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Machinedrum on mixing his latest album in Dolby Atmos: “It was an eye-opening, game-changing experience”

machinedrum
(Image credit: Bonobo)

When we last spoke to Travis Stewart, he’d just released the Machinedrum album Human Energy, another entry in a kaleidoscopic catalogue that’s seen the producer progressively expand the Machinedrum universe to encompass madcap drill’n’bass, amphetaminic breakbeats and prismatic glitch-pop, culminating most recently in the new-age bass music of 2020’s A View of U. 

Stewart’s work as Machinedrum might be stylistically diverse, but at its core, the project revolves around three fundamentals: samples, synths and beats. It makes sense, then, that he’s revived a separate alias for his latest release, which drops the latter two elements and embraces a neo-classical, ambient vibe that sounds a little like what you’d get if you locked Philip Glass in a room with a bag of weed, a laptop and a Splice subscription. 

Inspired by the spiritual nourishment that LA’s Elysian Park provides Stewart amid the oppressive thrum of the city, Elysian threads intricate, meticulously programmed melodies into a minimalist patchwork, cascading arpeggios of piano and strings that soar into the stratosphere, carrying the listener upwards, away from the smog and into the Californian sunset. 

As part of the project, Stewart produced a Dolby Atmos mix of the album, using advanced techniques and processes - spatial LFO modulation, immersive 3D reverb - to explore how the creative potential of Atmos could be used to expand and reimagine his own sound. Speaking to the producer from Los Angeles, we found out more about how this new approach opened up radical compositional possibilities. 

The new release is under a different alias to your usual work as Machinedrum. What was the intention there?

“I actually started using the name Tstewart around the same time I started releasing Machinedrum records. I had it reserved for more indie stuff, stuff that was more instrument-leaning, and less electronic-driven. I didn't end up releasing anything under that name, apart from a couple of one-offs here and there. I released an album in 2006 under Tstewart. Since then, there's been a few other releases that are in that similar vein. 

“This time, I decided to focus on a more instrumental, less electronic-driven kind of album, but even compared to the previous work, less drums. That was definitely an intention that I had set. At the beginning of writing this album, coming off of finishing Human Energy, the Machinedrum album, I was sick of programming drums, and sick of doing very kind of bombastic-sounding music that was more for the club and for festivals. That album especially was very in your face. 

“I really had this longing to sit and play piano every day. Even with the Human Energy stuff, and my previous work, a lot of times I'll start off on the piano to write the melody. Then very quickly after I'd switch out the piano for a synth, or start adding drums, or adding basslines, all kinds of stuff. So this really was a practice and restraint to let the melodies speak for themselves. Especially since there's a lot of busier arpeggios going on, and very full-sounding melodies and atmospheres that sonically take up a lot of space. Adding any sort of drums would almost take away from the majesty of everything that's going on.”

More than your work as Machinedrum, this record feels like it’s more in the ambient tradition. Is that a genre or a term that you relate to?

“Definitely. Even with Machinedrum, I allow myself to go everywhere. I've released an ambient EP as Machinedrum and had interludes on albums, and even done full-on ambient sets billed as Machinedrum. Guitar and piano sneaks its way into Machinedrum productions too. I've always held that project as a way to combine all my loves for music into one project. Whereas Tstewart is reserved for more instrument-based music, but also, now that I've been scoring film, using my actual name seems appropriate with this style of music, since it’s very cinematic.”

Which film projects have you been working on?

“The biggest one recently was a German true crime drama called Das Geheimnis des Totenwaldes - the international release is called Dark Woods. But otherwise, I'm working on some other projects I can't talk about just yet. It is something I'm really excited to explore more and continue doing.”

Has your work in television and film fed into your straight music production?

“Absolutely. The mindset you’ve got to have whenever you're scoring film, and the process of just letting go. You don't have time to overthink stuff, you don't have time to tinker around and get super-detailed about things. I mean, you can - but you really have to pick and choose what you're focusing on. Really, the goal is to start a song and finish it on that same day and send it off and be done. Because you don't want notes coming back. You don't want to have to do multiple revisions, because the more revisions you're doing on a film, the more potential you have to cause delays, which you definitely don't want as a composer. 

There's something about these newer sample libraries - they're so well-recorded, so dynamic and they give you so much flexibility

“Whereas when you're a solo recording artist, you have a bit more freedom. Of course, there are deadlines with labels and whatnot. But you don't have the severity of huge budgets and  people's careers being on the line for missing a deadline. With that said, it's made me get really good at working quickly - when I start a new song as Machinedrum or Tstewart, I intend to get it to as good of a place as possible in that first session. That's always been an ethos of mine, but especially now I’ve had this experience with scoring, it's really ingrained in me to just capture the moment as well as I can in that initial creation period.” 

Could you talk us through a few key pieces of equipment - instruments, plugins, effects - that were fundamental to the sound of the new album?

“I would say a trio of my 88-key fully-weighted MIDI controller, Ableton Live and my nylon string acoustic guitar.”

On this album it sounds as if you’re mostly working with acoustic sounds. Are you recording these in the studio, or working with sample libraries, or virtual instruments? 

“A lot of it is sample libraries. I had opportunities to record actual piano, and there are a couple of songs that have actual piano recordings. But there's something about using these newer sample libraries, that are so well-recorded, so dynamic and they give you so much flexibility when it comes to writing this kind of music, especially with scoring. Being able to go back in and change anything, instead of having to re-record a whole part.

“Especially with the way that I write melodies, it ends up being kind of impossible to play, in a sense. Even the guitar parts - I'll come up with a guitar part by playing an arpeggio on the piano. I have those notes, and it’s impossible to actually play that arpeggio on the guitar. And then I just play two notes at a time, and then record the next track, and do the next two notes. So when I combine them all together, you hear the full arpeggio, and it's all being played on one instrument. 

Getting into Steve Reich and Philip Glass years ago had a really big impact on how I write melodies

“I take the same approach to all the melodic parts too. If I were to truly record those on real instruments, I would have to have multiple players - which could be great. But it would also make the process a lot more lengthy, and a lot more costly. I'm super happy with the quality of virtual instruments that are out there.”

Can you name any specific plugins or instruments that were fundamental on this record?

“A lot of the Spitfire libraries. There's a few Native Instruments ones. I like Midnight Piano, and The Gentleman. What else was I using? A lot of different prepared piano stuff. Some custom libraries that I've gotten from friends. I tried to use different ones on each song as well, so there wasn't one that was a go-to.” 

Was there anything you were listening to while you're working on this record that was a particular inspiration?

“Not necessarily. I will say that getting into Steve Reich and Philip Glass years and years ago had a really big impact on how I write melodies in general. I feel like if anything, this would be me paying tribute to them in my own way. But also, music I've always loved - how artists like Boards of Canada and Bibio harmonize, the way that they choose chord progressions that are very unusual and unexpected, but also have this warmth, an almost melancholy, but also uplifting kind of feeling at the same time, this push and pull of melancholy and joy. I've always appreciated that, creating a pleasantly haunting feeling with melodies.”

Have you ever composed with notation for an ensemble, in the way that Steve Reich and Philip Glass would have?

“I have done it in the past, for an Off-Broadway musical, actually. And I've done it for some string parts on Machinedrum songs. But in particular, for this album, I am working on a small ensemble version of the album. It's taken a bit longer than I thought to put it all together, but it is definitely something that’s on the books.”

What initially led you to work in Dolby Atmos for this release?

“Initially, it was the label just saying that they more or less required an Atmos version of the album. They were willing to pay someone to mix it but just like anything when it comes to music, I love learning, and I love researching. I was genuinely curious about the whole process. I had remembered that one of my friends had just recently started working at Dolby and told me that anytime I wanted to do something in Atmos, to just hit them up and they would sort me out. 

“I called them up and basically got connected with the people at Dolby. They walked me through the whole process and I ended up going to work with them out of the headquarters in San Francisco. It was a really eye-opening, game-changing experience for me. Especially being able to hear it - because initially I did a lot of the Atmos mixes at home using the Airpods Max over-ear headphones, which is essentially doing more of a binaural thing than anything else. 

It was a really eye-opening, game-changing experience for me

“It does recreate the movement of Atmos, so I was able to at least get the songs to a point that I felt like they would sound good in an actual Atmos room. But once I actually went into one of those rooms, and heard the sounds swirling around and all the movements that I had made at home, and how they actually translated exactly how I thought they would in the space, I was blown away. 

“Of course, I made some adjustments, such as using 3D reverbs and things like that to basically make anything that was moving a little too erratically feel like it had a room resonance. I didn't want it to be too distracting, but I also wanted to take advantage of being able to use Ableton to do automation and use Max for Live plugins to control LFOs on the movements of the different objects in the space, it was so much fun. It was really exciting. I ended up being able to do a few listening parties in LA at a Dolby Atmos room - we blacked out an entire cinema and it was truly pitch-black, you couldn't even see your hand in front of your face. I want to do more of those, for sure.”

What possibilities does working in Dolby Atmos present to the producer or composer that traditional stereo mixing doesn’t?

“I feel like, especially as a listener, it allows people to experience a track in a different way. In my case, I really took time to separate parts - even in, for example, more simple songs that were simpler compared to the others instrumentation-wise, songs that were basically just a piano - instead of the track using that one piano stem, I ended up restructuring it so that separate notes were playing on different stems. So I could actually place each of those notes as they played in the Atmos space. Again, it just allows you to have an opportunity to almost remix the songs but without it being a remix. You're opening up the spatial experience and opening up a deeper way of hearing the tracks and experiencing the tracks.”

Could you tell us about how you integrated LFOs into the Dolby Atmos mixing, this sounds particularly interesting?

“Essentially the Dolby Atmos panner is a VST plugin, and it's got some capabilities within it that allow you to make movements within the actual panner itself. For example, if you wanted to create a granular effect where the sound is bouncing around randomly in a cloud-like space, that's when the Max for Live plugins come in handy, because you can assign a random LFO to the position of the X, of the Y and of the Z, and the size of the sound and the height and everything else, so that it moves from position to position randomly throughout. 

I used Max for Live plugins to control LFOs on the movements of the different objects in the space - it was so much fun

“You can make those transitions smooth or sharp, however you want to set it up in the LFO. I was also doing some sort of exponential speeding up and slowing down of the LFO movement, these sine wave movements where sounds swirl around your head until they sound like they're one tone, and then they slow down again, until it's slowly oscillating around your head. Just fun things like that.

“A lot of my songs on the album are in odd time signatures. So being able to utilise Ableton’s automation in that respect was very useful. Unfortunately, the plugin for the Atmos music panner itself is locked into 4/4 time. So if your phrases are in five bars, if you make a circle movement, that circle movement is going to go from point A, all the way back around in four bars. Which could sound cool, depending on the kind of effect that you want. But I did like having that flexibility of being able to work within my odd time signature time grids through automation.”

We’re told that you had access to a Dolby Mastering plugin that’s never been used before. Could you tell us a little about that?

“I think that’s still not been released, so I’m not allowed to give any details…”

Do you think that, returning to a traditional stereo mixing scenario, you’re going to find yourself craving those extra dimensions?

“Not necessarily. I don't foresee it becoming integrated into my workflow. Who knows? Maybe it could - if I had a room that was set up for Atmos, I would probably be way more tempted to do something like that. But until that happens, it'll be more of a preparatory approach where I'm thinking, what can I do with this sound that could end up translating on Atmos.”

We spotted you’ve just confirmed a new residency on Rinse FM. What do you plan to explore with your new show?

“I want each episode to represent something different. I'm calling the show Now You Know Machinedrum. I want it to be an opportunity for people to see all the different sides of Machinedrum. Tonight's show is very representative of what one of my DJ sets would be like, but the next two episodes are going to be a bit more eclectic. I’m going to try as much as I can within an hour to go to all the different places and explore the different sounds that inspire me and influence me. It's also an opportunity to play a lot of music from friends and homies of mine. I'm so fortunate to be surrounded by so many talented people that are creating incredible music all the time. This is an opportunity to let their music shine as well.”

Machinedrum’s latest album as tstewart, elysian, is out now on Mercury KX.

I'm the Tech Features Editor for MusicRadar, working on everything from artist interviews to tech tutorials. I've been writing about (and making) electronic music for over a decade, and when I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, or a synthesizer. 

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