In the Studio: Guy Andrews
The rising London-based composer reveals the minimal set up behind his latest album.
In the Studio: Guy Andrews
The rising London-based composer reveals the minimal set up behind his latest album.
With his debut full-length on London-based Houndstooth, Our Spaces, it seems like rising star Guy Andrews has really settled into his groove. Having spent a few years flitting inbetween aliases—Iambic or The Moving Dawn Orchestra—he’s comfortably settled into a more honest presentation of himself, running material through his own name and dropping the act of juggling musical guises for the time being.
Our Spaces is the product of almost two years of work, and is a composition full of intrigue. Andrews has a knack for building texture in his tunes, a trait for which he has become widely acknowledged. His music takes inspiration from all sorts of genres, ranging from techno to post-punk styles. Throughout the record, he hops and skips between tempo and structural changes with the greatest of ease, becoming almost theatrical on occasion. Aggressive at points, tender in others, he tells a captivating tale. We went to meet Andrews in the studio, with a preconceived thought that, on the basis of his multi-layered productions, he would be the set of hands working a of large set of hardware. What we found was something quite different.
Andrews is a prime example of the modern electronic musician. Having been brought up on rudimentary computer systems in his youth, the laptop has become his special modus operandi. He works with only a handful of soft synths across two Mac Pros, but spends his days trying to milk the absolute best out of them, fine-tuning to the highest degree. It’s an unorthodox approach, and one which he concedes isn’t the best, but is simply the practice he likes following to get things done. Either way, it’s certainly working.
When did you first start marking music?
Jesus—that was a really long time ago. So, basically I started DJing when I was nine years old. Probably around the age of 13 or 14 I got my first PC, and with it this really awful piece of software called “Dance eJay.” It’s a really primitive sequencer with pre-recorded loops, that you could just drag in. I just made awful trance tracks. There was an expansion pack too, called “Hip-hop eJay!” I had them both, and I just thought, “This is me.” I then moved over to using Cool Edit Pro—a really old school WAV editor. I started to put those DJ loops into Cool Edit Pro, because it had more effects, and it was just more interesting. That naturally led me to properly composing stuff. I finally realised that MIDI existed, and that I would need to use synthesizers if I wanted to go down the electronic route. I ended up using Cubase for a couple of years, and then moved to Logic. That’s pretty much the story—me just figuring out the technical side of things as I was growing up. Over time I got exposed to more software, and computer processors also became a lot more powerful. When I first started I was on a 166 mega-hertz computer, a really old thing, and I couldn’t do much with it. It was a really gradual, slow process. I didn’t properly start composing anything until I was 15 or 16, when I was actually on Cubase.
“Digital gives me almost too much flexibility, but I actually really like that in the studio.”
How much of it is analog now?
It’s pretty much all digital. Interestingly, I’m moving into analog a little bit more now. Digital gives me almost too much flexibility, but I actually really like that in the studio. I only really use analog stuff for live performances. I quite like the challenge of being limited by it in a live performance. Ableton Push is like playing a crazy futuristic 64-string guitar, whereas the Octatrack is like having an 8-string guitar—a lot less to work with compared to the Push, but still a vast range of possibility. I don’t use much analog in my productions, and I’m really proud that I do keep it in the box. A lot of producers buy synths, which is great, because they sound incredible. For me, I get a lot more reward from being able to create a really big sound from that software.
Is it just the regular Logic software?
Mostly. I’m a really big fan of FXpansion, the London-based company. They’ve got a suite of synthesizers called Synth Squad. I use that religiously. They’ve just released a synth called Strobe 2, and that sounds amazing. I use Logic’s Sculpture, which is like a physical modelling synth. The palette of synths that I actually use is pretty small. I decided to go down the route of mastering a few synths, rather than to have every single soft synth there is. I also use things like Reaktor every now and again.
It sounds like you are doing what some other producers do with hardware—limiting yourself to one thing.
That’s exactly it. You can have too much choice. I like that though, because if you do stuff outside of releasing music – such as composing to a brief for TV or Film – it does bode well to have a vast array of sounds to work with – just not always. When it came to writing the album, I really thought that I ought to master four or five synths, and create an aesthetic whereby I start with a sound, and develop it over time. The beauty with digital stuff is that it recalls presets easily, and you can edit stuff up to the last minute. The way I produce is that I never bounce anything down. I have two Mac Pros for just sheer processing power, for synths. I can use lots of soft synths, and not need to bounce. I can edit it at the very last minute. The way I write music is a very iterative process, in terms of the fact that I’ll write a tune, and then sometimes entirely re-write it. Maybe I’ll take a section from the first iteration, and then I’ll need to be able to edit the synth presets, because that one section might be good, but I might have a vision of it developing, and sounding a lot bigger, or maybe even smaller. That’s why I like using soft synths. I know that some analog ones have recall, but I find digital much quicker. It’s just my work flow. I’m not saying it’s better, because it’s not. Analog stuff definitely sounds better, no question. However, if you’ve got analog stuff, then you need really good converters, and it becomes expensive, really quickly, and also less plausible.
Have you used the same set up for the duration of your career?
Yeah! I was writing more ambient stuff before, and I was basically just using older versions of the synths that I’ve got at the moment. With companies like FXpansion or Native Instruments, they often tend to do a new version of a synth every five or six years. It’s good, because you can get an album’s worth of stuff out of them, before getting an update or a totally new synth. It lets you explore a new palette. I’ve been using these synths for a really long time. It’s just working with different effects, that sort of stuff.
“Generating or processing a signal via an electrical device, and having it run through decent converters going into your computer, makes everything sound a lot better.”
But you’re happy with what you’ve got now?
I am, yeah. I would kind of like to go into the analog gear, a bit. Maybe just going down the route of buying a nice Moog, something like that. Stuff like that has such an iconic tone, which can’t really be replicated with software. It’s really distinct, and the filter sounds so smooth. I know that Universal Audio do a Moog filter. That sounds close, but it just isn’t the same. Generating or processing a signal via an electrical device, and having it run through decent converters going into your computer, makes everything sound a lot better.
Do you feel that the album captures your growth as a composer?
Definitely. People who knew my music from what I was writing before, who have followed me all the way through, they are all saying that the album pieces all my past projects together, and that it finally makes sense. Even though I’m proud of what I’ve done before, the bass stuff, it felt like it was missing the more emotive parts. The other material before that was missing the ability to work a sound system. I think that’s why I wasn’t fulfilled with that either. It’s cool releasing tunes that sound good on a sound system, and it’s satisfying to play them out—but for me I don’t really listen to that music very much anymore. Basically I wanted an album that I could listen to on my headphones when walking to work! I just started writing for that.
“As a creative person, you do need an outlet. Writing more aggressive sounding music really catered to that.”
The one thing that strikes me about the album is its darkness. Is there a particular emotional thing behind each track?
I guess it is kind of emotions based, but it’s hard to pin-point what emotion it is. It’s pretty much just a summary of a bunch of emotions that I’d experienced in the weeks before making the track—maybe it was stressful at work—and then got over it, to the point where I wasn’t feeling it anymore and could distill it in a tune. I was working a super stressful job when I was writing that album. I guess that’s why I was writing with a lot of distortion. I wasn’t pissed off—I’m quite a happy person. As a creative person, you do need an outlet. Writing more aggressive sounding music really catered to that. I would think about a semi-distorted synth, and then wonder what would happen if it ran through a guitar pedal, turned up to ridiculousness, and try to keep some tonality, while also hurting people’s ears.
What do you think to sampling?
I don’t sample at all. I’ve got a couple of really old Loopmaster packs for individual kicks, but that’s as far as it goes. My sample folder on my computer is probably about 100 WAVs. It’s nothing. I always work from absolute scratch. The samples would only ever be single-hit percussion, or maybe some strings, which are done via Vienna Symphonic Library or East West Quantum Leap. They would just be single notes played with different articulations. A big part of my composition process is making these sample libraries sound even slightly human. I don’t know if I fully achieve it—probably not. I do spend loads of time literally drawing in curves in volume, to make it sound more expressive. Maybe some fluctuations in pitch. Just to make it sound less linear or robotic. If I am using them, then it takes up about half the time just drawing those things! It’s insanely detailed.
The intricacy in the release is remarkable. Are you trying to achieve that intensity?
Not at all. I think it’s probably just a bi-product of all the effects that I use. You always get these interesting artefacts that appear when you start compressing or distorting everything above, let’s say 12k. I think that multi-band compression and distortion is something that I’ve really got into with this album, and just using it really creatively as well. Especially for guitar parts, multi-band compression has really been a saving grace. I could never get the tones I wanted in a traditional EQing way before, but using multi-band compression creatively allows it. I don’t have any guitar amps. I run it through a Line6 Pod sometimes. Actually most of the time I go into Native Instruments guitar rig, and use a single preset that I made a few years ago. The same one. I just spend the rest of the time with Logic Reverb, EQ and multi-band compression. I don’t really use much stuff at all—this is probably a really boring studio interview!
Listening to the album, you would think the process is really analog heavy.
I was kind of apprehensive of this interview being a let down! Your readers will realise that I’m just a guy who sits in his spare room writing music solely on his mac. That’s part of the challenge for me—to create live sounding music, without it going outside the box.
“I find that there’s a lot of reward working with software plug-ins that are always essentially a shit version of the gear they’re trying to emulate. Ok it might not sound as good as the giant Neve desk, but at least is something new.”
You used to produce in your bedroom, but now you’ve got a studio. Do you find it useful having that divide between studio and your life?
That’s an interesting question. I thought I wanted that, but I kind of actually want to move my studio stuff into my living room. I like being around my girlfriend, or being around people. Just being around a space that feels lived in. I like having stuff going on that isn’t just a studio. I did an internship in a recording studio for a few months when I was younger, in Central London. I didn’t really like it! There must be something wrong with me. Most people get really excited about mixing on a big Neve or SSL desk. I’ve done both before, and it is kind of fun for sure, but it can only go so far. I find that there’s a lot of reward working with software plug-ins that are always essentially a shit version of the gear they’re trying to emulate. Ok it might not sound as good as the giant Neve desk, but at least is something new.
How do you approach things—do you have set studio times, or do you just go in when you feel inspired?
It is kind of like set times, definitely, but I am moving towards just going in when I feel inspired. I was listening to a really interesting podcast with the drummer from Smashing Pumpkins, Jimmy Chamberlin. He was saying that with Billy Corgan, he made himself available at all times to write, during the best two albums—Siamese Dream and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. That was back in the day when labels would fund bands to be in the studio for months and months. It’s not reality anymore, but for me it was really interesting. When I was working a day job in an office, and I got an idea for a tune, all I could do was go on my iPad and try to sketch it out. It never really worked. Now I’ve jumped to freelance work, which I did to partially allow myself more availability. When you have that inspiration, you need to jump and catch it. It’s a really frustrating thing!
Do you find that this inspiration to produce often intrudes your social life?
It used to, but not so much anymore. I’ve become used to my time to write music being quite restrictive so I am good at writing in short bursts, stopping and starting. Ultimately, I also think that it can also be quite good to get away from music too. I am so harsh on myself in the studio—I am extremely self-critical of what I’m working on, and so sometimes I need the break.
Does this self-criticism slow down your output?
Definitely. I could finish a tune and be doing the final mix down, and then just the two bars from the introduction and then literally delete the whole track, except the two bars at the start. I will then try and build from that. To be honest, that’s pretty much how the album was written—I would complete distinct sections which would then be joined together to make a complete track.
“Even tough Ableton is absolutely amazing—and the interface is incredible—the loop method of producing doesn’t work with me. Logic also helps me get the textures because for some reason I can visualise the layers in the arrange view a bit better.”
Almost like a jigsaw puzzle—with stems?
Exactly like that. And that’s what I get on with producing in Logic: It’s kind of linear like that. It’s like a time line. Even tough Ableton is absolutely amazing—and the interface is incredible—the loop method of producing doesn’t work with me. Logic also helps me get the textures because for some reason I can visualize the layers in the arrange view a bit better.
Your music is largely distinguishable from that in the wider musical climate. Do you think this is because of the software you use or the way you use it?
It’s definitely a bit of both. But mostly it’s because I don’t actually listen to too much electronic music—and I take a lot of inspiration from metal or folk music. It’s when I listen to people like Bombay Bicycle Club or something pop that I make my darkest tunes—it’s funny how my mind works. What I am listening to is definitely reflected in the tunes I make, but I can’t quite work out the relationship.
Do you consciously listen take methods and ideas from this music into your own production?
Not really—I think it’s more about building up a sub-conscious bank of ideas. I will be listening to a certain kind of music, and then I will listen to something else—and then the inspiration from the first bits of music will come through even after I have forgotten about it. There is a delay between listening to it and applying it.
Do you find that you work on several tracks at once?
I normally complete one before starting another—with the album there was very little overlap. Again, it was a very linear process, but it normally went from a dancefloor-focused track to something more distorted and post-rock influenced. I had these two pillars that I slowly built upon.
You say you have these two styles: dancefloor and distorted. How does the production process differ between the two?
Composition-wise, there is certainly a difference. If it’s a post-rock style production, I will normally start with a chord progression and a bassline, whereas if it a dancefloor track then I will begin with drums, maybe bass and then see if I can get a main synth line. The first element I write will always influence the mix down too. Because it is the first element, it is always the bit I want to retain the most. With all my releases on Hemlock, the drums are really loud because that was the bit I started with.
“I think starting with a blank canvas facilitates the production of original music—it’s too easy to get into a habit of playing it safe and using the same go-to synths and presets that you know will always translate onto a soundsystem.”
You’ve spoken previously about starting each track with an entirely blank canvas. Why do you do this?
It’s pretty much self-torture. I have grown more towards using presets I’ve made, but the preset that I have will always grow into something completely different. I think starting with a blank canvas facilitates the production of original music—it’s too easy to get into a habit of playing it safe and using the same go-to synths and presets that you know will always translate onto a soundsystem. I also like synthesis from scratch because you are never going to do the same thing twice.
You haven’t got a background in musical training. Do you think this makes it easier to experiment—given there are no rules, so to speak?
I am trying to learn more theory, mainly because it’s difficult to communicate with other musicians right now. But, you’re right—I am not constrained by theory. The vast majority of people I know who have studied musical theory now work within boundaries; they are good at doing a certain thing, but can struggle with versatility. This certainly slows me down in the studio because I have to compose my music by ear.
Talk me through the production process for a track.
For a dancefloor track, I will start with a kick-drum sound and then load up a detuned 808 kick, trying to get some rhythm going. Then I will reach to the Korg Monopoly synth, because that has some presets that I use just for composition. It’s good to have some sounds that you know you can turn into something else, a little down the line. With non dancefloor stuff, I used the Rhodes plug-in that I’ve got—it doesn’t sound great but it’s good for finding textures. I will then record in MIDI notes that sound good on that. I will transfer that to a synth and that will sound more textured and interesting. If it sounds good on a Rhodes it will sound good on something else.
We spoke to a producer recently he said he struggles to communicate warmth in his music. Is there anything that you are consciously trying to achieve with your sound?
I suppose being able to use dynamic range more efficiently. On the album it’s a lot of loud bits and quiet bits but it’s the bits in the middle that I really struggle with. For example like Toms being played softly and finding that dynamic range when they can start to be played a bit harder and you can really hear it. I’m always trying to improve my synthesis and everything but I don’t necessarily go for the whole “warmth” thing. I think that is reminiscent of producers who really want a lot of analog gear and have yet to jump outside the box, but I am quite happy in the box. It will never sound quite as warm as running it through a valve of any kind. I mean being able to run it through analog gear sounds nicer sometimes but maybe I don’t want that nice sound. I prefer working in the digital realm. It may not sound as “nice” as analog but I am happy with it.
Like any artist you must suffer from production block. How do you fight it?
I think you have this whole cycle of self-loathing. One minute you think your tune is shit and the next you think its actually really great. It’s a cycle of creativity. To fight it, the main thing to do is keep fighting. I accept the fact that what I am writing is absolute shit. Sometimes I find that I can do the music side of it but like the production part, like the synth sound for example, I just can’t get it, and the whole musical idea will not come to fruition without the synth. The synth sometimes takes such a long time to make that I end up forgetting the entire musical idea. I’ve been through this process hundreds of times.
But you know its going to pass.
Exactly! You just have to ride it out. This is a really good period for experimenting with new sounds and totally knowing that what you are writing does not sound good for the current track you are trying to make—but there is always the ability to go back to that one sound when you had that awful producers block and use it for an entirely different track. Its kind of like a battle between self and technology but the reward is worth fighting for. Breaking free of that and finding that sweet spot when you are writing music efficiently and proficiently and finding that “synergy”. I absolutely hate that word I feel like a douchebag saying it but eventually you reach a state of “flow”, another douchebag word. [Laughs]
How do you know when a track is finished?
I can’t really answer that question. You feel that the track has come to its natural conclusion. I know a lot of producers go back and tweak things but I don’t really. I write in such a linear way, I mixdown the track as I go. When it comes to an end it just feels sort of right. You feel like you have nothing left to express in that particular tune. There are no more sounds I want to add and I am happy with the mixdown.
Do you show your tracks to anyone before sending them to the label?
Normally just one or two people, plus my artist manager. My good friend, John Connon, has been sort of integral when it comes to the quality control of what I’ve been doing because he could really feel what labels were thinking and he was, and still is, brutally honest with me. Having that honest feedback is really good because even with the album material, I was surprised that he actually liked most of it on first listen. That was the first time that happened. I don’t really have much faith in my own ears and my own taste. I listen to such a diverse range of music that I could easily start writing something that is really cheesy and I think it is good to send it to him and he’ll give it to me straight and ask “What the fuck is this?” Its good to have people like that around you.
All photos: Alex Kozobolis – www. alexkozobolis.com