Chas Smith coaxes haunting music from all things metallic.
If there's one thing composer and instrument builder Chas Smith knows, it's that nothing captures the songs in his head like cold metal.
Welder, machinist, and musician, Smith transforms his affinity for metal into strange creations with names such as "PezEater," "Mantis," and "DADO," alien monikers that suit the otherworldly sounds they emit. Like famed composer and instrument builder Harry Partch, whom Smith readily acknowledges as an influence, Smith creates unsettling music that is both beautiful and eerie. His new CD, Nikko Wolverine - which was recorded in his home studio, Tijuana Donkey Show Studios, in Encino, California - features his creations and pedal steel guitar. Smith draws ghostly, shimmering sounds from his unique instruments with a bow or by thumping them with mallets.
"It's all metallic sounds I work with," says Smith, who lent his talents to 1999's American Beauty soundtrack. "I don't have the touch for wood. I'm very comfortable with metal. Metallic sounds are more complicated - there's more stuff to work with."
Recording Nikko Wolverine took six years, time Smith spent grappling with the challenges of recording instruments that come with tuning systems and tones all their own. Despite his admiration for Partch's music, Smith does not adhere to the avant-garde composer's microtonal tuning system. Smith's works develop largely through experimentation and chance, legacies of his unique creations.
"I'll record all night, let it sit there and percolate, then come back a few weeks later," Smith says. "A lot of the time I'm looking for happy accidents."
Smith deliberately keeps the recording process simple. For tracks that feature his creations, Smith used Audio-Technica AT4050 and Earthworks QTC1 mics to capture the instruments' complex tones. Placed in a room built for a nine-foot Steinway piano, the instruments were either close-miked for rich details or miked with ample space to capture sounds with plenty of air. He opts for the AT4050s when he wants a tone bereft of treatment.
"[The AT4050s] aren't warm and friendly," Smith says. "They're very unforgiving. You hear everything. Because I'm dealing with complex sounds, I want to hear everything. The music is in the details; all of the sounds are basically the same color. If you smear the details with reverb or friendly mics, there's nothing to work with."
When tracking the album, Smith alternated between a Tascam DA-88 digital multitrack recorder linked with a Prism MR-2024 interface and a Fostex D-5 DAT recorder. The tracks made their way into Sonic Solutions' SonicStudio digital audio workstation, and Smith occasionally turned to BIAS Peak as well as U&I Software's MetaSynth for its granular effects.
Smith took a different approach to recording his pedal steel guitar tracks, using a Mackie 1604 VLZ-Pro 16-channel mixer and an assortment of preamps and outboard effects processors, including Metasonix's TS-21 Hellfire Modulator.
Smith gradually learned how to use the equipment he bought for his home studio but refused to become fully immersed in gear. "It's a tool," says Smith, who holds a master's degree in music composition from CalArts. "It's the age-old thing of motorheads and gearheads - you can get caught up in what it is or what it does. I have a cool car, but it's also for transportation.
"I like to see myself as a composer, but I see myself as a welder some days and a machinist others," Smith says. When not building complex instruments, he plays pedal and nonpedal guitars in a Western swing band and guitar for a heavy metal outfit. He's working on another CD due out in the fall.
"I think the magic is in the music, whether it's the sounds I work with or any of the other music forms," Smith says. "I want to be where the magic is."
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