Amon Tobin

CAN A steep learning curve get in the way of creativity?

The musical mad scientist digs deep into acoustic modeling, sound design, and synthesis for a radically new musical vision on ISAM

CAN A steep learning curve get in the way of creativity? Not if you’re Amon Tobin. A few years ago, after he moved his home studio from Montreal to a secluded spot north of San Francisco, he opted to take a leap into the unknown. Up until then, Tobin’s music had been largely sample-based—bent beyond recognition, to be sure, but still reliant on vinyl sources. That started to change with 2007’s Foley Room, a lively canvas of environmental “found sounds” and acoustic performances that were chopped, molded, and reworked into songs with synth-y melodies and engine-like rhythms. Now it was time for the next level.

“I spent over a year just educating myself about synthesis,” Tobin explains. “I wanted to make sound design a part of the music, and vice versa—something more than just creating samples. And the starting point was based on the idea of trying to build playable instruments out of anything I can find.”

ISAM (Ninja Tune, 2011), or Invented Sounds Applied to Music, isn’t highbrow musique concrète, but it’s a far cry from the jazzy drum-and-bass blowouts that won Tobin such a cult following in the late ’90s. Now he can take any sound—rustling paper, a creaking chair, a plucked rubber band, even his own voice—and spectrally analyze and process it inside a high-octane Kyma X system, sometimes augmented with GRM Tools or Applied Acoustic Systems plug-ins. He then “plays” the MIDI-mapped result on a Haken Continuum fingerboard controller and builds sequenced tracks on Cubase.

“I didn’t concentrate on doing elaborate field recordings,” Tobin says. “In fact, I did several tracks where I didn’t leave the studio at all. I just looked around the room to see what I could use. A lot of the time those sounds were mixed with synthesizers or multi-sampled instruments, but I quite liked the idea of keeping it simple. Once you take a sound and convert the waveform into its different sines and harmonics, you have an awful lot of room to maneuver.”

If Tobin sounds cagey about some of the moves he made, it’s only because his approach to composing is so improvisational at its core. But ISAM does have its signposts. The Rhodeslike melody and airy strings that emerge from the pulsing chaos of “Journeyman” are loosely based on sounds designed by Edmund Eagan specifically for the Continuum. Mellotron and flute emulations form the basis of “Dropped from the Sky,” with the song’s psychedelic vocal harmonies giving a nod to the Beatles’ Revolver period. (Speaking of which, the Björkishly layered female vocals of “Wooden Toy” and “Kitty Cat” are indeed Tobin’s.) On the flipside, the fractured, sci-fi dubstep feel of “Goto 10” and “Piece of Paper” originates with the pliable Continuum control surface, which Tobin tweaks and prods almost as if it were a turntable.

“Everything on the record is moving in a real physical way,” Tobin says. “It’s the same fluidity that you get with actual instruments. Here they just sound synthetic because they are synthetic, and I’m quite fascinated with that. To me it’s all about mixing these worlds of recorded, found, and synthesized sound. I’m not claiming to invent the wheel here, but I had to form a working method that I was totally unfamiliar with, and that really opened up possibilities that I had no concept of before.”

“3D” MIDI Control with the Haken Continuum

Introduced by inventor Lippold Haken at the 2004 NAMM show and progressively refined since then, the Haken Continuum is the arguable centerpiece of ISAM. The unit allows MIDI control in three dimensions—X, Y, and Z-axis (keyboard pressure)— and has its own built-in set of sounds designed in Kyma by Edmund Eagan.

“It’s really flexible for getting your fingers inside a sound,” Tobin observes. “With a very small movement, you can control various aspects of it. It’s like having a very liquid and really powerful control over your sounds.”

For a demo by Tobin himself, check out: