ive been making music for 15 years and had a release, position normal, on rephlex records in 2001.

since then things have changed……im basically inspired by the equipment im using, thats what drives the sound i create so ive been though various changes of setup over the years and this means that i can no longer play any old tunes which again puts the emphasis on the new and experimentation. my setup now is purely modular synth.

with a modular synth there are no presets, no programming, no saving of any settings. its a one shot process, thats what got me interested to start with, that everything you do is over and gone never to be repeated. created then for then.

the way i play means theres no pre planning its just a case of flick a switch, twist a knob, see what happens, hold the good bits, chuck the bad, work it, work it.

it really is a case of letting randomness lead the way and just going with it. taking snippets of chaos and focusing on them, involving them with other pieces and moving on.

its also analog through and through, the difference in sound quality is palpable, on a big system its like taking the blinkers off, the sound stands out and cuts through, thats its secret weapon, you just cant beat analog sound….

interview with bcb radio

from the otherside show, bcb radio

interview on ‘how do you make music’ blog

How do you make music, Headcleaner?

The headcleaner modular.

Dave Williams, aka Headcleaner, is a gigging Leeds-based techno musician having a release out back in 2000 on Rephlex. That there’s just one release is an indicator of his fondness for live music: The shows are built around one device – a large, yellow, (more than half home-made) Eurorack format analogue modular synth. It’s pre-patched and ridden live, and his sets are, partly by necessity, always fully improvised. That being the case, and even though his music certainly embodies the unpredictability of modulars, what’s most surprising is how danceable it is. It’s something at odds with the ‘swarm-of-bees-music’ stigma that analogue modulars can get associated with, but Headcleaner has designed his system for a specific purpose, and he performs it very well.

Question One: How do you make music – ie. what are your strategies, methods and thought processes (as you write) and why do they work for you? 
I don’t write music as a piece very often, only when people ask for it. I’m very much about live performance and as such I dont write music at all, I let the machine do that – I just guide it along using standard tricks of arrangement in dance music and just whacking whatever sequence happens to be running. It’s amazing really that it works, but I think with the kind of wonky atonal techno I lean towards it’s doable, or at least get-away-with-able!

At the moment I have my drum section which is fairly simple: the snare is on a separate constant 8-step sequence to keep things ticking along, and the bass drum goes at whatever 8/7/5/3 step loop, and hats doing whatever really, again they’re just there to keep things ticking. The synth parts are the thing really though. I have 4 at the moment to flick between (plus a sampler for vocal stabs). Each is 1 or 2 oscillators going into a filter or VCA. I have 6 separate 8-step sequencers which I have at pretty much random settings, plus a couple of gate combiners and CV mixers. From one sequencer I always patch the gates to one part and the cv to a different one, this gives a lot of interlacing overstep timings and gives some correlation between the parts. For the sequencers, I have them all set to different reset points/step lengths – so using a 6 step gate sequence for a 7 step CV pattern and vice versa for example…

With this as a basis, I just bang between the sequences as you would hear in a techno tune, switching to other parts for the last 2 or 4 beats of a bar, dropping the kick out at the same time, maybe the snare for a bit and sweep the filter up, drop the beats back and switch to another part etc. etc. Most of the time I’m just sticking to those classic formulas you hear, the joy of techno is that it can be more about structure and flow than melodies, which are hard to get on the fly over an over, you can be lucky an catch one but its best to assume it’ll be weird and leave it at that!

I do sometimes use a pair of quantizers to get some pretty melodies playing off each other, but as I mess with the oscillator tuning all the time, it requires tuning 2 in relationship to each other. Like I say about trying to write melodies on the fly, it takes some time (not as much as to do a melody for sure) and is fairly hard when everything else is going on around it! It’s nice to do when going for a slow section though, so I might have a 5 min quantized section in an hour set.

I do mess with the trigger switches and CV sliders if something sounds too out-of-step or out-of-vibe or whatever, but I found I could spend ages trying to get a good melody or beat and in that time the crowd was bored to tears. It’s sometimes easier to FM a sound (ie. make it go atonal) if the melody isn’t working, or shorten the notes/filter envelope so it becomes more of a rhythm, and let that smooth over the cracks.

Because that’s what it is for me, people think I know what I want to happen – but it’s more about what I don’t want to happen, and jumping on it to change it. I’m still learning how to get my speed up which is the real challenge. It’s all about spotting the flaw in the loops that are going, knowing when something’s been in the mix too long, when a sound is too dominating or when it needs a bit of a change or whatever. Obviously sometimes things are at a point when they are working, but then where? Again this is a challenge, as just dropping a random sound in is basically pot luck – and then  it’s back to square one. It’s all about getting that speed up.

Question Two: How do you keep it fresh – ie. how do you ensure original ideas can still happen, how do you stay inspired and fight the tendency to repeat yourself? 
I’ve always been inspired by the equipment itself. That’s the reason I got into modular in the first place, it’s the modular that I let inspire me. When I worked with synths and grooveboxes I used to sell up every few years and get something else as I’d get to a point when I had found all the best sounds and kept using them. Obviously the joy of a modular is that you can get a new module for a lot less than a new synth, and it can change your sound. I dont re-patch much live as it tends to get me lost and loses time I don’t have, so I tend to get new modules or change them around in different pairings or whatever before a gig and then jam – inspiration comes from right there, it’s like the excitment of using a synth for the first time. I don’t really practice much to be honest, in order to get that buzz going a bit more. I mean always when on a big rig the adrenaline starts going, but if your setup is surprising you as much as it’s surprising the crowd then you’re on a winner. Knowing what’s going to happen really dulls your sense of excitement. In all things.

As I’ve said I do use a lot of the same tricks and I suppose there is the fear of getting repetitive. I think there’s something to be said in finding a sound for yourself, working at it and not being afraid to be repetitive – in terms of style and sound. I mean: 808,909,303. It’s been hammered for years and still sounds good. My last setup was a MachineDrum and a MonoMachine, and when I changed from that I thought about getting 909 an 303, then I saw a  modular and I thought: I can make my own new classic sound. I definitely am not there yet, but every time a play I review it and think – that filter’s not standing out enough, or that oscillator needs a pairing, or whatever. I’m constantly trying to get the best setup I can.

I also design and make my own modules which is a constant source of inspiration in of itself – as well as the finished product giving new life to my sound. As unfortunate for my workload and pocket as it may be, I think if I kept the same setup for too long I would find it hard not to get stale.

There have come times however when I’ve been asked to do things I wouldn’t normally. Make an ambient soundtrack, or some sound samples or whatever, and I think this is a good way to re-evaluate how you work with one setup. I am in a competition at the moment in which I have to write a tune in a different genre (that they specify) each month. I had to write tunes for a start, which is not normal for me, and then to try and do D’n’B or what have you. The result may not be what you want but the techniques you find can be. When someone else asks you to do something, you approach it in a different way I think.



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