IN THE STU­DIO WITH: Washed Out

The pur­veyor of blissed-out beats and dis­ori­en­tat­ing vo­cals tells us about how he rein­vented his sound once again for his new­est project

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

Sam­ples, blissed-out beats and dis­ori­en­tat­ing vo­cals… more left­field than pre­vi­ous of­fer­ings

Para­cosm and Within And With­out, Ernest Greene has let his pen­chant for sam­ples run wild and the re­sults are glo­ri­ous. Billed as a ‘vis­ual al­bum’, com­ing as it does with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing film,

Mis­ter Mel­low, sees Greene grap­ple with life’s com­plex­i­ties in a most el­e­gant fash­ion while never once for­get­ting to court the dance­floor. Just as well, re­ally, given Washed Out’s new home at the beat-cen­tric Stones Throw la­bel. Stand­out tracks such as the sump­tu­ous Float­ing By, open­ing sin­gle Get Lost or the Euro­pean house (with a twist) of Hard To Say Good­bye all ben­e­fit from Greene’s will­ing­ness to ex­per­i­ment in the stu­dio and, as it tran­spires, even in the mas­ter­ing suite. Hav­ing de­camped from his pre­vi­ous home-cum-stu­dio in Athens, Ge­or­gia, FM caught up with Greene at his new stu­dio space in Atlanta and very much en­joyed the op­por­tu­nity to find out more about what makes Washed Out tick, mu­si­cally.

FM: Mis­ter Mel­low seems to be yet an­other rein­ven­tion of your sound; is that a con­scious thing you do with each al­bum?

Washed Out: “Yeah, I guess so. At the same time though I’m con­stantly lis­ten­ing to new things and want­ing to try dif­fer­ent things when I’m putting to­gether new songs. It feels kinda nat­u­ral and not too self-con­scious. This new al­bum… be­cause I had such a long break in be­tween, I feel like I’ve changed a lot so the al­bum re­flects that, hope­fully.”

Is it ex­cit­ing to be with a la­bel like Stones Throw for this new al­bum?

“For sure. I’ve been a mas­sive fan of Stones Throw for years and they’ve put out some of my favourite records and in­flu­enced the way I put to­gether some of my songs since the very be­gin­ning of Washed Out. It’s a lit­tle bit of a left turn for some ca­sual lis­ten­ers but some of my ear­li­est re­leases have a shared sen­si­bil­ity with this new record and were more in­flu­enced by hip-hop pro­duc­tion so, for me, it’s kinda re­turn­ing to that style a bit.”

We know you’ve pre­vi­ously been a Cubase and Rea­son user – is that what Mis­ter Mel­low was fash­ioned on?

“I did this new record en­tirely in Able­ton. I started us­ing it for live shows back in about 2010 and it’s so flex­i­ble, par­tic­u­larly with its MIDI rout­ing. Our live show is kinda in­sane on the pro­gram­ming side! There are hun­dreds of sam­ples and they’re all routed to a bunch of dif­fer­ent con­trollers with pro­gram changes, so I’ve found no bet­ter pro­gram than Able­ton to give you that flex­i­bil­ity to pretty much ac­com­plish any­thing you want. The pre­vi­ous cou­ple of records I’ve done, some of the demos were built in Able­ton then I’d take that into a proper stu­dio and work with a pro­ducer on a more tra­di­tional Pro Tools rig and some tape. This time around it was just me and Able­ton so we mixed in Live too.”

Does us­ing dif­fer­ent DAWs and soft­ware make you do dif­fer­ent things with your mu­sic?

“With­out a doubt, yeah! I’ve been con­sid­er­ing buying some­thing new, mov­ing for­ward, for that very rea­son. You can’t keep fall­ing back on your nor­mal lit­tle tricks. I know, in Rea­son, I used quite a few things over and over, which, in some ways, be­came the sound of some of my early records. There’s this dis­tor­tion/tape sim­u­la­tion called Scream 4 that I’d use quite a bit but maybe you’d fall into the pat­tern of us­ing it a lit­tle too much. That’s the cool thing about try­ing out some­thing new and fig­ur­ing out new tricks. The na­ture of this record is that there’s a ton of sam­ples and I’m play­ing bass or key­boards un­der­neath things but the sam­ples are very much front and cen­tre. Again, Able­ton is one of the bet­ter pro­grams I’ve found for ma­nip­u­lat­ing au­dio, stretch­ing it or re­vers­ing it.”

Able­ton has a very in­tu­itive work­flow…

“To­tally. I feel like half the time I might even be do­ing things com­pletely wrong or in a way the de­sign­ers didn’t in­tend but that’s the cool thing about it, that it’s so flex­i­ble and if you have a prob­lem you want to solve then there’s gen­er­ally three or four dif­fer­ent ways of go­ing about it! What’s ex­cit­ing is it also leads to happy mis­takes, which, for me is of­ten where songs be­gin – where you ac­ci­den­tally do some­thing that leads you in a di­rec­tion you wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily have thought of. That’s ex­cit­ing for me and par­tic­u­larly with this new record. I felt like some of my pre­vi­ous records were pos­si­bly a lit­tle too clean and over-edited in some ways so the idea with Mis­ter Mel­low was to take it to the op­po­site end of the spec­trum and pile a ton of dif­fer­ent lay­ers while not wor­ry­ing too much about things lin­ing up per­fectly all the time. Just em­brac­ing some of the raw­ness or the slop­pi­ness.”

With the re­cent pass­ing of Pierre Henry, it’s com­fort­ing that artists like yourself are still pay­ing re­spect to the spirit of musique con­crete and the ‘col­lage’ way of build­ing songs…

“Sure. This record, for me, was a case of try­ing to seek out the strangest sounds I could squeeze into a four-minute pop song. I get re­ally in­spired lis­ten­ing to a lot of ex­per­i­men­tal mu­sic and tex­ture is a very im­por­tant part of putting records to­gether for me. I think that’s one rea­son why the last cou­ple of records have had that kind of nar­ra­tive arc where the songs flow into one an­other. I think the tex­tu­ral stuff some­how brings the lis­tener more into the world of the al­bum. The musique con­crete stuff, even if it’s street noise or what­ever, is a use­ful way of in­form­ing the lis­tener about some of the themes I’m talk­ing about. That stuff is re­ally ex­cit­ing to me.”

There are some great beats along­side the sam­ples on Mis­ter Mel­low… Are you us­ing any ex­ter­nal drum-ma­chines or sam­plers?

“I just have a col­lec­tion of sam­ples that I’ve been stash­ing away since about 2007. I’m re­ally bad at or­gan­is­ing them so it’s al­most a free-for-all and a bit frustrating when I’m try­ing to find stuff! I do love lay­er­ing sounds to beef things up a bit. I wasn’t so

con­cerned with that for the record but it’s some­thing we’re do­ing a fair bit in the live show. We’re play­ing big rooms so there’s a lot more sub con­tent than there is on the al­bum. There was a funny story with the mas­ter­ing when I got the guy Dave Coo­ley who mas­tered some of those J Dilla records. We had a talk be­fore­hand and I men­tioned how I wanted it to sound unique and im­pres­sion­is­tic so he could feel free to take it to an ex­treme place. So, he did his ver­sion and it wasn’t ex­treme enough! I said to him to push and com­press it even more so he ended up tak­ing quite a bit of the low-end out. To me, the whole idea of this al­bum was to al­most over­whelm the lis­tener with all the lay­ers. That’s kind of how I was feel­ing at the time – a bit ex­hausted with the in­ter­net and the speed of things. I have a phone in my hand all the time and can’t ever seem to turn off the con­stant stim­u­la­tion. Sen­sory over­load!”

Your vo­cals oc­cupy a piv­otal place in pro­ceed­ings… Are there any spe­cial mics or ef­fects you pre­fer?

“The way I ap­proached this record was to do most of the mu­sic on my own with rough/scratch vo­cals then I worked with an engi­neer in Los An­ge­les called Cole M.G.N. (*Cole M.Grief-Neill) who’s worked for Beck for a few years and mixed a lot of great records by Ariel Pink, Ju­lia Holter and oth­ers. So, I did all the vo­cals at his place in LA where I used a Ge­fell UM70, which is sim­i­lar to a Neu­mann but it just seems to suit my voice. Cole has a sim­ple set-up there so we ran it through a Neve clone preamp and a Urei 1176 lim­it­ing amp, an Aurora Au­dio GTQ2 preamp, and that was pretty much it. We did quite a lot of ef­fects in the box… I’m par­tial to the con­vo­lu­tion re­verb in Able­ton.

“One of the things we used that gave the al­bum a lot of its flavour was the Waves Reel ADT, which we pretty much put on ev­ery­thing. It’s a re­ally kind of sub­tle dou­ble-track­ing vibe and it widens things a bit. With Washed Out I’ve al­ways been fight­ing against hav­ing a ‘nor­mal’ sound­ing vo­cal. [ laughs] I per­son­ally don’t like the sound of my nat­u­ral voice so I go for any ef­fect that makes it slightly syn­thetic or am­bigu­ous. There’s a lot of Waves’ H-De­lay go­ing on too.”

How does Cole con­trib­ute to things when you’re in the stu­dio to­gether?

“The cool thing with Cole is that he’s open-minded and open to us­ing any and ev­ery tool… not just the su­per high-end out­board gear! He uses things like iZo­tope’s Nec­tar 2 on vo­cals a lot and we’d also use things like Au­dio Ease’s Speak­er­phone and even a free­ware Max-for-Live ef­fect called Crap Cas­sette (http://son­icbloom.net/en/crap-cas­sette-free-max­for-live-ef­fect-for-old-c90-com­pact-cas­set­teem­u­la­tion), which we’d use in place of man­u­ally run­ning things through reel-to-reel or cas­sette ma­chines. Cole has worked on Beck records with Nigel Go­drich so he’s used the best equip­ment, so I thought it was funny when he pulled up some of the lower-tech stuff. That was our ap­proach, re­ally… not shy­ing away from us­ing any­thing and

This record, for me, was a case of try­ing to seek out the strangest sounds I could squeeze into a four-minute pop song

ev­ery­thing. A lot of the sam­ples were ripped straight off YouTube so there’s that shitty YouTube com­pres­sion that de­grades the au­dio, which some­how sounds more wonky and in­ter­est­ing when you sit it in be­side things that are more hi-fi.”

So, you’re a fan of the sound of tape in amongst the pris­tine dig­i­tal of the DAW?

“I think that maybe goes back to the Stones Throw thing with, like, a J Dilla record or what­ever and the way he would ma­nip­u­late the sound by bounc­ing down to tape. I know some of his clas­sic in­stru­men­tal stuff, all they had was the cas­sette tape that he would print his demos to and that’s what they cut the record from. So, there was a cer­tain qual­ity to that you wouldn’t get if you went to a hi-fi mas­ter­ing stu­dio! That’s kinda the in­spi­ra­tion and the vibe we were go­ing for.”

Are you go­ing through ac­tual tape at any point in the process or do the soft­ware em­u­la­tions suf­fice to achieve the de­sired ef­fect?

“I’ve ex­per­i­mented in the past… I’ve got an old reel-to-reel ma­chine and var­i­ous old cas­sette decks where I’ll run things through then back into the com­puter. More re­cently I’ve found a hand­ful of plug­ins that make that process a whole lot eas­ier. So, you can just throw it all onto Master Buss then print it all down. I do use that free­ware Crap Cas­sette Able­ton ef­fect a lot on things.”

There is a ton of ex­tremely us­able free­ware to be found out there these days isn’t there?

“It’s in­cred­i­ble, isn’t it. I’m per­son­ally too lazy to go multi-sam­pling a synth or some­thing to put it out there. We used to tour with lots of vin­tage ana­logue synths and they’d con­stantly break down so we got some newer synths, like Dave Smith synths. For this tour, this is the first time we’re not tak­ing any hard­ware synths out at all; it’s all vsts in the com­puter. A lot of it is ran­dom things we’ve found on­line where peo­ple have taken the time to sam­ple the Pro One, which I’ve got some in­cred­i­ble sam­ples of that we use all over the show.”

So, was the new al­bum all cre­ated in your stu­dio here?

“I ac­tu­ally put this new al­bum to­gether at a dif­fer­ent space where I was liv­ing in Athens, Ge­or­gia. I had a base­ment stu­dio set-up there but my wife and I have moved to this new place in Atlanta now. It’s a rel­a­tively small room as I don’t feel like I need too big a space. It’s not acous­ti­cally treated al­though I do plan on get­ting it done at some point. The way I ap­proach it is that if I need to do drums then I’ll go to an­other space for a cou­ple of days.”

You seem to be buck­ing the cur­rent trend and shifting from hard­ware to a more soft­ware­cen­tric set-up?

“I seem to be mov­ing more and more into plugin land, re­ally. I re­cently got an en­dorse­ment with Waves so, on the road, we’re us­ing the LV1 sys­tem, which is in­cred­i­ble! My back­ground has al­ways been work­ing with dig­i­tal au­dio work­sta­tions, plug­ins

and stuff and the hard­est thing has al­ways been then trans­lat­ing that into the live show work­ing with out­board gear at the venues as we haven’t had the op­por­tu­nity to travel with a huge rig. This is the first time I feel like we’re ac­tu­ally cap­tur­ing the vibe of the record. I’ve ap­proached it like I would a stu­dio project. You can do vir­tual sound­checks with the LV1 so the live show is sound­ing real close to the al­bum, which is the first time I’ve been able to ac­com­plish that.”

How ex­cit­ing is it for you to be tak­ing ev­ery­thing up a gear with your au­dio/vis­ual live shows?

“There are a few mi­nor bugs so it’s still a lit­tle scary at times… com­put­ers crash, as we know. The po­ten­tial of all the crazy things we can do with the new sys­tem by far out­weighs any wor­ries. I def­i­nitely see things like the LV1 as the future of live pro­duc­tion. There won’t be any gap soon be­tween a stu­dio pro­duc­tion and a live pro­duc­tion, which is amaz­ing. We take out a big pro­jec­tion with a back pro­jec­tor that’s be­hind us and we have some mo­tion-sen­sor cam­eras po­si­tioned in front of us that are cap­tur­ing our move­ments in real time that can project our sil­hou­ettes and do all sorts of crazy ef­fects to it. It’s quite an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence but all tied to­gether. Able­ton is send­ing out cues for the au­dio and the video side of things and some of the ef­fects are au­to­mated with the mo­tion sen­sors. It’s quite a com­pli­cated set-up and we’re still fine-tun­ing

ev­ery­thing but it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s cer­tainly a great future we’re all liv­ing in, is it not?

“[ laughs] Oh my god, ab­so­lutely! I’ve al­ways had dreams of try­ing out some of the things we’re do­ing with this set-up but com­puter pro­cess­ing was just never fast enough. We’ve got a $7k desk­top ma­chine run­ning the video side of things with the SoundGrid Ex­treme servers run­ning all the Waves plug­ins. The LV1 only runs on Win­dows so we’ve got a com­pact desk­top run­ning it and I have one of the new­est MacBooks for run­ning Able­ton.”

FM find it hard to sin­gle out any one track on such a good al­bum but could you maybe talk us through the evo­lu­tion of Get Lost?

“I think it prob­a­bly started with those pi­ano stabs and I like how it’s set up where the triplet rhythm maybe throws the lis­tener off a lit­tle bit. I love us­ing some­thing like that with the more dance-in­flu­enced tracks. There are three or four dif­fer­ent drum loops that have been cut up and re-as­sem­bled and at var­i­ous parts in the song things will drop out and back in. The bass is one of the only live parts for that track and I used this re­ally shitty Hofner Club bass from the six­ties, which is a great bass but it’s just in ter­ri­ble shape! Be­cause of that it has a vibe about it. I bought a new model of the same bass but it doesn’t have that ‘lived in’ feel to it. So, I played the bass and a lit­tle bit of vibes from a vst on there and the rest is lay­ers of sam­ples – any­thing from peo­ple talk­ing at a club to more sound-ef­fectsy stuff. That was re­ally ex­cit­ing for me to have all that swim­ming in the back­ground. If you lis­ten to the track loud on head­phones then hope­fully some of that stuff sticks out. My wife hears a lot of my mu­sic as I put it to­gether and she walked in while I was work­ing on the ini­tial loops for Get Lost and said, “it sounds like some kind of fucked-up car­ni­val,” [ laughs] which I thought was cool. I think this al­bum is def­i­nitely a head­phone record.”

Do you think some artists pos­si­bly for­get about the vast­ness of the spa­tial field avail­able to place things in when mix­ing their mu­sic?

“It’s ex­cit­ing for me as it all helps make it that much more psy­che­delic or at least takes you off-kil­ter a bit and that’s some­thing I wanted to play around with on this al­bum… that sen­sory over­load theme.”

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