Wordcolour: Images in Sound

(Image credit: Jemima Young)

There’s a moment in Nicholas Worrall’s new record, The trees were buzzing, and the grass., where you hear a sampled voice say the word “plunge”. Suddenly, it’s as if you’ve plunged underwater - the track’s submerged into an unmistakably aqueous low-pass filter, the sound of bubbles circling the stereo field. 

This moment neatly captures the feeling of listening to the gloriously strange IDM-concrète that Worrall records as Wordcolour. By sourcing, processing and recontextualizing unfamiliar and unexpected samples, dexterously threading them between hyper-detailed layers of glistening synths and amphetaminic breaks, he creates thrilling moments of displacement, instantaneous shifts in perspective, that are not unlike the bracing exhilaration of being suddenly immersed in ice-cold water.

Consider “people can you hear me?”, the album’s climax, which samples an unnamed rockstar revelling in the peak of a stadium performance, praising the crowd’s energy amid rapturous applause, shredding and celebratory drum fills. Or take, for example, the track “I Am Sixty Years Old And Trying Salvia For the Very First Time”, which - perhaps unsurprisingly - centres around a recording of what sounds like a previously uninitiated man experiencing the effects of the psychedelic herb Salvia divinorum. 

Embedded in a pillowy atmosphere of gossamer pads and softly articulated percussion, the sample creeps its way into the track about halfway through. It’s not clear why it belongs here, or why it works, but there’s no doubt that it does, elevating the track into a realm that - much like the psychedelic experience it depicts - is oddly meaningful in a contextless, inexplicable way.

"A big focus of the album sonically was having things so that they're not in any way masked, so that they're really crisp, clear images in sound"

This process of displacement was inspired by cinema, Worrall tells us. “In one sense the album is quite cinematic. Not in the sense that it is big or epic, but in the way it is structured.” he says. “At times the music literally cuts like a camera - moving the listener from one acoustic environment to another.” The filmic influence operates on more than just a structural level, too - Worrall’s inspiration came from Foley, film sound effects and the concept of hyper-reality, a term used to describe the way sounds designed to imitate reality can become over-exaggerated in their authenticity, resulting in a kind of aural uncanny valley. 

In the spirit of hyper-realism, every sound on the record, from collaborator Michael Anklin’s flurries of percussion to the single-word utterances of a chorus of spoken word contributors, is presented immaculately. The overall mix is crystalline and gorgeously lucid, giving all the more emphasis to the album’s sonic oddities and strangely affecting moments. Worrall tells us that his music is, at its core, all about the way that he combines sounds, toying with the creative potential of dissonance and juxtaposition, while ultimately bringing disparate elements together to produce a singular and extraordinary whole.

We spoke with Worrall about the creative processes behind his debut album, hearing about the influence of Foley and film music, early experiments with music software and the quest to create images in sound. 

We’re loving the new record. Could you tell us a little about the background to this album?

“I suppose my first couple of EPs were slightly more club-focused, so when I came to do this project, I was excited about the idea of expanding what I do beyond that. I found myself going back to some earlier stuff I'd made, and these earlier ambient mixes, which were very focused on soundtracking samples of voices that I'd found, and also focused on creating these sonic ambiences that felt like real spaces. 

“On this record, I wanted to see if I could find a place that married the club music I had been making with this other kind of stuff I was interested in, to see if there was an environment between the two. It's really interested in film and the sound of movies, the record’s really, really interested in film sound effects, and particularly Foley. Sounds that sound like they're real, naturalistic sounds, but they're not. Instead they're hyper-real examples of that thing. Building a world with these ideas.”

Were you recording these Foley sounds yourself, or sourcing existing sounds from elsewhere?

“It's a mixture. There's lots of interesting percussion on the record - I work with a percussionist called Michael Anglin, and he's a really interesting performer. He plays lots of unusual found instruments and plays in a very unusual way. I asked him to do a lot of improvisations in his studio with lots of different textures, using wood and metal and water. So a lot of the sounds on the album come from those sessions. But then, yeah, most of the naturalistic sounds are found sound, sampled stuff. I haven't really done any field recordings or anything like that.”

Could you talk us through maybe one or two pieces of equipment - synths, effects, instruments - that were fundamental to the making of the new project?

“One really boring one is my headphones. They’re Beyerdynamic DT770s, which I've had for years and years. The funny thing is, even though I've updated my speaker setup and I have decent monitors now, and a sub, I think because I don't have a treated studio, I find myself really relying on those headphones. There's always a point in the mix, where if I want to be sure that I'm happy with knowing how it probably sounds, and will sound, then I always tend to use those because I just trust them on a more creative level.

Because I don't have a treated studio, I find myself really relying on those headphones

“There’s a synth too. It’s almost all soft synths, and I use a lot of the Native Instruments stuff. But there was one that I got quite late on in the process, though, which I do really enjoy. It’s a wavetable synth called Vital, from a guy named Matt Tytel, who I came across on Twitter and who launched this synth halfway through making the album. Particularly as I wasn't using Ableton at the time, it offered all of these kinds of sound-warping capabilities that were really fun and exciting. So that got dropped into stuff a bit later on.”

So you weren’t using Ableton at the time? What led you to switch over and what were you using before? 

“All of my stuff previously has been made on Studio One. Not the most recent version, but an earlier version.”

That’s cool. You don’t hear about Studio One all that often. 

“I think the only other person I’ve heard of that uses it is Batu. It's a nice DAW. I really liked it. I basically ended up using that because I switched away from Mac, and stopped using Logic a few years ago. And it's kind of a similar interface. It has lots to recommend it. 

“I switched to Ableton after I finished the album, partly because I'm doing a live set, so I needed to learn Ableton to do that. But also, there are things that Ableton is very good at, particularly in terms of audio processing and warping and these kinds of things. I wanted to explore that side of things a bit more. I'd been meaning to make the switch at some point, but you know, it’s a bit of a time investment learning a new DAW.”


(Image credit: Jemima Young)

We get the sense you’re more of a software-based producer. Do you own any hardware or outboard gear, anything like that?

“I don't own any at all. I’d love to get into it at some point in my life, but I think it's just  renting, living in London, moving around… the space and the expense has always put me off. So I'm a big software fan, for that reason.”

Are there any plugins that are essential to your workflow, that you could tell us a little more about?

“Apart from workhorse things like the FabFilter stuff, EQs and compressors, a lot of what I use is quite simple. It'll be reverbs, delays, lots of those kinds of things. And then just the soft synths. I think my music is all about the way that I combine sounds. 

My music is all about the way that I combine sounds

“There's one I've been using a lot recently that I think is actually free. It's called Lagrange. It's a grain delay type plugin. But the thing I really like about it is that there's a feedback knob that somehow feeds these things, these little delayed samples back into themselves, and it makes this strange, almost metal guitar feedback sound. You can hear that quite a lot on “Blossom.” I find myself turning to that more and more - it's good for creating a bit of strange noise.”

Looking back a little bit now, how did you first get involved with music production and electronic music-making?

“So my dad isn't really musical, but before he retired, he was an acoustics researcher. In the mid-’90s, we had a piece of software called Goldwave on the computer, which is kind of like a DAW, but it didn't do multi-tracking, and it was all destructive editing. But I remember as a kid, we'd have a mic plugged in and I’d play around with that and play around with cutting up sounds. So I suppose in that sense, weirdly, I've been using this kind of software all my life.

“I've gone in and out of being interested in making stuff electronically. When I was younger I played in bands for years and did a lot less of that. But it's always kind of been a tool that I've been into. It was when I started doing Wordcolour that I just had the sense of like - I've played around with this for years, but I've never got very good at it. And I might try and see if I can, you know, get a lot better at it.”

Could you pick out an element of a track from the new record that you’re particularly proud of, and give us an insight into the creative process behind it?

“There's a track on the record called “people can you hear me?”, and there's quite a long vocal sample on that, which is the focal point of the track. It's from several sources, actually. I think what was interesting about that track for me is it was a way of using samples that I've not really done in my own music before. I've only really done mixes, which is a slightly longer form usage. 

I spent a long time trying to get that really full, vivid feeling from the source sounds that I was working with

“I was trying to create something in which no part is too foregrounded. It gives that sample quite a big stage and a lot of space to be heard. But it's also not like film music under some dialogue, or something. It's almost like the sample is one of the instruments that you're hearing. But at the same time, it's not incidental to the track. It's not just decoration. So I'm trying to give things parity there. With that track, I spent an awful lot of time on the mixing, trying to get the levels right between that voice and everything else that was going on, so that it has this peak euphoric feeling that I was trying to go for.”


(Image credit: Jemima Young)

Did you experiment with any new studio techniques or processes on this album?

“I think there are few things. On some of the more beat-driven tracks, like “Blossom” - it sounds a bit boring, but something that I was playing around with, and that took me ages to figure out, was having a number of different kick sounds. On that track, I think there are four different kick sounds and a bass sound that comes in and out. I remember spending a long time trying to balance those and get them so that they would sit right and speak to each other.

I often start with the bottom end, because I find it hardest to get right

“Otherwise, I suppose something that I really focused on, particularly with any of the samples on the album, and the recordings of the voices, and of Michael Anklin’s percussion, was really going into detail on EQing and compression so that I can present those sounds as crisply and cleanly as possible. A big focus of the album sonically was having things so that they're not in any way masked, so that they're really crisp, clear images in sound. So that you can always identify the source of the sound. It's like a really vivid version of the thing that you're hearing. I spent a long time trying to get that really full, vivid feeling from the source sounds that I was working with.”

The drum programming in your tracks is really impressive, and hyper-detailed. How do you approach programming drum patterns? Are you working on a grid and quantizing, or do you go freehand?

“It's usually with a grid, usually quantizing. These days I use Drum Rack, but in Studio One I was using Native Instruments Battery a lot, and splitting out into individual tracks for the sounds. I think, for those kinds of tracks, I’ll always start with a loop. I often start with the bottom end, because I find it hardest to get right. So I'll try and get something going down there that seems to be working and then build up. 

“I often see if I can introduce an element of randomness to what I'm doing. I have quite a lot of things where I've bounced out quaver rhythms where the drum sound is constantly changing, producing sort of patterns like this, which are then cut up. Anything that I can throw at it that will give me ideas. But usually for a beat-focused track, I will keep going on a loop until I think that loop is really, really working. And only then will I think about the structure of the whole track. 

“In the past, when I’ve tried to do it the other way around, it just never works. It's really hard to start structuring a track and then make sure the groove works really, really well. So yeah, it's always going around eight bars and just adding to it and taking little things away and just kind of slicing into the groove, you know, a hi-hat is gone here to make space for a cowbell, or whatever it might be, until it feels really satisfying. And then I'll structure out the track.”

We’re really into those fine-grained vocal stutters on the track Babble. How are you creating these kinds of sounds? 

“This is the sort of thing where I feel like it's probably easier in Ableton, because the Simpler sampler instrument has that slice function, which would make a lot of this quite easy. But for that one, it was quite painstaking - it was a case of getting a couple of recordings of different people speaking, and cutting out all of the vowels. 

“Then I think I bounced them into some kind of sample instrument, and then put an arpeggiator on with a random function and as many semitones as there were samples mapped. So it was essentially just in quavers, randomly going between all of these different vowel samples, trying to get it so that there’s no stutters or consonants or anything like that, so that you'd have this constantly shifting vocal texture.”

There’s a lot of space in your music, but also a lot of minute detail with a real diversity of sounds. Does this present any challenges at the mixing stage?

“I think about this stuff a lot, actually. Funnily enough, for me, the challenge has always been the other way round, which is trying to get density in what I'm doing. Because I think as I'm working on a loop, I'm so keen to make sure everything has its place, and I'm so focused on cutting into it and making space for any details that I want to put in, that sometimes I can be very focused on the centre of the stereo image, so that I feel like for me, adding a bit more detail and noise is something that doesn't come naturally. 

I mix down as I go along, and I won't really move forward with bars until I'm happy with the sound of it

“But to answer your question about mixing - because I mix down as I go along, and I won't really move forward with bars until I'm happy with the sound of it, it tends to come together really well. But I think the most important lesson I learned making my first EP was that if you really take the time to pick the right sounds at the start, then everything is much, much easier. 

“I remember on that EP, a couple of really difficult mixdowns where I just couldn't get things to sit right. By the time I did Juno Way I'd learned that lesson a little bit, and it came together much, much easier. In terms of giving space, that’s something that I focused on a lot on this album. Because my music can be quite dense and detailed, I was also trying to create moments where there was lots of space and lots of silence. And being very specific about the pacing of those moments as well.”

You mentioned a live set - what kind of live set-up are you working with?

“I wasn’t sure whether to do a live set at first, because I think my music isn't very loopy, and so I wasn't sure how it would work. But this live set focuses on the more ambient and experimental side of the album. Because I had this idea of it being this kind of sprawling mixtape, even though there are some beats and bass sections as well. So it's Ableton, and then a Novation Launchpad for triggering stuff. I use an Arturia Keylab MKII, where I'm using the faders, and the pads. So lots of it's quite pre-structured, there’s lots of manipulating stuff through the faders, but then live keys as well. 

Are you aiming to recreate the sound of the record faithfully or are you leaving some room for improvisation and variation?

“When I started, I had the intention of essentially just trying to recreate a few tracks on the record. But as I got into it, I realised that they're just two very different things - what you would choose to do live, and what you would choose to make for a record don't always add up. So I've actually ended up writing a bunch of new stuff for it. 

“One of the first things I did as Wordcolour was a Blowing Up The Workshop mix. And I've gone back to some of the material I did for that, and I've reimagined it as my own music. Also, I did some music for a short film for a friend of mine recently. Some of that's gone in there. 

“It's a big mix of stuff that I thought would make an interesting journey and that I thought would be fun and interesting to do live, because I didn't want to just be cueing things that people have heard already. I wanted to give it a new angle and a new slant.”

Wordcolour’s new album, The trees were buzzing, and the grass., is out now on Houndstooth.

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

Get over 70 FREE plugin instruments and effects… image
Get over 70 FREE plugin instruments and effects…
…with the latest issue of Computer Music magazine