November 19, 2022 § Leave a comment

For many years, my third album was the only album of mine from which I felt a disconnect. I have now come to accept it as it is, imperfect *and* the most perfect example of how each one of my albums is a snapshot of who I am as a person and as a musician at a given point in time and space – including my own limitations and stubborn way of thinking (at least back then) that I could do anything I set my heart on.

So here I am in 2006, 30 years old, in Paris, with a sabbatical from my teaching job granted at the last minute. The plan is to take advantage of this year to make music and tour. In November I go on a life-changing tour of Japan organized by Windbell, the label that we’ve just licensed my albums to, whose owner, Kazuki Tomita, had a dream (literally: in his sleep) that folk legend Bridget St John and I were touring Japan. He wrote to us and we both said yes. This is not the place to go on about why that trip to Japan was so inspiring, but my obsession with traditional Japanese aesthetics is all over this record and you can hear it.

2006 was also the year I made an old dream come true: playing the viola da gamba. I had seen the film “Tous les matins du monde” on TV when I was 15, had fallen in love with the sound of the viola, but I am not from a musical family and there is absolutely no way my parents could have afforded a viola or the lessons (and in a small French town in the 90s there would have been none anyway). Building up an instrument collection allowed me little by little to let go of self-imposed limitations: what was *materially* preventing me from playing the viola da gamba now that I was financially self-sufficient? Only the belief that I wasn’t supposed to. I found an incredible and forward-thinking luthier, the late François Danger of Atelier des 7 Cordes, commissioned a bass viola, and 9 months later, received it and started taking lessons with Florence Bolton, a Baroque music viola player who was open-minded enough to see past my nearly complete lack of reading skills.

It was pretty insane on my part to compose and record an album on a baroque instrument I barely mastered…

Full artwork by Iker Spozio.

It was pretty obvious that the DIY approach of The Golden Morning Breaks was not going to cut it for a record which had at its core the idea of showcasing the bare beauty of the acoustic sound of the viola da gamba and other acoustic instruments. Yet I was not prepared for how utterly disastrous and literally *unusable* my first recordings were.My heart sank at the implications of my lack of proper microphones and engineering knowledge.
My mastering engineer Emiliano Flores @submerci stepped in and saved the day: he offered to record the songs that were most minimal and composed in the attic of his parents’ house in the Paris suburb of Villejuif, and to lend me a mike and preamp so that I could record the parts involving more layering and/or improvisation in my living room in Paris, the idea being that I would observe him closely on the job and ask for further advice once set up at home.

I remember the recordings happening over a couple of weeks in the attic, around December 2006/January 2007.
Guitar and clarinet: Beyer M160 ribbon on clarinet + guitar on “Sun against my eyes” (3), Beyer MC834 cardioid condenser on guitar on “Sea of tranquillity” (7).
Bass viola da gamba:  “Les ondes silencieuses” (4), “Le bateau”(9)  and the finger-picked part of “Blue Sands” (5), stereo take with Beyer M260 ribbon and Beyer MC834; AKG C460B pencil condenser for harmonics on “Blue Sands” (5).

I then recorded in my living-room on the Beyer MC834:
Bass viola on “This Place in time” (1), “Past the long black land” (8) and percussive part of “Blue Sands” (5) with mallets.
Spinet (a small harpsichord – see photo –borrowed from a Baroque music player) on “Le labyrinthe” (2)
Three water-filled crystal glasses (not pictured – given away on my last move) on “Echoes and coral”(6).
Emiliano and I then mixed and produced the album together (the only album of mine I did not work on alone), using some amazing Altiverb convolution reverbs as the sole effect.

Thank you so much Emiliano @submerci for stepping in so generously and passing on your knowledge at such a crucial moment.

PS: Emiliano’s comment on Instagram: “For any techie reading this I want to add that the Beyer M260 had been previously re-ribboned by Stephen Sank using RCA ribbon. The preamps used at my place were modded Symetrix SX-202 and AEA TRP.”


Playing the spinet. Photo by Iker Spozio


November 8, 2022 § Leave a comment

I can’t seem to smile today as my thoughts are stuck on the passing away of Mimi Parker of Low. I knew her and Alan a little bit on a personal level, and had been listening to them since their first album in 1994. Over the past couple of years Alan asked me several times to open for whole European tours for them, which I had to turn down as I could not have coped physically or mentally with their intense schedule, but of course I always felt immensely honored that he did so, and it always felt surreal too. I finally said yes when he asked if I would open for the short run of shows they were supposed to have in Spain last week, since this was close geographically and only 3 shows.
There is no logic and no comfort anywhere in this kind of news. The only positive I can think of is that her voice, drumming and songwriting skills are forever embedded in the records – and that as an extra, the stellar performances they *always* gave will also stay in our memories. As a musician, their shows always made me feel like rushing home to get better at what I do.
This past couple of years, whenever I receive bad news and am reminded of the closeness of death and illness, I think of 2 things: the people I love and music-making – on the same level. I had a serious health scare earlier this spring and one of my first thoughts was “But I want to keep going with synthesis”. It almost shocked me to see that this had become such a priority for me on a global human level, not just a musical one.
I have been on holiday for 2 weeks now and was thinking of forcing myself to go on a creative break, since I’ve been making music almost non-stop for 2 years 1/2 now, but frankly, considering none of us know for how long we are on this earth, I feel the best use of my time is music-making.
For the 20th anniversary of my Colleen project I was planning on posting about each one of my albums in the runup to the end of the year, so I’ll start today in an in an effort to lift myself up, starting with my second album.

The Golden Morning Breaks, 2005, The Leaf Label, artwork and design Iker Spozio.

DIY was the name of the game for the making of my second album: almost nothing was recorded in a traditional manner, and in hindsight I think that contact miking in particular gives the album its distinctive sound. Possibly my favourite album of mine with Captain of None.
Recorded in my living room in the flat I had moved to in spring 2004, in Paris’s XV. Prior to that, my only experience of recording instruments had been on a Fostex 4-track-tape recorder around 1995-96.
By 2003 I had started to build a musical instrument collection, prompted both by my desire to play instruments live and by my obsession with instruments of all kinds, preferably acoustic, the weirder, older and rarer, the better. I finally had money of my own through my English teaching job, so could start said collection and buy looping pedals (Boss Loopstation RC20, Line 6 DL4) and delay pedal (Akai Headrush). I “sort of” taught myself to play the cello over the course of a few months.

1 Summer water: classical guitar, cello
2 Floating in the clearest night: guitar
3 The heart harmonicon: glass harmonicon belonging to and recorded by my friend John Cavanagh in Glasglow (19th century glass glockenspiel – see photo)
4 Sweet rolling: zither
5 The happy sea: toy synth (not pictured; Casio? bought at LIDL, given away), wooden recorder (live show pic 6 March 2003; thrown away due to stinking of mould from the severe dampness I had in my former studio in San Sebastián), glockenspiel
6: I’ll read you a story: music box (pressed against the guitar’s body, close to the contact mike), guitar
7 Bubbles which on the water swim: cello, guitar
8 Mining in the rain: toy gamelan, rain falling on the windowsill of my living room.
9 The golden morning breaks: ukulele
10 Everything lay still: windchimes, cello
Guitar, zither and ukulele recorded through contact mikes. Cello through Schertler pickup. SM57 for other instruments. Everything going through the RC20 used as a preamp of sorts.
Delay primarily Akai Headrush, with all other FX  being Acid built-in plugins.
Pedals daisychained into cheap Behringer mixing desk, into cheap M-Audio 2-input soundcard.
Edited on Acid DAW.


November 2, 2022 § Leave a comment

I was so busy last month trying to get the master of LP8 finished that I didn’t realize that on 22nd October, it was the 20th anniversary of my first ever Colleen release, the Babies 7’’ on Parisian label Active Suspension. By a beautiful coincidence, I approved LP8’s masters bang in the middle of the anniversary date!

On 23rd October 2002, I also played my first show as Colleen at the Batofar in Paris, one of my favourite venues at the time… I can’t seem to find photos of that first show, an Active Suspension showcase, a label I had discovered through my favorite radio programme at the time, Helter Skelter on Aligre FM (thank you Viviane Morisson!!!)

By then I was about to complete my first album Everyone Alive Wants Answers, which was 95% sample-based, but I had already decided that I did not want to use a computer on stage (have stuck to that decision ever since) and that I needed to play actual instruments, which is why I took out my electric guitar again (soon to be replaced by my classical guitar at the next show). I had bought my first Boss Loopstation by then and my first Line 6 DL4 (which I had first seen used by label mate My Jazzy Child – who played with me on a couple of songs on that show – on an organ + delay combo, a la Terry Riley).

This proved to be a multiple turning point:

1) I had an actual physical record available, which was unbelievable for someone who grew up in the 80s-early 90s and could only fantasize about such things.

2) I had taken this first step of playing my Colleen music publicly for an audience, and it confirmed what I had felt when I had played small shows with my noisy pop/rock group in my late teens: I really loved it

3) This was the start of my live practice influencing my album-making: I went back to instrument-playing even though the Colleen project really was born from sampling.

The 7’’ has long been sold out, but is available digitally on my Bandcamp and all platforms.

“Babies” was included on Everyone Alive and I will always regret not incorporating “Good morning sunshine” as it’s one of my favourites.


October 28, 2022 § Leave a comment

A technical post to celebrate the fact that last Sunday I was finally able to approve all masters for my 8th album Le jour et la nuit du réel, which will be released next year by Thrill Jockey! I hope this info can be of use to those of you who are self-taught like me, or who have not yet taken the first (or second 😉) step towards this approach, but are tempted: it is soooo satisfying when you manage to solve a problem in your own studio with your own tools!

Let me start with an analogy. If you live in an environment that’s relatively noisy with traffic, passers-by, your neighbours’ lives, your own doings in your house, all noises become blurred in a sort of noise fog, with nothing grabbing your attention in particular. In contrast, if you live in a very quiet environment, the hum of your fridge or a dog barking in the distance will probably drive you (me) nuts. With music, the same phenomenon happens: with a recording of a full band, almost no one’s going to actively register tape hiss or amp hum on a guitar part, because they are buried amid all the musical sounds. If they do come through slightly, the ear will interpret them as “warmth”/“authenticity”. However, if a record consists of just sparse guitar played through an amp and a Space Echo, the same hiss or hum will be so much louder in the mix – since there is nothing else to “cover” them – that they may start to distract from the music and just sound like a bad engineering job or faulty setup.

As you can see from this screen grab from my DAW Reaper showing the MIDI file created as I played the song live, the Grandmother and the 100% Wet Space Echo soundwaves, the songs where I had to do this EQ job all had in common that they were played by hand at a slow pace, with silence between notes. They also don’t have synthesis action going on: they are made up of very pure tones that stay even during the song. It is during those Grandmother silences that a kind of swishing, ebb-and-flow effect happens with the tape hiss, since the Echo produces a more constant sound that appears louder when the Grandmother is not playing.

Luckily, the solution is very easy. I had to tailor the approach to each song, but the principle is the same: on a band equalizer (ReaEQ here), choose a notch setting, take that notch to the top of the dB range and sweep the entire frequency spectrum until the noise you wish to remove is the loudest, then take that notch down until you are satisfied with the noise removal. It is then best to replace the notch by a band so that you have a shallower scoop, to avoid phase issues.

I had to do the EQ job on 3 other Movements of the same cycle + another one – all of which required adjustments (see pics):

– Mvt III is the only song on the album that uses 2 Grandmother parts, which means double the amount of hiss… The second part is played about 2 octaves higher than the first and for some reason, on top of the hiss, I also had a slight hum. This time I kept the notch and I managed to get rid of both hiss and hum in one go.

– Mvt II mimics a celesta, and here the best result was obtained by applying both the shallow scoop EQ of Movement I *and* the notch EQ of Movement III’s high-pitched part.

– Mvt IV has lots of dramatic Lowpass Filter Cutoff sweeps, changes of Oscillator octave, etc. Because of this constantly-changing wide spectrum of frequencies, the tape hiss is imperceptible, but I did have to do something about the beginning, in which I slowly open the Filter Cutoff to let the sequence appear: here the tape hiss was extremely perceptible since there is almost no input going to the Echo. The previous EQ settings did not work for the whole song as they “disfigured” it by taking away too many musically useful frequencies, plus it just didn’t make sense to apply EQ where there was no problem. A simple solution was to use the EQ’s Wet parameter envelope, starting with maximum wet then taking it down as the song grows in volume.

– For Mvt I of “Be without being seen”, I had to add an extra band to the shallower scoop to make it even wider.

Huge thanks to my mastering engineer Antony Ryan / RedRedPaw Mastering for all his help on this subject and so many other technical matters.


October 18, 2022 § Leave a comment

We have finally just agreed on the final master version (V3.0) of LP8 with Antony Ryan @redredpaw @the_isan_workshop. I’ve had to modify 15 of the 22 tracks – some several times (photo shows my boys during those last work sessions) – and have just decided to drop a track that was not up to the album standard.

So what happened exactly, given that when I send my “finished” tracks for mastering I don’t exactly anticipate to work on them *that much*? It’s been a case of psychological-factors-meeting-technical-factors… I work on my own, it’s my thing, with all the limitations it entails, but all the joy too: I’m not technically trained, but I love learning and have taught myself so much over the years, with this approach allowing me to make records that feel 100% mine.
With this album, I became fully absorbed by synthesis, and in terms of purely technical matters, well, over the past year I had encountered and solved a couple of hurdles along the way: bought a silent desktop computer just for music-making since my previous laptop made *terrible* noise, finally changed my DAW from T-Rex Acid to awesome Reaper when Acid started to severely malfunction after a Windows update, and also sent my Space Echo for a full revision to its daddies @soundgasltd last year.
When I really started to record this summer, I DID NOT WANT ANY MORE PROBLEMS. So I pretended there weren’t any. I heard there was an annoying sizzling noise coming from my beloved @moogsynthesizers MF-104M Analog delay, but I hoped this would “blend”/disappear in the song itself. Considering that the songs using the MF-104M delay on the record are made up of – roughly – 60-70% MF-104M sound, how the hell did I think this was going to happen?
And sure enough: the first thing that Antony said after hearing the music was in relation to that sizzling noise. The second thing was in relation to something else I had noticed, not a technical problem as such, but a sonic consequence of my choices on some songs: really noticeable tape hiss presence.

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