Kate Simko on writing, recording and performing in the London Electronic Orchestra

Kate and the LEO.
Kate and the LEO.

Kate Simko has always been a musician with a foot in both the Classical and contemporary worlds. Growing up in Chicago, she studied piano from an early age but was lured into the world of house music after being introduced to the city's legendary rave scene.

Her musical education moved in the direction of synthesis and recording technology, before morphing into a fully-fledged career as a DJ and producer. Yet, despite the shift in focus, flashes of her classical origins have always been there, coming out in moments like her 2006 remix of Philip Glass or her soundtrack for 2008 PBS documentary The Atom Smashers.

That balance shifted again four years ago, when Simko moved to London to study for a masters in composition for film. Through the course, she met and collaborated with several classical musicians who would go on to form the London Electronic Orchestra - an all-female ensemble devised to perform her lush, string-driven house tracks.

With their debut LP out earlier this summer, and growing reputation for their unique live performances, the LEO have proved themselves to be much more than a cross-genre gimmick, skilfully blending gorgeous, organic melodies with classic Chicago house synth tones and crunchy analogue beats. We caught up with Simko at the group's US debut in NYC to find out about the challenges in bridging the gap between the two sides of her personality.

What's the background to the London Electronic Orchestra project?

"I started piano lessons when I was around five years old, then I studied music technology at Northwestern University in Chicago. At that program, they had one of the first electronic music studios funded by the US government, so of course there was the famous Columbia-Princeton studio, the Stanford one, and then this one. We had the original ARP 2600; we had a whole wall of Moog modulars, from floor to ceiling, that students from the '70s onwards had built. There was a lot of tape splicing and editing. That's how I learnt how to produce electronic music actually, on those machines, not in plug-ins where everything is already pre-made.

"Anyway, that's my background, and alongside that I studied piano, but I never combined orchestral instruments with electronics. I never learnt to write for orchestra at that program; it was all about writing for electronics and then a bit of piano on the side. There was no real combining orchestra in with that.

I enjoyed seeing if the different timbres of these instruments could blend with electronic soundscapes, and it was through that process that I ended up forming the London Electronic Orchestra.

"I had a DJ career for ten years, then I moved to London in 2012 to get a masters at the Royal College of Music. That was fuelled by a desire to learn new skills. I'd started doing film scores but I found I really hit the ceiling of my own limitations.

"I did a film score for PBS in 2009 - which was also released on Ghostly - for a film called The Atom Smashers. If you listen to that score you can hear my Philip Glass influences. But while I'm proud of it and I'm happy with what I did, you'll hear my attempts at orchestration with no training, and it was definitely the best I could do with the skills I had at the time.

"After that experience, as I'd loved it and I wanted to do more, I started looking into programs where I could learn how to write for orchestra along with the technique of film score - if there is such a thing.

"When I got to the RCM, that was my first experience ever learning how to write for orchestra. Everyone else on the course had already been doing that for years - that was all their background or their undergraduate degrees. But I got my first experience of sitting with those instruments, seeing how they blend together, different playing techniques. I guess because I'd written so much music of my own, I was able to incorporate that pretty easily into my existing music, but I was just so excited, like a child, about all the things you could do with them.

"Also, because my background was in electronic music, and I wasn't so much of a purist, I was into the electronic manipulation of these instruments as well. To me, as soon as you record those instruments they become electronic anyway, so I had no qualms about using my background in electronic music to try and get the best sound I could out of them. I enjoyed seeing if the different timbres of these instruments could blend with electronic soundscapes, and it was through that process that I ended up forming the London Electronic Orchestra.

"I started working with some players, specifically the harpist I work with, Valeria Kurbatova, and our bass player, Nina Harries, along with other musicians I met at the RCM. I was writing music specifically for them, partially out of convenience. Because we became mates I could just say, 'Hey, I've got a recording session - I'll pay you in pizza if you'll come down and play for me'.

"From that we got some bookings - our first was for 20 people - then I got commissioned to make the first LEO piece. The first piece I wrote was Shikoku, which is on the album. Then Tilted I made at the RCM as a short film score; I found a film on Vimeo and scored it. So basically while studying composition for film I slowly developed my own sound and I decided to call that sound London Electronic Orchestra as it was different from who I was previously."

What is the composition process like for LEO? Are you scoring the orchestral instruments in a traditional way or was it more collaborative?

"I would say one thing that really helped me was that, because I didn't hang around with that pedigree of orchestral composers before getting my masters, I really approached it in a 'from the ground up' sort of way. I was very honest about the fact I'd never done this before. A lot of my early scores I used to write little notes asking the musicians, 'What do you think about this technique here?' and then we'd try different approaches in rehearsals. I could get feedback from them because they knew I wasn't that kind of ivory tower composer for whom the score is the final word.

"There was definitely an element of collaboration, but the only player who really does much improvisation is our harpist. She does quite a bit of improv. I write a lot for harp as well; I really like writing for harp, but there are certain sections where she goes and does her own thing. I tried to push for that with the other string instruments, but it doesn't necessarily work because they're just not jazz players. That's okay anyway, as you don't want the music to be too busy - you've already got beats and you've got synth basslines and pads, plus the harp improvising, so it's probably a blessing that not everyone wants to do their own thing at the same time."

So the tracks on the album, did you have those fully written and scored before you recorded them, or was there an element of editing and arrangement once you had them in a DAW?

"By the time we got to the recording sessions, it was pretty much set. One main reason for that is that when you've got that many instruments in Pro Tools, it's not fun to be cutting and pasting audio, especially when you have an ensemble playing at the same time - it's just a real mess to try and edit.

"There were a couple of moments where we'd change something later, or we'd do some doctoring of it, but it was just really hard. That said, some tracks I did change later, like XX Intro. That orchestral arrangement was done mainly by an Italian composer friend of mine, but it didn't feel totally my vibe, or like the rest of the album, so I changed some stuff in there after the session.

"Then other songs, what I'd do is keep the orchestral stuff but then add on stuff on top. Waiting Games is a good example of that; on that track I wasn't happy with how the upright bass sounded. We recorded everybody in the same room - six violins, three cellos, three violas and a bassist - and the bass sound just didn't work for me, so I ended up using a Juno-60 to overdub the bass. Then the strings themselves, no matter how we EQ'd them, it wasn't exactly the sound I wanted, so I found a sound on the Jupiter-8 - which I was playing at a friend's house in Chicago around Christmas - and recorded some pads to layer behind the strings. I did more post-doctoring like that than actual editing. I was never saying the classical sound had to be the final thing; part of the ethos of the project is not having a clear boundary between what's electronic and what's recorded.

"Essentially everything was ready when we went into the recording sessions, but it took a while to get there. We'd rehearse new songs every time we played a show. I'd introduce a new song for us to run through, I'd go back and forth with the players and then make corrections to the score.

"We'd practise it and then for the show I'd give them revised sheet music, then after the show itself I'd sometimes critique the arrangement even more. So there was already multiple levels of revision before we recorded. By the time we got the sessions I was just like, 'Okay I've got to let it go, this is it'."

I could get feedback from them because they knew I wasn't that kind of ivory tower composer for whom the score is the final word.

Can you tell me about the recording process itself... What was your role in that?

"Basically I worked mostly at the RCM. I had a good friend of mine, Dea Artola, who was working there temporarily; she has a Grammy for recording Adele's album, but she also had an interest in learning about recording orchestral instruments. I told her, 'Girl, you can get paid a lot to record film orchestras. Maybe you can use this as an entry to that?'

"She recorded all of the stuff at the RCM; needless to say she was everyone's favourite engineer. She's now an engineer at Electric Lady in New York, and they've not hired a new permanent engineer in a long time, so she's amazing. The first half I recorded with her, and then the second half we did at the Premises Studio in London.

"At those sessions, it was the engineer's job to know about mic types and placement; my role was to sit there with the score and the talkback button, to make sure that I'd got everything I need. I was being the more traditional 'producer' and then I had a recording engineer helping. Then afterwards Dan Bora did all the mixing of the LEO album. Dan is in the Philip Glass Ensemble; he's been my friend since I met him at a rave in Chicago when I was 17.

"It's a great thing coming full circle, with him being such an expert on strings - he's done about 15 years recording with Philip Glass - having him mix everything was great. He made those ten strings sound like an orchestra, basically."

Were the electronic elements introduced before or after you'd recorded the strings?

"Those had already been done. The way that I worked with LEO, pretty much from the start, was to begin by making a beat and getting a vibe going with some temporary sounds. Whether those are synths or used sampled orchestral lines. I always had the actual tempo, beat and sounds with temporary orchestral parts, then I'd replace the samples with the real thing. So the backbone of a song was always there. By the time we did the recording sessions, we would have already performed the songs at a few shows, and had a chance to vet things so that the backing tracks were pretty much done."

What electronic instruments are you using to create the beats and electronic sounds?

"I use Logic as my main workspace. Then, to complement the classical sound of the orchestra, I've tried to use classic drum sounds where possible. I have a TR-808 and I specifically recorded that and a real 909. I went into a studio to do that a couple of times. If you listen to XX Intro, for example, you can really hear the classic 808 drums on that one, then the two collaborations with Jamie Jones you can here the 909.

"I wanted to stick with that because, at least for this first album, that was the aesthetic we were starting with. There's a lot of Roland on there, basically - I've got the Juno-106, the Juno-6 for bass, the Jupiter-8. Then there's a Moog Voyager I used on a couple - the song Standchen has Moog on it. Those were the main ones."

Given your relationship to 'real' instrumentation, do you also prefer working with hardware?

"I definitely use plug-ins too, particularly when sketching stuff out. I bought a load of really expensive orchestral samples - I got the EastWest stuff for college, which comes on this big external drive that's just a nightmare to travel with. I also have a load of stuff via Kontakt, the Spitfire Audio packs; I really like Albion 1 and 2. But the one I actually use a lot just for sketching things quickly is called the Aria Player by Garritan. It's like $300, but it's low latency and doesn't cause any drama. I use it when I don't want to be slowed down in any way.

"I also use Rapture, I like some of the pad sounds in there. I mess around with Retro Synth in Logic as well, I found some good stuff in there, but not loads. In Logic I also use Ultrabeat; if I've a bit of a beat that needs filling in I've no problem with just turning to that. Basically I'm a Logic girl, but I'll use other stuff when I need to. I use Waves plug-ins quite a bit, plus Lexicon reverb and SoundToys plug-ins. Those would be my three that I use all the time."

How much effects processing did you apply to the orchestral instruments?

"There's more than you'd think really. A lot of that was done by Dan Bora, but yeah, there's quite a bit going on. When you listen to those recordings where it's just six violins and three violas, two cellos and a bass, the sound is somewhere between a string quartet and an orchestra, so you need to do some work to expand it.

"One way that we did that is a through overdubs. Time is tight during these sessions and when you have those players and you're paying them all you have to realise you can't overdub everything, or else you'd be there for days. What I'd do is look at certain sections in advance - for example ones with longer, extended notes that we wanted to be lush and thick - and I'd map out what to overdub there so we could layer things. So overall we got the strings sounding right through a balance of overdubbing and quite a few effects.

Basically I'm a Logic girl, but I'll use other stuff when I need to. I use Waves plug-ins quite a bit, plus Lexicon reverb and SoundToys plug-ins.

"On some tracks I've added additional effects on to certain instruments to bring them out in the mix too. On One Time Game, for example, I mixed the strings myself and you can hear where I've put effects on the harp at the beginning and the end. I think the harp is the amazing middle point between Classical and electronic sounds; it's very percussive and is played in arpeggios, which are such a staple of electronic music.

"Doing some manipulation on the harp is something I used on the album on a few occasions to be the glue holding those two worlds together, so it's not just like beats with orchestra over the top. That's been done quite a lot especially over the past few years - where you have somebody playing beats, but they're nothing to do with the orchestra. There's not necessarily a technical or aesthetic bond tying it all together."

Can you tell us about the live performance set-up... What are you using on stage and how are you interacting with the other musicians?

"When I'm on stage I play keyboards. I used to play the Juno-106 but, although it's an amazing keyboard, it can also be unreliable, depending on where it is. I had a time playing at Panorama Bar where soundcheck was fine but then at the show it was just rolling through presets while I was playing it. I love the machine to death - at heart I'm an analogue synth girl - but it just got to be too much of a wild card, especially when you're dealing with orchestral players. Now I'm using the Nord Stage 2.

"I'm doing the beats too; I used to use an MFB 522 but I've actually stopped that for now, mainly because the players take a lot of their cues from the drums, so when I was improvising and adding extra hi-hats and stuff, it just wasn't helping people. Now I let the beats be pretty much as they are; I can put effects on them but I don't change entry and exit points. That all comes from Ableton Live now.

"Instead of touching the beats, I've taken to playing the keys, which actually makes me feel more unified with the ensemble. When I'm on stage, every song I make sure I can get eye contact with them before we start each new song, and I'm playing keyboards in the ensemble - that's the way we're working now."

Is there room to improvise live?

"I improvise the whole time. I can't just play the same thing every time; some of the songs I don't even use sheet music. In case I get scared I'll write down the chord pattern, but that's it. That's just how I am as a musician - I know the music inside out and I know what's going to happen so I don't need bar numbers; I just try to vibe off it.

"I think that makes every show a bit different. The harpist improvises quite a bit too, and I think sometimes we're vibing off each other. In terms of structure of the songs though, the sheet music really is the law for the other players, because if they come in either one or two bars off then the harmonies are all wrong and it's just a disaster. So they have to stick with what they've got."

Do you feel you've drifted away from the traditional dance producer/DJ role or is that still something that excites you?

"Yeah, absolutely, that's the other thing I'm maintaining. The DJ/producer thing can 100% keep you completely busy - it did for me up until I did my masters - touring and crate digging and producing.

"For me to maintain that and have LEO on top of it... that's why I don't have space for film scoring too. Right now it's been great to get back into the studio and finish a few tracks that are purely electronic. I've just finished a couple of remixes, and I've made some house tracks.

"I've been doing DJ shows alongside the LEO shows in the States too. I love that; that's definitely still a huge passion and it's something I want to continue with alongside LEO. While I've still got the energy to jump on a plane and travel around the world DJing, I want to do it

What sort of venues have you mostly been playing? Has it been a major departure from 'club' sets? Has that been a challenge?

"I would say we could almost do two totally different sets. Coming from the RCM, our first shows were more classically orientated. We'd even complement our own music with a few classical songs, remixes I'd done of classical pieces or arrangements without a beat behind it.

"One of our first shows was at the Royal College of Music and that was seated; then we played the National Gallery twice, and that was much more classical again. But then after that, because I'd established myself more in the electronic world, we were getting more bookings in that world. We did the London Electronic Arts festival, then we did Bestival, and we played Ibiza twice - once with Jamie Jones, once for Boiler Room. Now we've just played our debut in the United States with two different sets; we did Thursday night at Le Poisson Rouge, which is a more classical set, doing a couple of songs that demand a little bit more patience from the audience.

"Then on Friday we played on the roof at Output as a trio of violin, bass and harp, plus me, and that was a seamless 122bpm house set; we did a cover of A Guy Called Gerald's Voodoo Ray, and just kept the whole thing up-tempo and grooving consistently. So essentially we can adapt to different situations; we can play different material and make a bespoke set depending on the venue."

Having done your masters in composition for screen is that a direction you see your career heading in the future?

"Yeah... the thing is even when I got the masters, it was never a case of wanting to get it specifically for looking for a job. I guess I'm a very idealistic artist - I always want to spend my time doing the things I'm most passionate about artistically.

"My strategy is to keep developing London Electronic Orchestra, keep developing my sound and then let other opportunities come naturally. It's already starting to work a bit, with directors finding out about my music and asking me to do something for them.

"Even though I graduated from my masters in 2014, I've been able to stay on in London because I have an exceptional talent visa, which allows me to stay. That visa is based on the true story of LEO, and that I want to continue to perform and record with these musicians, and that I'll be employing musicians in the UK.

"That's the truth, it's my passion right now and I have this amazing network of people I'm working with. So that's what I'm working on right now, but you never know how things are going to change. If I could clone myself I'd do both things at once, but for now LEO is my number one passion. If amazing film things come pursue both at the same level."

It was a completely different DIY spirit, and we just made our first album on an old laptop recording stuff with whatever we could, microphone wise, and we just got on with it.

Over the years you've had quite a lot of formal musical education, both on the production and theory sides. Is that something you recommend to other electronic musicians?

"My best advice to anyone is just to let yourself find your own path and keep your mind completely open. Study or don't study, do whatever works for you personally. For me, to be honest with you, I would less recommend studying the electronic stuff and more recommend studying theory. The music technology degree, for me, was just because I was obsessed; I'd just discovered Warp Records and I was really into it and didn't want to drop out of college. That program was like an angel coming down from heaven for me.

"For me personally though, it's more important that you're a well balanced individual. I would never suggest studying just technical music stuff; I also studied a foreign language, and I studied political science. The whole thing was a very hardcore four-year program, and it was a very balanced education. So my best advice is, learn what's up with the world, rather than how to use Logic."

Over the course of your career you've lived and worked in several countries including the US, UK and South America. How much do you think location influences the music you create?

"That's right, I studied abroad in Santiago, Chile. I lived there and that definitely informed a lot of my approach to things. Even technically; that was 2001 and the internet was still kind of slow. I was working with Andrés Bucci and his brother, using a really old MacBook and really small speakers and coming from Chicago that was pretty eye-opening.

"Back there, a lot of the excuses you'd hear would be things like, 'Man, I need to get a new computer before I can finish this song'. It was always like people would need something else gear wise to be able to be professional. Then when I was in Chile, where there just wasn't access to that stuff, it was a completely different DIY spirit, and we just made our first album on an old laptop recording stuff with whatever we could, microphone wise, and we just got on with it.

"Then in London, I just felt such a different energetic appreciation for classical music. In Chicago, when I'd see the Chicago symphony, it would be all white-bred people. Very few times were they taking chances on the repertoire - and that's what I always thought Classical was.

"Then when I came to London I just saw all these amazing concerts, and the things they do at the Proms and the Royal Albert Hall, all this stuff around the city. It's just very inspiring. It's the same on the electronic side as well though; I've never been to a place that appreciates music more than London."

Kate Simko & London Electronic Orchestra is out now via The Vinyl Factory. For information to the official Kate Simko website.

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