Perfection is a nebulous concept, one that varies dramatically depending on who or what is directing the point of comparison. In terms of music production, perfection is now generally sought after through true-to-life analog emulations and pristine digital recordings. But that ideal doesn't appeal to Scottish duo Boards of Canada, which seeks the opposite in its music. Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin's idea of audio perfection exists in a surreal wash of imperfection — sound and instrumentation crippled and maimed to reveal a vintage beauty inspired by the sights and sounds of the past.
Indeed, late-'70s television and film have historically played a large role in the Boards of Canada sound — specifically, the 16mm educational films produced by the National Film Board of Canada (hence the pair's name). Sandison and Eoin also draw from the vast well of early-'80s American TV dramas and weekend matinees, as well as the closing sequences from the Lorimar (Dallas, Eight Is Enough) and Stephen J. Cannell (The Rockford Files, The A-Team) production companies, for inspiration. Although Sandison and Eoin had been dabbling in recording since the early '80s (when they weren't yet teens), they began synthesizing their influences into proper recorded form in 1995 with the glorified demo Twoism (Music70; rereleased by Warp, 2002). Warp released the heralded Music Has the Right to Children in 1998 and the stellar follow-up, Geogaddi, in 2002. Now, BOC is back with The Campfire Headphase (Warp, 2005), and the group's '70s and '80s cinematic inspiration has given way to re-creation.
“We usually imagine our music to have a visual element while we're writing it, so we were picturing this character losing his mind at the campfire and compressing weeks of events into a few hours, in that time-stretching way that acid fucks with your perception,” Sandison says. “We wanted to simultaneously shift and reduce the sound palette, too, making it more like a conventional band gone over the edge. It's taking away the reliance on samples, vocals or cryptic references and adding more organic instrumentation. That's not to say we left all that behind for good; it was just the feel we had for this particular collection of songs.”
LIGHTING THE FIRE
The songs on The Campfire Headphase take on the traditional Boards of Canada ethos of warbling half-consciousness not unlike, say, drifting about in a ketamine-induced haze. That sense coupled with the effect of timeworn tape is accompanied by warm analog tones, interesting synthetic flourishes (often detectable only with headphones) and surreal organic melodies. Sandison and Eoin layered everything from drums and guitars to flutes, whistles and various old analog synths and keyboards into the music — though, if they had their druthers, you wouldn't know it. Admittedly, Boards of Canada takes great pains to mangle any recognizable sound.
“There's a track called ‘'84 Pontiac Dream,’ which has this totally schmaltzy '80s hotel vibe, all gold door handles and sports-car-commercial glitz, until it snaps out of the dream at the end and breaks down to a raw guitar weave in the rain,” Sandison says. “I've always been into the way that TV and film-score music from that era was pretty heavily synthesized yet still employed traditional instrumentation. You listen to it now, and it's never perfect, because the tapes that exist now have been played so many times, they have become warped and distorted with age. So for us a lot of the time, we're not trying to capture how perfect something might have been at its inception, but more how it would sound now after years of use. Of course, you can't instantly make a song into something chronologically aged, so that's where a lot of our work goes, into finding ways of artificially imprinting an aged, nostalgic feel.”
In keeping with the in-and-out-of-consciousness, dreamlike quality of their music, Sandison and Eoin don't write and record in any sort of linear fashion. Rather, at any given time, they have various song ideas gestating in their two primary studios. With three kits, Sandison's studio is set up for drums, and Eoin's live area caters to piano and vocals. Whether they're working separately or together, getting ideas down is generally a result of recording extended jams to tape on anything from a Tascam MSR-16 reel-to-reel to an old Revox recorder to a Grundig machine to an ordinary cassette.
“We love these low-quality tape machines,” Eoin says. “The great thing with machines such as the Grundig is that it's tragically bad. Whatever you record into it just doesn't come out unscathed. There's a ‘magic eye’ valve display on it, and when you hit the tape deck with the right volume, enough to fill out the magic eye, it's at that exact sweet spot that it is saturating the tape. So if you then sample back the playback, it's got a thousand years' grain on it.”
Because Sandison and Eoin make a point of always recording whatever they happen to be doing, they then must go back and search for usable bits, which can sometimes be just seconds of material. “The trouble is that we like to experiment too much trying out styles, instruments and sound treatments,” Eoin admits. “It can get to the point where you're 90 percent experimenting and 10 percent getting actual songs finished for a record. I guess a lot of musicians are like that; if they could be left to just play around, they might not complete something because they're having too much of a laugh in the studio. I think you're more likely to come up with something strange and new when left to your own devices, but you're more likely to get a record done when you're paying by the hour in a commercial studio. So it's probably best to try to combine the two approaches.”
Further adding to the studio delay — BOC started sketches for the album as far back as 2002 but didn't begin studio work in earnest until 2004 — is that Sandison and Eoin mix as they go rather than waiting until the end of the recording process. Although it may take more time at the onset, it encourages a certain amount of discipline. “When you're finely tuning sound textures as part of the core of a song, you can't leave it to later and hope something works; you have to hear it while you write,” Sandison says. “The main thing I find us doing in the mix is removing stuff, like when you've played something a lot and you suddenly realize that something doesn't need to be loud or even there at all. There's at least one track on the record where the core idea that the song was built around has been removed at the end in the mix, almost like making a plaster-cast mold. I tend to focus on EQ in the mix, but I rarely enhance anything. If I hear something that I think is a problem, my instinct is usually to make space around that thing to let it breathe. So, often, I find myself dialing the filters down on adjacent parts to push them into the background, out of focus, and leave the important thing intact.”
BUSTLE IN YOUR HEADPHASE
Experimentation in the studio might not make for the fastest production, but it does yield some interesting sounds and methods. In addition to shifting sound back and forth from tape to tape for added distress, BOC might boost a flat sound by putting it through a guitar amp, miking it with one or two mics and rerecording the overloaded result. But, of course, that just scratches the experimental surface.
“One thing I particularly like to use is amplitude modulation combined with microtuned pitches,” Eoin reveals. “There are a lot of ways to do this — using compressors and filters and pitch modulators — but we do it differently every time. We even resample parts using cheap ghettoblasters or cassette decks with internal microphones. Sometimes, I might employ a series of ring modulators with very slow frequencies and modulate those frequencies with an LFO so that layers of the sound overlap each other randomly. Sometimes, I'll hit a sound with way too much compression — when you get that fine line where it's just kicking in, but it's right on the threshold of the sound so that the compressor ends up spreading what I call ‘powder’ over the part so it sounds like it's crumbling.”
With so many heavily distorted noises and layers of sound manipulated to create specific effects, it's interesting that Boards of Canada avoids using effects units during the entire process. Instead, BOC prefers to get creative with EQ, monitoring, miking or other techniques. “I know this sounds contradictory, but that's a big part of the thing,” Sandison says. “We try to push it, to see how far we can change sounds without resorting to using effects units at all. For example, we would never just put down a wind instrument clean. We'd usually do something long-winded like laying down six roughly identical takes together onto mono tape so they clash and chorus microtonally over one another, then overload them to hell and back, then sample it off the tape and shift it by an octave or something like that.”
Although traditional effects aren't generally in the formula — Boards of Canada does employ homemade items such as Eoin's DIY Leslie effect, created by mounting a mic inside a rotating ice-cream tub — they do occasionally have their place. “One of the things we're often aiming at is an anechoic sound that gives the impression of being outdoors, so we use little or no reflection effects unless it's for something specific,” Sandison says. “So if you want an outdoorsy but echoey sound, you should just make the low frequencies echo; that way, it resembles real outdoor environments.”
Given BOC's apparent allegiance to all things vintage, it should be no surprise that the duo eschews the use of software — including plug-ins, instruments or synths — aside from the occasional convolution reverb and Apple Logic Pro for arrangement duties. “[Soft synths] don't have the natural discrepancies that we like in real analog gear,” Sandison says. “Half of our synths have their guts hanging out. We can tweak the sounds by doing things like pouring coffee on them. Marcus will say, ‘It's too in tune, needs more coffee,’ so we pour a bit more coffee on the exposed innards. I don't think most software synths come with a ‘coffee’ setting — I'm just joking, by the way. Don't try pouring liquids on electrical devices, kids.”
It's that sort of devilish humor and twinkle-in-the-eye cleverness that informs the entire Boards of Canada experience, from the guys' inventive recording experiments to the resulting musical creations that are never what they seem. “We like to create full-sounding parts that appear to be from another record,” Sandison says. “So, sometimes, we go to great lengths working on complete pieces of vintage-sounding music with the sole intention of ripping a two-second chunk out of it to give the impression of it being a sample of something old. It takes ages, but it's a good trick. So we sample them as though they really are someone else's old record — we abuse the sound to make it really rough, maybe sampling it in at 8-bit, 22kHz or whatever. If it sounds like samples from old sources, it means we're doing our job properly, because that's the whole point.”