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taylor deupree

art of the emphemeral

I still remember my first experience hearing Taylor Deupree's Northern on a winter night back in 2007. Reaching into a stack of borrowed CDs in my apartment, I randomly selected a disc for some musical accompaniment to washing the dishes. The album began so stealthily that it took 10 minutes of half-listening for me to register anything in particular about the music, other than that it was quiet, ambient, and glacially-paced. As the record progressed, I became increasingly aware, however, of the delicately-arranged layers of sound casting an extraordinary spell over my apartment. Compelled to sit down and listen more deliberately, its microscopic gestures began to take on greater magnitude, now clearly brimming with a previously hidden world of emotion, intentionality, and color.

Deupree has been honing his signature “microsound” style, which incorporates a wide variety of acoustic and electronic sources, for over 20 years. Hardware and modular synthesizers, electric piano, acoustic guitar, percussion, tape loops, guitar pedals, and field recordings have all found a place in his oeuvre. In addition to his solo albums and numerous collaborative recording projects, he is also the founder and curator of 12k, an experimental record label started in 1997. The label has, in many ways, defined the contours of a new sub-genre, releasing over 100 records by some of the most notable practitioners of the art form from around the world.

In 2005, Taylor and his family relocated from Brooklyn to a rural area north of New York City, constructing a studio space behind his home filled with natural light and views into the surrounding woods. In addition to serving as his creative workspace, the studio was designed to function as a full-fledged mastering room – a role which Deupree has increasingly taken on for both 12k releases and those of other artists seeking his attention to sonic detail. I visited Taylor at his studio on a beautiful summer afternoon to discuss his many activities, interests, and inspirations in music production.

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It's rare for someone to be equally well known as a musician, record label founder, and mastering engineer. You are also active as a photographer and graphic designer. In your mind, is there a hierarchy or natural order among these roles?

Making music is just what I do, it’s why I’m here. I feel like if I could do nothing else, it would be that. That's just who I am, it's how I express myself. It's the most important thing to me. Mastering is really my day job now because, especially in today's music environment, it's harder to make money writing music. Mastering can pay my bills, and I like to do it. I was always a very technical person, so I got into it very easily. And the label was started almost 20 years ago to fill what I thought was a certain creative gap in small American electronic music labels. The label probably takes the least amount of time because I’ve dialed in the process over nearly two decades, got the flow streamlined. I’m not doing a ton of releases, just a few a year. Most of the work involved is online. Communication, production, promotion. Sales are online, maybe a phone call to the distributor every now and then, but I can pretty much do it anywhere. Whereas the mastering I have to do everyday because I have clients waiting for me and deadlines. And then my own music, unfortunately, gets pushed to the side first, even though it's what I want to do the most. So I have less time to do my own music – but still enough time. The three are often combined, too, because I master most of the releases that come out on the label. I offer that to all the artists, as well as the graphic design for the album covers. That helps keep costs down with the label as well because they’re important services I don't have to pay someone else for.

How do these different roles play out on a day-to-day basis?

It's tough, especially with family and kids. I'm sure lots of artists my age have that trouble, when you have a family life and all these different professional roles you're trying to play. I play all these roles because I never wanted a regular 9-to-5 job – I wanted to do my own thing. So I've always done whatever I needed to do to make that possible. And I love every minute of it. My day-to-day work time is largely spent mastering or doing label tasks such as shipping orders or overseeing some aspect of a new production. There will be design or photography days when I’m working with an artist on a new release for 12k. It really comes down who needs what the soonest and I usually prioritize that way. It can be tough squeezing things in but I manage to get all of it done. It keeps me on my toes. There’s a lot of variation in the things I do and I have to balance my studio to be ergonomic for both mastering and writing as well as be able to sit at the desk and work on label management.

You've still remained prolific as a musician. Do you have to explicitly set aside time for your own work?
Yeah, one thing I started doing last year is what I call “no-mastering Thursdays,” where I just spent the day in the studio messing around, working on my own stuff. I had to make that time. I had to say, “OK, this is my day.” Usually I work on an album of mine until it's done, and then take a break for awhile, and then do another album. And in between those periods, which can sometimes be a year or more, I'm just kind of fiddling. Right now I've just finished an album [Somi, 12k] – it needs to be mastered, but it's done. When I'm in between projects and nothing's pushing me to get something done, I tend to get a little lazy, except for just messing around - making sounds or something like that. Yesterday I had 20 bells out here and a mic and a looper, just making cool loops. And I record it all. I keep folders on my computer of 3-, 4-, 5-minute passages, and, if it's really good, even longer. They're gonna be fodder for an album or something down the line. I also love it when I can get someone in from out of town, like when Marcus [Fischer] comes or Stephen Vitiello. If I can get someone in for a few days and we're working on an album, that's great because it's just time for that. I'll tell my clients, “Listen, I'm not gonna be able to work these days.” It's never been a problem. I have that time totally dedicated to working on music. And it tends to go quicker because someone else is here; collaborations for me always go more quickly than working on solo stuff.

What made you decide to move your studio up here from Brooklyn?

On a practical level, it was family. Thinking about schools for the kids was something we'd have to consider in just a few short years. We had a great place in Park Slope, but I kind of wanted to get back into nature. I think we were just getting a little fed up with apartment life, even though we love Brooklyn. It had nothing to do with the neighborhood, just family growing and getting a little restless. But it was really tough for a couple years. This is a very quiet, very small town. We didn't know anybody. All the like-minded people we knew we left behind in Brooklyn. We were on our own here. And for a couple years, we were like, “Oh man, we made a mistake.” But we decided to give it a couple years. And now we love it. I couldn't have this studio in Brooklyn for a reasonable amount of money. I had a cool little studio, but it was a separate bedroom kind of thing. Couldn't have this, couldn't have [the nature] outside the door. Now, I'd never go back.

Do you like having your work space attached to your house?

Yeah, I've thought about that a bit. I've gone through, like everybody, iterations of studios in parents' houses, and apartments, and basements. You work your way up to a nicer and nicer facility. And I thought about that before building this. I have friends who rent places in town, and they really like being able to get up and go to work somewhere. I don't think I'd like it, because I do so many different things, like the label and mastering and kids. When dinner's done and I just need 45 minutes to make some DDP files and send final files to clients, I can just run in after dinner and do that because it's right here. That kind of thing. I'm doing the grocery shopping, doing the cooking, watering the vegetables, weeding the gardens, making sure the kids are home from school. It's easier just to be here and take a break from work to do that stuff.

How did you get into mastering?

I really got into it about 10 years ago. Looking at the kind of music I did and my friends in the genre, it was all about the sounds. The music was sparse and empty, generally, so the sounds were really important. Every sound was emotional. We were all recording with sub-optimum converters and Mackie boards in our bedrooms. Which is fun, but I said, “Let me see if I can't do something to take these recordings to the next level a little bit.” I wasn't really thinking, “I'm gonna be a mastering engineer.” The first piece of gear that I bought –  which I thought would be all I'd need to make everything instantly sound better – was the Manley Vari-Mu compressor. I got that basically to take stuff I released on the label and run it through there and let it do its thing, and hopefully make the stuff we were releasing sound a little better. And it did, but it wasn't the “magic box.” Then I thought, “Well, maybe I need a better converter.” So I bought a better converter. And then I thought, “Maybe I need a nice analog EQ.” And then I started becoming aware of mastering as a thing and realized that that's pretty much the path I'm headed on. Ever since then, I've just been really focused on getting better sounds, better speakers, room treatment, converters. But it was a good way to get into it, because I learned pretty quickly that there's no one magical box, it's a combination of things. As soon as I'd built up a decent analog chain, then I could hear a difference. Every piece added a little bit, nothing on its own was the solution, but in the end, it really was better. So I began doing it for my friends and for the label releases, and eventually I felt that I could safely do it for people I don't know and not ruin their music. That fact also guides a lot of decisions. I built a room like this for other people, not so much for myself. I feel responsible for other people's music, especially as I moved away from just doing friends or label stuff. When you're mastering or mixing someone’s music, if you screw up, you're ruining something that the artist put their heart and soul into. There is a responsibility on my end to do the best I can for my clients. I want to have good speakers and a good room for them so I don't make bad decisions. It also helps that I'm a gear-head and don't mind buying a cool piece of gear to make the job better.

What did you do to educate yourself when you were just starting out?

Trial and error, first and foremost – being able to learn on my own music and close friends. But also books and the Internet. I read a lot on Gearslutz for a while, which taught me – for better or worse – about the gear behind it. But a lot of what you read talks about the gear in a really certain way, like in rock or pop. I felt like I was on my own a bit because all the stuff you read and the conversations you have are about different genres of music than the stuff I’m working on. You hear demos of these compressors and they're putting a drum track through it and getting these big compressed drum sounds. I have never done that. My compressors have never been used for that because I'm never driving them that way. So I sometimes feel a little isolated, like I can't join in on that conversation or I can't quite relate because I'm just not using it that way. The gear can be so program-dependent. I've gone through different pieces of gear that have not worked as well for what I'm doing. You read about it on paper and you'd think it's the best thing ever, but then when you put it to use for what you're doing, it turns out not to be. TapeOp Magazine is another great resource. One thing I love about reading the interviews in TapeOp is that I read all of them, even if I don't like the person's music or don’t know who they are, because every time you find something interesting. Pretty much everything I've done, though, except for photography, is self-taught. Music, running a label, mastering. I love finding something and learning how to do it. I taught myself a few years ago how to brew beer. I love to cook. I really relate cooking to creating music. Lately I've been making a ton of ice cream, which is great for the family. If I find something, I get really into it and I want to do it myself.

I read something interesting on your website about your mastering philosophy: “One point that many mastering engineers tend to agree on is that mastering is generally transparent work, that a mastering engineer should not influence the sound with any artistic judgment. Mastering should be a clean and clinical practice. This is not my approach. I don't claim to be a transparent mastering engineer. Typically, quite the opposite. Because I am an artist myself I cannot help but to approach projects from that vantage point... to explore different paths and to bring forward the artistic concepts inherent in the music.” How do you find your clients respond to that philosophy?

Well, because I come from a music background – an experimental music background at that - most people come to me to master because they know the label or they know my music. I think if I didn't have that whole background – [if I was] just an empty slate musically – it would have been a lot harder. Early on, I didn't have the mastering credits to back me up, but people who came to me knew my music and the label. They said, “I like your sound, I like your philosophies. I'll trust you with my project.” Still, to this day, a lot of clients come to me because they know what I do musically. If they're comfortable with that or they're a similar sound, they kind of know what to expect. I think any artist at some point, when you hit a certain point in your career or maturity, you've found your thing. You've found your niche, you've found who you are and what you do. You can't be afraid to put that out there. “This is what it is. Like it or not, listen or don't. This is what I do.” Just being honest to yourself and your clients. I don't want to be someone, or put on some face, that I'm not. At the same time, I don't necessarily want to be type-cast as a mastering engineer who only does a certain kind of music. I can do any kind of music and I've done all kinds of music. I feel like I have the room and the speakers and the skill set to work on anything. I might specialize in the more experimental types of music, but I've gotten calls to do all kinds of stuff. A lot of new clients that come to me will say, “I don't know who you are and don't know your music. But I really like the philosophies on your website.” And then we start the conversation that way. Also, coming from a photography background – and I mention that on my website too – I always find correlations between mastering and photo editing. I mean, it's the same thing. Preparing a photograph for a final print for a gallery show is the exact same thing as mastering a record for final presentation on a record or CD. You're adjusting lightness and darkness, you're reducing or adding grain, you're balancing levels, and adjusting it to be optimized for the final medium. Fortunately, with a photograph, you're printing it on a specific printer – you print it and it either looks good or it doesn't. Whereas with mastering, someone's going to listen to it on their phone, and this speaker and that speaker, so you have to have something that translates well. But I think all my work in photography and Photoshop gave me skills that help me in mastering. At the end of the day, mastering's primarily technical. You have to make it translate well and sound the best it can first, before you can get creative with it.

What are the different reel-to-reel machines you have over there?

The big one there with the Ampex tape is an Otari that I’ll sometimes use for tape transfers for mastering clients. The others I use for my own music, not mastering. The Roberts, the tall one, is a consumer model. It's a stereo machine with two tube amps. It's only half-working but I use it to make loops. And then this little one is this weird portable machine with some mode on it called “language learning,” so I guess it's some kind of educational deck. I use that all the time because it really sounds terrible [laughs]. The object for my own music is to find the worst-sounding machine that still functions nicely. There's millions of them on eBay, but finding ones that work well can be hard. I have three more in the basement that don't work at all. The motor on the little educational deck isn't strong enough to play, but if you put it in fast-forward mode, it'll play normally. They all have their own quirks. I use some tape plug-ins, but it's not even remotely the same. The UAD emulations are good, and I use them a lot, but none of them are as inconsistent as these, where halfway through a take it just starts crapping out [laughs]. I've had things happen halfway through a take, the whole pitch just dropped for the rest of the take. I had to re-pitch it back up in Pro Tools. Some things that happen are super-cool and some are really annoying. You never quite know what you're going to get –  that's part of the fun.

To what degree are you creatively inspired by gear in your own music? Or is it just a means to an end?

I've been pretty much obsessed with music gear since I was 15 – I had a subscription to Keyboard Magazine - and pretty much every waking moment for 30 years has been about music and gear. Constantly reading websites, reading magazines, talking to all my friends who are musicians. There's that saying that to become a master at something you need to work at it for 10,000 hours. I don't call myself a master at anything, but I've definitely been obsessed with music gear for 10,000 hours [laughs]. But friends of mine who have very rudimentary recording equipment can make albums far more beautiful than my own, [made] in a room full of fancy things. So it's not the gear. The gear is fun and the gear helps. But websites like Gearslutz can be dangerous in a lot of ways. People always make you think you need X and Y piece of gear to get a good sound. And while that's true on some levels, it's not true on many levels. You have to learn what you need and what you don't need. My new album, which I've been working on for two years, is almost all electric piano, glockenspiel [Yamaha] DX7, and some tape machine. A really limited palette. I had a concept for that album, those were the instruments, so I wasn't interested in adding other things. My next album will probably be all modular [synthesizer].

When did you first get into modular synths?

I used to have a Doepfer [modular] system when I lived in Brooklyn and I was doing much more synthetic music then. I liked it, but I eventually sold it for a Nord Modular, which I liked better at the time. And then as Eurorack has become so popular again, and specifically modules to do sampling and external processing and looping, I started to get back into it. 2013, I think, is when I started building the current system. So much of my work lately has been about more organic, less synthetic sounds: electric piano and bells and tape loops and stuff like that. So I said, can I do what I do with the modular? And according to YouTube, I can't... you know, 'cause most of those demo videos sound terrible [laughs]. But I know I can. Looks at those specs. Look at the [Makenoise] Phonogene. It records and it loops. I know I can do it. And I was like, “I can't find any good demos, I'm just gonna have to try it.” So, I tried – and I could. I'm hoping to show other people that you can do all kinds of music with a modular. I think there's some kind of modular music thing that sounds like a lot of those YouTube demo videos, but there's also tons of other stuff being done with them. And I perform live now with just a modular too. Of course, a lot of it is sample-based or looping-based, but you can still do it, and it's really fun. Like any instrument, there's definitely a learning curve – you can't just pick it up and be an expert. But I've found this stuff to be great for what I do live.

So you're using the modular system for mostly processing and sampling, or is there synthesis involved too?

Probably half and half. If I can have some slow-moving sinewaves – and I have a lot of them – that's about all I need. I have friends that make fun of me because no matter what new synth I buy, I make the same sound on all of them. They're all sinewaves [laughs]. On the modular, like any monophonic synth, as soon as you play a 2nd note, it cuts off the first one. So you have to have separate voices overlapping to fake your polyphony. It's not that hard to do, but you have to think that way. The tough thing with modular is that you have to kind of have something in mind before you do it, as opposed to a subtractive synth where you just hit a note and start turning knobs. You have to plan ahead where you're gonna patch. Once you get a patch then you can think again and re-patch part of the middle of it and then think about where you want to go. But you kind of have to think before you do, which can be hard to get used to.

Are there things that you can do with modular that you can't do elsewhere in your studio?

You could probably do anything that you can do on the modular in a plug-in. But I have no desire to do that. I don't want patch memory. I want the physical interaction, I want to have to turn the knobs. I love how ephemeral modular synths are and how organic they are. Because there's no patch memory, when you pull something out, you're done. And if you make one parameter change here, it ripples down through the signal path and makes changes in other places that you may not expect. So a little change somewhere can make all these other things happen. One of my favorite things to do is to get a really nice patch and then turn all the knobs to random locations. It's amazing how the same patch through the same modules just with different knob settings sounds completely different. It just shows how flexible they are. Sometimes you just come up with such cool things that you would never set out to do. I like hardware synths. I don't have a single software synth installed on my computer. I used to, but over the last 5 to 10 years they've all gone away. I mean, there are great software synths, I'm not knocking them. I'm sure they're even better than they used to be. It's just a different way of working. I just enjoy the hand-on process; it's a way to get away from the computer screen.

What is the role of the computer in your recent solo work?

I mix in the computer, at least the EQ. I usually sum it out to the console, but I do a lot of subtractive EQ with plug-ins. When I'm mixing my own material, I'll use massive filtering to create separate spaces for instruments. Practically, I just don't have enough hardware EQs to do that. Sometimes I'll use it for reverbs, although I often use hardware reverbs. I also compose in the computer, you know, copying and making layers. But everything else pretty much happens outside the computer. So making the loops, doing some kind of performance on the instruments and then using Pro Tools as a multi-track machine. My album that I just finished has very little editing. I did the looping manually, so instead of making a loop in a looper and recording it for 10 minutes, I played the loop manually for 10 minutes. You get all the inconsistencies that come along with that. Different note velocities, different timbres, different timings because you're gonna mess it up. I watch a counter on a laptop so I know when to repeat my phrase. So you get these long loops but every repetition is different. Then you layer that with another loop that's looping at a different time, playing manually for 10 minutes or however long the song is. That was that album. It's all single long takes, and then I basically just adjusted the fade-ins and fade-outs of each track, and occasionally cropped out a note or something like that. But it's very little editing. A lot of times I'll use a looper pedal. I like loopers that do asynchronous loops like the [Electroharmonix] 22500 or multiple loopers, so you get continuous variations. Sometimes I'll make a loop during the day and the kids will come home. Once l've put them to bed I'll come back out here and I'm like “Oh crap, the loop's been running all day.” If I'm in here working on the website or something I'll let a loop run. If I can listen to it for a good hour or two, I know it's pretty good. I like to make long pieces that are very repetitive, but it has to be able to pass that test. I'll record it maybe for 10 or 15 minutes, and maybe do some kind of a performance, tweaking a filter or whatever. If you can really listen to it for a while and still enjoy it, then it's probably worth recording. But a lot of times there'll always be one note [that's not working], you'll have to erase it and try something else.

Are a lot of the effects being recorded on the way in?

Yeah, sometimes. Like the [Eventide] H8000 - that's such an instrument. If this place was burning down, I'd get my screwdriver and pull that out of the rack. That's one of my favorite pieces of gear. It's a multi-effects unit – reverbs, delays, distortions – but it's kind of the cream of the multi-effects crop. I call it the “cheating box.” I have some programs in there that I made where you just hit a couple notes and then the thing makes them just go into this other world and you're like, “Oh, damn!” It can do so many crazy and creative things that I'll often record it going in because it is part of the sound. As opposed to a reverb or something that you could add later. But I tend to record with effects because I like to make that commitment. Stuff like the [Roland] Space Echo, where it's really instrumental to the sound, I tend to record. And when Marcus [Fischer] and I work together it's all just live into the computer. The last record we did, Twine, was just two mono tracks for the whole album. It was the easiest mixing job I ever had. Two mono tracks from two tape machines. I EQed them to make them sit together a little better and faded them in and out and then mastered it. Collaborations tend to be more fluid in that way because there are two of us working, so we can bounce ideas off of each other and get things going a little more quickly.

Some of your later releases have embraced a more lo-fi, “weathered” sound, with lots of surface noise and a natural noise floor. What got you interested that and what are some of the techniques you're using to achieve it?
It's funny. If I were to go back 15 years and tell the old me that I'd embrace noise, I wouldn't believe myself. Back in the early digital days, you just wanted to get rid of noise. We had DAT machines finally. I sold my 4-track. You had digital which was clean, clean, clean. And it was great. And digital photography was clean and I could sell my film camera. And just like any of this stuff, eventually you realized that you were kind of missing something from those old dirty cameras. For me creatively, it was really kind of a slow arc and it happened alongside my photography interests. With photography, I got interested in Polaroid cameras again, and all these lo-fi cameras. Creatively, I found it a way to put another layer over what I did that I had no control over. When you take a Polaroid, you have a picture of something. If it was a digital picture, it'd just be a picture of that thing. But the Polaroid adds its own layer, in all its inconsistencies, and makes it something else. It gives it a soul. It gives it some kind of implied story or something. And you can't control what the Polaroid does. It's the Polaroid film that makes it look like a Polaroid. It's the same with the tape machine. You record a glockenspiel in and you have nice mics and a nice pre[amp] and it sounds good. But coming out of that tape machine it's got a different sound that you can’t do anything about because that's what the tape machine added. And I like that. It's a way of abstracting it one more step from what I’m consciously creating. Over the years, I've just embraced that more and more and not been afraid of noise. I used to want to get rid of all noise. I thought noise was unprofessional. Eventually I just embraced it. But I won't just add noise, it'll be noise from something. On my new album I was recording through the Space Echo. When I stopped recording and went to play it back, I realized it was missing something. I was thinking, “It was cooler before.” I realized it was the motor from the Space Echo sounding in the room, which makes noise as it goes around. At some points, the tape almost gets crinkled – just for a second you hear something struggling in the motor and then it keeps going. During the half-hour I was recording, that all became part of the sound. I was like, “That was it!” So I put a mic on the motor and recorded the motor sound to another track in Pro Tools. Once I layered that in there, then again I had what it was. I also ended up using the switches on the Space Echo on another song. So the motor, the switches all became part of the instrument. I also use a lot of cassette. A lot of times if I get a nice loop going on the gear, I'll just record it from the speakers through the built-in mic and layer in that hissy, crappy recording. When I'd finish a song on my new album, I felt it was nice but it needed something else, something I was having trouble putting my finger on. So what I ended up doing was taking the whole mix and recording it through the speakers to this cassette machine. Then mic'ing the built-in speaker of the cassette player and layering that under the whole piece. Sometimes delaying it or pre-delaying it. It becomes this noisy, ghosted version of the studio recording. You get this sense of texture and a little more human sound. That's kind of what the pieces needed and I ended up doing it to all of them. It just became part of the process. That's a big part of what I've been doing lately. Not to be noisy and loud, but a gentle, kind of weathered sound.

Do you think moving up here, away from the city, has inspired your work to move further in that direction?

It's interesting. I attributed my initial love for all things minimalist to living in the city, because I felt that the city was so “on” all the time that minimalism gave me that peace of mind and escape. I always said that I made quiet music because I lived in a loud city. It was just a way to keep the balance. I said, “I wonder if I move to where it's quiet, am I going to start making louder music?” to get that balance back. But it was just the opposite. Which really surprised me. The environment really took over as an influence. I'm living in all this nature and I'm appreciating all the imperfections and the grit. My music got more quiet, more natural, more organic, less electronic. It was pretty profound. And it's still continuing on that trajectory. But in ten years, I may be somewhere else. I never try to predict the future, at this point I’ve realized that everything changes – processes and interests come and go, fade and loop back. It’s all part of the adventure.

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interview by joseph branciforte  /  pound, ridge, new york  /  june 20, 2016
article appears in issue #126 of
tape op magazine

article appears in issue #126 of tape op magazine

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