Photo: Tomo Saito
Guitarist, singer, and educator Christopher Willits says his ambition for Tiger Flower Circle Sun (Ghostly International, 2010) was no less than to represent “the oneness of everything. I integrated different sounds from all my collaborations and solo work.” Those sounds span 20 recordings in 10 years, including his work with Kid606, Matmos, Taylor Deupree, and Ryuichi Sakamoto (interviewed last month in EM).
Willits began the album in his home studio, using an Avid Digi 002 audio interface and a MacBook Pro running Avid Pro Tools LE, Ableton Live, Waves plug-ins, and Cycling ''74''s Max 5 and Max for Live. “My process begins from playing and investigating sounds with my guitar and software I create in Max,” Willits says. “From the initial patterns that emerge, the music tells me if there needs to be a drumbeat or a vocal harmony. I use Live and Max for Live for real-time processing, composition, and temporary mixes. I then do final mixes, overdubs, and editing in Pro Tools.”
The resulting music often recalls Steve Reich and Robert Fripp, as well as the Beach Boys filtered through gauze. “Sun Body” (see Web Clip 1) starts with a guitar that Willits processed through a device he created within Max for Live. “I create rhythmic and textural patterns from the guitar,” he says. “I use granular synthesis, delay lines, and buffer indexing techniques to make the sounds jump to different locations, in specific proportions. The systems I create generate random patterns within parameters that I have intended.”
Willits also created vocal pads comprising “five- and seven-part harmonies,” he says. “I find the right mic for the right voice so I don''t have to EQ it as much. I usually use an AKG C 414 or Sennheiser MD 421 for a clean sound, and an Oktava MK-219 or a Shure 520DX ‘Green Bullet'' to add texture and grain. I [often] pan the vocal parts left and right, 100 to 75 percent, so they are not just clumping in the middle. Some tracks have 20 voices going, which can produce a lot of mud. I always liberally scoop out all the lows and other frequencies I don''t need with EQ.”
For guitars on “The Hands Connect to the Heart” (see Web Clip 2), “Sun Body,” and “Plant Body,” Willits used a custom pedal he built with Brian Schmeirer. “It is essentially two Electro-Harmonix Big Muff pedals together that have been tweaked out with a couple of different resistors and capacitors,” he describes.
Willits brought his project into Sound Arts (San Francisco), where he teaches workshops. “Sound Arts has a larger live room that I use for drums, unprocessed guitar, and percussion, and a smaller, more-dead room that I use for vocals,” he says. Willits tracked with Sound Arts'' Pro Tools HD system, Focusrite ISA 200 Session Pack, and preamps. For final mixes, he used a SSL Duality board in a different studio. “When I was mixing with Ryan Kleeman, we ‘input-flipped'' all of the channels to run Pro Tools'' output back through the analog preamps of the Duality, sometimes blowing out the preamps a bit to add more and different harmonics,” he says. “Although the pieces on the album are really different, all of the music began by being completely open to where the sound wanted to grow.”
Home base:San Francisco
Primary software: Ableton Live, Cycling '74 Max for Live, Avid Pro Tools LE
Go-to mic AKG C 414