Dawter Podcast ep2, Aphir

Behind the mic this week is Becki Whitton! Becki works as a studio engineer, she is also an accomplished artist, releasing music under the name Aphir. As Aphir, she has toured nationally, and internationally, including playing the main stage at Falls Festival in 2015, as well as Berlin’s Music Tech fest, in 2016. When I spoke to Becki she had just released a drone EP called Dysarcadian. Amazingly, she had finished that EP in a week, in-between working on her next album.

Aphir - shot by Simone Thompson, wearing custom plastic by Holly Squair

Show notes

Tell us about yourself and your journey so far?

I started out making music literally just by recording vocals and making songs entirely out of layers and layers ad layers of vocals. I never really learned an instrument, I learned a bit of guitar and a bit of flute in school but I never became really professional at them. So I had in my head, all these ideas of how I wanted things like chords to fit together, but I didn’t have a way to do it, so recording vocals ended up being the out let. So what I made to start off with was pretty choral. And that was the identity of Aphir for ages. Then I got to the point where I was like, ‘I’d really like to just be able to program drums.’ I’d written all these songs that I wanted to have for Aphir, and I was like, I guess I can hear some drum patterns for these and I want to have a go at putting those in, so it became a more beats driven project.

How did you learn to program drums?

It was a bit of asking friends who were already using Ableton to make beats. And a bit of just listening to the kinds of beats that I really love. Like I really like Kaytranada’s groves, and I really like Grimes as well, she programs drums in this really, kind of overwhelming but exciting way. So I was just listening to all those and thinking about how I could do something that drew on the techniques that those artists were using, but could represent me a bit more.

Where do you get your samples from?

Some of them I make myself. Just through chopping up either vocals or other sounds that I make and then manipulating them. And then some I download from free samples libraries, and then I’ll mess around and make the hits sound a bit more strange. Sometimes I don’t make them strange as well, I feel like i should probably clarify that! [laughs].

A lot of the time it’s grabbing samples that aren’t a traditional drum sample… like some footsteps or a rattling pen jar, and finding something within that, that really hits the spot… and then chopping out one transient hit, to be the drum sample.

How did you get into studio engineering?

It’s kind of weird actually. So I studied audio engineering. I mostly did that because after I made all the choral songs that I talked about before, I was really frustrated with the mixes, and I was like ‘these just don’t sound good enough, and I have no idea how to make them sound better.’ So I went to school to figure out how to make them sound better, and in the process of that, we had to do certain things, like for example my school sent me to a music conference and I met my current boss, Andrei Eremin there, and then I realised as part of the following year’s curriculum I would have to do an internship, and I was like ‘oh wait, I need to actually intern somewhere and I just met this guy in the music industry, who is a mix engineer, who’s not a horrible sexist, maybe I should send him an email and see if that could work out?’

How long did it take you to develop your skills to a point where you were confident?

I feel like I’ve grown a lot in confidence this year. I think a bit part of that growth has been to do with reference tracks when I’m mixing. That really helps with consistency. I can look at a bunch of stems and listen to an artists demo and do something creative with it, and sometimes it will be bang on the artist’s vision and sometimes it might not be, if I don’t have another track or sonic reference that the artist has provided, or at least ticked off on, to say ‘heres something that already exists that sounds awesome, can we make my track sound as awesome as that, and still be its own unique self.’

Tell us about your latest release Dyscircadian

So i’ve been studio sitting… and one day I turned up at the studio and someone had literally done a shit on the stoop of the studio. My brain sort of went into denial, I was like ‘ is this cake mix?’ but it was not. And I had to obviously clean it up, and at the end of the day I was like, ‘I feel kind of weirdly emotionally exhausted by that experience. Then I went to catch the train to go and see a friend, and I got an email with some really bad news in it, on top of the shit cleaning experience and I was like ‘I think I have to make a drone EP.’

So I did. And I made it in a week. Obviously except for the track I made with Hannah. And the reason it came together so quickly is because every single person who I hit up to send me a drone, that i would turn into a song, sent one back within the space of three days! I was like, I have such good friends! It came together really quickly, I think it was a very emotional response to a situation.

What’s it like collaborating with other artists?

I think you need to select collaborators well, and think about whether your styles fit together, and whether your in the same place in terms of your musical journey. With Dyscircadian, it was pretty natural for me to chose the people that I worked with, because they all sit in this word of experimental music making, not even necessarily experimental, but sort of a DIY aesthetic. They all have a similar approach to their lives and their control over their production. And so I was like, all these people will be excited about this project. That’s what I thought and I was right!

The thing that has excited me most about this EP is because I was just receiving samples from people via email.

It was a bit of a Christmas time feeling. Just opening them up and being like, “ok someone has just sent me something that is going to inspire me to make a song, but I don’t know what direction it’s going to take me in.” It was a really sick way to make a record!

Once you received the drone samples, what was your process for building the songs?

Whenever I received a drone I would start by just forming a melody that would work as a hook. I don’t know if you can say there are hooks in drone music? [laughs] Just like a repeated chant I suppose. Most of the time I formed that alongside the lyrics. And then from there I would just see how the energy felt. If it was sort of lacking in spots. Then I would start to build a soundscape around it, once the vocals were in and I knew how the vocals would be structured for each song.

The way that knew when each song was finished was just measuring intensity. With a lot of the stuff that I am trying to make at the moment, outside of the drone realm, I’ve been measuring things by how relaxed they feel. How perfectly crafted the mood seems to be. But with these it was like, when is this raking down my sole with long fingernails?! [laughs] So it was definitely a cathartic and fun process.

How do you go about separating vocal parts in the mix?

Lots of different ways. Panning, EQ choices can help. In my last record I separated a lot of the vocals by effecting them in lots of weird alien ways. There is this one plugin called Argotlunar and it just makes it sound like you’re an alien living under water, and its super fun to use.

I guess it’s thinking about the space that each vocal lives in. Like, if it’s a distant thing that’s going to help in a misty backing-vocal way, or if it’s something that really needs to be in your face, and then using panning and reverbs accordingly to put it in that place.

What are your favourite plug-ins?

Well, I really love all the Fab Filter plug-ins. Just because they are so clinical. They are so clean, they’re so precise, they have a visual analyser, so you can see what you’re hearing. It’s quite honest too, its a pretty accurate visual representation.

In terms of fun plug-ins, I just bought the Sound Toys ones this year. I got little Alter Boy ages ago, and that is probably one of my favourite plug-ins of all time. It’s just so fun to use. The fact that it can pitch shift in real time is cool as well. There is a tiny bit of latency if you use it live, but because my music is kind of weird that doesn’t matter to much.

Where should indie artists invest the most money?

This is a really tricky one because I think it really differs from artist to artist. I think what you should invest your money in, is whatever is going to make you want to keep making music. So if having a lot of recognition from your peers is a big motivator for you, then invest in promotion. But if hearing the sound of your performance being shifted motivates you then probably buy the sound toys. I think for most people it’s a bit of both maybe. You want to have a certain level of control over your sound, and you want people to be hearing what you’re making as well. That’s kind of what I’ve done.

Do the research. Make sure that you know exactly what you’re getting. I really feel like it’s a very personal thing. Instead of investing your money first, invest your time first in the research side of things. 

When you perform live, what is that contraption in your hand?!

I haven’t used the contraption in a while, because it’s hard to dance with. But it’s called an AUUG Motion Synth. And it’s just an app that goes on your phone, and when you buy the app they send you a little hand grip thing, and you can put your phone in it, and open up the app and what I have been doing with it is controlling the volume of effects sends in Ableton through motion. Like for example the volume of a reverb send will increase, that sort of thing.

What else do you use when you perform live?

Mostly I use Push. I’ve recently been using a Novation Launch Control for effects and triggering some samples and things. Its actually pretty cheap, I think it was just over $100 and it’s literally just two rows of encoders and some pads. Because what I want to be able to do when I play live is have a synth or a drum pad on Push that I can just be playing, and not have to mess around to get to effects. I don’t want to have to move away from the drum pad to effect vocals or do any other things to other tracks. So the Launch Control is there for doing all the little extra bits.

What’s next for Aphir?

Well I’m making an album. It’s been a while in the making now. It’s a very different genre from Dyscircadian. It’s I guess the poppiest thing that I’ve done so far, but it’s still not really pop. It’s still pretty weird sounding music. But it’s making me really happy to use more familiar song forms. I guess what I’m trying to do is bring all the sounds from the experimental stuff that i’ve worked on, into a song format that I would listen to more often. I do listen to a lot of pop, and a lot of older pop music. So it’s nice to hear my favourite sounds in a structure that really floats my boat.

Advice on writers block?

I mostly get through it with lyrical inspiration. So if I sat down to make a beat from scratch with no ideas about lyrics or melody I probably wouldn’t be able to do it I don’t think.

Keeping a notebook or iPhone notes always available… Just writing down all those ideas and having that to come back to, is the biggest help for me. Because sometimes they actually turn out to be good ideas.

Do you still get nervous when you perform? If so how do you manage stage fright?

Have a whiskey! I’m not even joking! [laughs]. Yeah I get super nervous before I get on stage. Usually it dissipates throughout the show. And usually it’s a bit of having rehearsed so much that at the start when I’m nervous I can just do the motions, as if i’m just doing a job, until I relax and can get involved in how the show is going, how the feeling the room is and all that sort of stuff.

Elise and Aphir recording this interview at Melbourne Polytechnic

Dawter Podcast ep1, KAIAR

Welcome to the first episode of Dawter Podcast! This week I sit down with Melbourne dream-pop producer and songwriter, KAIAR. After releasing her debut self-titled EP in 2017, via Provenance Records,  KAIAR has received support and radio play from Triple J, Double J, Triple R and many more. Her dynamic and atmospheric live show has earned her support slots with the likes of Braille Face, Aphir, Estére (NZ) and others. In this episode, KAIAR talks about her latest single Human, as well as offering advice on production, live performance and collaboration.

Show notes

Have you always been working with electronic music?

When I was young I did singing lessons, then I taught myself piano to accompany. But I became really interested in electronic music because there was Grimes and FKA Twigs and I was like, they can do it, I can do it too! When I found out they were doing their own production I was like, wow, what am I doing?!

They have obviously been a big influence on your sound…

Yeah. It’s that heavenly sound that I love, and that comes from my background as well. I grew up in a religious environment. I was always singing, and I was always singing in the higher register so, it’s always been easy. In the particular religious group that my family followed, you sung three times a session, and you were doing that three times a week, so you were singing a lot.

How did that effect your feelings about music?

That experience effected the way I sing because in that group I felt like I always had to be, you know, pretty, or feminine, or you know, perfect. So singing in the higher register was easy for me, and it easily portrayed that kind of image. But also, the actual experience itself, influences a lot of my feelings about music as well. I have a lot to say about that experience, through the way I produce and through what I write about… If we are going to get specific I’d be talking about feelings of resenting that experience and also being grateful for it, thinking deeply, that sort of thing. If that makes sense?

What are your favourite plug-ins?

I love the Una Corda… It’s so beautiful, it’s like three piano samples layered on top of each other. So the sound and the frequency spectrum is always amazing. And I love Sound Toys, like their whole thing! Which I’m sure everybody loves. For reverb and stuff I love Valhalla Vintage. Those are my go to’s and they are really popular.

What about hardware?

So I use the Ableton Push, and that triggers my tracks and my samples, like vocal samples that I take out to play percussive elements in the instrumental bit of the song. For my more acoustic parts of the set, I’ve got my Novation 49 which is just a small midi keyboard. I like having a midi situation on stage because I can change the sounds and it limits how much I have to bring with me. So I can play the bass on that, I can play samples on that as well, I can trigger the drum track without having to go into my computer or the Push.

And also when I’m on stage I will also have my sound card which is the Scarlet, I actually forget the brand but it’s the red interface that’s quite popular. And I just run two vocal mics on stage and one is a dry and one is an effects. And I can turn off all effects with my Push as well. As long as on my computer, the CPU isn’t running too high, it works really well.

Do you do a lot of rehearsals?

I guess it depends how many new songs I’m going to play as well. I try not to over do it, and over think it. But I just make sure I know where everything is. I go through the technical part in my mind and make sure it flows. So I will do that a couple of times before a performance, especially if I haven’t done it in a while. If I’m gigging regularly it obviously comes a bit more naturally. It’s like muscle memory.

How do you deal with mistakes on stage?

If you make a mistake you just have to basically admit it, right? You’re just like, whoops, I triggered the drum track at the wrong time… Sometimes if I make a mistake, or I trigger something at the wrong time, I will just turn down the volume or stop it, and just try again at the next verse or chorus. Most of the time people don’t notice if you don’t make a thing of it either.

Tell us about your new song Human

The song’s about this idea that we close ourselves off. You get to a point in life where you’ve had a certain amount of relationships, and a certain amount of hurt, and there are pattens. You start to realise that you’re trying to protect yourself all the time, from people hurting you, so you close yourself off. It ends up totally messing up the relationship, when you feel that you have to close yourself off. That doesn’t benefit the relationship… I was thinking about that idea and thinking about a relationship from the past, and it’s almost like everyone has a shell on the outside and we’re not humans, we are like crabs, who have their exoskeleton. Thats where the idea came from.

The fabric you are wearing in the film clip is images of human cells…

So when I first contacted the designer I was like, oh I love this stuff, it’s like coral or something, and she was like, ‘no actually it’s a very microscopic image of muscle fibres…’ which is cool because it totally just tied in. It was perfect. She is an amazing designer.

How do you go about finding people to work with?

Sometimes it’s by chance. Like with Rob, the film maker that I worked with on both of my film clips, he actually contacted me, he was like ‘I like this song, I want to make visuals to it.’ So that was a happy accident. I guess for photographers and designers, that’s always a social media thing for me…

What about finding other musicians to collaborate with?

It’s like a community. It’s like, ‘hey we’re friends, we’re both passionate about music, let’s see what we can do.’ It’s always trial and error with collaborating. It’s always a learning process, even if you don’t end up releasing anything, you learn stuff from each other.

“It’s always trial and error with collaborating. It’s always a learning process, even if you don’t end up releasing anything, you learn stuff from each other”

How do you establish that community?

I think gigging. Thats probably the biggest part…I will go up to someone after their show and be like “that was amazing! We should do something one day” and you send them a link… It’s always just about making that connection… Often people will enjoy your show, but wont say anything to you, and it’s so nice for that one person to be like “hey! That was amazing!”

How do you balance working a “day job” and spending time on music?

It’s always a push and pull because you need money to do music, when you’re an independent artist. You’ve just got to be, kind of strict in a way, and create a time of day when you know you work well, and know that you can always be there for that. And that’s the only way I really can manage to keep making music, is to set aside 3-5 hours a day… If you’re gonna have to get up early to do it or you have to stay up late to do it.

If you wait till you’re inspired, you’ve got this rush of adrenaline to write everything down, get the production and get everything there, but if you’re not working on the skills all the time, you’re not going to be able to get there very quickly, and you’ll end up being disheartened. Thats why it’s always important to work, even though you might not make anything good. It’s just like exercise.

What do you think new artists and producers should invest their money in?

It depends on what you find most important. For me I want to make sure it sounds good, so spending money on mixing and mastering, and recording the vocals properly, and then I think you can get the visual stuff cheaper. It’s such a hard thing. Do I make sure the work is good or do I make sure people hear it? And you need both. I think you can do it cheaply, but maybe in the beginning stages you need people to see your name. There is that marketing idea of “recency” and people have to see your name three times before they’ll even click on the link. So that is important.

What about electronic music do you connect with the most?

I think because it is such a new sound, in the scheme of things. Like guitars and drums have been around since rock n’ roll and before that. Its almost like intangible. So it’s so interesting. It’s kind of endless as well. I love that about electronic music. You can f***k with something so much that its totally different from it’s source. I love that you can really make anything you want.

“I love that about electronic music. You can f***k wth something so much that it’s totally different from it’s source. I love that you can really make anything you want.”

You can find KAIAR on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and Apple Music. Or you can visit her website www.kaiarmusic.com