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Guest post: Broken Circuits

Today we have the pleasure of speaking with our pals from Broken Circuits. Tim and Mike have been friends of NE for a few years and we were excited that they decided to form a project focused that brings their divergent backgrounds together to push the boundaries of what each of them does. Check them out on Errorgrid records, or the most recent release, The Descent, including special guest remix by Blakmoth at brokencircuits.com

Kris: Tell the people at home a bit about yourself.

Tim and Mike here from the heavy experimental project, Broken Circuits. We come from different backgrounds in production, composition, and musical styles, but we formed Broken Circuits with a common interest in exploring unique instrumentation/composition and experimental sound design.

Mike: It all began for me with classical piano training at a young age. I became increasingly interested in synthesizers and electronic music as the years went on and in 2005 I began my journey into production with Ableton Live and have never looked back. I’ve been mostly influenced by trip-hop, breakbeats, melodic and experimental electronic music throughout my time with music production, but a less travelled area for me has been the heavy and industrial genres. This is one of the reasons Broken Circuits has been such an intriguing endeavor for me, since there is such a vast world of distortion (and darkness) to explore.

Black and white photo of a mid-sized Eurorack system.

Tim: Drawn to both Western and Eastern styles of music/thought, I have always had an unorthodox view of song structure, harmony and meter. My first love of music was in the form of film soundtracks (particularly John Williams and Brad Fiedel), which normalized odd time, multi-meter and erratic song changes.

Formal and independent music studies in Jazz, Classical and Traditional Eastern styles have influenced a predominantly heavier and abrasive side of music production and songwriting throughout my musical career. When I discovered the processing and sound-design possibilities of modular, I found it similar to a collaboration with another artist through its generative and unpredictable nature.

Black and white photo of a corner desk with two Eurorack systems and a selection of synths and keyboard.

Kris: What is it about modular that inspires you as Broken Circuits?

Tim: Mike and I love that impermanence forces commitment in modular and the feel of uncharted territory in every patch. We embrace being uncomfortable with the gear and let it push us in directions we wouldn’t otherwise go.

Creating the first track as Broken Circuits, we leaned heavily on stomp boxes routed through a mixing console and in-the-box processing. We loved the sound of drum machines exploding through vintage pedals. We found ourselves manually adjusting knobs in real-time during recording and thought how great it would be to automate hardware like a plugin ITB. Shortly after, we discovered Eurorack modules based on distortion pedals, but with CV control. This set us on the fairly short-lived path of DIY modular.

Funny enough, we got into modular with the commitment to DIY every module we use. We started out with some great builds, but shortly after found Noise Engineering and that was all over. The LIP is my favorite voice by any company. Although, I admit there were many love/hate moments and “Styrofoam Rat” sounds in the beginning. Now the LIP never ceases to amaze me how otherworldly unique, vicious and beautiful it can be

Mike: Another aspect about modular that continues to be intriguing is the ability to “build” or customize your instrument. There are plenty of fully integrated synths available on the market and while they are great in their own ways, the modular approach allows you to build your own synth, groovebox, drum machine, or all the above in one rack. Many electronic musicians share the hunger for new sounds and the modular approach encourages this exploration strengthening the desire of discovery.

Black and white photo of Tim and Mike performing

Kris: Wow, thanks. And I love the Styrofoam Rat description. We usually go with lasers and space farts, but hey, if the shoe fits…

Mike: I think NE taps into something from another dimension. They have some of the most unique sounding modules but manage to keep the parameters down to a small, yet effective minimum. Being into eurorack and electronic music, many of us are frequently looking for new and interesting sounds. I love the Versio modules for completely taking the source sounds to new planes of existence. I switch between the algorithms depending on the desired effect at the time, in fact, the Desmodus algorithm was used on the choir sample in the original version of The Descent and the Ruina algorithm was used to mangle the last section of the Broken Circuits Remix.

Kris: We aren’t multidimensional beings. Why? What have you heard? *cough cough* moving on. Let’s talk about your process. When you write, how much is modular and how much is in the box?

Tim: Generally, a song idea starts from archived modular patches from one or both of us. We use these for main themes, ear candy or whole sections of a track. These patches are brought into Ableton Live and manipulated further and serve as inspiration for additional instrumentation.

Mike: We end up with a lot of ideas during improv sessions and keep a pool of everything way over to the right (Tim: “Throw it over to the side”) in Ableton Live’s arrange view. This allows us to be able to throw many ideas in at any time. At some point, we decide we have enough to work with and that the song is growing into its ‘identity,’ so we start to focus on the song arrangement. We prefer to approach the arrangement of a song as a collective mind.

Tim: Once we agree on a skeletal form of a track in Ableton Live, we improvise over this groundwork with integrated synths, guitars and more. Some of our favorite “out of rack” pieces on “The Descent” were a MOOG Voyager, Sequential Circuits Pro-3 and OB-6, Novation AFX Station, and various guitar equipment. We even dedicated a whole night to just recording guitar feedback through tube amps. The main goal is to have fun and push each other in directions we wouldn’t have gone on our own.

Mike: It’s all very “in the moment” following where the inspiration is driving us.

One example of this is the end section of “The Descent” that came together very quickly. While Tim was exploring guitar ideas, I created a blank midi clip and placed a few kick drums spontaneously. Tim began to follow this with a guitar chug on the root chord. There was something about the simplicity that made us both say “yep, that’s the next section!” We embellished this idea, and it became a powerful closure to the song.

Tim: Often instrumentation is heavily derived from the modular patches we build a track on. This is far different from the other projects and bands I have been part of in the past where the guitar was almost always the origin of riffs.

For example, on the Main Theme of “The Descent” the MOOG Voyager, guitar and distorted bass guitar are essentially a mimic of a LIP and BIA patch started on a NE-centric “focus” Palette and then synced to a bigger rack.

On the groove outro, again the guitar parts are heavily derived from the eurorack patch in this section.

 

Mike: The process is an ebb and flow of putting forth ideas, and listening to where the song is heading.

Kris: you make ample use of distortion in the Broken Circuits tracks. Tell us a bit about how distortion works in your workflow.

Tim: I love distortion. There are nearly as many distortion modules in our racks as any other type, in addition to the plethora of other devices we use for distortion, saturation and feedback.

I was really excited about the Ruina series when it was announced and quickly acquired each unit upon release. While I have enjoyed all of them for various reasons, Ruina Versio is my favorite for its ability to go from subtle to extreme with so many sweet spots in between.

On at least one patch used in The Descent, I switched my A/D converter from line to mic level to use harsh clipping and saturation on the way into the DAW. This provided the additional breakup and spitty character of that track. Even with other saturation and distortion on the patch, I needed something a bit more on the backend. Coming from both analog and digital production, I have always used hardware units as an extra layer of tone shaping when needed. One of my absolute favorite “distortion” sounds is a Neve 1073 in the red.

Both Mike and I are drawn to the phenomenon of a signal being pushed to the point of breaking and transforming into something altogether different. In Broken Circuits, we have been exploring this in both audio and video formats. Similar to how harmonics and other subtleties are drawn out of audio through distortion and saturation, images take on another life and perception when they are allowed to break and affect each other in surprising ways. Maybe we will move from monochrome to color images at some point to explore this more. Probably not…

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