Ask the Experts: Vladislav Delay - XLR8R

Ask the Experts: Vladislav Delay

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Over the past few months, Ask the Experts has quickly become one of our most popular series, probably because it gives our readers the chance to speak directly to some of their favorite artists. Even better, it affords them the chance to ask for a bit of insight or just solicit some advice. This month's edition features wise words from Finnish producer Vladislav Delay (a.k.a. Sasu Ripatti), who will soon be releasing Visa, his first ambient album in more than 10 years, via his own Ripatti imprint. While we usually expect our "experts" to answer just a handful of the questions submitted by our audience, Ripatti went the extra mile. He may not have answered them all, but he certainly answered a lot of questions, touching on his studio set-up, mixing and mastering techniques, the role of nature in his music, the difference between natural and urban environments, and much more. Those interested in his live set-up—and based on the inquiries we received, it seems like there are a lot of people in this category—should especially make sure to read all the way to the end, as Ripatti combined several of these questions and delivered an extended answer about how he approaches live performance.

How has your move to [the sparsely populated island of] Hailuoto changed your music/creation process?

I think that surroundings play a big role in creation, at least it does for me. We all are individuals and should challenge ourselves to find out what works for each of us, what are the real needs and requirements, etc.

I need space and solitude around me when creating, so I was looking for a place that would deliver that. Having found that, I think it has changed things quite a bit. Of course, work develops over time, but besides all that, I think the suitable surroundings have above all else allowed me to focus on my work and find out what it is I want to do and what that would sound like. When there's no external noise and pressure and advertising and trade talks and all that stuff, it's much easier to think without such incentives and distractions playing a role, thus [allowing you to go] more towards to your own self and needs and visions.

Also, when it's physically quiet around me, I find it's much more relaxing for the ears, which is important when one spends half a day in the studio using their ears. If they function well, it's easier to mix and master and so on. And I find it's easier to "listen/hear" inside what it is that I want to create when I don't have millions of [sounds] coming in all around me.

"Organic" is an adjective always related to your music. I think you have your own special relationship with nature and you enjoy and get inspired thanks to a tight contact with it. How do you feel about your relationship with the natural environment and its contrast with human/urban development and do you see it reflected in your music?
Thanks in advance.

I believe I'm in a little bit of conflict myself in regards to this issue. I don't pretend to be a nature person. I hardly survive there without tools. But I do like nature and animals a lot, it's a great inspiration. On the other hand, I have always had an urban side and I guess there's a huge amount of inspiration and input from having traveled around the world and seen all the cities and what they have to offer, what the Western world has to offer in general in consumerism and all that.

But there's a contrast between the urban and nature and maybe it's bigger than before or maybe I just see it more clearly now. In the end, it's a conflict/battle like anything else… but there's definitely a conflict of interest between urban development and nature. It's pretty obvious and hard to disguise anymore.

I think the contrast and distraction is around us and I very much find that not only an inspiration but the one main fundament you can't avoid. I guess I feed a bit from frustration and observing the problems and things that don't work. It's easier to see them in urban, man-made society than in nature. For now, I could not imagine living in complete solitude somewhere in the nothingness, though it's got a lot to do with having a daughter and wanting to do certain things with and for her.

But also, I doubt I'd have a need to make music—at least nowhere near as much—if I was surrounded by complete natural beauty. Personally, I find it hard to imagine interesting stuff being created from only positive experiences and comfortable surroundings. This urban Western world certainly provides the anger and the edge—it reaches me even though I live quite remotely already. But yes, ultimately it comes down to having the "best" of both worlds in my opinion and situation, which I admit is also a quite egoistic way to look at it. But I try to be quite selective on the urban side these days, and that seems to work better for me.

What is the difference between a well-finished song and a not well-finished song? What are the technical requirements for a well-produced track?
Moustache Artist

I can only talk about my own stuff; it used to be something I'd have to think about, but I've just now realized that I don't do that anymore. I guess it has become just an intuitive, feeling-based thing already, knowing when something I'm working towards feels right and is ready or not. It's never a technical thing though, but a musical thing, be it arrangement, rhythms, melodies, harmonies, or sometimes also sounds or such. Usually I find that if I end up working on a mix for a long time, technically speaking, there's usually something musical wrong you can't really fix technically.

I guess one of the things is that I have learned to know myself somewhat and what I can do and achieve musically and technically, and what I can not. I'm not [under the illusion] that I can make miracles happen and keep working at something far past the moment where extra work begins to be counterproductive, creatively speaking. Then again, if I know something will work eventually, I'm happy to keep at it for as long as it takes. I have some ideas here in the studio where I have made dozens of versions and I'm not happy with any of them. Usually, it means throwing most of [the work] away and trying to find another way to make the particular nice elements work, instead of changing any technical details.

It's pretty painful in the end though. Having to admit that while you know it could be done much better, you just can't do it better at that particular point, and [anything you can do will only take] very small steps towards [making it] better, with each one taking a lot of work. I can't really put it more simply, but I will just say it's extremely hard to control audio technically, nevermind putting emotion on top of it. At least I struggle a lot with all that, constantly.

What do you think is most crucial when creating music and a body of work, music theory or technical knowledge? When you decided to start making music, from where did you decide to begin and acquire knowledge?

I very much think music should be the focus, not the technology. Then again, I wouldn't feel comfortable with too much theoretical knowledge, as it seems to easily block freedom to play free when you know it's technically wrong. In the end, I think the world is full of music which is (traditionally thinking) technically and theoretically perfect but musically completely worthless. I'd leave both music theory and technical knowledge second and focus on creativity and originality first.

I started with instruments and studied a lot of music, and then I spent a lot of time trying to un-learn and forget what I had learned. It's strange, but that's exactly what happened and I think both steps were very important. When I made the decision to change over to production and electronics, I had absolutely no technical knowledge. If anything, I had quite a strong aversion and even a slight uncomfortable feeling towards gear. Even in the band/instrument days, I'd avoid all that technical stuff because I never understood them. I get quite easily distracted and bothered by technical stuff, both by the limitations and how complicated it is. But anyways, when I started and basically since then, I'm self-taught. It takes a lot of time, but it definitely gives you your own view and take on things. I'd not go to any school of electronic music or creative anything for that matter. I wouldn't believe much what people say or write, either. Just spend some time trying to figure out things the hard way. I believe that brings interesting results.

Just curious if you're ever planning to release (or at least tour) The Only Copy again. While I have the utmost respect for the idea behind it, I find it a shame that so many people out there will never be able to hear it (and thus be inspired to do something good or innovative themselves). Also, what's the reason for the end of Luomo and your aversion to keep making (interesting) "pop" music? I always found Luomo, Uusitalo, and AGF/Delay to be a glimmer of hope and innovation amidst an ocean of cheap and uninspired pop music, and it always seemed like a nice contrast to your more spaced-out productions too. Just curious to hear how and why your opinion on it has changed over the years.

If The Only Copy were to be released, it would defeat its whole purpose. For the "pop" music question, I guess the industry/scene/etc. totally killed my interest to participate personally in the more pop/club/commercial medium. I like the music, but not much of the rest that it involves. Then again, I'm working on a really wide range of things in the studio, which keeps me musically and creatively happy. [Some of it is] also on the pop/club end, but currently I'm not releasing much of that kind of work.

What was the inspiration for the track "Tessio" from the Luomo album Vocalcity?
Thank you!

Personal problems.

What DAW do you use? Do you mix and master your own songs?

Logic Pro, but I'm thinking of switching to Reaper, as I'm quite fed up with the direction Logic is taking. I basically mix and and master at the same time, or let's say I finish the mix through the mastering chain. I'm quite disappointed if I have to change something afterwards, or do some bigger corrections in the mastering process. Though sometimes, when admittedly having to gain up the levels quite a bit to somehow stay audible in the loudness wars, the balance [of a track] might change. But I usually then just back down the levels in the mastering chain and don't change the mix.

I basically think if the mix is good and you are not aiming to get a mad-loud product, there should not be a need to master unless it's about making an album and putting it together with the fades and codes and such. I use Waveburner to compile albums, which is quite silly, but it's worked okay for me.

When you master a track (obviously depends on the format), if you use the K scale for monitoring, let's say the middle one (K-14), what would be the ideal RMS and peak value for a good master? I know we judge this mainly by ears, and this should be the only way, but if I do not like to squash things and prefer to stay in the yellow zone with the RMS values, have you got any tricks or advice to satisfy the industry standards? Or should I just ignore them and do it as I feel?
Thanks a lot for your time,

I think if you try to compete with industry standards, K-14 won't work or you're constantly going to be working in the red zone. I have a feeling things will change slowly for the better though, with automatic leveling being added to iTunes and Spotify, [meaning] the loud stuff sounds really crappy and that will trigger a change eventually.

I guess there are some tricks to make things loud without bringing in too many artifacts. One of them is to mix through the mastering chain so you can gain up levels in ways so that the actual end-result is not changed too much by the leveling. Anticipate the artifacts, so to speak, in the mix. Using several pieces of gear and gaining up and limiting in several stages helps a lot too. Driving the analog stages without actually limiting or compressing is another one.

But all of this works only for somewhat "normal" music with rhythms and steady things. The more strange the music, the more I feel it tends to suffer from trying to make things loud and I just don't bother even trying. That's mainly because in my case it's ambient stuff and sometimes quite dynamic stuff and it just won't work if pushed too hard. Then again, sometimes it's nice to really drive the analog stages and it helps some tracks, musically speaking. I guess the main thing is to try figuring out what you want to achieve and where the line goes between what you want and how much you're willing to sacrifice and compromise your sound for other things.

I think now that there's no money involved, it should be easier to focus on the quality of music and take pride in that stuff, but unfortunately, people seem to push levels even further and care less about the quality because it's only going to be blogged on laptops anyway and nobody hears the details through iSpeakers. That's not a reason to not do what you think is good though.

Do you completely rule out digital synths in the process of creation? Also, how important is audio quality? Are you more interested in an artist's creativity, or rather the quality of their production?
Many thanks.

Well, I hope I never completely rule anything out. But lately, I have at least momentarily given up on the software digital synths, but not digital hardware synths. There's a huge difference in my opinion. I can't get good-enough results with software-generated sounds. I find I have to keep working on them forever and it never feels right and you end up processing it with outboard and so on to try to make it sit and feel right. Even if it's digital but hardware and you record it physically, then that by itself and with the character in conversion and possibly different processors on the way works better in the end. It's partly just the thing that [with hardware synths] you end up making decisions. You don't just keep tweaking a candy-looking interface on the screen and changing things. But even without that, I find it very difficult to mix in-the-box virtual synths. I just find hardware-generated/processed stuff much easier in that sense. It seems to find its space in the mix much more easily.

Well-produced audio is nice to listen to, but in the end, I think the beauty is in the ear of the listener. We all hear things differently. The same goes for the creativity of course, but for me, creativity wins every time. There's too much good-sounding and well-produced commodity music that just has nothing creative or interesting in there.

I want to ask how much you improvise when making music in the studio or playing live. I believe that your music is full of logical passion!

Thanks. It's really just how I see things and what works for me. I don't think when I improvise, so I can't really say how much I improvise in a given situation. It's deeper than that, [something] intuitive or natural or whatever. But let's say I try to find a good amount of space to improvise in whatever it is I do, and I try to find different ways to improvise as well. The word itself is a bit of a cliché and maybe [a better descriptive] word would be creative, which is equally cliched though.

I believe if you do intuitively what feels right without incentivizing yourself, then the result should be the most logical and the most passionate one. "Logical passion" is a good one.

Do you approach synthesis and composition with live performance in mind? How do you organize your live set around such an impressive collection of hardware tools and techniques?

What was your set up on the show that you did for URSSS? Specifically, I want to know how you were routing tracks to the console, including sends and inserts. It is never easy for me to move my settings from my studio to live shows and after watching your presentation, I really liked the control that you have on the console. The result is very organic.
Pablo What are some of the intermediate steps you take in recording music for live performance? Like what sort of programs/amplifiers/mixing equipment do you use? I would like to play ambient music live and am just trying to learn the necessary steps. I was also wondering if your mixes live are just modifications of previous tracks for your different projects like (obviously) Vladislav Delay, Luomo, Uusitalo, and others.

Your music incorporates analog synths. I assume you cannot use all of those patches live. So the logical question would be, what does the live performance look like? Is it you composing out of recorded samples using a controller? Does your live performance require a lot of work? How do you make sure you do not lose any data?

I really don't think about the live situation when I make music, it's really not how I approach [things]. Usually, I take a completely free view on the live sets. It's a complete afterlife for all the music I've made. I'm not trying to pretend I make music live when I perform, nor do I have any interest to try and replay or reproduce something on stage that I have worked out in the studio. Physically and otherwise it would just be impossible and not worthwhile.

The material I perform with has been done already; in a live situation, I'm trying to find a way to play with that material in interesting ways and create something new from it. I often go back to compositions and rework the material to take tracks into certain directions I found interesting during a live performance, to give them new life. I'm also not in a position where I'd have to replay hits to an audience wanting to hear "that song," so it's pretty free in my case.

I'm often playing unreleased stuff I've been working on in the studio, reflecting on it from different point of view. I tend to hear things very differently when listening in front of a crowd. Usually, I'm in principle trying to find loops and audio from existing music created in the studio to play [live] with computer software like Live or Bitwig. It takes a lot of time and effort to figure that out, and given how little I play live anymore, it begins to be completely crazy thing to do, but that's how it is.

I use a lot of hardware for live sampling and looping when playing live, and I guess so-called dubbing effects. I'm just playing with the mixing desk and feeding stuff to various effects and loopers and samplers back and forth, and I'm playing a lot with faders to recreate stuff that way. Basically, I'm trying to recreate something interesting from existing material by whatever means I have available. I often get really bored and also disappointed in what I have created or have played live for some time and usually come up with better and more interesting things for tracks that have already been released, so I just keep going at it. I like the fact that my productions nowadays often don't have a definite beginning or at least an end—stuff just lives around and onwards.

I have a mixer with 16 faders, split half between eight sources from the computer and eight channels of effects (usually delay, reverb, a distortion or two, sampler [OP-1] and loopers [TC Ditto, Eventide Time Machine]). Sometimes I bring in extra sound sources, like chaos oscillator stuff or noise makers, or instruments that have a contact mic and so on. I have six AUX sends for sending stuff back and forth to create quite complex effects chains with what is basically quite a simple set-up. I always try to use the same mixer and layout, so I can play with it without having to think what's where and how it's connected.

I'm not worried about back-ups too much to be honest. I keep one in the studio, but I don't travel with the back-up unless it's something really important or a long tour for example. The main thing lately has become trying to make it all fit into a very small space so it can be all carried in hand luggage, which is an art form in itself.