DRUMMER EVAN SCHILLER and bassist Paul Hinklin formed the
Seattle-based “power duo” Sadhappy in 1989, with the idea that the
personnel within the group would mutate in various ways over time. On
Sadhappy’s most recent recording, Outerspaces [Periscope], Schiller
combined forces with Zappa-alumni guitarist Mike Keneally and
hyper-bassist Michael Manring, and served as ringleader, engineer, and
producer. The trio’s largely improvised music is a sort of avant-garde
electronica, with funky grooves, tasty melodies, dense drones, and
myriad other sonic structures constantly shifting and interacting
within the stereo spectrum.
Most of the compositions on Outerspaces began as homemade drum loops—which Manring later improvised along with—resulting in a stockpile of rhythm tracks with multiple harmony options. Working mixes of those tracks were then sent to Keneally, who recorded numerous takes of his own for each piece.
Ultimately, the hundreds of parts were extensively edited and processed, then painstakingly arranged by Schiller—much in the way that ’50s electronic music visionary Pierre Schaeffer composed by arranging “sound objects.”
How did you create the warped-out drum loops that are the basis of many of the compositions?
I used an old Korg Wavedrum to create a few loops. Typically, however, I recorded acoustic drums into Apple Logic Pro, and then exported the good bits into an antique Yamaha SU-700 sampler, which lets you record up to eight synchronized loops, and also features built-in filters and other effects that can be manipulated with an onboard ribbon controller. The drum parts were mostly recorded using simple two-microphone techniques, such as putting an Audio Technica AT4050—or other large-diaphragm condenser—on the kick, and a ribbon such as a Coles 4038 on the rest of the kit. On a few of the loops, I used old no-name mics that I bought on eBay for ten or 15 dollars to get an extremely lo-fi sound. Ridiculous amounts of compression were also added as an effect during recording.
What happened next?
I used MIDI sync to slave the Yamaha sampler to Logic, so we’d be working to a sequencer grid. Then, Michael played bass along with the loops, while I “performed” on the sampler by manipulating its onboard filters, and recorded everything into Logic. Michael’s basses were typically recorded directly into a mixer channel or DI box, sometimes adding a little compression, and, occasionally, through his Boss multi-effects unit to add harmonizer effects.
Mike’s electric guitars were played through a Rivera Quiana amp miked with a Shure SM57, and his acoustics were either recorded direct via a Taylor K4 Preamp/Equalizer, or miked with the SM57. He did some creative editing, and effects processing, such as pitch-shifting and radical panning within Pro Tools. Otherwise, all of the bass and guitar effects were added later using either hardware or software processors.
You used an analog mixer?
A Soundcraft Ghost—though most of the final mixing was done within Logic using a mouse and a QWERTY keyboard.
Then why use an analog mixer at all?
Twenty-four discrete tracks were routed from my Apple G5 into the Ghost using an Alesis HD24 as a D/A converter. That way, I could EQ each channel separately with board EQ, as well as patch in outboard processors—such as Universal Audio 1176LN and Alan Smart C1 compressors, a vintage Master Room spring reverb, and Electrix MoFX and FilterFactory units—on individual tracks or sub-mixes.
Let’s say a song had 32 tracks. By creaing several stereo sub-mixes, instead of having to process all 32 tracks simultaneously, I could use the outboard gear on each sub-mix as if I had multiple processors. The sub-mixes were done back into Logic, in sync with all of the original tracks, so that when it came time to do the final mix, I could just automate the sub-mixes along with one or two lead tracks. The technique also allowed me to go crazy twiddling knobs on the MoFX in real time, which I couldn’t do if I had to focus on a full mix. By the way, I think anything that connects a computer to the outside world—such as MIDI sync—is a good thing, because it usually makes all of the connected things more playable and interesting.
Describe some of your digital-editing techniques.
Sometimes, a section that was originally intended to be, say, a two-bar break would have lots of great harmony options, so I’d expand it into a much longer section, trying different combinations of harmonies until I found a combination that worked. Then, I might use some of the alternative harmonies for variation if the section was repeated. Or, I might take what I thought was the beginning of a song, and turn it into a middle breakdown section. Also, I often offset two parts to create new harmonies—such as the very similar guitar parts on “Nightmare at Guitar Center,” which overlap an eighth note apart. Similarly, I might duplicate an eight-bar phrase, then offset the two parts by a bar to see what sorts of accidental harmonies resulted. And, if a song was getting too dense at some point, I might edit out all but one instrument, because dynamics can dictate song form as much as harmony or melody.
What other effects did you use?
I’m kind of a software junkie, and a few of my favorite products are the Ohm Force plug-ins from France—which provide a lot of tools to really destroy sound—the Universal Audio models of classic hardware processors, Native Instruments Reaktor, and the Tassman Sound Synthesis Studio. But I also re-recorded drum loops and software synth tracks through my Fender Super Champ, processed Michael’s bass on-the-fly with a Moogerfooger MF-102 ring modulator, and all sorts of other stuff. I just tried the weirdest combinations of tracks and effects chains, and I went with whatever worked.
What was the biggest challenge in working that way?
Staying sane! I chose that methodology mostly because I was in Seattle, and Mike and Michael were in two different parts of California. If we do another record, however, I’d like it to be recorded live, without any signal processing or trickery. I really enjoyed seeing how deeply I could get into editing and composing by being as dramatic as possible with dynamics and shifting elements, and I’m very proud of the results. But I don’t think I’ll ever do another record this way again!