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Toro Y Moi – Imperfect Perfection

February 13, 2013
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CHAZ BUNDICK grew up in humidity. Born and raised in the Southern college town of Columbia, S.C., he came of age in an environment of sticky summers, of months on end when you live and work through an ever-present film of sweat. It’s a city where even the frosty beverages that promise momentary relief drip with perspiration, like they’re longing for night to fall and the mugginess to drop from oppressive to merely stifling. The air is heavy, to say the least.

Recording as Toro Y Moi, a project that has grown from its sample-based bedroom studio origins to include a touring band and live-room tracking sessions, Bundick has never shied from similarly abundant saturation. Having now released Anything in Return, his third Toro Y Moi full-length, Bundick has entered a more upbeat, modern pop-influenced phase of his production career through expertly permeating his work with immersive wooziness even as he explores balmier swatches.

Hanging out at Columbia coffee shops populated by skaters and art students, Bundick found his initial moments of overdriven lucidity. “When I first heard Weezer, I knew immediately I had a love for distortion, which was reinforced by At The Drive-In, and Sonic Youth,” he recalls. “Pretty soon, though, I realized what I really was drawn to was the ability to affect space while keeping some original signal intact. I really liked thickness, but with clarity.”

Balancing out every Pixies or My Bloody Valentine album with Michael Jackson, A Tribe Called Quest, or Daft Punk, Bundick headed to the University of South Carolina with a laptop, Fruity Loops, and a growing interest in audio production. Pursuing a degree in graphic design while making music on the side, Bundick moved his workflow into Reason (Version 4 at the time) and toyed with ways to combine his innate musicality with creative production techniques gleaned from online forums. Bundick started piano lessons at age 8, followed that by teaching himself guitar at 12, and was fronting an indie band and 4-tracking by 15.

The resulting experiments in lo-fi funk and sidechain hiccups caught the ear of Carpark Records, which released Toro Y Moi’s debut full-length, Causers of This, in early 2010. Unapologetically referencing shoegaze and synthpop equally, aggressively filtered through house music-style compression, Toro Y Moi’s music was quickly lauded while being pinned with the term “chillwave” (as well as the even more ludicrous “glo-fi”), the latest in a long line of lazy catchalls for self-produced, dance-influenced electro-acoustic composition (such as “folktronica” a decade previous).

“I was a fresh-out-of-college kid just making songs that a label happened to like, and in a way I’m embarrassed that entire album was done solely in the computer, but at the time it was fitting and gave it the characteristics people appreciate it for now,” reflects Bundick. “I knew, though, that I didn’t want my songs to continually live solely in a computer file . . . it feels like they end up sounding boxed in more than I’d like.”

A little over a year later came Toro Y Moi’s sophomore Carpark release, Underneath the Pine, where Bundick took his reservations to heart and applied digital wow and flutter to a wider range of organic instrumentation. This collection of psychedelic R&B gave nods to Brian Wilson, Arthur Russell, Lonnie Liston Smith, Boards of Canada, J Dilla, and Elliott Smith, among many others.

“I feel like my age group [Bundick is 26] was the last to experience home recording without computers, and I’m holding on to that a little bit,” says Bundick. “So when something sounds good in the laptop, I still wonder how it would sound using some hardware, and I’ve worked more and more in a direction that incorporates all those options—the NN-XT [one of Reason’s samplers], Thor [a Reason polyphonic synth], the Roland JX-3P [vintage analog synthesizer], upright piano, live drums, bass guitar, etc.

Patrick Brown at Different Fur’s SSL 4000E.
“I still work within Reason for most tracks, but I’m not interested in maintaining any specific workflow,” continues Bundick. “When I’m writing, I might just put on a click track and work out an entire song—intro, verse, chorus, bridge—on the guitar, then on the drums, the bass, and the keys, or it might all start with a floor tom sample that I’m going to stack. I don’t want to get bored of the process, and the only signature I really want is my songwriting.”

Now arrives Anything in Return, a collection of 13 songs in part precipitated by the transition from one college town (Columbia) to another: Berkeley, CA. Whereas the tightknit Southern scene moved at its own humble drawl, Berkeley provided a more brisk complement, a city of fierce locavore movements and quick-to-critique progressive activists. Both, however, have provided Bundick the latitude to let Toro Y Moi’s freak flag fly as he sees fit.

Berkeley’s atmosphere might not have the same clamminess as Columbia’s, but the Bay Area has already managed to be soaked into Bundick’s music. For starters, field recordings from the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system pepper Anything in Return’s opening track “Harm in Change” and its closer “How’s It Wrong,” and this ambiance represents both Bundick’s transcontinental move and his more regimented commuter approach to the album’s sessions, which were his first to fully incorporate a professional studio in both tracking and mixing capabilities.

Homemade effects pedals added rumble.
A vintage Sennheiser MD 214N was taped to the piano.
“I wrote and arranged the record at home, on the road, but the goal was to achieve a commercial quality similar to what’s on the radio without taking away from the sound’s integrity, so I booked sessions at Different Fur Studios [located in San Francisco’s Mission district],” says Bundick. “I live a good 40-minute train ride away, so going there was like going to work, in a good way. The excitement would build up on the train ride in, I could reflect and critique mixes on my headphones on the way home, and it was nice to go somewhere other than just across the hall. Working at home, there’s no telling when you’ll stop, no sleeping, and it’s harder to get out of your head and get some perspective. You can really end up overproducing something. Having a schedule, visiting a separate studio gave my ears a rest and just felt like a healthier experience.”

To capture his JX-3P, Nord Electro 3, Yamaha DX7s, Moog Voyager, and Roland SP-404SX sampling workstation, as well as lay down guide vocals, bass lines, and other elements, Bundick has compiled a collection of Boss, Line 6, ZVex, Ibanez, and Electro-Harmonix pedals; vintage Akai compression and EQ modules; a Focusrite Saffire PRO interface; and a Shure SM57 mic. This set-up served Bundick well for the self-recorded, critically acclaimed Underneath the Pine, but the desire for a top-end signal chain to showcase a tastefully polished appeal brought Bundick to Different Fur. The songs themselves were written with live performance in mind, augmented by a few tricks, such as sampling chords in the SP- 404SX and using its playback to stagger delivery on tracks including “Rose Quartz.” The sonic treatments, meanwhile, showcase Bundick’s increasing arsenal of tuneful embellishments.

“When I did Underneath the Pine, I was completely by myself, mixing into this old Yamaha mixer that looked like something from the ’80s, with its black body, red knobs, and two meters at the top,” says Bundick. “With this album I wanted a sonic quality in line with and maybe even beyond what people are putting out nowadays. Having a DAW at home is great for laying down ideas, but I wanted songs where the high end and low end have much higher status, and I knew I couldn’t achieve that on my own.”

Working with Different Fur owner Patrick Brown as mixer/first engineer, Bundick set out to make Anything in Return into an album that could play as easily next to the drums of Drake and The-Dream as it could sit on a mixtape with Serge Gainsbourg, The Internet, Todd Rundgren, Four Tet, Talking Heads, and Stereolab. “I wanted the level of crunchy, stacked texture of someone like Kanye but the radio quality and purity of Michael Jackson, where you can hear every hi-hat and it’s not all blown out of the water when a kick drum comes in,” says Bundick.

Bundick and Brown’s collaboration can best be described as complex but not complicated. “Chaz would say what needed help, or what he wanted to feel more or less of, and I would just start smashing, squashing, and chipping away till he’d shake his head ‘yes’ or scrunch up into an ‘ew, no’ face,” laughs Brown. They used trial-and-error to find some workable templates in order to achieve their desired response outside of the box as well as avoid letting configuring stand in the way of creativity later in the process.

“Chaz is really good at finding and positioning the sounds he wants, but Reason’s audio engine isn’t the most robust . . . things can sound flat and thin and need replacing or thickening,” says Brown. “So a lot of what we did was processing, pushing stereo stems through our SSL 4000E [G Series] into my insert and aux sends to set up various chains to apply a variety of interesting space effects but also achieve some consistency from song to song . . . getting some analog on it before Pro Tools for automation and a little additional processing.”

The preliminary sessions, captured appropriately on the song “Day One” (even though they took two days), helped establish the prime combinations for various parts. For example, drums often went through an Empirical Labs EL8-X Distressor, Empirical Labs EL-7 FATSO Jr., and GML 8200 EQ, “ . . . to fatten them up, make them hit harder, make the kick really snap, and to add a little bit of softness and harmonic on the top end so they didn’t sound too brittle out of Reason,” says Brown. Bundick admits to not liking big-sounding drums, preferring them super dead with hardly any room reverb, but he remains a sucker for stacking live and sampled percussion with attacks and decays to create a lot of interesting detail.

“A lot of Chaz’s songs are based in fusion, parts funk and R&B, and a lot of hip-hop on this album, so instead of using sidechaining to get the drums people know him for, we would use the board for broad-stroke EQ and compression, push the Distressor and Fatso for thickening, and have the GML for clean up, for subtraction, because it’s more detailed and sweeter than the board,” elaborates Brown. “And I don’t use the actual ratios on the Distressor; we’re just hitting it hard and using the input and output to do the work, though I did use some British mode to get that squashy crispness.”

Balancing compression and distortion harmonics, assisted by a liberal use of Thermionic Culture’s valve-powered Culture Vulture distortion enhancer, would prove to be key to sitting drier percussion resolutely in the mix. “We used that to tuck distortions under certain things, making a heavier, darker low end to help piano float on top or vocals sit in the mid; it’s those harmonics that people are missing when they talk about analog tape or big consoles,” says Brown.

For lead Korg MS3000 synth, detuning arpeggios, slow LFO drones, Rhodes, and upright piano, an additional set of tools was applied. While recording piano, which provided a lot of the acoustic reinforcement on the album, Sennheiser microphones taped to the instrument’s body captured a slightly boxy, perfectly imperfect tone that distorted in the right way. In terms of processing, running effects channels with a ZVex Instant Lo-fi Junky pedal and a homemade square-wave, octave-down fuzz-pedal effect created a low rumble, adding more sub to increase left-right dimension while maintaining signal integrity in the center. Similar effects were occasionally used to put a compressed slap on certain tribal drum patterns, as well as warble on vocals.

While Bundick entered the studio with guide vocals, they were primarily re-recorded, with the originals used only sparingly for background effect. Vocals were tracked using a Shure SM7B into an Avalon AD2022 preamp, a GML 8200 parametric EQ and a Retro Instruments Sta- Level compressor. “Chaz has a pretty smooth voice, but you don’t want him to sound too high and young, so we used a lot of comb filtering and compression to maintain smoothness without having him disappear into the mix,” says Brown. “We would do a slight slap delay on most everything, and light Auto-Tune throat modifying on certain tracks to make it deeper, then clean it up with some Waves Renaissance EQ. We avoided overusing Auto-Tune, never using it on an entire lead vocal as that’s been done to death, but there were times it could be tastefully applied. ”

Subtle, and not so subtle, use of the Lexicon 480L reverb, Lexicon PCM 42 digital delay, and Eventide H3000 Factory Harmonizer also helped create the sessions’ stacked subgroups. A simple gated reverb off the Eventide was applied underneath several vocals, and helped make piano into “an amazing orchestra,” says Bundick. “Also, a lot of the weird pitch-shifting you hear in ‘So Many Details’ came from that box.”

These go-to modules provided that key enriching agent to add without exaggerating. “I don’t like using stereo wideners because of how almost mono things can go and how much you can lose with that, but using minor amounts of chorus adds a little bit of buzz and makes the background appear wider while you keep the lead vocal center,” says Brown.

After layering analog modules from the gut, Bundick and Brown worked in Pro Tools with SPL Transient Designer, Waves Renaissance Vox, and Waves Renaissance Bass to fine-tune volume, pull back attacks, and tighten bass. Additionally, they applied mild Waves MondoMod Modulation Chorus rotation to the effects channels rather than the dry signal to further the goal of creating shimmer without distraction. “We worked to get the sound, then the movement,” says Bundick. The channel count may have quadrupled on some songs, and the sub bass (especially around 50Hz) increased, but the snap was never muddied. Anything in Return remains an appropriately moist and spacious South Carolina- Northern California hybrid.

“Putting together this album in the studio helped me realize new ways to give songs depth and height, how you can mess with reverbs and short delays to give a little extra stereo dimension without resorting to heady-handed panning,” says Bundick. “I feel more ready to compete with the way pop is mixed so forward, but without losing my sonic continuity.”

Growing up in Alabama, Tony Ware understands what it’s like to walk around on a day so hot the air sticks to you like white on rice. He now is based out of swampy Washington, D.C., where he still avoids going out during the muggy months, preferring to write, edit, and complain about these damn kids today and their Gangnam style.

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