Indie-electronic crusaders bring their latest record to life using Pro Tools|HD and Axiom Pro
On their latest studio album, Ad Explorata, indie-electronic crusaders STS9 (1320 Records) took a decidedly different approach to songwriting—and in the process learned to channel the chaos of their creative output into a collection of songs that came together in record time. We recently caught up with one of STS9’s sonic alchemists, keyboardist David Phipps, to learn how Pro Tools|HD® and Axiom® Pro have played a part in bringing the complex, hypnotic arrangements of Ad Explorata to life—in the studio and on stage.
In the Studio
“This is the first record where we just attacked it, trying to see how fast we could track stuff, arrange it, edit it, and put out a record before the touring season rolled around,” Phipps notes. “Our focus this time was to keep things rolling, keep it fresh. When we liked something, we stuck with it. As a result, we finished Ad Explorata in about six months, whereas our other records have all taken much longer.”
While some bands lock themselves away for months on end to work on a record, STS9 found that taking frequent breaks helped them focus and reign in their explorations. “We would work Monday to Thursday, then fly out to a festival, then come back to work on Monday,” Phipps recalls. “We’d bounce a stereo mix out of Pro Tools, listen to it on the plane over the weekend, and then come back with a fresh perspective on where to go next. That really helped keep things moving.”
The Santa Cruz CA-based 5-piece also kept momentum going by adopting a workflow centered around Pro Tools|HD. “Everything each of us works on eventually ends up in Pro Tools. Our process usually starts with a song sketch that one of us has come up with, and then we get that onto the grid in Pro Tools. From there everyone starts overdubbing. We’ll keep a master session and bounce the track as we go, with each of us going off to our own smaller stations,” Phipps explains. “Then we each record on top of the mix-in-progress, bounce from zero, and then throw our parts back into Pro Tools. Eventually, we’ll get 80 or 90 tracks, 20 groups—there’s a lot of material. We’ll have this overly stuffed track that we then have to prune, it’s like ‘subtractive creation.’ We keep everything in our Pro Tools|HD rig because it’s the only thing that can run our sessions once they get to a certain size.
“Almost to the very end, the arrangements stay very fluid,” Phipps adds. “Hunter [Brown, guitars] has a knack for kind of haphazardly looping a part of a song, and twisting and deconstructing it until it becomes something entirely new. Sometimes it’s a case of soloing a few parts together, bringing stuff in on top of that—it can get pretty busy sounding, so there’s a lot of deleting or adding time and reworking until we have what the song finally ends up being on the record.”
Performing these complex, multi-layered songs live has always been something of a challenge for STS9. Over the band’s 13 years they’ve fine-tuned their process, allowing them to recreate their studio sound on stage. “None of us trusts any of the other members to do the mixes—we all have ‘rock and roll’ ears,” Phipps jokes. “So we take our sessions to [producer/engineer] Chuck Butter for mixing. He’s got some fantastic outboard gear, and, of course, great ears. After he mixes a track for the album, we go back while he has the mix up and we pick out the parts that we want bounced for us to use in our live shows. We’ll come out of a mix session with all the different parts, then we figure out what we’re able to play live, what identifiable sounds we might need to trigger, and we map everything out. We’ll throw certain sounds into a sampler, or pull out loops that we play on top of during our shows.”
Into the Future
STS9 has always divided their time fairly evenly between the studio and stage. However, 2010 is shaping up to be more about live performance. “Even though we just got off tour, we’re continuing to focus on our live show—we’re not really ready to jump into the next album yet,” Phipps states. “We want to re-vamp some of our old songs, too. That’s something we hope to do by this summer. I’ve already started preparing, getting my rig streamlined, and I’m getting really deep with the M-Audio Axiom Pro controller, customizing it for my set. I really like how you can name everything. The coolest thing is that I can assign the keyboard configuration for each song to their own buttons and name them—it’s idiot proof for me, you know? [laughs] With the programming I’ve been doing with it, I’ve been able to make the Axiom Pro my keyboard, not just a generic controller. Plus, the action is great and it’s by far the best build quality of any MIDI controller. I have it set up in the studio on top of my Wurlitzer right now—I have to say, it looks pretty cool, too!”