Part 1

Name: John Sellekaers
Nationality: Canadian
Occupation: Musiciian, producer, audio engineer
Current Release: John Sellekaers's Observer Effect LP was released in Summer on Glacial Movements. His new album under the Feral Cities moniker, Arcs & Layers, is out October 1st 2021 via Fallen Moon.
Equipment Recommendations: Some recent favourites VSTs: Arturia Pigments (well-thought interface and many sound design possibilities), and, for beats, XLN Audio XO (playful and inspiring).

If you enjoyed this interview with John Sellekaers and would like to stay up to date on his work, visit his official homepage for more information. He is also on Instagram, twitter, Facebook, Soundcloud, and bandcamp.

What was your first studio like?

My first studios were various iterations of a ‘bedroom studio’, just a few machines in a corner. It was in the late 80s, early 90s. I was very young, gear was expensive, and therefore I had to carefully choose a machine. It was quite an event when I could finally get my hands on it.

I’d spend hours reading magazine like Music Technology or Sound On Sound, and talk to the guys in music shops — retrospectively, I understand they were quite patient with this kid who’d bug them constantly! I’d swap gear with friends, too.

If I remember correctly, my first proper studio mainly had Roland equipment: a used Alpha Juno 2 (analog synth), a D-10 (digital synth) and a S-330 (sampler). I also had a reverb, a small mixing desk and I’d record on a Tascam Portastudio cassette machine. The slightly defective Juno 2 would periodically try to electrocute me, but I loved its sound.

I used an Atari ST for MIDI sequencing, with some of the first digital audio workstations (DAWs): Steinberg Pro-24, and, later, Cubase. Pro-24 was interesting as it wasn’t visual at all, there was almost no way to ‘see’ the sequences properly. It was quite abstract, which I loved.

For live shows, I first dragged the Atari ST to sequence everything, but that was cumbersome and, frankly, scary, and I quickly got my hands on a used Alesis MMT-8. The timing was solid and I could easily transfer my MIDI sequences from the computer.

How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?

Like many people interested by electronic music, I was (and still am) following the evolution of technology. But early on, by necessity and by choice, I decided to keep my ‘studio’ as minimal as possible, just a few machines at a time.

I’ve swapped and sold equipment along the years, sometimes to improve the sound — getting a Sony DAT machine instead of the Tascam Portastudio, or an Akai S2000 to replace the Roland S-330 —, but often to open new possibilities and discover different sounds. In the early nineties, I’ve had a Korg Wavestation and then a Prophecy; later, I used a Novation Bass Station, which was awful as a TB-303 clone, but a fun machine nonetheless — except during live shows, were it would invariably do weird things in the middle of a track.

By the end of the nineties, I sold everything and started working almost exclusively with computers. The album I did in collaboration with Snog (‘Third Mall from the Sun’) and my Xingu Hill album ‘Alterity’ in 1999, were the transition: I still used my Akai sampler, while extensively reworking the sound with software.

The digital studio promises endless possibilities at every step of the process. What is it that you actually need from these potentials and how do go about you selecting it? How do you keep control over the wealth of options at the production stage?

Like many producers, I’ve struggled a bit with this, especially a the beginning. Endless possibilities are paralysing.

My way to deal with it these days is to set a series of rules at the beginning of each project or album. Like a sort of game. Nowadays, I can’t work on anything if I haven’t figured out these limitations beforehand. It’s an exciting and essential part of the process; it gives a structure to the vague dream that will finally become a piece of music.

But it is all very simple, I don’t sweat it, usually just a short list in a notebook. I will often pick up a palette of sounds, or a couple of different instruments. Acoustic or synthetic, samples or field recordings, presets or home-made sounds … I’m then defining a texture, a colour, for the project, to give it some unity — like choosing a specific focal length for a project in photography. Do I want beats or not? A loose structure or a grid, loops, asynchronous loops, a tempo range … I might also set a limited number of tracks in the DAW, to avoid adding endless details and layers of sounds. Perhaps no return effects, or just one or two.

I sometimes give myself a time limit to work on a track, a few hours, two or three days, so I’m not overproducing and know when to end. If it is an album, I’ll figure out beforehand the number of tracks, an approximate length.

I find all this, perhaps paradoxically, very liberating, and it helps to stay creative — there’s no ‘writer block’ or discouraging moments. It gives a faint path to follow, always present even in moments of doubt, but with much left to discover and leading to an unknown, hopefully thrilling destination.

And, as these are my own private rules, they’re not set in stone and I can always bend them when I feel necessary. Sometimes, when I’ve already worked quite a bit on a piece, I’ll throw the rules away and stray off path … As long as I’m having fun!

A studio can be as minimal as a laptop with headphones and as expansive as a multi-room recording facility. Which studio situation do you personally prefer – and why?

Personally, I’m not too fond of traditional studio-like environments. With my way of working, I find them usually not very inspiring, too static. I like to have light, windows, fresh air, to be in spaces not specifically meant for music, living spaces. I want to move around. One day I’d be working at a desk, the next in the living room, on a sofa, or perhaps in a public library, a garden or a hotel room.

I have a small, loose, studio space, with proper monitors for mixing and mastering, but most of the time I’ll wander around with a tight setup: laptop, audio interface, headphones and a small controller. It works for me, so much of the software is just fantastic nowadays; I can quickly record ideas, do sound design, arrange tracks and mix. It also helps to shut off the rest of the world for a little while. I then finalise tracks on my monitors, in a more controlled environnement.

More practically: full-on studios are expensive. Like I said earlier, I decided early to keep this under control, to not spend too much money on gear and keep as much financial freedom as possible. It’s a cliche to say this, but it is especially true today: you can do electronic music with the most minimal amount of gear. A cheap laptop and headphones. Just a phone. Or one machine. It has never been so affordable and easy to master. I like that very much. It also mean that kids of any age can start producing, with a small setup and minimal guidance.

From traditional keyboards to microtonal ones, from re-configured instruments (like drums or guitars) to customised devices, what are your preferred controllers and interfaces? What role does the tactile element play in your production process?

I don’t use much outboard gear these days — only a couple of Elektron machines —, just a computer.

So the need for a controller/interface depends of the project. Some of them are mainly based on sound design and editing, without any actual input necessary. I’m thinking about my collaborative album with percussionist Patrick Graham, ‘Unnatural’ (Parenthèses Records, 2020). The acoustic material — hits, improvs, sequences — recorded in studio by Patrick was then entirely metamorphosed and re-arranged in the DAW. I could have worked with a controller for automation, but, in this case, it was all edited ‘by hand’, with a mouse, directly in the software.

The DAW I’m most comfortable with is Ableton Live. Their Push 2 controller is clever, quite musical but also suited for experiments. I often work with it. I also use a more traditional keyboard (Arturia Keylab 61 mkII) and, for the ‘nomadic’ studio, a small Novation Launchkey Mini.

I rarely enter notes in with the mouse, I prefer to play directly with a keyboard or a similar device; I’m comfortable with keys, pads, ribbons, and I particularly like the possibilities of MPE. I had a ROLI keyboard for a while, a Seaboard Rise, but it was quite feeble and quickly broke down. Sensel, Madrona Labs and others are developing interesting MPE interfaces; it is a promising system, I look forward to using it more.

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