importance of reaching out to someone and genuinely asking “How are you? Is there anything you need?” – it will go a long way. I think it’s too easy sometimes to lose sight of the humanity in the industry – I’d say that if you prioritize people, their needs and their desires, you’ll have a longer and more enjoyable time navigating the industry than if you enter into it with too much of a self-centered, head down approach. Music making is an inherently human-based endeavor, and when we forget about that we lose sight of the big picture. I think that’s an important thing to be constantly aware of.
What is your production setup at the moment? Is it fixed or do you switch things up regularly?
My setup and the basic framework I use for production stays fairly consistent for the most part – I start by focusing on the songs that an artist brings to the table with as little in play as possible in terms of gear or additional tech at the outset. I try to hold the songs as stripped-down as possible for as long as we can, often just working with simple phone recordings and demos without any overdubs or additions. The goal of restricting things in this way is to understand just what is there at the foundation of the work as we move forward – what is in the song itself. Once the song has been considered and questioned and any changes that are required have been made, I then will look to focus on the best feel and approach for the song. Here it’s a matter of listening to what the song is asking for in terms of feel and aesthetic – is it a song that is lending itself to a more full and upbeat arrangement, or does the song feel the most engaging when it remains slower and with a more minimal arrangement? What is the intention of the song, and what additions help to serve that intention? How is the listener ideally being made to feel when embracing the song, and how are they going to be engaging with it? Is it for moving the body to, or for introspective listening? The answers guide the choices for arrangement, instrumentation, tempo, pitch, etc…and the tools to be used are incorporated with these answers in mind. So, the production approach and trajectory remains similar, but the specifics of what it includes takes a different shape with each song.
In terms of production setup when it comes to gear and tools, I end up keeping things fairly consistent for the most part, while trying to have options for sounds, instruments and effects ready to be called upon when needed. I work with Logic as my DAW, as I feel like it’s always been both a great tracking and mixing DAW, as well as an undervalued creative tool for inspiring new ideas and sounds. I try to always have at least one nice sounding mic and channel strip up in the room for grabbing ideas on the fly, and more often than not it’s a LAWSON L47MPII modded with an M7 capsule going into a Rupert Neve Designs Portico II Channel Strip. I have the ARGON8 ready to go for synth and keys ideas, a little Yamaha Stage Custom Hip drum kit for rhythmic options, and various acoustic and electric guitars and basses to grab as needed. There are other sound making pedals and boxes as well – enough colours on the palette to paint most sonic scenes! It’s a matter of pulling up into the setup the tools that are right for the job on the table, and seeing and hearing what they can do.
How does the space in which you create impact your creativity?
It’s pretty important. I’m lucky to have a space that I get genuinely excited to step into every day. Working in Studio B at Union Sound Company, it’s a balance of the best of both a private and shared space – I am always crossing paths with other artists who are working at Union, but I can also shut myself off from the traffic by just closing the doors and escaping into my own private world. Studio B is a tight and focused sounding room which I love, and I have a ton of tools and toys in there to get done pretty much whatever needs doing in the sonic realm. I feel very much at home in it, and I think that others who come to work with me in Studio B feel the same. At least I hope they do! The goal is that it feels professional and comfortable at the same time – a place where it’s safe to experiment, try new ideas out, make mistakes, learn from failures, be honest and vulnerable with ourselves and do all that can be done to make the music that we want to hear in the best ways that we can. If a physical space can encourage those things and contribute to a positive artistic experience for those who set foot into it, it’s doing its job – and an important job at that!
“I love how I can dial in specific nuances to the patches that allow the ARGON8 to increase the emotional quotient of a song in just the right way, without making things sound overly synthetic.”
So we hear you have an ARGON8 in the studio at the moment – what’s your impression on this?
I’m really loving it! I’m having such a fantastic time exploring just how versatile it is and continue to be surprised by what it’s capable of. To have the ability to take it from an aggressive and gritty sounding lead to a warm and subtle sonic support is something that I appreciate very much! I’ve recently been diving deep into just what the ARGON8 can do as a pad in more stripped back acoustic-based songs. I love how I can dial in specific nuances to the patches that allow the ARGON8 to increase the emotional quotient of a song in just the right way, without making things sound overly synthetic. I often have a conversation with songwriters who are interested in having synths in their recordings, but are adverse to things ever sounding “too synthy”. I’ve had some great successes in dialing in pad patches on the ARGON8 that allow for those artists to find their balance and up the emotional engagement of their songs as a result. It’s great!
I also love using the MODALapp up to quickly and effectively control the ARGON8 and get things dialed in intuitively and efficiently. So much of the work of creativity generation has to do with keeping a smooth workflow going, and I find that with the MODALapp I’m able to always keep the momentum and the ideas rolling while simultaneously customizing and curating the sounds that I’m looking for. It’s a great combo!
“It’s changed what I’m able to accomplish in the studio for the better, and I can’t see myself ever working without it! “
The ARGON8 sits center stage on my studio desk – I have it at the ready to grab whatever the next idea that comes up is going to be. Whether it’s a wild texture or soft pad, the ARGON8 has me covered, and I get excited each time I begin to use it to see and hear where it will take the work I’m doing. It’s changed what I’m able to accomplish in the studio for the better, and I can’t see myself ever working without it!
Can you create a track with just an ARGON8? James certainly thinks so and we’re inclined to agree!
In 2021, James was set a challenge by Exclaim magazine: using just an ARGON8, create an entire track. Not content with just the one piece, James created 8 separate tracks showcasing just how powerful the ARGON-Series is if put in the right hands!
Checkout the Exclaim Article here:
Want to hear the other compositions? Well, we’re way ahead of you – listen to all the compositions in our handy soundcloud playlist below!
James Bunton Signature Sound Pack
Pad Hoc for ARGON8
With his inaugural preset pack for ARGON8 – Pad Hoc – James Bunton puts his unique spin on this powerhouse wavetable synth with 14 presets expertly designed to spark your creative juices. From modded organ-like tones, to evolving pads that inspire reflective sentiments, Pad Hoc provides an idiosyncratic insight into this eclectic creative and an entirely new take on the sonic scope of our ARGON-Series’ wavetable architecture.