Waveformless reader Sunil aka lineofcontrol submits this tech interview with retro-futuristic concept album enthusiasts mind.in.a.box, who have just released their 4th album entitled "Revelations".
Q:The new album really continues the MIAB storyline. Was this a conscious decision after the last album (RETRO) which seemed to stand apart from the themes you had previously established?
A: For us it was always clear that we want to continue the story after Crossroads. R.E.T.R.O was a special album and it was great for us, especially for me, to release it. Some of the songs from R.E.T.R.O are burned in my mind forever. I just can't delete them. I think a duck must feel the same when it sees his/her mom for first time. Branded forever.
Q:Will we see any more "chiptune" works?
A:I don't think so for the near future. It was something that I had to do, but now that it's done. I'm free!
Q: What are your personal favourites off the new album and why?
A: Control is one of my favourite songs from Revelations. I like the refrain a lot because it works without raising the vocal volume or pitch. It is just the melodies and harmonies. That was much harder to realise from a composers view. I also thought that Second Reality was good because it has a complicated arrangement with an unexpected ending.
Q: What is your current studio setup?
A: The most important thing when making music is that you can do things quickly. You must make your own personal setup that fits your working style. In my setup the computer is in the centre of everything. Most of the studio pictures you see have a big controller-keyboard in front, sitting on the desk, with a computer keyboard behind. This alone tells you a lot about how someone makes music.
In my studio the computer keyboard must be in front and behind it the Midi-Keyboard! On the right side I have a rack with my favourite hardware synths. A Waldorf Pulse, Waldorf Microwave XT, Roland JP8080, my old Roland JV880 and a Korg Wavestation SR. On the left side I have my TC-Helicon Voice-prism and a Yamaha Motif Rack XS. Until now I have only used rack-mounted synthesizers because they simply need less space and I can reach them more easily and faster.
On my desk I also have the new Arturia Spark and the Steinberg CC121 Controller for Cubase. Everything is connected with analog to ADAT Converters and go into my RME Raydat (ADAT) Soundcard in the Computer.
As a mic preamp I use the Focusrite ISA One which is connected via SPDIF to the Raydat Soundcard. The Microphone I mostly use is the Studio Projects C1.
For monitoring I use the Genelec 1030’s and my favourite headphones, the AKG K1000. I also have an old Yamaha A3000 sampler; only because of backward compatibility with some very old songs.
Q: How has the studio changed since you began?
A: My beginning was on a Commodore 64. Then my first "real synthesizer" was the Roland JV880 which I still use. Some time ago I had to re-solder some parts of it because the left side was not working properly but now it is like brand new! Well, the display is getting a little bit dark...
I worked for more than 10 years with a MIDI sequencer that (our lyricist) Markus programmed, but I couldn't make the songs sound good with it. It wasn’t because of the sequencer, but you had to mix everything with outboard equipment. And I did not have enough of the right equipment! I mixed everything with an old rack-mixer from Roland. I think it was called something like the "M160" and it had 2 or 3 AUX channels, no effects...nothing. But I paid 7000 Schilling (about 500 Euro) for it. That was a lot of money for me and I worked with it for many years. I bought some external effect processors to make my music sound better but it was still very, very bad. Perhaps if you had bad speakers it would sound OK!.
I worked very long with this old-school, home setup even when everyone had switched to mixing inside the computer. This was all long before our first album Lost Alone. Before our first release I switched to Logic Audio and mixed everything in the computer. Suddenly I could use EQs on every channel. This was like a dream! It was the real beginning for us, making "professional music". Then Logic Audio was bought by Apple and of course they simply stopped developing for PC and I hated them! I still hate them and so I use Cubase. Today the possibilities are unbelievable. You can make everything with the computer.
Q: Do you have a typical workflow? Are you inspired by sounds and create from there? Do you start with a feeling or a theme and try to create that? Do you start with lyrics and then create music to go with it or does your lyricist create the lyrics after the music is done?
A: I usually make the music first. I always have a feeling or a picture from something in my mind that I want to describe with my music. The melody you play depends on the sound and visa versa. Sometimes I think "Ahh this melody is be great" and I set the notes in the sequencer and then let it loop and adjust the sound to it... then I sometimes change the melody again and so on until it fits perfectly for my ears and mind.
In the last few years I mostly make demos and send them to Markus to give him some inspiration. Sometimes I use Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash lyrics for these demo versions. I hope no one ever listens to this except Markus! Then when Markus has some free time he is writes the lyrics and sends them back to me. He is very busy and is travelling a lot but it is always great to get something new from him and I can't wait to use it in one of the songs. I love his lyrics... also because he spends a lot of time to make the “word & rhythm’ right and this makes it much easier for me to sing it. We work very well together.
Q: Do you usually start with drums and bass or arpeggiated synth lines or something else?
A: Some bass lines first. I try to make a first arrangement like a concept of the song. Then build melodies around that. Then some pads and drums and then I change everything again because I get some new ideas. It is like making chaos!
I try this-and-that part together and continue on. In the beginning I'm interested in how good it sounds, (in terms of levels, EQ and mastering). If I start to try make the sound perfect from the beginning I would be too slow and it would kill the inspiration. If the song is nearly finished I start to work on the mix, maybe sing everything again and look more at the details.
Q: Your vocoded multi-tracked vocals are really a trade-mark part of the MIAB sound. How do you go about creating them?
A: For Songs like Change, Amnesia or the new song Unknown on Revelations I used the Voiceprism from TC-Helicon. The first version of this device. I don't know if the newer versions sounds the same or not. It is a kind of pitch shifter. A lot of people say it is a vocoder but from a technical view I think this is not correct.
On songs like Second Reality or Lost Alone for example it is a typical vocoder. You start to sing and play the melody with a midi keyboard at the same time. When we are playing live I do it exactly like this. For recording in the studio I do this separately. First sing, then play the melody, sing again and adjust everything because this device needs the MIDI notes a few milliseconds earlier to make it perfect. You should also EQ the signal before it goes into the Voiceprism, cut the Lows. Of course there are also a lot of effects on the vocals after the Voiceprism.
Q: The new album definitely sees a more harmonic approach to the vocal lines and even more layers of sound. Even more “singing” in higher registers than previously. What made you go in that direction?
A: I think it is because of my live experience. I learned a lot and can sing now in different ways than before and then you want to use this in the production too. It is a normal development I think but I still love vocoders and all the voice modelling stuff out there.
Wait for the THYX album (his sideproject). On that album I start to sing really high!
Q: What are your fave synths (hard and soft)? Any that you go to for specific sound sources?
A: I like my Roland JP8080 because of the direct way of editing the sound. The Waldorf Pulse sounds very special. Great for bombastic synth bass-lines or if you need some analog filter punch. Software synthesizers are difficult. I work a lot with them too but it is hard to like only one because, there are so many out there that you always try new ones and forget about the old. You never get really familiar with any of them. One of the best I know is the U-HE Zebra.
For example I know exactly how the JP8080 sounds and what he can do, what are his strengths and weaknesses. With software synths I have less experience. You try this and that and you use it but you need much more time to understand an overall sound from a device. There is a certain plug-in madness where you always think a different plug-in would make you better, it makes you crazy. I'm sure I am not the only one with this problem.
If you can only buy one hardware synth the Yamaha Motif XS is a great choice. You can edit it from a VST plug-in and have a huge sound library included that don't need to backup.
Q: Do you use sound libraries and tweak them or do you use your own sounds or samples?
A: It depends on the device that I'm using. With the JP8080 or other hardware synths that have a lot of knobs, you are much faster if you build your sound that you want from scratch. With softsynths I very often use presets and then tweak them till they fit. Very often my problem with libraries are that they make presets to try to impress the listeners and these sounds are mostly not suitable for actually making music...or maybe I have only special effects libraries!
Q: Are you a gear junkie?
A: Not the type of junkie who can't resist and buy it before checking if it makes sense. If I think there is something out there what would improve my working setup I must have it.
Of course the price plays a big role too. We don't get that much from selling CDs because a lot of people “help us” with uploading our songs to places like Pirate Bay and on Youtube as back ground music for their newest make-up video; so you can't buy always what you want.
Q: What were some of your musical influences growing up?
A: Most of the cover-songs from our R.E.T.R.O album (versions of themes from C64 games like Parsec!), Purple Motion and Skaven from the Future Crew.
Q: Did you have any musical training as a child?
A: I played accordion from the age of 5. When I was around 10, I heard the sounds of the Commodore 64. Then I stopped and understood that playing accordion sounded ugly compared to the gorgeous sounds of the SID chip.
Q: What are your current musical interests?
A:I try to find with THYX the wave between sound and resonance! Stay tuned.
Q: What role does film and literature play as an inspiration to your work?
A:Movies give you a lot of inspiration. Books too, but I don't read that much at the moment. Sometimes you go out from the cinema and got an idea how great this one scene could have been with a different music. You nearly feel a melody in that moment and that same night you work on this. Yes this sometimes actually happens.
Q: Many people have said that your songs are the REAL soundtrack to the Matrix trilogy, what did you think of the films?
A:Great movies. The first was the coolest but it's always like this when something is new.
It would be great if we could make a science fiction movie soundtrack. Hope we will get that possibility one day.
Q: Your live shows are a real spectacle. It seems more like a ROCK concert than a boring electronica show (with a guy playing with a mouse, hiding behind a laptop). Will we see some more live dates?
A: Thank you! Yes, we try to make it different than most of the other bands in our scene. For sure it splits the audience because they are expecting something more normal... but I don't want to play our songs exactly like on CD. That would be too easy. So I try to play with my more rock orientated friends and after the show we have more possible excuses why it went wrong! Often we think we had a good show and played well but the sound engineer still doesn’t like it! I think we make a lot effort in playing live. We are just working on our new live setup now. How to make it better with less equipment that we maybe one day can bring some merchandise to the show instead of equipment that is lost somewhere at an airport.