Dawter Podcast, ep8, Camilla Sullivan

This week is our final episode for series one! What a fantastic journey it’s been so far. This time I interview songwriter, vocalist, producer and good friend of mine, Camilla Sullivan. Camilla is 3 years into an Audio Production degree, and is currently in the process of recording a debut album for her alt/rock duo, A Rioting Mind. Camilla gives valuable insight into another side of music production; the process of recording physical instruments, as well as working with other musicians in a studio environment. She is also a bit of an 80’s synth fan, and talks about the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS). All this and so much more, available now in episode 8!

Quick Links

A Rioting Mind: Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp, Youtube

Other useful links: MESS, Juno-6

Highlights

Tell us the different roles that you and Libby each have in A Rioting Mind?

It will vary but generally I write a lot of the lyrics, and I’ll come up with a lot of the structures and stuff like that. But Libby, she’ll come up with songs too, and chord progressions and things like that.  It can be quite collaborative. Sometimes I’ll come in with something and I’ll be like “I don’t know how I want this so sound, I don’t know how I want it to end , can we maybe just jam it?” And then we’ll jam it, and some things will stick, or something will not stick, and it’s kind of like, once you’ve got a second person there, it’s not just you and your guitar.

It makes things more dynamic I guess. Like there are certain chord progressions I always go to, and I know it’s going to at least be a chorus or it will be the bridge of the song, but then when there is Libby… Libby has got a massive background in jazz, and so she will come up with chord progressions that are different sounding, or a little bit more edgy. My chord progressions are pretty standard, but Libby, she’ll have some kind of weird thing that she’ll do or some weird substitution that just makes it sound more interesting. It’s great great when you are producing an album when you don’t have everything sounding like singer-songwriter chord progressions. It helps you branch out of your shell, when you’ve got someone else to work with. 

That’s the control I like having as a producer. Being able to be like, “this is what I hear in this part” and being able to do that, and not have to explain it.

Previously on this podcast we have spoken more about working inside a computer, but what you do is another domain of production where you have a band that you’re recording and you need to direct musicians and use different microphone techniques to record different instruments. Is that something that comes easily or has it taken a lot of practice? 

It takes a lot of practice. The first thing I recorded for this project was piano’s and Rhodes, because we had those at uni. I was recording this upright piano and I used two ribbon mics on it and they were really noisy. It’s extreme lo-fi piano [laughs], like you can hear my foot pedal going and the clunk, and it was just really noisy. So I would not say that i’m a pro with all that stuff. But it’s working at the moment. 

That is definitely something you have to think of more than when you’re working with maybe drum samples and software instruments, or even hardware when you’re going direct in to your computer. And then there are times of day when you can’t… like I was trying to record vocals today and I couldn’t because there was a Galah [laughs]. And then there was a cockatoo and a kookaburra. So it’s like, do you want screeching cockatoo on your track? And if not you should probably just wait until it’s night time. 

Is there a way to clean up those recordings if you do get a little bit of bleed?

Yeah, most of it will be quite muffled. I mean with any bleed that we’ve had from rehearsal rooms at uni, usually a high-pass filter will be fine. If your track has got fairly dense instrumentation it’s gonna get lost anyway, it’s not going to come through. But If your recording like a solo guitar track. That’s the ones you have to be more careful of, when you know it’s gonna be a more spacious song, and that guitar is going to be the feature of it, and suddenly you’e got this band’s rehearsal coming through your condenser microphone, you’re like, no that’s not going to work. Because once you start compressing things you’re like, that wasn’t there before! So with that you’ve got to be careful, but with a more rock-band track you can get away with it. Galah’s not so much though [laughs]. 

Tell us about M.E.S.S (Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio)

It’s a massive collection of synthesisers put together by, I think it’s two guys, Robin Fox and Byron Scullin. So yeah, they put it together and it is just this massive collection of synthesisers, and some really vintage ones, some that are really rare. Which has meant that I have been able to work and play with some of these synths that I’ve heard on [records by] some of the artists that I really look up to. Like I am a massive fan on Jack Antonoff from Bleachers, I loved the stuff that he did with Taylor Swift, yeah I’m a Taylor Swift fan [laughs]. One of his favourite synths is I think Juno-6 and they had one of them there. It’s just really cool to be able to play something, and be able to create that sound that you heard from that album.

So is it like a studio set up?

It’s a big room and it’s just got synthesisers all around the walls. They have sound recording devices if you don’t have your own audio interface. They’ve got sound cards, headphones, cables, they’ve also got pedals. They have some delay-echo units as well. So it’s not just synths they have. They’ve got drum machines and, just a lot of really vintage gear that you hear about but you never think you’re going to see and you’re like, oh my god it’s that thing! It’s really cool. 

Camilla recording at Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS). Photo by MESS

Sound effects used in this episode sourced at soundbible.com

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