Possessing an inherently nonconformist approach to music production, James Hinton's debut album as The Range, Nonfiction (2013), triggered the notion of avoiding archetypal singer-songwriter structures by syncopating vocal samples with rhythms rooted in hip-hop, DnB and R&B.
Extending the concept on his aptly titled sophomore release, Potential, Hinton used various algorithmic processes to scour the video-sharing platform YouTube. By searching for the most remote user uploads, Hinton found he could tap into the authenticity of the emotions behind the vocals he'd discovered and translate them into a backdrop of electronic-oriented themes.
What was the initial idea behind your decision to make an album of vocal samples sourced from YouTube videos?
"I think a lot of it spawned from the last record Nonfiction, where I wanted some sort of feeling or vibe on a few songs and was already sourcing music samples from YouTube. So I think it was a natural extension of that, with the idea of finding or happening upon some vocal samples.
"Once I'd finished that album, the most interesting pieces were those that had used a 'single person in the room' vocal sample, and I thought that by highlighting that on this record it would give The Range a more holistic theme. I think the album benefits from it, because you're accessing these stories that give a whole different side of life that I don't think is easy to capture in a studio environment."
Is the album title as obvious as it suggests?
"It's certainly going to end up reflecting a lot about this idea of potential in an artistic sense, like the idea of putting yourself on YouTube. I have a physics background, so there's also this idea of taking an album and imbuing it with some sort of potential energy, which when you let out into the world you don't have any control over how it is going to be released.
"But I'm pleased that the album has that duality, which describes how I felt about my role in the project – this idea of questioning the potential of the YouTube narrative and casting a different light on why people assume other people go on YouTube. My record captures a different idea of why people choose to upload vocals on YouTube, which is not just to become Justin Bieber; it's more cathartic."
You dug right into the darkest corners of YouTube to find the material. What was the process behind that?
"Well you don't want anything that has 100,000 views or anyone that seems to be much of a personality or is already very popular on YouTube. Once you don't want to focus on this idea of stardom, you can filter YouTube videos by not wanting anything over 1,000 views, or maybe start at page ten instead of page one and proceed from there. I think I got pretty good at the filtering, but I'd still spend hours and hours clicking thumbnails and watching stuff.
"Some sessions I'd try to filter more by the vibe I was looking for in terms of the qualitative word choices I was using, but in the end it was more about using a subset of search terms that I felt would fit the project that guided everything."
Was there some sort of algorithmic process behind it?
"It's funny because I'm quite secretive about the way I did that, but you can invent a specific set of search terms that I limited myself to and then filter on top of that. You can search in terms of upload date, rank, or whether something's HD or not. Actually, filtering by stuff that isn't HD was a big help to me.
"Most people that use YouTube will start from the Watch Now section or a viral video and maybe make their way to a couple of related videos through that, but there are a lot of people outside of that who are into the sample-digging culture, and they'll go pretty deep on it."
Did you have to be careful not to filter too much and run out of potential content?
"At times I was exhausting search terms because they were so specific, so in the end I had to rely on time, basically hoping that some people would upload videos within the time limit I'd set. Also, there are a lot of corners of YouTube where if you're logged in they won't even serve you all of the things that match your search results.
"Sometimes you have to log yourself out or go through a different email account, which is good in terms of getting away from the normal patterns, but also meant that I was fighting against the filters. Sometimes a certain search term would give you 100,000 results, but you could only see 19 pages and couldn't access everything that you knew was there."
Did the human story behind the vocal samples you decided to use surpass the fact that you simply liked the vocal?
"It was a little bit of both. On the song Falling Out Of Phase I was just enamoured by the idea that a girl was singing in front of a shower curtain, and it was a bonus that she sang a Keyshia Cole cover so beautifully and in a very different way to the original song. With others, I was just curious.
"On one song, this guy from Jamaica had a project where every week he would read out a song from one of his books as an acapella, and it was apparent that in the background he literally had binders that were chock-full of songs. So that was an example of me being wildly curious and imagining what it meant for someone to laboriously, over many years, be compelled to physically write something down in that way. In some cases, the vocalists just had this tonal quality, and I was essentially finding these amazing vocalists who all had something about them that was incredibly unique, powerful and well-honed. So it was a bit of both, but I think the stories drove the quality of the vocals for many of the songs that did make it onto the record."
When I started out, I didn't have any training really, so after my little four-track tape experience I got into Logic, which came with my computer when I went to college."
Music is sometimes seen as bit of a throwaway commodity, yet you clearly want people to go beyond the surface with this record...
"I'm really hoping that people will come along with me. I don't see it as a concept album, but I think both legs of the stool need to be standing so that both the theoretical and musical parts are equal; although it's definitely a bit of a risk in an age where it's tough to maintain people's attention.
"The record would definitely fall down if it wasn't musical or at least capable of grabbing people in the classical form. I don't think the music is immediate in terms of it being a Pop record, but I think there's enough hooks in there that will allow people to be curious about it.
"The one thing I'm confident about is that the vocals weren't done in a proper studio setting, any of them. I've done a lot of processing to marry them into the digital world, and I'm hopeful that someone coming cold to the project will find it a headscratcher if nothing else."
How far did you go in terms of communicating with the vocalists? Were any local to you?
"So Kai, who's on the track Florida, only lives a borough away from me in New York. I did see her once to chat, but there was quite a bit of detective work that we had to do for a lot of the other vocalists because most people don't check their YouTube messages that often and by the time we contacted everyone the songs were very much fully formed. So it was limited to first contact and what they thought of this thing that I'd done and how were they feeling about letting me use their vocal. Thankfully, they were all incredibly positive once they understood the project."
Was copyright ever an issue?
"I basically view these people as partners because their contribution is a huge part of the song. So of course you have to clear it with them, which involved giving them a song split essentially. We very much used the normal clearance process, and it was nice that we could engage with them on that level. It's very important too, because I think people play fast and loose with YouTube. I suppose it's one thing if you're pulling a record out, taking a little snippet and assuming there aren't people behind it, but in this case, it was so obvious."
I was wondering whether, once something is uploaded to YouTube, they might own the copyright in some capacity?
"I see the angle you're coming from, but ultimately it's the user's video and YouTube are not able to siphon off all of that content and slap their own legal team behind it. If there's one thing I'll give YouTube credit for, it's that the licensing allows 100% ownership to the individual uploading the video. Obviously, if it was a cover then you're dealing with the record label involved with that."
What's your own opinion on the way consumers listen to music these days? Is it reflected in your own behaviour?
"I had a few CDs, but once I had the computer it was a pretty instant transition to MP3, although I think I've always kept a level of preciousness about my library. I'm aware that, for my generation, people have music on their phone or use Spotify, but at the end of the day, independent of the medium, music can still grab you.
"I'd be lying if I said there isn't a mode of thought where it's very easy to click skip or go 30 seconds ahead in songs and pinpoint bits, but I think the moments that grab me are still a very big part of my life, and when other people hit that moment they do dive in and grab it, similar to how people did when they had a physical record or cassette."
I understand there will be a documentary about the making of the album?
"Yeah, that's something I'm really pleased about. It's coming along really well and is definitely more about highlighting the stories behind the contributors and trying to grapple with what those are, and going deep into what motivated them to want to be part of a record where they really didn't know me before it started or each other. It's quite interesting, because they're really special people.
"We screened it at the South by Southwest festival, but in terms of making it generally available I think it's quite important that we do a few physical screenings where we can engage with audiences and have a conversation before we let it live in the world in its full glory."
What music did you grow up listening to and become inspired by?
"It was definitely a Beatles household, so a lot of my early memories in Pennsylvania were of listening to oldies stations next to '90s Rock. But then I discovered Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and the Warp Records stuff, as well as Post-Rock like Sigur Rós, and that took me towards the route of using a four-track tape recorder. When I started DJing in college, I was into Baltimore club and rap music, and more recently a lot of grime stuff."
I've read Kieran Hebden is an influence. That seems to be reflected in your use of very pleasant melodic syncopation?
"Rounds was an incredibly important record for me; just this idea of complexity arising from a simple Steve Reich-like idea, where elements are developed into a fully flourished song. That songwriting process has always been what dominates for me because I very much think in that melodic mindset of mixing in counterpoint as opposed to chord structures, which I think Four Tet does as well, but making sure there's a rhythmic component that's complex but not distracting. I have this idea that rhythm should not be an end unto itself, even though as a drummer it's always where my ear goes."
Tell us how you first got involved in music production...
"When I started out, I didn't have any training really, so after my little four-track tape experience I got into Logic, which came with my computer when I went to college. This would have been the summer of 2006, and I still use Logic today, so it was a bit of a stroke of luck that it ended up being that way.
"I did experiment a little bit with Fruity Loops, but pretty much dived right into Logic. Because this project is exclusively in the box, everything has been heavily influenced by the Logic stuff, whether I'm using compressors or EQs."
So I take it from that, that you have a computer-based setup with speakers and no outboard?
"In terms of a traditional audio gear list, it's just a computer with multiple video cards and a Korg controller MIDI keyboard, so there's no outboard gear at all. The most striking thing about the studio is that I have quite a big monitor set-up, which is a little overwhelming, but I find that it actually ended up being an important part of the project because of my ability to be able to interact with YouTube and use it as a gigantic record collection of people and songs spread out across the screens.
"That gave me plenty of real estate to think through that process. I used to have a little Hex screen set-up, but then I got a new gigantic 4k TV that I'm also using as a monitor so I'm able to view the Logic mixer all the way across the screen, all the time, instead of having to constantly scroll back and forth.
"People always laugh at me, but I've got friends who are super-fast, particularly on Ableton, which is a great piece of software for that, but at the end of the day you're still flipping screens and I think that can create a mental block; whereas if you're just swivelling your head left to right you're saving time and can maintain creative spurts a little bit longer. So it seems like a no-brainer."
What other software have you brought into the box?
"I love Waves, I'm a massive addict. I didn't used to be, but once I started this record I found it really beneficial. Using Native Instruments' Maschine library for drum samples has also been a huge component – pretty much every percussive sound on Potential is from that software. I've also been playing around with programmes from Sinevibes.
"One of the people I was on tour with showed me what you could do with that, although I don't think I've quite wrapped my head around it or found a use for some of the weird modular ways that some of its plug-ins are working. It's almost like a lot of the plug-ins have a step sequencer component, so you can go very deep in terms of how you want to switch up the filtering or delay for each step sequence. Most things are static in that sense and rely on the fact that you can chain up plug-ins, but this one's very committed to doing weird filtering all in one go."
You seem to like using quite a lot of piano sounds or samples...
"Yeah, I think that's been the main hold that Logic has over me. It's not because of the project that I chose to be so limited, I just don't have that much access to a lot of other things outside of the sampler and a couple of Logic synthesizers. I think in this particular case, because the YouTube vocal qualities are so varied, it served the record as a whole to make it in that way.
"In retrospect, if I'd had a much wider palette of sounds to choose from it may have ended up being distracting. I just want people to be able to process the record, especially on first listen."
Were the tracks primarily built around the vocals?
"No, it was a two-way street. Approximately half were melodic or percussive ideas, and then I was reaching back out to YouTube with a specific idea in mind. Other times, I would be within the search process, find something and decide that I needed to arrange the music around that. It wasn't top down in any sort of way; it was very back and forth."
My record captures a different idea of why people choose to upload vocals on YouTube, which is not just to become Justin Bieber; it's more cathartic."
I would imagine the quality of the vocals culled from YouTube would have been pretty variable. Was there a necessity to do a lot of processing?
"There was a bit of tuning, just as there would be with anything, but there was never a temptation to Auto-Tune. I think I gave the vocals the same treatment you would normally give any vocalist in the studio. The biggest thing was the sample rate, because you're often dealing with 240p and trying to do some tricks around cleaning up or brightening a lot of things that are pretty characteristically YouTube.
"Like there's this gigantic high-frequency fall off that you have to reckon with on basically everything, and I think a lot of time was spent in that zone, trying to think of what other techniques I could bring to bear when it came to chopping to time or pitch-bending – and you have to think through the whole vocal chain in advance a lot of the time."
You studied theoretical physics at university. Have you adopted any of those theories or principles when it comes to your approach to music making?
"The only thing that really carried over is just embracing complexity and not trying to stay elegant. When I was studying physics, the attractiveness was in being able to wrap the whole universe into this nice tidy bow, but the more you learn about theoretical physics and quantum mechanics the more messy the world gets, and how deeply you learn that we don't understand a lot about those things.
"I think in music, especially the current state of pop, although it's noble to understand the formula that goes into making something that will have an impact on someone from the first second, in terms of rhythmic complexity and trying to make sure everything has its own space, it's also okay to have things clattering and clanging.
"I have so much respect for the degree of complexity that Aphex Twin or Squarepusher might bring to their productions in terms of the drum programming or sonic elements, and who knows what the actual process looks like... And Autechre of course, which is a whole different plane. But the sound design part is not something that's grabbed me. Focusing too much on that would be distracting to me, especially for this record."
Can you envisage presenting the album in a live format?
"First and foremost, I like the idea that the work was done in the studio and believe that I should stay true to that, but I think there's a way that I can invite the audience into the process by breaking down elements of the voices at certain parts independent of the music while still maintaining its energy.
"So right now I'm convinced that's an interesting format in terms of audio, similar to the way that I'm hoping the documentary will invite people to the record in a visual way. There's three dates for sure that we're announcing: Los Angeles, New York and London in March, and more in April and throughout the summer when I'm hoping to bring it to festivals in the US and Europe."