Deep down in TikTok’s digital abyss lies a treasure trove of strange, unearthly, and brain-tickling sounds; a bizarro realm populated by alien sonics, otherworldly textures, disembodied vocals and imaginary instruments. Welcome to the weird and whimsical world of Galen Tipton, an American producer pioneering an experimental new sound called brain scratch.
The term brain scratch refers to a feeling of mental satisfaction - the scratching of a psychological itch - produced by ASMR, or auto-sensory meridian response, which features heavily in Tipton’s music. ASMR denotes a tingling sensation that begins on the scalp and creeps down the neck and spine, often accompanied by goosebumps and a feeling of relaxation: it’s typically triggered by quiet sounds of a certain quality recorded up close, like the gentle manipulation of small objects or a soft whisper in your ear.
Tipton’s work explores this phenomenon through the lens of experimental electronica, collaging synths, samples, field recordings and MIDI instruments together in music that alloys the aesthetics of hyperpop, IDM and video game soundtracks with the improvisational anarchy of free jazz, the sonic curiosity of musique concrète and a generous sprinkling of cartoonish whimsy.
Brain scratch has found an enthusiastic reception on TikTok, where Tipton’s music soundtracks clips you might find on the r/oddlysatisfying subreddit and has amassed close to 1.5 million likes. Tipton’s album brain scratch, self-released in May, collects twenty of these songs.
Brain scratch is a wildly imaginative marvel of sound design. Tipton’s Bandcamp page tags the record as ‘fairy grunge’, a phrase which perfectly captures the music’s extraordinary texture: heavy but soft, like an enormous weighted blanket. At times, listening through the album feels like slipping into a hot-tub full of strawberry milkshake: sticky, sweet and slightly overwhelming. Most of the songs on brain scratch are under two minutes, and only a handful stretch above three. These are bite-sized nuggets of sonic satisfaction, capricious curiosities that whizz past your ears before you can even figure out what you’ve just listened to.
At once playful and peculiar, abstract and accessible, brain scratch enchants and unsettles in equal measure. Tipton treats sound like silly putty, material to be pulled, stretched and mangled to produce unidentifiable new forms. The word ‘soundscape’ gets thrown around a lot, but never has it been more apt a description; these truly are aural landscapes through which to venture and explore, discovering unfamiliar timbres at every turn. We could fill an encyclopaedia with the vast assemblage of plinks, plonks, squelches and trickles that populate their borders.
brain scratch draws from the post-structuralist concept of hyperreality, which describes the way that present-day human minds, warped by their constant interaction with the virtual realities constructed by our ever-changing media and ever-present technologies, tend to instinctively conflate reality with fiction, even beginning to perceive simulations of reality as more real than reality itself. “Hyperreality to me is just an elevated version of reality - simultaneously real but also impossible,” Tipton tells us.
In hyperreality, the physical and virtual worlds merge and disintegrate, leaving us bereft and unmoored in the liminal interzone that is modern existence. Sounds a little scary, but for Tipton, engagement with hyperreality can spark a certain kind of magic, opening the door to an uncanny playground where anything is possible. “With all of my music, I want to invite you into that space, because that is where real change and joy can happen”, she says.
Musically, this translates to sounds that collide the real with the imaginary, erasing any sense of provenance that might serve to guide the listener. Field recordings are layered with synthesized textures as MIDI flute and saxophone bleeds into fanciful, physically modeled instruments that sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. There are melodies and chords in the chaos, but that’s not what we’re here for: Tipton’s music is all about the timbres, and everything else plays second (MIDI) fiddle.
In her hyperreal ecosystems, every sound is alive, wriggling around with a mind of its own, as the boundaries between reality and artificiality dissolve and we're uplifted into a fantastical, multihued universe. The effect is as confusing as it is exciting - a little like entering a new world.
We spoke with Galen Tipton from her home in Ohio to find out more about how the new album was made, and how MPE, spectral plugins and AI speech enhancement software shaped the mind-boggling sound of brain scratch.
Could you tell us a little about the background to the new project?
“This project is taking all of the music that went viral on TikTok, which has been dubbed ‘brain scratch’ by a lot of people, and crystallising it into a full-length, more fully fleshed-out experience.”
Tell us a bit more about brain scratch music - what are the core elements of the sound? What do you think is behind its popularity?
“The core elements behind the sound are essentially music I made back in my early days of taking music seriously, around 2015. I was very inspired and interested in the formlessness of early Arca music and the sound design of SOPHIE, while having a heavy interest in nature aesthetics and folklore, ASMR and field recordings.
“To simplify the thought process as much as possible, I wanted to combine all of these interests into something both accessible and experimental, partly as a reaction to a lot of self-serious and inaccessible experimental music I was interested in at the time. I wanted to make heavily experimental sounds that also clearly didn't take themselves too seriously and invited people into stranger music.
“It has evolved in a number of ways, incorporating more free-form improvisational elements, sound collage and intentional use of ‘IDM’ elements. I had no idea what IDM even was when I started! [laughs] To tell you the truth, I have no idea why it has become so popular, but I am totally here for it. It is a sound I never thought would become popular because it is arguably the least accessible music I make. It's nice getting the chance to play even more with it and be encouraged to take even more risks because of the overwhelmingly positive response.”
What inspired you to integrate the phenomenon of ASMR into your music?
“ASMR is something I've always experienced even before having the term to describe it, both in musical and non-musical sounds. It's something I've always incorporated into my work, because it is so intertwined with what I find enjoyable about music that I couldn’t separate it if I wanted to.”
You mention in the text accompanying the record that you were aiming to create “hyperreal ecosystems” - could you tell us more about this?
“Hyperreality to me is just an elevated version of reality, simultaneously real but also impossible. It is both passive and active, familiar and unfamiliar. It can exist in the realm of the uncanny - which can often make people uncomfortable - but also it can be really silly. Overexaggeration, humour and camp are things that are hugely important to my work and I often find ‘overdoing it’ can let you express emotions more deeply than if you did so by sticking too close to realism.
“Existing in some level of discomfort and chaos really demands one’s attention and presence, and kills complacency. ‘If our life lacks brimstone, i.e., a constant magic, it is because we choose to observe our acts and lose ourselves in considerations of their imagined form instead of being impelled by their force,’ Antonin Artaud wrote about his Theatre of Cruelty concept.
“While this is not necessarily about hyperrealism, engaging with hyperrealism can let you enter this space of ‘constant magic’ because of its uncanniness. With all of my music, even when it’s ambient, I want to invite you into that space, because that is where real change and joy can happen on both micro and macro levels.”
Could you talk us through maybe one or two pieces of equipment that were fundamental to the making of the new album?
“As always, I rely so much on my Ableton Push 1 to create this type of music. Before producing the record I was able to get a hold of the Expressive E Touché SE expression pedal to fully take advantage of MPE. For those who don’t know, MPE allows you to make MIDI synths behave more like acoustic instruments, allowing you to get greater levels of expression and complexity out of your MIDI instruments. The synthesis aspect of this record is all about “overdoing” it with MPE and just getting as strange and emotive as I can with it.”
Could you run us through one or two influences behind the sound and direction of the new project?
“The late Hyperrealist composer Noah Creshevsky was a huge influence on this record - I highly recommend giving his work a deep dive. His entire catalogue still sounds massively ahead of his time and is just packed to the brim with fun and interesting ideas.
“From my understanding of others that knew him, he was still fairly active in the younger experimental music community and was still so open to new ideas that late in life. When I’m in my 70s, I still want to be excited and up-to-date with what is current and fresh. I still want making music to feel as fun then as it is now. We talked briefly of working together before he passed, and I regret we were never able to do so.
“While I’m still not very knowledgeable about the genre and its history, free jazz was also a huge influence on this project. A lot of time was spent trying to make it sound like a full band was improvising with each other, even though it was just me improvising with myself. Each track is an improv session, often one made very quickly, then fleshed out and detailed later.”
Could you pick out an element of a track from the new project and give us an insight into the creative process behind how you produced it?
“I had a really fun ‘a-ha!’ moment at the very beginning of the albums creation on the track the scavengers hymnal when I discovered through a Twitter post that you can run musical audio through Adobe’s Speech Enhance AI software - which is meant to improve audio for podcasts - and it would try to turn that musical element, in this case a digital bassoon, into a voice.
“I used this trick all over the record, layering in these otherworldly digital voices into the music (as well as occasionally using a Vocaloid here and there). Having this digital human voice motif was a nice small way to help glue the record together.”
Did you experiment with any new sound design techniques on this album?
“Absolutely. Learning something new is always the source of creating new projects for me. With this one, it was learning how to use MPE effectively.”
We heard you produced a sample pack for Splice, tell us a little about that?
“I've actually done three, but at the time of writing, only two are out. The very first was through the Splice label Moment, curated by Umru Rothenburg and Cody Martinez. Moment is highlighting a lot of incredible sound designers in hyperpop and hyperpop-adjacent communities and getting to make a brain scratch pack for Splice was a dream come true.
“The other one that’s currently released is a Physical Modeling sample pack, highlighting all different types of physical modeling synthesis. It's a technique and sound that is incredibly pleasing to me and getting a chance to fully dive into it for a sample pack was very rewarding.”
Looking back a little bit now, how did you first get involved with music production and electronic music-making?
“I first started in Garageband probably in 2008 or 09 in high school, nothing more than a casual hobby. However when I first heard TNGHT’s debut EP in 2012, something clicked in me, and it became much more than a hobby for me. While I wasn’t in school for music, I was making it every chance I got and it wasn’t until after I graduated undergrad in 2015 that I started really taking it seriously as something I wanted to do with my life.”
When you first started producing, what kind of set-up were you working with?
“A 2011 Macbook with Garageband.”
How does that compare to your current studio space?
“Still a 2011 Macbook, but now with Logic, Ableton, and FL Studio as well as a souped-up 2010 Mac Pro. I actually have a dedicated studio space in my room now rather than just producing anywhere I could.”
What DAW are you using, and why do you use it?
“My main DAW is Logic Pro and that is mostly because I learned how to produce on Garageband and all of those skills transferred over to Logic very easily. I also use Ableton a lot but end up exporting everything and transferring over to Logic at a certain point because I just flow in it better. Recently I have been using FL Studio for some specific features and plugins not available outside of it. I’ve also been interested in checking out Bitwig, I just haven’t sat down with it yet. In the end I’d like to feel comfortable in any workspace to make IRL collaboration easier, since everyone has their own DAW they are comfortable in.”
Are you more of a software-based producer or do you tend to favour hardware and outboard gear?
“Definitely software for sure, just because of mobility and flexibility, but I’m not against hardware at all. Without the Ableton Push I wouldn’t be able to create the music I want to make.”
If any, what hardware synths or drum machines do you use?
“I don’t have any hardware synths or drum machines at the moment, but in terms of analogue gear I’ve been getting really interested in distortion pedals. I’m really interested in the possibilities of inducing ASMR experiences with distortion, and have been working with a ton of fuzz pedals, PLL pedals, and most recently I got hold of the Vermona Lancet Filter which I’m extremely excited about. Oh, and pretty much anything Chase Bliss is doing. I used the Chase Bliss Habit and a rented Blooper pretty heavily for my next project.”
Could you run us through a couple of plug-ins that are really fundamental to your workflow or your sound?
“If I’m lost, as a basis for a brain scratch song I will always start with a Native Instruments Massive (original, not X) preset with all of the effects off, the Soundiron Whale Drum Kontakt library, and a physical modeling instrument of some kind, like Corpus or Chromaphone. Each has really specific sounds and textures that I like and they help glue the sound together, even if they get completely mangled and destroyed.”
Tell us about some of the most interesting field recordings and samples found on the new project. How many of these are self-recorded and how many are from other sources?
“There’s a good mix of self-recorded samples and things from all sorts of sample packs across the internet. Probably one of my favorite self-recorded ones would have to be some I recorded going creek exploring last summer. I happened to be doing so at the same time as a class was studying the ecology of the creek, and in the background of my recordings can be heard lots of screaming, laughter and play from the class. It’s mixed in pretty deep, but just getting to capture other people experiencing fun and wonder while I was doing so myself just really fit with the spirit of the record.
“A good chunk of the textures on this record I made running samples through various spectral software (Izotope RX and Oeksound’s soothe and spiff) meant to clean up audio, but using them in ways not intended. For example, when running a sound through Oeksound’s spiff and just isolating the delta signal, it instantly turns anything into this drippy gooey sound that I’m just in love with.”
How often are you experimenting with new studio gear and software?
“I’m a bit obsessed with finding new plugins to play with all the time, and a lot of my work is made by experimenting with or learning something new. However all of these new plugins are just auditioning to be a part of my ‘go-to’ tool box. I have some desert island plugins for sure - Cableguys Shaperbox 3, Devious Machines Infiltrator 2, and Sugar Bytes Looperator to name a few - that I both always go back to and know I can use in any production situation.”
Is there anything that’s on your wishlist studio-wise?
“My kingdom for a Metasonix KV-100 Assblaster or Metasonix TM-7 Scrotum Smasher [laughs]. I have been using some Reaktor emulations of Metasonix hardware and would really love to get hold of an actual physical version one day.”
Tell us about your other aliases and collaborative projects. How does the music you make as Galen Tipton differ to the music you make as digifae and recovery girl?
“Galen Tipton is just anything I want to make, although this has heavily skewed towards brain scratch music because it is paying my rent. recovery girl is pop and the limitations that come with it. It’s a practice in restraining myself and limiting my options to try and become a better songwriter. digifae is anything Diana Starshine and I make together, and that can be anything we want, but we both love pop and dance music so it typically ends up being some mutation of that.”