Flair for Production

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You can safely say that Laura Escudé is a woman of many talents. She''s a composer and a string player, and she was the first person in L.A. certified as an Ableton Live trainer. She has consulted with Cirque de Soleil and Kanye West on their Live setups, and she has recorded with artists like Carmen Rizzo and Eric Whiteacre, composed music for commercials, and done sound design for movies. Earlier this year, she released her debut album, the self-produced Pororoca (Autodidactic 2010, see Fig. 1), on which she mixes synthesis, sound design, violin and cello parts, and found sounds into an original electronic blend. Escudé describes it as “sort of classical, IDM, emotional, film-score-esque electronica.”

I spoke with Escudé recently about the production of the album.

The album sounds great. Besides your string parts, was this pretty much done all in the box?
Yeah, it was mostly all just software programs that I used to create the album, and then I enlisted the help of a couple of musicians to perform on my album to get a couple of live instruments and vocalists.

You played several stringed instruments on it?
Yes. I play violin mostly, and I have a five-string violin as well that has a low C string for the viola that kind of crosses over between the two. And then I also have a cello. So I played all the instruments on the album and recorded them myself.

Is your studio in your house?
Yes. I have a home studio. It was all mostly done there, with the exception of a couple songs [that] were tracked at a larger studio.

Are you Mac-based or Windows?
I'm on a Mac. I do everything on my MacBook Pro pretty much because I'm traveling around all the time.

You use Ableton Live for the most part, right? That's your main sequencer?
Yes. Some of the songs I started were kind of before I got into Live. Because I've been toying with this album for many years—too long [laughs]. And so the first program that I was using to create it was [Propellerhead] Reason, actually. And then I sort of took those songs that were good in Reason and just brought them over to [Apple] Logic and finished them in Logic. And then quite a bit of other songs that were newer, I started in Live and then brought them into Logic. So everything ended up in Logic.

So you really used both. What do you use Live for typically and what do you use Logic for?
I typically use Live to come up with my ideas because it's just such a great interface and a great palette for coming up with different sounds and see how they work together, and it's just very easy to kind of add things and add effects and do that all on the fly without stopping the program. When I work in other programs, it really kind of feels like it takes a lot more time for me to get to an idea. So I'll use Live to come up with the ideas and come up with some sort of arrangement. So I'll typically come up with some of the violin sounds and the beats, synths, and that sort of thing in Live in the Session view, and then I'll record it over to the Arrangement view. And then once I've recorded a basic arrangement, I kind of have it the way that I think it's going to go to the final, I bring it over into Logic and then I toy with it some more, and add some of the Logic effects and instruments and things like that.

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FIG. 1: Poraroca is Escudé''s first solo album, which she spent several years producing.

So you render out the tracks and then you put them into Logic?
Yes. Most of the time, I'll just ReWire Live into Logic and record those parts from Live into Logic. Or sometimes I'll take the MIDI of the parts that I've recorded in Live; if I'm not really keen on the sound and I haven't found a sound that I like there, I'll bring it into Logic with the MIDI and kind of toy around with instruments like the EXS24 or Sculpture, or any of the great instruments that they have in Logic.

So you haven't been using Live all that long?
I've been using Live steadily, I would say, for production, since 2007. Before that, I was using it for live performance. So a lot of the songs that I created before were in Reason, and that's actually the program that really got me started into all this digital-audio music-making stuff. I started out with Reason for the most part, and of course have used [Steinberg] Cubase, [Avid] Pro Tools, and other things along the way. Reason is the first thing that really stuck for me. And then I started using Live to played live shows with, and then as the production capabilities increased and everything, I just moved over to Live and started using that, and then ReWired Reason a lot of times into Live.

Yeah, a lot of people do that. I read that you are a certified trainer for Live?
Yes. I actually worked for Ableton back in 2007 to 2008, and I'd always had a really close relationship with the company. I worked at M-Audio from 2005 to 2007, and at the time, M-Audio was distributing Ableton Live in all of their packages. When Ableton decided to go solo and do its own distribution, I moved over and started working with Ableton. So I did that for a while, and then I became a certified trainer. Since then, I've just been still doing a lot of stuff with Live and doing a lot of consulting for artists and bands and companies and things like that.

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FIG. 2: Escudé uses Live''s Session view, which makes the triggering of loops and clips easy, for basic composition tasks such as making beats and finding sounds that work well together, and for coming up with a basic arrangement.

Image courtesy Ableton

So when you're composing in Live are you mostly working in the Session view [see Fig. 2], which, for those who don't know, is the window where you can trigger clips easily.
I think the main thing is just being able to record something and then add effects very quickly in the Session view. So typically I'll come up with a bunch of sounds that sound good together. I'll program a beat—I'm really into using the Drum Racks in Live. So a lot of the times I'll program beats in the Drum Racks and sort of build around with synthesizers and using a lot of the Native Instruments stuff and also the Rob Papen synthesizers. I do a lot of consulting for his company as well, and those are great synths.

Yeah, like Blue and Predator.
Blue and Predator, and Albino. And he's got a few new ones out—one I've been using is SubBoomBass. So I'll just kind of come up with the parts there in the Session view, and once I've come up with a few ideas, I'll try to sort of arrange it in the Session view. The top scene I'll just have as my intro, and I'll kind of go down vertically through the Session view and try to group these different sounds that I've been playing with together and see what would sound good in more of an arrangement format. Then I'll add effects on tracks and whatnot, and when I finally come up with sort of an arrangement there in the Session view, I'll record my jam over to the Arrangement view from the Session view.

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FIG. 3: Once she has a rough arrangement worked out, Escudé will record it into Live''s Arrangement view.

Image courtesy Ableton

And the Arrangement [see Fig. 3] view is more of a sort of standard sequencer view.
Right, yes. The Arrangement view is more of the typical, linear, left-to-right style of sequencing. I just find that the thing that used to trip me up a lot more in the past was the actual sequencing and arrangement of songs, and once I discovered Live for sequencing and arranging, I realized it was brilliant because I could just jam on these ideas and record my jams and then not have to do that traditional cut-and-paste, copy, paste, delete sort of thing—which I still do at times, but for coming up with initial ideas and feeling like you're getting something done very quickly, nothing beats that for me.

Talk about your background. You have classical training, too?
I have a big background in the classical music world, playing violin for 25 years. I actually went to school for violin performance before I got into any of this stuff.

Were you in an orchestra?
Yeah, I was in orchestras. I still play with orchestras, actually. But I went to school for violin performance and played with orchestras. I did that—consistently focused on that—for a really long time, and I guess in about 2003 I really discovered the whole production world and started making music of my own. Since then, it's been sort of a hybrid for me of playing violin and improvising and making my own music.

Do you get resistance from anyone you know in the classical world about what you're doing? There are some people in that world who can be very rigid, at least I've found that.
Yeah. It's interesting. Most of the groups that I play with now aren't strictly classical; I play with an Arabic orchestra, and we were actually just playing last week in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East. So that was pretty neat. I'm kind of more performing with groups that are not typically the classical-style groups. I think I just found that just reading music on a page for me wasn't doing it anymore. For some people, that's what they love to do, and they don't know how to improvise or don't have any interest in improvising, and I feel like a lot of the people from that world don't understand what I do, and I try to help them understand. For the most part now, the musicians that I work with are all very eager to learn, and they're crossing over from just being a classical musician, or jazz. I do a lot of consulting for these types of musicians because they see what I do and see, "Oh, you can do live looping, you can use effects, and it's all within the computer. That's really cool." Of course, as Ableton Live becomes more prominent in the music-making of today, people are kind of reaching out to me and are more interested in what I'm doing. I feel like maybe some of the more old-school people that have been playing in orchestras for a really long time have no interest in this type of thing, but I do work with quite a few instrumentalists that I'm helping to port over to using Ableton Live for their live performances.

You mentioned some of the synths that you used on the album. What else was part of your palette? For instance, what were you using for drum sounds?
I have a library of drum sounds that I've just sort of collected over the years that I use, so I use those a lot in the Drum Racks. And then for some of the older songs, I actually was using the Reason ReDrum, which I love still. I love using that because it's a step-sequencer-style, and that's what I learned to program drums on. It's just very easy to use. And so I used a lot of the sounds there, and like I said, as I progressed, I sometimes would replace the sounds with some other sounds that I had and would make my own custom Redrum kits out of the samples that I collected over the years. I just sort of gathered together a group of sounds that I really liked—a group of kick drums and a group of snares and so on—and kind of go to those first. For some of the even more recent songs, I actually was using Logic's Ultrabeat because that's also brilliant.

Right, also a step-sequencer-based interface.
Yeah. It's so easy for me to program beats, and the sounds in there are really amazing. There's a lot of just different control over each individual sound. You can add all different kinds of effects and filters and whatnot right in the Ultrabeat, so it's another really quick and easy way for me to program beats.

You don't find that using a step sequencer, it's rhythmically too rigid because everything has fallen into a slot?
Sometimes. And I try to play around with the swing and also in—one of those things I like about the Reason Redrums is the ReGroove mixer, which I've been using quite a bit. That just allows you to offset some of the notes and apply a different groove to the notes. In Live 8, they also added a groove section for the Drum Racks and for Impulse or whatever you want to apply it to, and they have all these great swing presets and MPC-style presets that you can apply to the MIDI. It's kind of cool when you choose it and you decide that you really like the way that sounds and you commit that groove to the MIDI, it actually moves the MIDI so you can see how it's moved and where it's moved to. That's kind of cool.

I heard some cool stuff on the title cut, "Pororoca." There was like a vocal sound in there. Was that a real singer, or was that a sample?
The first vocal sound, the more choral sound, that's a sample. I believe I got that from one of these great EXS24 presets and samples that I got from a film composer friend of mine he'd recorded and made. So those were samples. And then the vocals that come in the middle in the breakdown are my friend Kathie Talbot that I work with quite a bit. I recorded her and did some layering of her vocals with [Celemony] Melodyne from there. So I recorded the vocals and brought them into Melodyne and did some different chords there so it would sound like more of a choir-type thing.

In the song "Truest Form," that sounded like a real vocal, but there was an Auto-Tune thing happening and some sort of distortion. What did you do to that vocal? It was very cool.
That was a vocalist that I worked with quite a bit in the past, her name is Eluv. I put the Logic pitch correction plug-in on the vocals. I kind of came across that by accident, almost, just because we had recorded the vocals a really long time ago, and I—of course, as I mentioned, have been toying around with this album for quite some time—wanted to get a different sound from the vocals because the audio and the way that it was recorded wasn't exactly perfect. So I thought, "Well, let's try this pitch plug-in here in Logic and see what that does," and I kind of wanted to go for that ethereal sort of Auto-Tune sound and just make it a little bit spookier and make it a little bit creepier, I think, than the original vocal sounded. I think I used that effect, and I'm not sure exactly what else I was using on the vocal, but I'm pretty sure it was all Logic stuff.

Yeah, there's a lot of great plug-ins in Logic, for sure. If you had to go without third-party plug-ins, you could do it with Logic.
Right, and that's why I finish everything in Logic, for the mixing and mastering—if I'm mixing and mastering it myself, which I didn't on this album. But you can do it all in Logic. The plug-ins sound amazing.

Where is your album available?
I'm self-releasing it on my own label, Electronic Creatives, which is also a collective of people that I work with. It's going to be available through my website and through iTunes and Amazon and all those cool retailers. You should be able to hear it on Pandora and all different types of Internet radio stations. One thing I wanted to add about the release is there's a video that came out a few weeks ago that was designed, directed and animated by Scott Pagano, who I work with quite a bit. It's up on my website and also on my Vimeo channel, which is probably the best place to watch it. It's the video for the title track, and it's just a beautiful exploration of underwater seascapes, and it's all 3D animation, and it's very, very special to me. A lot of people are checking it out online; we've gotten some positive reviews. So that's really cool. And then Scott also did the artwork for the album. And I'm doing something a little bit different: I'm doing CDs—and the video is going to be included on the CDs—and of course I'm doing download-only, but I'm also releasing these 1GB flash drives. They're the card-shaped flash drives that have the USB port that kind of flips out and you can put it into your computer.

Are they the really little ones?
They're the ones that look sort of like a credit card. So the artwork is on the outside, and then on the stick, it's going to have the music, the video, and then a bunch of different artwork that we created—and of course the liner notes and all that stuff. So I'm really proud of that as well.

That's cool, that's like a way to get some more interesting other elements besides just the music in a way you can't really do on CDs.
Right, exactly. Originally when I first started thinking about the project, I didn't want to do CDs because I thought, "Well, CDs are becoming obsolete." But then the more I [thought about it] the more I realized I needed to do CDs because CDs are just so easy to hand out; they're inexpensive. And people like to collect things still, and I feel like the artwork is really beautiful on the CD itself, so hopefully people will not just put it away in their attic somewhere and have it around to look at [laughs].