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Sound Thinking

February 1, 2003
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Steve Tibbetts's ECM release A Man About a Horse is awash in layered guitar and percussion parts that coalesce into a variety of sonic textures. The album melds Eastern and Western musical influences, and often spotlights tabla, gamelan, and gongs in conjunction with electric and acoustic guitars. The music is a result of spontaneous creation combined with meticulous editing and rearranging.

Tibbetts began tracking in his studio with two nights of free-form improvisation on guitar. “I record the guitar dry through the [Line 6] Pod and run the signal into a Marshall JCM900 [guitar amp] that I put in the bathroom,” he says. “I also run it into an old, 15-watt Matchless Lightning 15 that has a clean sound. Then it's fun to mix them all together. It's a process of layering and forgetting: when something doesn't work, forget about it.” After sketching rough guitar parts, Tibbetts enlisted percussionists Marc Anderson and Marcus Wise and bassist Jim Anton to collaborate with him.

“A lot of techniques let you create music without really thinking it out,” Tibbetts says. “You can set up a guitar to play diatonic samples. It's like instant composition.” Tibbetts uses a Roland GK-2A pickup and a Roland GI-10 guitar-to-MIDI converter to trigger custom samples stored in a pair of Roland S-760 samplers. “I have patches of samples set up on six channels — one for each string. Usually, I'll set up similar groupings of instruments. You can come up with lines of harmonic interest. Pretty soon you end up with a big pile of garbage.”

Tibbetts's studio is an analog-digital hybrid featuring a Tascam MS16 16-track reel-to-reel machine that he uses to influence and shape sounds as well as performances. “Analog tape is like playing with clay: it's more amenable to shaping. You can get deeper chorusing and flanging sounds by dipping the speed or ramping it up a tiny bit,” he says. Tibbetts further sculpts his sounds with outboard processors: an Eventide GTR4000 Ultra-Harmonizer, a Lexicon LXP1, an Orban 622B parametric EQ, and two Urei LA-4 compressor/limiters. His mic cabinet consists of a Neumann TLM 170, a pair of Neumann KM 184s, and an AKG C 451.

All tracks end up in a Mac G3 with a 500 MHz G4 processor running MOTU's Digital Performer. “I often slave to SMPTE from the 16-track,” Tibbetts adds, using a MOTU Digital Timepiece and MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV. He performed mixdown operations on a Power Mac 7100 running Digidesign's Sound Designer II.

Tibbetts's sonic signature includes carefully blended sounds “that you can't identify. I like to take highly evocative sounds like speech and fold them into similar sounds,” he says. “A group of voices is a complex sound — it has a lot of overtones and white noise — and a cymbal is like that, too, so it's a good marriage. With Digital Performer, you can get a level of precision that lets you fold low Tibetan horns into a fretless guitar or bass.”

Tibbetts built his sample library from his travels in Asia during the 1990s. “I brought a little HHB Portadat and a couple of Neumanns,” he says. “I tried to get good samples.” Tibbetts finds powerful inspiration in field recordings. “You could wander around any city and record a bed of sounds,” he says. “Play any instrument over that, and [the performance] will be loaded with emotion and meaning. Then you can get rid of the background. It's a much more fertile plain to work on than coming in cold and trying to be inspired by the same old sounds.”

For more information, contact ECM Records; Web www.frammis.com or www.ecmrecords.com.

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