An ambient suite made with synths, piano and natural reverb.
Jas Shaw will be known to many for the club music he’s made as one half of Simian Mobile Disco since 2003. In recent years, he’s build up an enviable solo catalogue of melodic techno and ambient, most notably the 25-track Exquisite Cops series released between 2019 and 2020.
Earlier this year, Shaw started a new project, Sollbruchstelle, which comprises three EPs that will eventually be collected on an album of the same name. Shaw has been collecting synths since the early ’00s, having previously played keyboard in Simian, the band that spawned Simain Mobile Disco, and the experimental approach taken across Sollbruchstelle is the culmination of many years of tinkering with modular synthesis and unusual hardware and software.
On this episode of Patch Notes, Shaw gives us a unique insight into his composition process for the Sollbruchstelle project, as he records a session in his studio with some of the key instruments and hardware used in its production, including Analogue Systems modules, Cirklon sequencer, monome norns and Moog Mother-32 alongside a piano and room mics.
“For the last year I’ve been isolating in this room and over that time I’ve got really into recording the sound of this room, as if I’ve not seen enough of it,” Shaw says. “Health complications meant that I was forced to work with a simpler set up but in fact I’ve really enjoyed that. The sound of a single synth fed onto my piano, recorded with only room mics and no spot mics, has been a real eye-opener in terms of how much texture – stuff I’d normally do with tangles of patch cords and fx – just putting a sound into a room brings.”
“When Fact asked if I would video this set up for Patch Notes I decided to make a slightly more involved rig so that it felt fresh to me but the basis is the same – it’s a synth plugged into a piano. This rig is definitely staying now – it’s loads of fun.”
“For Patch Notes I wanted to use my new sequencer that I’d made for norns, I spent a day making several iterations of a really complicated thing that had loads of harmonic moment, clear changes and yet was loose and didn’t obviously loop, I was impressed. The fact that I was impressed set off alarm bells, that’s not really what I wanted to do here. Given the series name, I wanted to mess with a simple idea in ways that would be clear to anyone watching.”
“So, I nicked a pattern that I already had and decided that I would only use that – limit my options. The pattern is visible on norns which is running a slightly modified version of Awake, by Tehn. This is getting sent to a synth and I recorded a copy into Cirklon so that I could send it to another synth and then I can manually restart the norns pattern, knocking it out of phase. All of the synths and the fx are routed through a mixer which is sending to an exciter speaker bolted to the soundboard of my piano. There’s a mic which feeds back into the mixer so the room and the piano becomes a part of the feedback loop. This makes each take very reactive and changes the texture of the synths and fx.”
“One of the things that’s nice about this is that you can really play with the space – setting the mics up really far back or in the next room or pointing away, each arrangement sounds very different and, after years of trying to create the illusion of certain spaces in a mix using eq and fx, effortlessly realistic. Also, the fx are sending into the room and the mic return is sending just a tiny bit back to all the fx so it’s a kind of physical matrix mixer, adding a texture to the regen of the delays and reverbs that I like a lot. This is definitely something that anyone with a mic and some sort of amp can try and I have really enjoyed how even a cheap, digital delay pedal can sound very warm and natural just by putting a room in the regen loop.”
“For the recording the stuff, what I had planned was to first have a bit of a wander around the pattern, it’s a pattern of nine and a pattern of seven bumping into each other and this is played mostly on a synth with four voices and then one with six voices, so there’s some long patterns of almost repetition that I wanted to check out. Second, I have a looper on my phone (Enso) I’m fairly new to it but it does what I used to do with a Max patch in a very tidy way. I have got really into recording the sound of this room with a nice stereo ribbon and even though it’s a lo-fi way to do it I liked the idea of grabbing a loop on my phone and then playing this back on my phone – letting that drift against the sequencer while I waft the phone around the ribbon to do spacial panning-type stuff. This is a really ‘only-works-on-headphones’ vibe but there you are.”
“Then, to really send it into the background I take the phone next door and leave it going full volume so it’s kind of reverbed out. So, I guess this is kind of boring for some people but I love the sound of hearing it next door and then fading in the piano in this room and you can really hear both rooms making a kind of space that I don’t think I’d be able to make with just a reverb and maybe some EQ. It just sounds so real and while you would think that someone who had spent as much time around microphones and in this room as I have would find this quite mundane it’s really something that I still get a buzz off. When I was submixing this on headphones a few times a little noise from the recording tricked me into making me look where it seemed to be – I never get this with a reverb, you get a sense of air with a good verb but never really an illusion of a particular space.”
“While I’m doing the proper recording on my laptop (a L/R from the mixer and the Stereo ribbon, balanced after) I had recorded the first bit on the cassette machine, set to fast. This means two things, one, it takes ages to rewind, really, ages, and, two, I can play it back at half speed for the second bit. I just set the sequencer to half the speed and kind of ride out the fact that they are drifty, it’s another way to desynchronise the pattern, perhaps find a different way that it can make sense.”
“There’s loads that went wrong in this recording but I like that it found some sort of equilibrium a few times and each time in a slightly different way. If you can sit through the ‘where is this going?’ bits then it shows how it gets to the ‘probably worth recording that’ bits and that seems like honest balance of notes and music.”
Parts one and two of the Sollbruchstelle series are avaialble now at Shaw’s Bandcamp, where you can find the rest of his solo catalogue.
Watch next: Patch Notes: Alex Epton