Machine love: Tommy Four Seven
Logic and field recorder: We discover the way in which the UK producer has made limited tools work to his advantage.
No producer wants to sound like another. Or so they would say. So why is it that so many do? It’s something that the UK-born, Berlin-based Tommy Four Seven has considered a great deal. The difference here, though, is that he took affirmative action. Faced with recording an album for Chris Liebing’s recently rejuvenated CLR, Tommy challenged himself to produce using only found sounds and vocal recordings. The results were fascinating. Yes, Primate is very evidently a techno record—an unmitigated one at that—but this is the genre cut from a different cloth. As we met at his Berlin studio, in a suitably industrial corner of the city, it quickly became clear that the idea of restricting oneself—for whatever reason—has enabled this young producer to find his voice.
You’ve said before that you’ve been messing around with music programs since you were 12—what were these specifically?
The first music software I ever messed around with was a game called Music 2000. I was around 12 years old and found myself totally addicted. It wasn’t technical, but you could write your own riffs and sample about 20 seconds. Although I thought of it just as a game, I think people like Leftfield and Grooverider even released tracks using the program. The first slightly more serious program I experimented with was Reason when it first came out and then another program called Orion Platinum. By the time I hit university I had enough funds to buy a new G5 Mac and Logic 7 (thanks to student loans) and I’ve stayed with Logic ever since.
Many people have said that they didn’t find formal music tech training overly helpful. What is your take on it?
I think it really depends on the course you take. It totally broadened my perspective on music technology. I found interests in topics I never really thought about, such as Foley and sound design and working with live recordings. Soon I began to apply these new techniques to my production process in techno.
And you applied a very specific process to Primate. Could you explain the concept behind the album?
The concept really came about from both boredom and frustration with the techno scene. Hearing the same sounds, the same hats, synths. It isn’t everyone, but a large majority of producers aren’t willing to take risks. It just seems we are going in circles sometimes and I think it’s time we all pushed ourselves to take things forward. I find it almost impossible to finish a track if I use the same sounds in previous tracks—I lose all motivation. So I needed a concept of no generic sounds, such as claps, hi-hat, and synths to keep me excited and interested.
It also created a box which allowed me to focus. There’s nothing worse than having too many options as you get distracted more easily. You need some kind of rules, you need some kind of direction, otherwise you’re going in all kinds of places.
Have you struggled with an overabundance of options in the past?
Well, I think I’ve totally restrained myself anyway. I’m not someone who’s like a plug-in whore. I’m not searching for plug-ins all the time. Everyone’s like, “Oh, what plug-ins do you use?” I just use what I’ve got and make the most of it.
So what are you using?
They’re all native to Logic. I don’t use any fancy plug-ins like Waves; it’s a little bit out of the budget at the moment. I’m actually happy with Logic’s plug-ins. I love Logic for the functionality, the interface, it works. I’ve not found a reason to change yet.
Tell me how you generated the percussion sounds on your album.
Most of them came from just grabbing the mic and recording anything that was in the studio, anything that was outside—some field recordings, anything that works.
What would one of these field trips entail?
Like going to the tube station for example, getting the haunting ambience of a train. Or when the cars drive over the bridge, you can hear this haunting ambience that’s kind of like screeching. It’s really, really surreal. So quite often I made a note of sounds like that and then came back and recorded it.
There’s a track called “Armed 3″ [on the album] that the percussion was made out of tin foil. You just scrunch it up and then there’s a great metallic sound and then that’s heavily processed and distorted. Most sounds have been processed probably like ten times—bounced, distorted, crunched, pitched, reverbed, bounced again. And each time you’re bouncing it, it kind of inspires you to do something else and that’s kind of why I find using recordings really helpful because they’re like the catalyst, they’re kind of leading the way. They’re showing me a direction and I’m just going with it. It’s like you’ve got two people almost working together—you capture something and then it’s the two of you and the computer. It definitely helps when you’re stuck for ideas just to get the microphone out.
Using the example of the foil, what would you do once you have the audio in Logic?
I would then crunch it with distortion, overdrive—that’s a weapon in Logic that people never use. But you have to, to get the effects I do, you have to manipulate it a lot of times. I’m bouncing it out, crunching it, and each time I’m subtly changing it, so maybe lowering the pitch, or changing the EQ and just driving the fuck out of it with distortion.
Why do you bounce audio as opposed to setting up an effects chain?
It’s quick. Also if you’re committed to something, there’s no going back. Once you’ve got that sound it’s there, whereas if you’ve got a chain it could change slightly depending on the plug-ins. So I like committing and that’s a process that helps to focus it as well, to not leave it open. I mean, I don’t work with MIDI, it’s all audio.
Did you find it hard to stick to your self-imposed rules?
No… I don’t know. At the moment I’m just anti-really typical synth sounds. For that project I had this kind of rebellious, “Ah, fuck it, just do something different.” I was working with vocals to replace the use of synths.
Tell me about the melodic textures on the album.
I was using vocals to replace the melodic elements that synths would bring to a record and it also gave that kind of human element and a bit more soul because with all that distortion and the industrial size of the sounds, it was nice to have a human voice to kind of balance that out.
Did the post-processing differ much for the vocals?
Well sometimes I’d come with some ideas, some lead ideas, and the vocalist would take them and interpret them as they wanted to and give them back to me and then I would further sound design those. So yeah, that was a lot of sound design on the vocals to get them working with the elements, kind of some side-chaining, because with digital distortion to get vocals to sit in this harsh world, you have to unite it with a bit of compression and side-chaining. So it kind of needed to be worked to sit in the world of the track. It just didn’t connect otherwise.
Do you find it at all tiring to work with such heavy, Industrial types of sounds?
Harsh on the ears?
Harsh on the ears, yes, but how do you generally find working with “noise” for an extended period?
Especially because I was using headphones for some of it as well… Yeah, it was harsh but I like that. I don’t know why, I love the crunch, the energy, the aggressiveness, the kind of rebellious sound. It’s a bit more what techno is for me, it’s a bit more raw, it’s a bit more true. Techno now is really fucking clean and it’s not really like it’s played in a warehouse.
Tell me about the process you undertake when starting a track.
First I’m going to go and make a recording. For “Talus,” say, it was a washing machine. So I’ve got like five minutes worth of recordings and I’m just listening to it. I’ve got the whole audio file and then I’m just marking—I’m taking sections out that I like and I’m doing that for a while and it’s getting shorter and shorter (the amount of audio that I think I can work with). And once I’ve got the audio that is quite inspiring to work with, I’m then just jamming, jamming with the audio—taking sounds out, turning that into percussion, turning that into the bassline.
So I’ve got like an eight-bar loop going on, it’s just like a live jam and pulling more sounds in until I’ve got something that I’m happy with. And this whole process of jamming, I’m grabbing distortion here, grabbing pitch here until I’ve got a nice groove and then I stop and reflect on that and build it.
Are you literally using the mouse, rearranging sounds?
Yeah it’s just mouse and audio, dragging it and playing around.
And what sort of stage would you need to get to in which you think “OK, this is going to become a full arrangement now”?
Once there’s a nice groove, a nice bass… it might get to that point but I need a kick so now I’ve got to go and find some other sounds, so I’m just going back with a microphone and getting those things or I’m digging into files of sounds I’ve already created and chucking them in. Maybe think, “Oh, hang on a minute, there’s a really nice sound that I came up with yesterday that I’m going to chuck in.” It’s quite spontaneous.
Taking the example of the kick, how would you generate the sound?
I would just hit the chair. I could hit that and then just EQ it. It’s really simple. But I have to say that to stand up in a club sometimes you need that electronic richness to give it more body. That’s one thing I find sometimes with my tracks, some songs don’t sound that rich. The only elements that are really electronic [on the album] were layering under the kicks to boost up, to kind of give it more density. It’s a really cheap plug-in called BassIsm and you can play around with the frequencies and the decay and tune the kick to your kick, just give it that weight. And that’s actually what we did at Chris Liebing’s studio, we took the tracks there and listened to it because he’s got like a massive fucking sub, which I don’t have, and so we were just listening to the bass to make sure it stands out in the club and really just focusing on the kick and the bass to give it enough weight.
“I don’t want to recognize
what people are using.
I want to be like, ‘Wicked,
I’ve never heard that before!’”
Do you find the mixing process easier when you take this kind of sound design approach to production?
Yeah, it’s funny because sometimes what you’ve got works and however you’ve come to that point, it’s got soul, and sometimes when you pull the faders down and start again, you lose that vibe; that original kind of jam that just happens. So I always bounce it down, save that session. I will pull the faders down and bring it back up because sometimes you do get a nicer mix-down like that—it’s balanced. But generally I do have a point where I put the faders down, it’s not done as I go along and such. I think for most people it will probably work like that, but I’m more about not losing my interest in it and going with the flow. I’m going until I’ve got a track that excites me and then I’m worrying about the exact sonics and, “OK, how is this going to sound, how does that sit?” I’m more concerned about the energy of the record, the soul of it— is it alive? Because you can kill it if you have a shit mix-down.
Would you say you’re someone who works quickly?
It could be two hours and I’ve come up with an idea, it’s not a finished track, but an idea. Sometimes it can take a week. It really depends on the track. Sometimes I get fed up and I move on and I work on something else, but I’m not the fastest worker too. I’m really self-critical, I don’t tend to believe in a lot of the stuff that I’m doing, so I’m often pretty slow.
The best tracks usually come within six hours max. They’re usually the best tracks and I usually finish them within two days, but sometimes you need to distance yourself because you can get really carried away and the next day you walk into the studio and it sounds shit. So sometimes I like to give myself five days and you’re not so emotionally attached to it and I think that’s another important thing for mixing, is if you’re trying to mix it down too soon, you’re emotionally attached to some sounds and sometimes it’s not the best for them. It’s hard, coming back after, say, a week, sometimes I just know instantly where to put the faders—”No, that’s not right, that’s not sitting there.”
You’ve obviously got a specific way of doing things so I was wondered if you could see yourself moving away from that in the future? Or do you feel wedded to your process?
No, I mean, that’s why I’ve got some empty rack space because I plan to get some modular synths and just play around.
Do you see modular synths as a way of breaking away from what you were talking about before: sounding like everyone else?
Yeah I think you can get some great sounds from that. It’s more of a personal goal just to know more about that and to play around with that because it’s not something that I’ve delved into much and I feel like I’m missing out on some options of finding sounds. The whole [not using] synths thing was mainly people using presets… I don’t like a synth when it sounds like a synth, when you can recognize what it is, that’s kind of what the whole point was—I don’t want to recognize what people are using. I want to be like, “Oh, what the fuck is that sound? What’s that texture? Wicked, I’ve never heard that before,” and that’s what I’m trying to do with the albums is give people textures that they’re not that familiar with or can’t put their finger on what it is.