Expensive Looks on Samplecraft and Circuit-Bending

April 17, 2012

By Lori Kennedy

HAVE YOU EVER FOUND YOURSELF AT A LOSS FOR WORDS WHEN TRYING TO
describe a particular artist’s sound? Are you struggling with phrases like “It’s sort of dance-rock mixed with old-school Willie Nelson, Kraftwerk, and Jay-Z”? Welcome to modern electronic music, where genre bending has become the norm.

Enter 21-year-old Brooklyn producer Alec Feld (a.k.a. Expensive Looks), who delivers chopped up and looped-out Chicago house-psych-garage-soul-pop that’s as danceable and funky as that description suggests. Feld has been compared to M83, and while there are similarities, Feld’s style is much grittier. All the tracks are perfectly restrained, as though he took a bombastic Chicago house record, injected it with blissful pop, then ran it through an overdriven fi lter. Keyboard got the inside scoop on this beautifully dirty dichotomy.

Did you use analog synths to create Dark Matters?

Yeah—it’s half synths, half software. But I used the Korg R3 a bunch. I started out making music using synths. A friend of mine wanted to trade synths for a record player, and so I took her up on that and ended up with a Minimoog Voyager. It was about two years ago when I got the Voyager, and I began by mashing keys on it and recording percussive samples through the built-in microphone [on my MacBook] into Logic. For me, it was just about seeing what all these different knobs did. Opening synths, circuit-bending them, and ruining them—all of which I regret. Then I got into modifying toys—a friend of mine circuit-bent a Furby, and let me tell you, I’ve never heard an instrument like it.

A Furby?

I want to take a thousand of them and steamroll right over them! [Laughs.] I also circuitbent a top that spun around and had LED lights. When you spun it, it played a MIDI version of “Axel F” from Beverly Hills Cop. I decided a few months later that I should invest in something other than a toy. So I got the Minimoog fixed, sold it, and got a Korg R3. Then, about a year ago I picked up [Cycling ’74] Max/ MSP. I integrated it with Ableton Live using Max for Live. The album is a combination of the Korg R3, Max/MSP, some traditional DSPs, and a bunch of different samples.

Can you talk a bit about the samples?

I didn’t really know how to sample. I used to simply sample two seconds of a song and then loop it over and over again. But I started using Max/MSP to manipulate the samples. I took some garage-rock samples—stuff I’d find on odd compilations or on dirty vinyl from the weird record store run by some guy who really misses the Replacements [laughs]—and I’d slow them down, cut them up, or rearrange them. Then I’d take them into Max/MSP and manipulate them. On Dark Matters, the samples were done using MIDI keyboards—I use an M-Audio Axiom 49—in terms of cutting them up and triggering them from keys or using my Livid Ohm64 grid controller.

If you can build your own hardware and software, there really aren’t any limits to what you can do. I’ll take part of a song and cut it up into eight, 16, or 32 pieces and use those as cues. In a way, I’m using all those one- or two-second bits as my “synth.” I also use the vocoder input on the Korg and run samples into that—then you get some really weird s***.

What do you use for drums and bass in your tracks?

I have this ridiculous 10GB folder of drum samples, and usually pick something from that. Same with bass. I use a bunch of different Max patches that I run into Ableton, which is at the core of everything I do.

I use the Ohm64 to cut up a lot of samples. There is this awesome patch written by Trent Gill in Melbourne, who performs as Parallelogram [parallelogram.cc]. He made a sampling instrument for grid-based music controllers called MLRV. It takes a grid controller and turns each row of buttons into a line of samples. You can take a half-second of a song and get eight steps to it—then you can screw around with the eight steps. But it’s all done by hand and by ear. A lot of Dark Matters is completely atonal. The amazing part about atonal samples and making atonal songs is that it sounds like I’m doing something “wrong,” but then I get this weird, awesome feeling that it sounds so right.

How did you construct “Nothing More”?

I took a sample from an early ’60s beat track and made it the whole background sample— that weird, meshy thing. I sped it up, slowed it down, cut in half, and then warped it some more. The background drums are also samples from a ’60s or ’70s psych garage-rock track. The rest of it is synthesizers and vocals using Max/ MSP. After I created the samples, I laid down a bass line, then the vocals.

How did you record your vocals for “Nothing More”?

I used an AKG Perception 220 mic and ran that into an [Avid] Mbox. This is the scary part: I do all recording, arranging, mastering, mixing, and final rendering in Ableton. Everything is done in Ableton. There isn’t much vocal processing— there’s some compression, EQ, and a little reverb.

What gear is in your live setup?

An Akai APC40—they’re so inexpensive and awesome, especially if you’re working in Ableton Live. The songs are very sequenced, and with 40 layers going on, it’s almost impossible control each layer live, so a lot of it involves pre-programmed channels. I can make a bunch of twobar loops and then trigger them. The APC40 can handle eight tracks, and I use all eight and assign a bunch of different stuff —one will be kicks, one will be snares, one will be synths, one will be bass lines, and so on. If I get shot dead onstage, it will keep going. [Laughs.]

I have everything running in Ableton on a MacBook Pro. I’ve got another MacBook Pro that also runs Ableton, plus visual software. With a lot of ad hoc wireless networking, I’m able to use the Livid Ohm64 to control Ableton and the APC40, along with all of the visuals running on the other Macbook Pro. I MIDI-mapped a Max for Live patch in Ableton on my main laptop. That patch is networked with a duplicate of itself running in Ableton on the second computer. Whatever information that patch gets is sent to the VJ program. I have an enormous network of patches for my live show, as my visuals are automated based on what sound is coming from my rig. I also have a Roland SP-555 for some basic samples. I think I need a bigger table!

Musically, Dark Matters is upbeat, but the lyrics deal with depressing subjects. Was that dichotomy intentional?

This is the most depressing album I could’ve ever created. [Laughs.] To answer your question, yes. If you look back at Chicago house, you see a lot of competition: Who can step it up for the dance floor better? But a lot of house tracks talk about the most downright depressing stuff . The comedian Pablo Francisco would say, “People will dance to anything, even if the lyrics are “kill myself, kill myself!” A lot of the tracks are 120bpm, so they’re dance-y. But who said upbeat has to mean happy? Most tracks on this album are about frustration in the pursuit of happiness. I’d say I’m a reasonable pessimist. [Laughs.]

 
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