In February I participated in an exchange program to Köln alongside two other CAP students, Sean and Meena. We spent three days in the studio at the Hochsule für Muzik und Tanz Köln working with the preeminent Jono Podmore (AKAKumo).
During the exchange we were split into pairs with our hosts. I was working with Azhar Syed, one half ofVimes. The idea was that those from Newcastle would provide the compositional ideas and our German counterparts would provide the production.
My first step was to construct a Drum Rack in Ableton to use as the basis for our collaboration. I tried to combine drum sounds reminiscent of Cologne’s infamous techno scene – a punchy kick, flam-my snare and open hats – with ring-y modular stabs and lush string swells.
We then recorded the string sounds which underpin the track, into ProTools, followed by the bass drum and snare hits. After establishing the main sampled motifs we moved onto the bass elements. For this we used Jono’s beautifulelectric-blue Mini-Moog Voyager. We programmed the midi to a bass-line I had written and then I manipulated the Moog’s many knobs, alternating between pitches, phase, waveform and so on, layering many parts to create a dense, subby sound.
From here, we recorded a simple nylon-string guitar melody, we then re-amped this through the POG and Mooer into a Fender Hotrod Deluxe and Jono briefly explained impedance (which he had learned in Newcastle the previous year) while Azhar worked out how to patch the thing into the desk.
The next morning I had the idea to treat the spiral staircase which led up to the studio as a plate reverb. I had noticed the sound of ascending/descending the stairs was extremely resonant, making me think it would be ideal as a medium to playback and sound through. We bounced a few of the tracks off the studio computer and set about converting the staircase into a reverb. We used an inductive speaker (which I think Marv, the studio’s tech, sourced from the medical department…) with a huge preamplifier to play sound into the staircase. We then attached a conventional contact mic (and pre) at the bottom, 2 conveniently magnetic induction pickups in the middle, and close-mic’d the whole thing with a Neumann stereo-pair. We ran the bass, guitar and strings through it and recorded the results and then mixed them into the master file, which gave the track a really distinct timbre.
Later that evening I recorded some vocals. We experimented with different microphones, including one Marv had made out of an old speaker, but in the end decided to use an AKG C414.
The final element we added was a crash/ride cymbal. I recorded it in one take, playing along to the track, and we then applied heavy delay processing to it: Jono taught me another important lesson while we were doing so. We were running it through the desk as a send and into a Moog 500 Delay. Jono’s lesson was that whenever you’re adding delay parts, you should do it as a send so you can control the equalisation being applied more precisely, and therefore illicit specific frequencies in the delay.
The main idea I had been focussing on while we were in Köln were trying to create as expanded a studio ecology as possible. To this end we constructed the steel-spiral staircase reverb, programmed midi between computers and used it to trigger sounds and record them, and re-amped a Spanish guitar.
The main lesson from the trip (aside from the copy of MF DOOM’s MM FoodI got for €9…) was not what Jono had taught me about impedance, delay sends and pan-European politics. It was how to construct a plate-reverb from unconventional materials.