An Interview With: Barry Sutton (Observer/Waves of Noise)

An Interview With: Barry Sutton (Observer/Waves of Noise)

Name: Barry Sutton

What artist name do you play under?

I think if I started to publish music I’d be going by Observer. Any random work that I’ve done currently is under wavesofnoise on Instagram, but I’ve been working on starting up a platform for music services under Observer Sounds. I just haven’t launched it yet. The whole virus thing kind of threw me for a loop as well as some of my friends I was collaborating with on the site. So we’ll see when that gets up and running.

Where are you from/based?

I’m born and raised in California. I’ve spent a month and a half in NYC and 9 months in Utah. Both of which were interesting experiences in their own way.

Genre(s):

I usually start off with something experimental and then adapt it into a more specific genre. I primarily work as a mix engineer and have done production for Indie Pop, Electronica, and Hip-Hop. I’ve mixed classical, indie rock, rock and roll, metal, rap, hip-hop, electronic music, and more. In terms of actually making music though, I really like finding a specific tone or pattern and working with that until it evolves into something. However, I don’t really evolve it into what I would consider a full song. Getting into my education and background might open up some clarity for my creative influences.

How long have you been building your modular setup?

I got my first two synths in late 2016 or early 2017. I bought my first semi-modular in late 2017 early 2018 and fell in love. I’m now up to a 6U 104HP system. I think my dream goal is to eventually work my way into a fully CV controllable effects rack. That way I can use CV from aftertouch and other sources to modulate effects processing in analog and digital outboard modules. If that makes sense.

What is your current hardware setup and what couldn’t you live without?

I’m running all my software off of a 2016 Macbook Pro connected to a display. I have an Apogee Quartet as an audio interface, but recently inherited a TEAC 3340s and have been using that as a pseudo-8 channel mixer that then sums down to 4 outputs that connect to my quartet. It’s fun for getting analog distortion on the preamps of the tape machine. It also allows me to route audio out from my computer and into the reel to reel for recording easily. I then have my Korg Minilogue, modular case, Teenage Engineering, OP-1, Moog Mother-32, Make Noise 0 Coast, and other gear (bass guitar, Zoom H6, etc.) that I swap out into the inputs sometimes. I also have a telephone microphone that I handwired.

As for gear that I couldn’t live without? I guess this is tricky because I’ve set myself up for two scenarios. One, I can get by with just my laptop, headphones, and external drive. Two, I can work on modular without needing a DAW. I wanted to make sure I could run a full setup from home, but also have the flexibility to work on the road too. I have a second portable modular case and have set that up to carry around in my backpack with a battery pack, OP-1 as a MIDI controller and sampler, and my Zoom H6 as a portable recorder/mixer. The really lazy answer for me would be my laptop. However I think I could maybe even do sound design running off of strictly the Zoom H6, Make Noise Morphagene, and Mutable Instruments Clouds.

In short, deciding what gear I couldn’t live without is really tough. I can tell you what I could do without and get by with, as a bare minimum. Then there’s gear that I can’t live without for a specific job. Mixing, sound design, music, etc. Anyway, I could probably write a page of rambling about all of that.

What’s in your portable backpack rack?

So now I have some different gear from when I had the portable rig. Some stuff has also had updates. I’d probably rearrange it with Squarp Hermod and Morphagene right where they are. I’d take out the entire bottom row. I’ve realized I don’t like the Mutable Instruments Elements too much. Now I have Clouds and Rings from them and it does everything and more that I could want from Elements. So I’d put my Moog Mother-32, Mutable Instruments Plaits and Clouds in the bottom row.

In short, top row would be Squarp Hermod, Make Noise Morphagene, Bastl (not sure what it’s called actually, saw wave VCO), Mutable Instruments Rings, Intellijel Plonk, and Bastl ABC. Bottom row would be Mutable Instruments Plaits and Clouds and Moog Mother-32 with OP-1 as MIDI input and a sample source for Morphagene/Clouds. Maybe put Plonk and Plaits next to each other since they can be used as drum voices.

What’s been your favourite memory from working at the studio?

Honestly I had a couple of nights there just by myself and I just really enjoyed getting to experiment with various patches. Discovering some creative signal flow between microphones, outboard gear, the two consoles (one Neve and one SSL), and so on. It was a tremendous learning experience that I don’t think I would have had if I was working strictly with a client. I believe it will allow me to give some experimental recommendations on how to record or how to process sound for some distinct and unique effects.

Other than that, I would say we had this musician fly in from Uganda and working with him was amazing. Very talented, but an introduction to a style of music and a mentality that I hadn’t really experienced or even really seen before.

What gear do you regret buying?

I can’t even say I regret buying it, but I’d have to say my least utilized piece of equipment is the Mutable Instruments Elements. It’s a full modal synthesizer that uses elements of blown instruments, bowed instruments, and mallet/struck type instruments. It also has a resonator chamber which can be used to effect panning, general envelope, and reverb as well as the resonance of the reverb as if it was a filter. It’s great in concept, but I’ve found a hard time finding a way to repeat and develop a usable sound. I guess to an extent I don’t find it reliable. However, with all that said, it has the capacity to generate some very unique and beautiful sounds.

Outside of that I’d like to get a second audio interface because I’m finding the Apogee Quartet to finally be limiting to what I want to be doing. Something with more I/O flexibility.

What is your musical background and how did you end up here?

My journey to music has been comical. My first musical experience must have been around the age of 5 or so. I think my mom rented a violin for me. She herself is a flautist, which I cannot stand the instrument in a classical setting anymore due to growing up listening to it in rehearsal as a child. With the violin I only got as far as popping open the case, finding the bow, and dragging it across the strings while it was still in the case. I decided pretty quickly that violin wasn’t for me, which was admittedly just a bad decision as I’d love to know a string instrument now. 

Somewhere along growing up with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Fantasia I fell in love with basson. Ask me why, I have no idea, but I have some fascination with it. I was upset in fourth grade when I realized no one could teach me bassoon, the one instrument that I wanted to learn. I was told my alternatives were saxophone or clarinet and that they were the closest thing to learning bassoon that was offered at the school I was at. So in fourth grade I picked up a saxophone and still have the same saxophone I had from elementary school. In eighth grade, I finally was able to play bassoon and start lessons. 

In high school I started playing in a jazz band, marching band, and concert band, but I really struggled. Timing is an issue for me and always has been in regards to marching. I didn’t understand swing time for jazz band. I’d argue the biggest issue in my high school music career was I didn’t know why music theory was even relevant. My music teacher in high school was a choir teacher who didn’t know how to play instruments and didn’t understand key transposition. Any questions about how an Eb Baritone Saxophone was supposed to read music for Bb Bass Trombone since there was no technical part for my instrument was deferred to the section leader. The best explanation at the time was “Just add x flats to the key signature.” I didn’t understand the rule as to why and I think that put me off. I have to understand why something is done. 

As I got closer to my senior year of high school I joined a community college band. The only other bassoon player in the band was actually the man that had been giving me lessons since 8th grade, Dr. Lee. Needless to say that was intimidating to actually have to perform next to the person who you had been lying about practicing to.

I ended up moving to Utah during all of this because despite my time spent with music I wanted to pursue steps to become a Neurologist. I grew up having a series of medical conditions and psychology was too soft of a science to me to define why the human body and human mind did what it did. I wanted to better understand what the human body did on a cellular level and not an event based level. The plan to Utah was a failed one. 

I returned back home to California and pursued a biology/nursing degree at the local community college. Unfortunately, I’ve always tested a bit borderline to ADD/ADHD and can’t really sit in classroom settings. I do much better sitting at home bouncing between a mix, reading up on circuitry, experimenting with tape, reading up on world events, and grasping concepts of physics than I do being a classroom dedicated to chemistry or biology. Even in my eventual choice of Audio Recording as a major, I never did well with sitting in a classroom. So with biology as a major, I needed to pull up my grades. I took Intro To MIDI Technology and Intro To Sound Recording/Mixing as two elective classes to bring my grade up and take myself off of academic probation. I then took the followup courses the next semester which were Intro To Electronic Music and some variation on the Intro To Recording, but more aimed at microphone techniques. I then started taking music theory. 

I would single handedly argue that music theory on its own is what opened my world in music. I’ve always had a mathematical mind and seeing this network of numbers and rules laid out for this thing that I had experienced most of my life was a revelation. I took all four semesters of music theory that were available to me as elective courses. For me it was fun. I still struggled sitting in a classroom, but auditorily understanding everything that was going on in music became fascinating. Around this time I started taking piano lessons because I wanted to better understand the instrument. This presented a new struggle for me.

Due to transposition in music as well as instruments having the clefs they do for the range they play, I had a really bizarre translation problem with the piano. I saw treble clef in alto sax finger position. An A in treble clef is 1 and 2 on the left hand (index and middle). In that same space on bass clef for bassoon you are looking at C which on bassoon is fingers 1, 2, and 3 (Those two instruments at least rely on some level of numbering system to identify fingers, hence the numbers I’m listing off). So if I saw an ACEG chord starting at the top of bass clef, hitting middle C, and then moving to treble clef, I had to take 2 steps to understand hand placement on the piano keys. The first was thinking “1, 2, 3, 1, 2… 1, 2, 3… 1, 2, 3, 1, 2… 1, 2, 3” which correlates to the finger positions going from bassoon to saxophone. I couldn’t identify the key on the piano for the longest time and I could not tell you at what point I broke that translation barrier. 

The major shift in my decision to stray away from medicine isn’t necessarily one I’m too proud of. The fact was my parents were covering my education. However, throughout high school I had medical issues that led to me almost dropping out. Severe insomnia, sleep apnea, and some other various concerns. Eventually in my long time making the decision on my career goal, my dad retired. I had to make a decision between paying my way through medical school for another 8 years at a very high rate in the states or my (at the time) new found realization that I had a fascination in music. Before it was just something to do. Now with mathematics being incorporated and patterns and sequences emerging, music had a whole new meaning. So I shifted to pursuing a performance degree. My audition piece was supposed to be Telemann’s Sonata in F minor for Bassoon.

Somewhere in this I realized I was 2 classes away from finishing a Certificate of Sound Technology and that I had a massive fear of being entirely dependent on performing when I didn’t actually enjoy practicing. I also realized I need something scientific in my life. I’m the son of a musician and an electronics engineer. I’m mentally wired for both. So I started to pursue a degree in Audio Recording. In other words, I wanted an education focused more on studio work and working with other musicians. 

I initially got a job at a fine dining restaurant as a barista that paid exceptionally well for what it was. I had very little to no bills at the time and was taking the money and folding it into a plan to save for college across two years. I also at the time invested in music hardware which opened my adventure into synthesis. I already had a Native Instruments S88 and a Maschine Studio, but I wanted to understand the difference between an analog synth and a digital synth so I invested in the Korg Minilogue and Teenage Engineering OP-1. Those have been with me since. 

Then, April 17th, 2017 my grandmother passed away. We all knew it was coming and we all had our time to say goodbyes, but it led to a discussion that strayed away from my plan for working 2 years and building up savings. My mom approached me about the idea of a blank check to go to school and I couldn’t exactly say no. I applied to colleges and got into California State University Dominguez Hills which has two studios on campus and goes between recording and mixing education to also discussing synthesis, production for film, sound design, maintenance in the studio, and more. It was a fairly well rounded program discussing a lot of aspects of the industry.

In Fall of 2017 I bought my first semi-modular pieces of hardware, the Moog Mother-32 and Make Noise 0-Coast. I believe my fascination with synthesis comes from a cassette that I grew up with of Tangerine Dream’s Force Majeure (https://open.spotify.com/album/3Fwvk0okeHHvxT5s90mK8T?si=nNsuLRfZR8m71dXraH2qzA). I had a rave phase in 2009-2012, but I think at the end of the day I grew up with some odd selections of music. Tangerine Dream, a lot of 80s greats, classical, classic rock, and a complete lack of radio top 40 as a child due to a perception of too much vulgarity. Anyway, the reason I invested in semimodular outside of general synthesis interest is because I have a goal to build my own. Part of my current time in quarantine is going to be reading up on circuitry and gaining basic understandings of how to build the synthesis sections that I need (Voltage Control Oscillator, Filter, Amplifier, etc.). It also sent me down an addictive wormhole of modular synthesis. So now I own that case I mentioned before as well as the Moog Mother-32 and Make Noise 0-Coast. It’s also helped me get more in touch with just making sound and samples for people. 

My education included demonstrating knowledge of console layout and signal flow, file encoding, sound design for films and animation, synthesis, Adobe Creative Suite, studio maintenance, mixing and mastering, and finally for senior project recording a 12 track album and finishing the semester with a redbook standard CD which I did mixing and mastering on and still work with the band members from time to time. 

Since graduating, I struggled a bit trying to find work. I knew I wanted to focus on more studio work, but one of the things at least in the Los Angeles area (and I believe majority of studios in the states) is this idea that you have to start from the ground up. Even with a college degree and 150 hours of interning at a studio there’s not much beyond entry level work that you qualify for and even then it’s a situation of “You have to know someone.” Well, I did know someone but the situation was strange. Back when I was researching one of my modules I went to a shop in Santa Monica called Analogue Haven. This guy comes in with this beautiful custom made case, but he didn’t come off as your usual synth nerd type. I believe he asked a question that the guy at the store didn’t know the answer to but I did so I chimed in and we started talking. Turns out he’s in the audio industry and while he typically does sound mixing for television he works at a studio. Turns out he owns a studio and he gave me the wrong information about it. I didn’t try reaching out to him until months after graduating when I initially met him about a year before. I finally found him on Instagram and sent him a message because I had no other way to contact him or verify that the studio that was in another city was actually the one he meant. I also didn’t want to drive an hour in LA traffic just to find out no one was there. So about a month after messaging him he replies and invites me over. I started working there technically as an intern. I was helping initially with organizing production equipment and putting together production kits for travel to other states and countries and learning the various gear. I’ve helped out on a couple of short films here and there as a boom op. I ended up getting introduced to the other owner of the business who is more in the tech side of the studio and has helped build multiple studios to my understanding. So for the last 7 months I’ve been helping with studio maintenance, console diagnostics, mix engineering, production, record engineering for a podcast, and more that I can’t think of. However, by the owner that hired me I’m just an intern and it wasn’t until February 19th, 2020 that I realized he never read the resume that I gave him. We had a call where he made a comment suggesting that if I knew Pro Tools that he would love to bring me in as a mix engineer. The other owner had been bringing me in as a mix engineer for months. So I very respectfully told him, “Hey, I don’t mean this to be rude, but the only time we’ve talked about my Pro Tools experience is in regards to Post-Production, which you’re correct, I’m not experienced. However, I’ve recorded multiple albums and various singles in Pro Tools and mixed and mastered them using a combination of plugins and hardware. I’m fairly comfortable with my abilities as a mix engineer. I’ve even run sessions at your studio for you while the other owner was overseeing.” His response was just, “Oh.” Unfortunately, this call was the day before leaving for an international television recording and by the time he came back we’ve all been in lockdown for COVID-19. So I have no idea where things stand at the studio that I’m at, but I have my own key and can run the place on my own if I had to. At this point I’m refining my portfolio and getting ready to try my luck in the world of freelancing and if I can make it doing that, then I’ll continue working freelance until I can get hired at a studio that will pay me what I believe I’m worth.

PS: I had a brief stint in high school working illegally as an event DJ at bars when I was 16.

What are your main goals for 2020?

Survive, first and foremost. I really am not expecting any of the health crisis to resolve until some form of medication or vaccine is tested and made available. Otherwise we’re going to open up and it’s just going to be a matter of time before a second wave and another round of isolation. On a more positive note though, I would say I’d like to refine my workflow with clients and work on some of my own music. I think I’m finally getting to a point where I’m finally loosening up on being my own worst critic. I’ve been a perfectionist to a point where I’ve put projects on hold just so I can absolutely make certain that I get the image in my head into speakers. I’d definitely say it’s a strength and weakness depending on situation. I have a flute quartet that I recorded for my mom that’s probably from over a year ago now and I’m just now sitting down to do all of the edits because I didn’t have the software I specifically wanted for the project (RX7 Advanced).

What is your main platform for promotion and why?

Just talking to people in general. Instagram I suppose because I think it’s just simpler to approach people and socialize about… anything really. I get into conversations with strangers at coffee shops all the time because everyone has such fascinating stories about their lives and I think talking to more and more people gives a better understanding of the human condition.

How often do you post and how do you know when a piece of music is ready to share?

Stories are sporadic. Maybe 2 a week at best? And my current account is really just a jumble of photos I’ve taken that I just like and then music projects. I only recently made that account public because I knew I wasn’t going to have my business account ready any time soon.

What gear is on your wish list right now?

Oh this is a tough one. I’ve been eyeing the Expert Sleepers ES-9 because it would give me more audio control in my recordings, but would also allow me to use Ableton’s CV Tools or Reaktor’s Block system to send CV information to the output ports while staying synchronized over optical with my Quartet. I’ve also been eyeing Endorphin.es Blck_Noir because I want to improve my drum layout in my modular. I currently have Intellijel Plonk. Plaits, and Morphagene that I can technically use as various drum voices, but that’s a lot of gate and CV controls to be occupied just to make a drum beat. So I guess at that point Pamela’s New Workout would be great from Busy Circuits.

Outside of modular I’ve been wanting to get contact microphones for some sound design experiments as well as a stereo pair of AKG C414 mics or a Sennheiser AMBEO VR microphone for some other sound design experiments as well as just some lovely recordings. I probably need a new computer, but I’ll keep being in denial about that.

Who are you listening to at the moment?Caribou, Nine Inch Nails, Jerry Paper, Dirty Projectors, Deru, Moses Sumney, Andrew Bird, Lorn, Sylvan Esso, Crumb, Khruangbin, James Blake, Loving, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Tobacco, Perfume Genius, Rubblebucket and Tyler, The Creator

Honestly a lot more, but this has been my heavy rotation lately.

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