Is there anything more fetishistic in music these days than the adoration of analog technology? Perhaps it’s been the proliferation of countless digital versions of classic equipment — computerized two-dimensional representations of historic electronics sealed behind a laptop screen — that leave us itching for the hulking, wood-paneled, chilled metal, softly humming real things. An artist who has an affinity for true analog synthesis is, whether intended or not, often seen as staking a claim in a technological and philosophical debate raging in the sound synthesis and recording world: digital vs. analog. It’s classic niche-market absolutism. In some enthusiasts’ eyes, you’re either 100% analog or your music is an empty plastic shell.
Steve Hauschildt, most notably of the Cleveland-based electronic wizards Emeralds, created one of the finest love letters to an electronic instrument in recent memory with his recent solo effort, Tragedy and Geometry. Nearly all the sounds heard on the album came from a single analog synthesizer, and Hauschildt earned praise for both his thematic complexity and his sonic purity.
I had a chance recently to speak with Hauschildt, who’s in the middle of recording another collection of songs at the moment. For an artist often singled out as a stalwart of analog exclusivity, some may be surprised at the modern, pragmatic approach he takes to producing and composing his music.
What was the composition and recording of Tragedy and Geometry like, especially as a separate experience from your work in Emeralds? How do these melodies and pieces differ from the kind of material you would bring into an Emeralds record?
There is a difference and this has to do with silence or, more correctly, space. In a group recording you must always be mindful of other parts and contributions both extant and potential. If you crowd out a sound, the parts will become blurred together into a mess. So whether I was starting a piece (“Summerdata,” “It Doesn’t Arrive”) or adding onto one (“Now You See Me,” “The Cycle of Abuse”) I was always mindful of leaving space for Mark [McGuire] and John [Elliot]. With my solo albums, I obviously have to fill the space more efficiently but I am still mindful of arranging parts into a whole.
It is not unlike the idea of a holon; something that is both a part and a whole simultaneously. This phenomenon is very important and has vast implications outside of music, as you can imagine.
Can you tell me a little about the sonic aesthetic behind the record?
I have a predilection for analog equipment in this digital age because there is a history of sound there that is so vivid and evocative. It exists outside of its time of manufacture. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that myself and others do it — I simply think it sounds better. Many virtual instruments are at the point where they are indistinguishable from that which they are trying to emulate. So as artists we have a lot of routes to take in terms of the employment of the myriad technologies available to us. I prefer hardware to software. There is a downside as it is bulkier and more hands-on, but the end result reflects this choice.
For a time I was bored with most self-declared experimental music for a multitude of reasons. It is, of course, a music inherently creative and ear-opening, but the mere idea that it is supposed to be experimental means there is an expectation there.
I know what you mean! I have to say from my own experience that there’s something about the tactile sensation of manipulating a physical instrument that clicking around on a virtual interface just doesn’t match. Do you find, as I often do, that working with a huge, modern, computer-based DAW [digital audio workstation] can be overwhelming?
Well, a few DAWs like Ableton Live are designed with live performance in mind. I think creativity is not dependent upon the workstation but can be enhanced by certain features they provide. There is always going to be a learning curve and every time I move to new recording software it takes some time to get a feel for the new environment. My tip for people doing home recording is actually to avoid limitations, both virtual and tangible. If the design is open, expression can thrive more easily.
You don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money on software. There is usually a cheaper alternative somewhere. Everything will work in concert if you put in the time and read the manuals. I also think that the virtual environment is useful for learning. If a $5,000 instrument is reverse-engineered and you can pay 1/100th of the price to learn how to use it then that is clearly a positive use.
Your comments about not being an analog purist reminded me of an interview I read once with Tom Fec of Tobacco and Black Moth Super Rainbow who, much like yourself, is often referred to as a “champion of analog.” He was saying he still makes most sounds with analog equipment, but that he had abandoned some other analog methods like recording to tape because they were just too hard to edit and work with. What areas of production do you find lead you to make the jump from analog to digital?
There is always going to be a place for recording to tape. It will almost always sound good and there are advantages to that practice. I prefer recording to computer because the style of music that I make necessitates “crystal-clear” quality and in a home setup it is much more practical. I also prefer sequencing on the computer because it is simply faster to make changes. On my synth, you have to tune each of 16 knobs by hand and it can be tedious. You can quickly do more advanced sequencing with software that is designed for that purpose. I do see myself trending more toward digital production. The communication between instruments and devices interests me very much.
It seems like your work has gotten largely less drone-filled and more melodic over time. This was most pronounced with the transition from Emeralds’ What Happened to Does it Look Like I’m Here, and Tragedy and Geometry sounded even more melodic to me, maybe because it’s a bit more stripped down. What do you think has caused this transition?
It is a result of evolving taste and becoming more proficient at composition. Like the term “noise,” “drone” has become ambiguous with the passage of time. For a time I was bored with most self-declared experimental music for a multitude of reasons. It is, of course, a music inherently creative and ear-opening, but the mere idea that it is supposed to be experimental means there is an expectation there. To some degree, it is finite and hence there is little excitement.
I prefer to challenge conventions. The experimental peculiarities hidden within the various channels of popular music are more expressive because they are at odds with the MO of popular music itself. Failed pop is surprisingly fertile and rich with possibility. I find it more interesting and so I have spent years researching this intersection. My music is now starting to reflect this more overtly I suppose.
I understand Tragedy and Geometry was composed and performed largely with a single synthesizer.
The Dave Smith Instruments Prophet ‘08 PE Synthesizer was used to create the vast majority of the album, around 95%. A couple parts were done with the Roland JX-8P. Contrasted with the instrumentation on Tragedy and Geometry, my next album will have somewhere between 20 to 30 different instruments, some from my own studio and some of which are esoteric and quite rare. So naturally it is going to be a quantum leap forward in sound.
I prefer hardware to software. There is a downside as it is bulkier and more hands-on, but the end result reflects this choice.
I’ve never used the Dave Smith Prophet ‘08, but I was wondering if the note, filter, and modulation changes I hear in your songs are expressions of the melodies you already heard in your head, or if they are a product of tinkering around with the synth’s parameters and finding something you liked?
I have a few different methods. Most melodies were arrived at through playing by hand. I like for there to be a natural feel and I also use controlled randomness to some degree with some of the compositions. I think I’m going to explore this property (randomness) in more depth at a later time but not on the next record so much.
Have you started that composition and/or recording process yet? What sort of changes can we expect with the new material?
Most of the instruments will be different synthesizers, drum machines, and electronic equipment. I started working on it after I finished Tragedy & Geometry and there have been several phases of recording since last March. Most of this work will either be re-tracked or finished up in the studio during the last week of January. By the time people read this it will already be on its way to completion. So there is a different work ethic here; there is going to be more polishing with the next one and it’s not going to be a “home-studio” album like the last one.
What do you look for in a synth?
Programmability is very important in a synthesizer because, put simply, it lets you change and manipulate the sounds at will. Many presets are unusable unless you tinker around with them for a while. Polyphony is also very central for me. I learned a lot of the basics of synthesis from a Micromoog, which is monophonic, so it did take some time to adjust to the polyphonic world. Timbre is perhaps the most important aspect and in a synthesizer is mostly determined by the DCO [digitally controlled oscillator] and the type of filter. I would also say that although the effects on the album are rather sparse, they contribute just as much to the final result as the instruments being affected.
What is playing live like for you? Are you able to create all the sounds from your records live, or does sampling come into the picture? Does working with older equipment ever cause technical problems?
It is challenging. On the last small tour I did, instead of sampling songs on the record I just wrote new songs altogether. So I played everything live by hand, but I couldn’t do very much simultaneously as I only have two hands. Although a good number of songs have only a couple tracks I simply could never replicate them live as they exist as a moment in time which I captured. The more that I play, the more bitter I become toward taking equipment out.
John and I have talked about this a lot, and we’re about at the point where we’ll take a sampler around and play software synths with controllers live. I probably took my Prophet ‘08 out to about 50 gigs last year alone, with just as many, if not more, flights. The damage it has sustained, especially to the potentiometers, has rendered it unplayable to anyone but myself, as I “know” it like the back of my hand. No matter how old something is, the airlines are still going to slam it onto a baggage carousel as hard as they can, especially if they see a fragile sticker.