Hard to believe that Let’s Turn it Into Sound is Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s ninth album… where does the time go?
As ever, a new album from Kaitlyn is a fresh journey into her sonic world, and Let’s Turn it Into Sound is no exception with its rich palette of pulsing Buchla tones, intense, flickering beats and joyously manipulated vocals that see Smith pushing her own envelope further with each new collection of songs.
We caught up with Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith in her LA studio, taking a break from the process of preparing for her forthcoming live shows, to talk shop and get some insight into the machinations of her workflow and ever-innovative studio experiments.
Apologies if it’s old ground to you but is it true that you were given your first ever modular by a neighbor who had it sitting in his garage?
"[laughs] I still think about how special that experience was. Not really knowing anything about modular synthesizers because I didn’t study that in school, I studied sound-engineering. Then to have a neighbour come to my place with a Buchla and say ‘explore this’ opened up my whole world. I Googled it and only then realized what a big deal it was."
That background in sound-engineering must’ve come in handy with the technicalities of the modular environment?
"Yeah, I think it’s definitely helped with pathway thinking and understanding audio routing. I had a really great teacher at the school I studied at who explained how sound-engineering is just an extension of the ear. That was such a beautiful way of thinking about capturing sound and I feel like it really connected me to how to approach synthesis where, instead of being an extension of the ear, it became an extension of the voice for me."
Is it the tactile/hands-on nature of modulars that you enjoy?
"That definitely does play into some of the joy because I have lots of energy, especially in my hands so when they have lots to do I get really excited and that helps me get into a flow state. I think I was that kid that always wanted to touch the buttons I wasn’t supposed to touch! So maybe with synthesizers, it’s that there are a lot of buttons, but you’re allowed to touch them."
Do you think people still assume that machines can’t have ‘soul’?
"I love personifying machines, it’s endearing thinking of them like that. It’s hard to say what a lot of people feel towards machines, but I love watching my family interact with Alexa or just people in passing reacting to machines in that way. [laughs] It’s fun to watch people get mad at machines."
Did cutting your teeth on your neighbor’s Buchla mean you’ve leaned solely towards West-Coast modular since?
"It definitely planted a seed of ‘what are these devices?' It started just with Buchla synths as that’s what my neighbour primarily had, although he had a couple of EMS and EML Electrocomp synths too. It opened up the doorway for me to analogue synthesis… modular and non-modular. What really sparked my interest was that interaction with older components and older interactions with electricity.
"I’ve played with more contemporary modular systems a little bit. In the Eurorack world I’ve played around with the Make Noise system, 4ms and some other makers but I tend to always gravitate back to the older gear and back to the additive synthesis as that really resonates with me. I love the Overtone Series, which stems back to my classical musical training and additive synthesis really lets you play with the overtone series [laughs] but let’s not get too into that!"
One suspects that, with all your lovely vintage modular kit, maintenance is an important part of your process?
"Yeah, it’s interesting. Back when I borrowed the Buchla 100 for about a year, I tried to buy it off my neighbor, but he said ‘no, I won’t put that responsibility on you’. I didn’t understand when he said that but then, when I was able to save up and buy a few older pieces of equipment, I bought an EDP Wasp and some others and then I realized just how much maintenance went into just even keeping the knobs and pots from getting dusty! So, I stopped my collection at that point.
"There are studios that have these vast synth collections or in LA we have the Vintage Synth Museum that has an enormous collection of old synths, so now I mostly go to the places where all the unicorns are carefully maintained."
You’re a proud owner of the desirable Buchla Music Easel, when did you first come across those?
"My partner and I bought it as a wedding present. We’d initially asked people just to donate money for us to buy a cow [laughs] but then we realized how much responsibility a cow was going to be, so we got the Music Easel instead! Sometimes I think how wonderful it would be to have a cow but… no regrets. It began my whole career so definitely no regrets. "
What is it you find so engaging about the Music Easel as an instrument?
"At the time, it was just the only Buchla I could afford. Since then though it’s become an extension of my brain because I’ve played with Buchla instruments so long that the language of them is so easy for me to work with. I love that it’s carry-on size so I can take it on the plane with me.
"I think the triangle core oscillator is a sound that I really resonate with. It just feels like an extension of my voice, going back to that initial thing we were talking about. There’s something about the triangle core that resonates in a similar way to how my voice resonates in my body."
It seems important to you to still find a place in your music for the human voice or real strings too though?
"I think it is, for me, just because my roots started in orchestral music and as for the voice aspect, that’s usually where all the songs start from. I’ll get a melody, hum it for a while and then translate it to a synthesizer. So, it’s always felt like a natural part of the process to, in some way or another, add the voice."
So, do you ever go to the modulars with a blank canvas, or do you tend to have an idea of what you want to do?
"It’s always a little bit of everything. Like, there’s usually an intention and a lot of openness to surprise. Then sometimes I’ll just show up, if I have the space for it, keep everything flowing and just see what happens. I like to have a daily practice playing or interacting with a synthesizer, piano or just something musical to always keep it flowing."
What were the main bits of gear you used on Let’s Turn It into Sound?
"I used a lot of the Music Easel, the Buchla 200e and the Buchla Lightning. I have a Tom Oberheim SEM module, some Moog gear and the Wasp, of course. There’s a lot of my voice and re-contextualizing my voice too."
Are you still using Ableton as your mainstay DAW for recording everything?
"Yeah, I still use Ableton because it helps me with when I transition into playing live. I’ve already set up environments of how I recorded it because I’ll usually just track the same way that I’m going to play it live when I’m recording so that I’m thinking ahead for the live show."
The first few times you took the modular gear out live must’ve been a bit nerve-wracking?
"Oh my gosh, yes! I really like mixing myself for live shows; the way that in Ableton you can make Unity a set number… you can record what you want Unity to be. So, if I bring up a fader it doesn’t necessarily go to ‘zero’, it goes to what you recorded it at, which means you can have your mixing preferences memorized and I really like having that ability."
Is Ableton the best DAW for working live with a modular set-up?
"I think it’s the one that I’ve been most familiar with for a while now. I made a jump from Pro Tools to Ableton about 8 years ago. I think DAWs in general are a case of when you learn one you want to stick with it for a while as they take a while to learn properly."
Is it Ableton’s fluidity that makes it so popular with live artists?
"Yeah, and I think that being able to map things is really handy. I’m sure there will be other DAWs that allow you to do that, but I haven’t explored much out with Logic, Pro Tools and Ableton."
How have you managed to strike a balance between creative experimentation and just being sucked down a modular wormhole?
"I still definitely do get sucked into wormholes, but I really like them, it’s a creative feeling for me. I tend to have the mind-set that every sound is going to get used so I save things for later if I’m not going to use them at that moment. There’s something about the 2D screen that, at least for my brain, feels less creative to stare at for long periods of time. So, I think being able to get out of the 2D and into the 3D has been really helpful.
"I know that modulars are really expensive and that has been a limitation for me as well. I always like to encourage people to look into how many resources are out there for learning as that’s how I was able to learn. There are so many libraries, so many residencies and so many amazing synth stores that you can go to and play with the synths."
Any thoughts of ever making a sample-library from your modulars?
"I haven’t really thought about that but maybe someday far in the future. I don’t know if I’m organized enough to do that right now. It’s already such a headache for me to find my own sounds that I’ve been creating!"
Let It Fall is one of several standout tracks on the album, could you maybe talk us through your process for writing that?
"That means a lot that Let It Fall resonates with you, as it’s very important to me. It’s a song that I made for a piece of architecture. There’s a chapel on the land I grew up on and the chapel doesn’t really have a religious connotation to me it’s just always been this really beautiful space that I’ve always gone inside and sang in.
"So, I wanted to make a song that was an ‘ode’ to the chapel so that’s the song that came out for it. I’ve always been curious about the sort of 360-degree feeling of music, where you can feel it all around you so that song was an exploration of how I could rhythmically create that illusion. I don’t know if it worked but it was a fun exercise to play with."
Was that one of your songs where the melody came into the studio from outside?
"Yeah, I remember laughing when the main melody came to me as it was such a weird melody! It just felt like a joke my creative self was playing on me! But it all came together and started to make sense when I put it all together… or at least it made sense to me. So, there’s a lot of voice, definitely some Music Easel and some 200e on that track. There was a lot of stretching and manipulating done to my voice too."
Is there new material in the pipeline or do you take a time out to focus on the live shows now?
"Sometimes it happens that fast, as it takes a while for an album to come out so there’s definitely a lot of time to come up with something for the next one. For this one, though, I’ve been focusing so much on the live performance that I haven’t started writing the next thing. I have snippets of idea of what it might be like and I’m in the filling stage where I’m filling with lots of inspiration for it then I’ll get what I call my ‘inner gong’ feeling, and then I’m ready to make the next one."
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to start out making music with modulars?
"I guess it would be to find a synth shop and spend some time trying out lots of different synthesizers to find out what sounds you resonate with. I keep saying to myself that someday, If I make a lot of money, I want to make a synth library for people to come and play on synthesizers as there are so many people like me who’ve had to borrow synthesizers.
"Explore before buying, or if you’re someone who’s excited to buy then maybe start small with something fairly simple. I get blown away when I play on even those little Korg Volcas at how much you can actually do with them. So, you don’t need a really big system to start making music."
Before we forget, there’s a companion book that people can buy that goes with the album, isn’t there?
"Yeah, it goes with the album but I’m selling that separately through my Instagram page on an imprint I made called Touch the Plants. It’s a little book about my own inquisitive journey with sound and its questions that I asked myself during the process of making the album."