Talking Shop: These Hidden Hands

Berlin duo Alain Paul (aka Shards) and Tommy Four Seven return this August with a new album from their project These Hidden Hands. Vicarious Memories sees them deftly blending guitar and vocals with gritty synths and ambient electronics. FM caught up with them…

When did you start making music, and how did you first get started?

Alain: "I started off pretty early with the guitar when I was nine but in terms of music tech and producing electronic music, someone gave me a CD full of music software around about 2001. I installed everything and was completely engrossed from that point on. I remember there was Cakewalk Pro Audio, Rebirth, Fruity Loops, Sound Forge and Band In A Box. That kept me going for a few years until I saved up and bought a copy of Logic. At that point I was mostly making Drum & Bass. My biggest influence at that time was Twisted Individual."

Tommy: "I first started making electronic music with the Playstation game Music 2000 when it first came out. I remember I used to record the output of the TV to my cassette deck to record my jams and 'DJ' them with other records - it sounded awful!

"Cracked copies of Propellerhead Reason were being passed around by friends and I began messing around producing what could be maybe described as House, Techno and D&B. At 17 I decided to study Music Technology in London and took things a little more serious and with the help of my student loan I invested in new MacPro and a copy of Logic."

Tell us about your studio

A: "We both have our own separate studios. Where I also work as a mastering engineer for a living, I am lucky to have a very high quality monitoring situation and a comfortable studio environment where I can make as much noise as I like any time of day.

"My mastering setup is very simple: one-off handmade EQ and compression, Lavry conversion and a Crookwood monitor controller - the rest of the gear essentially comprises of synths, guitars and assorted other musical instruments."

T: "I've recently moved the bulk of my studio to my new apartment as there's space and I missed the spontaneous workflow, especially for my solo productions. I still rent my old studio room next door to Alain's studio which is more for live recording, mixing and rehearsing. My home studio setup is more focused around my Eurorack modular system and other hardware, using Logic as my main DAW.

"When collaborating with Alain, we often send ideas back and forth or remix each other's draft ideas until we're at a point that makes sense to be together in the same studio. The final mix and mastering is generally worked on at Alain's studio."

What DAW (or DAWs) do you use, and why did you choose it?

A: "I was a Logic user for quite a while until discovering Reaper in 2009. After a few times using it just out of curiosity, I was so amazed with the software I decided to dive in and make the switch. It took quite a while to rebuild my way of working and make the most out of Reaper, but after an initial period of frustration and doing things the wrong way - because there are many different but better ways of doing things in Reaper that I had yet to discover - I quickly found that it was by far the best DAW that I had ever used.

"It can do anything you would possibly ever want a DAW to do, but quicker, more logically implemented and less limited. Even if you dream up something which you can't already do, you can even go as far as modifying or adding additional code to various plugins, settings and extensions - at that point it starts getting a bit too geeky for me but that's just scraping the surface of the awesomeness of this program."

T: "I've been working with Logic since about 2004. Initially I was influenced by the main software at my university and I guess I've gotten stuck in my ways as I began to develop a method of working which made a kind of a signature sound for me. I've always been impressed by the quality of Logic's native plug-ins - the crazy modeling soft synth Sculpture is one of my favourites. The effects such as the Overdrive and Compressor, I still use routinely. However, since seeing Alain work with Reaper, I've been amazed at the crazy routing capabilities he achieves and after using it a little I can bash out tasks much faster than with Logic, so it's my goal to make the switch eventually."

What one piece of gear in your studio could you not do without, and why?

A: "In terms of a specific brand or model of gear, although I have clear preferences given the luxury, in a pinch I'm happy to use anything. The only time I am really stuck and unable to work properly is if the monitoring is bad. Being a full time mastering engineer, I need to accurately hear what I'm doing otherwise I'm totally lost. So I guess the answer to the question would be my pair of Lipinski Sound speakers."

T: "I think the obvious choice would be any DAW/computer as it's essentially a studio I can take wherever I go. My touring schedule as DJ leaves me with limited time in Berlin so it often means I need to make edits on the road. Though it's not as fun as jamming on the modular!"

What's the latest addition to your studio?

A: "I recently sold my analogue systems modular, which I had for approaching a decade and loved dearly, and replaced it with a pretty crazy Eurorack system. The Analogue Systems stuff just sounds so beautifully coloured, like the roundest, juiciest, sweetest monophonic sounds I've ever recorded. But the modules took up too much rack real estate for what you could get out of them. In the same amount of rack space using some of the more whacky analogue or completely digital Eurorack modules, I can do stuff that would require a whole wall of AS modules."

T: "Surprise surprise, the latest addition is also my Eurorack modular system. Coming from a past of mainly working in the box, it's pretty revolutionary for me to hit record and to just jam with the modules. I find I can generate a wider sound palette faster than with plugins. Not only is the this more fun but my workflow has improved and I'll often send audio from Logic into the modular for further inspiration. Recent purchases include Mutable Instruments granular sampler Clouds and Cwejman's Qmmf-4, which is a real beast offering heavy filter and resonating possibilities."

What dream bit of gear would you love to have in you studio?

A: "If it counts as one piece of gear, I would just buy an irresponsibly large amount of Eurorack modules."

T: "I'd get a VCS3. Until then I love using Xils-Lab emulation."

When approaching a new track or project, where do you start?

A: "For me the sketches I write normally start off as a hook played on guitar or keys. I sometimes have an idea come to me whilst running or cycling which I hear in my head, which I record onto my phone in whatever way I can so I don't forget it, and then when I get to the studio I'll jam and further develop the idea on an instrument. It's unusual that I will sit down and just twist knobs until something happens."

T: "This can depend on my mood or inspiration level. Some days I know exactly where I want to go and other days I need to explore more which means I first need to create my sound palette which usually starts with a microphone.

"I'll normally begin by recording hits, knocks, scratches or anything I can get my hands on. This can be very inspiring as hearing the audio back often reveals sounds I wasn't focusing on and when looping and stacking the audio, the sound combinations become great catalysts to build a groove or sometimes they result in top layers. Once I've got some interesting percussive ideas, I jam with synths, or more recently with the modular system and explore possible basslines, top hooks, FXs etc and take it from there."

What are you currently working on?

A: "Having just finished the new These Hidden Hands album, we're having a bit of a break from writing new material together and we're working on perfecting our live show. Outside of that, I'm writing new music for my solo techno project Shards and also developing a live show for that."

T: "The THH live show for Atonal is a big deal for us so that's taking up quite a lot of our time. Although any spare hours I spend digging for music for my DJ sets or working on new material for my label, 47, which began as a regular party here in Berlin. The next release is a Various Artist EP featuring, Headless Horseman, Phase Fatale, Stephanie Sykes and myself."

These Hidden Hands' essential production tips...

Don't use distortion as a crutch

A: "It's not too uncommon in more aggressive styles of music to plonk a distortion on something as a way of making it sound better. Obviously guitarists have done this for decades to varying levels of convincingness but in electronic music, I often imagine how the track would sound without the distortion applied - it's a bit of a "revealing the magic behind the curtain" type thing when you can see through the distortion. The track loses brownie points pretty quickly.

"Don't get me wrong, overdrive is one of my favourite staple effects but what I mean is, just make sure you are using the drive to take an already decent sound in an even better direction and not just indiscriminately slapping distortion on stuff in attempt to alchemise weak ideas into a decent track. More savvy listeners see straight through it."

Give time between ideas and gain a fresh perspective

T: "After working on music for lengthy periods it's often hard to make objective judgments and so emotionally detaching yourself from your ideas or 'finished' work is perhaps the most important thing you can do. I prefer to purposely forget about the track and sometimes that means not listening to a 'finished idea' for two weeks.

"Listening back after the break can mean suddenly that 'crazy top line' really is just crazy and doesn't work or sound as boundary pushing as you thought. Your perspective on arrangements will also become clearer and more often than not you'll instantly know what parts need extending, shorting etc.

"This is also a good tip before starting a mix-down as not only will it reduce ear fatigue and give you a more accurate mix but you'll prune sounds that really shouldn't be there. Instead of having a break from working on music in general, I normally just switch to working on another song."

Don't overcook the stereo image

A: "As I'm also a mastering engineer, I sometimes get sent tracks by other producers which make excessive use of stereo widening plugins in the mix, either on one single mix element, or on many, or sometimes even on the entire stereo bus. Widening the stereo image can give a sense of fullness and increase the excitement of mix elements a lot, but when you go too wide, or use it in the wrong way, you can start getting a negative phase correlation (when it looks more horizontal than vertical on a phase meter/vectorscope).

"When this happens, your mix quickly starts falling apart because you will perceive the widened mix elements to be louder and stronger than they actually are but then when the mix is played in mono, the level of those mix elements will be dramatically reduced and your entire mix will sound different. It's much better to base the foundation of your mix on strong mono compatible elements and just use panning or conservative types of stereo widening/spreading which also sound good in mono.

"Some people argue that mono isn't important anymore but I disagree. Many people enjoy listening to music on portable mono bluetooth speakers and a debatable percentage of clubs have mono sound on the dancefloor (despite often being stereo in the DJ booth) and obviously if the listener has a pair of speakers placed incorrectly, the stereo image is also going to be unpredictable. For me it's too much of a losing gamble having super wide stereo tunes if your mix is going to crumble half the time it's played in a real world environment. The way I like to mix is fundamentally a strong mono core with less important sprinklings of stereo enhancement."

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