Modal Electronics Backstage: Venus Theory, Part Two
What are some stand-out Synth sounds or scores that have inspired you?
The soundtrack from Annihilation was incredible – the synth work in that score is awesome and felt very unique. I really love the sort of ‘organic synthetic’ blend and that’s something I aim to achieve a lot in my own music and sound design work – the sounds in that score just resonated with me on a totally different level.
HBO’s Chernobyl also had some awesome synth(?) work that was really fun to listen to. I’m not sure if it was synths exactly, but the sound design in the score is just really something that works so perfectly with the tone of what’s on screen.
More recently, Paul Dawkins’ work on The Tunnel stuck out to me as my wife pointed out it sounded a lot like something I would write. After listening to the soundtrack, it was really cool to discover I had a sort of ‘musical twin’ out there.
While it’s not specifically ‘synth’ oriented but there are some good synth-y bits, the original score of the show House MD is still my favorite.
How did lockdown influence your music making?
I think the biggest factor was just the sort of mental state of everything. I’ve been working from home for a really long time now so that wasn’t really anything new, but it was certainly a bit weird for things to just totally shift with lockdown.
It sort of felt like suddenly there was a lot more of an introspective overhang to things. Without being able to visit friends or family, and with even simple things like going to the store having such a weird vibe, I feel like I just became a lot more aware of my own feelings and thoughts which drove me into some different places mentally that ended up working their way into musical ideas.
Music also became more of a way to pass the time to some degree since it wasn’t like we were going out much or able to do things we’d normally do. This led to a lot of experimental sessions and various noodlings that ended up teaching me a lot not only about sounds and creating music but my creative process in general that’s been helpful to take into more ‘proper’ sessions now that I’m gearing things back up to release more music under my own name.
Do you ever suffer creative blocks? What is your coping mechanism?
Every artist does I think in one way or another – except for my friend Tomkillsjerry who seems to have endless musical output and it drives me insane.
I think the best thing is to just take a break and focus on other things. Being a creative type doesn’t mean you just have to create music – you can spend time working on a sample pack, doing some digital art or painting, playing around with photography, baking or cooking, or any number of other things.
I find that getting out and doing something else can really help spark ideas, put you in a better mood, or if all else just let you blow off some steam doing something else for a while.
As well, when you’re not sitting in front of a keyboard or the DAW, you can’t sit there doing everything that comes to mind and being mad that nothing is working. When you’re out and about, you have to suddenly remember and be very intentional about an idea that you want to take back in the studio.
With the sort of hustle culture mentality of things these days, it puts enormous pressure on artists to always create for the sake of producing a product. Sometimes it’s better to just wait for when you’re truly feeling inspired and treat the times you’re not as a time to progress in another area or explore something new just for fun.
I think the best piece of advice I can give is just to try and jump back to the mindset of a complete ameatur: when you really don’t care about if what you’re creating is the greatest thing ever or not it almost entirely relieves the creative pressure and helps you remove the need to self-censor ideas as they’re in the process of iterating.
When you’re working on a deadline though and you don’t have time to take a break, it’s never failed me to just go with my gut: do the first thing that comes to mind and roll with it. Second guessing yourself is the fastest way to kill an idea and get nothing done.
I’m constantly unsure of what I’m doing, and every time I go to ask my wife for some feedback it’s always the same sort of thing where she’ll say “it’s fine, you’re just thinking about it too much and nobody cares about that sort of stuff”.
How does technology impact your creative process?
Tech has been a huge part of my music since I was pretty much always ‘lone wolfing’ it at the start – since I didn’t know how to play other instruments at first or have access to ways to record them, being able to call up a plugin to make a drum part or a piano part or whatever I had in my head was really cool. I think if it weren’t for that kind of stuff, I may not have gone so seriously into the world of music or sound design. Working in recording studios in my late teens and early twenties where they used tape and outboard gear and such really shows how involved the process of making a record was – today you basically just need an iPad or a computer and you have that whole studio in front of you.
Eventually after being in a few bands and getting more into studio recording, I got a lot more interested in the tech side of things as I started to explore electronic and experimental music as well as getting into sound design. It’s really nuts what you can accomplish in the box, and I think that’s why I’ve always had a focus on a hybrid workflow of hardware and software – the two compliment each other so well.
Even though I’m on the somewhat younger side and digital recording tech has always been available to me, the technology now is incredibly powerful and has come a very long way especially as computers have grown more and more powerful.
All the tech going on is a great thing though – plugins are more powerful and creative, effects can be all sorts of crazy, and you can do things that can allow you to totally transform your music or sounds with stuff you can get for free or incredibly cheap.
Of course, the free and open source music community is a huge thing too – there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in that space with things like VCV Cardinal, SurgeXT, Ardour and LMMS and so on and I think it’s great to see such powerful and unique music making tools available for free to enable everyone to create.
If you’re the sound designer, it’s your job to inspire the user and not provide them with more work to do to make the sound fit their track.
For you, what makes a great synth sound?
I think the biggest thing is immediacy. It’s really easy as a sound designer to get wrapped up in really weird and more ‘technical’ sounds that may function if you do X, Y or Z with them or just sound insanely complex with a single note but often these things don’t really work out in the hands of a composer or artist.
I love flexing sound design skills just as much as the next person, but broadly speaking these kinds of ‘hey look what I did’ sounds don’t play much of a role in a functional context: they’re just cool to listen to.
As simple as it is, it’s important to just remember that you’re (in most cases) making sounds that sell or making sounds that sell a product and ultimately provide value to the end user. So, if you’re working on a bass sound, it should sound like a bass but more importantly you should be able to envision it as a bassline in a track right away.
If you’re the sound designer, it’s your job to inspire the user and not provide them with more work to do to make the sound fit their track.
If you were to give your top three tips for creating a synth sound, what would these be?
First off, have a guideline – it’s too easy for things to get complicated and off track.
For me, it’s always a checklist of: Frequency, Amplitude, Tone/Timbre, and Time.
(internally in my head known as ‘FATT’ because…cool sounds are fatt)
Having a simple formula for making a sound like the ‘FATT’ method I use keeps you in check and keeps you on task instead of aimlessly noodling. Is the sound you need low or high pitched? Is it bright or dark? Is it loud or soft? Is it metallic or glassy or warm? How do these characteristics change over time if at all?
Second, ALWAYS test things in context. In isolation it’s easy to make sounds and call it done but if the sound doesn’t serve a functional and practical role in either a musical or ‘to picture’ sonic context (sound effects and such) then it’s not really going to work for the end user. I’ve messed up so many projects this way and it makes a ton more work for you to have to save the pack rather than just get it right the first time.
When working on preset banks for example, I’ll just make basic ‘tracks’ of a drum kit, bassline, lead, pad, etc, and build the elements in one at a time to build the sample or preset pack.
When all sounds are done, start over from the beginning – this way the sounds all work in a musical context and you’re not overlooking the fact that the lead sound is too overwhelmingly broadband and eats into vocals or leads or drums or the pad is too mid-rangy to sit nicely in a mix.
Finally, always double check your work. Whenever your project is done, get out of sound design mode and make some music or score a trailer with the pack and make sure it’s functional and sounds like what you had in mind. As a bonus: you might be able to call that your official demo track for the project and knock out two things at once with QA and demos!
What has your experience of the industry been like thus far and what advice would you give to anyone just starting out?
It’s been weird to say the least – it seems like most of it is a lot of blind luck and sort of ‘right place, right time’ situations. If anything I’ve learned to just not question whatever is working when things work out: sometimes it’s just random chaos.
‘Venus Theory’ is certainly not my first foray into the world of music – I’ve been in a ton of different bands and side projects and solo endeavors over the last 15 or so years that I’ve been working in music. Some of them went nowhere, some went on tours and signed with different labels, and most of them ended in either a whole bunch of nothing or total disappointment.
I think the thing that’s helped me most is simply sticking to what I wanted to do and learning to make that viable in some way. Of course there’s a lot to be said for artistic integrity, but sometimes you have to ‘play the game’ a little bit to take an avant-garde idea and make it something that you can sell.
This is a lesson I’m still really working on myself, especially when it comes to making content for my YouTube channel: there are things I am interested in, and there are things that a broader number of people care about that will succeed.
If I was starting over again today, the most powerful tool you can leverage by far are things like social media. With things like TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and so on, there are a ton of people out there just waiting for something new to engage with.
I think this sort of ‘hybrid approach’ of what a music career is these days just goes to show how much the nature of the music industry has changed. I’ve found far more success working on my YouTube channel and the things that have come from that than I ever have going out on tours or signing with labels. It’s weird, but true.
There is a degree of commercial appeal that’s required for this sort of ‘new music business paradigm’ approach, but that doesn’t mean you have to compromise your artistic vision. If you make a killer video or a great shareable piece of content and your music fits it perfectly, that’s what it really takes to spread it out there.
There’s a bit of a downside to all this with music and art becoming more of a ‘consumable’ than an experience, but I think that’s a philosophical rant for another time.
What is your studio setup at the moment? Is it fixed or do you switch things up regularly?
My studio is total chaos – between sound design work, my own music work, and my YouTube channel things are always shuffling around and getting plugged and unplugged and moved to different locations or back to storage or a combination of all the above.
The weird part of my studio is that it’s sort of three spaces in one: it’s my home office and editing area for content creation and client work, it’s my recording studio for music and sound design work, and it’s also my filming space for YouTube and content work.
This is definitely a difficult balance to strike since things need to always have a sense of aesthetic appeal for video and content work, but they also need to be functional and inspiring for the creative process, while also being practical to move around when I need to re-shuffle things.
The core elements and things like my desk/monitors/computer/interface and other larger furniture items like my synth and gear racks are always in the same spot, but most of what’s on them will change constantly since there’s always a new piece of gear I’m working on or using for a video or I may need to swap out the synths by my desk for a sound project.
My monitors are Adam Audio S2Vs which are fantastic, I have a custom PC which is both a video workstation and audio workstation (and great for gaming, whenever I have the time), and typically my controller is an Arutria Keylab 61 MKII which is great since it has a lot of faders and knobs making automation or CC mapping with hardware fast to work with. I’ve also been having a ton of fun with generative sequencers like my Keystep Pro and the Torso T-1.
On my desk and on my keyboard stand I’ll usually have a few synths or effects pedals but those rotate depending on what I’m working on or if I’m working on something new for a demo video on the channel. I think the only ‘stable’ bit of gear besides my Keylab is the Waldorf Iridium since it covers so much sonic territory and can do so many different things making it a great sound design platform as a sort of ‘all in one’ box. It’s not without its flaws, and it’s also a very ‘tweaky’ box to make sounds on but practically speaking it’s the most efficient bit of gear I have in hardware form from a sound design perspective.
There’s always a bit of ‘work in progress’ with a studio and mine’s no different. If anything, mine is more flexible than the average setup since it constantly has to rotate and it’s basically a different setup every week.
What are you working on at the moment?
Since we’re in an industry of NDAs, most of the really exciting stuff I’m involved with is stuff I can’t really talk about. There are a lot of really cool hardware and software products on the way that I’m excited to be involved in, and of course it’ll be cool to share this stuff on my channel when it’s out. I’m also in the early stages on a few composing gigs that I’m very excited for, but those are also super-ultra-top-secret.
Musically, I just released my new album ‘Motions and Echoes’ which was a very interesting project for me that explores a lot of new musical and sonic territories and I’m really excited that it’s finally out – that was quite a long project but it was really cool since it is something completely different from what I’ve done in the past.
I’m slowly making progress on a new project but not sure if/when it’ll be released since it’s also a bit of a different thing than I’ve done previously and I’m not sure what it ‘is’ quite yet. At first I had a more concrete vision of it, but of course that seldom pans out in creative fields since you have to sort of discover the ‘thing’ along the way as you create it.
I am working on a few new scoring projects for a few smaller projects like apps and ads, and I really hope to get more into that in the future with things like games or film/tv work because I obviously really enjoy that kind of stuff.
I’m also continuing on with sound design of course and working with a ton of different places to make presets and packs for both hardware and software. I think my next major project will be a new film trailer library so that’s exciting – that stuff is a ton of fun to make!
Of course, I’m also always working on new content for my YouTube channel. Since I think I’ll be leaning into that a bit more starting this Summer, I hope that the investment in it will pay off and that will certainly become a much bigger part of my day to day operations since up to this point it’s essentially been a ‘part time’ gig. I’m definitely nervous to put more eggs in that basket, but I think it’ll be a good thing.
I think MODAL have done a fantastic job on making synths that are in the purset sense designed for people to make music on…
So we hear you have a range of Modal Synths in your setup at the moment – what’s your impressions on these?
I have both the ARGON8 and COBALT8 desktop units and the new COBALT5S floating around my studio.
COBALT5S is a really impressive unit for how small it is, and the touchpad XY controller is probably my favorite feature weirdly enough. Great for automating things in the DAW and a really great way to add some expression to your patches on the Cobalt. The joystick on the desktop units works as well, but something about the touchpad flows a lot better for me. Like it’s larger sibling, it’s very hard for me to put down.
I just recently updated my ARGON8 to the latest firmware with the new wavetables (way late to the party on that 😅) and that’s been a lot of fun to explore especially with this new soundbank. It seems like every time I use the Argon there’s a new trick or idea or sound I can pull out of it – I have a lot of other wavetable hardware and I think what stands out most with the Argon is just how immediate it is. There’s not a lot of fuss to make sounds, there’s not a ton of menu diving or routing for modulation, it’s just a very ‘musical’ device that makes it easy to create something and not sit there fiddling around. Even the deeper functionality is very accessible from the front panel and I think that’s the magic of the MODAL units as a whole.
COBALT8 is probably my favourite though – I have a really hard time putting that one down and I actually had to force myself to put it back on my synth rack a couple weeks ago because I kept getting distracted with it and was closing in on a deadline on a project.
Something about the combination of the workflow on the Cobalt, the sound engine, and the MODALapp is really hard to beat. As with the ARGON, it’s so immediate to create with, the sonic palette is quite varied, and there’s always a new little idea or tweak to make to get new sounds from. The free soundbanks are great too, and it’s always fun to grab some new sounds to play around with and see what I can make or utilize them in a scoring gig.
It’s rare these days to find a hardware synth that is truly ‘fun’ to work on outside the analog realm and I think it’s because most digital and VA synths cram in so many features with the UI and UX as sort of an afterthought or stuck in ‘this is how everyone else is doing it, so we should to’ so the workflow just bogs you down with little tweaky things before you get sounds out of it.
I think MODAL have done a fantastic job on making synths that are in the purset sense designed for people to make music on and not sit there figuring out how to use them – you just plug it in and start patching and next thing you know you’ve got half a track going. It’s almost the perfect blend of features and workflow, and when you toss in something like the MODALapp it’s extremely hard to beat.
My compliments to the chefs – I’m sure whatever is next is going to be equally awesome and addictive.
Venus Theory Signature Sound Pack
Anamorphobics for ARGON8
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