A Map Of Less Effort: Telefon Tel Aviv Gets Quick and Dirty

On their 2004 recording, Map of What Is Effortless [Hefty Records], Telefon Tel Aviv (TTA) teammates Joshua Eustis and Charles Cooper perfected their unique combination of glitchy micro-edited beats, slow-jam grooves, soulful guest vocalists, and soaring strings—effectively demonstrating that computer-based music could comfortably meld machine and human elements. But one thing that set the record apart from its electronica peers was its ear-catching drum parts.

“We had a different approach than the normal deconstructionist way of looking at it—which is people programming a beat and then dicing it,” says Eustis. “We didn’t chop beats, but rather built them up. We would start with a thousand sounds, and then program them manually—a kick drum here, some weird sounds there, and, sometimes, between four and eight tracks of just noises. We would work on a bar for an hour, moving things around until it sounded cool. It was a painstaking and ridiculous way of doing it, but, at the time, it was the only way to get the effect we wanted. We used things like Native Instrument’s Reaktor to create a long piece of sound, and then we went in and cut a hundred tiny pieces out of it. This certainly slowed down the process of making a record. Whereas most bands can make a record in a month to three months, it was taking us a year.”

Speaking from his current home in Chicago, the former New Orleans native explains how the band’s exhaustion of this laborious process led to a different direction for its new record, Immolate Yourself [Bpitch Control]. The band’s “new” direction involved what some would call a “traditional” method of making a record.

“We were not interested in those tiny little textures anymore, because we took that process as far as we were able,” says Eustis. “So instead of opening a session in Pro Tools and starting there, we demoed the song first. We would write the lyrics, work out the melodies, and then produce it. We made the demos by recording synthesizers into Pro Tools. I did a lot of demoing with the Fender Rhodes piano, but once we got into the actual production, the Rhodes ended up being replaced by synths—which were recorded into Pro Tools using a Drawmer 1960 preamp. The 1960 gives you as much, or as little, dirt as you want. Analog synths sound amazing through the thing.”

In addition to abandoning Telefon’s trademark Rhodes and strings, the current record explores a newfound obsession with analog tape, as well as some antiquated recording techniques.

“Everything was mixed down to an Otari MX-5050 1/4" 2-track tape machine, but we also used tape as an ‘instrument,’ because it is such a physical, tactile thing,” notes Eustis. “A lot of the sounds on the songs were derived from actual loops of 1/4" tape. We would record something to the tape machine, make a loop of what we liked, and run the tape around mic stands set up like the capstans on a tape recorder. Some of the tape loops were 20-feet long! We wrapped them all around the studio, and then recorded the loops back into Pro Tools.”

Eustis and Cooper also found themselves creating a flanging effect by using the historic method of grabbing the edge of the tape spool—or “flange”—as the loop was recorded back into Pro Tools.

“We were more interested in physical destruction of the media, than editing in a computer,” says Eustis.

After four projects—two CDs, an EP, and a remix compilation—that exemplify meticulous construction and digital clarity, Immolate Yourself reflects a looser approach. Though it retains TTA’s romantic melodies and harmonies, the use of tape loops and vintage synthesizers made their previously precise, synchronized sound impossible, creating in its stead a more ’80s-style synth-pop atmosphere influenced by early Factory records (Joy Division, New Order, etc.).

“If you listen very carefully to this record, you will notice that very little is lined up perfectly,” reveals Eustis. “It is very messy, and things are somewhat intentionally out of tune. VCOs drift all over the place. The ARP soloist we used had a horrible drift problem, but we left it alone.”

The celebration of imperfection on Immolate Yourself was also manifest in tape distortion and audible hiss— elements that were considered part of the sound rather than shortcomings of the analog medium.

“During the mix, the meters were buried in the red most of the time— except for quiet passages where we were trying to keep dynamics alive in the song,” says Eustis. “We weren’t going for loud tracks—I would print my master 2dB or 3dB below maximum levels—we just wanted the sound of analog tape being completely mauled. In addition, we mixed to 1/4" tape at 15ips—which is a weird, silly thing for electronic music. Our audiophile friends were saying, ‘You should have done it on 1/2" tape at 30ips.’ We didn’t use more modern Quantegy GP9 tape either, because we liked the ancient-sounding characteristics of Ampex 456 tape. To go even more lo-fi, we mixed ‘Worst Thing In The World’ at the insanely slow tape speed of 7-1/2ips. But we like the way these things sound. We like tape hiss.”

Expect tape to figure even more prominently on future TTA projects, as Eustis has recently acquired an Otari M-5050 1/2" 8-track machine.

“The previous record [Map of What Is Effortless] was done entirely on a laptop and a Digidesign Digi 001, and it was perfectly clean,” he says. “We went as far as we could with the ‘clean digital sound.’ Now we want to see what we can do with dirt, and how can we turn it into a beautiful thing.”

As this issue went to press, EQ learned that Charlie Cooper passed away. Eustis released a comment shortly thereafter, including these words: “Aside from Charlie’s singular genius and musical gifts, I can tell you that he was a total sweetheart of a guy, and a loving friend and confidant to people everywhere. His musicianship was surpassed only by his greater gift to the world—his warmth, his generosity, his unquenchable humor, and his undying loyalty to those whom he loved.”

TTA Tools

Console 1983 Neotek Series II
DAW Pro Tools HD
Mics Soundelux U195, Neumann TLM103
Preamps/EQs John Hardy Company M-1, Universal Audio Solo/610, Drawmer 1960, API 550B
Monitors Yamaha NS-10Ms, Grado RS1 headphones
Synths ARP Omni and Soloist, Dave Smith Revolver, Oberheim Expander and Matrix 6, Prophet VS, Roland RS-09 and Jupiter 6, Yamaha DX7