With live performances that ‘reveal an appetite for integrating the worlds of studio and stage’, Sandunes was on something of a roll pre-pandemic, having made a mark at many high profile festivals including Blue Dot, WOMAD, Roskilde and more.
After six critically acclaimed EPs – the latest, Nowhere To Stand, released on !K7 this summer – Sandunes is making waves way beyond her home city of Mumbai, India. Sandunes is the producer and pianist Sanaya Ardeshir and her music covers everything from the pop-inspired four tracks on the new EP through electronic jazz, right over to more leftfield works, including an album of natural soundscapes which has raised money for COVID-19 relief in India.
Sandunes has also successfully been able to bring her musical output over into the live arena. notching up some very highly-regarded performances, including a Warp Records and Boiler Room-commissioned performance for Different Trains 1947 at London’s Barbican Centre, support slots for both Bonobo and George Fitzgerald, a tour with the critically acclaimed UK jazz drummer Richard Spavento, plus a string of high-profile festival appearances in 2019 including Blue Dot, Roskilde, Magnetic Fields and WOMAD.
Sanaya has also lectured for both Point Blank and Ableton and as an Ableton Certified Trainer, taken part in the company’s loop Summit. Indeed so impressed were Ableton and Red Bull by the producer that they asked her to take part in the latter’s Searching For Music project which involved her creating samples and remixes by recording sounds in Mumbai for a bespoke sample pack, which you can get from the Ableton website.
Live to studio
However, it’s not all been plain sailing as, like for so many artists out there, the live arena has largely been an empty one for the last year and a half for Sandunes. But again, like so many frustrated producers and performers, she’s channelled the time and creativity into new music: a new EP that is possibly her best work yet. Nowhere To Stand has a pop sensibility that is sure to increase a profile already at an international level, and well beyond anything Ardeshir expected as a child in India.
“I grew up with access to pianos, records, and in the knowledge that my dad had very much wanted to play music for a living,” she recalls. “However, growing up in India at a time when there were barely any opportunities to make a living from being a musician, he became an engineer and wound up working in a steel plant in Jamshedpur, a small, industrial Indian town where I was born.”
That didn’t – eventually anyway – stop Ardeshir’s musical ambitions, but it would take some exposure to electronic music and music technology to help propel them onto a new dimension and into a new country.
“Piano lessons naturally evolved into college band competitions,” she explains, “and after being exposed to trip hop and synthesisers, I pursued a music production course in London. Being in a city like London was extremely horizon expanding and eye-opening, and that’s when I started producing my own work, roughly a decade ago now.”
The tech route
Of her introduction to the technology that very much surrounds her these days, Ardeshir recalls: “I was rehearsing with a band for some cover gigs in a garage very many years ago, and the engineers from the studio next door asked me to come lay down some chords for a documentary they were scoring.
"It was the first time I was exposed to a DAW and the idea of composing and arranging with the help of a screen and a multitude of devices. It meant limitless possibilities for the sounds that came through the speakers when I hit notes on a MIDI controller. My mind was truly blown, and that led me to discover Logic, Ableton Live, and a new modality of writing.”
And now, while the Sandunes studio is probably much fuller than that initial setup in the garage next door, it also very much has that live stage in mind.
“These days, the rig is a mobile one,” Sanaya explains. “My partner and I combined all the gear that would fit in our car and have been travelling through South India for the last year or so. We travel with a UAD Apollo 8, an RME UCX (for a second workstation), a DSI/Sequential Prophet-6, a Novation Peak, Kilpatrick Audio’s Phenol synth, a ROLI Seaboard, and an Eventide H9 effects box. I also have a pair of Genelec 8030s that have been in my studio since 2011.
“There are various MIDI controllers – Novation Launchpad X, Launchkey etc – a few Shure mics, plus some fun pedals, mostly Electro-Harmonix, although my favourite is the EarthQuaker Devices Dispatch Master. Finally we have a couple of bass traps from Ultra Acoustics and, most importantly, a power stabiliser as we’ve been working out of spaces with super frequent power outages.”
To the software...
And as eclectic as that list of hardware is, Sanaya is just as passionate about her plugins, revealing a varied set of top used apps on the Sandunes drive.
“I tend to use Soundtoys Little AlterBoy on things other than voice,” she begins, “and I find the results are almost always pleasantly surprising. On Nowhere To Stand, I wound up creating vocal samples from my collaborators in almost every song, tweaking the pitch and formant controls on Little AlterBoy for some great results.”
There are a couple of favourite – and possibly over-used synths too. “I use Live 11 and these days my template for writing has several instances of Arturia’s Prophet V in it. I find it is a great starting point as the way it emulates the actual instrument is super inspiring, especially for laying down chords. I’ve even found myself swapping actual horn samples for the brassy sounding patches on it! I’d recommend it for anyone that plays synths and needs to work in the box.”
“Then there’s TAL-U-NO-LX,” Sanaya adds. “For a while it was my workhorse but I’ve only just stopped using it, for fear of overuse! I’m a huge fan of the Juno-60, and while this doesn’t really come close, it has a quality that seems to sit nicely in a mix with some saturation, usually by way of Soundtoys Decapitator.”
Back to effects and Valhalla’s VintageVerb is the Sandunes go-to reverb… for now: “I have it set up as the first send on my template. I love the plates on it, especially the 1980’s colour. I will usually route synths, vocals and even drums to it. More recently though, I have started to swap it out for FabFIlter’s Pro R.”
And FabFIlter get another inclusion with Saturn as Sanaya explains: “As a producer, I have only recently gotten into distortion in a big way and Saturn has a lot to do with it! An extremely versatile workhorse and a powerful sonic shaping tool, this one usually sits on my instrument busses, but I also sometimes use it as a return. Its multi-band features allow for an infinite variety of applications.”
To the music
That’s the gear in the Sandunes studio and the resulting music is just as wide ranging, all stemming from a philosophy that also tends to shift. Sanaya explains the current Sandunes way of thinking.
“Recently, the way I think about ‘listening’ has changed. Not only as a key facet within the world of music and production, but as something that connects us to our environments, to each other and to ourselves. I’ve been working to bring more mindful and deep listening into my music making spaces, but also outside of those spaces.
“We’re an extremely visual culture,” she continues, “and the last few years have only heightened for me the potential that activated listening hosts. So I suppose, in a way, my approach is one that prioritises the sort of listening that makes me feel extremely present, intentioned and engaged.”
And how does this translate into the actual songwriting process?
“I’m a pianist, so it’s very rare that I start by building beats or grooves,” Sanaya reveals. “Mostly it will be a chord progression on a synth, and then either a full arrangement for different parts – verses/choruses and bridges. Or I’ll build various loops – musical building blocks which I then move around with a lean and barebones synth version of the tune to build an arrangement. More recently bass has been the second element to hold it together and then I add drums and percussion.”
We’re guessing though, with such a diverse sound, that there are no characteristic Sandunes production processes. Well actually…
“I usually have various ‘ghost kicks’ playing different rhythms through my project,” she explains, “like some on the downbeat, some less frequently depending on what the synths are doing, and I sidechain different elements – if ever so slightly – so they have different rhythmic pulsations. This I find creates a polyrhythmic feel for syncopated and layered synth parts, even if the effect is very subtle and can’t be heard too audibly.”
Creativity from uncertainty
As we have touched upon, the most recent Sandunes release, Nowhere To Stand, was born out of the last year and a half of studio confinement, as Sanaya adds: “It’s a piece of my heart and creating it was like an antidote to the uncertainty and stress the pandemic brought with it. It features the vocalists Half Waif, Sid Sriram, Landslands and Ramya Pothuri.
"It’s been wonderful to work with voice again, after a really long period of creating instrumental music. My production process has shifted from loop-oriented music to a more songwriting approach so that vocalists have room to create, which has been a refreshing change. Although most collaborations unfolded remotely in the pandemic, it really feels like the artist is in the room with you when their voice is playing through your speakers.”
Sanaya’s next project, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks set to shift those sands again: “It’s a piano music album,” she explains, “within the world of electronics and featuring a horn section, which we’re currently finishing mixing. There will also be more pop-leaning electronic music featuring voice and more collaborations!”
Does the Sandunes studio require any more gear on top of that impressive – and mobile – list?
“Some Audeze LCD-X headphones so that remote work and remote mixing can feel a touch easier,” Sanaya replies. “Also, hardware distressors, perhaps the Thermionic Culture Vulture, would be real nice to have. Then maybe a Juno-60, a WEM copicat echo, an RE-201 Space Echo... The list goes on!”
And anything in terms of a fantasy piece of equipment? Something that doesn’t exist and probably even couldn’t exist?
“A hybrid piano synthesiser!” Sanaya laughs, “where oscillators, envelopes and even filter chips can interact with felt and hammers in real time.” Yep, that would be good…