Emika: "Anyone with a laptop or a DJ is a producer by default"

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With three successful electronic albums under her belt, a collection of classical piano compositions and numerous writing credits for film and TV, Ema Jolly, better known as Emika, undertook what she considered to be her most ambitious project, writing and recording a full symphony comprising conductor, soprano vocalist and 70-strong orchestra.

Untangled from her record contract and free to release music on her own Emika Records, her first move was to seek funding via Kickstarter. Entitled How to Make a Symphony, nearly 500 backers ensured the campaign exceeded its initial 25,000€ budget. Enlisting the talent of soprano vocalist Michaela Šrumová, Emika headed to Prague to begin recording, before returning to her studio in Berlin to mix the project.

Tell us about your classical upbringing and how it informed this symphony project.

“I’d had a pretty standard music education in England, including piano lessons from about 12 years old; then I did music A Level at school. After that, I began to learn about classical music, which is where my classical training comes from. I really wanted to focus on composition but realised that when you study composition at university, you’re mostly studying the work of the great composers and there’s very little chance to make your own music. That’s when I switched to studying creative music technology. I figured that if I learned how to record and produce, I could do something with the music I was writing and make tracks and albums rather than traditional compositional scores and trying to find musicians to play them. In those days, I was really into hip-hop, trip-hop, drum ’n’ bass and raving, and I’d made some friends who had little studios and was assisting them with recording MCs and playing my cello, which was a much cooler environment than the classical one.”

Was writing a fully-fledged orchestral score something you’d always had an ambition to do?

“That’s the thing. I wanted to flex my skills and always had this desire as a writer to bring something much bigger to life. I basically wanted to be a proper producer, where you sit in a chair, put a project together and have some money behind you and all these amazing musicians helping to make the music come to life. I wanted to be on that side of the glass. In fact, that’s where I’ve always preferred being, but when you put out records and sing, people expect you to perform.”

Many years ago, the producer’s role was exactly as you describe it, but now everybody that makes music is called a ‘producer’…

“Exactly, anyone with a laptop or a DJ is a producer by default. I’ve got my own producer idols like Timbaland, Dr. Dre or The Neptunes; basically, all of the North American producers. I really look to them and how they make records, and really aspire to that role in making music.”

Did you listen to classical music in your spare time and was that a necessity?

“I go through phases of listening to classical music, but when I have it on at home I’m mainly listening to it in terms of research. I listened to a lot of Chopin piano pieces, Rachmaninov and Shostakovich. I love the Russian composers, like Prokofiev, and there’s a composer called Anton Bruckner whose symphonies really inspire me. He used a really big orchestra with a huge string section, and everything sounds very rich and quite moody.” 

You released Klavirni in 2015, which was an album of piano instrumentals. Did you see Melanfonie as the next step, further fleshing out those ideas?

“When I started a label for my own music after Ninja Tune, it felt like a new beginning, and I started making music at the piano. That was always my goal, to somehow get to the symphony, but I wasn’t sure at that time how I’d do that. But I was working on the symphony a lot in the background while I was still doing other releases.”

Explain the process of writing a score; presumably you use modern digital technology?

“I had a Mac laptop running an old copy of Logic 8 and looked to see if I could get a cheap orchestral library. Things are so much cheaper now than they were ten years ago. Back then, to have an orchestral library would have cost you thousands, but there’s a great one made by East West - I think it’s called the Silver library. It had all the sounds I wanted to use in quite a basic way, so I sat with my headphones on and clicked in all the notes on my laptop.”

How did you align that to how you imagined an orchestra might perform it?

“I spent a really long time thinking about the sounds I wanted and where the musicians were going to sit, but before I started writing, I’d already been to Prague, because I’m half Czech, it’s near Berlin and I have some connections there. Another fun fact is that in Eastern Europe - especially the Czech Republic and Austria - you pay musicians as session musicians, so once you pay them, the rights belong to you. If you work with orchestras in England and release music, you have to keep paying royalties. This way, you’re essentially buying the music; otherwise the project would have been impossible for me.”

Do you need to be an expert in music notation in order to create a classical score?

“I thought about doing that and working with a score writing program called Sibelius that has sound so you can listen back to what you’ve written, but I’ve always worked in Logic - it’s like my pen and paper. I work very fast. When I hear a melody in my head, I can pencil it in Logic super-quick, and when you write symphonically, there are so many different layers, and each layer you add inspires the next. I love how immediate it is when you have a pencil and can draw in MIDI blocks and change the velocity. It felt a more fluid way to work than making notations.”

I love how immediate it is when you have a pencil and can draw in MIDI blocks and change the velocity. It felt a more fluid way to work than making notations.

So you just needed to get writing and envision the composition performed by an orchestra.

“I knew there was going to be this difficult part of the project when I would need to translate what I’d written to classical musicians, because they need everything written perfectly in traditional notation form. In the end, I decided to call up my music teacher from school and asked him if he’d like the job of transcribing the music. Over about six months, I was sending him MIDI parts from Logic for each of the movements and he was importing them into Sibelius. We had a lot of problems doing that, though, because weird notes would appear from nowhere; but he teaches classical music and has a much more experienced head than me. He also knew that I want to do weird stuff in the context of classical music and was very good at acting as the bridge between myself and that world.”

Was there a particular feeling you wanted to transmit to the audience through the music?

“It’s nice that you ask me that, because I’m always thinking technically about the sound. What I really wanted to do with my piece was to switch it up from the usual classical stuff in a couple of ways. What annoys me about classical music is that the violins are on one side and the bass is on the other, so in terms of the stereo field, you have high notes one side and low on the other. That feels really weird to me, because when you’re writing and mixing all this bass music in the stereo field, the bass is always in the centre. So I decided to double the amount of bass players you’d normally have and put them in the middle of the group and split the violins into two groups on the left and right. That’s actually quite a normal thing to do in the world of soundtrack music, because it makes everything sound very wide and smooth. I also wanted to compose the echo itself, so I sat one harp on the left and another on the right and had them play slightly out of time with each other, so instead of using delay as a post-production effect, it was written into the score. I also wanted to have quite a loud record that wouldn’t duck out, and that’s something we thought about a lot during the mixing stage.”

How complicated was the mixing process? 

“I decided not to mix this project, because it was too much for me. Instead, I worked closely with my mixing engineer and the music was compressed quite heavily during mastering to get the right sound. The thing is, when you’re in the hall listening to the performance on the day, it’s so loud that it gives you goose bumps. You can hear 50 people in the room and you get this massive energy from all of them playing together, which you feel in a very primal way. But then it all ends up on a hard drive, and when you bring it home and listen to it on speakers, half of the experience is just not there anymore. I was really disappointed, because it felt like such an anticlimax. That’s why I worked so closely with my engineer, to help me figure out how we could get it to sound like it did on the day.” 

It sounds like it was quite a challenge for your mixing engineer, too…

“I met him a couple of times late at night in Berlin to have a kebab, and he always looked really spaced out trying to figure out what to do. We had 60 direct mic channels and recorded everything with ambient trees. There were so many potential takes, and all these tiny sounds that we didn’t hear on the day, because we had the levels quite low in the control room. Classical musicians often bring stuff to read, because maybe the tuba player is sitting at the back and only has three notes to play in one hour, so they all bring stuff to read and eat. That’s totally normal, but you could hear all these little sounds of people shuffling around. So a lot of the mixing was about cleaning up the sound and deciding what we wanted to leave in. I also did some post-production editing, adding delay and reversing some of the parts to make them sound a bit dreamier.”

How did you want the listener to feel emotionally upon listening to the final product?

“I think that mainly came intuitively during the writing process. The feelings are coming out, and I think that’s what people will inevitably interpret. In terms of the narrative, I wanted to have these very open, universal themes of love, loss, grief, sanity and madness. The piece is very emotional and I want everybody who listens to be able to really feel it. It’s very lyrical in its narrative, in contrast to a lot of modern orchestral pieces that sound quite plinky plonky and conceptual. I wanted it to be very romantic and evoke lots of feelings through the story itself, and have a soprano vocalist singing the story and using a lot of metaphors. But that’s what I love about music; I feel it can touch you in a much deeper way than just looking at art.”

Could you give a practical example of how you created orchestral parts that could deliver an emotional resonance?

“Well I loved working with the orchestra, because you have all these colours and layers and a lot of the sounds symbolise different things. There’s one movement, called Letting Go, that starts with a glockenspiel. I put it right in the centre at the back, and up until that movement there’s lots of long notes and everyone is playing together. The movement symbolises someone who wakes up from a depression and has this tiny new inspiration or thought that is hopeful, which then connects to other ideas. So the glockenspiel starts with this melody and the strings move from long legato notes to pizzicato and connect with the glockenspiel, which represents your thoughts coming back to life.”

How did you go about finding a soprano vocalist, and the orchestra itself?

“I met Michaela Šrumová when I was working on my second album, Dva, and she recorded some vocals for me. I fell in love with her voice from the first session and recognised that she was so much more than a singer. I really wanted to write some music for her and had that bubbling in the background for years, so when I decided to make the symphony, I thought she’d be a great choice as the featured soprano. Her best friend has a booking agency in Prague for projects just like this, so I went there to meet him and he gave me a little tour. We looked at several studios in Prague, but when we found the Czech Radio Studio, the hall really inspired me.”

The campaign was funded by Kickstarter. Was it difficult to figure out exactly how much money you would need to pay for everything?

“That took a lot of preparation. The head booker for the project booked all the players and the studio, and gave me a quote for everything including how much the musicians and the studio would cost. We worked it out based on the length of the piece and how many times we might need to redo a movement. There were also legal fees and I had to draft contracts for photographers, the film crew, travel, accommodation and catering. I also needed to go there a bit before with my team to have meetings and get everything prepared. I actually underestimated all the tiny transaction fees I’d have to pay to PayPal and Kickstarter, but luckily we were overfunded by about 5,000€.”

What sort of studio facilities did you have in the hall to capture the recordings?

“The studio set everything up for us. We had direct microphones and all different instrument groups, and then we had several ambient trees above those different groups. We had stereo mics for the hall at the front and the back and we recorded absolutely everything as much as we could. When we finished the session, the studio gave us a rough mix on a hard drive; then it was all about putting it back together again on Pro Tools when we got back to Berlin.”

When it came to supplementing the music in the studio, did you try to avoid overproducing what obviously would have been a very natural and organic sound?

“I’d actually planned to do way more creative processing with echo and reverb, but what we had was so nice that, in the end, the mix was very dry. We hardly used any reverb at all, because I really loved the sound of all the instruments from the direct microphone takes. They were so close you could hear the sound of the players’ fingers, and I love all that. I didn’t want it to sound like a soundtrack, but a real piece of music.”

What software did you use for production and mixing when you got back to the studio?

“My engineer was also working in Pro Tools, which he’d set up in front of his bed on a massive TV [laughs]. We didn’t really have a proper studio setup. I worked a lot from my laptop, and between us we had about six different sets of speakers, so we could constantly check the mix. We used Genelec 850s and a pair of Adams. We listened on a laptop, in the car and on iPhone to see how it translated, but it sounds best on vinyl and especially CD.”

How do you think this experience will affect your approach to composition or the type of music you release in the future?

“The whole experience has really opened my mind. For example, when I’m DJing I used to think about what cool track will come next, and this applies to when I play live, too, because now I’m thinking much more about having movements. For example, breaking the show into halves, the pace of it and where I want to take people. I think much more symphonically now. Even when I’m playing piano, I see everything with an orchestra in my head. And even if I’ve just got a bunch of machines in front of me, I divide everything as though I’m in this big space with all these different sounds. I feel that music’s made from memories. Whenever I play at a venue, I go home and have the memory of that place and those people, and now I have memories of orchestrating in a massive hall, so it’s opened my mind beyond the computer.”

Armed with all this knowledge, can you foresee yourself moving further into soundtrack or recording a second symphony project?

“I know that moving into soundtrack is what people often do and it would be a smart career move, but I really love music for music’s sake. It’s really hard doing film scores, because you have to work with a director and everything you do is to support what you see on the screen. I’m working on my next symphony, which, conceptually, will take place before this one, but I’m thinking more cinematically in terms of stories. I love to listen to music in the dark and to do symphonies today is such a cool, weird thing to be doing.”

I’m working on my next symphony, which, conceptually, will take place before this one, but I’m thinking more cinematically in terms of stories. I love to listen to music in the dark and to do symphonies today is such a cool, weird thing to be doing.

And would you consider doing another Kickstarter project?

“Yeah, but I don’t quite have the courage to do it yet. I hope I’ll become brave again, but there’s this whole thing about beginner’s luck and maybe everyone funded it because it was new and exciting. Then again, I have this audience now that really liked Melanfonie and might want to hear the next part of the story. I hired a conductor called Miriam Nemcova to sit in the control room and be my music director. She was reading the score the whole time and checking that everything was being played correctly. Next time, I’d use her experience and have her as the conductor and director, and I’d also budget for rehearsals and record the performance without a click track, because we did a live show of Melanfonie in Hungary with Miriam conducting, and it was so dramatic and tense, and had such a different energy. It would be a recorded performance rather than a studio session.”

How’s your studio shaping up these days? 

“I have this really nice stage piano from Kawai. I’ve just recently started working with them and I’m trying to figure out a new setup using piano and delays. I’ve also started working with Earthworks, so I’m waiting to get this massive pickup piano mic, because I would love to do some live performances with piano and echo, and pickup mics are the best for that. I want to mic up the piano so I can run my Eventide delays live, and the pickup mic is really good for strings, otherwise you just get loads of feedback. I’m moving in a more acoustic direction and have sold a few of my drum machines.”

You’re going to want them back one day…

“Well, maybe I’ll buy some things back when I need them. But I’ve also got my next album coming out soon, which is going to be all electronic. I’ve been making that in the background. It was actually going to come first, because I never thought I would get this symphony recorded. So I’ve had this electronic record sat on the shelf for a year. It’s the follow-up to Drei. I’ve been using Logic X, or is it 10? The newest version of Logic, which was a massive switch, because I first started using Logic when it used to be called eMagic – before it was taken over by Apple. I was fortunate enough to visit Apple when I was in San Francisco recently and had a studio session with the head developer of Logic there. He showed me some really interesting stuff with their new soft synth, Alchemy. So I haven’t been using many new plugins, but the Logic sequencer has really developed and I love using all the new presets and effects they have now.”

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