Shadow Dancer are brothers Paul & Al Farrier from Manchester who have just released their 6th EP for Boysnoize Records this week. 'Second City' sees them drop deep, brooding techno alongside some authentic vintage electro stylings. Sonic Academy grabbed 15 Questions with Paul to discuss the importance of Ableton Live in their set-up and how to workaround tricky mixdowns….
Where did you learn your skills from. Self-taught or education route?
Paul: Self-taught. Or rather, we've slowly learnt from former mistakes. When we began making electronic music in the 90s, there was no internet to turn to for tutorials or tips. The whole process seemed far more mysterious than it does today. We knew the basics for writing: we had an Amiga 500 sequencing an Akai S900, Roland XP-10, Novation Drumstation and Korg EA-1 through a 20-channel Soundcraft desk and some effects from an old ART box, all fed through a Fostex compressor and recorded - in one take - to MiniDisc. The only way to learn how to utilize the gear was to try and emulate the records we were listening to, the biggest inspiration definitely being Carl Craig. We were effectively teaching ourselves, by practical means, how to fit sounds together without actually knowing anything of the science behind producing.
What is your current studio set-up?
Paul: At the heart of it is a quad core iMac running Ableton Live 8. It's loaded with third-party plug-ins, as I went through a period of buying ever one I could get my hands on, although the truth is there are only really a couple that we use regularly. It's far better, given the phenomenal amount of possibilities software offers, to narrow your options and focus on making music.
We have a bunch of hardware - Clavia Nord Rack 2X, Dave Smith Instruments Mopho Keyboard, Roland Juno-106, Yamaha DX21, Akai S900, Roland Alpha Juno 2, Casio CZ-101 and Dave Smith Instruments Tempest - all running through an RME Fireface 800 plus two Behringer ADA8000 converters.
I have an annoying tendency to buy and sell gear I'm not 100% happy with all the time, which some say is a bad thing to do. I'm not precious about collecting synths and the like, if something doesn't quite fit in with our workflow, there's no point in holding on to it. The Roland TR-909 is a prime example of this: I loved it, and I love its legacy but, compared to modern, equally priced drum machines like the DSI Tempest or Elektron Machinedrum UW, its interface seems very archaic and occasionally frustrating these days. After a couple of years of trying out countless bits of gear, I'm happy with our current set-up because it seems to work for us.
What made you decide to use your current DAW?
Paul: When we started the Shadow Dancer stuff in 2006, it was all done in FL Studio 5XXL, on an extremely underpowered Advent laptop with 512MB of RAM. We were using this same set-up live on stage and it was becoming too sluggish and unreliable, so I bought a far more powerful MacBook. Of course, I stupidly hadn't realized that Image-Line's DAW was a Windows only app, so we had to quickly find an alternative, and Ableton Live was the software everyone was talking about at the time.
Getting used to Live was actually pretty difficult and frustrating for a long time. Now I struggle to use anything else. This year, we produced a track in Logic Pro 9, which has some fantastic plug-ins and MIDI capabilities but just isn't as much "fun" as Ableton's DAW. With Logic, you have to know what you're going to put into it whereas, with Live, you can record in MIDI or audio parts and then change them into something completely different. It's no so much set in stone, allowing for tracks to evolve - sometimes completely by accident - into things you'd never even considered when starting them. It feels a lot more natural, less rigid and certainly makes the writing process an enjoyable experience, which it should always be.
Talk us through your typical workflow from idea development to conception…..
Paul: Aside from usually beginning with a kick drum, I'm not sure we have a tried-and-tested system for writing. Most of the time we'll play in some MIDI parts from one of the hardware synths, if it's not quite right we'll apply one or two of Live's MIDI effects, see if the same part sound better coming from one of the other synths, record an audio pass with some live tweaking and chop up the audio part to fit….
We often end up with project folders containing one or two Gigabytes of audio recordings, of which maybe only a few seconds or so will make it into the finished track. The beauty with Live is that those unused ideas don't necessarily have to be abandoned. Its pitch and time-based editing abilities mean we'll often take audio we originally recorded for one track and fit it into another.
This workflow isn't successful all of the time, I must admit. A lot of stuff we do remains unfinished simply because the ideas ran out of momentum, so it's not something I'd recommend to everyone!
What part of the production process do you find the most challenging?
Paul: Mixing down. We have to do our monitoring on headphones, which is a surefire way to tire your ears out very quickly, and means that some elements of the mix - like the subs - are reduced to guesswork a lot of the time. Plus, when you've structured a track filled with ideas that initially felt exciting and spontaneous, a lot of that "magic" slowly becomes lost once you're sat listening to them, looped, for hours and hours.
The conventions of mixing are also a bit of a creativity-killer although, in all honesty, we often ignore them if we think an idea works anyway. Much of the music that influenced us in the past worked precisely because it went against those rules when it came to how music should be produced, so we prefer to trust our ears and instincts. We'd hate to make music that was over-produced and lifeless, which is all too easy with software.
How do you deal with 'hitting a brick wall'?
Paul: Most of the time, we stop and try something different. We have dozens of unfinished tracks, most of them will probably remain that way. It's a cliche, but music should be something you put your heart and soul into. If ideas dry up it's merely because you have nothing more to say at that particular moment. You can end up forcing contrived elements that aren't as true to yourself or the original intentions behind the music you're making. We've often had situations where we've spent days on end trying to get a track to work to no avail, started a new one from scratch and finished that, without a hitch, in a several hours.
What piece of software and hardware could you not live without?
Paul: Software: Ableton Live 8, for reasons I mentioned earlier. Hardware: the RME Fireface 800, because we tried many audio interfaces prior to it and all had problems that impeded our workflow. The great thing about the Fireface is that it's "invisible". We just switch it on and never have to worry about poor latency, instability or pops and clicks ruining our recordings. It's expensive, but - for us - absolutely essential.
What piece of equipment would you most like to own?
Paul: Ideally, a proper 32+ channel analogue console. Maybe a Neve. I used to love being able to mix with our hand on the faders and tweaking the EQ without a mouse. And I'm not keen on recordings that sound too clean and digital, so a little analogue impurity would be nice. Cost, space and maintenance headaches mean this will, of course, forever remain a pipe dream.
Is there a piece of equipment you regret getting rid of?
Paul: There's a few, although that's only because, over time, I forget why we got rid of them in the first place. For this very reason, we've had two TR-909s, two MPC1000s, two Elektron Monomachines and three Elektron Machinedrums. Out of all of them, I think the last is the one that I constantly pine for. Despite finding many aspects of it cumbersome, and its sound a little too thin and digital, it's such a unique box. If Dave Smith Instruments get around to allowing sample uploads to the Tempest - as they've suggested they might - I think I can finally let the MD UW go. Until then, I'll probably still think about getting another one at least once a week.
What piece of software or hardware are you most looking forward to launching this year?
Paul: Not a lot, really. I'm interested to see how Akai's MPC Renaissance turns out. Native Instruments Machine is currently the closest thing I've found to using a hardware MPC on a computer, but it's not quite right, so I'd like to see if Akai actually accomplish it. Arturia's Minibrute is also something I'd like to try out. We replaced our Roland SH-101 with a DSI Mopho as it you can make it sound similar and it's a lot more stable and cheaper to maintain. It seems like the Minibrute might be an even more authentic alternative.
That said, I'm not really on the look out for modern gear. It frustrates me that modern synths are tailored for a dance music market, as made clear by their cheesy, contemporary presets. Vintage gear still has - ironically - an air of futurism about it. It was at odds with the rock-orientated market it was developed for, and the excitement came from using them in ways that were never intended.
What's your current live/DJ set-up and why have youchosen this over everything else available in the market?
Paul: When DJing, we just take along a wallet of CDs and play on CDJs. I'm not really interested in using a laptop and software for mixing. It will, inevitably, become the standard in the near future, so maybe we'll have to look into Traktor or the like. The live set-up isn't too complicated: a MacBook Pro running Ableton Live and a bunch of controllers. We'd love to introduce more of our hardware but this isn't practical for us.
Our music often involves a lot of manipulation and editing of what we record from our synths that would be impossible to re-create on stage. Then there's the fact that some of the stuff, like the Juno 106, wouldn't fare well with being shifted about a lot. Lastly, we play at a lot of places that barely have enough room for what little gear we take with us as it is. For live sets, there really is no alternative to an Ableton-centric set-up and some pre-mapped buttons and knobs.
Is there too much choice in the music technology market these days?
Paul: Software-wise, I'd say yes. I spent a year purchasing and demoing many plug-ins, each of which claimed to do something unique, most of which were indistinguishable from each other in terms of results. During that time, we weren't as creative because we always thought there was maybe an effect or synth we were missing out on. It was a waste of time and money, not to mention a huge creativity-killer. I do think that choice is lacking in the hardware options, however. If you want a modern analogue polysynth, you're pretty much limited to the DSI Prophet 08. Of course, there's an unwillingness for developers to make hardware outside of the prosumer market, and a VSTi is much cheaper to produce, so I completely understand that I'm looking at it from a rather niche - and selfish - perspective.
How do you think the technology affects the music producers release?
Paul: If the technology defines the music too much, this can have a negative effect. Look at the overuse of Auto Tune on so many records over the past few years, or the abundance of Roland Supersaw presets in trance a decade ago. Both became tiring and dated very quickly. That said, the reliance of techno on the 909, electro on the 808 or acid house on the 303 seems to have stood the test of time. I think what I'm saying here is that I don't really know...
What's the secret to good mastering?
Paul: Mastering is a bit of enigma to me. I like mastering that doesn't squeeze the dynamics out of record. I often hear re-mastered versions of older albums that merely squash tracks into a wall of sound, removing the space and subtlety from the originals. I guess, for me, good mastering would be the opposite of that.
What projects are you currently working on and what can we expect from you in 2012?
Paul: We've just done a remix of Florian Meindl that should be out soon. We're looking at releasing some of the tracks we've built up in the last 6 or so months with some labels. We've slowly been writing a lot of stuff geared towards an album - more listening music than club material - and, hopefully, something will come of that. After a few years of trying to find a studio set-up we're comfortable with, we've finally got around to the creative side. We're also determined that our music shouldn't be dictated by trends or expectations to retread old ground, and we're so much more productive as a result of that.
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