PNAU: 5 things we’ve learned about music production

PNAU shot
PNAU: (From left) Peter Mayes, Nick Littlemore, Sam Littlemore

He may have been in the business for more than 40 years, but Elton John remains a great champion of new music.

In the case of Australian trio PNAU - Nick Littlemore (vocals, production), Peter Mayes (guitar, production) and Sam Littlemore (production) - he offered more than just kind words, signing them to his label and giving his blessing to Good Morning To The Night, a well-received remix album of his own work that was released in 2012.

This followed two albums of original material, while a third, Changa, landed in 2017. Now PNAU are back with a new single, Solid Gold – featuring Kira Divine and Marques Toliver - with an as-yet unannounced new album to follow.

We asked Sam Littlemore to reflect on the PNAU journey thus far and to dispense five pieces of essential music production advice.

1. A great mix is more than the sum of its parts

“Any good engineer can make a balanced mix, but that is not enough to make a mix great. In a good mix, every part can be heard and the best elements, harmonically speaking, are pushed to their limits.

“The best mixes, however, have a perfect imbalance. This can only be achieved by pushing harmonics, transients and distortion into a synergy where individual sonic characters burst from the speakers in an impossibly seductive way. It’s the point where one could not imagine a better sound, but it can very easily be killed by looking for balance.

“Ideally this point can be reached before the sound even hits the microphone, but in the exclusively electronic world, we strive to create this imbalance through delicate layering of elements temporally and spatially.”

2. Madness is magic

“Inspiration comes like a bolt of lightening that knocks us out of ourselves, leaving us scrambling, in metamorphosis, trying to make sense. It is an incomprehensible moment, an ephemeral magic that sounds like madness at first but quickly becomes the formwork for our concrete musical structure to fill.

“Nick [Littlemore] is really the source of our inspirational madness and it’s something we really couldn’t function without. It’s not dissimilar to glossolalia in a psychedelic trance and perhaps is channelled from the subconscious. Peter and I are then responsible for filtering the genius from the noise and growing a positive message from this seed. We try very hard to not kill the seed until it has at least germinated. at which time we determine whether it is magic or just madness.”

3. You’re not making music for yourself

“As hard as it is to admit, we are often wrong in our belief that we know best. Indeed, if we were to ‘fix’ everything in the making of a song, we’d inevitably overwork a song, losing the charm of an idea.

As hard as it is to admit, we are often wrong in our belief that we know best.

“The real struggle for us is not precision but authenticity, and an undeniable simplicity. Naivety and charm go hand-in-hand and, once that magic is found, it’s very important to preserve without burying it in layers of sparkling warmth just because it sounds ‘better’.

“Give the people your best ideas and do not labour over the presentation. Like raising a child, let the idea be who it wants to be.”

4. Be new

“As an act that started its journey with an almost entirely sampled sound set (see the deleted PNAU album Sambanova, if you can find it), we have very strong roots in that which has come before. We really do not want to be be mired in history, however, and continue trying to write our own.

“Our quest for this newness is informed by psychedelic culture and the limits of human experience. This is as much a visual as it is a sonic touchpoint for us. We now try to find an image or a technique that represents the psychedelic experience as best we have seen and then try to interpret that language and speak that revelation musically.

“This is the greatest source of newness we imagine. Everyone in music now seems trying to be a cliché with a twist, but newness should be our driving force.”

5. Be humble

“Does arrogance create successful music or is it the other way around? Even the greatest artists create crap. There is plenty of writing on the subject of failure and how important it is in the realisation of ultimate success.

Ideas should be arrogant; people should be humble.

“Every artist’s hard drive is filled with half-finished or wholly realised little pieces of shit that, fortunately, the world never hears. Anyone with a lack of self-deprecation will hit that same wall that we all face: that we are human, we fail, we succeed and we die. The quest is to not die in the public arena and live on as a catalogue of brilliant ideas.

“Speak only with humility and grace, letting the songs be our arrogant voices. Ideas should be arrogant; people should be humble.”

Ben Rogerson

I’m the Deputy Editor of MusicRadar, having worked on the site since its launch in 2007. I previously spent eight years working on our sister magazine, Computer Music. I’ve been playing the piano, gigging in bands and failing to finish tracks at home for more than 30 years, 24 of which I’ve also spent writing about music and the ever-changing technology used to make it. 

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