The Glitch Mob | Controller Freaks

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(L-R): Josh Mayer, Justin Boreta, Ed Ma

Photo: Rueben Cox

Lights flash, video images roll on a screen at the rear of the stage, and the three musicians slam into the song with great abandon and tons of physical energy. Punching buttons on controllers, pounding electronic drums with sticks, banging on keyboards, and plucking a Fender bass, Justin Boreta (Boreta), Ed Ma (edIT), and Josh Mayer (Ooah)—better known as The Glitch Mob—perform the rhythmic electronic compositions from their debut album, Drink The Sea (Glass Air, 2010), at New York''s Highline Ballroom.

Their original musical style melds hip-hop with aspects of glitch, drum ''n'' bass, and myriad other electronic styles. Their heavily layered synth and percussion parts from the recording have been sampled into Ableton Live and are triggered as either notes or chords from their various onstage controllers.

Making the transition from DJing to live-music performance, The Glitch Mob at one point performed shows where each of them had a laptop, and the three were synched together by MIDI. However, latency issues made that problematic, and they switched to a single MacBook Pro with all of their controllers connected through a MIDI interface. The band also did some shows where they primarily triggered their parts from JazzMutant Lemur controllers. On the current tour, they have expanded their controller arsenals substantially. Each player not only has a Lemur, but a pair of Roland V-Drums snare controllers and a 49-key MIDI keyboard (M-Audio or Novation). Ma and Boreta also have pad controllers (an M-Audio Trigger Finger and an Akai MPD24, respectively). Their current show comprises a combination of live-played parts, triggered samples, and background tracks. “We really tried to reproduce the record, note for note and percussion sound for percussion sound, as close as humanly possible,” Ma says.

The band has been playing together for several years, but caught on so fast as a live act that their touring schedule precluded them from recording an album until recently, although they have done a lot of remixes. Drink The Sea is a mainly instrumental electronic effort that features heavily layered synths, mixed with real bass and guitar, and bolstered by bombastic, cinematic-sounding drums and simple, yet effective melodies.

Although the wordglitch is in the band''s name, and that conjures up the genres of glitch-hop or IDM, the band says their name doesn''t mean that they play those styles per se. “We didn''t intend for that to mean anything concrete,” Boreta says about the name. “[But] we did sort of use the glitch technique of the stutter edit and the splatting, cutting, and dicing of sounds.” However, the new album comes from a more narrative place. “We were really just trying to tell a story,” he says.

I had a chance to sit down with all three of them backstage at the Highline Ballroom and talk about the album production, the live show, and a lot more.

How did The Glitch Mob get started?
Boreta: We were friends before we decided to play music together. We just happened to be doing a lot of DJ stuff at the time in California—around San Francisco and Los Angeles. And at one point, we just decided to team up and play at the same time. Doing like a tag-team DJ set, using laptops, using Ableton [Live] and [M-Audio] Trigger Fingers and such. And that eventually morphed into a hybrid, live-DJ, electronic performance thing where we''d play our own songs and then other people would play samples over them. And that slowly morphed into the full live show that we have today. So when we first started the band, we didn''t intentionally set out to be a band, I guess; it was more of an organic progression to where we are now.
Ma: We were also doing a lot of remix work for a while. And we were getting more into the pattern of being solo producers that came together collectively to remix bigger artists. Kind of like a Soulwax type of thing, to some degree. And eventually we kind of had to put all the remixes on hiatus so we could come together and write our own music.

Interestingly, you''ve built a reputation, until now, without the benefit of an album of your own.
I think when we decided to get together and play music, we kind of just instantly turned into this touring trio thing. We got booked at so many shows that we always talked about making [an album], but we never had the time really. It was just this organic process that happened. It was sort of word of mouth, and people said, “You''ve got to check these guys out.”
Boreta: Another way we''ve really gotten word out is to give out music for free. For the first few years, we would take a stack of burned CDs of a mix we put together, and we would hand it out to everyone at the show. At the time, MySpace was the easiest way to get your music out—we had free remixes on MySpace. Everything was free. I would say that five or 10 years ago, this sort of thing wouldn''t have been possible.

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Although the band has been together for several years and has built a strong following and a lot of buzz, the recently released Drink The Sea is their first album.

Do you guys do the social networking stuff yourselves?
We do it all ourselves, actually. We have people on our team who help out. But up until this point, we''ve done it all ourselves. We answer every Facebook message personally; every MySpace message, every Twitter reply is coming from us. We take interaction with our community very seriously.

That must be very time-consuming.
It is time-consuming. [But] it''s a fun part of the product.
Ma: And totally worth it.
Mayer: I think that one thing that always bothered me in the music world was feeling really disconnected from some of my favorite artists. Not even knowing if that person was friendly or whatever. I think it meant a lot to us to be able to reach out to our fans, and personally say, “Hey this is what we''re doing. Here''s a piece of advice. If you have any questions,” whatever it might be. That means a lot to us.
Boreta: We think of the whole interaction with the fans, with the community, as just a part of the creative process. For instance, we like to give back in whatever way we can. We have a discussion forum, we write on our Facebook [page]—which is eventually going to move over to—but it''s just our way of helping out people who might have Ableton questions or who just want to know how we do what we do.
Ma: We''re very transparent with all the other budding producers out there. We love interacting with the fans, because honestly, the whole reason why we have a job, a lot of it is because of them. So we think it''s very important to be in constant communication with them.

Talk about your songwriting process.
A day of songwriting, like from scratch, would generally start with us loading up a basic kick and snare at a tempo that we wanted, and then laying down a very basic kick and snare as the backbone of what the rhythm would be like. And then we''d just play everything in. Synth parts, bass parts.
Mayer: Just sit there with, really, a blank slate, just mess around with keys until you come up with a cool rhythm, and then it would be, “Oh,” and sometime I''d jump in, and say, “Oh, that''s cool, do that.”
Boreta: In that phase, we actually don''t have a lot of crazy gear. Everything is just a mouse, a keyboard, and a Novation 49-key [controller], and that''s it.

So you each have a keyboard in front of you?
No, just one.

Do you guys fight over it [laughs]?
It was a very collaborative, interactive process with us, and there''s not really one person who does one thing or the other thing; we all sort of rotate in that we have a studio that we share. Everything is done in one place, and we''re very software-centric. So everything is in the box. We do everything on a Mac Pro in [Steinberg] Cubase.

So you do your production in Cubase, but your live show uses Ableton Live.
Yeah, everything was Cubase. On this album, pretty much the entire thing was mixed with Universal Audio.

You mean the UAD plug-ins?
Yeah, we had two UAD-2 Quad cards to mix the entire record. I think the interesting part, as Justin said, all the stuff was made with software as opposed to our prior [remixes], which were mainly known for the specific techniques we used. To me, it''s a great feat that when you listen to the record, it was all made with software. Aside from guitar or bass, everything is software-based, but it doesn''t sound like that. It could have been actually recorded with microphones, you know what I mean?

Which UAD plug-ins were you using a lot of?
We probably used the majority of the bundle. I would say about 80 percent of the plug-ins we used extensively. Our big favorites were the Helios EQ, the Pultec, the Harrison; the Neve 88RS channel strip was used a lot. Mainly we used the Cambridge to correct problems, to notch out problem frequencies. And eventually we''d use all those EQs to shape the tones. Oftentimes, just even some of the EQs just running through it. Just for the color, like the Helios, for instance, can do some amazing things, when all you do is just twist the bass frequency knobs when you''re not even boosting anything.

So once you got the sketch of a song together, you''d start sound-designing it?
No, we''d then move onto the next song. Essentially, all the songs were written to a point where they were almost like demo tapes. The first phase of our album was like a 10-track album that all sounded like it was made in [Apple] GarageBand. And then when we were done with those 10 songs, we''d go back and redesign the songs. And once the redesigning was done, we went back and we mixed the entire album. So kind of in this multistep stage.

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The Glitch Mob onstage at this year''s Coachella festival. Boreta, left, is hitting a Roland V-Drums snare; Ma, center, is on bass; and Mayer is triggering from a JazzMutant Lemur.

Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy

So you were layering all the basic parts from the sketches?
It was crazy. The sessions were well over 100 tracks.

What other plug-ins did you guys use?
We used a lot of the plug-in called the Olga. It''s by this company called Stillwell Audio. They''re great. They''re awesome plug-ins. We use mainly the Olga synth. It''s really a cool synth. We also use AudioEase Speakerphone.

The Speakerphone is a cool product. How did you use it?
Actually, all the filters and modulations in there turned out to be amazing. We used the vibrato a lot. But also just for filtering things and creating atmospheres. There''s nothing quite like it. The ability of that plug-in to mangle sound is like no other. I would say that the sound of the whole album is directly related to our use of the UAD [plug-ins] and Speakerphone.
Ma: We''d use the [reFX] Vanguard for really basic sawtooth waves and stuff like that. And then when we''d go back, we''d embellish it and replace it with a lot of the Arturia synths.

And you mixed it all in your own studio?

On what monitors?
We''ve got a pair of Genelec 8040As with a 7060B sub.

Do you have any other monitors to switch to?
I have an old pair of Mackie HR824s that we''d sort of check things on. We have a ton of different headphones. At the very end phase, we''d listen to everything in ear buds. Car stereo is actually one of the final tests.

What about the whole issue of bottom end and people listening in clubs? Was having the sub enough to hear what was going on down there?
Yes. I think on this album our sort of club-mixing sensibility was put to the side. We still have it; it bumps. But it was more focused on listening this time. We paid more attention to what was it like to play it really loud in your headphones and really dive into the sound. And given you could take the songs and a DJ could play it in a club and it would hit hard. But we were focused a lot less on that this time; we were really focused on the overall experience in a pair of headphones, and we used our fan base to ask them, “How do you guys listen to music?” And we asked them on Facebook and on Twitter.

And what did you find out?
A lot of people listen to their music on headphones and in their cars more than anything. Cars actually. Hundreds and hundreds of responses. A lot of people said, “iPod ear buds,” or, “in my car.” Very few people said anything like, “in my home theater system,” or, “in my studio monitors.”

So that affected how you mixed it?

In what way?
Because we weren''t really focused on having it be meant for large sound systems. There''s a type of dance mixing and compression and brick-wall limiting that goes into making it be really loud and pumping, and stand up to all other songs, maybe on the Beatport download. In fact, it''s really a quiet master, and if you play it next to some of our old stuff, or other contemporary dub step or house, it''s going to be really quiet. But we did that intentionally so that there''s a lot of dynamics on the album that have not been crushed in the mastering phase.
Ma: One of the main goals was that you could really crank this in your headphones and it would not hurt your ears. This album is made to be listened to at very loud volumes.

So it''s not fatiguing because it''s not overly limited.
Because of your threshold of pain. When there''s lots of high end, you can only crank something so high, no matter how much bass it has. There''s only so loud you can turn it up before it hurts your ears.

Were you doing something in the EQing?
A lot of the pain frequencies were notched out on this record.

What are the pain frequencies [laughs]?
It depends. On Rhodes kind of stuff, a lot of the bell tones. [From] 2kHz to 4kHz or 5kHz, we''d notch a lot of that out. Just like the sizzle. We''d turn down a lot of that.
Boreta: The real high sizzle. A lot of the UAD stuff, even in Bypass mode.With like the Fatso, you turn the warmth up and it gets rid of that sizzle. There''s a lot of bringing out frequencies and then notching. There''s a lot of notching and boosting. So we sort of distort and notch, distort and notch until we''ve carved everything out. In our studio, we would crank the hell out of it until it would hurt, and then turn it down until it got to the point where it was just as bright as it needs to be. And then in mastering, Simon [Davey] would do very subtle brightening. Even if you throw on the album and listen to whatever popular electronic track right now and listen to ours, it sounds dim. And it was very intentional.
Ma: That was also something that was sort of confusing for our fans who are DJs and producers. A lot of people thought our music wasn''t mastered or something.

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The Glitch Mob rehearsing for their tour. Converting their high-track-count, heavily layered recordings for performance required a great deal of sampling and planning.

Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

And you aren''t worried that when it goes up against another tune it''s going to suffer?
That wasn''t something we were concerned about.
Boreta: It still has the attitude and sort of the punch, but it''s a different take on everything, and it has more of a classic feel.

Let''s talk about the difference between your recorded music and your live show. You''re playing the same tracks on this tour, but you''re achieving them very differently than you did for the record.
Exactly. Almost every melody that you hear on the album has been sampled note for note [for the live show]. That was the only way that we could get the actual sounds of the record to translate live. There''s no way that we could essentially load up the plug-ins that we use, stack 20 plug-ins and play live; it would kill the computer.
Boreta: It''s also just the way we make music. If you wanted to actually play the synths live—maybe if the technology was there it might be better—but our sounds are processed over and over and over again, from the first phase to the mix phase. And when we mixed the album, we bounced down everything to audio because we have multiple sessions of hundreds of UAD plug-ins. Each sound would have to go through about 15 to 20 UAD plug-ins. That''s what brought us back down to audio was really technological limitations.
Ma: The samplers in Ableton are wonderful for that. We were able to sample, as I said, like every melody, note for note, and then load them into the Ableton samplers, and then replay them as they would be heard on the album. Honestly, our re-creation of the listening experience is very, very close; it sounds very close to the record. Aside from a few nuances, I''d say it''s as accurate as it''s going to get to how the album sounds. And that was our goal.

So you were thinking about performing it ahead of time.
Even before the first note was put down.

What do you say to people who say, “Oh, they''re just triggering samples; they''re not musicians”?
[Laughs] We''d say we are.
Mayer: We''re not trying to fool anyone. We''re not trying to make it seem like we''re awesome musicians and we can get up here and shred guitars.

It doesn''t bother you when people say stuff like that?
No, because we''ll say, “No, we''re playing samples.”
Ma: We''re performing this music the best way we know how to the best of our ability. We''re not trying to fool the crowd into thinking we''re Slash or Flea or something.

Any chance that, sometime soon, you''ll be using iPads onstage?
Yeah, we talked about it. We do have an iPad. Ed has an iPad. We actually didn''t have time to play with it before we went on tour, but we''re open to anything.

What apps have you tried it with?
I''m a big iPhone and iPad music app geek. So I''ve got all the good ones right now.

Can you imagine doing a show with your iPads being the only controllers?
That could be cool. Yeah, sure.

One of the striking aspects of Drink The Sea is its heavy, almost cinematic drum and percussion sounds featuring a lot of big, deep toms reminiscent of taiko drums. Live, the bandmembers all enjoy triggering these percussion sounds from their Roland V-Drums snares, and I was curious to find out how they produced these sounds.

“The drum sounds came from a variety of different plug-ins,” Ma says. “We used [XLN Audio] Addictive Drums quite a bit and it was processed. And we also used [Quantum Leap] Stormdrum and [Toontrack] Superior Drummer 2. The Toontrack guys were really nice, and they hooked us up with the whole bundle. So we used a bunch of cymbals from Superior Drummer, and a lot of the EZX stuff layered together with Addictive Drums and layered together with Stormdrum, and our personal sample libraries. It''s kind of like a mishmash.”

Where did the taiko-like sounds come from? “Those were also layered up with a lot of the Addictive Drums tom sounds,” Ma says.

Another interesting aspect of The Glitch Mob''s drum production was that they were constantly tuning the drums to match the keys of the song. “Kick drums, toms—it was very critical that they were tuned to the song,” Ma says. “Even snares, sometimes.”

They typically used Iced Audio''s AudioFinder software to help with pitch identification. “Basically, it finds all the fundamentals for you,” Ma explains. “And we zoom in on the fundamental, and it''s just a Theremin sine wave-type thing, and we could determine which fundamental was the most correct.”

Why the need to tune the drums? “Because the album is so beat- and percussion-heavy,” Boreta says. “There''s a lot of reverb, too, so if it''s ringing out of tune, you can really tell.”

Going the extra mile to tune the drum sounds is another example of The Glitch Mob''s meticulous studio techniques. “It was definitely a very long and tedious process to get everything tuned properly,” Ma says.

Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.