Modal Electronics Backstage: James Bunton, Part One
In our latest 2-part Backstage Blog Article we catch up with producer, mix engineer and composer James Bunton, discussing his influences, studio gear and of course, the latest addition to his studio, ARGON8.
So, tell us who you are, where you’re from etc?
My name is James Bunton. I’m a producer / mixer / composer in Toronto, Ontario (Canada), where I was born and raised. I currently work out of Studio B at Union Sound Company, which is a fantastic space on the downtown east side of Toronto.
What’s on your playlist at the moment?
It seems that I end up listening to the music that I’m working on quite a bit, so when it comes time for casual music listening, I am often seeking out things that are different from the projects that I have on the go in order to not confuse “pleasure” listening with “working” listens. These days I find myself drawn to a lot of minimal and ambient music as it helps to slow and calm my mind – something that I know I definitely appreciate more and more these days.
One of my go to albums right now is Julianna Barwick’s “Healing Is A Miracle” LP which never fails to help me relax, focus and be present and mindful. It’s a beautiful listen, one that feels to me like I’m being washed away in a warm sonic seascape.
When I’m looking to have something a bit more anchored and song-based, I call up Bonny Light Horseman’s album “Bonny Light Horseman”. It’s a wonderful collection of classic songs that are performed and captured exactly as they should be. It just sounds “right” to me. Their song “The Roving” is one of my all time favourites.
Name your top 3 influences on your music making?
It’s a bit hard to narrow influences down to just three, as there are so many that have made a big impact on me along the way, with new ones constantly popping up all the time. But when tasked with reducing things down to three, I’d have to say that they are the following:
Spiritualized – In high school, some friends and I went to see Radiohead play live on their OK Computer tour. It was a fantastic show, but maybe the most exciting part of it for me was the opener, which was a band I hadn’t heard of called Spiritualized. I was struck by the ocean of sound that they were able to create and how they used it to translate the specific energy of each track they performed into the audience. After the show I did a deep dive into the Spiritualized catalogue and have had “Laser Guided Melodies” and “Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space” as two of my favourite albums of all time ever since. I love the concept of straightforward songwriting being arranged and transformed with psychedelic, space-y, surreal and ever evolving sonics to transform the songs into something that feels otherworldly. The Spiritualized sound and approach is one that has stuck with me and remains a significant influence on how I approach sonic landscapes today.
Bob Dylan’s “Desire” – In high school I was given a bootleg cassette tape of this album, but I didn’t know what it was. It only said “Bob Dylan” on one side of the tape and that was all the information I had. So I listened without any context for what I was hearing and was blown away. It was the first time I’d heard lyrical content create characters with considered narratives, meaningful relationships, and worlds all of their own. I felt like I’d picked up someone’s family photo album at a garage sale, and in flipping through it was able to establish an understanding of the people I was seeing without ever needing to meet them. The album itself was recorded so casually, seemingly with the players barely knowing the songs before recording them. It makes me feel like as a listener I am peering over the fence into someone else’s world, catching a glimpse of it as it all plays out in real time. It’s wonderful. I have yet to feel this way about an album after this one, and on some level I think I am looking to re-experience the magic I find here in almost everything I’ve heard since.
Peers / Collaborators – A huge influence these days continues to be my peers and collaborators. I find myself surrounded by talented people doing truly exciting things, and I get a lot of inspiration and education from that. I feel fortunate that the creators I run with and I have established the ability to have supportively critical conversations with one another – we try to avoid an echo- chamber of self-congratulation as much as we can, and instead really try to supportively challenge one another to always be working to better ourselves in all the ways we can. It’s a strong and important influence, and one that I feel very fortunate to be a part of.
Composer, producer, engineer? How do you fit it all into your schedule?
It seems like most people working in audio these days wear many hats, and I’m no exception. It can be really wonderful to work on different projects in different roles, and fortunately most of these different approaches are related and overlap with one another quite a bit. I think it’s common to have engineering and mixing come into the fold to some degree when in the producer role, and it’s rare that there isn’t at least a moment or two of producing that sneaks up when mixing a project. So it’s nice that the different skill sets feed off of and into each other in an additive way. I guess I think about those categories as all being subsets of one larger thing which falls under the banner of “creativity in musical form”, and that makes it possible to do a lot of things all at the same time and not get over-saturated or burned out too much.
“Maybe the most stand out sessions for me have been the sessions that held failures as opposed to successes – it seems like failing is where the most valuable learning and growth continues to come from.”
Looking at your discography, there is an expansive number of projects you have worked on – if you were to pick one as a standout session, which would it be and why?
It’s always hard to choose a standout session as each one has led to where things are now, so all have been influential and important in their own way. I do feel like some of the best feeling sessions have happened over the last few months – I think that these days everyone is exceptionally appreciative to be in the same room as one another again, connecting with each other while doing what it is that we love to do, which is create music. That’s been wonderful to experience, and I think that these months of return will be some that I will always look back on as special ones. Maybe the most stand out sessions for me have been the sessions that held failures as opposed to successes – it seems like failing is where the most valuable learning and growth continues to come from. Over the years there have been two memorable sessions that didn’t work out – both of them forced me to stop and take stock of my approach to production, and gave me cause to reassess how I was or was not responding to the creative personalities I was in collaboration with. Fortunately, I think I’ve been able to make positive changes in approach because of these fallouts and have been reminded to always stay attentive and attuned to everyone who is in the room at all times. Though the failures are the hardest times to manage when it comes to self-confidence and ego and can be not a lot of fun to go through in the moment, they have lead to important components of how I operate today – they’ve helped me to implement an ongoing examination of approach that continues to respond to each artist and project, to the best of my abilities to do so.
“I find that with gear, if it feels exciting to use more often than not it’s going to sound exciting as well!”
Nice studio setup! Do you have some go-to gear that graces every session? If so, why?
I’m lucky to have a lot of interesting pieces of gear that I’ve collected along the way, including pieces that still make me as excited about putting sound through them as they did on the first day that I used them. I’m a huge fan of the Ursa Major stuff – it has such a unique sound to it and I feel like my ear is particularly drawn to what it does with the spatial manipulation of a source. I end up using an Ursa Major MSP-126 on at least one occasion for just about every project I work on.
I also have a couple of pairs of Neumann W492 EQs that I think are just lovely sounding, so they are almost always a part of things in some way, whether it’s on the instrumental bus, sculpting a vocal or thickening a bass – they seem to find a way to improve almost all source that they grace. That’s exciting to me and inspires me very much, so I naturally gravitate to them. I find that with gear, if it feels exciting to use more often than not it’s going to sound exciting as well!
Which do you prefer, composer or producer – and why?
Now more than ever I’m leaning into the producer side of things. For a while, composition was a place of freedom and exploration and I was very much into the independence that it allowed and the experiments that it offered the space to perform. These days, I’m very much into intention and consideration, and am very interested in the practice of collaborating with artists to help them focus on those things as well. I approach producing with the idea that I’m working with an artist to help them realize the best version of what they want to accomplish in their art, and conversations about intention, consideration and engagement seem to be the best way to chart a course for accomplishing that. I find myself really drawn to being in a room with an artist, working with them to clarify what exactly it is that they want to do, what they want a listener of their music to be experiencing and feeling when they receive it, and then working to actualize that with the best musical choices possible to align with that intention. And to me, that’s an incredibly pleasurable, engaging and exciting trajectory that I seem to not be able to get enough of these days.
If you were to describe your style of music, what would it be?
I think this question is one that a person can’t really answer properly about themselves. I think of it in the same way as how we can’t ever truly know what we look like as humans – we are always either looking at a mirrored reflection, capture or filtered recording of ourselves, and we have to use that to make determinations about our appearance. To understand how we truly look, we have to rely on others to describe us from the outside to really get an actual idea of how we appear. I think that an artist self-describing what style of music they make is often inaccurate as it can reflect more of what they want to sound like or think they sound like than what they actually sound like to others. So with all of that said, to try and answer the question in the best way that I can I’d say that the style of music I make is the kind of music that I want to hear, to the best of my abilities at the time of making.
“I think that I’m always interested in having an understanding of what the end goal of the music making is – as a listener, I get the most out of music that I feel has been considered and crafted to produce a result that makes me feel a particular way.”
What is your approach to making music – is it consistent or constantly changing?
It is constantly changing, but seems to hold conventions that I use as anchors and return to often. I think that I’m always interested in having an understanding of what the end goal of the music making is – as a listener, I get the most out of music that I feel has been considered and crafted to produce a result that makes me feel a particular way. That feeling can be many things, but it just has to exist. So I am constantly making and creating with the end goal in mind. Along the way, the tools and techniques for getting to that final destination are varied, and offer quite different things depending on the tool or technique. I enjoy netting randomizations and improvisations as they often offer something that is unexpected and feels “external” to what I would have intentionally composed. Other times I like to sit down and mathematically construct a chord progression that is interesting on paper, and then listening back to it and nuancing it until it performs in an emotional way can be an exciting way of writing. Sometimes auditioning sounds leads to certain melodies, and sometimes having a melody first will help determine what sound best showcases it. But at all times, the idea of what is a “good” choice or a “best” choice is made based on what the intention of the song / composition / piece / moment is, and how best to serve that intention and end result.
“Sometimes I’m looking to just hear what comes out from throwing things at the wall and hearing what sticks!”
When you start creating a synth sound, how do you approach the process – do you already have an idea in your head before you start tweaking knobs or is it a process of experimentation?
It depends – sometimes I’m looking to just hear what comes out from throwing things at the wall and hearing what sticks! It is such a joy to crank a knob and not know what is going to happen, and just enjoy the newness and immediacy of that experience. It’s not only a fun thing to do in the moment, but it also leads to a deeper understanding of what a synth is capable of.
Other times, and this is more often the approach for me, I’ll know what the feeling or intention is that I’m looking to accomplish in a song at a particular moment in a piece. At that point, I’ll be looking to dial in a sound that accomplishes that emotion or elicits a particular response, and will use that as a guide to approaching the settings on the ARGON8. For example, in a song that an artist and I were recently working on, its second verse consisted of very nostalgic lyrical content that centred around remembering moments from the past. We wanted a synth pad that would help to make us feel “the history” as we listened through that verse. So when dialing in ARGON8, I focused on the modulation side of the settings to give a nostalgic drift or warble to the sound as it developed. I knew essentially what we were going for and directed the process towards that goal, and continued to listen to the sounds of the ARGON8 and how they responded in the mix of the song to get the details and nuances of the patch just right. That final nuance and refining always requires a bit of experimentation and listening to perfect, so I suppose it’s always a blend of both having an idea and experimenting that gets it there in the end!
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.