As part of our ongoing guest lecture series we welcomed modular synth expert Ben Chilton from Bristol's Elevator Sound to our Plymouth campus. Ben joined us for an afternoon of modular synthesis and a masterclass in ideas generation. We caught up with Ben after the session and he shared his advice for those looking to work as a sound designer and live performer.
Elevator Sound is Bristol's premier independent electronic music store and it's fast becoming the go to destination for modular synth buyers in the UK and worldwide. One of the fantastic things about Elevator is that it's run by a team of music producers. When you visit you get expert advice from people who really know what they are talking about. dBs have established an ongoing relationship with Elevator that has lead to modular expert Ben Chilton running workshops and providing expert advice at our Bristol and Plymouth campus'. When Ben visited our Plymouth campus we managed to squeeze in some questions about working in the music industry, here's what he had to say.
You're working for one of the most popular electronic music stores in the country right now, how did you get the job at Elevator Sound?
It all happened by accident really. After enrolling at uni, Marco (the owner of Elevator Sound) & Tara Pattenden (Phantom Chips) spoke to us about the shop and invited us to come and look around. I went down with a friend who needed an audio interface and I recommended one they had for sale to him. Marco overheard the conversation where I spoke about the unit in detail. He invited me to the shop the following week and offered me a job.
At the time I was into technology but not really that interested in synths. After working for Elevator I fell down the rabbit hole and got really deep into modular synthesis. From there my interest in making electronic grew a lot. I had dabbled before but not much before starting at Elevator.
You have worked on various sound design projects for Pusher Music, how did you find work in that field?
When I was finishing uni I had the opportunity to set up a studio with a friend. My friend's brother was already working with sound design company Pusher Music. With their brother already employed there, it was a natural progression for the group of us to get involved with Pusher Music. They started sending us briefs for upcoming projects like film trailers and other items. We would work on the brief as a group, pull our resources together and send the audio off. There would often be some feedback and a few revisions where we would tweak the audio until they were happy with the final product.
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get into sound design?
Have something unique about your approach to creating sounds, you don't need a specific piece of gear or plugin, you just need to put your own stamp on it somehow. Also layer everything because it'll be easier to tweak the final sound if edits are required. This is especially useful when the edits are very specific within the sound. If you have created a sound like a multi layered impact, you may get requests like 'extend the tale of the sub' for example. Having layers you can edit individually will really help here.
Don't be afraid of criticism because it's only going to make you better. That was what I struggled with at first, when I got feedback on sounds I had put a lot of effort into. I started to think about it in a different way and realised that the sounds were for other people and not for myself. I realised that implementing feedback would only help me improve my skills anyway.
You perform as Strangling Glass, Those Who Came Before Us and one third of Heathen Ritual. What advice would you give people looking to get booked more often for live shows?
If you want to get gigs as a live performer, you need to perform. There needs to be something about your set that goes beyond just listening to or watching a DJ. Think about what makes it live, how is this a performance and how can you be visually pleasing as well as being good to listen to.
If you want to get gigs, being memorable really helps. If you get to play at an event, there will be at least one person there who also promotes or puts on shows. If you have something that's memorable there's more of a chance they will want to book you for their shows. A lot of producers build up as an artist then work on a live set later, at this point they already have a name for themselves. If you are starting out as just a live artist it can be tricky. My advice would be, go to gigs! Find nights you want to play at, get to know the people who put those nights on and explain to them what you do. If you spend time getting to know people before asking to play it's more likely they will take you seriously. Once you get that gig make sure you make an impact and things will fall into place.
Your preferred creative tool is modular synthesis, tell us about your set up and what made you chose the modules you work with.
My modular system has gone through a few different iterations. After a few years of juggling between ambient performance, composition and noisy techno, I've focused on the latter. The system is designed to work alongside a Korg Electribe ESX1 as drum machine and master sequencer with MIDI to CV conversion via the Sixty4Pixels CV.OCD.
In the case I use 2 synth voices composed of a Noise Engineering Loquelic Iteritas oscillator and Mutable Instruments Braids. Both were chosen due to their wide sound palettes and ability to create some pretty nasty noises! They are routed through a 6 x VCA module from Zlob and the Intellijel Morgasmatron dual filter. The Morgasmatron is a great bit of kit featuring two multimode filters with lots of modulation possibilities.
The bottom row of my setup houses an array of modulation and sequencing modules for easy access during live performance. This includes the Xaoc Batumi LFO, Malekko Varigate 4+ and Voltage Block sequencer (possibly one of my favourite modules). I also use the Intellijel Dual ADSR for controlling voices.
I've selected a few choice effects modules for processing drums, synth and vocals. There is a slimmed down version of the classic Mutable Instruments Clouds being used as a pitch shifting/looping delay for vocals alongside the Flight of Harmony Plague Bearer distortion. The Plague Bearer is a proper brutal feedback machine with a mic plugged in. Recently added, is a Befaco Crush II delay which uses the famously noisy PT chip and a Make Noise Erb Verb which is capable of the most wild reverbs. The latest addition is the ERD (Earth Return Distortion) from Micro_Research. It's literally a box of dirt that uses some sort of electromagnetic field to distort incoming signals. I'm not entirely sure how it works but it's WILD.
What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to release their own music?
Try not to get bogged down in the creative process, if you've got a good riff/loop/sample/texture then run with it. Better to have loads of varied tracks in the bank than sitting on a tonne of unfinished projects! If you're working with a DAW you have the ability to save basically everything so do that as much as possible. Things like FX chains, VST sounds, drum racks and mix busses will all streamline your workflow and give you a unique sound without having to recreate it every time!
If you're working a lot with hardware be creative with your routing, try feedback techniques. Abusing kit by using it incorrectly (safely of course) is always a winner. Make sure you record everything! You never know when THAT sound is going to shine through and you'll kick yourself if you didn't capture it.
Don't limit yourself to just one kind of music, if you usually make DNB belters but you're feeling some jazz or even something pop-leaning, give it a try. The worst thing you can do is end up with a weird loop and in the best case is you'll get something entirely unique and learn some new tricks that you can apply to other areas of your production.
Not everything you make needs to be released. Quality control is important in the age of SoundCloud and BandCamp. Choose wisely and even if things don't get put out, send them to mates/DJs to see if they'll play them out or on radio. Oh and have fun.