Anthony Naples broke through in 2012 with Mad Disrespect, a 12” made up of three loose and lively house jams that inaugurated the buzzy NYC label Mister Saturday Night.
Lauded by critics and co-signed by notable DJs (including Four Tet, an early influence that would later become a friend and mentor) its dusty, minimal grooves caught ears up across both sides of the Atlantic, earning the then-22-year-old producer more attention than he might reasonably have expected for a three-track debut on a newly-minted label.
Not long after - and with a total of five DJ sets under his belt - Naples was flying out to play Berghain’s Panorama Bar, before several of underground dance music’s most venerable imprints came calling. Though this relatively meteoric rise made it seem a little like he’d appeared out of nowhere, in truth, Naples had been immersed in DIY music-making for close to a decade prior, spending his teens tinkering with guitars, samplers and tape machines while playing basement noise shows and recording home-brewed demos with friends.
In the years that followed, Naples has continued to refine his charmingly scuzzy, refreshingly individual take on house and techno while treating periodical longform releases as an opportunity to explore slower tempos and a shifting palette of obscure moods and hazy textures. orbs, Naples’ fifth full-length project, is a masterwork of musical escapism.
“The best records take you to another place”, he tells us. “I want my music to sound otherworldly: outside of the realm of possibility.” Written in Naples’ home studio, orbs is an astral projection: a means of transcending these quotidian surroundings to reach a celestial plane.
Across ten dreamlike tracks, synths twinkle, reverb shimmers and woozy melodies eddy and whirl across the stereo field, floating by like an untethered astronaut. Placid, downtempo grooves provide an anchor in the ambience, and there are distant echoes of shoegaze, chillout and dub’s dilatory thump amid the swirls of cosmic dust.
Naples spoke to us from his home in New York, giving us a captivating insight into the creative process behind orbs’ interplanetary drift and talking us through his journey into music-making, his relationship with gear, and how 16 channels are more than enough.
Looking back a little bit to begin with, how did you first get involved with music production and electronic music-making?
“I started out playing bass and guitar, these sorts of instruments. There’s this group called Rancid; I saw the music video for one of their songs years ago, and the bassline was just so crazy. I was probably 12 or 13, and I remember that was the moment I was like, I want to get a bass guitar. So I started with bass guitar, got one of those, needed more strings, got a guitar… moved on, moved on.
“When I was 14 or 15, there was a band called Bloc Party, and they had an album of remixes of their first release, Silent Alarm. On that compilation, there were all sorts of people, including Four Tet. I didn't know much about electronic music - I guess at that point, I knew Warp Records, Aphex Twin, stuff like this. But that compilation, and things like Warp and Caribou and Madlib, as I was digging into what they were doing to make music, I was like, oh… you can make music in your house, just on your computer.
“I had a pretty bad laptop, but I started to work on Ableton around 2006 or so, when I was 16. Just the Intro version, so I couldn’t use as many tracks. I continued doing that for years and years: I didn't have any sort of formal education in making music along the way. I eventually did an internship at a studio called Gary's Electric here in New York. It's part of the label Mexican Summer. While I was doing that, I was working for a record label called Captured Tracks as a distribution manager.
“As I was coming to New York, I was 18 or 19 at the time, I was interning in this studio while they were making Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica, and a bunch of other albums were being made at the same time. I was helping set up mics and getting tea and that sort of thing. So I'm watching what's going on in that environment, but then also at home I’m trying to make music in the vein of Panda Bear and Four Tet and Caribou: messing around with instruments, but also samples and electronics. At that point, when I was 19 or 20, I was finally able to put things together to make music for the first time.”
The Four Tet remix you mentioned, is that the remix of So Here We Are?
“Exactly. It really was pivotal to me. That compilation definitely opened some doors: to Stones Throw, to what was going on in the UK with him and Caribou. At that age, I was most definitely into indie rock, that's what I was into.
“But yeah, that happened, Animal Collective happened, and there was this whole thing in the US at the time called New Weird America, based around The Smell, No Age, and Abe Vigoda. They were kind of electronic, but definitely rock music. There were samplers being used and experimentation happening. That was my background: doing noise shows and doing weird SP-404-based electronic music and stuff like that, before getting into dance music.”
When you were making your first tracks, was that mostly just with Ableton or did you have any gear?
“I definitely had a few pieces of gear. As a teenager, I had tons of gear: pedals and weird keyboards and Casiotones and these sorts of things. I had a Casio CZ-101, but I had no idea how to record it. I don't even know if I had an audio interface. I had this old Portastudio, but it didn't have EQ or anything, it just had these weird slider things on it - not even faders, they were rounded like a volume knob. So I had the instruments, but I didn't put two and two together in terms of putting it onto the computer. I was more interested in tape music.
“Computers weren't totally my thing at that point. I was still focused on noise music and experimental music. I had a Tascam 38, because I saw that Animal Collective had used one for Sung Tongs. Back then they didn’t cost what they do now. I had that, I had the Casio, I had a bunch of guitar pedals and loopers and things like that. Not much more than that. Definitely no synths.
“I was using Ableton for a long time, but then I got a MacBook and I switched over to using Logic. So for my first two or three records, I was using just Logic and VSTs, but I hadn't figured out how to put the instruments into the computer, so that was separate. I would jam with friends on one and then make dance music in this other way. Then I got rid of the MacBook, got a PC and got back into Ableton again, and I’ve been on Ableton since.”
What does your set-up look like today?
“It’s a home studio. I’m not a bedroom producer: everything is in another room next to the bedroom. I don't have a ton of stuff, but for the most recent record, I got into analogue summing, which I think is a bit of a wormhole. I got the Neve Orbit, which is their new summing box. But then of course to use that, if you don’t have enough outputs, you have to get a whole other box of AD/DA conversion. So I got that, and I was stemming everything out of that into the Neve and then into the SSL Fusion.
“That’s what I did in the end, but to start with, I was using a lot of samplers - I have an SP-404, an MPC Live, a few things. I was using those to sample, playing guitar, playing bass, messing with drums on Ableton, making the songs in the way I made my last record, which is a mix of live instruments, samples and soft synths.
“I just have one synth, the Minilogue XD, which I love. I used to have the Oberheim OB-6, but my studio is always in flux - because of space primarily, but I'm in New York, so it’s the cost of living too. So I'm pretty used to getting gear and getting rid of gear pretty quickly. Not within like a week or something, but maybe every few years, I switch it up completely.
“For this record, there weren’t a ton of big analogue synths. For basslines, I used the Minilogue, and then otherwise, I just used Omnisphere, Serum, things like that. I had a Warm Audio 273, their version of the 1073. It was really good to run stuff through, but I didn't find that it really made that drastic of a difference that I couldn't have just used the UAD plugin.”
Did you mix the record yourself?
“On my last record, I had someone mix the record - my friend Chris Wang, who's done all sorts of cool projects. I wanted to take it to the next step, so I went to his house and he mixed it with me in the room, which was probably a real headache for him.
“But for this next record, I settled on trying to mix it as well as I could on my own. I got some acoustic panels set up and everything so that I can make it sound better in the room, because it's a pretty odd-shaped room. I think it's set up pretty incorrectly actually, the way it’s laid out. I did my best to make it a better room for the mixing process.
“I tried the Mixcube thing. I remember Philippe Zdar did an interview years ago and said that working with the Mixcube is like looking at a painting from really far away. When you want to see the details, you use the bigger speakers, but when you're looking at the whole thing, you can do most of it from the Avantone. So I got into that whole thing, the mono mixing. I read a ton of these interviews, and I saw that Derek Ali from TDE uses one of those, and I was like okay, that must be the way to do things: do most of the mix in mono, and then try and make it translate after that.”
The outboard gear and the analogue summing process you mentioned, is that something new for this record?
“I’ve never done anything like it. There's a bit of a debate about whether it matters at all, or if it really does anything. I would say, from having watched videos of it on YouTube, or listened to sound clips, I can understand completely why people would think it's totally a waste of time. But once you're in the room with the sound, I think you can really hear the depth of field change.
“There's a clear difference to me. I would run everything through the box, it sounds fine, sounds good. No problem. But once you start stemming out all the different buses into the Neve and then back into the computer, it’s clear that something's changed. Even if it's really small, I think it's definitely noticeable. I don't want to say that it’s a magic bullet, but it definitely changes things.
“I don't ever want to leave the instant recall world, the endless auditioning world, but it's nice to be able to just run things out at the end and give it a bit more of a push. I do make a lot of the music fully digitally, so it can sound that way. But I think it's a good balance for me to push it out a bit into the analogue world. Though I still swear by being able to instantly pitch-shift something or cut it up. I'm never going to make music on a bunch of MIDI-synced hardware boxes. I've tried but it just doesn't work for me.”
Can you talk us through your writing process for this album?
“I'm just trying to find ways to make it feel spontaneous and jammy. I have everything ready to go, and then I loop little ideas and I use granular synths. I love the Arturia EFX Fragments. I love using that, but I don't really know much about granular synthesis from a technical standpoint.
“I love using all the SoundToys stuff. ElastiquePitch V2, that’s another one I really like, and ShaperBox. Just to get things sounding really different, even if it's just a simple four-bar loop that I'll make on guitar, drums, bass, whatever, then just putting it through that and making it sound like a weird sample, as a starting point.
“That’s the basis of how I'm making a lot of music these days. I find it really hard to just start a track with just a pad, or something like that. I have to have something in place that’s a texture almost, not just like a chord, you know? Then sometimes I’ll just take the original thing out once the rest of the track is there.”
You mentioned the Korg Minilogue XD. How long have you had that?
“I’ve had that longer than I've had any piece of gear, which is four years, or something now. I've gone through everything. There’s something to be said for amassing things and having a big collection of stuff, but I'm not really a collector sort of person.
“I found that having the OB-6 was amazing, it sounds unreal, but I'm not a synth player. So I don't feel like I was utilising it beyond getting some cool chords out of it. I'm not a virtuoso. So I sold it, thinking: I can play guitar really well - I mean, not really well, but well enough - so I should probably invest in something like that, which I play every day and know how to use, and then just get a decent synthesizer that I could also use as a MIDI keyboard.
“I've had some crazy synths. I've had modular stuff, but that was a waste of time for me. Basically, anytime I get new gear - or if I'm getting deep into finding new plugins, or this whole outboard thing I’ve got into - it's all just a way for me to resist getting down to just making music. Because at the end of the day, I can make music on this laptop. I have done for many years: I just used a MacBook Air with Arturia maybe or a few of the stock plugins.
“Anytime I get into this thing where I'm like, oh, what I really need is a Juno - which is what I'm kind of considering getting at the moment - it's all just an excuse not to work. It's just to look at all this other stuff and think that it's gonna help if I get that: once I get this compressor, or something, it's gonna get me back on it. But it's all just procrastination.”
Sometimes having too many options can be creatively paralysing.
“I guess that's been said a lot, even just about using VSTs and software. It's true that having too many of anything limits you, but I haven't had trouble getting down to it if I just have the computer, or just one synth, or whatever. There’s something to be said for having fun and having a lot of stuff around you to just come up with ideas.
“I think if you get into the situation where you’re feeling like you need to have the perfect audio chain to get any music done, that's a problem. That's definitely getting in the way of having fun. But I think having more plugins, or having more synthesisers, or having more guitar effect pedals, I don't know if that necessarily limits creativity. If anything, I think it expands it.
“Someone whose studio I think is really cool is the guy from Tame Impala, Kevin Parker. Or this guy Frank Dukes that I know. His studio set-up, when I saw a picture of it I was like: oh yeah, that's what a studio should look like. It's just a bunch of really cool gear, instantly patched into an audio interface or a few preamps, and ready to go. So anytime he wants to record piano, he just runs over, records it, loops it in and then goes over to the Prophet… it’s not like this imposing space where everything's put away.
“I've seen some professional studios where everything's slid off into a corner, and if you want to have it out, you have to pull it out and mic it and all of that. I think him and Kevin Parker, they have the coolest studios, because they’re just these spaces where there's tons of cool instruments and cool effects and everything ready to go at any point. So when you have an idea, you're just straight into it. No worrying about the preamps.
“Yeah, all these things are important - I had this Warm Audio thing, and I've messed around with the 1176, the new UAD one. It clearly sounds better than the plugin, but for my purposes, I don't know if it's necessarily the thing I need to get to the end result.”
I suppose fiddling around with that kind of stuff at a certain stage in the process can interrupt the creative flow?
“Or If you're too worried about getting the ratio right instead of just recording the melody. There's a time and place for everything. If you're doing a vocal chain or something, it's good to get all that set up ahead of time, obviously. But if you're just making ideas in your house like I am, it's a bit of overkill to think that you need to have it set up perfectly.
“It’s important to know this stuff, but eventually you have to experiment. It’s good to know the basis of it, but at the same time, you should be able to mess around. The things that we're using now as a basis for how to do things, they’re all just based on other people experimenting with ideas. I try to remember that when I'm working on stuff: there are no rules in that sense, there's no right or wrong.”
Did you learn any new techniques or processes for this album?
“Going into this, when I decided that I wasn't going to have my friend Chris do the mixing, he was kind enough to send me this YouTube playlist. I just went through and watched all these interviews with Bob Powers and all sorts of people about gain-staging, and setting up your room to make sure it's good, and parallel compression, etcetera. So going into this record, a lot of how it sounds is a byproduct of taking the time to learn these things.
“I did an interview like 10 years ago with XLR8R, and I think at that point, I was kind of stupid about these things. I was just like, I don't EQ anything - it's true, I didn't know what I was doing. I would just smash things into Ableton and put a big limiter on the master bus and send it off to Dubplates & Mastering and they would master it as is.
“But now I'm a little bit more methodical about making sure I'm doing things kind of correctly. If anything it’s just to make it more dynamic and more spacious-sounding. So I wasn't really going into this with more of an intention of making it sound better, but I think I've learned so much more over the past few years about how to make music, and I've listened to a ton of music in that time too.
“Before 2019 I moved around at least once a year, so I never had a stable room where I was listening to music on the same speakers. But in the last few years, I've listened to so much music in my studio that I think it's helped me figure out how to make things sound how I want them to.
“I wasn't going into it thinking that I need to challenge what I'm doing, necessarily, because I think always when I'm making music, I'm doing a similar thing. I'm trying to get to this place that I have in my head - and you never do. You're always trying to go for this perfect image you have in your head of what the next album could be. I’m happy with it, but that's what keeps me going for the next one.”
So what kind of sound or image did you have in your head for this record?
“I wouldn't say there was a goal going into it, but it was more to create a record that you can get lost in, like a sound world. That’s why I called it orbs - maybe it's a bit on the nose, but I was hoping it'd be this weird sound world. I wanted it to be very different to the way my room looks. My room is just this little room in my apartment in New York, and it's loud outside… anytime I can make music that doesn't sound or feel like that room, I feel like I've achieved something.
“For me, those are the best records. They take you to another place. I think recording studios are amazing, and they're very inspiring to me as places, but I don't always want music to sound like a recording studio. I want it to sound otherworldly: outside of the realm of possibility.”
You mentioned getting lost in this album - sonically, it’s super atmospheric and spacious. What techniques or tools are you using to get that kind of sound?
“I use a lot of the Soundtoys MicroShift, and a lot of the Echoboy too. Particularly this one preset called EchoBoy’s Galaxy. I guess it's better practice to put the echo and delays on a send, but I generally put it on individual channels as inserts. So things are not always necessarily sharing the same space, which I think sometimes makes it sound a bit crazy, but also for me is really important, so that things can float on their own, in a way.
“I use a lot of the Soundtoys stuff, which I guess everybody uses. I don't have it anymore, as now I have the El Capistan, but before, I had the Strymon Volante. It's like this Binson Echorec clone that they made. I had that set up as an insert, so a lot of stuff was going through that.
“I use the Valhalla stuff, the free ones. I just got the reverbs finally, but before I was using Supermassive on everything. I use a lot of delays. I get a lot of people saying that my music sounds very dubby, and it’s because I'm using the traditional dub effects: phaser, reverb and echo. Those are the three effects I use on basically anything. I don't really mess around with flanger or chorus. It's a lot of that, with the LFO on Ableton.
“At the end, it goes through the SSL, which has that crazy Space knob, and that’s just like… boom. Everything's just cranked out to 11. I think it actually goes to 11 on that thing. [laughs] So I put that pretty far out, but it’s a mid-side processor, so you can also bring the bass in really tight while it spreads everything out. Then when I send it off to mastering, they taper it in a bit, because it might be a bit too wide.
“Otherwise, I use a lot of Arturia effects. I love their spring reverb, that’s on a lot of the record. I think that that one sounds amazing. I actually realised I don't have any other spring reverb plugins, it’s one of the only ones. You can really run the input on it hard, which gets it all crunchy. I love that thing.”
I spotted the Hologram Electronics Microcosm in your studio shots…
“That's on everything! I can’t believe I didn't mention that thing. One of the tracks is called Ackee, there's this arpeggio, it’s the first thing that comes in on the song. That's just the bass guitar through the Microcosm - I just played like three notes and it goes and plays the whole sequence by itself. So it's just three notes, but it makes this whole thing happen. That was the Microcosm. That thing is incredible - it’s been really helpful for me. I think Kieran [Four Tet] just got one as well.
“I feel like it’s almost an instrument by itself. It’s not so much a pedal, in the sense that I don’t think of it as an added effect. It just takes over whatever you put into it. I have an expression pedal set to it as well, which is something I actually copied from the dude from Khruangbin. He has an expression pedal hooked up to the El Capistan, and then that's how he transitions between songs on stage, he just feeds it back into itself. So I plugged one into the Microcosm, and it's so cool to be able to fluctuate that with your foot. That thing is crazy. Worth every penny. Expensive, but yeah, it's good.”
I was going to ask about the pitch-shifting going on in tracks like Gem, where the guitar jumps an octave. Was that the Microcosm?
“No, that would have been ShaperBox, but maybe going in before that would have been Microcosm. Or after - I might have run the whole thing through Microcosm on the backend. There's only two tracks. That's another huge thing with me about making music: I don't think I've ever exceeded 16 mono channels on a mixer.
“This is a new MacBook Air, fully specced-out with all the gigabytes, but back in the day, for ten years I had the bottom-of-the-line Macbook Air. I think it had four gigabytes of RAM, and I didn't have Ableton Suite, so I was maxed out at 16 channels. That’s how I did everything: Fog FM, Chameleon, Take Me With You, Body Pill. The maximum I could do would be 16 channels and two sends.
“Everything was just being committed straight in audio. So if I was doing something with delay on a sample, it'd be printed that way. I'd say it's only on the last few records where I’ve started doing everything with automation. It was all being done with guitar effect pedals and stuff back in the past.
“But I still haven't really exceeded 16 channels on this album, for two reasons. One is, I don't really know what you could do with more than 16 channels. And also, the Neve only has 16 channels. I was intent on everything going back into it as eight stereo groups without exceeding that. So everything had to fit in there anyway.
“I'm always shocked when I see someone open a project file with like, 90 tracks. I'm just like, what is on every single one of these? I get it, if it's a band, or if it's like a pop record or something, but I have no idea what you're fitting on there if it’s a techno track. The basis of a song is already there in three tracks. If you're doing a house track, it's bass, drums and one other element, and it’s either already good at that point or it's not. Everything on top of that is just ear candy.”
I can imagine that processes you’ve described are quite useful in finishing projects, if you’re forced to commit to decisions early on in the writing process by printing effects, or you only have a certain amount of tracks to work with.
“Yeah. If anything, that’s my strength in music: I can make decisions quick. I'm pretty ruthless with getting rid of stuff that I don't think is working. With orbs, there's another 10 tracks that just don't fit the whole scope of the project. I might have even read this in something Kieran [Four Tet] said when I was younger, he did a Sound on Sound thing. He said that what makes him a producer is that he can decide when something's done. I feel like that was really ingrained in me early on.
“Just because you might think, this is too simple, or this doesn't look the way that other people's music looks on the screen… but it's like, no, just listen to it. Does it sound like a piece of music or not? Okay, if it does, then it's done. It doesn't need to be more complicated than that.
“On a similar token, when you print some effects in, you could go in and edit that and add all sorts of other stuff to it. But it sounds pretty good on its own. Does it need to be any different? A lot of time with music production, I read these things all the time and it gets me worked up, thinking ‘I really do need that, I do need this’ - but really, you don't need anything: you just need a few good ideas to make music. It's all just ideas.”
A lot of the sounds in your music have this beautifully fuzzy, crunchy and distorted feel to them. What are your go-to techniques for getting this kind of saturation and distortion?
“I joined the long legion of people using Decapitator. [laughs] Everybody seems to use that as their default saturation device at this point. That was actually something Chris Wang showed me when he mixed my last one. I asked him for some feedback on what he thought I should do differently. He said, I think what you're trying to achieve by using preamp channel strips is just saturation, so maybe just get a better saturator. That's when I got Decapitator and started using that instead.
“I use Ableton’s Saturator a lot too. Drum Buss is on everything. That thing's crazy. I don't know what it does, but it does exactly what it needs to, every time. It's amazing. On the Neve Orbit, there's a Silk button - I don't know exactly what it does either, but I think it adds distortion to the high frequencies, and there’s a blue button that adds it to the low frequencies.
“So on this record, I didn't do as much heavy-handed, tape-sim compression because I knew that it was going to go through this process at the end that adds a lot of harmonic distortion. Then on the SSL, there's also more harmonic distortion. So there's two analogue channels of that happening on the master bus, which is basically all I use.
“I used to use the Toneboosters Reelbus, I was really big on that. I sometimes use the Waves J37 tape machine plugin, which I think is great, too. But this time, I didn't do anything digital, other than the Decapitator I didn't use anything, because I knew that I was going to run it through enough at the end.”
Are there any other stock Ableton plugins you find yourself using a lot?
“Echo, for sure. The Wavetable synthesizer I use all the time. LFO, Auto Pan, the filter. I just got FabFilter Pro-Q 3, but I used the EQ Eight for this whole record. The whole thing is just the standard EQ. Only because I know how to use it - I'm sure the FabFilter sounds amazing, but I just don't know how to use it just yet. I use a lot of the Max for Live sequencers, Mono is one of them. You just press the spacebar and it's synced to the clock and you can just mess around with different polyrhythms. I use that kind of stuff all the time.
“As for Ableton stuff, definitely the filter. That's on everything. Everyone says the filter sounds bad, but for me, if you don't have any other option it sounds totally fine. I don't really have other filters. I just take the resonance out, because I don't think that that sounds great.
“What else? Oh, I love using Erosion. I put it on the Wide Noise preset and it adds this digital crunchiness, then I EQ out all the highs. It kind of sounds like vinyl hiss. You can put it on a pad and it adds this crinklyness to it. I think most people would say it’s too digital-sounding, but having that going through an echo so it adds all these weird little particle-y texture things, while also having warmth in the low end.
“Echo, I think is amazing. If I didn't have Echoboy I would just use Ableton Echo. I used it all over all my other records, because I didn't have SoundToys until six months ago. You can also just run it totally dry: just run the input and it has a nice overdrive. I love combining delays with iZotope Vinyl, the free one. Putting that in a channel and then putting Echo on it, and having it be this thing in the background that’s making a bunch of weird noise, with wobble and LFOs and stuff like that. Just to make a little base and then you can work on top of that.
“Sometimes that's how I’ll start a track, by making this little sound bed. You can turn the mechanical noise up so it sounds like there's like a cable unplugged, and somehow that's enough: if you put that on, then you start working on top of that, somehow that's a song. When you open Ableton, it's just this quiet, empty palette, you know? It’s a hard place to start every time you're making music. Every time I make something I'm always like, that's crazy… there was nothing there before, and now there's a whole song!”