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Hannah Peel: "Delia Derbyshire would be completely in awe of all the synthesizers and recording technology we have now"

Hannah Peel
(Image credit: C Brandon/Redferns)

Full disclosure… Fir Wave, the sublime new offering from sonic alchemist Hannah Peel, has become something of an obsession to these ears.

From the otherworldy voices of opener Wind Shadow, through the hypnotic beats and synths of Emergence In Nature all the way through to the ethereal splendour of album closer, Reaction Diffusion, Peel has crafted a spell-binding electronic gem.

Given access to use original recordings from BBC Radiophonic Workshop legend Delia Derbyshire as DNA for the project, Fir Wave, allowed Peel to respectfully re-interpret the source-material, building digital instruments from it to then launch it into bristling electronic realms Derbyshire would be proud of. 

Fir Wave is a high watermark in Hannah Peel’s already impressive musical CV, which includes an Emmy nomination for her soundtrack to Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, along with musical collaborations with artists including John Foxx, Paul Weller, Erland Cooper and Simon Tong (as The Magnetic North).

Fir Wave exists in a space where electronic music of the past, present and future collides perfectly. Little wonder we was so excited to catch up with Hannah and find out more about Delia, DAWs and discovering more tactile ways of sculpting sound. 

Fir Wave seems to be getting universally excellent reviews. That must be pleasing? 

“I’m so blown away, actually because sometimes you make a record that you work so intensely on and my records usually have so many moving parts with, like, 30 brass players or the like. This one was just so simple, and it was just nice to be able to make the record and put it out as it’s self-released. Yeah, the fact that people are picking it up and talking about it is just beautiful.”

It’s quite something to be given free access to Delia Derbyshire’s catalogue. Did you have the project in mind and then ask for the archives?

“EMI Productions, which own the rights now, just came to me and asked if I was interested in making a library record for them: ‘here’s your starting point!’. I guess because I’d never done a library before that, I did have some reservations. But they quickly dissipate when you take out the feeling of having to do something that you’ve never done before - and that you’ll be using material that’s very precious to a lot of people.

"So yeah, I mean, once I kind of decided how I was going to do it, it became very easy. But yeah, there was a lot of trepidation about it to begin with.”

What a treat to be allowed to immerse yourself in that source material for a while...

“I know. I think about it and go ‘my God, that’s insane.’ Some of it wasn’t ever intended for an audience or to be released. And in some ways that’s better, because then I don’t have the pressure of putting this out and people expecting massive things with it because of it being Delia Derbyshire.

"I had time to live with the main body of it for the last two and a half years. And then I revisited it and mixed it all again last year so I got a bit more perspective on it and it felt like it was the right time to do it.” 

The album has got a strange, lockdown quality to it, very hypnotic. How did you approach what bits of Delia’s you would work with? 

“I mean, if you’ve heard the original record then it’s pretty bonkers so it’s hard to configure how to assess what bits to work with. I didn’t get the stems so I just had the audio as it was released, so I just chose tiny fragments of things that I thought really resonated with me. Like, there were these kind of bubbling synth sounds. 

"When I decided that I was going to make my own instruments from those sounds in Kontakt to use with a MIDI keyboard, you know, choosing the right kind of texture, or sound was important because you can’t necessarily use all of them as a chord or anything like that.

"That was important so I chose specific ones, maybe like five or six, that I made instruments out of that were like ‘Delia Fire’ and ‘Delia Earth’. Then the rest were ones that couldn’t be taken out of context and replayed; ones that needed to be as they are on the record.

I love the more organic sounds where you don’t quite know what they are or where they’re from… almost like part of your psychology.

"So yeah, choosing them was quite hard because sometimes they do overlap in the original records so I had to be pretty specific but that can also be the fun part.”

Is curation of sounds becoming an important skill for electronic musicians to have? 

“It’s not just about you handling the machines. It’s about curating and treating them like they’re part of an orchestra. They are part of a fabric in life, almost.

"You know, I love the more organic sounds where you don’t quite know what they are or where they’re from… almost like part of your psychology.”

There’s a real sense of respect to the original music that emanates from Fir Wave… very much not a result of banging out a few presets!

“You’ve got to be though, haven’t you? And that’s really good to hear because I didn’t want to be disrespectful at all. 

"You know, I love modular stuff and analogue sounds… it’s just kind of woven into my being, I guess, from a young age, and the folk singing with my dad and stuff like that has definitely got an organic feel to it.

" One of the important things that I found was the ethos of the original record. It has industrial, scientific, almost futuristic element to it. When I was looking at the track titles there’s also a celestial element that’s very beautiful. 

"So when I was thinking about what I wanted this one to be, it was very much about how we are right now. I didn’t want it to be like an eco warrior record at all, it just felt, with lockdown and everything, that I really needed to refocus and think about nature, and the sounds that play within nature. Like the inside of a tree and how that sounds like a synthesizer.” 

So, was Kontakt your main weapon of choice for transforming all your collated source material into something more musical?

“Yeah, that was the easiest way to do it. It’s only been the last few years that I’ve really got into Kontakt because of making my own sounds and using that in various scores. 

"The Deceived score that I did used sounds from my house inside of the score so I sampled crystal cut-glass, doors and crazy bells that they have in the house and made those into soundscapes to be part of the underbelly of the TV show.

"So, I’ve used it for a while but it’s only in the last few years I’ve found the beauty in it rather than it just being another instrument. ”

It’s a very powerful sound-sculpting tool… 

“Yes and it just makes it unique to you and makes it fun. Sometimes when you write music so much, you need something to keep you a bit more interested and keep you excited. There’s something really nice about sampling something and then transforming it into music.”

"There’s something really nice about sampling something and then transforming it into music.”

Having followed your work over the past few years, it strikes us that you’re someone who enjoys finding the ghosts in the machines. Is that a conscious thing you do?

“Completely. My first proper experiences of synths were with Benge because I shared a studio with him and also played with John Foxx. His collection of synths when he was based in London was amazing  but, you know, lots of them didn’t quite work, so my early experiences were of having to manipulate the ones that weren’t working properly and create something out of it.

“So, it was always about the things that had gone wrong, or were a little wonky and, like you said, the ghosts in them. One of the first synths that I bought was a Juno-60, which, when you turned it on had this ghostly choir sound without even hitting any of the presets… just constantly pulsing. So yeah, I guess I’ve always come from that angle of like, the nuances and the kind of secret side of it. All totally fuelled by Benge!”

You could certainly do a lot worse than having Benge, John Foxx and Stephen Mallinder as your guides!

“He’s unreal! I think I used that studio time really well but I still don’t feel I used Benge’s time quite as well. Like, I just wish I had said, ‘can you teach me this, this and this and this’.

"Way back, when I was first talking about releasing records, I wanted to just set up my own little label and do it that way and Mal was like, 'why?' I said, 'I don’t know other than for my own pleasure', which is the reason My Own Pleasure then became the name of the label. So, they’ve definitely been an influence.” 

To have access to such an amazing collection of synths and hardware blows the mind but there is also a slight (albeit nice) dilemma that when you have no restrictions, what do you use?

“I do really miss having the freedom to use all those machines. Occasionally I’d sneak in and borrow something to experiment with then put it back for the morning [laughs]. Benge knew I was doing it but he didn’t mind.”

Did you have any favourite bits and pieces from your time at Benge’s?

“God, there are so many. This is random and probably not very productive but the Simmons Clap Trap, which I thought was incredible. He has loads and loads of drum machines and I really loved the TR-808, which was always fun to use. He has an original LinnDrum. I liked the Korg MonoPoly synth as well as the Solina String Ensemble machine. I think probably the 808 was my favourite though as it was the first drum machine I took to.”

When we first approached you for an interview a couple of months back you wanted to wait until a new piece of gear had been added to your studio setup and it’s been gnawing away at us to find out what that was? 

[laughs] “Oh yeah, I ordered it in November and it still hasn’t arrived! It’s the Folktek Resonant Garden, have you seen them?

"So, you can play and bow the strings and, for me, it’s a really nice step into the more tactile modular synthesis.

Hannah Peel

(Image credit: Hannah Peel)

"I also recently got an Eventide Harmonizer, which I’m really looking forward to using. I’ve got an original Space Echo here, a little Watkins Copicat and various synths like a Wasp EDP and a Dave Smith Mopho.

"One that I used all over Fir Wave was the Lyra 8, which is a total noise machine! On the first track, Wind Shadow, I put the vocals through the Lyra 8 and messed with them in it. That’s what made the crazy noise that sounds like it’s ripping apart the track.

"There’s a Jupiter-4 on that same track and a Moog Sub Phatty, which I don’t have anymore. There’s quite a few other bits around the place, too. Loads of guitar pedals and stuff.” 

Are you attached to your studio gear or do you get what you need from it and then move on, sell it off? 

“Yeah, I am attached to a couple of things. I’d never get rid of my Lyra-8, Juno-60 or my Jupiter-4, for example… or my Space Echo come to think of it. I had a Moog Sub 37 for a couple of years but I sold that so I could have the Resonant Garden and my Wasp EDP.” 

What do you think Delia Derbyshire would have made of present-day DAWs and music technology were she still alive? 

“Do you know I think she’d be absolutely fascinated but might well say, ‘it’s not for me’. Give her a tape-machine and a corridor any day! I do think she’d be completely in awe of all the synthesizers and recording technology we have now. It’s just a shame she’s not still here to see it!” 

Talking of DAWs, which do you favour? 

“I use Logic. I grew up as a teenager using Cubase back in the day, then switched to Logic and I’ve stuck with it. It’s the best for working with visuals and quite a lot of my process of making things, even with Fir Wave, involves finding videos and different visual elements online, putting them into Logic and keeping them on repeat so I can write to something.

"That informs a lot of my music, whether a project comes with visuals or not. Sometimes they end up being completely different but it just helps me visualise the music.” 

Is there an equal mix of hardware and software in your work setup?

“A total mix. I have a Universal Audio LA-610 compressor that everything goes through. I have a lovely preamp for when I’m recording acoustic instruments and the Eventide Harmonizer but generally everything else in terms of sound creation is done in the computer. I use a lot of Soundtoys and AudioThing plugins for effects.”

It must be said that AudioThing are coming up with some really useful plugins at the moment, aren’t they?

“They’re incredible. The new things they’ve made with Hainbach are brilliant – he’s amazing!

When I compose for a studio film you have to be so fast that I tend to be more reliant on software.

"Arturia are great too. They had a little offer on recently so I bought the Buchla Music Easel software. I can remember Benge had a Music Easel [laughs] but he wasn’t that keen on me borrowing it!

"When I compose for a studio film you have to be so fast that I tend to be more reliant on software. So, with making sounds and soundscapes, I’ll make them at the beginning of a project because that’s when you have the time to play and explore.” 

Is it ironic that we’ve come so far with processing power and ever-improving bit-rates only for us all to want tape saturation and bit-crunching software?

[laughs] “That’s so true. I mean, some of those plugins are just incredible though. I’m working on something at the moment and we really needed a ’70s feel for it and the Reels plugin that AudioThing have developed is just fantastic. There’s a whole piece that I just recorded on my phone, which sounds amazing when you put it through Reels.

"I tried to recreate the original recording of my voice and the piano but the phone version had movement and background noises that I couldn’t recreate as there’s just something about the compression on the phone when you use voice memos that makes it another useful musical tool.”

Are there any new musical machines that you’re after for your next projects? 

[laughs] “Well there’s the Folktek synth! That is genuinely the most exciting thing as I want to get more hands-on for the next project coming up, which involves dark, earthy, sci-fi moods, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the Resonant Garden as I think it’s going to help transform a lot of feelings electronically. I also bought a Waterphone, which you put water into and it makes these gorgeous sound textures.”

What’s next for you? 

“I’ve got a few film and TV scores to do but actually, the next big project that will hopefully come out at some point is an album with an amazing orchestra in Bristol called Paraorchestra, which is a mix of disabled and non-disabled musicians and they’re just phenomenal. They commissioned me to write a piece for them so I’ve finished an hour-long piece that combines with their skills as an orchestra – as there are some musicians who use electronics to trigger things because of their disabilities but mixed with classical orchestra components.” 

Fir Wave is available on My Own Pleasure. Visit the Hannah Peel website for regular updates and more.

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