Gear Talk: We Are Temporary

Fresh off a tour in Germany, Mark Roberts of the electronic-goth project We Are Temporary, chatted with us about his new record deal with Trisol, the equipment he can’t live without, sound-pairing, and more.

How did you first get involved as a producer and what elements drew you in?
My mom was an opera singer and my dad a classically trained organist, so I fell into music pretty early. My first attempts at production probably occurred around the time I was 14. By then, I had been playing guitar for a few years, got my first synth around 12, and had fallen head over heals in love with computers—Amiga 500, early 386 PCs, amber screens, MS DOS, etc.

Around 1992, my world was turned upside down when Steinberg’s Cubase came out on Windows 3.0 and I discovered the world of MIDI. Computers, of course, still couldn’t record audio back then, and so, after pestering my Mom for months on end, she finally got me a 4-track Tascam Portastudio for Christmas, with me combining elementary midi-programed drums and synths with some very rudimentary guitar power chords and pubescent vocals. The results were almost certainly awful, haha, but the damage was done and I was having the time of my life! 23 years and a handful of technology innovations later, I’m basically still doing the same thing, still having the time of my life 🙂

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You’re fresh off a tour in Germany–congrats!! How was your experience? Would you say Berlin is currently one the hottest hubs for electronic music?
No question about it: Berlin and Brooklyn are two of the hottest hubs for electronic music in the world right now. Musically and culturally, Berlin and Brooklyn are twin cities—I absolutely adore both!

That said, unfortunately I didn’t actually get to play Berlin this time around because I was already playing Leipzig’s Wave Gotik Treffen. I’m not complaining one bit though: I’ve been to Berlin before, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and the Germany tour was just incredible. Playing Wave Gotik Treffen was a privilege and honor, and I cherish the experience of having performed there as one of the highlights of my life.

Not only did this tour take me to Leipzig, but lot’s of other incredible things happened as a direct result of my tour: I signed a record deal with Trisol (Germany’s cult label that brought us the likes of London After Midnight, Clan of Xymox, Project Pitchfork, and many more), signed a publishing deal with a wonderful boutique agency in Leipzig, met lots of presenters over there, and laid the foundation for some beautiful new friendships. In fact, things went so well and I loved my time so much, that I’ve already started planning another tour of Germany for January and February, with more festival dates on the horizon for summer 2017.

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How has technology/tech innovation influenced the way you produce music?
To my mind, technology is the primary driver of any era’s production aesthetic. To give you one example: Hip Hop was the direct outcome of affordable sampling technologies hitting the market. Without tools like turntables and early Akai samplers, Hip Hop simply wouldn’t have been conceivable as a form of music. Same with niche genres like Trap, which is the direct result of the “repeat” button functionality found on tools like the MPC and Native Instruments’ Maschine. Electronic dance music was driven by a series of consumer technology innovations in the late 70’s and early 80’s, such as affordable synthesizers and drum machines like Roland’s TB-808 and 909, Punk and Metal were made possible and inspired by innovations in guitar amplifier valve technology and the increased ability to create distortion. And so on, and so forth.

My own music is no exception. Nor is the causal relationship between technology and music anything new. Late-18th century keyboard innovations brought us the piano, and the piano, in turn, created the sonic foundation not only for Beethoven’s piano music, but also had a huge sonic impact on his orchestral music. Innovation has always been one of the major catalysts of inspiration: innovation creates new possibilities and horizons, as well as new limitations and challenges—both are essential drivers of creativity, new questions, new solutions.

What’s your one piece of equipment you can’t live without?
If I was in a meta mood, I’d say my hearing—especially my “internal hearing”. If stating the obvious, I’d say a computer :). More specifically, I’d have to point to Maschine by Native Instruments. Maschine continues to have a profound impact on the way I create beats and sounds. Not only has it saved me a ton of time when writing and producing, but it continues to inspire me and pushes me to explore new genres and sounds.

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What do you take on the road?
My live setup is quite minimal and optimized for air travel and public transport:

– A 13” Macbook Pro running Ableton Live and various software synths.

– A feather-weight, 3-octave IK Multimedia keyboard controller (3 octaves are the holy grail for me and surprisingly uncommon).

– A Native Instruments Machine Mikro MK2 controller (so compact).

– A handful of DMX-controllable blacklights, including a pair of Chauvet Shadows, and a USB-to-DMX interface called DMXIS. The latter allows me to program detailed light shows for each song via MIDI automation lanes, which I can then trigger in perfect sync with the music as midi clips in Ableton’s session view.

– A low-cost, but very usable and feedback-resistant dynamic headworn mic by Audio-Technica, memorably called the PRO 8HEcW.

– Various cables with UV-reactive cable sleeving, my UV-reactive mask, two keyboard stands, loads of UV reactive gaffe tape, and other tools.

– Last, but not least, my merch 🙂.

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We recently read a post where you shared a different take to sound-pairing. What exactly is sound-pairing and can you share your new approach?
Sure. So one basic way to look at sound pairing is to imagine different or disparate sounds, once combined, forming a new compound sound that is better than the sum of its parts.

The problem, of course, is that one must hear those individual sounds combined as a whole, before being able to evaluate their potential. Since one’s imagination or “inner ear” isn’t always accurate enough to “preview” these sonic combinations with any degree of accuracy, testing out sound pairs in real life can present a major workflow challenge.

To make things worse, most artists—myself included—tend to dive into the sound creation and evaluation phase with a ton of preconceived ideas about what the song in question should sound like. Genre conventions, personal habits, and other prejudices further confound things. As a result, I often stumble across sounds I adore and find totally mesmerizing, but that I quickly dismiss them as “not right for this song”.

To try to mitigate my prejudices, I accepted the limitations of my imagination, and came up with a rather simple solution: I created a rule—and the rule was this: categorically ignore any inner voice trying to dissuade me from a sound I like until I’ve had an opportunity to hear the sound in question in combination with a large cross-section of other sounds.

Now, whenever I look for sounds, or create patches, or surf presents, or tweak sounds, and I find a sound that I have a positive feeling about—whether it’s interesting, beautiful, surprising—I simply save the patch and quickly bounce the sound out to its own track. Once captured, I then totally ignore the sound, and move on to finding another sound I like.

Once I have 15-20 “unsuitable” sounds saved and bounced out onto separate tracks, I start randomly solo sounds in combinations of two or three, flashing through combinations as quickly as possible. Whenever I find a combination I like, I copy and paste the selection to a safe place farther down the song’s timeline. The results always surprise and delight me, with numerous combinations of “unsuitable” sounds forming unexpected and magical sound pairings that often turn into the signature sound of the song I’m working on. Not every pairing works, of course—most don’t—but I always find a multitude of combinations I love and never would have imagined on my own: some pairings turn into the foundations for intros and outros, some combinations are just epic and become the basis of a chorus, some create the perfect foundation for a verse, and so on.

It’s a marvelous way of discovering new sounds that our predictive imaginations simply would have missed. It’s also a nice way of humbling one’s imagination and ego, of staying surprised, of discovering musical moments of wonder.

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Are there any songwriters you would like to collaborate with?
To be totally honest, I don’t really think about collaborating very often. There are, of course, lots of great writers out there whose songs I love, but I don’t typically produce other people’s music, nor seek out other writers to collaborate with on the writing process. One exception was Misfit Mod—but Sarah is one of my closest friends, and that particular collaboration was more Postal Service style with clearly delineated writing roles, with me sending her a fully produced instrumental track, and her writing and recording the vocals. The result was a song called “Machine Love”, which I actually loved so much that I included it on my debut record.

Generally speaking, when I write songs I’m often reminded of what it felt like to carve my name into trees when I was a kid. If someone had come along and told me that if only I’d hand the knife over, they could help me create a much more polished set of initials, I think I’d have stared at them with total confusion—after all, the carving itself is what’s so fun about it haha. It’s not about perfection, it’s about leaving your flawed, but unique mark on the world by your own doing. Collaborative writing, in other words, just isn’t for me haha.

Remixes, however, are a different story altogether :)… those I love doing! 🙂

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What comes first when creating a song? Walk us through the process.
This is such a complicated question to answer haha. Every song is just so different in how it comes to be.

Sometimes the impetus comes from improvising on guitar or piano until I stumble across a musical fragment that jolts my attention, sometimes I’ll fire up Maschine and start messing around with a random beat, sometimes I hear a fragment of an idea in someone else’s music that I want to turn into a full song, sometimes a new song emerges from the bones of an old demo, and sometimes I’ll start with a lyric, a subject, or a mood.

Regardless of how the initial impetus in generated, the first elements I focus on are a basic beat build on a two or three interesting sounds, two or three bass line or harmonic progressions, and a very rough, improvised guide vocal that attempts to capture my melodic gut feelings and initial ideas.

Once I have most of the basic building blocks in place, I’ll then try to come up with more interesting sound pairings, variations on beats, and gradually chisel away at a possible song structure.

By the time I’ve worked out the structure, I’ll have a pretty good working demo in place with complex drums; some basic EQ, compression, reverbs, and delays; a handful of synth sounds I’m already pretty happy with; and a very clear idea for the vocal melodies. At that point I usually turn toward the lyrics; record the vocals; and then, once the vocals are locked in, I’ll return to some of the more detailed production work: fine-tuning sounds, establishing clarity in the music, testing how many tracks and elements I can mute and live without, replacing a sound or two.

In the past, this final stage of production would often take up more time than all other phases put together, with me laboring on and on toward some ephemeral goal of perfection. The more I would work on a song, the more tired I grew of it, the less inspired my edits became, and the more likely I would be to cut it from an upcoming record. This resulted in a great deal of loss—many of those songs had a lot of life in them before I killed their potential with needless and counterproductive micro editing. A lot of those songs I never managed to revive, being simply incapable of tapping back into that original excitement and feeling.

Luckily, over the past 18 months, I’ve made a great deal of progress in fighting off the urge to tinker and stall. Instead, I now simply try to think of the role of production as “clarifying communication”—Does the production capture the mood? Does the song communicate the main musical ideas and lyrics? Can I push the contrast between a quiet verse and a big chorus even more? What production tricks might help me tell the song’s story in a more focused way?

Now, once a song clearly communicates what I want it to, I’m done.

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Describe a day at the studio.
A day in the studio is a day at home. My setup hardly amounts to what most people would consider a studio. I built a narrow desk in my living room where I set up my laptop, a few controllers, an interface, a few mics, a few instruments, an amp, a pair of entry-level monitors, and some very basic room treatments and strategically placed furniture.

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What advice or tips would you give someone who wants you get into music production?
Do not aspire to gear. Do not spend more money on gear than is absolutely necessary for you to achieve your musical goals. Do not waste your time and musical talents on being a consumer.

Lots of producers and musicians are totally consumed by their obsession over gear. If you want to build a commercial studio, fine. If you’re a kid at heart who derives genuine pleasure from their audio toys and you have the financial means, fine. But if you’re a musician with limited resources and limited time to make your mark on the world, do not waste your money on gear, do not go into debt, do not borrow money from your parents, do not aspire to gear. Instead, invest your money into creating the conditions for meaningful experiences and genuine creativity.

The truth is, most gear, like anything else in life, speaks more to our “wants” than to our “needs”. The difference between using a rudimentary pre-amp that’s integrated into your audio interface and purchasing a dedicated $3000 preamp is largely a matter of incremental change. What’s more, that incremental change won’t even begin to manifest itself unless you also invest into top-quality microphones, benchmark A/D converters, effective room treatments, professional monitors, clean power, thousands of feet of premium cables, and more. Exceptional components, in other words, tend to require exceptional signal paths to reach their true potential.

If you don’t have the means or desire to build a professional-grade home studio, you’re much better off with a rudimentary system that’s based on your needs, not your wants. Focus on high-impact pieces of gear that genuinely fuel your creativity, invest your time in learning about and practicing your craft, and feel confident in the knowledge that even thrifty setups can produce meaningful music and powerful production work. And if, in the end, you want to give your production a high-impact lift in quality, consider investing a bit of money into having your release professionally stem-mastered.

In short, gear aspiration is like a having a gambling addiction: it will suck up your money, distract you from your real passion, and, most significantly of all, it will suck up your time—time building a studio, time maintaining and trouble-shooting gear, time earning money to afford things you didn’t need in the first place.
Of course, my needs are not your needs, but my point is this: sort your needs from wants, spend your money where it will make the most impact, buy back your time, invest in tools of creativity, and use your savings on creating meaningful life experiences.

Listen to We Are Temporary:


Photo Credit: Mark Roberts of We Are Temporary

JustinGear Talk: We Are Temporary

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