FROM THE ARCHIVE - Imogen Heap and the Sound Design Behind "Ellipse"

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Much has been said about piano and synth ingénue Imogen Heap’s connecting with fans via Twitter during the making of her latest release, Ellipse. It’s been championed as the latest example of the “new music business model,” where devoted fans enjoy a new level of access to their favorite artist. Heap does not disappoint, as her over four hundred thousand followers on Twitter can attest. From studio session microblogs to video diaries and even live meetups, Heap’s fans have been a part of her album. Here, Imogen reflects on the journey, which started in the virtual world and took her around the real one.

Scroll down for our interview as it appears in the October 2009 issue. 

What made the process of making Ellipse unique, compared to your past works?

The main difference was that I consciously decided to write the songs first and get the body of work before I went into the studio. The main reason for that was that I didn’t have a studio. I’d just gotten back off tour, and then within an hour of being home on my couch with all my bags around and my gear in tatters, I just didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to have go back into normal life. I knew I had to write a new album, but I felt like I wanted to go somewhere else. And I thought, “Well, I don’t need to write it in the studio. Why don’t I just go somewhere pretty, somewhere I’d love to visit?” So, I spun Google Earth around a few times and decided to find the place furthest away from any other landmass, and that turned out to be Hawaii. I then went into Google and typed in “luxury apartment; self-catering; grand piano; Hawaii” and I found this brilliant place which is on the rainy side of Maui. It was really like a honeymoon place, but it was just me and my beloved music.

It was the first time that I’d ever been away on my own and I think the first time that I’d really come to terms with what just happened, because since I was 17, it’s just been completely non-stop. I haven’t had any holidays. The songs I wrote were very different from Speak For Yourself. [This is all] a long way of saying that I wrote the songs before I went into the studio.

What gear did you bring with you, or made sure you had, when you traveled to write the songs?

I wanted to have the piano because I wanted to get the essence of a song written before I started work on it [in the studio]. That was a real conscious decision, ’cause for the last record I didn’t do that. I wrote it all and programmed everything all at the same time. It was a big mess. And as a result of that, I would sometimes finish the backing track before I’d even come up with the lyrics, or vocals, or anything. And then I would have to crowbar in a melody around what I’d written, and as a result, it wasn’t really meshed together. I like the vocals and the music to all move around each other, and it’s not just a lead line with the backing track. They all intertwine. So, yeah, I had real troubles on the last record with this one song called “Daylight Robbery,” and I didn’t want to go there again. But I had the opposite problem with this one, because I wrote the songs, and then had trouble deciding what kind of backing tracks to go with them, or what I should do with them.

The piano was the main thing, just to write. But I also brought my laptop, GarageBand — to throw down quick ideas – and Pro Tools. I had Ableton Live 7, which I found really useful. I think it’s brilliant. I had a little Korg MicroKontrol and a couple of mics — one for the piano, one for my voice — and I took my Sonic Studios DSM-6S/EH microphones with me. They look like headphones, but they’re really microphones. And I had a preamp and a little 24-bit WAV recorder, so I could walk down the beach, or into Tokyo, and record the songs.

What happened when you went into the studio with your songs?

When I got back to London, I made this big decision to take on my family house, which is a big deal emotionally, and monetarily as well. I then proceeded to take all of my gear in and for eight months, I built the studio from scratch in my old playroom. I bought a ridiculously large desk — a Digidesign Icon — and I thought, “Yeah, that’s basically like a big remote control for Pro Tools.” I have to be honest and say that I don’t actually use it because I’m just so fast inside Pro Tools with quick keys and editing. The way I work, it doesn’t fit with getting up, finding the track. and turning the knob. I’d like to think that I could do that and get faster at it, but no matter how fast I got, nothing’s as quick as just going boop inside the computer. But it looks very impressive! And I love the scrub wheel. That’s my favorite bit of the desk.

So I built the studio. I designed it and we got carpenters and acoustic paneling and funny plaster in the ceiling. I thought it would take a month and I’d be at work finishing the album within a year, and it took eight months. So all that time I was frustrated because I wanted to be working on the record, but there were people working in the house.

And once the studio was finished?

Where do you start? I needed some limitations. I needed to be reinforced like bookends so I could work within it, because it’s impossible to create with a completely blank canvas, with no edges to it. So, I decided to start recording the sounds of the house. I recorded the sound of me just running around it, as I did as a kid. And I took the steps and the rhythm of how fast I ran to be the first song, “Not Now But Soon,” which actually didn’t go on the album, but it went on the Heroes soundtrack.

The song “Bad Body Double” uses some interesting human body and vocal sounds for rhythms. What inspired that, and how did you capture the sounds?

In the beginning I thought it’d be amusing to use my body and my voice to do all of the sounds of “Bad Body Double” because I wanted to have it a capella. Actually, it ended up being fully produced. When I started to work on it, I was doing the beat and the bass line with my voice and clapping and clicking. I got ten people jumping around on squeaky floors in my hallway. In the beginning, I just have one hand-slap, but it sounded not quite strong enough, so I tracked up a few [hands] slapping my ass.

I wrote it when I was in Japan. I was surrounded by beautiful women, beautiful skin, and gorgeous hair, just looking fantastic and eating very healthily. I was feeling, “What happened to my body?” I guess after years of the studio, touring, no exercise at all, and just eating on the fly, I felt like this wasn’t the body that I should have. I’m not even 30, and this isn’t fair.

So, it’s as if I have this nice 19-year-old body that’s not sagging yet and has no wrinkles or grey hair. But then, when I get out of the shower, there’s my bad body double, this other person that comes in front of the mirror and looks a bit like me, but haggard, and she’s trying to put on creams to look like how I look. Sometimes she comes into the bedroom and disturbs me when I’m with a man, and the man can’t tell the difference. He just thinks it’s me, but it’s not me. It’s my bad body double.

What other techniques did you use to get the sounds just right, especially with pianos?

I went around the house, recording all the different sounds of the pianos. And on “Half Life,” there was a mic in the hallway, a mic at the end of the dining room, and a mic in the piano, so I’m switching between them. Sometimes I did far away, sometimes I did close. I wanted to get the [mechanical] sound of the keys, so I took out the hammer action from one of my pianos — the one that’s out of tune and will never be in tune — and I just recorded the sound of the keys. I went over every single note and added the sound of the keys so that it sounds more close.

There’re more examples of things in the house. I use the tap dripping — I got the drops and then tuned it to make it fit. And you can hear me running a drumstick across the banisters.

What will your live setup be for the Ellipse tour?

I don’t know at the moment, but it will involve a glass harmonica and a Waterphone, and some looping device — maybe just Ableton Live. I don’t know what kind of gear is out there recently, but I imagine it’s much faster and smoother than it was four years ago. So I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with it. I’ll take my Perspex piano, the clear piano that I had built, which I keep my computer in, a keyboard, my looping stuff, little drum machines to build stuff live, and a little mixing desk. And then I’ll have another station which has my mbira on it, and [Roland AX-1] shoulder-strap keyboard, and then I’ll have my hang [tuned resonating bowl].

With the level of interaction you’ve facilitated with Twitter and your video blogs, how did it affect the process of making the album?

I think it’s very insular working on your own in the studio and you easily get lost in it. And I like having this kind of presence, knowing that there was my Tweetdeck program in the corner of the studio, that there’s this hovering bubble of people, waiting, there and ready. When I was working in the studio and feeling like I was not really getting anywhere and needed a little break, making a tweet and having a little chat refreshed me, and I could go back to the computer and carry on. Otherwise, there’s nothing to break me off from working, and that’s when I can get lost and spend six, seven, eight hours working on a sound and not get anywhere.

When it came time to record the album, did you encounter dead ends, or do you feel like you’ve learned enough to avoid them?

Fifty percent of the time I just think, “I’m completely bluffing this. I’ve no idea what I’m doing. How have I managed to con everyone, and myself, into thinking that I can actually finish this record?” Sometimes I go into the studio and everything just feels really difficult. Nothing’s working, nothing’s talking to anything else, I can’t really get anything decent out of my head, and I can’t make an interesting sound. It just all sounds like crap. And other days, I don’t even remember the process. It just flowed.

I don’t really do very much stuff in MIDI. It’s all audio, ’cause I get annoyed by the kind of small micro-shifting that MIDI does. It irritates me, and I have to go into every single point and have it so it’s dead-on, ’cause I’m really anal like that.

Pretty much all of my sound design is done in Pro Tools, processing and playing around with the audio like Play-Doh and building blocks. I don’t have to think about it. I know where everything is. It comes like a train of thought and I’m not hindered by not knowing how to do something in Pro Tools. So I can work for five or six hours on some sound and build something out of just one noise, but it turns into 20 tracks of that same noise. And by the end of the evening, like five in the morning, it’s dawn. I’ve got no idea how I did it, but it’s there, and I really like it.

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Selected Discography:I Megaphone, Details (with Frou Frou), Speak For Yourself, Ellipse.