Analog Day Dreams|
Shopping for Synths with New York’s Battles
Any attempt to categorize Battles is an exercise in futility. Although many journalists call the New York foursome’s music “math rock” because of its polyrhythmic structures and occasional odd time signatures, their gutsy, funky grooves are more likely to arouse primal reactions than pensive brainiac chin stroking. And while Battles is signed to Warp Records – best known for promoting iconoclast electronic artists like Aphex Twin, Autechre and Boards of Canada ¬– and use laptop computers and soft synths on stage, the band’s sound possesses a decidedly more organic than electronic personality.
Perhaps the main reason why Battles’ music sounds so distinctive is because each member comes from a different but equally musically adventurous background. Previously, guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams was a member of the instrumental alt-rock guitar band Don Caballero known for its complex, intricate pieces. Guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton, the son of legendary jazz/experimental composer Anthony Braxton, is a classically trained musician who has released several acclaimed solo efforts and worked with avant-garde composer/guitarist Glenn Branca. Drummer John Stanier was one of the founding members of “thinking person’s heavy metal band” Helmet, while bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka played in the Boston-based indie instrumental band Lynx.
Listeners can hear elements of each musician’s background on Mirrored, Battles’ debut album. The rhythm section is tough and muscular while complexly intertwined, textural melodic guitar and keyboard lines take the music through unexpected twists and turns. But whereas much experimental music can be dour and serious, Battles’ music displays a playful disposition from Braxton’s demented manipulated vocals to odd but hummable melodies.
Although soft synths and digital delay looping devices play a significant role in Battles’ music, these elements blend in with the guitars, bass and drums instead of dominating the band’s sound. The main reason why the guitars and keyboards blend so well is because Williams and Braxton each often play both instruments at once, with their left hands on their guitar necks while their right hands stroke the keys on their controllers.
“When I realized that I could play guitar and keyboard at the same time it changed the timbre,” says Williams. “Notes on the guitar aren’t perfectly in tune and you can bend them. The guitar sounds richer when it’s layered with the keyboards, and you can blend sounds endlessly. With the guitar you have this traditional sound while the keyboard adds these inventive sounds. It gives you all these new sounds to play with. The two support each other and make each other new again.”
“When we started using soft synths the goal wasn’t to make the freakiest sound possible,” adds Braxton. “We wanted to make believable, organic sounds. We were fascinated with seeing how believable and expressive software synths could sound instead of using them as effects.”
“We like to run virtual instruments through guitar amps instead of direct into a PA,” says Williams. “That gives them a meaty garage band sound instead of being cool, digital and precise.”
Williams and Braxton use laptop computer, soft synth and keyboard controller rigs on stage primarily because of the compact power this setup delivers. “When you live in New York City you can’t bring several keyboards with you to practice,” explains Williams. Even so, Williams and Braxton find it difficult to resist the allure of hardware synthesizers as we meet up with them in the keyboard department at Guitar Center’s 14th Street store in Manhattan. Here are four of Braxton and Williams’ favorites from our encounter as well as their thoughts about the latest software package to inspire their unique creative vision.
MOOG LITTLE PHATTY STAGE EDITION
“As soon as you play a note you can tell this is a true analog synth,” says Williams. “Describing the differences between digital and analog sounds is elusive. It’s sort of like pornography or obscenity. I can’t describe it to you or define it, but I know it when I hear it. Even coming through a little speaker you can hear the difference.”
“You can never go wrong with a Moog,” adds Braxton. “Considering that we only have digital soft synths right now, it would be very cool to have a true analog synth like this.”
In addition to the Little Phatty’s 100% analog signal path, Braxton and Williams liked this keyboard’s ability to save 100 user-editable patches. “We customize all of our sounds,” says Braxton. The streamlined control panel, which allows users to edit most major parameters by pressing a button and turning a knob, also appealed to them both for performance and studio applications.
Although even present-day analog synths can drift out of tune when subjected to hot stage lighting, the Moog Little Phatty Studio Edition offers auto calibration and auto tune functions that keep it perfectly in tune. For a band like Battles that may go from playing outdoor festivals in Australia one week to club shows in Japan the next, the reliability of this feature makes the Little Phatty the perfect analog synth for gigging road warriors.
“I like the Alesis Micron because it’s very small and looks inconspicuous, yet it’s a full synthesizer,” says Braxton. The Micron’s analog-modeling engine delivers huge, complex sounds thanks to 8-voice polyphony with three powerful oscillators, two multimode filters, three envelope generators and two LFOs per voice. This synth is also capable of producing four multitimbral parts at once that can be controlled with its internal step sequencer, arpeggiator or an external MIDI sequencer.
“Some of the patches are really impressive,” says Braxton. “It’s amazing that a keyboard this small can sound so huge.”
“Most space age synth sounds are kind of kitschy and retro,” says Williams, “but a lot of the FX patches in the Micron sound like something we might actually use. The Insane Dentist patch is incredible.”
“The internal sound engine is a huge bonus,” says Braxton. “The Micron is the same size and weight as a compact controller. I could see us gigging with one of these and leaving the laptops at home, or it could also double as a MIDI controller for our soft synths. Its all-in-one configuration gives you a lot more options.”
ACCESS VIRUS TI POLAR
The Virus TI Polar takes compact power to the highest level with its 80-voice polyphony, 36 oscillators per key, expanded modulation matrix, 16 multi-part sounds each with its own reverb and delay effects and ability to function as a USB control surface for a host sequencer. With dedicated front panel knobs for almost every synth function, the Polar is a sound tweaker’s dream.
“I like synths with lots of knobs,” says Braxton. “When you turn a knob on the Polar, you get instant gratification. I could spend hours experimenting with the sounds on this. This starts off as an analog emulation synth, but it goes way beyond representations of retro analog instruments. You can tell that there are a lot of new sounds lurking in this that are begging to come out.”
The Polar offers the added bonus of pro-quality 24-bit 192kHz A/D/A converters and MIDI I/O for laptop musicians like Braxton and Williams, eliminating the need for a separate I/O box in the studio or when recording music on the road. Its remote controller mode features a selection of templates that allow you to use the Polar as a controller for a wide variety of popular soft synths and virtual instruments, and you can create your own custom templates as well.
DAVE SMITH INSTRUMENTS PROPHET ’08
With its 100% analog signal path and incredibly lush sounds made possible by extensive modulation routing capabilities, the Dave Smith Instruments Prophet ’08 won over both Williams and Braxton in an instant. “This is my favorite synth by far,” says Braxton. “I could play this for the rest of the day.”
“The Prophet creates some incredibly complex sounds for an analog synth,” says Williams. “A lot of synthesis technology today is reaching for tricked out, complicated sounds, but those sounds can be too showy and place all of the focus on itself. They don’t leave room for other instruments. This synth can do that, but it also creates good, simple sounds that I can tell will work well with other instruments. This is truly a musical instrument.”
The Prophet ’08 is an eight-voice synthesizer with two analog oscillators per voice. Classic Curtis analog low-pass filters provide the fat, harmonically rich tones synth enthusiasts love, while extensive split and layering functions with separate stereo outputs for each layer provide flexibility that vintage Prophet synths can’t match. Other important features include an arpeggiator, gated 16 x 4 step sequencer and syncable LFOs.
“The bass is absolutely massive,” says Braxton. “Even through a pair of small monitors you can feel the vibrations. There are also some great metallic sounds lurking inside this.”
APPLE LOGIC PRO 8
“Ever since I upgraded to Logic Pro 8 it has become the center of my studio,” says Williams. “I like it a lot more than version 7 because it’s easier to understand and I can work a lot more quickly. The new single-window design lets you see everything that is going on in one place. That’s a huge improvement over all the different windows you had to open in Logic 7 any time you wanted to perform a different function.”
In addition to its simplified setup, Logic Pro 8 adds several helpful new features such as Quick Swipe comping, which allows users to create perfect comps by simply swiping the mouse over the best portions of each take while the software automatically generates crossfades for smooth transitions. New audio tools include snap-to-transient selection, graphical time stretching and sample-accurate editing from within the Arrange window.
“This new version of Logic is very conducive to writing music,” says Williams. “Some people like Pro Tools, which is designed like a recorder, but I tend to compose music in a less linear fashion. The great thing about Logic 8 is it’s a great composition tool and great recording software all in one package.”