Transcription: 0351 - Phelan Kane

Released: March 14, 2021

Darwin: Okay, today I have the great opportunity to speak to someone I got to know recently. His name is Phelan Kane, he is an instructor. I know him as an instructor at Music Hackspace, he does a lot of work teaching Max and Max related material. He also was one of the first cadre of people that got accepted into Cycling 74's certified trainer program, and so I got a chance to interact with him on that as well.

I was blown away by the extent of his knowledge and his depth of interest in both the Max world as well as the music and music technology worlds in general, so I was looking for a chance to get to talk to him, and that is what's happening today. So, with no further ado, let's say hi to Phelan. Hey man, how's it going?

Phelan Kane: Good, thank you, Darwin. It's an honor to be here, so thanks for your time. Great to talk to you.

Darwin: Well, it's an honor to have you wedge me into your schedule. I look at, just for Music Hackspace, I look at the number of different classes and stuff that you teach, and I'm just kind of exhausted looking at it. But you also do a bunch of other stuff as well, right?

Phelan: Yeah, I've been freelance teaching for about 20 years now in different unis, so I've got quite a few fingers in pies, yeah.

Darwin: Fingers in pies. Are you teaching at any universities right now?

Phelan: I'm doing some stuff for a German institution called Deutsche POP, which is a for-profit college that does BA degrees. I also teach at Catalyst at Berlin, because I'm based in Berlin, which is another BA in Creative Audio Production. So I've been freelance H.E. music tech teacher for hire for 20 years now, or something, so...

Darwin: Yeah, well with that kind of background or two, you probably are making some music too, right?

Phelan: Yeah, I did a sound engineering diploma in 1994 and then I got to work in studios, and my first real gig was the Pro Tools kid, but I was like... because I was a bit of a computer nerd when I was younger so I was looking after Logic with a Pro Tools interface for my mentor. And the people I was working for, that sit me under their wing, would have been older than me, and they're all coming from the tape background, so my background is actually sound engineering and tracking, recording, digital editing, plugin processing and stuff like that. And it was probably about the time when sound engineers started to have to learn how to use Pro Tools. It was becoming much more popular in the industry.

I was sort of a digital tape op, so to speak. But I've always been really into processing and manipulating sound, and my musical background is all really electronic stuff. I'm sort of a rave dad from the late 80's, really, early 90's. So it was all techno, the first wave of that, and synths and sound pools, and that's what got me into Max, really, was the fact that you can make your own stuff, make your own devices with it.

Darwin: During one of our phone calls during the CT process, you actually were called in from your studio, which looked like it had a pretty great big pile of gear. Are you into it?

Phelan: Yeah, I'm quite invested now. I think I bought my first synth in about '95. But I do lots of research before I go and buy something so I don't rally sell stuff, so I'm currently on synth 36 now. I say to my students, "I don't have kids, I've got synths."

Darwin: Yeah. There you go. Maybe a good choice, right there, what you said.

Phelan: Well, who knows? I've got a big collection of photos on my phone. It's either baby pictures or pictures of filters.

Darwin: That's awesome. Have you fiddled around with modular stuff?

Phelan: Yeah, I bought my first Eurorack in '97, so I bought an Analog Solutions system after seeing Jordy Greenwood on Jools Holland with OK Computer, when he had that rig he was playing live. And that was just at a time when Doepfer was standardizing his Eurorack systems. The one I've got uses the slightly alternative power supply. But I've got some 5U as well, I've got some, so I've got quite a bit. I've got ARP 2600 and quite a lot of semi modular but I've never really broken up my Eurorack system into different manufacturers, I've always managed to stop myself doing that because I know it's a rabbit hole.

Darwin: Yeah, good point, good point. So, what kind of music do you create.

Phelan: Getting a bit older, I'm 49 quite soon, so I've been moving away from boring repetitive techno for quite a while now, and more into ambient and electronica. So, a bit of Berlin musical electronics with filled recording and interesting manipulation of samples, but trying to keep a little bit of melodic contouring there and harmony, and a bit of electro. So I still do some dance-y stuff but it's not really fist pumping techno from the 90s any more because it's just boring to make it.

Darwin: It's not the 90s any more, I guess, right?

Phelan: Yeah. I mean, every develops their musical taste as they get older, don't they? I think it's inevitable, if you're a rave kid, you'll end up doing something a bit more down tempo and more musically enriching as you get more experienced in your path of musicality. I'm not really a trained musician so I'm sort of self taught. I've taught music theory at uni but on a really basic level. I've got quite bad keyboard playing skills. So, yeah, I guess it's sort of everyone is a sum of their influences, aren't they, really? As a practitioner, the stuff you make is really a combination of all the stuff you've probably been brought up listening to; it's tick what you fancy. So it's interesting to have all this technology at our disposal nowadays, and some of the stuff my students are doing, and they're 20 on their degree courses, is phenomenal. They've got such a... what's the magic word? It's that sort of musical heritage they can draw upon, maybe? Slightly older generation didn't have access to so much technology back in the day.

Darwin: Right, right. So, you've already told us a little bit about your background but I want to dive into it a little bit more, because I'm always curious with people who are very adept at multiple disciplines; what their background is and how they pulled all those things together. And in your case you're a self taught musician but obviously one that, given the amount of time you've put into it and your acceptance in the teaching world, there's clearly some musical virtuosity there but also a virtuosity around gear, around technology, and around education. I've seen you teach and you are an amazingly good instructor.

Maybe that just comes from getting the edges rounded off over 20 years, but I suspect that there's something more there. Where are you coming from, how did you grow up, and what were the influences that drew you into each of these disciplines?

Phelan: That's a deep question. My mom was a big Beatles fan and my dad was really into jazz and classical and he had a massive record collection, and then my two... I'm the youngest of three, so my older brother was a really big musical influence on me, growing up, and he was really into soul music and go-go and funk in the 80s. And then my other brother was really into space rock and Hawkwind and Gong, and Steve Hillage, so there was always a bit of electronica in there but there was always... as well as a bit of performance and musicianship and song writing. And then, I guess, I discovered hip hop in 1994 with the first Def Jam releases, and that was all very exciting.

And then, I guess, pulling all that together with the sort of... The British and the English are really good at taking musical ideas from other cultures and mashing them together, and I think that's one of the big things about that original rave culture in the UK, was bits of hip hop break beats and bits of Chicago and Detroit kick drums all merged together to make something that's really, really English. I mean, I lived in London for 20 years, and it's just a huge cultural melting pot, not just in a society level but musically. So, if you live in a city that's the sort of... You sit on the metro and you can hear Portuguese and Japanese and English and regional accents, and that comes through from the musical landscape of the UK, and that can even be traced back to the Stones and the Beatles, really.

But I think that birth of electronic genesis of sampling and drum machines sparked a fire in a lot of people of my age back in '89, '90, and how you can make music using that punk ethic of the technology but not necessarily being classically trained. So, that mixed up a little bit with a post hip hop vibe, really, in the 90s. So, yeah, all that together. The other thing that was interesting for me, because when I left my little engineering college I got on really well with my teacher and I was quite a good student, so I got a job there making tea in the college and they had an SSL console. So, it was funded by some Lottery money from the UK. And my teacher was a Buddhist and I used to distract him in lessons and ask him questions about, "So, the threshold on a compressor, how does that relate to zen," and he'd go off for 25 minutes about dharma and stuff like that, so we got on quite well.

Phelan: So, basically when I finished the course, he introduced me to one of his best mates who he was in a band with, who... they were both in their 40s at the time and I was a young 20 year old kid... so I became a tape op at his studio. And as I mentioned earlier, my mentor, Chris, was 20 years older than me, he was Shaking Stevens drummer in the '80s. He was a really, really good drummer, incredibly fantastic performer, and his partner, Vixie, as well; she was in Hair in the 70s in the West End. So they were both really musical and I was the techno kid that did the computer stuff for them, because it was becoming evident in their business model that they had to embrace Logic Audio and Pro Tools and sequencing. But then I started to do lots of work with his close friend, who was a known producer for indie guitar music, so Phil Vinall, that's his real name, actually produced early Elastica singles and an early Radiohead record, they did a band called Placebo.

So, through the late 90s I was working a lot with Phil with a big Pro Tools rig as digital engineer, and we did three Placebo singles that got quite successful. There was one called Pure Morning which had loads of loops in it, which I'd sequenced up with the band, got to number 14 in America and number four in the UK so it was a big hit for those guys. And we did three months in Rockfield in Wales recording a guitar band. So I did this whole indie guitar thing as an engineer, and that really opened up my head space to more guitar music, so I think that's again some of the influences that have a bit of rock and roll or modern guitar, Radiohead stuff. Merging it with some electronics is an interesting use of influences. And if you speak to some of my students, it's like, "What's your favorite genre?" "Well, I don't really have one, I just listen to anything," and that's quite exciting to hear for someone my age, that they don't really have a specific tribe they might associate with.

When I was a kid it was, you're a hip hopper or you're a raver, or you were a goth or you were into the Smiths or something like that, but now it just seems to be a holistic thing. And that's kind of what we need in the music sector, the music industry, really.

Darwin: Yeah. So true. Now, how did the teaching part come about, because it sounds like you were... the paint was all set for you to be a technologist but when did you start teaching and how did you get into that?

Phelan: Well, that was a bit of an accident because, I think about '98, '99... I mean, I was quite lucky because I was going to The Town House in London, which was a big studio where Elton John made records, Phil Collins did the drums sound there. I did quite a bit of work in most of the big studios in the UK for the major labels for my mentor. But then Napster happened and I seem to remember the studio we worked in, the main office, had a relationship with a publishing company called Bucks Music, and they had encapsulated Elvis, some Beatles stuff, and all of the Elton John material. But then I remember one time specifically the A&R guy was asking me what an MP3 was, and I showed him Napster and he just shat himself, basically. So that entire file distribution system which the industry didn't really latch onto properly in the 90s, and really understand it and maybe take proper exploitation of it, started to kill off the studios.

So, we had so many big recording studios in West London, where I used to live, because it was slightly away from the BBC, and lots of famous records were made around that part of West London for 30, 40 years, they started to close. So all the engineers were struggling to get work and, as a freelancer, you might get an album project, you might get a month's worth of work, but then you haven't really got any guarantees on what you might do the month after. So then I started to see... me and lots of my colleagues my age were starting to do part time teaching for a bit. There was a guy called Robbie Burns, who set up the first ever rock performance degree in the UK, was in a band with my mentor as well, a blues band, and he phoned him up and he said, "Do you want to come and teach plug-ins to some young degree musicians?" And my guy, Chris, was like, "A little bit old for that, but I know someone that might be interested," and then he put me onto it.

So I went from doing two hours a week in 1999, teaching a second year degree programming class in Cubase, I think it was, and then, weirdly enough, by 2010 I was the Head of Education at the school, designing degree curriculum for them. It was a full time job. But loads of people I know, also who were much more talented and more successful than me in the music industry, drifted into academia because it became a really valued vital part of being part of the culture and continuing to create output and be inspired by young musicians. So I actually ended up hiring teachers that were Grammy winners and stuff like that, and producers who were a lot older than me, had big records, that got into academia and teaching. And now that's been an explosion of music technology as degree pathway, it's been all over Europe for 20 odd years now, so you could argue that that plays a massive part in the more commercial side of the music industry nowadays. They're kicking out these young technologists and recording engineers and musicians through the courses that maybe we didn't have access to when we were younger.

So, yeah, it's kind of an interesting thing but that road of teaching, I guess I did end up doing too much teaching, it does sort of overtake some of your creative pursuits sometimes. You have to be a bit careful with it.

Darwin: I can imagine that. Now, one of the things that I get is interesting is, you actually live through this whole transition from the classic studio, and especially being the West End of London, you were in ground central for popular music recording, you lived through the whole transition from, I guess it is, the Napster fence, right? What it was like before then, what it was like after, and the tear-apart. But also one of the things you would've seen is the change in roles, where it used to be that each role in the studio and in the development of an album, for example, would've been very defined. A producer was this, and executive producer did that, the engineer did this thing, the tape op did this thing, the arranger did that thing. Now the expectation is that an artist is going to also encapsulate all these other things, right?

Phelan: Yeah, it's a difficult one because my first gig was digital engineer, because the engineer my mentor used was amazing with mics and guitar amp mic-ing and tape, but he didn't really know computers. My mentor was 40s and he couldn't be bothered to use Logic or Pro Tool, so they got the young 20 year old in to follow the orders and click the mouse. But it's a really interesting dichotomy of all that technology. I speak to my students a lot on the degree courses and, for example, at the end of their thesis... at the moment they're making a big album and a lot of them are self-producing, and it's that question about, "How do you subjectively know what you're doing is right if you don't have that traditional sounding board of those different roles?" I've always used the... Prince was the only person I could think of who could record himself, and he had Susan Rogers but he did use to over-dub himself at home, and stuff like that, and mix it as well. So there's definitely some sort of weird semi-schizophrenic mindset you need to be able to do all of those things.

We are putting a lot of emphasis on that with younger musicians nowadays because it's kind of expected, isn't it?

Darwin: Yeah, absolutely. Well, it's interesting because I think maybe everybody now thinks they can be Prince, but it's pretty hard to be Prince. The guy made amazing decisions, and a lot of times not very popular ones too, but ones that he strongly believed in, and the results were pretty powerful. But I think it's hard for a lot of people to be able to... if nothing else, to just feel like they're headed in the right direction, right? That's difficult. Now, for you, one of the things that you're actually involved in is online teaching, and that has got to be fairly difficult because, first of all, to me, being online all the time has it's own stressors. But secondly there's a lack of immediacy, especially when you're trying to listen to people or watch somebody do something. It's a little bit difficult to do that in an online teaching environment. How do you cope with that?

Phelan: Yeah, it's tricky. I started to properly do online teaching about 18 months ago, just before the pandemic, funnily enough.

Darwin: Oh, good for you. Good choice.

Phelan: Yeah. It was an opportunity to do something with a new platform. But I did a post graduate learning and teaching diploma about 10 years ago, and one of the things that we studied on that course about how to teach and how to learn was, "The biggest mistake teachers often make is they give their students far too much information," and they call it coverage; "You're covering too much stuff." So, one of the key methodologies of all this is to give them activities because learning and teaching are two separate things. People don't often think about this, they think, "Oh, the teacher's off and that's the class." But what the student internalizes is by far the most important thing, so really the class should be about what they do in the lesson, not what the old dude who's sprouting stories at the front of the classroom is going on about. So, that's... in a way, online can actually be better for that, because if you do have things like Zoom, with break out rooms like we did at Hackspace, you define activities in your lesson plan and you give people 10 minutes to do stuff.

So it's not really like a chalk and talk, is the word they would use back in the day, the 1950s, where you just talk for two hours. Online can actually work with that but you do lose the humanization behind it. Other places I've taught, students have brought their own computer into college and you do a bit of theory, give them an activity, wander around the room for 10 minutes, bring them back to attention, do another thing. Rinse and repeat, so to speak, so it can work in a physical setting but I think, because of the complexities of not having that white of their eyes so much and that personal connection you get from physical, everyone I know who teaches are doing these activities much more explicitly. So there's some benefit from online teaching in a way. These activities should really be the core of anyone's lesson plan because learning is more important than teaching, you know? There's probably a big PhD in here somewhere for somebody one day, do you know what I mean?

Darwin: Right, yeah. I'm sure there are people working on it even as we speak. Now, one of the things that you teach, you do a lot of teaching of Max, and I know from the certification program you did some Max patching for us that was really quite phenomenal, included writing your own externals and stuff like that. So you are deep in it, man, you are not skirting the surface by any means. What got you into Max, first of all?

Phelan: Actually, I'm a bit of a lunatic. I've got two Master's degrees. I had a midlife crisis at 40 and did a second Master's in Science in Audio DSP, but my first one was 10 years before that and it was a Master's in Arts, so I actually did a Max module with my teacher, Sebastian Lexer, who's an awesome Max professor at Glasgow Uni now, and he writes the patches for Instro instruments, which do a whole bunch of...

So he works for those guys in Glasgow. But he was doing his PhD at the time and he was using fiddle~ and bonk~ to do some interesting acoustic piano recitals, like John Cage, and manipulating the piano. And our little assessment was to do... We could design what we wanted to, and I did an algorithmic composition engine which I called Melodic Jelly, named after a Frank Zappa record. And that really got me into Max. I had a bit of a break from it after that, but I came back to it through the Max For Life stuff, really. But it's a big commitment, and the mid life crisis in my 40s was sort of like, "Well, I've been using drum machines and synths and hardware and software for 15 years. I want to make them."

And it's sort of like picking up a soldering iron or... I can make an XLR cable, I can't remake an EDAC loom, but the learning curve of doing that would be... To make a modular analog would be pretty full on. And I always did a bit of little coding when I was really young, do you know what I mean, like 15 of something, so I thought, "Okay, that's an easy route." So, that's when I did this MSC which was all JUCE and MATLAB and stuff like that, and I scraped a pass, because it's really hard. But that's what got me into trying to study algorithms and work out how the hell is that oscillator working in Max, and try and recreate it yourself.

Darwin: Yeah, that's really cool. It's interesting you mentioned this idea of having a mid life crisis and that generates a Master's degree. I did the same thing and so I know exactly where you're at, but at the same time, I think it sounds like both you and I, we came out of it with a Master's degree that actually led to what we did as a profession, which is, "Hey, good for us." What did you find... In going back to school, what was the thing that made it most worth doing, or was there nothing?

Phelan: Yeah. It was my final project idea. Basically, I'm a huge Eventide fan. I've got four hardware racks with a bit... I've got two H8000s, a 3000 with seven... I'm a bit of a lunatic.

Darwin: Oh Jesus.

Phelan: So, I had to buy the 3 because it has 12-bit DAC on it, and Dave Derr, who did the ... ridiculous audio. I've basically... my thesis was a love letter to Eventide, because what I did, I made a little plug in which put the modulation patches and the modular synth in an effects unit, and multi-effects in C++ is generating something like 50,000 lines of code. It sort of worked. Really bad GUI, massively CPU intensive, but that was it, really, because that's... I wanted to make a plug-in, I didn't really worry too much about getting a qualification because I actually already had a Master's and I'd been teaching for 15 years by then. I wanted to do it for the joy of it and to learn how to do that, because really that's a huge learning curve, and I realized that, "If I try and teach myself that, I'm not really going to be disciplined enough to be able to do it." Because you've got to get your head around the DSP, you've got to understand a bit of the math, not all of it but a basic overview, and the coding.

And the coding thing's probably not the most challenging thing; it's all the Fourier Transforms and the machine learning, that's the really hard stuff. So I managed to do it and I was, "Oh man, I did it." It's not a commercial product by any stretch of the imagination but I could make an LFO and plug it into the feedback turn in my chorus in my plug in, which was, "Yes."

Darwin: Great. Yeah. There's something about coding, though, especially when you're coding audio stuff, when you get a result. And whether it's... Frankly, it's whether it's Max or a Juice plug in or Pi sound thing, whatever it is, there's something... There's a huge sense of accomplishment when you're able to pump an audio track through an effect that you created and hear it alter. There's a powerful feeling with that.

Phelan: We had a Max meet up two days ago. My friend, Ned Rush, who was there with me and about five other people, talking exactly about this for about 20 minutes. About Max prototyping, and if you use a door... Well, you've got ideas and you can probably try and realize ideas using the stock devices in Live or Logic, or whatever, but when you see Max it's like, "Oh my god." Do you know what I mean? And that junk, it is a gateway drug, isn't it?

Darwin: It is, but also there's a funny thing that... We used to see this all the time at trade shows when I would do trade shows as a Cycling 74 person. People would come up and be like, "Oh, I always wanted to learn to program so that I could make my own version of Pro Tools." I'm like, "All right, do you have the rest of the next two of your lives," because that's what it'll take for you grinding away in your basement to make the next Pro Tools, right?

Phelan: And that's just the software engineer, it's not quality assurance and marketing...

Darwin: That's right, that's right. Or anything, right? But there is something, too, where it feels like almost every musician has some sort of want, right? Even if it's... and it's often satisfied very simply, but it's like the difference between using somebody's ring modulator and then making a ring modulator and hearing how it changed things and knowing that you made those changes. That's super powerful but it's also an incredible learning experience.

Phelan: Yeah, but it's also a similar thing about the amount of sample packs you've got nowadays for production, and it's... One of the jokes to my students is, "Your mom is making an awesome track on her iPhone using these sample packs," because it's possible. You can do that on the bus on the way home from the supermarket.

When I get beyond that, they start to do their own sounds and go beyond the presets, and that's like, "Okay, brilliant. You've now got the theory you can apply with a bit of synthesis or sampling knowledge." And the next one's like, "Right, you've got an interesting chord sequence that isn't just trans or something. Put in some extended chords in there or approaching your melodic contour to learn a bit of composition theory," and then the other direction is the technology stuff, isn't it? It's how the algorithm works and a crazy reverb you might have in your head that no one else has thought of yet. So, all these are really valid pursuits. Some of them... I guess most people want to do loads of them, but as my good friend, Mike, who runs Ableton, says, "You've got to choose your projects wisely, haven't you? One at a time."

Darwin: Now, one of the things I'm curious about is, actually, your life parallels what a lot of people who are making music now. It parallels to their lives in that you say you're not classically trained in music. You grew up around music but you weren't classically trained in music, but you figured out a way. And some of that is what you talked about with the influences. Listening to the influences, trying to recreate some of that stuff, or learning what people did in order to get that stuff done. How do you translate that into your students, because probably a lot of your students are coming from a similar place, especially now that school music programs just aren't what they used to be? A lot of music programs in schools have been torn apart for budgetary reasons, right?

Darwin: So a lot of people who want to become musicians, or want to get into electronic music especially, really have to make it up on their own. How do you help those people? How do you relate to them and how do you help them learn what they need to learn?

Phelan: I guess it's... One of the things I've done quite a bit recently is all about this sort of artistic vision, really, isn't it? It's quite difficult to work out what you want to make. A lot of people just mess about with multiple genres until they find something they're good at, really. And obviously a lot of this is about practice, isn't it, so the more you do something, the better you get at it. I think it's quite key, if you're quite young coming to this electronic landscape nowadays, you've maybe got to think about not necessarily making a piece a music in a certain style but maybe just be inspired by what you've enjoyed listening to. And it can even be the last Billie Eilish record, or whatever, do you know what I mean? It doesn't have to be anything that's from the classical cannon of the Silver Apples, or whatever, do you know what I mean? So it's more about...

Phelan: I don't know about you but, the last 10 years, I try to go to my studio without any preconceptions of a tempo or a key center or a genre, I just mess about and be creative and have fun, and see what happens. And I think, because of the age circumstances of young music students, there's a lot of prescribed activities of how to do this and 75 million YouTube channels showing you how to do the side chaining on a kick or something. And it's probably sometimes, as my mentor used to say, "Too much analysis leads to paralysis." You're better just to be inspired by something and do something and see what you make. Because at some point your piece of art is going to turn into itself and actually have a life of its own, and it's not really going to be you making it, it may be that the art is making you. Who knows, you know? But this is what happens in the studio, isn't it? Things have a genesis.

Darwin: It's interesting you bring up this idea of people being able to overload on YouTube videos about how to use their compressors. I think, in one of the jobs as an educator now has to be... It used to be that you had to introduce the idea of compression. Now you have to instead say, "Don't spend all your time thinking about compressions but record something."

Phelan: Yeah, yeah. How many EQ plug-ins do you actually need?

Darwin: Yeah, right. Exactly. There is this sense where you almost... I hate to say you have to avoid over-education but it can seem like just consuming... especially since so much can be passively consumed.

Phelan: Yeah. That's the big difference of modern music school because it's like, in a way, a modern teacher shouldn't really be lecturing, he should be facilitating information to students. And that's... But what I like about teaching the degree stuff is, I tend to do the third year or second year, then it's all a little bit more supervision and it's more about, "Okay, so you want to do this? Have you checked this piece out? Have you listened to this one? Have you read this book? Have you seen this dude's work," rather than, "Oh, the [inaudible 00:32:38] control does..." In a way, there's so much information out there with our democratization of music technology that it's hard to see the wood for the trees, and it's more about... A good teacher should guide somebody through that landscape. Without really lecturing the content, they can show them where the good content and the bad content is. There's so many YouTube channels with false terminology and wrong information and silly advice, so self learning is beautiful but you need to have a bit of a guide in a way, don't you?

Darwin: Is there anything that you consistently suggest to people, whether it's a book or a YouTube channel? Is there any place you often find yourself referring people?

Phelan: Yeah, I've got a standard bunch of academic books that I do recommend for... If it's stuff for sound design, Synthesis and Sound is done by Martin Russ, who's a good Max For Live sound on sound synth ninja from the UK, he wrote that book, he's great. He comes to our Max meetups quite a bit. So, his book is really good because it's sort of theoretical stuff for an underpinning. Then I guess you need to have the time to put some of that into practice to manipulate stuff. It's all well and good knowing about spectral properties of the granular envelope, or whatever it might be; what does it actually sound like? So there's that pragmatic and theoretical relationship between all of this practice and learning this stuff that's really important. But, yeah, there's loads of examples of stuff like this all over... Bob Owsinski's mixing books are really good. My mate, Carey, has written a really good book about FMOD for game audio, which is quite interesting, so...

Phelan: But a lot of these platforms now, you can do so much with a laptop, can't you? It's more about self exploration. We always talk about developing your own personal sonic signature or your own unique sound of yourself as a... whether it's a sound designer or a mixer, and that's quite difficult to do because, being 48, I don't really know what mine is still. But you've got the tools to explore that, haven't we?

Darwin: But it's interesting when you do find a sound or something. Again, a lot of times it isn't so much complexity as it's just being honest with what you actually like. It's funny because, for me, several of the last things that I've recorded are one square wave oscillator on my 2600 and the filter and a reverb, and I can make myself kind of happy with just those things. That's...

Phelan: It's a really good square wave, though?

Darwin: Yes, it is. It's an expensive square wave, at the least, right? But it's the thing where you get a... It can be surprising when you're like, "Man, I thought I would have to have this incredibly hard to suss out patch as my sound," and instead it just turns out to be this thing that I just love the sound of and can embrace.

Phelan: Sometimes less is more, isn't it? I mean, if you go back to the birth of electronics with Silver Apples and all those guys in the Buchla crew, and the complexity of what they could do there was mind blowing, wasn't it, because no one had really heard it before. But now we've got 40, 50 years of people using the same techniques, so it's not so much about the technique now, it's how you deploy those techniques or how you mix them together to try and create something that's a little bit more interesting and maybe sounds a bit more fresh. And the best... yeah.

Darwin: Right. Well, it's... And especially when you're working with music technology, how you make something that is music rather than a technical demo? I think that's one of the things... I even get drawn into it. People will do a video on YouTube and I'll watch it because it's an amazing example of technology, but I would never actually listen to it as enjoyable music, nor would I go to a club to listen to it. It was a piece of music that was made to show off a particular piece of gear or something, and that's a very different thing.

Phelan: I think there's some interesting stuff that's been out and about recently. Now that we've got to the point... I mean, it's almost like a post techno landscape now, isn't it? It's not so much about the type of synthesis you're using or the type of sampling, it's how you're mixing these things up. We talk a lot in some of the more sound engineer lessons I've been involved with about hybrid. Hybrid mixing technique. You've got your mix boss compressor in the outboard rack and you're still using Pro Tools, so now everything is hybrid. So, the best synths on the market are able to do granular and virtual analog and FM, and it's mashing everything together. It's a holistic approach again, which, if you go back to the conversation about genres, that's the interesting thing for young people in their 20s making electronic stuff today, is they don't really have the perceived criteria that the older lot have got about, "Oh, it has to be this tempo and it's got to have this drum pattern," or...

Darwin: Right. Yeah, that's a great point. And it's really quite phenomenal to listen to a lot of different modern music, whether it's a Billie Eilish thing, or if you listen to any of the current hip hop stuff. The way that they were so influenced by just really pioneers. I love to hear modern hip hop and hear the completely in your face influences of J Dilla in all this stuff, who at the time sounded crazy because he did things that were so unconventional that it was just hard to wrap your head around that becoming the norm. And now those kind of rhythms, those kind of feelings, very much are. Or you listen to a lot of modern techno stuff and it's like the stuff that Aphex Twin did that at the time sounded harsh; "I can not believe that this guy who made these pretty techno tracks is making this stuff." Now that is the currency of a lot of techno sounds. It's interesting that while there's this willingness to embrace a lot of stuff, there also is this really deep thread or this deep stream of influences from core people throughout the years.

Phelan: Absolutely. And again it's back to that thing that, as an artist, you are the sum of the influences you've consumed across however many years it might be. I mean, my mate, Seth, used to... how the Beatles invented pop music, really, and they had a degree in composition given to them by George Martin - a PhD.

Darwin: Yeah, so true, so true. So, what are your influences now? What are the things that you listen to, because I'm curious to know what... not only what you're making, what music you're making, but what are you listening to?

Phelan: I listen to loads of quite diverse weird stuff. I'm a big grungy guitar alternative rock fan, like Dinosaur Jr have just announced they've got a new album coming out in April so I'm very excited.

So I've just gone back through a Dinosaur Jr phase recently. I listened to some of their stuff in the 90s. My brother got me into Husker Du in the late 80s, which is Bob Mould, and Bob Mould's new album this year is really... So, I do a lot of mushy guitar music, and then obviously loads of electro and electronica. So, there's a bit of a fashion in the UK and I think Berlin as well, about modern electro, so a bit of an 80s influence of the electro pre-90s hip hop, and that's still quite fashionable. So, it's a bit more melodic, it's a bit slower, it's not really techno. Some of it could be played in a club. I'm quite into that, I do make quite a bit of music like that, I've actually got an EP coming out of that next April. And there's some ambient stuff. I've got myself... I'm trying to find some time to learn the bass guitar and electric guitar a bit more, but too busy patching in gen at the moment, really, so...

Darwin: There we go. I look at our thing and I see that our time is just about up, but one last thing before we go. Well, first of all, for people who want to check out your music, where would they go to hear some of that?

Phelan: Well, at the moment I don't have a lot of stuff. I have lots of techno that I released on my little record label ages ago, but I've got an EP coming out on Bulletdodge Records, which is a label from Glasgow, which was traditionally techno.

So, Bulletdodge work from Glasgow, but they've not moved it into a slightly more electronica focus. And Gareth, who runs the label, is a good friend, he runs the music business degree in Glasgow, and his new direction is a bit more electronica. But he's got some work with the guys from Cluster and Harmonium on it, I've got an ambient electro EP on it, so it's less dance floor and he's sort of moving his dance floor material to his sister label. So, Bulletdodge has been around for quite a few years and has quite... 100 releases, etc, but the new vision for his label is going to be a bit more of an esoteric electronica direction, which sort of fits what I'm doing at the moment. So I've got a little electro EP coming out, which is quite heavily influenced by Drexciya, which is one of my favorite duos from Detroit, with a bit of ambient stuff on it as well. So, that will be my next release this year, for 2021. I think it's probably summer, actually, it's scheduled for.

Darwin: Okay. Fantastic. And in terms of your teaching, I know that you have this beginner series that you're doing at Music Hackspace, right?

Phelan: Yeah, Getting Started With Max. Yeah.

Darwin: That runs on a monthly basis at this point. Do you have other classes that you're teaching as well?

Phelan: Yeah. We're constantly doing new stuff. We've got International Women's Week in March. We've got a whole week of free lectures from female practitioners, we've got some Ableton certified trainers and other people doing Max related stuff, like Melody, who's also a Max CT, is doing a class there. I'm in the process of developing some curriculum for some Gen lessons, some Gen courses, so we're going to try and get into Gen. I've got Making Audio Phases in Gen coming up in a few weeks. I want to build that into a little curriculum to have a running weekly series of Gen related stuff. And also continuing with Getting Started and doing some more Getting Started with MSP, or Getting More Comfortable With Max stuff, so there's a lot of stuff at Hackspace actually coming and we've got some crazy ideas on the back burner that JB's going to get up onto the website soon.

Darwin: That's great. Well, again I will just reiterate having been around you in teaching mode, you're a phenomenal teacher, and anybody who's interested in learning more is going to find your classes to be superior. Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate you having this chat, and we will talk again soon.

Phelan: Darwin, thank you so much. It's been awesome. I'm very honored to be part of the podcast, so thank you for your time.

Darwin: All right, thank you. Catch you later.