Name: Rich Aucoin
Occupation: Producer, singer, songwriter
Current Release: Rich Aucoin's Synthetic, which he claims features "more synths than any other in recorded history", is slated for release on October 19th 2022 via We Are Busy Bodies. Pre-order it here. The current single off the album, "Algorithm", is out now.
Gear Recommendations: I’m very into Arturia’s synth emulators. Really making those synths accessible for the first time to millions of musicians. We had 2 Arp 2600s at my college and I think they were valued at like 30,000 or something ridiculous like that!
Also a big fan of Gulfoss. Such a great responsive EQ that makes millions of automations for you to help tame sounds or let something cut through without losing its presence.
If you enjoyed this interview with Rich Aucoin, visit his official website for more music, and recent updates. He is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
What was your first studio like?
I’m still in my first studio I guess. It’s always been a laptop and an interface and 1 or 2 microphones. I usually have a laptop out of date (currently rocking a 2016 MacBook Pro) and my current interface is an Apollo Twin.
My first iteration of that setup was a Toshiba laptop with FruityLoops and a dual tape deck followed by an Acer Laptop with Cubase a Steinbeck interface and a cardioid microphone.
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?
My first setup to properly record was a small MacBook Pro with an mBox and Pro Tools. I also had 1 condenser microphone (a cheap Behringer).
I made my first EP, Personal Publication with that setup.
Each song maxed out the 32 tracks that were runnable with that setup so I had to frequently mix things down to consolidated mix downs. I also recorded each piece of the drums individually; playing the hi-hat, then snare, then kick, etc. cause I only had the one mic and wanted to have the elements isolated. I ended up editing the drums so much that I named the final song on the album 10,342 Cuts for the Us as a joke for the approximate number of edits I made in the drums on the album.
Since then, I’ve gotten a newer MacBook Pro and Apollo Twin as I mentioned and invested in a Rode NT2 and Shure SM7B as my microphones. I’ve migrated from FruityLoops to Cubase to Pro Tools to now Ableton 11. It’s been great to see how many things are now possible since I started.
I was lucky enough to record to reel to reels at school too where I did Electro-Acoustic Experimental Music Recording too. We used Digital Performer and Paris as our DAW there too.
Some see instruments and equipment as far less important than actual creativity, others feel they go hand in hand. What's your take on that?
They definitely go hand in hand as far as the equipment can really inspire you and send you off on a direction you would have never arrived at without that anomaly.
Of course you can come up with stuff without any equipment whatsoever but why not use all the tools at your disposal at any given time to see what you can discover?
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?
I’ve got to see the whole spectrum over the years from recording in those meagre home setups to recording at Abbey Road.
I’ve never made a record in a traditional way; always preferring (and based on economics) to just pop into a studio for the shortest amount of time with the clearest idea of what I want to get from it ahead of time. That way, most of my records have just had a handful of studio days and way more time spent in bedrooms tinkering and editing/writing.
The Abbey Road situation was a fluke too where I was invited to sing backups on someone else’s session and as payment and a sweet gesture, they gave me 15min studio time to record their famous mellotron as well as record claps and percussive stuff in the space. I ended up getting stuff for 2 records in that 15 min aka my most efficient studio time in my career.
It’s nice being in studios but I’ve always been really practical with time spent and money on albums, trying to do everything efficiently.
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?
Instruments/gear really are great tools for inspiration. So many instruments have led me to write stuff that I wasn’t looking for but connected with the vibrations and frequencies of for whatever reason.
Working on this current synthesizer record, I’ve really been inspired by all the synths. Sometimes coming into tracks with a preconceived goal and sometimes coming in with no direction of where the track should go. In both cases, the synths have led me to new destinations that were as much a discovery as an authored creation.
I feel like it’s most exemplified with synthesizers but the same is true in guitars and pianos and traditional instruments that just have a tone that makes you gravitate to it like a magnet once you hear it.
In the light of picking your tools, how would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
I’m more interested in making something I haven’t heard before I think. At least that’s always the goal. Sometimes, I wear my inspirations on my sleeve but I’m always adding some element that makes it feel like new enough of an offering.
"Space Western" (off Synthetic) is my ode to Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores but using only synthesizers to achieve the same sounds; so the opening whistles are from a CS-80 and the electric guitar sound famous in his scores, is just a DX7 guitar patch. Adding the traditional score over a John Carpenter / Giorgio Moroder style driving arpeggiator also adds something new that I haven’t quite heard this combo of before.
On a technical side, I’ve tried to max out something every record: Personal Publication was all with 1 microphone. We’re All Dying to Live was still made on that same 32 track Pro Tools/Mbox setup recording 500 guest musicians individually; including a gang vocal at the end where there’s a choir of 500 individually tracked which is also followed by a track called "500 People Talking" to note that.
On Ephemeral, I brought out a microphone in the middle of my festival performances over a summer and recorded a stacked choir sound of about 20,000 people for “Meaning In Life” (I resampled it for "Reset" too). On Release, I got samples from dozens of people and build the record around vocal sample sounds and synths made out of vocal samples. On United States, the record was mostly written with voice memos while I rode my bicycle from LA to New York on tour.
And for Synthetic, it’s going to have more synthesizers than any album in history on it by the end of it. Also, the first 4 records all were written to sync up to movies in the same manner as Dark Side of The Moon with The Wizard of Oz.
Most would regard recording tools like microphones and mixing desks as different in kind from instruments like keyboards, guitars, drums and samplers. Where do you stand on this?
I would agree with that difference but acknowledge that microphones and mixing desks can inspire a track to the same level and degree as an instrument can.
An easy example of this is even just adding reverb or delay to your voice and seeing how differently you then sing and what you lean towards vs recording a dry vocal and only realizing those effects later in the mixing process.
How would you describe the relationship between technology and creativity for your work? Using a recent piece as an example, how do you work with your production tools to achieve specific artistic results?
I always want to be pushing the technology I’m using so it’s like just about to break but manages to complete the task.
The walls you hit with technological limitations are just great invitations to figure out a way around them with some problem solving if you really want to see what’s on the other side of that limitation from a creative standpoint. It’s great to be able to talk about technological elements devoid of their creative use for an element of studio exploring too which I think is something that attracts me to the whole “using a studio as an instrument” kinda thing.
I love incorporating new techniques and things I heard like the time stretching on Ephemeral that begins the record (right after Wayne Coyne’s vocal sample intro) which was really popular at the time with things like Bach’s Goldberg Variations slowed down 800% and Justin Bieber slowed down being the two most popular ones that come to mind.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
I make a lot of demos and just leave them in a big Work In Progress folder. For things specific to an album, I’ll keep all the demos in the album’s folder and revisit them throughout the album making process as sometimes they won’t pop out until months later when you can connect with the original idea of why you thought the idea was worth saving. Sometimes, stuff stays like that for a while before it gets developed or absorbed into another track.
I usually save anytime I’m working on stuff cause you never know when it’ll suddenly be of use even if you weren’t looking for it when you initial wrote/found it.
How do you retain an element of surprise for your own work – are there technologies which are particularly useful in this regard?
I usually make a set of rules which I tack up on the wall and the rules change record to record to make sure I’m not repeating myself. There’s also huge elements that are different record to record so there aren’t any repeat accidents. I’ve been a fan of Eno’s oblique strategies but haven’t gotten a set yet, would like to use them for a future record sometime though.
Until then, I like just making a list of about 10 rules per record ... stuff like on Ephemeral one was tracks had to be 150 BPM or faster which made it a pretty fast record with its 10 tracks done in 28min. The syncs always helped me have to do stuff like adding a bar of 5 somewhere or irregular measures in sections to make stuff fit to the picture.
Production tools can already suggest compositional ideas on their own. How much of your music is based on concepts and ideas you had before entering the studio, how much of it is triggered by equipment, software and apps?
For the first 4 records, I wrote the music only after watching the films many times and was basically scoring them: How The Grinch Stole Christmas (Personal Publication EP), We’re All Dying To Live - a film cut together from 35 films in the public domain (We’re All Dying To Live), The Little Prince (Ephemeral), Alice In Wonderland (Release).
Then United States was inspired by my bike ride across America and Synthetic is really non-conceptual and just inspired by the equipment I’m using; it’s instrumental and I’m mostly trying to document all these sounds I’ve grown up loving on one record together.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I’ve always been interested in making this synth record but really couldn’t have made it until now because of the advent of VST technology and the amazing emulators made by companies like Arturia.
Previously, I feel like writing on or having access to these instruments has been a barrier with their expense and rarity. But now everyone can make music with these classic synths and in some cases get to use the real thing to replace their VST counterpart thanks to places like LA’s Vintage Synthesizer Museum or Calgary’s National Music Centre where I recorded for this record.
To some, the advent of AI and 'intelligent' composing tools offers potential for machines to contribute to the creative process. Do you feel as though technology can develop a form of creativity itself? Is there possibly a sense of co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I’m really looking forward to using AI to write songs with. I’m hoping to find a program to use before the end of this record but most have been in beta or limit access so still fingers crossed I get to access one.
[Read our Pleasurekraft interview about AI in music]
I’ve been having a ton of fun with MidJourney in the visual realm making the single artwork for the tracks but would love something equivalent in the auditory realm to use for a track.
What tools/instruments do you feel could have a deeper impact on creativity but need to still be invented or developed?
AI really is going to blow things up I think in the next 10 years.
I wasn’t able to really develop my drawing ability as I only had so many electives and they were already taken by music and film so using MidJourney to create images has made me realize how many folks who have had a similar relationship to music will be able to describe things they want and basically be like a producer ordering whatever combinations of things they want to hear from the sofa at the back of the studio.
I don’t even understand completely how MidJourney does what it does with all the visual variables but imagine getting to type a prompt of a similar AI Music program like /imagine /prompt major 6th, 6 chord progression, 6/8, banjo, model d moog, nick drake guitar, horn section, woodwind section, strings, mellotron, by Brian Wilson, Beach Boys vocals, by Harry Nillson, by Quincy Jones, by George Clinton, by Peter Frampton, by Sparks brothers, produced by J Dilla … (laughs) .. and instantly getting to see if these wild combinations yield either something awesome instantly or are a jumping off point to hone something in.