Scott Thorough : Composer Interview
Composer Scott Thorough's new release, entitled Tree is out now on the Specious Arts label. Scott has been on our radar for some years now as his previous release Bird caught our attention with its delicate ambiences, intertwining textures and lo-fi beats. Puremagnetik's Micah Frank had a quick chat with Scott about his process, recording techniques, Erik Satie and more.
Micah: Your last album was called Bird and this one is called Tree. Between the ambiences and mechanical noises they seem to complement each other but Tree also seems more evolved or produced in the instrument palette and mixing. What was your production process like for it?
Scott: When I was working on the music that became Bird I did not know I was making an album. I was making music for myself and for film, and I was commenting on John Whitlock’s Instagram about something or other, and he asked me to send him some music I was working on. That turned into the conversation that turned into the making of Bird. It was a mix of finished and unfinished tracks that got revisited and revised to make a cohesive piece. I knew at some point last year that I wanted to make another album that was in the direction of the music I made on Bird. I have been shifting the music I want to make and Tree is a more linear pronounced approach. I had ideas and melodies I have been humming into recordings for years, and I would take those and unpack them. I work in three phases when writing and making music - I do field recordings, I record organic instruments, and I sample, manipulate and sequence these pieces.
Micah: That's really interesting because it's something I've been thinking a bit about lately. In terms of the process, that is. I know some of our artists on Puremagnetik also pull from their archives extensively to assimilate a full body of work, but there's also the more conventionally thought of approach in - as you say "linearly" - conceiving an album. I assume for this method, you really need to have a good idea of the aesthetic from the beginning.
Scott: I have been making electronic music for twenty years - I am constantly trying to figure out new challenges, and new opportunities. I wanted to work with new melodies and constructs. Also, I had one idea for the album - leaning more heavy into less drum driven music and expand more of my compositional ideas that I had been using for movies that I have worked on. The album was always going to be about growth and the environment, but the trajectory changed as the world changed. Half of the record was done before the pandemic, and I restructured everything as the world was changing, but I had ideas (pianos, decaying noise, melodies) that I knew I wanted to explore, and as I explored them, the album happened.
Micah: You also mentioned John Whitlock, who is definitely worth mentioning because he in fact designs all of the Puremagnetik album artwork and branding and runs the Specious Arts label. How did you guys meet?
Scott: I was in a rap group called Nuclear Family. We have been making music as a collective for ages, and I still interact with my bandmates to this day. John went to high school with some of the members, and designed our first website. It was a very impressive website. I have always enjoyed John’s aesthetics, and the artwork for Bird, was a piece by John that I had been liking for a long time. John has been telling me about cool music for a minute, and when he started Specious, I had it in the back of my head, that if I ever made an album, I would like John to help with the aesthetics.
Micah: The pianos on both Bird and Tree are very special - not just the chordal passages, but the worn-out room sounds and spaces you get as well. Can you divulge a bit about your piano recording and processing techniques?
Scott: I am very inspired by Erik Satie’s piano work and his life. His life and art complemented each other and his work felt interactive. Music recording has become so clean that we lose cool things like player noises and air and breath. I am honestly happy you caught that with my pianos. In my use of piano, the noises of air and breath and touch are important to me.
I do not have the ingenuity of a classical composer, so the timbre of my music is very important to me. For me, the aesthetics are the basis. I can listen to a great sound over and over again. You ever listen to karaoke versions of sample based music? It loses the magic. The mimicry loses something in transition. No diss to karaoke. Coming from producing rap music for almost twenty years, I am interested in finding a noise I like and working with it. I put my mom onto Steve Reich last week and she was bugging out with the repetition and understood the power of it.
Many years ago I was at a house with a Steinway in it, and I recorded a bunch of notes on my iPhone. Those are pianos I revisit to this day. I double those up with other pianos I have collected through the years. If I go to a house with a piano, I record some notes. If I am listening to a record that has a single piano note, I sample it. If I find a vst I like, I sample some notes and sequence them. I also really use some vsts, but I tend to stack two or three pianos and manipulate them before sequencing/recording and after.
Micah: Oh yeah, you can definitely hear this sort of inquisitive and gentle Satie influence - that makes sense. Speaking of atmosphere, the room sounds are lovely and somber on this album. How did you approach space and reverb on it? Do you spend a lot of time dialing in a room sound?
Scott: I spend all the time in the world on the room sounds. I sample “silent” parts of albums I like and manipulate them because I want tp be submerged in the air of creativity. I cannot afford Neve consoles or reel to reel, but I can modify the space and sounds of those energies. I have several reverb profiles I like, and I spend a lot of time dialing in every aspect of reverbs. Delays - I am more arbitrary with, and then I adjust as I see fit. I like the interactive part of music - that the noises we make while listening to music become part of the music - so I sample and use those noises and have them become part of the music.
Micah: You've mentioned to me that you used a lot of Puremagnetik content and devices throughout this album. I'm curious to hear more about what you used and how you used it!
Scott: I am obsessed with Puremagnetik plug ins because they are creative minded. I use a lot of SoundToys plugins for technical ideas like eqs/reverbs practical applications etc. Puremagnetik plugins are niche and funky. You put a bass through your Washout and you get belly feels. It is awesome. I have been telling a lot of my rap producer friends to throw drums through a send with some of your plug-ins. It adds subtle or not so subtle flavor. I use them for creativity functions. The synths are dope - I used Nighthawk and Paul says its a lens flare as the bass. I honestly don’t think there's a song on Tree that doesn’t have residue of Puremagnetik.
For most of my songs, I set up a few sends with Granule and Mimik because I love the little flavor they add to what I am doing; I can set up all of my drums to Granule and automate it into oblivion and see how it sounds- you all ake very niche plugins and I love that. I like to play around in the space that your plugins create and see what happens.There is very little risk to try new things - what is gonna happen? Lose tape? The stakes of creation are low, and the opportunity for beauty is high. I love nerding out on effects and noise. I think Puremagnetik are the most interesting creative plug-ins since Soundhack. I like to run a few mallet packs, slightly phasing them and seeing what happens. On Far Beyond The Stars, that's a big part. Sampling a noise I made on Verv, stretching it and pitching it and playing the sample like a drone machine is the basis for Magna Santi. I just downloaded Splitch and Coil and have been having a lot of fun manipulating noises with them.
This is all a long winded way of saying that I use the effects in two ways mostly - I make weird noises using Puremagnetik plugins and sample them and sequence them and I apply granular and modular Puremagnetik effects on effects tracks of my songs. A few ideas I have made happened with me just downloading a new plugin and seeing what it would do to a sound I had.
Micah: I love it! That is exactly how Puremagnetik plugins should be used and that's what I design them for. I like to think of people making lots of happy mistakes with them.
Scott: Yeah, there's a million reverbs and other types of classic effects. These plugins are fun, and feel like flavor. To make these very niche effects, you get to enjoy them in a very playful way that feels less predictable. Seriously, I will eventually collect all of your plug ins, and as long as I am making music on my computer, I am going to mess around with Puremagnetik stuff.
Micah: What else are you working on now? Do you perform live at all in "normal" times? What do you have planned for the rest of 2021?
Scott: I just moved and created a new set up. I have been working with tape loops, electric thumb pianos, some outboard guitar pedals, some fm synths and trying to make a little more out the daw stuff. The next album is about loss, but I am still in the pre-contemplation phase. I did make a piece last week where the bass is a noise I made on my Model Cycles and ran through a granular sampler and Splitch. It is lovely. I have not performed live in a while but I want to develop a way to play these songs in an interesting way that feels new. I like how this event series called Beat Haus used to have the parties where folks would do beat sets. Two talented people I know P.U.D.G.E. and Quelle Chris did really cool sets where it felt like a nice conversation with their work.I would like to do something like that and incorporate live manipulations.
Just trying to stay positive in this crazy world. This whole record came about me trying to stay sane during this pandemic. Making the kind of music I make these days helps me reconcile my feelings and communicate in ways I cannot do with out words.
Photo by Saskia Kahn