Amon Tobin’s new release, How Do You Live, marks his 25th year in music. Working under four aliases and across more than a dozen albums, he’s transmuted elements of jazz, drum’n’bass and trip-hop into his own brand of intricate, brooding electronica, while developing a sound and method that’s defined by process and technique - not genre or style.
The producer’s latest studio album sees him continuing his exploration of new frontiers in sound design, blurring the boundaries between the acoustic and the electronic by using synthesis to model imagined instruments and processing guitars and vocals beyond recognition.
Tobin joined us to talk through the studio equipment and techniques he used to achieve the unique sound of his new record, and reflect on 25 years spent working at the forefront of electronic music.
This year marks the 25th since your debut release. Do you feel as if you’re still learning new things as you continue to progress as a musician?
“It’s a bit like a feedback loop, where the things you make spawn new things that you make in perpetuity… a beautiful spiralling madness.”
What moment or (moments) in your career are you most proud of?
“I've had so many moments where I caught myself wondering how I managed to end up where I was. Looking out at all those people from all those famous stages around the world.
"What I'm most proud of is a sense of contribution to what a new generation of artists are doing now, because it's never something I expect to hear. I feel immense pride whenever a new producer tips their hat my way.”
Tell us about your current studio set-up and what you’re working with.
“My studio's always been small but filled with things I love. Sound sources are mainly from physical synths, paired with DSP-based processing for more esoteric stuff. Processing is mostly hardware with my favourite outboard routed as hardware inserts.
“For anyone who's interested we made a little video series of various things in my studio.”
Which DAW(s) are you using, and why?
“I use Cubase because it's what I know best and because it's done a really good job of evolving over the years. Also I use Kyma, although I have to relearn it every time I look away for too long.”
How much of your production is done in-the-box with software as opposed to hardware?
“It’s mostly hardware. It sounds better not because it's hardware, but because it's more fun.”
What are your favourite plugins?
“I like Fabfilter and Sound Toys for everyday stuff. I think Kush Audio's AR-1 is one of the best emulation compressors.
"It seems like more VSTs are going the Fabfilter way in terms of interfaces that are unapologetically not hardware and therefore not trying to look like hardware, which is a good thing.
“I just hope the trend towards oversimplification with one-knob style VSTs might also be short-lived. It's not a practical position to take. It promotes the process of making music and an irregular path to creation as an end in itself.”
What studio tech would you like to see developed?
“I'd like to see vocal pitch-tracking software explored more… that and less clunky audio analysis/audio morphing tools. The things I've been doing with Kyma for over a decade and which I'd love to see elegantly realized as standalone VSTs. I've seen various iterations but there's plenty of room for development I think.”
Tell us about your latest album, How Do You Live. What were the primary inspirations behind the record?
“Technology, feelings, and revenge.”
Have you experimented with any new production processes or studio techniques in the making of this new album?
“I try to bring everything I've learned over the years to realize what I'm doing now as best I can. These techniques become a language in a way, or a kind of expanding vocabulary. So I try to keep in mind that although a language can be beautiful in itself, the hope is still to say something meaningful.”
If you had to choose one piece of studio gear that was fundamental to the making of the new record, what would it be and why?
“Apart from the sound sources, I wouldn't say any one piece of gear was vital, but definitely a bunch of things were preferable.
"At least as far as the record having the sound it has. I think the RND EQs and diode bridge compressors had a lot to say about the overall sound, which is quite thick with rounded edges.
“Retro Instruments’ Revolver on the master bus together with Manley Massive Passive EQ helped give mixes a depth of field sense I would have struggled to achieve otherwise, too. Basically lots of tubes.”
You described “Phaedra” as an “experiment with harmonics” and a “physical model of a saxophone” - could you go into some more detail around this and the creative process behind these sounds?
“You can go a long way with short delays, feedback loops and resonant filters to make an alien reed instrument in Eurorack, but Edmund Eagan's DSP-based physical modeling kicks yours in the dick every time.
"I don't think it's useful to get too deep in the weeds about when and where and what is used, but one thing definitely informs the other on this track.”
You also released an album under the alias Stone Giants this summer. What makes your work under this alias different from your work as Amon Tobin?
“Stone Giants’ West Coast Love Stories is an electronic album of vocal-based love songs. Although I've featured my own voice loads over the years under my own named music, it's never been that explicit.”
Both of these records are being released on your own label, Nomark. Is this just an outlet for your own work or are you planning on releasing the work of other artists?
“Stone Giants, Figueroa, Only Child Tyrant and Two Fingers along with my own name make up the entire roster for Nomark Records. It's important for me to get across that these aliases aren't side projects. They are independent entities that I've been developing for several years.
“All of them are electronic music but they start from very different places. Figueroa, for example, sounds like it could be a folk guitar record but it isn't, it's an entirely electronic record. Only Child Tyrant sounds like mad drums and guitar riffs, but it's synths and elaborate programming.
“The point is I think electronic music is defined by its process and not necessarily its genre. I'm defined as an electronic artist, which is fair because that's how I make music, but that doesn't have to define the kind of music I make.
“Separating these projects out clearly under different names gives me the freedom to explore and develop each alias in its own lane as far as I want to. Having them all under one label lets me unify them as a body of work.”
What future projects do you have on the horizon?
“I'm working on developing each of the aliases on Nomark for their next releases. There's even a chance I might start signing artists that aren't me for next year, which would be quite a relief at this point.”