Interview: Damian Taylor on Working With Björk, The Killers, Arcade Fire, Gotye

Björk, Prodigy, Guy Sigsworth, The Killers, Arcade Fire, Gotye are amongst Damian Taylor's credits and collaborations to date. He sat down with AskAudio Mag to chat about all things tech and more.  

How did you get started on your musical journey?

I had played instruments from a young age, but when I was 15/16 I spent two years messing around in my bedroom with a 4-track, and that got me really into the process of production rather than being a musician. After finishing school in New Zealand, I did an 18 month part-time course at SAE. I was very lucky because I found a local freelance engineer who let me hang out on his sessions. I'd just sit in the corner and shut up, but it was enough to see what was going on. At that time I started really getting into electronic and sample-based music and I realized the benefit of having a British passport, which led me to moving to London when I was 19. 

My dream was to go to London and assist at Strongroom or Abbey Road but neither would have me so I ended up working in a little studio in Brixton which was actually a brilliant fluke. It was an owner-operated place so he normally did all the engineering, but he was really bored and two hours into my first day he just shrugged, got up and walked out of the room and left me to it! So, I had a year there where I'd engineer any session that came through the door. 

It was like an old-school studio situation where there'd be a lot of different things coming through, it gave me a chance to work on a ton of different stuff, make a lot of mistakes, and learn a lot. The cool thing with that studio was it was very well equipped with a 2” 24-track studer, 48-channel Amek console, 48 tracks of ADAT and a 16-channel Pro Tools system, plus a ton of outboard.

"The first thing we did for Björk together was a remix of All is Full of Love."

And you met Guy Sigsworth through assisting Michael Ade for Jansen Barbieri and Karn there?

Yes, Michael mixed a Jansen Barbieri and Karn album there, which was the one session where I got to assist a "proper" engineer! I wound up doing a bunch of Pro Tools editing for them too. Later, Guy told Michael that he was looking for somewhere cheap to mess around with some ideas in Pro Tools with someone who was good... So, Guy came in, we got on really well, and he booked me for his sessions after that. After our initial session I worked with him at Olympic studios - which was mind blowing for me - then at Strongroom. We worked with U.N.K.L.E. on a couple of sessions which led to many years of me collaborating with them. This is also how I ended up working with Björk - by programming and engineering for Guy on the early stages of Vespertine. I had just turned 21.

Damian engrossed in his next big big project...

Damian engrossed in his next big big project...

Was Guy already working with Björk at the time you both met?

Yes, he had been Björk's musical director for her first two album tours (“Debut” & “Post”) and he wrote with her on Homogenic which had come out the year before. The first thing we did for Björk together was a remix of “All is Full of Love”. At that point she was working on the film Dance in the Dark so Guy would go fly to Denmark where she was filming. She had a setup with Valgeir Sigurðsson as her engineer. Guy would go over and they'd throw a lot of ideas around, mostly live with him playing celesta. Then he'd come back to London where we'd mess around with the takes. Some became songs on Vespertine

The other brilliant thing was Guy agreed to get a programming room at Strongroom. That's where I met a lot of people who became pivotal in my life. It was interesting times because Digidesign had just released the MIX Plus Pro Tools system - the first one with half-decent DSP. You could suddenly have 64 tracks of audio and run enough plug-ins to not need a console and outboard. We had one of the first MIX Plus systems in the country. 

Guy and I had an almost punk rock approach. We were proud of the fact we had very little gear, however we were making fantastically complex stuff with it. Guy still had his Atari laptop, Akai Sampler, Vintage Keys and a JD-800, but he'd only use those to make a musical phrase to put straight into Pro Tools. So we did everything by chopping and pitching audio in Pro Tools. 

"Guy and I had an almost punk rock approach, we were proud of the fact we had very little gear, however we were making fantastically complex stuff with it." 

After hanging out with a bunch of different producers and engineers coming through Strongroom, I got this reputation as being some crazy young kid doing mad shit on computers, I guess this differentiated me from the crowd. The first day there, I met Neil McLellan who I ended up doing a ton of programming and editing for while he mixes. We became a ninja mix team as well as incredibly close friends. He eventually brought me in on The Prodigy, having been with them since their early days. Strongroom is also where I met Adrian Bushby, a brilliant engineer who I was lucky to work with on a lot of different projects. So many great people passed through there, and that's where a lot of early significant relationships were made.

What was the dynamic like with Guy when you worked together?

The more I look back on it, the more I realize how lucky I was! He is an absolute genius and visionary. I met him at a time when he had all these amazing and quite detailed ideas, but he didn't know how to implement them yet. He was already a very gifted programmer, but coming out of the MIDI school, however he had a vision for what could be done with direct audio manipulation. He really empowered me and encouraged me to experiment, to push the envelope. The couple of years we were working together we were constantly experimenting and trying to shred things up in a million and one ways, it was great.

He would have an idea such as making buzz drum rolls to be pitched to specific notes. I worked out a mathematical formula for this: figure out the note, find the frequency in Hz, adjust the tempo in Pro Tools, repeatedly duplicated the drum on 64th triplets, consolidated the duplicates into one file. Then when you put Pro Tools back to the original tempo you'd have that pitched buzz drum note thing. Guy was also my university: every time we sat down for dinner, he'd give a lecture on something about music.

"In terms of recording vocals, Björk's very keen on capturing her first performances and mostly prefers to sing with a handheld SM58 with the speakers on, and no headphones."

Björk's vocals are pretty unique and have a different range than most vocalists. What techniques did you use when recording her while still being able to capture her essence? And how was the production process?

I think the biggest thing to say about Björk is that she's completely a law unto herself. She's completely her own producer and visionary and her process is totally unlike any other situation I've been in. On Volta and Biophilia I was with her right from the start to the end of the albums, including while she wrote. I took the approach that I'd be as transparent as possible to give her headspace while she was working through things herself, but if she needed something I'd be able to jump in and deliver the maximum for her.

From inside the vocal booth at Damian's Montreal studio.

The view from inside the vocal booth at Damian's Montreal studio.

In terms of recording her vocals, she's very keen on capturing her first performances and mostly prefers to sing with a handheld SM58 with the speakers on, and no headphones. There's a few things you learn in that situation. The biggest is that having one setting on the recording chain just doesn't work because her dynamic range is enormous! It's not just her range in pitch that is very big, as many people think, it's her dynamic and tonal ranges that are insane in a very good way!

So, because we'd record together in the same room I became very tuned in to what she was doing. If she was breathing in a certain way I'd have a sense for how she was going to come in and ride the gain accordingly. I kept a compressor set as a ceiling and would ride the mic pre gain to keep levels just below it. I would never have any kind of heavy compression when we were recording. A lot of times when she was singing, the production would not yet exist - the song could go through a lot of incarnations before she found the right presentation. So minimizing spill and recording transparently was important - this led to me really loving the Focusrite ISA Producer Pack as an input channel, it has character but isn't too pushy with a specific color. When she records on an SM58 she does it in a live style; it's right up to her lips and therefore you have some crazy proximity effects going on which can be a challenge later down the line. 

On some songs that were really delicate, she uses this gorgeous handmade NU-47mic made by Martin Kantola. It's hyper detailed, beautiful. But it almost became more stressful to record on that than to do it with an SM58, especially in some of the makeshift studios with a lot of ambient noise, headphones being back on, etc. 

On Biophilia, she wanted the mix to sound "unmixed". Kind of like a Zen Koan. On a practical level though, mixing her vocals wound up being about finding a way to work with proximity effect, controlling that without it becoming thin or over-processed, and I wound up riding a ton of individual syllables into a tiny bit of compression to get a bit more character while avoiding having certain notes squash out into nothing.

Technology, and these Lemur's in particular, are a big part of Damian Taylor's life.

Technology, and these Lemur's in particular, are a big part of Damian Taylor's life.

You also used Reactable on Björk's live shows. Tell us more.

By the time we packed up to go on tour I'd only had an hour or so actually playing the Reactable. Luckily, it's really intuitive to use, and I totally understood what the functions of all the blocks were. At first we used it during loud songs as a chaos and noise machine, nothing too precise. The song “Declare Independence” is a good example... I'd just throw stuff on it when there was a point that we needed builds or dynamics. 

The challenge and the genius of the Reactable was that I never quite knew what it was going to do. When you first throw your blocks on there, you never quite know what sound or pitch would come out of it. It's the complete opposite of sitting down at a piano and playing a C major chord that is repeatable every time. But this really suited that tour because it was all about boisterous spontaneous energy. 

As the tour progressed we started using it on more songs and that's when I started using more of the sample playback functionality. For example, I figured out how to play “Desired Constellation” completely on the Reactable. I asked Björk what she thought and it became our little duet in the set. That was a precious moment.

Playing Reactable and Lemurs live really blew my mind; it's such a different way of interacting with music and technology than traditional methods. I felt like it opened up different channels in my brain because you can be physical with it. It's not an intellectual process like clicking things on your screen or setting up a console.

"OSC is definitely a step forward as a protocol and I love it. MIDI is always going to be good though, MIDI out to MIDI in: It's hard to screw it up!"

After Reactable, I believe you got into using Max/MSP, what were you looking to create?

Soon after Björk had told us the concept for her next album was nature and musical patterns, I downloaded Max/MSP and began going through the tutorials. It's pretty intense as you're in essence learning another language; which just happens to be a graphical, computer-based programming one. But from the moment you first manage to make something work it's the most 'eureka' feeling you can imagine and it becomes quite addictive. 

I think Björk is always looking to do something different and she enjoys the feeling of exploration in music, which ties in with why she likes keeping her first takes when singing a song. She told me there's just something about that energy when you're discovering what a song is while you're singing it. Max/MSP let me create totally new tools for her to use and explore.

The first significant milestone was when I started messing with one of the Max/MSP tutorials that showed how to hack a video game controller - I got this plumbed into one of Mark Bell's MIDI processing chains in Ableton Live. Björk made “Dark Matter” using this system. The version on the album is literally her first take, pre-lyrics, vocals and music together. She then used Melodyne to create harmonies from duplicates of her live take. 

He's a bit of a genius with Max/MSP!

He's a bit of a genius with Max/MSP!

When we were touring I knew the Lemurs were amazingly next level but felt I was only using 5% of their capabilities, just via standard midi mapping. I wanted to learn how to use bi-directional OSC, where you can send messages from the computer to the Lemur and vice versa. Eventually, I figured it out so you could watch your melodies stepping across the screen and much more. It made it hugely interactive. When I really got this rocking I brought my first proper self-contained Max/MSP and Lemur system to the studio, which Björk used to write “Solstice”. I started doing other things like combining the game controller with the Lemur and Max/MSP and it grew from there.

Do you feel OSC is the next step forward for controllers after MIDI?

OSC is definitely a step forward as a protocol and I love it. MIDI is always going to be good though, MIDI out to MIDI in: It's hard to screw it up! OSC has immense depth and power but that can lead to a lot more complexity so you have to invest the time to learn it. It's really brilliant if you can totally customize your own setup rather than just wanting something prefab out of the box. If you're trying to play a gig with a few nice piano or synth sounds, then MIDI is the way to go. 

I still find the whole way of interacting with computers and controllers a bit unreliable and messy. But, still by the end of our Biophillia sessions, I had four Lemurs, two video game controllers, two computers, an Arduino connected to lights and sensors, all networked up with OSC which was mind-blowing. But to get them working reliably I had to figure out the right way to switch things on, what had to be active for something else to handshake with it - so when Björk said she wanted to sing that day, I'd be like the flight crew on an airplane with all my systems checks to get it running.

For me personally, modular synthesis is my next step forward. After spending all this time with complex data flows and different devices all talking together to give you something controllable, I'm keen to just have a damn knob that is connected to an actual potentiometer that messes with voltages. It's kind of like a physical version of Max/MSP for me!

Is Ableton Live your main DAW?

I still use Pro Tools as my main production platform. But if I do a writing session or play a gig, I love using Live. There was a phase in 2005 when I was working with Adam Freeland, I'd co-produced and co-written his first album. We used Live for chopping up samples and it was brilliant. I really love Live for that kind of music - beats and samples. But when you've got 64 tracks of backing vocals and a full multi-mic drum kit and a strings section and all that, then I hop back into Pro Tools pretty quickly. They're just very different but both brilliant.

"When I was working with U.N.K.L.E. we used to love sampling synths off vinyl. That was until I got a Korg MS-20 which blew me away."

In terms of the hardware and software in your studio what do you reach for most?

If I'm mixing, Universal Audio (real and virtual) is where it's at for me. I'll use a lot of UA stuff for character injection. So many different colors I'll use depending on the song, voice or sound. Recording wise I have a ton of DIY stuff that I've made, plus as mentioned I love Focusrite's ISA stuff.

A Live session Damian was working on when we interrupted him!

A Live session Damian was working on when we interrupted him!

On a virtual instrument level, Pro Tools is still struggling and I additionally have a love/hate relationship with soft synths. I've always been into live performances or sampled sounds - same thing really! When I was working with U.N.K.L.E. we used to love sampling synths off vinyl, I don't know if we actually used a synth for years. That was until I got a Korg MS-20 which blew me away. Now I really like analog mono synths combined with stuff from the computer, you can layer things up nicely. But increasingly I'm finding more and more use for a lot of different keyboards and VIs because it's more about the combination of sounds and colors, rather than making an entire piece with the same texture. FXpansion have some great synths, I've been getting into Synth Squad recently.

I'm evangelical about Dave Gamble's EQ, DMG EQuality. I mostly use it in subtractive mode and it's cheap as chips, something like €90. The user interface is brilliant, it's sonically transparent in the right way yet you can get very creative with it because the filters are amazingly versatile, plus the high and low shelves can go through the entire audio spectrum. Most vocal channels will have it in my mixes. I also love Ohm Force and I started using their stuff in 2001. I still use their phaser a lot and they make some crazy stuff. 

I love some of the bass drums from Heavyocity's Damage, which despite being designed for destructive, dark soundscapes, I like to use on pretty songs. Some of their more orchestral percussion is great when layered with 808s. I've just started playing around with AEON which I find useful for melodic layering, there's a very nice feeling of depth and organic air.

With many synths and sample libraries available, how do you make these sounds your own?

Early on I realized that your own voice in your own acoustic space is something nobody else would have. If you record something yourself in the context of programmed music, you'll have a little thumb print in your track that's unique, that's your own. Even if it's super subtle, it's unique to you.

Taking a breather, Damian Taylor recounts how he's been blown away by Heavyocity's AEON collection.

Taking a breather, Damian Taylor recounts how he's been blown away by Heavyocity's AEON collection.

What are your thoughts on iPad as a non-tactile, touch interface and its music making ability?

To be honest, I'm yet to fall in love with iPad though I love the concept of it. Liine's Lemur is available for iPad and playing the iPad feels completely different from playing a Lemur. Having said that, I have two iPads to run Lemur on because you can put them in a backpack and carry them around really easily! Still, I've got big hands, and with all these detailed user interfaces I find I can't see what the hell is going on as soon as I press a few things.

But the struggle is simply that I have a hard time connecting it reliably to the rest of my studio. It's the whole tech time investment conundrum. I think if I set aside a week to really go deep then I'd appreciate them more and would have figured out a preflight procedure to get them working happily. We'll see how it goes...

When we first got the Lemurs I thought I'd much rather have a hardware fader. But what I found out was if I laid stuff out in a way that worked well (basically, making the controls really big) then I came to love it and learned how to play them in their own way. After a while I realized I was playing them in ways that would be impossible with a physical fader. So it's best to find out the strengths of any new technology, rather than expecting it to imitate something you already use and know.

"The Killers album was a totally different experience for me as well, they love writing these big songs in a totally different way to any other artist I've worked with, so getting on that wavelength was rad."

You've done a lot of work with The Killers and also Arcade Fire, who are also here in Montreal.

Yes, that was a dream come true on both fronts. I was a huge fan of Arcade Fire from their first album and they're the sweetest bunch of people you've ever met. They had a huge impact in introducing me to the city of Montreal, and when they asked me to do the remixes for “Sprawl II” and “Ready To Start”, I was delighted. It was an amazing experience. 

They first gave me the third section of “Ready to Start” and asked me to make something like a version of the classic 12” mixes from the 80s, like the New Order B-sides, extended versions. Their brief was to only use what's on the multitrack, do whatever I want with it but to make them sound completely different. Their sound is always about a billion people playing at once which turns into this warm wall of loveliness. So I thought it'd be cool for the beats and bass to be really banging, really, really loud with individual instruments tripped out over the top, very spacious, and they liked the approach.

The Killers album was a totally different experience for me as well, they love writing these big songs in a totally different way to any other artist I've worked with, so getting on that wavelength was rad. Spending a lot of time in Las Vegas and beginning to experience it from "the local side" was quite an experience. I hope we get to do another record together, I feel like we had so much territory left to explore and a lot of potential left to tap.

Damian's studio contains some wonderful hardware!

Damian's studio contains some wonderful hardware!

What are you working on at the moment?

Since last summer I've had a ton of different stuff coming through. A lot of these are shorter sessions or people popping in to mix a few tracks or an album. I've been doing a lot of vocal sessions, with Arcade Fire, Austra, and Owen Pallett for each of their albums. I just had a great Aussie month; Gotye came by here to just try out different things, and Architecture In Helsinki came up with Francois Tetaz producing to polish off some tracks. I'm about to start production for Kimbra who featured on Gotye's “Somebody That I Used to Know”. A lot of writing too which I can't really talk about until songs are confirmed.

How do you approach the odd day of downtime in your studio?

I'm constantly trying to find the perfect setup where everything is always plugged in and always ready to go. I got some new furniture, racks, and patchbays in at the end of last year, then this modular synth too. And today, believe it or not, I'm finishing building a tube microphone preamp! Downtime is all about preparation. Nothing wrong with spending a day online trying to figure out something that could positively impact your workflow, or finding a different way to coil all your cables, or rearrange your sample library.

"I scare myself sometimes because I might procrastinate for 6 hours, but it's worth it when in the 7th hour you sit down fresh and something brilliant happens."

Sounds like an intelligent way to recharge your creative batteries.

Exactly. Something Björk taught me is when she felt she'd heard a track enough, she wouldn't listen to it for say two weeks. As soon as you become too familiar with what's coming out of the speakers then your perspective on it is going to be completely different to everyone else's. It's not a hard and fast rule though. For example, I did a remix for Gotye which is probably one of my favorite remixes ever where I slept a total of 6 hours in four days of nonstop work. I was like a man possessed! But, the real benefit of having my own studio is being able to walk in and out.

There's a Quincy Jones quote I love, which is basically, 'leave enough space for God to enter the room.' You can take that in whichever theological or metaphysical framework you want. But simply, if you try and control the process too tightly, the music's not as good. Even though I might be in the studio stupid hours, I like to step back from music quite a lot. I scare myself sometimes because I might procrastinate for 6 hours, but it's worth it when in the 7th hour you sit down fresh and something brilliant happens.

During the production of a track, very often I'll go through five rough versions which lets me build things up and find what's not right. It's something I learned from Liam Howlett from the Prodigy - not being afraid to throw stuff away. He was ruthless, if there were core elements that weren't working, he'd bin it and start again from scratch. Yet, he was amazing at being able to keep the essence of an idea even though he'd entirely changed the music: that had a big impact on me. 

Letting the creative vibe come to him!

Letting the creative vibe come to him!

Are there any tips you'd give to the younger generations coming through?

Decide whether you want to be more artistically or studio leaning. If it's the later, then nothing takes the place of having experience with big multi-room facilities, which is tricky now because there's less and less of them! Applying to both again though, I've honed my advice down to this: Figure out where stuff is happening that really excites you and then move there and try and meet people. If you don't know where that is, then just do stuff with your friends right where you are.

In terms of chasing a production carer, I'd suggest that instead of taking the approach, 'I'm a fucking artist, and I'm gonna put my shit on your record.' Take the approach of, “I'll help out as much as I can as far as people will let me.' In my case I baked scones for people who let me sit in the corner of their session and when I actually got a job in the studio I swept the floor or whatever. Now, it's gone all the way to collaborating with people on songwriting, producing their music, mixing their records.

Patience is really important. But the good thing about this era is that home computers are really powerful so I'd just recommend making as much music as you possibly can. Especially now the traditional studio model is smaller than before, I'd suggest recording your friends and trying to produce your friends. It's all about having a network of people and doing as much as you can and trying to build up momentum that way. On a tech level, learn your stuff inside out so when you do get a big opportunity you go in and rock it! Watch old Kung Fu films and see if you can grasp the plot that underlies many of them about practice and being arrogant beyond your abilities and how that gets your arse kicked. 

"Make as much music as you possibly can. I'd suggest recording and producing your friends. It's all about having a network of people and trying to build up momentum that way."

I can't emphasis enough that relationships are a lot more important than technology. The tech should be transparent, though you need to know how to use it. Whether you can relate to and understand artists is going to ultimately make them want to either have you in the room, or not. Anyone can set up a compressor, but hardly anyone can really listen to an artist and get onboard with their vision.

The process of entering into an artist's personal world is so important. As a producer in the traditional sense, you're someone who facilitates an artist making their record. You shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the one thing you have on this album that nobody else has is the artist you're in the room with. So, make the most of that artist rather than trying to show off how clever you are. 

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More


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