Because he’s well known for drumming with rockers Dillinger Escape Plan and Coheed and Cambria, it might come as a surprise that Chris Pennie majored in music synthesis at Berklee. “Programming was a little bit more up my alley,” he says. Return to Earth, his metal collaboration with guitarist Brett Aveni and vocalist Ron Scalzo (known in his solo career as Q*Ball), gave him a chance to step out from behind the drum kit and apply his synthesis knowledge to 2010’s Automata.
What inspired you to play keyboards?
My parents told me I wore out Billy Joel’s The Stranger and Glass Houses on vinyl. From there, I was fascinated with the whole industrial movement. Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, and Skinny Puppy mixed with a healthy dose of UNKLE, DJ Shadow, DJ Spooky, and Aphex Twin. That’s the recipe for what sparked my interest outside of just playing drums. I always had a huge fascination with how music was made outside of a traditional “combo” band context.
What were the first keyboards you bought or owned?
The Korg X3 and a Roland SP series phrase sampler. I was totally blown away by all the sounds in the X3 and learning how to sequence. It was just as fun making loops with the SP, mapping them to keys on the X3, and firing them off while we were playing. That totally opened up the creative floodgates.
What was your first live or recording gig? How prepared were you for it?
When I was 15, my dad hooked me up with a friend that had this cover band. We played a lot of bars, and my father was so supportive of me. I wasn’t old enough to play in these places, so he accompanied me to every gig. From there I started two original bands, which later fused together to become the Dillinger Escape Plan. Playing those bars taught me how to play with other people.
What do you wish you had spent more time learning when you were younger?
I really have no regrets in terms of education. Upon attending Berklee, however, it was important for me not to go for a degree in performance. I still wanted to further my education in music, but not make playing my main focus. I always felt that if you wanted to perform, the best way is to just get out there and play with a band. At Berklee, I was just fascinated with everything under the synthesis umbrella, and this was right before the software explosion.
What was your approach to utilizing keys on the record?
Our approach to this record was to play the songs as a band first. A lot of the writing process started with guitars and drums. There were a few tunes that started with loops, and we would play on top of that, but it wasn’t really until we tracked the drums and guitars that we would program on top of that. We didn’t want to stomp all over what was trying to be captured, and for Return to Earth, that thing is ultimately a rock band.
What was the songwriting/demoing process like for Automata?
The most important aspect is to have that vibe in which the writing and playing has an urgency to it. It’s very easy nowadays to let production dictate the whole process. For us, production is important, but secondary. Our process usually goes like this: Brett [Aveni, guitarist] and I get into the room and start hashing out ideas, and within that session we hammer out some loose sketches. From there I’ll demo drums at my studio and send the tracks to Brett. He drops on some guitars, then Brett and Ron [Scalzo, lead singer] will work on vocals. Meanwhile, I’ll drop some programming while they’re working. After a rough vocal is placed, we’ll all add more production aspects. The main thing is that we always play our songs out before starting the process of recording demos. I can’t over-emphasize the importance of how live interaction between all of us affects the songs.
When you tour Automata, how much programming or playback will be involved?
We want a healthy balance of live playing and sequencing. When you just run tracks, it has a stale vibe, and the tracks can get buried in rock music. So we like to play certain parts. I also think the writing lends itself to showcasing some synths, not just guitars, vocals, and drums.
Offstage, what are your favorite keyboards and software to work with?
For Brett and I it would have to be the Vienna Symphonic Library. We love everything they’ve made. I also just bought that [Sugar Bytes] Effectrix plug-in, the newest version of Reason, and NI Komplete. I personally want to dive into Ableton Live a bit more as well.
What would you like to see develop in software or keyboards?
The biggest thing for me, since I don’t have much time, is some way to cut down on the install time of some of these software packages.
What’s your best advice for someone who aspires to your level of musical success?
First, always seek out education. Second, get out there and play with real, live people. Third, learn to play other instruments—an understanding of what someone else is trying to communicate when playing will make you a better musician, not just a drummer or keyboard player.
RETURN TO GEAR
Roland JX-305: This was my first introduction to digital emulation of analog synths, and I know this keyboard inside and out, so I made a lot of custom patches on it.
Roland SP-808EX: The older version of the SP-555. I used it a lot with Dillinger Escape Plan, and I still love it. We made a lot of custom samples for the record on it.
Korg KM-202 Kaoss Mixer: I really dig this mixer for DJing, but we also used it to process some of the guitar and vocals, and used those Theremin-type presets for some wacky noises on tunes.
Steinberg Cubase 5: We all swear by Cubase or Nuendo; we just happen to love how Cubase ultimately sounded. It’s such an amazing DAW. Our favorite!
Native Instruments Komplete: This is a staple of our studio. Kontakt has been one of my favorites since it was first introduced. We used it to mangle vocals and guitars, then layered them under the main tracks to thicken and dirty up the sound in spots.
Garritan Personal Orchestra: Before we had Vienna, we used Garritan a lot to flush out those orchestral interludes on Automata. It was our first introduction to making a score or orchestral piece—quite fun.
Vienna Symphonic Library: We had just purchased the standard library as we were finishing up, but added it in spots. We were totally blown away. We’ve been using it a lot with our sound production company Fight Mannequins. We also used Synplant and some of the Arturia plug-ins. Chris Pennie
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