Detroit natives Rickers and Ted Krisko are Ataxia, an electronic duo serving up a raw and unfiltered take on dance music that’s inspired by formative years spent in hardcore and punk bands.
The electrifying amalgam of house, techno, breakbeat and rave found on their latest release, Out of Step, is produced using a formidable arsenal of analogue machines, pedals and outboard gear, along with a few strategically deployed stock plugins from their DAW of choice, Ableton Live.
We caught up with the pair to delve deeper into the creative process and studio secrets behind their new album.
When did you start making music, and how did you first get started?
Ted: “Guitar in the early ‘90s was my initial swan dive into all the ruckus. Punk was the first route that had the most immediate gratification. Three chords, sometimes less, sometimes none. Early staples were Fugazi, Nirvana, Black Flag, Minor Threat, and loads of Beastie Boys jams. My cousin gave me an original ProCo RAT distortion fuzzbox - this set the pace early on. My bands recorded on Tascam 4-tracks relentlessly throughout my youth… oh how things come full circle.”
Rickers: “I started making music genuinely when I heard “The Vans Song” by Suicide Machines circa 2002, although I think the original was released in ‘95. They inspired me to make music that was fun, purposefully lacking a “seriousness” that would, by definition, destroy creativity. I played the bass guitar, that was the first instrument, and I was focused on making punk rock!”
Tell us about your studio/set-up.
“We have a couple of spaces we work out of. Our main studio is in Detroit, the My Baby Records HQ… a space we share with our brother till the end, Mister Joshooa. Our collective runs the label and studio. We did a lot of damage out of the past version, but the space is currently under renovation to improve some aspects of the acoustics, and also to build soffits for our mains. Our approach is very modular, in a sense that everything lives on a patch bay, including , and maybe most importantly, the I/Os from the front end and console.”
“We are constantly routing and re-routing pedals, rack effects, processing gear… it’s a mess! [laughs] It’s nice though, because we can introduce new equipment on the fly by patching into the console or soundcard on the bay, before making a full commitment as to how or if we will eventually include it in our setup.
“Although there’s no arguing the utility of plug-ins, most of the work is outboard. On one hand, there is no problem with anything in-the-box, it’s all about your ears and the decisions you make about what the sounds are like in your design. On the other hand, it’s fucking amazing going knob-crazy in patch bay paradise.”
“Our second space is a secret lair, stocked with a near carbon copy of the main studio, plus some extra processing and summing equipment, a full array of API outboard rack gear, and a dreamy boutique effects pedal setup: original Boss CH1 & BF2, Mu-Tron Phaser III, Ibanez AD9 Analog Delay with Robert Keeley Baked Mod, Fulltone OCD. Our guitar and bass rigs live here as well… jam station central!”
What DAW (or DAWs) do you use, and why did you choose it?
“Ableton Live. On first take, the processes seemed very user driven as far as depth and control in terms of where to take your experiments. It was more complex than previous DAWs we had early beginnings with, like Fruity Loops and Reason. Richie Hawtin was using Live as a standalone DAW to produce, and as a virtual outboard effects rack for his DJ sets, and does to this day. We took a lot of inspiration from seeing a very in-the-box program used in a very out of the box way.
“Ableton really does have it all - you can set up quick experiments with effects or processing either in line, or through sends/returns, just a few clicks away from your next weird sound! As far as what’s in the box, their instruments are quality stuff! Analog, for instance, is an incredible plug for making a big warm bass tone quickly. In addition to their stock EQs and compressors, plugins like Tension, Operator, and of course the basics like Sampler and Simpler, are all extremely useful and perfect for working on music without needing external instruments or outboard gear at all.”
“And for the noodlers, like us, Max 4 Live brings a whole modular world to the table that really gives users the power to design and deploy their own modules within Ableton’s ecosystem seamlessly. Live has been a steady, reliable beast for us from the earliest days of Ataxia.”
What one piece of gear in your studio could you not do without, and why?
“The Roland SH-101, tried and true. This is the building block of almost every Ataxia song since we first picked up this juggernaut. There is no oddity this synth can’t help you explore. We trigger the 101’s internal sequencer externally with an Elektron Analog Four’s gate out - see our tips section on this one.”
What's the latest addition to your studio?
“Handsome Audio’s Zulu. It’s a passive tape emulator. Transformer magic. It’s kind of insane. We started by tracking with it, and quickly moved on to bussing and summing. The results have been extremely pleasing. It truly does what it says on the tin, tape flutter and wow without the hiss.
“We usually track on a Tascam 438 cassette machine, which is wonderfully fussy but sounds incredible. I can’t see tape getting replaced at our studios in any permanent capacity, but for now, it’s been nice running with something new that brings the music to life in a very similar way.
“The Zulu really does get the drums knocking, while smoothing out transients and getting the claps and hats to gel. Time will tell once and for all - will tape continue to reign supreme, or did Handsome Audio crack the code here?!”
What dream bit of gear would you love to have in your studio?
Ted: “A combo of the API 1608 loaded, along with the Studer A827 MCH 2-inch 24-track tape machine, all patched up and ready for controlled chaos in the best possible way.”
Rickers: “Fuck, lots of things, that most likely wouldn’t make music anymore fun. Honestly, my boy Chuck at Paxahau just got this Rigsmith Analog Dub Siren - it’s tight, so maybe one of those next.”
When approaching a new track or project, where do you start?
“Drums are the core of Ataxia’s vibe. Nearly all of our cuts circulate out of a drum machine riff. Our collection is pretty steep: Roland 909, 727, 707, 606, R8 and the Tanzbar MFB, Vermona DRM1, and Elektron’s Rytm MK1 and 2, so we have a good deal of options for how to express that we are both the drummer. Although, despite the machines, sometimes it’s just a good hip hop or breakbeat sample to get up and running… whatever works!”
“We tend something going on a monosynth next, usually the Roland SH-101. This is routed with a delay pedal in line, which generally helps the vibe for the notes to slap back a little. Polysynth-land usually involves the Sequential Prophet 6, another core Ataxia sound. From there it’s vocals and automation - really not a very long process from start to finish for us.”
“Once things take too long they stop being fun. When the fun stops, the music usually sucks. The music we make relies on translating an energy to people on the receiving end, the goal is to get people to loosen up and have fun. Our punk roots really come through in our process - move quick, or it’s dead in the water. Things that sit around never get finished.”
What are you currently working on?
“We have just dropped Out of Step, our debut album on Life and Death, an Italian label based in Miami, operated by our good friend DJ Tennis. It’s a gatefold, double LP - 12 cuts, clocking in just under 80 minutes. Despite making music together for 13 years, and dropping dozens of singles & EPs, this is Ataxia’s first venture into LP territory. It features good friends and fellow Detroiters Andrés, DJ Minx and Mister Joshooa. Give it a listen and leave a Yelp review.”
“Past this, we have a nice follow-up on deck for Life and Death, plus new material forming for a return to 20/20 Vision, finishing a record for Mike Shannon’s Cynosure. Cooking up something with Paul Woolford / Special Request as well. Honored to work with artists and labels that we hold in high esteem.”
Ataxia's three production tips
1. K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid)
“It doesn’t take much to get something nice cooking. When producing, don’t overthink “making a hit” or “writing a song” and paint yourself into some corner with expectations attached. For us, making dance cuts, it’s about getting a groove going with a bit of kick, hat, snare… then immediately starting experiments with a couple of pieces of gear until you get something that sounds and feels good. A quick riff on a monosynth, some lush pads on a multi-voice instrument, a triggered sequence lead to coast on top, a tight vocal sample to sprinkle in here or there, and boom, you’re off to the races.”
2. Trigger your synth's internal sequencer externally
“Mathew Jonson did some lectures on his setup with the Cirklon triggering the internal sequencer on the Roland SH-101, and it changed the game for how we tackle the midi implementation throughout our studios’ jam stations. That lecture paved the way for a 3D approach to machinery in the Ataxia lab.
“In our studio, any device with a sequencer and a “Trigger Out” becomes a deadly weapon, however complex, reduced to a simple task of sending pulse information to step the internal sequencers on synths like the 101 and Prophet 6. The connection happens with a cable from the external device’s trig out, into “EXT CLK IN” (or something similarly named depending on the synth) you’ll be programming steps into.
“Sync your external device being used to send triggers to a midi clock from your session, and now you’re in the pocket with a completely jazzy approach to jamming your note picks. No longer bound to one dimension of a sequence, you now are at the helm of choosing when the trigger events as steps within the pattern.
“This changes our approach to both how synthesizers are used as modules, and as sequencers, but is a nice work around, as you can even be triggering additional synthesizers that perhaps may not even have an internal sequencer of its own, but can benefit from being downstream from a midi cabling path with a synth prior to it with it’s sequencer being triggered by the external device… because trust us, this style of sequencing is addictive.”
3. Let the LFOs do the heavy lifting
“Automation is crafty, but we as humans, in engineering mode, tend to organize information in some sort of logical, uniform fashion. We’ve found that it’s better to let a device make obscurities and let randomness bring the elements to life. LFOs are technology’s gift to us.
“A beautiful piece of kit to exemplify the LFO’s utility is Vermona’s Filter Lancet. A supreme distortion box melded with a hard-ass LFO, switchable LPF / HPF, pre-volume circuit gain that can quickly overdrive the most sterile of samples into something interesting. Another irreplaceable gem would be the Sherman Filterbank, a major wormhole of odd filtering, modulation and frequency manipulation.”
“Go the distance, see what the knob does, find out what the switch can do for you. These machines were made for us, simply put. If you don’t run experiments you won’t get results.”