By Lori Kennedy
FOUR THINGS MAKE COM TRUISE RISE TO THE TOP OF AN OTHERWISE MURKY sea of electronic artists: First, he employs a drummer for his live sets. Second, he has made a niche for himself—self-described as “mid-fi synth-wave, slowmotion funk”—and it really doesn’t sound like anyone else. Third, he truly enjoys his performances and interactions with the crowd, eschewing the “I’m-an-aloof-hipster-with-a-laptop” stereotype. Fourth, he’s built like a linebacker and could pummel said hipsters, but wouldn’t, because he’s a super-nice dude and is genuinely psyched that they came to see his show.
Com Truise (a.k.a. Seth Haley) has been making music for about 13 years, but it was only recently that he quit his day job as art director for a pharmaceutical company to bring his mid-fi synthwave, slow-motion funk—delivered via a healthy mix of analog and soft synths—to the masses full time. Haley took some time out while driving to Austin, Texas for a gig with Neon Indian to talk with Keyboard about his debut full-length album Galactic Melt, his arsenal of analog synths and plug-ins, and his accidental infusing of “Macarena” into one of his songs.
Galactic Melt has a clear ’80s vibe, but the way you’ve chopped it up and pieced it together, it sounds fresh. How did you achieve that?
There are a lot of acts around right now that sound like the ’80s—they kind of repurpose the sounds. I wanted some of the equipment of the ’80s and some of the production technique rather than the actual sounds. Well, there are a couple of classic sounds on the album that I always come back to, like the sweep sound in Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”—that squelchy bass.
So, what is some of that equipment? Analog synths, let’s say.
I used my Oberheim Matrix-6 a lot—that’s all over the album, mostly pads. I have a Dave Smith Mopho that I used a lot for effects. I also picked up a Vermona Mono Lancet desktop module—it’s amazing. It has really nice effects. I have a Sequential Circuits Split-Eight. The one that I have, I had to get the battery replaced, so the presets are gone and I can’t save anything. I have to program them, but it’s pretty easy to program. You still have to push buttons. The unison of the chorus on that thing—it just sounds so good when you turn the unison on. I use that for a lot of leads. I have a Korg Poly-61 that I mostly use for pads. I recently picked up a [Roland] Juno- 106, but I have yet to record with it. I also have an Octave Cat that I started to record with when I was done with the last tour.
By contrast, what sounds come from “inside the box”?
I generally use the computer for effects, delays, and bass. Believe it or not, I’m never that completely happy with the bass on analog hardware. It’s not as sharp as I want it. For the most part, I use virtual stuff for bass. It just works better—it’s easier to control. I could record [analog gear] in, and maybe I just haven’t figured out the perfect way to record it and process it. I just feel more comfortable using virtual stuff for a lot of the bass.
What are you using for your virtual bass?
I use a lot of Arturia stuff . And I like GForce Minimonsta and ImpOSCar—that one is amazing. For drums, I’ve used the Oberheim DX, which I pretty much sampled until it was almost non-functional. [Laughs.] I used a lot of samples from the drum tracks. I think that’s my favorite part from the ’80s—those drum machine sounds, those low-bit-rate samples.
How about soft synths and effects?
For virtual instruments, the Arturia plug-ins are by far my favorite. I really like the Native Instruments stuff, too, like FM8. I was messing around with NI Abbey Road Drums for Kontakt. They’re super-duper hyper sampled. You have a lot of control over the human element of drumming. I mean, there’s nothing like real cymbals or hi-hats.
By far my favorite effects are from SoundToys. Their delay EchoBoy is absolutely amazing. They also make the Crystallizer; it’s sort of like a pitch-shift delay. You can get some crazy sounds with that. I actually use the D16 plug-ins on every song. I like their Decimort bit crusher and their Fazortan space phaser.
Basically, I’m a super nerd, and as much as I love using analog gear, I’m always surfing the Internet to find weird plug-ins. It was a little easier when I was using a PC because there are some plug-ins that I used to use a while back that they don’t make for Macs. I would sometimes write to the companies and say, “So, are you guys gonna make this for the Mac?” And they were like, “Uh, no.” [Laughs.] I’m always looking for new stuff. I kinda got into Reaktor a little bit. Sonic Projects makes an Oberheim OB-X clone [OP-X Pro]—that makes some really good sounds. They make a VST version for Windows that gives you more control over the tuning—it’s a better control over everything.
You said you used to be on a PC . . . ?
I’m completely on Mac now. I do have BootCamp going [to run Windows], and I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to like it. It’s not that smooth, so it’s kind of a pain to run it. I’ve thought about just buying a decent PC for those plug-ins that I really like.
What DAW are you using?
Apparently, I kind of work backwards. [Laughs.] I messed around with Logic. I have an old version—Logic 7, which isn’t the most beautiful DAW. I used Reason for 13 years, and I could use it blindfolded. Now I record and write everything in Ableton Live, and then I sequence it in Reason just because that’s my comfort zone. I don’t know . . . I’ve tried to switch. I’ve used Cubase and Logic, but I just can’t achieve exactly what I want to achieve. I probably just need to sit down and think about it. I definitely use a combination right now, but everything comes out of Reason at the end. I seemed to have figured out how to make it work quite well.
Do you have a specific keyboard on which you write your tracks?
My go-to is the Matrix-6, even though trying to program it is kind of like launching the space shuttle. There are about 200 crazy parameters on it. It just takes a little bit of time, but it’s fun because I just get lost in it. It’ll take an hour to make the simplest patch ever. So I usually fool around on that for a while until I get something that sounds pretty good. But for the most part, when I start a track, I usually start with drums because I’m a super drum nerd. I’ll get a beat, and then I’ll find some strange sample. Well, I basically stopped sampling for the most part—there are only two or three samples on this record. But we were in Birmingham, Alabama a few days ago, and there is this place where all the walls are covered with vinyl records. And there was this album I saw by the Tubes called Remote Control, and I took a picture of the cover art with my phone because I thought, “I have to remember this horrible cover.” So I looked it up a little while later, and I found a song on YouTube from the album—I can’t even remember the name of the song—and I knew I wanted to repurpose a sample from that somehow.
You mentioned you generally start with a beat first. Is that from a computer-based or a hardware source?
It’s a digital one. I stepped away from the Oberheim DX for a bit. I really like the clean part of sequencing. I usually start with the computer and work outward.
There seems to be a signature synth sound that goes throughout the album. What is that?
It’s the Oberheim—but really, it’s more about the way I process it after I record it. I do some bit crushing. I’m always using [TriTone Digital] Color-Tone Pro a lot. It captures IRs [impulse responses] to achieve really crazy saturation. I have an Akai reel-to-reel tape machine from 1965. It’s a pretty great piece of equipment, but it’s so heavy. It’s about 100 pounds. It’s not that big, and it has a handle on it—I don’t know what they were thinking when they made that because it’s not like you’re gonna carry it around. [Laughs.] It’s got a little bit of a hum to it, but I still get some really nice tones from that machine. Again, I think—going back to your original question—it’s more about how I process everything that makes it feel “old.”
Can you talk a bit about how you process sounds?
I’ve been doing music for about 13 years, and so along the way, I’ve picked up certain things. And with different projects, I learned to incorporate different production techniques. A lot of it is the way my drums sound. I take different samples or sounds and I layer them, I compress them, I limit them, and I always put in a healthy amount of gated reverb. Then I resample them and bring them back in. I recompress them before reverb. I use the Softube Valley People Dyna-mite gate plug-in. I get really excellent gate effects with it. And with the drums, I’m always bit-crushing them down.
For my synths, it’s the way I EQ things. I also use a lot of the D16 phaser—that’s all over the record. I use it subtly because I don’t want it to be overpowering. I don’t remember what I actually did—I’ve been on tour for a couple of months now. [Laughs.] Another factor of my sound is the way I sequence things. When I first started writing music, I was a DJ spinning drum ’n’ bass music, and I did some producing. I did that for a little while, but I got frustrated because I think it’s a very snobby genre. It’s tough to hang with a bunch of angry guys standing around. [Laughs.] I think in some ways, it squashed my ideas, my experiments. I felt like I had gotten so focused on trying to achieve the sound that was “happening” when I should’ve been making what I wanted to make. So then I totally switched gears and started making downtempo stuff. After that, I somehow got into the ’80s. I remember as a kid hearing my parents’ records, but I was never super-exposed to the ’80s. There’s so much dance music out there right now, and a lot of it is so intricate—you know, like it almost hurts your brain to process it. I think some things are completely overdone. I love listening to that kind of music, but I don’t want to write it. I like the dark, electro, glitch stuff, but I focused more on making nice melodies, tracks that were more relaxed—nothing too intricate.
But there are moments were you do visit that electro-glitch side that you like. The overall feel is chill and downtempo, but with “VHS Sex,” for example, there are some glitchy drops midway through the song.
Yeah, I did put some of those elements in there. Maybe it’s because since I wrote the music, I feel it’s more relaxed. I know those elements are there, but I didn’t want to make a full-on song like that. That would be too much. As it is, there’s just enough in there for me.
Back to your question about the overall sound of the album. With the majority of the tracks, I slightly detune everything relative to everything else—just turn it up or down a semitone. I picked up the Roland Juno-106 a couple of weeks ago, and I incorporated it into a live show. But it’s harder to detune that live. The tuning knob is on the back panel, so you kinda have to reach over. It’s a little pot switch. It’s not the easiest thing to do.
What does your live setup look like?
With the live show, I have a drummer, and everything is running through Ableton. I’m not completely happy with the way it’s working for me right now, but it does work. For synths I use the Juno-106 and the Dave Smith Mopho. I use the Akai APC40 [a control surface dedicated to Ableton Live] to trigger everything. That’s it for right now. The last tour I had the Octave Cat with me, but I realized that that thing is pretty old. I picked it up in Austin last time we were on tour with the Glitch Mob, and I carried it around for the rest of the tour and threw it right into the live show. Right before we had to fly for this tour, we had the hurricane Irene in New York, so our flights got screwed up. I was actually gonna bring it this time, but we made a conscious decision to leave it in New York. It was in mint condition when I bought it, it doesn’t drift too much—just enough to make me happy. [Laughs.] But I decided to leave it because I didn’t want it to break. When I first got it and brought it home, I couldn’t wait to record with it—I was so excited. I also carry around a Simmons SDS drum pad. I used it a lot when I didn’t have a live drummer, but I carry it around just in case.
You mentioned that Ableton wasn’t working out the way you wanted it to. Can you elaborate?
It works perfectly, for the most part, but using the APC controller to launch everything doesn’t work the way I want it to. The APC is pre-mapped, and you can go in and re-map certain buttons, and all the buttons that are pre-mapped on the machine are perfect . . . I almost feel like I might need to use a different controller, or get an additional strip of knobs. I’m still trying to find the balance of doing stuff electronically and playing stuff live.
I don’t feel like I had enough time to prepare before I went out on the last tour. Right up until we left on tour, I was working in pharmaceutical advertising. I’ve been working in advertising for the past five years, so the music business is kind of new to me. Being in advertising, I basically lived at the office. Even when I was writing the album, it wasn’t typical to have a solid chunk of time to dedicate to the music. The way I do things live right now, I just don’t think I had the right amount of time to sit down and reverse-engineer the music to do exactly what I wanted to do live. It sounds good, and I’m happy with it, but I think it could be so much more.
There are bits of robotic voices throughout the album. What are you using to create those?
For a lot of those, I used the speech program built into the Mac. You know that George Lucas movie THX 1138? To get a lot of the speech parts in that movie, they recorded all this stuff and then they broadcasted it—they had a radio station broadcast it—then they picked it up on another receiver and recorded it. Then they made a loop and rerecorded it, so you get that frequency modulation. So I’ll do a similar thing with voices, using a Mac audio routing utility called HiJack This. I take them down a little bit and stretch things out until they sound strange. Or, I just process them with a modulation plug-in. I use Crystallizer from SoundToys a lot. It just sounds “prosthetic.”
Can you walk me through the process of recording “Brokendate”?
The story of it is . . . it’s basically about a certain time in my life. I was going through some stressful stuff . That’s probably the only “real” song on the album that has a direct connection to my life. I try not to write about anything personal—it’s not fun for me. I may take nostalgic parts of my life—like sitting on the rocks with my little sister in Rhode Island—and put that in there. That makes me think about the things I want to write about, like science fi ction and space ships—all that good stuff.
I started with the drums. And the first brassy-type chords that come in are the Split-Eight. So I recorded that, and messed around with it a little bit. Then I wrote the bass part using Arturia Minimoog V, and I processed that a bit. I put the leads in close to last, and I have this weird thing where the very last thing I do on a song is put the toms in. When I was younger, I wasn’t really keen on four-on-the-floor beats, and for some reason, it was the same thing with toms. I’d say, “Who needs toms?” I was totally against them, and now they’re my favorite part. I just really like those super-reverb, Phil Collins toms.
It’s interesting that although you start by laying down drums, you finish songs by putting the toms on last.
Always. I always put the toms last. I don’t know why . . . the drums are pretty prevalent in my mix and in my songs. I’m a huge Chemical Brothers fan—I just love loud, crunchy beats. I just like really nice breaks. They’re always a little bit loud in the mix, but a lot of my stuff is kinda bottom-heavy anyway, and I think those two work together really well.
So, about “Macarena” . . .
It’s funny. I wrote some slashed, sharp chords for “Brokendate.” At one point in the song, when they’re just going, they actually kinda sound like the song “Macarena.” [Laughs.] Every time I hear it, I’m like, “Heyyy, Macarena!” I always tell people, “Yeah, I secretly wrote the ‘Macarena’ into ‘Brokendate.’” Actually, I don’t know how I did that.