Harnessing the stars to create celestial wavetables, George FitzGerald’s brilliant new offering, Stellar Drifting, is the fruit of his new studio, a lockdown obsession with the Hubble Telescope and a desire to turn photographs of space into synthesized sound.
Stellar Drifting sees FitzGerald enlist the vocal talents of labelmate, Panda Bear, Derry singer/songwriter SOAK and London Grammar who return the favour after FitzGerald contributed to their 2021 album, Californian Soil.
Following a move to his new studio in Bermondsey, FitzGerald downsized some of his analogue synth collection and dove deeper into his galaxy of soft-synths to brilliant effect on standout tracks, Passed Tense (with the aforementioned Panda Bear) and the appropriately otherworldly, Ultraviolet.
Whilst exploring these new sonic territories, FitzGerald has retained the genre-straddling skill that made previous albums, Fading Love and 2018’s All That Must Be, such entrancing and essential components of the electronic music firmament. But enough of the half-assed space analogies and on to Bermondsey to catch up with the spaceman-in-chief… sorry, couldn’t resist one last one!
Stellar Drifting has an intriguing back-story of you wanting to turn space into sound, doesn’t it?
“It’s something I’ve been toying with for about 3 or 4 years then I got more interested in it during the pandemic when we all had a lot more time on our hands. Simultaneously in the studio I had this thing where I wanted to switch up some of the sound sources or just make a break from just coming into the studio and switching on the same old synthesizers.
“At the same time, on a break in the studio, I’d be going through open-source sounds on the NASA archive and similar sites and making little percussive things from them. Then I realized you could take .jpg and .png files and drop them into wavetable synthesizers and make oscillators out of the pictures. So, I started messing around with taking some of the shots from the Hubble Telescope, loading them in and seeing what came out.”
Did you get instant results?
“Obviously, it wasn’t like a complete eureka moment where everything sounded amazing as a lot of it sounded crap! It was a fun exercise though and it did add quite a bit sonically to the record. I ended up using a lot of that stuff as textures over slightly more orthodox sounds. So, that’s where the background to the space theme comes from.”
Wavetable and granular synthesis have really opened a door to new sonic worlds, haven’t they?
“It’s incredible, really, although it’s not a particularly new development now as that technology has been around for a while now. I really feel that between the recording of the last record and this one, for me, the exciting differences have been digital or things that, if they’re not in the box then they’re not standard old analogue subtractive synthesizers that were the basis for a lot of my previous two records.”
So, what synths were you putting the images into?
“I was using a lot of Serum and a lot of Wave in Ableton. It was mainly those two simply because I had a Max for Live patch to convert the images into wavetables then on Serum you can actually just drag and drop it onto the oscillator window, which is incredible. I’d go as far as to say that Serum has a decent claim to be one of the best synthesizers ever made, hardware of software! It is really scary how deep you can go with it and I’m pretty certain that I’ve only really scratched the surface.”
The soft-synths continue to get more powerful and versatile, don’t they?
“For my first album, I gave myself a rule that I wouldn’t have anything digital - nothing in the computer, no sampling. That was fun as a creative thing, but it did mean that I’d slept on some of these newer soft-synths and the quantum leap some of them had made in the intervening period.”
Does imposing certain creative rules on yourself help your musical process?
“Absolutely. With this one it was a lot about deconstructing the audio. What I mean by that is that quite often on this new album even if you’re hearing an arpeggio or something, it’s usually gone through a couple of stages more than it might have done on the previous records. So, it might have been something different altogether previously and then I made an arpeggio out of it then put it into a granular synth.
“A better example would be that a lot of the textures might be various instruments that were recorded in previous projects, like a lead line or something, put into a granular and made into a texture. There wasn’t nearly as much of that re-sampling and re-interpretation happening on the previous records. It was a bit more direct, from instrument to recording.
“Having ideas and some rules is the best way to do it because there are just so many options now with all the instruments and plugins there are now. I find it’s a way to navigate your way through all of that.”
What’s in your current studio set-up?
“I’ve just moved to a different studio than the one I made Stellar Drifting in but it’s all the same equipment. I’d been in the last studio for a long time, and it was this dark, windowless place on the Old Kent Road. So, it’s based around Ableton and various bits of hardware. If anything, I’ve tried to pare things down a little from the last couple of records. One of the big differences is that I got rid of a lot of analogue polysynths so I could focus on a wall of modular synthesis.
“A lot of the more individual sounding things on the new album came from the modular and I’ve got quite a big rack of Cwejman modules that sound amazing, and made me basically want to sell everything else! The core of the studio would be my SH-101, I have a JoMox drum-machine and a load of outboard effects. So, pretty much everything other than the space-generated sounds you hear on the album is coming out of those bits of gear.”
You’ve mentioned using Ableton, what is it about Live that you like?
“When I was starting out somebody gave me a copy of Fruity Loops but I didn’t really click with music production until I got my first copy of Ableton. Prior to that I’d really wanted to find it enjoyable but didn’t. Like a lot of people, I really just like the way that Ableton’s set up, especially now that it’s broadened into being a one-stop production suite. I’ve worked on it for over ten years now and it’s not something I’m looking to change.”
There’s a real community built up around Max for Live too?
“Yeah, the Max for Live stuff makes it really powerful… those patches I mentioned earlier for the space photos but also being able to make control surfaces for hardware synths. I’m on that site a lot trawling for new things.”
What would you like to see the next generation of synthesis allowing you to do?
“That’s a really interesting question. I don’t think anyone has cracked granular synthesis properly yet. A few people have given it a good go, but I think granular is something that lends itself better to being a software rather than a hardware synth.
“I use 3 or 4 different granular synths, but I don’t think that anyone has totally nailed it yet and managed to put everything in one place. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be a very fashionable form of synthesis and I don’t know why that is. I would love XFER to add a granular thing to Serum or somebody to execute granular synthesis on a level with the bigger, well-known synths like Serum or Massive… I would use that a lot!”
Any new additions to your studio?
“I did buy a tape machine recently, which is a bit random. It’s a Tascam Porta Ministudio 07 that I got for a couple of hundred quid off eBay. One of the things I try and do is to combining having digital sound sources in the box with finding ways to scuff them up. Basically, to give them some character. Running things through tape machines is quite a tried and tested way of doing that but it really does add something. I’ve got an RE-201 Space Echo and that gets a lot of use too, often not for the delays or the spring reverb but just to hit the tape on it and the pre-amp.”
How did you typically start putting a track together for Stellar Drifting?
“It’s difficult to say, really as, a lot of these tracks, the way I write is to work on ideas to a certain point then if I hit a mental block, I park them. So, I end up kind of throwing tracks together at a later stage. So, I’d say most of these tracks are amalgamations of different projects and that’s one of the ways I try to build up density and complexity in records.
“Quite often I’ll deliberately write in a certain key or BPM range for a couple of weeks. So, there’s not really a way that I write where I have one idea that I work on from start to finish. It’s more lots of different points throw together.”
Any artists that inspire you?
“Being honest, I try not to listen too closely to things that might be similar genre-wise to my own stuff not through arrogance, it’s just you could end up driving yourself mad and also, subconsciously, melodies can leak into your head. I got given some good advice that when you go into album writing mode it’s good to surround yourself with music you like that’s stood the test of time.
“I always have a running playlist of stuff like Portishead, DJ Shadow. Radiohead…. I’m a kid of the 90s! Listening to those kinds of things is very grounding though I’m not frantically listening to other people for inspiration specifically.”
Is there one piece of gear in your studio you couldn’t be without?
“Yeah, my SH-101. It’s a really simple synthesizer but it’s one of these ones that amaze you by how many different sounds you can get out of it. I’m not a big menu diver on synths so I love a synthesizer where you know within 30 seconds if you’ll be able to get the sounds you’re after from it. I love that with the 101 that you can know so quickly whether it’s a runner or not, and more often than not it is. It also has a sound that sits well in mixes.
“I find Moogs sound amazing on their own but they’re quite hard to place within a mix as they dwarf everything else by comparison. I think Roland synths have always felt a little more polite in that they don’t take over a track.”
George Fitzgerald's three production tips
1. Get organized
“It sounds like a boring one but collating and ordering all your projects means that nothing is ever wasted or lost. Especially so in Ableton as you can very easily access the individual channels of the projects you’ve been working on and pull-out sounds from different projects. It’s a good discipline that very quickly bears a lot of fruit. Just filing your ideas by BPM or key and keep them in a folder so you can come back to them.
“A lot of people listen to electronic music that’s quite dense and they think people sat down and wrote it in one go. They didn’t! They’re either sampling themselves, which is basically what I do a lot. You can then do so many things to it…you can take a bounce of the entire beat and time-stretch it, play with the algorithms in Ableton or do whatever. If it gives you five seconds of detail somewhere then it’s not wasted.”
2. Check your mixes in mono
“There’s often a lot of stereo stuff going on in my music and it’s really important for me to check that things don’t disappear in mono. So, I’ve always got a mono plug-in on the output and always flipping between the stereo on mono. With all the incredible mid-side and stereo effects that you have now you need to be really careful to not create a huge mid-range-y mush that all phases and disappears if you switch it onto mono. Playing those relationships off against each other is a very important thing to do. Making sure that some of your sources are mono and are going straight to the middle.
“One of the best tips I’ve learned about mixing is about having contrast. You can have everything as wide as you like but if everything in the mix is wide then the actual wide stuff wont sound wide. I know that sounds really obvious, but you have to think about space in that sense. I used to think that you had to stick everything into some kind of reverb, or it would sound rubbish but that really isn’t true. Keeping certain elements dry in your mix creates a contrast with the things your making really wet…and you need that.”
3. Pitch-shift the master bus
“One of the problems that everyone runs into when they’re working on a project is that you can get bored listening to the same thing over and over and it gets a bit stale. It can really help to put a pitching plug-in on the output and just pitch it up two semi-tones for half an hour and work on it there.
“I can’t tell you how different it makes the energy when you, say, pitch it up 3 semitones, start writing some chords and melodies up there then pitch it back down again. It just means that your brain and your ear don’t get fatigued as you start hearing it a different way. Sometimes, you might keep it there as it actually sounds better.”