Moving Forward by Dialing Back on Until the Quiet Comes
As flying Lotus, 28-year-old Steven Ellison has released three increasingly acclaimed full-length albums, several EPs and singles, a generous amount of bumper music for programming such as Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and he has helped shepherd the efforts of several like-minded circuit arsons on his personal imprint Brainfeeder. Ellison is preparing to release Until the Quiet Comes, his fourth long player total and third LP for U.K. label Warp, and with it he’s working to break from some of his previously established tendencies and insecurities.
Prior to composing Until the Quiet Comes, Ellison moved from a house in L.A.’s Echo Park to one in Mount Washington, CA, upgrading his home studio’s acoustic space. He migrated his primary workflow into Ableton Live. He’s furthered his jazz-leaning piano-playing skills.
Most of all, however, Ellison has attempted to unlearn. His self-declared approach on the new album—which is a long-form concept inspired by holographic universes, lucid dreams, and astral projections—involves recording a feeling of childlike innocence through melodic refrains rather than the urgent overdrive of 2010’s Cosmogramma.
Ellison’s formative palette isn’t exclusive. He grew up like many kids in greater Los Angeles: living inside a Nintendo; obsessing over Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle; developing his relationship with music while listening in the car as he traveled around his hometown of Winnetka, CA, deep in the west-central district of the San Fernando Valley.
Eventually he was passed a mixtape that revealed L.A.’s rave underground, a jungle mix rinsed with hardcore breaks by DJ R.A.W. This blend of percussive madness cut with moments of melodic clarity was a gateway drug that led him to the drill n’ bass and IDM coming out of England. “I’d drive to Tower Records at 10 p.m., when it was more empty . . . and I’d take over a listening station, going to the imports and trying to hear stuff I’d never seen before,” says Ellison.
He went to college, studying film at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, delving into the concepts of motif and structure, of grain and edge enhancement, of racking focus and cohesive narrative. In college he expanded his experiences with Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre, J. Dilla, Madlib/Quasimoto, El-P, MF Doom, Django Reinhardt, the Doors, and Led Zeppelin, among many others that encapsulated the same compelling flutter and wow as a 35mm projector.
College also allowed Ellison new physical interactions with music. Walking the city streets, Ellison got to add new, grittier context to pivotal albums. In addition, he reassessed the texture of vinyl. “Hearing Madlib, a guy who wasn’t afraid to flip these jazzy records in new ways, was really important, because at the time it was a lot of Mannie Fresh productions, the No Limit sound with keyboards,” says Ellison. “Madlib opened me up to exploring old records again, and I became convinced I could sample and use keyboards.”
Perhaps the most fundamental realization for Ellison was when a friend, who has worked with the Brainfeeder label as a VJ under the name Dr. Strangeloop, introduced him to the potential of laptops. When not discussing avant-garde film, the two would talk about fringe music, and Ellison would sometimes miss class because he’d be wrapped up in creatively destroying media within his new digital sketchbook.
Mastering engineer Daddy KevYears and several releases would pass, though Ellison never forgot his initial fascination with G-funk’s repetitious drums, whistling bass and meticulously sequenced string machines and piano solos. Nor did he neglect his Technics 1200s and stacks of wax, slowly amassing a quite sizeable personally sampled sample library. For a period, he did concentrate on his film background, however, assembling some materials for a documentary on his great-aunt, meditative jazz pianist Alice Coltrane (wife of pioneering saxophonist John Coltrane). The documentary has yet to materialize, but this bloodline is admittedly beyond the public domain of influences, and the family lineage partially explains certain chord choices and the interest in astral mystical states that permeates Until the Quiet Comes.
First and foremost, however, Ellison retains the sense memory of when he was just delving into his digital-analog hybrid sound full of blown-out contrast and A-B moments of striking transparency. “My biggest influence is not wanting to repeat myself, unifying the album around ideas that feel brand new and . . . make an innocent feeling come alive,” says Ellison. “When I tinker with music, I try to remember that I’m always going to be a student of it.”
Sitting in front of his Focal Professional Twin6 Be monitors, flanked by a Moog Voyager, Fender Rhodes, and Wurlitzer electric pianos and an Access Virus TI synth, among other key inputs, Ellison’s cockpit is a collection of relatable tools. It’s here he drafts the pressurized fragments and subtle artifacts of his rustling dream world’s retro-futuristic infrastructure, meticulously nudging clips off the grid, flipping psychedelic soul synths over layered irregularities. But to him it’s nothing out of the ordinary.
“I think a lot of the theories about my production are funny, because I don’t do anything that is science fiction,” says Ellison. “I use the same shit as everybody else, it’s just that my ideas are a little different.
“Do I bit-crush? No, definitely not,” he continues. “Do I drive things in the master? Absolutely; it’s nothing unusual. For my drums, I simply play them in myself and don’t quantize it. I don’t see what’s so mysterious about that; I’ve just got rhythm. The only thing I use as a controller is an Akai MPK49 and a mouse. I don’t even use the pads on it that often to program drums; I mostly key them in.”
You can still find a Reason instance up on the MacBook Pro on occasion, as Ellison finds the possibilities in Ableton Live almost overwhelming at times. Recently he appreciates some limitations within his tools so he can focus more on mixing and arrangements rather than pure tonal pulverization. He even keeps collaboration simple. For instance, Brainfeeder artist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner provides live bass for several tracks, and the process was as simple as plugging the bass into a DI on Ellison’s Apogee Ensemble multichannel FireWire interface.
“He riffs around, maybe I’ll suggest where I feel it can be more or less busy, and the combination of ideas manifests itself into a bass line,” says Ellison. “All that matters to me is getting the idea into the box with the levels flat. Once it’s there, I have more control on the actual tone and how I want to maximize it, unify it with other samples and virtual instruments.” Additional elements include live strings, as well as vocal contributions from Niki Randa, Laura Darlington, Erykah Badu, and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.
Push play on Until the Quiet Comes and round piano runs, plucky chords, panning shakers, and a resounding thump coalesce. Even when it sounds like jazz brushes are turning into whips of static electricity and the shaking of pens in a cup is in a heated argument with some liquid funk, there’s less of a feeling that the 8-bit themes of imaginary video games are powering up to conspire with a dissident breakbeat. Whereas on previous albums there would be a tendency to fold realities in on one another, the new LP feels like it’s more composed around a true north. “One of the reasons I named this album what I did is because I feel there’s so much chatter in my mind, around me, so I worked so hard to find that quiet, confident space to just be me.”
Another way you could look at the title is in light of the album’s actual dynamic range, which lends credence to the saying that the master is now the student. “I’ve been learning to bring things down before I even start,” says Ellison. “I’ll start composing a track at like –8dB, then I have all this headroom to play with afterward. I’ve learned how to tuck and limit things, learned to EQ before you limit. I learned a lot of things late, which is awesome because . . . these opportunities to learn make me want to work even more, to take advantage of this new knowledge.
“I can get what I was getting, but with an even better result now that it’s pulled down more before the master,” he continues. “I didn’t think in terms of, did I use this short attack, this long release, and will it work again, but through trial and error and multiple mixes, I get it to where it sounds good. There’s more restraint in this record and that was a lot of fun to explore.”
A lot of this insight into more efficient compression has come about through interaction with Daddy Kev, Alpha Pup Records label head and the mastering engineer for the majority of FlyLo releases. Ellison met Kev through the Low End Theory, a “producer’s lounge” that Kev launched every Wednesday at the Airliner in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. The two met when Ellison brought his laptop to freestyle at the beat cypher, and they have been friends for much of the past decade. One of the reasons Kev feels the pairing works is because he understands the mentality of producers who also do their own mixdowns, and what type of input they want in the process.
“I learned a long time ago, the best engineers know how to shut the f**k up and just work, and I pride myself on being able to do that,” says Kev. “The mastering phase for Flying Lotus isn’t just a technical process. It’s him giving birth . . . and it’s very intimate. We may go through multiple mixes so a certain 808 can sit right in the pocket for him, and while he’s finishing his edits its my job to boost just the right things by a decibel or two, and keep things sonically correct.
To maintain and reinforce dynamics, Kev uses a digital/analog signal chain on the mastering rig at his Echo Chamber Studio in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles, and he prefers to rely on EQing rather than limiting to get desired levels. First the Flying Lotus mixdowns go into Pro Tools 9 on a Mac Pro working at 96/24 (to comply with Mastered for iTunes stipulations). Here Kev applies Brainworx bx_digital V2 EQ (“I always mono the bass from 90Hz down,” he says) and uses Sonalksis SV-517 mk2 Equaliser plug-ins for the more detailed work.
“I like the Brainworx because of its fidelity and it allows you to do very, very slight adjustments to the EQ curve,” says Kev. “It also does a frequency-isolation thing. Say you’re sweeping up and down to see what you want to adjust; it will only play back that frequency +/-100Hz, to just give you that section when you’re trying to find what you want to notch out. The Sonalksis I think is very neutral, but with a nice analog feel, and it has a setting that displays a kind of spectral analysis of the waveform as you play back, so you can see what’s happening at a frequency.”
The signal then goes out an Apogee Symphony I/O into a pair of Avedis e27 EQs, an Empirical Labs EL7 FATSO Jr., and an SSL FX-G384 gray-faced stereo bus compressor. “The FATSO I only use for the warmth effect it has, which is kind of like a high-frequency limiter where it ducks out the really nasty stuff,” says Kev. “I don’t use it as a compressor at all. The SSL I hit for the compression at 1dB max, more like a half-decibel; gain reduction is barely moving the needle.” The signal then goes back into Pro Tools, where Kev uses the Sonnox Oxford Limiter gingerly.
Monitoring with Focal Professional’s CMS 65 and the CMS SUB, as well as a cluboriented QSC KW153 and JBL SRX728S rig, Daddy Kev helps solidify the familiar Flying Lotus crunch, but with harmonic issues toned down. Kev recognizes an influence on that reduction is the result of Ellison’s new philosophy toward excess.
“He used to be printing mixes that were completely maxed, so this record was definitely different, as he provided much more headroom,” says Kev. “There’s usually quite a bit of sidechaining, and he uses that kick to trigger compression on a bunch of different organ, string, bassline sounds, whatever he wants to be affecting. I think since he’s moved and upgraded his monitors, he’s become more aware of the limitations of plug-ins, how far he can really overload things without the signal falling apart. Looking at way back until today, his compositional understanding, his ability to balance arrangements, has really moved forward into a less-cluttered headspace.”
Indeed, Until the Quiet Comes is a Flying Lotus album more redolent with salient tones, and Ellison is proud to limit distracting frequencies and unnecessary segues. “I’ve been working diligently to explore theory, but put clear feelings into the music, too,” he says. “As long as technology has allowed us to distribute music, I have been in the mix trying to find stuff, and now I’m realizing the most fun, effective ways I can share that feeling of finding things that aren’t meant to happen together, but work.”
Tony Ware, a writer-editor based outside Washington, D.C., is more blooming onion than Flying Lotus; multilayered, sometimes a bit heavy, but always flavorful.