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Ten Questions: Michael Whalen on his ‘Our April Tigers’ Album



His latest is an all-star collaboration with Michael Manring (bass), Michael Brook (guitar), Jeff Oster (trumpet), and Karsh Kale (percussion)

Regular followers of Synth and Software are very familiar with Emmy-awarded, prolific composer and keyboard player Michael Whalen, especially his recent Imaginary Trains album. And if you haven’t heard it you’re in for a treat, especially if you like synths. It’s just great.

Michael’s latest album, Our April Tigers, is different – although you’ll recognize his approach to synths – both the programming and the playing. Rather than being predominantly solo, this album is a collaboration with Michael Manring (bass), Michael Brook (guitar), Jeff Oster (trumpet), and Karsh Kale (percussion). They’re all top-notch musicians scattered around the world, and he gave them a lot of latitude.

As with a lot of interesting music, it’s hard to put this album in a category. But we can say that it’s mellow rather than aggressive, it still features and it’s driven by melodies. We emailed Michael to ask a few questions about the album, and here’s what he has to say.

What was the process – did you record some synth parts and then decide to add the other musicians or were they part of the plan to start with? And once you did decide, what did you send them to work off?

I always knew that I wanted to create a collaboration project. I knew that I would create some basic frameworks and then hand the project over. So, I created rough “working tracks” and sent them to Michael Brook. I gave him almost NO direction. I told him he could ANYTHING. He laid down so many amazing parts and textures. He sent me his tracks and I edited them.

I then sent the tracks to Karsh. He worked very quickly and he sent me back the percussion and sampled tracks. Again, I edited his performances and then sent the tracks to Michael Manring. 

Michael recorded SO MANY bass tracks. I encouraged him to “go for it” and even use the bass to create melodies and distorted textures. He sent me his tracks and I did a BIG edit.

I finally sent the tracks to Jeff Oster who recorded his parts with Tom Eaton at his studio in New Hampshire. I got his tracks and then did a BIG edit. 

I spent about a week mixing the album. All the editing and pre-production I did really helped. 

The first thing you notice (other than the music itself!) is that the recording is so wide in 2-channel stereo –  as is Imaginary Trains (which was also released in surround). It suits this music, but ear candy is always good. Any tips for how to approach that kind of a sound?

Placing instruments around the ENTIRE stereo field is crucial. The MOST important thing is to make sure that frequencies do not cancel out by being too similar. The great things about the group is that in making sounds and textures they thought about where their parts would speak best inside the ensemble. That’s the difference between “good” players and great players. 

And now we get to some specific “what’s that sound” questions.

In “Over Water,” the countermelody (to Manring’s fretless) is a plucky rhythmic sound with delay, pans, and filtering (especially at the end). Is that guitar or a synth?

It’s a sound I made on the Buchla plug-in from Arturia. I wanted to “suggest” a melody or at least a shape. What’s interesting is that Manring created a gorgeous melodic bass line so my Buchla part becomes a counter melody. Fun stuff!

You have the same sort of sound on “Morning Bell,” taken over by other sounds. Is that DX7 Rhodes?

Also, how did you approach the reverb – by conceiving of a space or by treating the instruments individually?

The basic keyboard part is played on my Rhodes MKII. Lots of processing. I was going for a “Blade Runner” Rhodes sound with a LONG delay tail and chorus. I love this song.

Most of what people think is “reverb” on this album is really about a dozen different kinds of delay. Delay fools your ears into thinking that there are multiple spaces. Using delay keeps the instrument sounds present and detailed instead of being washed out in a reverb chamber. 

“Visceral Organ” is a funkier piece. How much of the overall shape to the piece was planned, for example where instruments drop out? And what’s that cool effect at the very end?

This track was basically built in the mix. The tricky thing was keeping the groove going and making the song spacial. So, the sections of the song were built by subtracting parts. The end effect was a sample I made on my old Synclavier of one of my ancient analog 2 tracks being rewound. 

“Temporality”: Karsh Kale’s tablas! There’s a clav-ish sound… what is it? And the ending – is that done with a glitch processor or delays, or… ?

The clavinet type sound is actually a double-time guitar part with lots of processing. It’s a subtle but great connective sound. The end is done with many delays. 🙂 

In general, how much of the rhythmic delays throughout the album came from the musicians’ tracks and how much was added in the mix?

I would say about two-thirds of the delays were added in the mix. I used the delays to keep the kinetic motion of the tracks moving forward. I like creating pulsing textures with delays and polyrhythms with the tails of delays that collide into each other. It’s a great sonic tension. 
And finally, what’s that signature sound – meaning your signature! – at the end of “So Fragile?”

That repeating synth sound is a Roland Jupiter-8 plug-in from the Roland Cloud collection. It’s a repeating ostinato that suggests a two note melody that pushes the song forward but never intrudes. It gives Jeff Oster some great space to stretch out on muted trumpet.

Again, less is more and all the space and the tension in the space helped inspire some great parts from the band. I am very proud of how the whole project came out.

Check out Our April Tigers here


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