Modal Electronics Backstage: Throwing Snow
So, tell us who you are, where you’re from etc?
My name is Ross Tones and I’m originally from Upper Weardale in the North East of England but currently living in Donegal, Ireland.
What’s on your playlist at the moment?
As I’ve been travelling through the moors to the sea cliffs near my home, I’ve been trying to immerse myself in Irish music, tuning-in to the Irish speaking radio stations. I found a particular love for Sean-nós singing (literally ‘the old way’) with its various regional variations.
There is very little that I don’t feel I can translate into music. It can be the sounds of a squeaky gate or the susurration of poplar trees, or even an idea in a book.
Has Music always been a part of your life? Was Music a big part of your childhood? What did you listen to back then?
Music has always been a big part of my life but it really started for me when I started playing in a band as a teenager. I listened mainly to Punk then and my favourite bands were probably Pennywise and Earthtone9. I think the anti-establishment lyrics still resonate with me today.
What inspires you musically?
There is very little that I don’t feel I can translate into music. It can be the sounds of a squeaky gate or the susurration of poplar trees, or even an idea in a book. I don’t often read fiction, rather I tend to read a lot of non-fiction books on all sorts of subjects. These ideas tend to interlink in my head and I can normally find a way of translating them into music.
Who are your biggest influences on your production?
That’s a difficult question to answer because I try and make a concerted effort not to copy anyone. I’ve embraced the quirks of how I do things and just concentrate on making music that triggers an emotional reaction. I hope that’s not a cop out!
How does a track start for you – what is the spark that kicks off the rest of your production?
The start of the track normally comes from a sound I’ve made either from manipulating something I’ve recorded or a progression on a synth. I almost never start with a rhythm, I find it easier matching a beat to a melodic pattern; mainly because I try to make the rhythms become part of the melody. That’s changing now as I’ve started playing more percussion instruments such as the Irish bones and the bodhrán.
Your studio looks very different to a run-o-the-mill production space, what is the story behind this space?
When I moved out of London via Bristol, I wanted an open plan space to allow me to work with more people all at the same time. The vibe of being in a space that feels like a living room, but surrounded by instruments and plants, really appeals to me. I built the studio around this concept and it worked so well for the first two years of being there. Unfortunately with Covid the collaboration had to stop, but the space still felt creative and I loved working there.
Ironically, as I’ve moved to Ireland, I’m back in a bedroom again. But there are out-buildings here that I’m currently converting into a space very similar to where I left. Owning the place also allows me to make big changes that weren’t possible in a rented space. It’s really exciting creating a new space but it’s gonna take at least a couple of years!
The vibe of being in a space that feels like a living room, but surrounded by instruments and plants, really appeals to me.
Your Album Dragons has a big concept behind it, where did you come up with this idea and what was the process of creating this album like?
The album is based on quite a few interlocking ideas, hinted at by the track titles. I’m very interested in the maths of complexity and also how the increasing population and interconnectivity impact on how humans interact. Our brains are still basically Palaeolithic based on small group sizes, so we are intrinsically set up to access threats, form relations and judge what happens in day to day life through this lens. In addition to this, we have lost a lot of ancient ancestral knowledge which in a preliterate society was passed down through song, music and art. This knowledge was ritualised and became part of religion. The knowledge of how to treat our environment is still valid, but it has been twisted and now the complexities of modern life means that we don’t have the tools to understand it.
Humans have always used tools to understand and manipulate their environment; in a modern context, machine learning can be used to ‘see’ things that humans cannot. That translates to the album through the music being simple but the visuals (created by machine learning and Matt Woodham) being complex.
I tend not to suffer creative blocks because I purposely take time away from writing. When I begin the process again I tend to have a lot of pent up creativity banked, so to speak.
So, music production is not your only focus, you are co-owner of the Left Blank and A Future Without record labels – what led you to forming these labels and what helps them stand out from the other labels out there?
If I’m honest the labels have taken a back seat mainly because I really believe if you are going to take someone else’s music, they deserve 100% attention to make the release go as well as possible. In the past I have had the time to do this but as my musical projects have become my career, I don’t feel like I can commit enough time. A Future Without was set up to operate so we gave as much money to the talent as possible and we didn’t take anything for ourselves; this was rewarding but ultimately difficult to sustain. We will probably release something again on AFW but it’s likely to be myself and Will Plowman’s music.
Do you ever suffer creative blocks? What is your coping mechanism?
I tend not to suffer creative blocks because I purposely take time away from writing. When I begin the process again I tend to have a lot of pent up creativity banked, so to speak. In the time I’m not writing music for my projects, I’m normally composing for film, adverts and TV. Sometimes this results in ideas forming that I can use for myself.
I also find that new instruments and equipment can lead to new inspiration, which most definitely has been the case when I’ve started using the Modal COBALT8.
How does technology impact your creative process?
Technology undoubtedly impacts my process. Sounds obviously inspire ideas but increasingly I’ve been finding that the interface and the ‘playability’ of the instrument is far more conducive to original ideas. That being said, I’ve made an effort to aim for a minimal amount of gear that does exactly what I want it to do. An example is condensing my setup to a Neve 8816, SSL Fusion, Arturia AudioFuse Studio, Analog Heat, Oto BAM and Empress Zioa for both tracking and mixing.
For every project, I try to build a pallet of sounds and instruments. It helps keep things in the same world while allowing me to touch on different bpms and genres.
What has your experience of the industry been like thus far and what advice would you give to anyone just starting out?
That is another big question especially because the landscape has changed, and is continuing to change constantly since I started. Firstly as an artist I’d say the key is to embrace and create your unique ‘voice’ and not regurgitating someone else’s.
Secondly, try and support other people and surround yourself with people doing the same. Thirdly, learn what rights are attached to your music, how to exploit them and protect against people taking advantage of your art. Luckily, through working in various aspects of the industry, I learnt this early on and it enabled me to make some good decisions and work with some truly amazing and genuine people.
What is your production setup at the moment? Is it fixed or do you switch things up regularly?
As I mentioned above, I’ve condensed the recording and mixing set-up but that doesn’t mean anything else is static. For every project, I try to build a pallet of sounds and instruments. It helps keep things in the same world while allowing me to touch on different bpms and genres.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently, I’m working on a lot simultaneously. After doing the score to the David Attenborough narrated climate change documentary, ‘Breaking Boundaries’, with Hannah Cartwright; we’ve been approached to do more films which is very exciting. Alongside that, I’ve started a collaboration with one of my favourite artists, Richard Skelton. We’re in the final stretch of finishing the new Snow Ghosts album and I’m about to begin the new Throwing Snow album. I’ve also been writing and producing some tracks for Finnegan Tui, which has been very rewarding so far as he’s really talented. All that while moving country and developing the space in Ireland means I’m reasonably busy!
I really, really love the COBALT8. The interface alongside the key bed and the mapping options mean I’ve been able to create some interesting sounds
So we hear you have a COBALT in the studio at the moment – what’s your impressions on this?
I really, really love the COBALT8. The interface alongside the key bed and the mapping options mean I’ve been able to create some interesting sounds. It’s not just the sounds that I love, but also the way I can interact and play with them. It feels so natural and it’s allowed me to create my own playable instruments. The oscillators and effects are great by themselves but they also react really well to external processing and sequencing. I’m very impressed and it’s already an integral part of my sound pallet, so thank you for making it!