There are plenty of well-recorded albums released every year, but that doesn’t mean you’ll want to hear them. Likewise, electronic music can get people moving on the dancefloor, but that doesn’t mean the songs are well written or memorable.
Four full-length albums in 15 years may not seem prolific, but Bristol, England’s DJ/production duo, Way Out West, writes every day, so there are a ton of ideas that don’t make the cut. Jody Wisternoff and Nick Warren’s latest album, We Love Machine [Hope], is hook-filled and beautiful, with lots of well-arranged intertwining textures. You’ll want to hear it again and again: while you’re making dinner, getting ready to go out, in your car, at the club. . . .
When the guys aren’t on the road, Wisternoff is in his basement studio every day. Warren, an obsessive sample hunter, might bring over a hook on his laptop, and the two slowly build up ideas in Ableton Live, later turning to Pro Tools for more detailed arranging and mixing.
Their plan is to not have a plan: to fiddle around with synths and samples and see what happens. At some point, an idea might come up that will be the basis for a track, and they’ll run with it. Or they’ll build up a library of loops not meant for any particular song.
“I’ll spend hours messing around and recording it all and cataloging things and then trying to fit them over different tracks,” Wisternoff says. “There’s no pressure. We’re not trying to actually compose a song as such. We’re just having fun.”
And he doesn’t expect the magic to come immediately. “If we had the ability to do something that was as intended straight away, you’d have to be superhuman,” Wisternoff says. “It’s not that easy. Sometimes nothing comes of it. You can build up loads of little riff-y things, trying to follow a formula that you think you’ve got locked down, and it will sound rubbish. Some days the machines just don’t want to play the game.”
While 2004’s Don’t Look Now was sample-based, the guys wanted a more synthetic sound this go around. They use some soft synths—including Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Native Instruments Reaktor—but their focus lately is on hardware synths. “In 2006, we decided to start collecting, get on the eBay tip and see what we could find,” Wisternoff says. “Then it sort of snowballed. We got kind of addicted to it and amassed quite a few classics.
There’s the Roland Jupiter-8: “It’s got real sharp envelopes, so it’s really good for stabby sounds. If you add a bit of mids and maybe roll off a bit of low end—if you’re not doing bass stuff—it sounds so good.” Then there’s the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5: “It’s nice and soft focus, a bit drunk sounding, a little bit out of tune, which I love.” They also picked up an Octave The Kitten (“a raunchy little thing with really vicious filters”), a Roland SH-5 (“very tasty—amazing condition since it’s from the early ’70s”), a MacBeth M5N (“which is just like the ARP 2600, but it was built in the last year”), and the Yamaha DX7 (“which I wanted since I was a kid—great for real cold, FM, clunky sounds”).
While Wisternoff is digging through parameters, he’s always recording. “I’ll be coming up with these incredible sounds, and then I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, I haven’t recorded anything,’” he says. “If I start recording, I’ll probably destroy my flow and the sounds will start sounding lame. So you’ve really got to put it into record and trick yourself into thinking that it’s not—then you can get into all the fiddling around.”
The bubbling synth on the title track is the Jupiter-8. “It was just a combination of using the LFO at a high rate to control the arpeggiator and having the arpeggiator running fast in conjunction with the LFO.”
When the duo chose to sample, they’d usually record the audio straight into Live. On “Future Perfect,” Wisternoff sampled some website demo clips of the Hammond Novachord (touted as the world’s first synthesizer, built in 1938). “It’s this crazy old synth,” he says. “At the bottom [of the site] there are a few demos of the sound of it, and I just chopped them up. It’s a little bit naughty, and you can really hear it— sounds a little bit MP3-ish.”
“Body Motion,” which features live flute (the band sometimes brings in guitarists and other musicians), was built around a vocal sample from Quando Quango’s “Love Tempo,” an early ’80s new-wave hit. “The thing about sampling is you’re taking magical moments in music,” Wisternoff says, “and as long as you’re doing something creative with it, then I don’t think it’s a crime.”
THE LITTLE DETAILS
Recently, Wisternoff has been mixing in the box. He admits it was a nice luxury to spread out tracks over an SSL console for Don’t Look Now, but with trusted headphones (Sennheiser HD 25s) and monitors (Adam A7s and Yamaha NS-10s), he feels confident about mixing in Pro Tools.
“I find headphones extremely valuable for working on the stereo space,” he says. “I think the most important thing is to know your headphones inside out. You can have high-quality ones or slightly less pure ones, but it’s really more down to what you understand a good record should sound like on them.”
The same goes for monitors: “[The NS-10s] are great for mids, but you’re completely lost in the low end; they’ve got no truth about them at all. But the Adams are pretty good for that stuff, so I’m always A/Bing.”
Wisternoff loves the Audio Ease Altiverb reverb, Line 6 Echo Farm delay, and SoundToys EchoBoy delay plug-ins. He’ll put “tiny little touches” of Altiverb on hi-hats, and he’ll even put reverb on bass lines. “I know it’s really naughty, but very subtly, it can do a nice little thing,” he says.
One thing he won’t do is put a reverb on one auxiliary and send a bunch of tracks through it. “I pretty much have a separate reverb on each sound that requires the reverb,” he says. “I find that I have more control doing it like that.”
But Wisternoff does get creative with mixing minutiae, for example rolling off low end on reverbs to “get a bit of air at the top” and sending sidechains to effects with different amounts of ducking. “It’s really important to attend to all these minor details because it gives you more space,” he says. “If you don’t go through this process, you’ll end up with a really mono-sounding, flat mix.”
COMPRESSION DO’S AND DON’TS
While producing We Love Machine, Wisternoff learned to respect compression. He used to get crazy with sidechain compression and ratios as high as 15:1, but now he abides by a mellower 2:1 ratio. “I think sidechain compression is a kind of sound that will be seen in the future as ‘of an era’ and will make [albums] date faster,” he says.
So Wisternoff avoids overdoing it: “I’ve realized that dynamics are good. You want things to pound and you want quieter sections. If you compress everything, you’re sucking the life out of it.”
But it wasn’t until he sent the We Love Machine tracks to German mastering engineer Robert Babicz that he really took his love for dynamics to heart. “I mixed them down, thought they were great, sent them to be mastered, and he just said, ‘Listen, the mixdowns aren’t right. They’re too squashed; they’re too flat. I’m not sure what you’ve done, but you’ve done some damage.’ It was a real shock to the system, but it was tough love,” Wisternoff confesses. “So I went back and looked at the mix, and there was just heavy compression all over the place. I used an Audient Sumo summing amp, but I haven’t really spent enough time with it, so I [accidentally] put a bus compressor over the entire mixes. And I also put too much compression on a few of the drum busses. I just got carried away.
“So I pretty much muted all of the compressors, used them very slightly—let the drums just smack. I had to mix down the entire album again within the space of two weeks. It was an amazing lesson to learn. After that [Babicz] said, ‘They sound like they’re from a different galaxy.’ It was a real confidence booster ’cause he shot me down, and then he brought me back to life again.”
ANALOG FEEDBACK DELAYS
“On an analog desk, I’m really into feedback delays,” Wisternoff says. “You send it and feed it back into another channel, and with that [second] channel, you send it back again with the same auxiliary send. So you just get that real dubby, spacey feedback delay thing that just goes on infinitely. If you’ve got a notch EQ on it, each time it comes back around, it’s got a bit more mids, and it can sound crazy. You can’t do that in the box very well because once you start messing around with feedback delays, it can sound a little bit harsh.”