Darwin: So today I'm doing something a little different. This is my first face-to-face interview/conversation - whatever you like to call it - it's pretty strange because I'm used to doing this in my robe. And my interviewee really asks me to put pants on. So I had to do that. It's to honor his request. This week we're talking to Mark Mosher. Mark Mosher is a friend of mine. He lives near where I live, but he's also a pretty phenomenal - electronic music activist is the way I guess I would put it. I hope you don't mind that label, but I see that because he does many, many things. He is a recording artist. And in fact, we're going to talk about his new recording, which is probably one of the best electronic music albums I've heard in the last decade.
It's stunning. So when I heard the album, I right away called him up and I'm like, "Can we do an interview?" because I want to talk about this, man. But in addition to that, he heads the Boulder area synth meetup. He's been involved in Ableton user groups in the past. Most people worldwide would know him as the magician behind, the Percussa Audio Cubes. He has done some amazing videos with those. And so those are pretty widely viewed on YouTube. He runs a blog called Modulate This. I knew I would forget something - and that was one of the things. So he runs the Modulate This blog, which is a great touchstone for whatever's happening each day. It seems, I think you're pretty consistent about posting every day or close to it. So all these things get wrapped up in a one guy who, as you can imagine is very efficient with his time, but also is really dedicated to the craft Mark. Welcome to the podcast!
Mark Mosher: Thanks Darwin. And thanks for coming to my secret lair.
Darwin: It is a cool secret lair too.
Mark: And I'd love your podcast. So thanks for having me on it's really great.
Darwin: Oh, well, I appreciate that. So, you're a listener to the podcast and as you know, we generally kick off the podcast by asking you to give us a little bit of background. So why don't we start with that?
Mark: Sure. I grew up in Colorado Springs, and I started off - I have somewhere, I have a picture of me and my footy pajamas playing an old, yellow, upright piano. So in my memory of playing was always writing something, not necessarily reading music or playing other people's music, but always noodling around. So I started off there and then I moved to, that air organ that had like the button accordion on the left, not Hammond - it'll come to me, but anyway, my parents bought me one of those organs, the ones like with the big fan and yeah, so I started off with that. Pure Magnetic has a sound pack with those, by the way it brought back memories. So yeah, I started off on organ and then as I got older, I started taking organ lessons.
So left-hand, right-hand, feet, and I took some guitar lessons. And then I started getting heavily into science fiction films and reading, and I'm noodling around with, I was creating my own radio shows. So I never really was one thing. I was always sort of bouncing around, like doing a little bit of music, kind of producing these little radio shows with friends of mine and, you know, dramatic theater kind of shows. And I dabbled a little bit with electronics. I got some electronic kits and pulled things apart and wire things together and tried to make bleepy noises and shoot it out the window at my neighbors late at night. So, then as I got a little older, my pivotal point for me is my brother got a quadraphonic stereo.
And he got switched on Bach. And, like a lot of people, that's the tipping point where you're like, there's sort of the day before, and the day after you hear that album. And I heard it in quadraphonic and it was amazing. And then, from then on, I started becoming really interested in synthesizers. So, I got my first synth in '83 or '84, whatever year the [Korg] Poly-800 came out. So I started on digital. I started with MIDI, which kind of shaped me because I'm used to looking through the two digit LED, that's where I started. And then after that, I moved on to the Ensoniq Mirage, which has the two digit led, except you're working in hex. So, I started early on with the idea of being able to sort of envision the architecture of the synth through the two digit display and then working it from there.
So it was rather rather abstract, but since I started there, it seems natural to me. So that's how I got going with all this. And I started playing in rock bands, alternative rock bands. I played in this band, we had a great fan base in the Springs. For 13 years, I played in this band called The Headfull Of Zombies down in Colorado Springs. And we had quite a fan base and I played synth and I sang. And so I was really a rocker or a rock performer for hundreds of shows, like 13 years of that really had a great time. But I also learned how to emulate the sounds of classic albums. I learned to play Gary Newman leads and come up with the sound and such. And I went on to do, professionally, some custom composition work for a few years and sound design for live theater for a big regional theater down in Colorado Springs.
And at some point I moved to Boulder about 10 years ago and I decided, okay, I think I couldn't do the "2 AM" anymore with the band and all that. And, I've always been a fan of Howard Jones and the one-man act idea. And as synthesizers became virtual and could fit into laptops and were actually reliable and you could take them on the road. I had this idea back in 2009 that I would go solo and try to figure out how to play some of these more cinematic ideas that I started working with as a sound designer and a custom composer, but take that to the electronic music world. And so I started my journey with Ableton in virtual sense and all that. So that's it in a bit of a nutshell.
Darwin: Well, it's interesting that you, you talk about the cinematic or sound designerly kind of process because in listening to your new album, I was really blown away by the sound design, and one of the things I wanted to actually talk to you about a little bit is how you approach sound design and the sound design process, because it's clear to me that everyone does it a little bit differently. Because I mean, I guess now Berklee and a few schools will have a sound design for film class or whatever, but in terms of how do you approach patch creation? It isn't a set or academic way of doing it. Everybody finds their own way, right? And, clearly, whatever way you found it works because it's pretty amazing. How do you approach it? How do you approach choosing the tool that you're going to do the sound design on? How do you approach getting core material? How do you flesh it out? How do you go through that process?
Mark: There's sort of a general way I do it. And then there's a way that I've pulled together, this particular album, right? So there's a history of that, right? Cause when I started in bands, I was doing sound design on hardware since like the Triton and ESQ-1. And so, very subtractive, right? So it kinda got into the idea of subtractive synthesis early on. And, but as time went on and I started getting into the first virtual synth, it was Absynth. I had Absynth 1 by the way, just for fun, I installed it on Windows 7 and it still runs, but I got into Absynth 1 and I think it was because like Howard Jones and a Keyboard Magazine interview was like, "I'm using it." So I got this thing going and I'm like - it really changed my world to work with Absynth because first of all, I love the science fiction aesthetic and just the user interface, which is like this alien thing to start with.
The sounds were huge. I didn't use it early on like way back in 2002. And I used it a little, a little more, like put the composer hat on, use it as an arrangement tool, write the song like when I was doing custom composition work for commercials and such, right? And then when I became a solo artist, I really wanted to have my own palette. So I started exploring sound design and I started getting into virtual synthesizers. And when the first album in the Alien Invasion series came out, which is called Reboot, virtual synths were going nuts. So it was more like, how do you choose what synths not to use? So that album, is it really different from the last, the most recent album in that there was this rich set of tools and it's kind of a studio album I went in and I was really exploring like, what could I do if I blend these together?
Mark: So I was really working at a meta level if you will, like I was doing custom sound design, but at the same time, I started coming in with the idea of like: if I take Vanguard and I use 30% of that for the base and I mix it in with this other synth and then I blend them to get it through time. And so I was working very meta, very composer, very arranger. And, it was definitely doing custom sound design work back then this was 2009, but nothing like what I do today. So it's been this evolution right where I started off with just a barrage of VSTS and then tried to get them under control and wrap my head around them. So then as I moved on to the next album, which is in 2010, I Hear Your Signals.
I really merged the idea of sound design, live performance, recording, and arrangement to one thing. So, I kind of like motivated a bit like by Dark Side of the Moon and Pink Floyd in that album. What I was trying to do was write a song, rehearse it, use these controllers, that album is the story told from the alien point of view. So I wanted to not be Well-Tempered. So I'm using Audio Cubes and Theremin. And I was trying to, you know, as if I was a band rehearsing, the songs shaped, the sounds - blur them all together, and I got much more into sound design with that album. And then also controllerism, big time, such that I could, in one shot, simultaneously compose a piece and perform it almost sections of it immediately. So let's say you take a song on the album, three hours in, I would sort of lay the structure out and be able to play an early version of it.
So if you came over, I could play a part of it for you. And then I did that for months and months, and then I would rehearse it and play it and play it out and experiment it and make it richer. And so by the time I went to record it on that album, I hit global record and Ableton with all the controllers running. And then it was sort of meta sound design. Because I was mixing and matching the custom patches on the fly. So it was very organic and a lot of those albums, you know, I rehearsed them for months that those tracks, I rehearsed them for months. And then I recorded like three takes, pick my favorite one, tweaked it a little bit. And then I launched it, but I was gigging those songs at the same time.
So it was pretty interesting process. So on long way around answering your question, like for this latest album, why it took so long is I went really deep. I picked a very, I went the opposite of Reboot. I went to a very small tool set and I said, "I'm going to learn this." My goal was to get to like a virtuoso level with certain sense, and to force myself to always use them. So like if I said, I really want a baseline or a synth lead instead of going to the, "Oh, I'll pull up the Sylinth One..." or something, which has a lot of good leads. I'm going to force myself to go into Absynth and then figure it out. So it's like, well, it's not quite mean enough. And then I figured out, Oh my God, in the filter, there's a feedback circuit in version 5. And then if you go to the feedback circuit, there's ring modulators and wave shapers and things like that. And I started playing around with these things. And so this is a two year process. This is two years of experimenting with something like Absynth and Zebra to get non-linearity, and then circle back and then try to play it live. So, that's a long way around for that, but, it's really an evolution. It's kind of a blurry thing for me.
Darwin: Well, one of the things that I, that anyone who's following your blogs will know is first of all, we kind of know which tools you're into because you're very open about talking about it during the process of learning tools, which it's a little bit gutsy because, every once in awhile, what we see is you like how it's really into this and it's gone, it's gone. That's, it has this human awkwardness that's that makes it in a way. It kind of makes it interesting. But in the end, what were the, so I, you mentioned Absynth and Zebra, used ACE as well.
Mark: Yeah. And, I became obsessed with Absynth and with ACE last year. Like pretty hardcore. I have custom skins for ACE. I call it the, you know, my whole theme of my albums is this whole alien invasion. And I created this thing called the Outpost Skin. So I was convincing graphic designer friends of mine to make knobs for it and stuff like that. So, it's pretty cool looking,
Darwin: Did you kind of do that, like, because you were in the mindset of this science fiction world?
Mark: Absolutely. Yeah. I I'm really, I'm a huge fan of bands like Divo and bands that are all in, you know, the Poly Six. They have a mythology, they're all in there. Like, for me, that means it's sitting in my basement. I'm going to skin this thing, so it has these, this ice - it's like, it was buried the snow for two weeks and I pulled it out and that's going to change how I write my patches with it. But ACE is an amazing instrument. It's, it's God, it's like $89. And, it's so misunderstood. I did this video, which is quite popular on YouTube. It's called, ACE patch cables. One-on-one I think is what it's called. And all I do is explain like how the patch cables work.
And then what you realize is, is it looks like, you know, it's a little it's it's, it just looks like a subtractive center or something like that. But all the, everything runs at audio rates, all the LFOs. So with this, it looks like a two oscillatorsynthesizer. If you patch it right, you can actually get seven oscillators going, right? You can do slew, you know, you can get it to bit crush. If you use an envelope to run it into an LFO, which then disrupts the audio. So I got really hardcore with it. And so some of the weird stuff you hear on this album is stuff like that. It's stuff that - it's non-linearity. That's kind of where I was after. So when I pressed the key and if I press it slightly different velocity, the next time, it sounds, I can't almost even reproduce sometimes, you know, it's like a range of...
Darwin: It speaks differently depending on how you're playing.
Mark: It speaks a little differently. And, and to me, you know, I built up quite a little library of ACE sounds and zebra sounds, and some of the songs on the new album are done with one instrument. So for example, I released this Ableton Live sound pack called "Sounds From a Distant Outpost" few years back. I used that for one song and only that, and rehearsed and I recorded it in two takes, pick my favorite take. And then I went back and edited and I used an Ableton Push, it shows me really into the Push for this album. So that was all field recordings. So I guess one thing I like about using your own sounds, and it's not a hundred percent my sounds if I pull up a sound on a synth and it's a baseline and it's perfect, I'll tweak it a little bit, but so I'm not like a purist about it, but at the same time, as you're trying to tell your story is, you know, only you know what you're trying to say, sonically sometimes, and you have to have the skill to be able to do that.
Darwin: Well, especially when it's an instrumental album. I mean, what's interesting is you have these three albums, they tell this alien invasion story in a fairly understandable way. I mean, you know, you have to catch the setup from the CD cover or the booklet or whatever, but I mean, it's clear that what you're doing comes across, but most band scenarios would say, "Well, that comes across in the lyric makeup." And you instead approach, I think the sound design thing is important because that sound design is an abstract version of lyricism of the album. And I think it's pretty incredible because as I was listening through the album, one of the things that really came to the forefront was it's clear to me that not only did you do a lot of your own sound design and your own patch creation, but a lot of the things that you created were specific to the song. And one of the places where I noticed that a lot was where there would be rhythmic devices built into the patch that would like fill a specific spot. Right? And, so to accomplish an album, this album has just like an incredible number of sounds. I mean, how many different sound creations did you make to be able to support that effort?
Mark: Yeah. And it's also, by the way, you start with the base sound and then I don't stop. And then I add effects, right? So it's a, in some of the effects are custom as well. So, for example, I was just looking at the Ableton, by the way I recorded the whole album, except for one song was all recorded and produced and mixed in Ableton Live 9. And, and through the various versions, I started the album in 2010. One song was written in 2010 and all the way up until last week I recorded a song. So, Ableton is been the core, except there's one song that was done in Maschine. Which... so I totally forgot what the question was now. Sorry!
Darwin: How, how many sounds did you create specific for each little spot in the album?
Mark: Right. So, what I would typically do is, so some of these tracks is it's usually about 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 tracks of virtual instruments. Each of those tracks is probably got five to eight other devices on the tail end of it. Sure. So what that allows me to do is if I'm playing something, you'll hear, there's a sound design element that is persistent through this album. And it, it sounds almost like a rattlesnake, but it isn't quite a rattlesnake, right? So it starts on the first song it's in the very last song. It's not a lot of the songs. So the idea with this song is, you know, you're a hybrid being and it's, it's evolving. So there's also in, you know, for me that, that the story writer here, there's this conversation going on between both sides here until you become completely evolved where there's like these weird dream States.
And you'll hear the host being talked to by the invader, if you will. So what you'll hear is you're listening to these weird, like, dream transitions that happened like right in the middle of song I'm riffing out. And all of a sudden wham there's like this really strange, strange part. Right? So it's the whole of the story. So that like a little rattle, like rattling thing represents like, it's kinda like machinery or in biology and alien biology. And in order to pull that off, I didn't use the same instrument every time, because I wanted to use a different instrument as the album evolved to show like an evolution in the sound. So there's a notion of: I need this thing that rattles, but it has to evolve. So you, by the time you get to the end, it has a different sound than in the beginning.
So I start off with maybe something going through a series of chains of like, maybe it's, a percussive instrument, like Zebra, I'm doing some really weird arpeggiator, that's running really fast. And then I wrap that with a delay and then actually like with a distortion plugin that has banding so that it distorts at different frequencies. And then I run that through a delay or reverse it, such that the delay, you know, especially you get feedback in your delay, it changes with the harmonic content of what goes into the distortion. So then you get really weird, if it evolves, right? So it's not just like this rattling thing. So if you, what I wanted to have happen on this album is that if you heard that, and you'd hear me say this on the podcast, you're going to go back and listen to that piece, and you're going to go back and listen to it again. And you're going to, like, the third time, you'll hear like that little change, you know? So I spent like six hours on that. So I hope people like it, cause it's like I became obsessed with, cause that's a character in my story, right. It's like the, you know, Darth Vader walks in, he has a theme, there's this character of this thing that's always present in this album. And it's like this rattling, weird mechanical biological thing.
Darwin: So let's, I have to... I have to take a little side side journey here, to talk about this thing, because first of all, and don't take this wrong, but we need to talk about it. It sounds like you could well be like formulating the next Scientology. You know? And it clearly comes from a passion. You said before that you have this passion for science fiction, you talk about it a little bit in the booklet for the album as well. What is it about science fiction? And you're not the first person to tie science fiction together with electronic music, but for you, what makes that connection? What is it that when you're working on a synth makes you think of this, like SciFi realities and conversely, when you're thinking of a SciFi alien invasion makes you think of a musical theme.
Mark: Yeah. Well, for me it started when I was a kid I used to watch, for anybody who lives in Denver, we had these things called the creature features and then SciFi flicks, right? So when I'm a little kid, my parents let me stay up really late. And when I was a kid on a Friday night, Forbidden Planet, you know, the crawling on all these things, right? So it was all about the therapy. And so what you're hearing in these pieces, there's a theme and character to it, but I'm not trying to be a therapist really. I'm trying to... One of the challenges I have with this album - with all these albums - is I want to nod to these things. So I'm interested in like honoring the films that really inspired me, telling my story, giving a nod to something without pulling you out of the play, if you will, or breaking the fourth wall.
So if you hear like on reboot, there's a song called They Walk Among Us. That's as close as I skate to breaking my theme. Cause it's very fifties in other ways. But so to me, it's really about, I came to it because that was the sound of the movies I was watching. And then when I decided to tell my story, I wanted to go, I was profoundly affected by The Outer Limits and the theme for The Outer Limits. And it scared me. And I can remember when I was like five, I went over to a neighbor's house and Dark Shadows was on and that theme came on and just scared me to death. And so to me that another edge to everything I do is there's a Gothic edge to it. So it's Gothic science fiction kind of mixed. And I think a lot of people are drawn to it because synthesizers are kind of the sound of science fiction. At the same time, what I'm trying to do with my stuff is to go as big as I can go with it, right. To really go all in with it. And, I was just talking to someone on Facebook today. I, something that reminded me of this, I really got into that album by Tangerine Dream, the soundtrack for The Sorceror way back in the seventies.
Darwin: It was very influential for a lot of people.
Mark: Yeah. I never saw the film, until last year, to really watch that. So I've had this story in my head. I listened to this album over and over for decades. And then finally I saw the film and I'm like, "That's not right." So I kind of feel like, you know, that's what I'm doing here. I'm trying to write a soundtrack for a film that hasn't been released. And then I give you enough hooks to let your imagination run wild. And if you, I have beat-driven songs in there so that if you aren't into any of this stuff, you're going to dig it right. And if you are into this, you're going to like the science fiction aspect. But if you're one of our colleagues in the sound design, performance side of things are gonna really enjoy the sound design piece.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, no, it's interesting that you talk about sort of having these homages to SciFi music styles from the past, not only the imagery in the sort of mental process. But what's, what's also subsequently interesting to me is how over the course of these last three albums, how you've, I would say that listening to like a Reboot and somewhat Signals, but especially in Reboot, there's a sense to which you can listen to that and say, I can imagine this guy in a power pop band doing, you know, doing Depeche Mode tunes or whatever. Right. This album sounds to me like you hit Vangelis over the head and took over, right? It's a really different thing. And I'm impressed by that. And a little bit surprised.
Mark: Yeah. I was hoping to surprise some people. Yeah.
Darwin: It was a total shocker to me, but what was really interesting to me is knowing, having known you for awhile and talked about where you come from, how it seems like a lot of your most influential people don't actually make an appearance on this album.
Mark: Yeah. So it's funny. Cause I have a book over here on the table that my wife gave me called Steal Like an Artist. And, it's, it's one of the concepts in this book is to, see through the eyes of the person that you're is your hero, but don't try to emulate them. So this is going to sound kind of weird, but you could hear in Reboot, Depeche mode, you can hear Gary [Numan] very much. You can hear a little bit of of Forbidden Planet. You can hear like the references is not so subtle in some of these albums, it's a Red Rocks album. I came out of playing rock bands. I played hundreds of shows in a row, you know, and a lead synth and just playing really loud.
And I was like, you know, the funny thing about that album is I actually floated two singles. This is back in 2009. I floated Midnight On and This Is How Fast Things Turn on the internet on soundclick.com. So that was like the thing, right? soundclick.com. I floated that song and I floated another song and Midnight just like took off like literally, midnight went to number one in the entire electronic category for all of Soundclick. That's what, at the time, like 230,000, as long as you hit number one. And I'm like, okay, I'm throwing the song out and I'm starting this album and I'm going to go down that road. So I didn't actually have the theme back then. I had a song and I'm like, "I've got a song, I've got a palette, but it would be really interesting if I put a story behind it."
And that's when I wrote the next song, which was Stealth. And then I'm like, "Holy crap. I'm reliving my days as this is a custom composer and I'm writing chase music...", and this is pretty neat. And then I'm like, "Well, the next song better be pretty back into the science fiction world." So I shift gears and I go to, They Walk Among Us and then it starts to get really weird and he becomes more like, you know, and now you're where I am now that's like a telling of where I was going to end up, but I wasn't as mature with it. I was just kind of finding my legs as a solo artist. And I think now it's really about, you might be surprised by this, but I've listened to a lot of guitarists to get to this album.
I was listening to, I didn't listen to Dark Side of the Moon for like eight years. I just purposely didn't listen to it. And then I pull it out and listen to it fresh again. Cause you know, you only get to do that a couple of times in your life. And I was like, wow, the textures in this - I'm not trying to emulate Dark Side of the Moon, but I'm like, this is their room. You can hear the movement, you can hear the harmonics, you can hear there's a special, you know, everybody knows it's special. It's the best-selling album. But I kinda got in touch as a sound designer with, like, reverse engineering, like a little bit of what was happening for me. And then I took that forward and said, "I'm going to try and do something that you could dissect it and look at it at that level."
Darwin: Well, yeah. I think, you know, frankly, those first two albums kind of came, you know, in a pretty timely rush. And I think when number three didn't come out, I think everyone was like, well, maybe he'd be on to a 15th Century romance or something. I don't know.
Mark: It was a new age piano...
Darwin: But it's interesting that you talk about a guitar in particularly David Gilmore. I was a guitarist before I took up synthesizers and people used to always be like, "Oh, you know, who's your favorite guitarist? It's like Eddie van Halen. Or it's like Jimmy Hendrix? Or it's like Eric Clapton?" And I was like, "Nah, the person that I loved was David Gilmore" - because of that space thing for him, it was never about showing off his playing, even though he's a skillful player, it was more like the tonal character. And so for me, when I made the shift from guitar to synthesizer, it felt really natural because it was sort of an extension of that kind of thought process. So it's interesting that that was kind of influential. I would say it shows because again, what you did was you created really large soundscape, but one that has space in it. And that again is, you know what I think of why is it that in my head I listened to this and almost immediately was like, "I haven't heard anything this good in 10 years." And it was because it simultaneously had complexity and it had space and that's something that's really difficult to manage to marry those two things.
Mark: And by the way, I wasn't trying to emulate Dave Gilmore. I was trying to emulate the notion about right there. But, there's a four bar phrase in Act Natural that sounds a little like David. I put it in there. You know, I like to put the little easter eggs all over inside the cell and if you get into it and I wanted to have this one - another thing I did in this album is I put in an idea and then I left it. I didn't repeat it. So you'll hear this thing that comes in and you're like, when's that coming back? The answer is: it isn't. So like the second to last song, you know, I wrote this intro and I wrote this like riff and I'm like, "This is awesome!" And then, it's over and I'm like, it serves the story. I like it. And then when I was testing the track in my car and I got to the end of it, I'm like, I'll just play it again. So I'm like, there's really weird arrangements on the album too.
Darwin: Arrangements are again, really, an ode to almost cinematic composition rather than a lyrical or song format and stuff. It really does play like a soundtrack for an album.
Mark: We did things like I started a phrase melodically and I ended it with a sound design element. Or I took a melodic phrase and then I played that same phrase on a different instrument and I shifted it a bar. And you don't notice it at first, but like about two bar, like maybe, I dunno, a bar into this, maybe eight bar phrase, you hear this sort of countermelody, but not really. And then right when you think I'm going to like resolve, I don't. And so I actually was in there. I did do some editing after, so it was a mixture of re-sequencing and playing live over the top. There's a fair amount of live play one or two takes over the top of the rigid driven stuff, because it's supposed to represent machinery versus biology. So, there's a lot of really weird - where I spent hours sort of saying, "I want to say this, melodically, but I don't want it to be so clear. I want you to have to lean in a little and pull it out."
Darwin: And so this is where your self-rehearsal became really important then. So talking about or continuing the discussion about sound design, one of the things that I think happens for a lot of people that really get into sound design is they make, and they end up making something and they release it and it's a tour de force a sound design, but you can hardly cure any of it because it's a great big blur of stuff. Right? So you've done a good job in an arrangement composition of building in space and openness so that these things kind of speak out. But the other thing I noticed from reading the album information is that you had this professionally mastered, I did, which is something that is actually quite a rarity anymore. Most people feel like they have the tools at hand to be able to do a credible job of mastering.
And so they do it themselves. I'm curious within the context of electronic music, what it is about the mastering process that you were looking for, if you feel like it was successful and, how you interacted with mastering, because quite frankly, in many of cases, unless you have a mastering engineer that is comfortable with electronic music, a lot of them all attempt to take the standard mechanism by which they mastered the last ZZ top album exactly. And apply it to your electronic music.
Mark: Horrible. Yeah. You know, this is a bit of a, "Let's drop the same chain on every album."
Darwin: But because there's a chain that got me to where I am today. And - it doesn't really work for a lot of electronic music.
Mark: Yeah. So interesting. Right before we get to mastering, I spent, so I've worked for three years writing the songs and working on the sounds, et cetera. And then I decided I was gonna make an album in January. So it took me about 20-some elapsed days. Cause I had rehearsed it and played it and rehearsed it and played it, and to record and mix it - that's just me now. I knew I was going to hire a professional mastering engineer, which changed everything for me. When I did Reboot and I Hear Your Signals, I mastered it myself. And that led me cheat because I would put a mastering plug-in on the end of the chain as I was composing. And then I could take that out live and instantly play it. And it would be pretty reasonable. And, I started that on Reboot and I had to, I felt like I should continue that on I Hear Your Signals.
So they sounded like the same album and they were really so close together. I wanted you to be able to hear them right back to back. But on this one, there was a huge break. And also because of the Boulder Synthesizer Meetup and kind of gathering the tribe in Boulder, I'd met a lot of people and I met Gannon Kashiwa, who was the former director of digital media at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. And he now works for Universal Audio. He used to work for Digi and he is amazing and I've heard some of his work and I got to know him really well. He's a friend of mine. And when I put out a horror soundscape a couple years back, it was all over the map. I mean, the subharmonics were out of control.
I really needed him to reel it in. So that was my first experience with him. But this album is much more, there's a lot more finesse going on in this album. So why I wanted to mention the mixing first is that I mixed without the net this time for the first time in a long time. And it changed everything I had to get. I had to think about all the energies before I sent it to them. I wanted to have a huge dynamic range without using compression. Right. So I spent, I don't know how many hours in the 20, whatever elapsed days getting it. Absolutely perfect. And then realizing, Oh my God, this, I can't figure out what's taken me over the edge. What's what's why am I distorting? And I'd find out it was this breathy little thing. It was just so I had to like surgically before you even handed it off to mastering, I surgically, worked at it.
And one of the advantages of hiring a professional mastering engineer - I didn't really worry about my overall loudness level. I was going for dynamics in a dynamic range and wanting to achieve that. So I started off by him mixing it without cheating, without having anything at the chain, there was nothing in my master chain. So that was quite fun actually. And interesting. Do they want to hand that off to Gannon? He's used to mixing for IMAX and, you know, mixing for planetarium shows and it was perfect choice for my album. Cause I'm trying to go big and cinematic. So I hand him this stuff and he was like, this thing is huge. And he hands me back the first round of mastering and I listened to it on a big system and it was like, awesome. You know, so awesome.
And then I took it to my wife's car, which has subwoofers and really nice JBLs and it, I thought parts are going to fall off and I'm like, "Hey Gannon, this is incredible, but I don't think it's going to scale." So this is why you need a professional because then he's saying, "Well, here's the chain I used in that." And we get into this whole conversation, and he's talking, he has as much passion around that custom chain he made for me as he, as I do for Absynth, and he's like talking all about what he did and this particular song. And then ultimately we tweak off and we roll off whatever it is, you know, 38 Hertz at the bottom. He surgically moves it around and we test a couple more versions and I'm like running around, playing it on big systems and in the car to the point where I think it won't rattle the parts off your car, but it's still some epic, like a huge system. So there's no way I could have done that. He has as much time in and doing his craft as I have is doing mine. And the results are really clear. So I recommend everybody find a mastering engineer who understands electronic music and who also, you know, appreciates what you're, you know, I'm swinging for the fences for a cinematic effect here. I need somebody who has experience with that and who understands that I'm not, this is not a rocket, right?
Darwin: Right. Yeah. Well, it's, clear that the end result hit what you were shooting for - this idea of being really epic in scale, but still it works on systems. So I've got a lot of different speaker systems at home, as well as listening to it in my car and stuff. And I was really amazed. It really is the hallmark of a well mastered album that, regardless of where you play it, it has the same emotional impact, whether it's on a laptop speaker or headphones or seven channel auto system or whatever, you know, that it works in all those places. And that certainly is the case with this piece. It's, again, sonically quite amazing. So that was really cool.
Mark: One of my favorite parts about, the mix and what Gannon did with the mastering as well. I was preparing all the artwork cause I did all the artwork myself. I had it running, it had literally low volume just on my computer speakers and it just, and it was like, this was pretty good, you know? And I had a few people who were really into my music tell me they've had it just looping since I launched it. So I told Gannon, I wanted the first two songs that would beat driven, so that's your human calibration level. If you set your tolerance on those two songs, then you never have to touch the volume knob again, even for the quieter stuff, you should just let it be quiet.
Darwin: Right. All right. Well, let's talk about how this translates now into your performance process, because one of the things you talked about with earlier albums is that you could practically pick up the machines and laptop and set it in front of a crowd and perform much of what you did. This doesn't sound like it could be that thing, but you're seeing that maybe.
Mark: It is - some songs are for sure, like the first song Dormant: I like that song. It's the first song in the album. I wrote it in 2010, it's a funny, bizarre situation. I finished, I Hear Your Signals. And I put I'm going to go and play my first festival as a solo guy at the Electric Music New York. And I pull a little house party together and all I've got is I Hear Your Signals, right? That's whatever, eight songs. And I'm like, what if they like it? And I have to play one more. So I wrote the song Dormant at the time and it was written, I played it on keyboards. And then when I got a Maschine, I moved it to the Maschine. And then when I got a Push, I moved it to the Push and the arrangement has changed and I've played it in all sorts of different forms. And, what happened when it, by the time it got to the album, if anybody hears there have been some live bootlegs we've recorded, it's like super bad-ass now. And it's, I've played this song. It's my Blister In The Sun.
I played this song More than any other song probably I've ever played. And I love it just as much as the day I played it back and this one I can play live and how I did it is, I moved it to the Push and two hours I had it working, you know? And then I rearrange, I reorchestrate, it, I changed the sounds and I was inspired by the controller to add some new ideas. And so all the guitar stuff that's in the second half of the song it's played live. And I played it live a lot. And then I sat down in the studio and took a deep breath and I recorded two takes. And the second take was like, I was like, "This is so cool!" And I'm backing it up. And that was done. I'm like sending it to cloud backup. I'm like, I'm never going to get that. And to me, that's what's cool about some of the sound design elements that I'm working with is that it sounds a little different every time I play it. And that's the one I recorded that take and I was just like, woo, this is awesome. It's a keeper. So, yeah.
Darwin: So, so the Push has really become a big performance tool for you. I know the Audio Cubes remain an important part of your performance stuff. Also you use the Tanoir-on. Last time I saw you play, you were using the Livid Base. Oh, the poor Novation has been demoted to the lowest shelf, but up on the upper shelf, we see one of the new Nords - is this the Nord Lead Four? All right. As well as the Octatrack.
Mark: Correct. So...
Darwin: So you have more buttons than God at this point.
Mark: Yeah. So, I've changed my sets through time. When I played 2009, 2010, I was using Tenori-on and Audio Cubes, Theremin-pitched MIDI and the Novation controller. And then, last year I added interactive visuals. Cause I wanted to tell my story of the alien invasion and I wanted to have an invader cam. And I want to get a shout out to Tim Thompson, who was a huge influence on me and Pushing me to Resolume and knowing that I'm a synthesist, I'm not a visual programmer. And he knew that I wanted to tell a story with it. And he was visiting, came out to the Boulder to meet up and sat down with me. And, some few little things he said to me, just tipped me over. And then I was off to the races with it. So I had to manage that now I had to swim and I had to run a system and I use Ableton Live. So what my design goal was, I don't want to change any of my controllers, but I want to have interactive visuals. So Live is still the hub. And then it talks through to the Resolume system. So then I added Resolume and then I had some Theremin mishaps...
Darwin: Yeah. I noticed, I didn't even see the Theremin and it's like, you have it hidden from human view.
Mark: That Theremin does make an appearance two times on this album and unusual ways. But, so for the, just for the 2014 rig, and I ha I'm actually gonna start on this, but my plan is to replace the Novation and as a controller and use the Nord Lead as a controller and as a synth and use the Octatrack and use the Tanori-on. And I will use Audio Cubes, as well, but in a different way than I've ever used them before when I... So my rig was sort of boxed. I had to sight lines, right. And now it's not boxed I've got two cameras instead. So it's freed me up to like have, the Push is going to be their rocked forward and you can have that. And then if I'm playing on the keyboards more traditional, like I used to do in rock bands, the camera's going to pick me up from the side.
So I don't have to have as much rig demands on the other end. Right. So in borrowing gear, but why I'm doing this is that, I had a profound - I had this epiphany in 2013, I bought an Octatrack and the Octatrack does not appear on the album directly, but the spirit of the Octatrack and trying to learn something very deep. And then morphing into sound design is going to be a big part of what I'm going to be doing in 2014 live. So my plan is to anchor my life set with songs from the new album and in the middle of those anchor points, do improv, complete improvisational work on the fly. And so I've spent - talk about the walkabout, I spent the last nine months doing nothing but practicing Octatrack.
And now, plus it, practicing Nord Lead feeding the Octatrack and, and being able to do something entertaining, plus be a sidekick to a superhero player, right? So then I can use the Octatrack to resample them. So, why these instruments are profound to me as they morph, I can smoothly interpolate between hundreds of parameters. So as a sound designer, I can make decisions live rather than working through a modulation matrix. And so I want to really bring this idea forward and challenge myself in 2014, to anchor the set with stuff that you hear on the album, but in the middle, try some "without a net" sort of live sound design, work with morphing.
Darwin: Well, it should be great because if there is any justice in the world, your album is going to certainly become well known, right? I feel that strongly about it. And so having that available as sort of the anchor point, but to be able to do these improv things on top is really cool. But one of the things that you said really kind of tweaked me, and it's something that actually goes back to one of the first things you said in your background, which is that when you first started learning keyboards and piano and stuff, you did so by noodling around versus taking the traditional, you know, read from the John Thompson and the John Schaums books, you know, until you finally get sick of it and give it up to play baseball, which is cool. But, that, I think that downplays the fact that somewhere along the line, you learned the practice of practice, you know, and I don't know, was this something that you just did naturally?
Is it something that really developed when you were in the band? Or how does, how does that work? Because frankly, electronic music and the incredible tools that we have available to us right now imply that you don't have to practice - all the cool stuff is right on the surface. Really. It is now I think you take something like the Octatrack, and it's such a deep system that if you just do the stuff that's obvious from the front panel, you're going to miss an awful lot of the capabilities from machine. And I think that's probably the case with most electronic music systems, but mostly systems are made so that you don't have to spend nine months practicing them. So why would you put yourself in a position to do that? Or why is it important? Why is it important to you to take that approach to it?
Mark: Well, you know, back to how I've always sort of been my personality type. I'm self-taught, I like to read a lot. I like to noodle around. I, when you mentioned you sorta joked that I buy and sell gear, every piece of gear I get is a lesson - it's like taking a course in a university or something like that. So for example, I bought an Ultra Nova. I like the Ultra Nova. There was just too much overlap in some of the other things that I had, but I'm glad I owned it. I learned some things about the art. Every instrument has its own character a little bit in a, it started me down the road of morphing, cause it had sort of the more buttons, right? So, I think though, why learn deep instruments? It's an interesting question because Ableton Live itself is deep.
And Live is a deep... I suppose could say they know it all because there's so many parts, unless you're some certified trainer or something like that. I know the parts I use really well. And I think of Ableton as an instrument and it's super deep. And if I turn around and try to explain it to somebody, who's never seen it before, they'll just glaze over. So I'm attracted to technology that if you, the more you give in to the more energy you put into it, the more it gives back. Right. So it has to be deep at a certain level, such that I'm always surprised and I'm always learning. And Octatrack's like that. Ableton's like that Max for Live is like that. I would say Absynth is like that, Zebra.
U-he a seems simple on the surface is very much like that you move a cable - "Oh my God, what just happened?" So I think for me, you know, anyone can grab - again, I'm not a purist about it. If you use a sound pack and it helps you get your contextual idea down, that's awesome. But you know, you gotta get to the sound design element with at least one instrument such that you can speak through it. And it just like David [Gilmore] more speaks to that. The black guitar, the Strat, you have to speak through something. And I just sort of came to that realization like three years ago that Live was too wide. And so for me, I speak through Absynth and Zebra and ACE and a little, and I'm also by the way, a big fan of Tone 2's product. So Electra is a massive, huge synth that I'm very, very familiar with.
But Octatrack was an interesting challenge because, sometimes, I want to be off the computer. I'm on the computer a lot and sometimes I just want to not to be on it. And there was a promise behind the Octatrack that it would be like Ableton in a box. And that's just not true. It's its own thing. It's its own animal. And then when I got it, I know there must - lots of people want to be frustrated. They get it and they try to load the sound and doing it doesn't really do anything or whatever. And you have to push through, it's like veils of consciousness, all of a sudden you're like the light bulb comes on and you're like, "Oh man, this is amazing. I can, I've never done anything like it." And if you see my early videos with it, like back in the summer, I did this video where I loaded four sounds into it and I played it for 20 minutes and I was just like, barely touching the slider. And there's no velocity, anything on it. It's all about morphing parameters and manipulating the parameters in real time. And I find it like extremely expressive, even though there's not a velocity button on it. And it's more like you take a guitar like Jimi Hendrix, you bend the neck, right. We're working with a deep instrument, like an Octatrack is like, you're bending the wood. You're not just hitting the string. Does that make sense?
Darwin: So for the people who will have heard this and ran out and bought an Octatrack and then immediately put it on the bottom shelf because they can't figure it out: What were the things that help you break through that?
Mark: I think it was, yeah, it's funny. Cause I, how I got to the Octatrack is I got an Analog Four. I'd never had an Elektron piece of gear and I got the Analog Four. And then once I started getting into the trig programming stuff, I was like, "This is amazing!", but I wanted more sonic range and I really wanted to do - I'm really getting into music concrete and using samples. And, I've kind of come back around where samples, aren't just a static rompler thing. To me, they're like content that I can really bend and change and, and get really bizarre results out of it. And I just find it really satisfying. So, I think that it was for me, you got to get through the mechanics or the first it took like two weeks just to sort of be able to load something. And then all of a sudden you grok it and then you take off.
Mark: So what I would say, if you buy an Octatrack, first of all, you're in for a deep, if it takes as long to learn the Octatrack as it does to be useful with something like Ableton Live. So it's not easy, but once you get through that, if you want to use harmonic content that is sample source, it's pretty, I can't do what I do on that with anything else. And so, and I've done, you and I have done some jams together and you've pushed me to sort of explore it. And I have to say, it's like, I have this like secret desire to become like a virtuoso. So with this thing and be able to do things with it that no one can do and, and, and surprise myself when I use it.
Darwin: Well, you actually, you loaned it to me for that one long weekend or maybe it was a long week. I know it felt, it felt it went passed quickly, but it was, I had that experience where it was sort of like, I couldn't make it do anything. And all of a sudden I made it to one thing. And just within the parameter, just within the context of that one thing, all of a sudden it was like, this world of sound kind of opened up and I realized, wow, this is true. And I'm just using one of the engines and just one effect orientation. And it was, it was shocking.
Mark: Yeah. And for me, because it can be a mixer and you can process people through it. It's become a very social instrument for me. I think I've had, in nine months, 15 jams with people where I take this little thing over and I figured out how to run it on battery and I go to your house and we, you know, get a nice glass of whiskey or something going right. And you fire up whatever you play, acoustic guitar, modular synth. Yeah.
Darwin: Yeah. Right. Like there are times that I did, it was like modular synth once and a classical guitar or the other. That's pretty crazy.
Mark: Yeah. So it's, to me, it's about performance, right? It's, it's a great performance, collaboration, instrument - very social. Whereas I find Ableton, I'm getting better with it with the Push, but it's more of like the tool for me to get my idea out. And I feel like I had this really nice complimentary setup. So I've got like Ableton and Push and I've got a morphing sampler. And, so bringing these out in 2014 is gonna I'm, I'm ready to see what these babies can do and how the audience reacts to it will be interesting because half the time we'll be doing something that's like performance interesting. And the other half it's going to be sonically, I think really different. So I don't how people will take it, but, you know, I think you have to push it. You have to go for it.
Darwin: Indeed. So, and I didn't mean to imply that you turned over equipment too often when I'm more, what I more was talking about earlier was this idea that we see, "Oh, when you, when you try and gear, you don't actually turn gear that much and you certainly do beat the hell out of it before it goes." So I have this sense that every time you sell something, your sales note has to be like, "There's places where there's a lot of grease on, you know?"
Mark: Well, I'm 40, I'm pretty, I keep really good care of everything cause, I'm not sure I'm going to sell it or not.
Darwin: Well, what, what do you think is in your future? Where do you think things are going to go for you? Because it seems like you have a trajectory. Well, it's not exactly clear because you're you maintain this controllerism thing. You're heavily into soft synths, but you're playing around with some hardware options as well. What do you think the future direction for you is?
Mark: I think it's, for me, it always comes back to story. And then, then trying to tell some sort of story in a live show. And it's interesting because I hadn't really been into hardcore into Ableton until I went to mix this album down. And then I felt, you know, you fall back in love with these things again, and now I was actually thinking about doing something even more minimalistic in 2014 until I started working on the album and I'm like, "Ah, this is just so fun..." I've got to go do this live. So for me, it's, I would like to figure out how to do it more: to get interactive visuals, hardware synths, software, all working together and set up quickly and fly around easily and get out there and be, I dunno - I just liked the blend of composed with improvised.
That's a weird way to say with improvise music. So I don't know what the future is. I know I've sort of stopped chasing plugins. I can tell you that I used to do, you know, for many years and you saw it on my blog, Hey, check this plug-in out. Oh my God. If you took this plug-in out and, same thing with the iPad and - not downplaying the impact of the iPad, but for me, it was like, I'm so into VSTS, you know, I see where they're heading with it and I think it's going to be great, but I'm too tangible with what I do cause I played in rock bands. So I need to be able to work in the dark with a blinding uplight, reach down and find the key or the knob and turn it, and now I'm going to hit it.
So I have used iPads live, but for me, I think where it's at is performance and expression, you know, live expression and trying to get that into the album. And I think the new album for me embraces the idea, because my story embraces this of mechanical plus biological, right. Then I can have machine-driven stuff with human stuff over the top and really get some nuanced performance. And, so I don't know, I don't know where it's heading. It's crazy - the options, right? So I guess what I would say is for me, it's about setting down the rails so that I can focus in my lesson learned in the last three years is to focus on a few deep things and go deep. And I feel like, you know, be using Absynth and Zebra and, you know, some of these tools have really transformed my thinking right about what is sound, what is music? And I could never have done it without spending two years staring into Absynth, you know?
Darwin: Well, Mark, thank you so much for your time. This is a great, great chance to have a conversation, great opportunity to do my first face to face interview. Thanks for coming by. I actually am hoping to do some more of these shortly, and thank you for your work on this album and for, giving me a listen at it. It, again, it blew my head away. The name of the album is again, Fear Can Not Save Us, by Mark Mosher. It's available on Bandcamp tonight.
Mark: We're on iTunes and Amazon show by the time this goes out, probably it would be everywhere, but a Bandcamp's a great place to get it because you get the digital booklet, which I spent quite a bit of time on this.
Darwin: Yeah. You don't get that with iTunes. That's a drag, because there's a lot of interesting information there, so. All right. Well, thanks again. I really appreciate it. And have a great day.
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