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Sylvan Esso's Career in Gear: "We printed the entire song through the radio transmitter, and that was the version that ended up being on the record"

sylvan esso
(Image credit: Shorefire Media)

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are Sylvan Esso, a duo recording radiant electro-pop that thrums with unrestrained emotion. Balancing the scales between all-out pop melodicism and electronic experimentation, their third album Free Love saw them move out of the box and further into modular synthesis, earning them a 2022 Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album in the process.

Though they’re reinvigorating pop music with adventurous sonic techniques, Nick and Amelia are no gear snobs: they’re equally happy running an entire track through a radio transmitter and pushing Ableton’s stock plugins to their limits as they are laying down chords on a monolithic Moog Voyager XL. For our Career in Gear feature, the pair plucked five key tracks from their discography and gave us some insights into the five pieces of studio equipment that defined their sound.

1. Make Noise Phonogene

"Frequency"

NS: “”Frequency” was made around this loop that I made with a module called the Make Noise Phonogene. It’s this beautiful old sampler that they don't make anymore, that has this wonderfully bad sound to it, it almost sounds like a hacked sampler

“It’s got this ultra lo-fi kind of that kind of quality to it. But for whatever reason, it has this miraculous amount of soul to it, it feels like everything you put in there emerges with more intent and meaning than it had going in. It's like this way of revealing a melody within something. 

“So the whole initial piece, that fluttering sound that provides the backbone of the track, is all me sampling my own voice into this Phonogene and then sequencing it. It's totally one of those things where I don't think that song would have happened without it, it's a beautiful piece of kit.” 

2. Moog Voyager XL

"Die Young"

NS: “Amelia wrote this at our friend’s studio, and we were trying to sketch it out. At this place, they had this absolutely insane Moog Voyager XL. Which was the kind of thing that - especially back then - we would never have access to this giant, beautiful instrument.

I thought, I’ll just remake this on something else, make it tight and play it better and all that stuff. But we couldn’t beat the sound of it with anything else

“Right away she came in and I wrote that bassline, the main riff of the song, using that. Because we were sitting with that, that part became that classic, Moog-y, almost Hornsby sound, with one oscillator tuned to the root and one tuned to the fifth above. There’s no way that song would have happened that way, had that thing not been sitting there. 

“It’s actually funny, too, because we were recording it, assuming we were just recording the demo. Because the waveforms I was using were so simple, it’s literally a triangle wave and a sawtooth. I thought, I’ll just remake this on something else, make it tight and play it better and all that stuff. But we couldn’t beat the sound of it with anything else. It was one of those things where it’s like, it’s a triangle wave, how can it be that different? It was so frustrating - we finally had to borrow someone’s Voyager and redo it.”

3. ⅛ inch radio transmitter

"Free"

NS: “For our song “Free” I picked an ⅛ inch radio transmitter - do you remember, before you could plug your phone into the car, before Bluetooth, those little things you plug into your Discman? Then you would tune your radio station in the car to that frequency.”

AM: “This piece of gear didn’t work very good - which was why we loved it.”

NS: “We ordered a few of those and started sending things through the radio and recording this old boombox Amelia found.”

We printed the entire song through the radio, and that was the version that ended up being on the record

AM: “Yeah, instead of printing things to tape, we would print it to the radio. But the cool part is that you could play the radio by moving it around. Almost every song on Free Love has it. You could really lean into the white noise of the radio.”

NS: “The transmitter’s not very powerful. So your ability to play the distance between the boombox and the transmitter suddenly becomes its own dancing instrument. And there's this thing that I don't think I realised before we started doing it, that there's the static sound that we all know, of what something sounds like when it's been transmitted over the radio. There's a very specific kind of distortion to it.”

AM: “It’s the same as iPhone recordings. You didn’t notice there was a sound to something, and then you realise how lovely it is, when you can hear it isolated.”

NS: “We literally made the mix of the song “Free”, and then we printed the entire song through the radio, and that was the version that ended up being on the record.”

4. Ableton Vocoder

"What If"

NS: “Let's do another inexpensive one. I think the built-in Ableton vocoder is not celebrated enough. On “What If”, we really leaned into that being the bulk of the chords and the sound of the whole thing.

“I just feel like that's one of those stock plugins that I don't ever hear anyone talking about. And I use it on almost every single track, it's just so massively powerful. I especially love it on that track. We doubled Amelia’s voice and then pitched one of them down an octave. And then had both of those each going through their own instance of the vocoder and then being saturated by Ableton’s Saturator. 

“It makes this massive sound, especially for something that comes with Ableton. It's such a flexible tool. I never reach for any other vocoders, I love that thing so much.”

5. Hyve Touch Synth

"Make It Easy"

NS: “We really wanted the song to feel like it was bursting at the seams and starting to tear apart. I have this tiny little touch synthesizer called a Hyve.”

AM: “It’s a really intuitive machine, it makes a lovely sound. It sounds like bees - it’s beautiful.”

NS: “It's very intuitive to play. There's a keyboard on the bottom, and as you move your finger left and right, it pans left and right. As you move it up and down, it goes up and down octaves. Then there's this hexagonal grid - like a hive - that operates more like a hexagonal keyboard, almost like an accordion-type keyboard.

It feels like you're holding a lightning bolt, it's got this insane noise to it

“I've been playing that into a Landscape Stereo Field on tour. It really just feels like you're playing electricity, in a way that other electronic instruments do not, to me. It’s got this absolutely wild, plaintive, dangerous sound, that was just perfect for that. Especially paired with that Landscape Stereo Field, which is another touch plate thing. It feels like you're holding a lightning bolt, it's got this insane noise to it.”

AM: “The mixing of those two touch plates together, it’s so beautiful. They really balance each other out.”

Sylvan Esso’s Free Love is out now on Loma Vista Recordings. 

Matt Mullen

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