Saturday, June 16, 2012

Interview: Luciar

Lucy Kalantari is an old friend from my days at SUNY Purchase. Like every one else in our department she was forever busy in the studios and venues around campus, studying and making music day and night. At the time she stood out as a star of the program and as the years went by I often wondered what she was up to. Finally, I looked her up and bugged her to do an interview. She wouldn't bite but agreed to an email interview. Here's what she had to say.

SNR: Hi Lucy, it's been a while since we both walked the halls on the third floor of the Music Building at SUNY Purchase, but I remember you being a respected musician and engineer back in those days. I expect not much has changed from looking at your website and hearing your stuff on Sound Cloud. I hope all our readers will check out your stuff but just in case they don't, would you give us the short version of what you've been up to musically in the last ten years or so?

L: Sometimes I really miss being on the 3rd floor. I miss being surrounded by constant music practicing and noise-making. Al Improta vibrating the door to his practice room when playing his bass. Many of us hiding from security to get more studio time after 2 am. Good times.

I worked in post-production for a few years, which exposed me to voice-over recording, jingles, composition and random singing spots. I was still chipping away at being a singer-songwriter, composing and performing intermittently as Luciar, and did the NACA (National Association of Campus Activities) circuit for a while. I had completely stopped engineering altogether, for no reason in particular. It wasn’t until I recorded Skin in 2005 that I picked it up again. Mostly because I ran out of money to record vocals, and I decided to mix it myself. I had never mixed an entire album before, but I just dove in and fell in love with the process all over again. I tried something completely different in 2009, and released an album under the moniker Elwood Emission, a 6-track EP titled Ode to the Ego, where sound and emotion took front center. It was clearly influenced by my many years of Nine Inch Nails adulation. It was incredibly fun and satisfying to do. I didn’t let my inability to play electric guitar get in the way. I mic’d my ukulele and put it through a distortion filter. I dubbed it, “my wailing uke.” That project pushed me to a better place sonically, and am hoping to continue down this road with my next Luciar release, Feeling A Little Emo. It’s more mellow than Ode, with a cabaret, jazz and classical baroque feel.

SNR: In a recent podcast everyone at the table had at least some musical experience, some quite a lot, and we talked about how our musicality affected our mixing. I'd like to reverse the question now and ask you in what ways, if any, your knowledge of equipment and studio technique have affected your song writing and playing?

L: Sometimes, I hear songs exactly as they should be as I’m writing them. Other times, I just roll with it and see what happens. I feel my studio background affects my arrangement process, specifically. Instead of just hearing parts, I’ve become hyper-aware of the span of frequencies in a song and their spatial relations. So when I hear spots that sound empty, I ask myself questions like: Is that a void that SHOULD be filled? Is the space good? Do I want my ears to be tickled with sound at THAT moment with those tones? Suddenly it becomes less about the song or composition, and more about aural satisfaction.

SNR: I love what you said about the way an arrangement comes together and the way you hear frequencies. It reminds me of the way a mastering engineer listens. Process wise there's the traditional 1)track 2)mix 3)master work flow. But many have gone the route of simply working until it's done, tracking and mixing simultaneously and maybe even doing some mastering processes. Which way do you work?

L: I track and lightly mix as I go along, but fundamentally, I still go the traditional route, as it helps me focus on the project one part at a time. I think it’s the virgo in me trying to keep things organized and compartmentalized.

SNR: I also liked what you said about deciding to fill voids or not. Does that thought process extend to your engineering as well? For example my favorite thing to tell young mixers is that it's not what you boost but what you cut that makes a mix.

L: Oh, definitely! I think that’s great advice to give. I remember Jim McElwaine, at Purchase, used to tell us aspiring songwriters that the most important tool for any writer is their eraser. I feel this applies to all creativity–knowing when to take away and when to put things in. Electronic music reminds us of this in clubs, when they drop the bass and the pulse keeps going, and everyone keeps dancing about. But when they bring the bass back in, you get this surge of energy that’s palpable in the crowd: everyone starts jumping a little higher, dancing a little harder and shaking a little more.

SNR: What stories can you tell us about unplanned things that happened during the process that wound up affecting the final products? Were there any happy accidents?

L: My favorite happy accident happened while going through different sound patches on my trinity, looking to fill one of those “voids” in a song. I usually play a little note sequence with one hand while cycling through sounds with the other. I ran into a “guitar chucking” patch, when played in the range and in the pattern I was using, made what I thought was a really fun and unusual loop. It became the main rhythmic element for, “Other” in Ode to the Ego.

SNR: Do you have a favorite piece of gear (or plugin)? Something you wouldn't want to live without?

L: My Korg Trinity keyboard. It’s old, I know. I remember anticipating its release and hanging a poster of it in my practice room at purchase. It wasn’t until about two years after graduation that I finally got one with a trade and some cash down. To this day I love the patches it comes with, and the domino effect of inspiration it still triggers in me. Before I had a reliable DAW, I used to do all my music in the Trinity sequencer. I would do a mini mix, with panning and effects, then transfer the two-track mix to my computer and add vocals using ProTools LE and an SM58 microphone. My PowerMac tower had RCA stereo inputs. Many RadioShack audio adapters were used.

Check out “No Pain, No Gain”:
[Yes, do that... go ahead, we'll wait.]

SNR: Is there something you wish you had, real or imagined that you would love to have for your work? It doesn't need to be specific, like a DAW that does x, or a box that does y?

L: That’s a tough one. My brain seems to be wired with “do what you can with what you have” as you can tell from my previous story. There was a time when I was walking around with a cell phone, a palm pilot and an iPod thinking, “if only these can become one.” Then *poof* the iPhone came out.

Ok, the truth: I still have a Mackie mixing board. I’m aware of your Mackie, tattoo, Jon, so I’m here to bring it back up. I’ve never needed to upgrade (until recently), so I haven’t gotten a replacement. It’s gotten a bit noisy, and right now it’s just serving as a go-between my external sound modules to my audio interface. Even the little rubber feet are so old and gooey they leave marks everywhere. It’s so unreliable that I don’t event use it as a mix output to my speakers. I was eying the Onyx and the Zed series for a while, but there’s nothing I’ve run into yet that made me feel like, I NEED THAT RIGHT NOW! I’ve been doing everything in the box these days. I like to use things until I feel like I’ve outgrown them.

Ultimately, right now, I want a mixer with reliably good quality built-in audio interface, built in pre-amp and throw in a midi interface too in there while we're at it. I like minimizing my outboard gear as much as possible. There are a few options out there, but I remember the reviews being mostly mediocre so I gave up. Perhaps I should check again. Maybe I will get my cell phone-palm pilot-ipod wish once more.

SNR:What made you want to get into production? Was there a magic song or moment that triggered it?

L: At Purchase, I was taking a basic Studio Production class in my freshman year. My part of the project was going so poorly, I wanted to start all over but they wouldn’t allow that in the class due to the time constraints. So instead, I started “sneaking” into the studio to do it over on my own. As a freshman, the rules didn’t allow us to go in the 24-tk studio unattended. With the help and encouragement of a Junior-year engineer, Eric Helmuth, I went in and did it. I was so determined to get this done; in the end I couldn’t believe what all that effort produced. The process and the results were very satisfying. One time I got caught by the Chief Engineer at the time, he didn’t like me very much for whatever reason, and was furious. I didn’t let that get me down, though. I kept going, learning and doing. 
That's all for now, go check out Lucy's stuff and then come back and read this again, there's some real gold in there. Hit the comments section and add your thoughts to the mix. Maybe with a warm welcome we can get Lucy to come back another time. Till next time Brethren of the Knob and Fader, soak it all in and get back to work!

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