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.
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.