Photo by Mitch Tobias
Although Serj Tankian came to prominence as System of a Down''s lead singer, he makes it pretty clear that rock music is only part of his musical repertoire. “I don''t just write rock,” he says. “I have about 400 or 500 unreleased pieces and songs, some of which I utilized for the musical I''m doing. I use some for videogames, I use some for films. I do a lot of different types of music, from electronic to jazz to classical to rock to metal to punk to hip-hop to whatever.”
The multitalented Tankian has been busy since System went on indefinite hiatus in 2006. His first solo album, Elect the Dead (Warner Bros., 2007), was a rock record, but he followed it up with a live-recorded orchestral reinterpretation of that release with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, which he put out in March of this year as a CD/DVD called Elect the Dead Symphony (Warner Bros.). His new album, Imperfect Harmonies (Warner Bros.)—much of which was recorded in his 1,000-square-foot L.A.-area home studio—brings together his musical influences by blending rock, orchestral, and electronic music into a cohesive collection of songs centered around his unmistakable vocal stylings. Paralleling the stylistic mélange, Tankian used a wide assortment of software during production, including Avid Pro Tools, Apple Logic Pro, Propellerhead Reason, and Sony ACID Pro.
Talk about the new album, musically.
There were two major influences that I wanted to fuse. One was the electronic side and the other one was the orchestral—one was synthetic, the other was organic—and in a normal sense, they don''t really belong together in the same kind of sound palette. They just don''t jibe well together. So there were a lot of challenges in trying to make everything really flow as one thing.
How much of this album did you record in your studio?
Most of it except for the live orchestra. Everything I recorded in my studio—I engineered it, I produced it. I wrote the arrangements for the live strings, with 25-piece strings and seven-piece brass that were recorded live. Besides that, there''s a lot of sampled instrumentation on strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion. Then you have the live drums, bass, live guitars, acoustic guitars, pianos, synths, samples, beats—like nine, 10 types of beats per song sometimes. [There were] anywhere from 150 to 200 tracks per Pro Tools session going. It was more like scoring a film than making a rock album, as far as the process.
When did you start working with orchestras?
About a year-and-a-half, two years ago, I did this live show with The Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. And to make that show happen, I had to rearrange all my songs from my first solo record, Elect the Dead, into full orchestral arrangements for a 70-piece orchestra—without the band, you know. No drums, no guitars, no bass, et cetera. So from that, we ended up with a live CD/DVD that we put out about three months ago on Warner, and we sent that out as kind of like a calling card to different orchestras around the world. I''m now in Atlanta finishing a tour with different orchestras. We played with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in Prague and Berlin; we played with the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz in Austria; we played with the Globalis Orchestra in Moscow—a 70-piece orchestra in front of a 6,000-person sold-out crowd. It''s been fun.
What material were you doing with those orchestras?
Mostly the stuff from the Elect the Dead Symphony.
Which were originally rock songs?
Yes. All the songs from my first solo record, which was a rock record.
I know sometimes when the classical world and the pop world or rock world meet, it isn''t always the smoothest thing. How has it been working with the classical musicians?
It''s been amazing. The kind of reverence between rock and classical [musicians] and some of the parallels are amazing, actually. I rehearse the orchestras, but I mostly deal with the conductor as far as classical players, but the response from the actual orchestras has been amazing because they''ve never gotten a response from an audience as much as they''ve gotten from our audiences that we''ve played for, so they''re blown away. And they''re really into the music. I think it''s well-retrofitted for orchestra from the rock songs. It''s done in a way that it accomplishes everything. In other words, the guitars and the different vocal harmonies and everything are replaced by horns and brass and woodwinds. So everything is composed correctly, arranged correctly for orchestra; that''s why it works. If you don''t do it that way, if you don''t do it right for orchestra, then it won''t work. Or if you just use the orchestra as a backup and you''re still playing with your band in front, it doesn''t work as well in some ways.
Tankian at the keyboard in his home studio.
Photo by Mitch Tobias
Talk about the recording process for Imperfect Harmonies. Did you start with demos?
I started out all the songs on primarily just piano or acoustic guitar and vocals. So I start them out in a very classic tradition. Just like I did with my first solo record, just like I did with songs I''d written for System. And then I start adding layers. For Elect the Dead, I would start with guitars or drums. Mostly I''d do the drums, and then I''d add electric guitars—two, three different variations of melodies—and then bass and whatnot. And in this case, after piano or acoustic guitar with vocals, I would add the orchestra—I would do all my orchestral arrangements—and then I would do all the electronic beats. And then I would do all the rock instrumentation.
How much of the instruments did you play on this album?
Other than live orchestra, about 85, 90 percent, I guess.
So you also played the drum parts?
No, I didn''t do the live drums. I programmed all the beats and then had a live drummer, the guy that plays with me on tour. I''ve done all the pianos, most of the guitars—although my friend Dan Monti, who plays with me on tour, did a couple of the guitars on a few of the songs. But I did most of the guitars. I did all the sampled stuff, all the beats; I wrote all the orchestral arrangements and recorded the orchestra. I then had my drummer and bassist play on top on most of the songs. They didn''t all have drums and bass—most of them do. And I had a few vocalist friends—an opera singer, female opera singer, and another friend of mine, Shana Halligan, who''s like this beautiful jazz vocalist. She sang on some of the songs with me.
Initially when you were arranging the orchestral parts, did you use samples?
I used sampled strings, sampled brass, and I used MIDI so I could write everything and then quantize it, throw it into Sibelius, print out scores, and fix them so that live ensembles can play them.
What were you using for sounds when you were writing the stuff? Do you have an orchestral library that you like?
I have a number of them. I have a bunch of stuff from the Vienna Symphonic Library. I''ve got EastWest Play, Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra Platinum Complete; I love the brass from Sonic Implants. There''s a bunch of different ones.
Do you have classical training in terms of being able to write out the parts?
I''ve never studied music; I''ve never studied singing; I''ve never studied anything.
That''s impressive. Classical arranging isn''t something that''s easy to pick up.
Thanks. Everything I''ve done musically and artistically has been groping in the dark and eventually gets there and somehow works for me.
Do you have an orchestrator or arranger that you work with?
I did with the Elect the Dead Symphony; I had an orchestrator. So with that one, that was my first experience in writing for orchestra. And with that one I just wrote, you know like cello, viola, violin 1 and 2, and then a few brass melodies, and then had an orchestrator retrofit it to a 70-piece orchestra. So he wrote all the percussion parts and stuff like that, and then added more layers and melodies to compensate for lacking guitars and vocal melodies and stuff. But for this record, I kind of did a lot of the ensemble arrangements myself and then had someone basically double-check my work.
It must be pretty mind-blowing when you hear your arrangements being played by an orchestra.
It is absolutely mind-blowing, dude. To me, it''s the biggest compliment in the world when you have that many professional musicians playing your work successfully. It just blows you away. The first time it happened in New Zealand with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, when I was rehearsing them a couple of years ago, I walked into rehearsal, and I''m like, “Hey, how''s it going everybody?” and met everyone. And I said, “Okay, well, you guys play first, you know. I won''t perform with you until we make sure everyone''s playing everything correctly.” So I sat down and they just started playing, and I forgot about listening to the music because I was just so blown away. The vibe, I was just taken back. Now I''m kind of used to it.
Let''s talk about your studio a bit. How long have you had your own studio?
I''ve had my own studio in one form or another since I''ve been playing music. So for a long time. My current studio next to my house, which is like a 1,000-square-foot full pro studio, I''ve had since—it was built late-February 2002.
You have both an Apple Logic and Avid Pro Tools setup in there.
Yeah. I''m kind of learning Logic more as I go along. I use Pro Tools more than anything else, but I''ve used Logic for some songs. I use a lot of different programs. I use [Propellerhead] Reason for some beats. I''ve got a dedicated PC just to run [Sony Creative Software] ACID to do loop stuff. I use a lot of different programs. I''m missing a bunch, too.
With the exception of the live orchestral sessions, Tankian played most of the instruments and recorded most of the tracks on Imperfect Harmonies.
Did you use the PC with ACID on it when you were doing the beat stuff for the new album?
I think I did for one song, “Beat Us.” I''ve used it on my previous records for a few songs. It''s an easy way to kind of put stuff together. Until I figured out how to do it in Pro Tools, I was just using ACID to kind of put together beats, but now I can easily do it in Pro Tools with Elastic Time stretching and stuff.
Right. What about synth sounds? For the electronic stuff, did you use mostly software synths on this album?
A combination. I''ve got a lot of hardware and I''ve got a lot of software, so I used a combination of stuff.
What are some of your favorites?
As far as hardware synths, I''ve got a little Moog [Little] Phatty. I used that. I''ve got a Moog Voyager. I used a Rhodes, a mid-''70s Rhodes—Mark II, I want to say, without looking. Live piano on most of the songs. For some of the piano parts, I used [Synthogy] Ivory—it sounds better—and some standup pianos. I''ve got one standup piano in New Zealand that actually sounds better than Ivory because it''s got a dark vibe, but the one in my studio in L.A. doesn''t. I used a lot of soft synths as well, stuff from different programs. Stuff from Reason and Native Instruments, and IK Multimedia and Arturia. I use it all, man. I typically go through and see what sound I need and look for it, and then dial it in and alter it until it''s what I want, and play it and record it, et cetera.
So you do a lot of altering of the sounds rather than just using stock sounds?
A combination. I do some altering of sounds and also just bring up patches and use whatever works.
I think the idea that one can never use a preset sound is overrated. If you're layering it in among a bunch of other sounds, how are they going to know?
Exactly. I''m not one of those guys that spends three days getting the perfect beat or finding the perfect f***ing envelope or filter on a synth. I can''t do that; I''ll lose the muse, you know? I''ve got to record it while it''s hot in my head. So I''ll go find something and do it, and then I''ll change it if I need to.
Do you do all your own engineering or do you have someone that helps you?
I did most of my own engineering this time around. The only time I didn''t was when we recorded the orchestra; I got an orchestral engineer for the big room at EastWest to record 25-piece string, seven-piece brass.
So did you mix this yourself, too?
No, I had Rich Costey do the mixing.
Did you do it at your studio or at his own place?
We did it at another studio, Record One.
Were the songs on the new album challenging to mix?
This record was a really hard one to mix because there were so many disparate elements to it, so many diverse dynamics. You''ve got the full live orchestra, you''ve got rock instruments, you''ve got f***ing jazz horn solos, and you''ve got full electronic stuff happening with samples and synths. There''s just so much going on, so it was very important to find the right balance of instruments, of sounds. And sometimes the mixer will present it the way they see it, like let''s say more electronic than you want it, and you want to balance the orchestral with the electronic, and you''re like, “No, it needs more orchestra,” or whatever. Because I''m producing and ultimately I''m the artist, it''s my call, and I wanted to make a record—it was easy to go the direction of rock and edgy and make the electronics and the drum and bass louder, and make the orchestra just there kind of interlacing everything. I didn''t want that; I wanted it to be a fair balance of orchestra and all the other instruments. That''s what I was shooting for; I think that''s what makes this record different.
With the orchestral instruments, you said you were combining the live players with the sampled ones. Were the samples just in there to make it bigger, to make it sound like a larger orchestra?
Yeah. It wasn''t just to make it bigger, but the sampled orchestra is always at a different frequency and a sound than a live orchestra A live orchestra will always sound better, of course. We also had woodwinds and orchestral percussion, and a lot of bass in our sampled orchestra that we didn''t have in our live recordings. So it was kind of [a matter of] bringing those elements out, as well.
With so many tracks going, did you find that when you got to the mixing phase, all of a sudden, you were like, “You know what? We don''t need this many instruments; we can start cutting stuff back”?
Sure. There''s so much at certain points that as a producer, you''ve got to listen to it, and go, “Woah, woah, okay, look.” I threw a lot against the wall this time. I usually don''t do that; I usually build up based on what I need. This time, I did the opposite, where I threw all these colors at the wall and then looked at the picture, and then I was like, “Okay, the middle eight section doesn''t need to have everything in it. Let''s just break it down to orchestra so mute all the other stuff.” This is before mixing, for me to have an idea of what I want the song to sound like.
Besides all your touring, what else do you have new coming up?
I''ve got to jump in December, early December, to work on my musical. I''ve got a musical opening in March of next year.
Where is it going to open?
It opens at the American Repertory Theater at Harvard. It''s with Steven Sater, the guy who did Spring Awakening; he''s the playwright. And it''s based onPrometheus Bound, the first Greek play. We''ve been working on it for like a year-and-a-half doing workshops and stuff.
I take it you''re really pleased with the way Imperfect Harmonies came out?
Yeah, I''m very happy with it. It''s a whole different sound for me, and I enjoyed making it. I like to experiment with what I do. That''s why I do different things. After System, my first record was different than System, but it was still rock. It was, in retrospect, the type of record that I''ve always wanted to make with System, so I ended up making Elect the Dead that way. And then I did a whole thing with an orchestra without a band, completely symphonic. And now I''m doing something that mixes electronic, orchestral, rock, and jazz all on one record. Doing a musical, and writing my first symphony. I''m doing a bunch of different things.
Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.