Interview with SynthME 2010 by Jack Hertz
Shane Morris is a busy electronic artist. Between creating hour long live sets for his live streaming radio show, “Atmosphera.” He’s making field recordings, working behind the scenes at Electro-Music organizing regular online streaming events as well as releasing recordings on NetLabels like EarthMantra. Shane’s work goes deep into Ambient realms. His adventurous style is right at home exploring the atmospheric as well as the subterranean and everything between. We had the opportunity to talk with Shane about how he got started with electronic music, working with synthesizers, field recording, his new release “Premonition” and more. Read the Interview
photo by John Moore
Synth ME: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started as an electronic artist?
Shane: I am a musician and composer presently living in Fayetteville, Arkansas mostly creating solo ambient electronic music. I was first drawn to using electronics in music with the advent of the sampler. I have admired and loved the possibilities of the sampler since the early 80’s, but it wasn’t until the late 90’s that I began to incorporate it into my own music. My background is in percussion and mallets and I was first attracted to the idea of using a sampler to capture and perform sounds such as resonant rocks, metal poles,etc. I began playing a Malletkat, a midi controlled mallet percussion instrument, in rock, fusion, and electronica groups I was in at the time. From there I just became more interested in synthesis, sampling, sequencing, and live looping. When I began making my solo music in 2008, I switched mostly to keyboard based instruments/controllers because I could move between instruments faster that way, instead of having to use mallets.
Synth ME: How did you discover electronic music?
Shane: The first electronic music that I started taking an active participation in beyond the radio was 80’s new wave, and later industrial and techno. Early artists that I liked were Joy Division, Big Black, Skinny Puppy, and the Cocteau Twins. Ministry and New Order really drew me into electronic music at that time as well. Dub reggae, which incorporates electronics, more so in the mixing areas had a profound effect on me, artists like Lee Perry, King Tubby, and Adrian Sherwood.
Around 1987, I bought Tangerine Dream “Phaedra” on a whim. It completely blew my mind and changed my perceptions about what electronic music is and the directions it can go. I still love this album and to this day it remains as my favorite Tangerine Dream album. Not long after, I began an interest in New age music, Windam Hill, and ECM artists as well as experimental and traditional music from around the world. Many of these musicians were incorporating electronic and electro-acoustic sounds that I loved. I began college in the nineties and discovered Hearts of Space radio at my local college station and have been a lover of ambient space music since. As far as other electronic genres go, I also have been a fan of downtempo, chillout, breakbeat, and drum n bass in the 90’s and 00’s.
Synth ME: Who are some of your favorite electronic music artists?
Shane: Steve Roach and Robert Rich are two of my favorite artists and have had a large influence on my own music. Their music is as much an experience, as music. I’ve been a huge fan of both artists and both still continue to amaze me. Obmana, Stearns, Serrie, Inoue, Tangerine Dream, Eno, Cage, Stockhausen, and Xenakis have all been influential musically and philosophically as well. Their ideas about music and sound are as much of an influence on me as their music is. Aphex Twin is also another one. The artists at electro-music.com and stillstream.com inspire and motivate me a lot. My show, Atmosphera airs at both internet stations and I am active at both communities. Both places are magical vestiges of creative energy that are wonderful to be a part of.
Synth ME: What do you like about working with Synthesizers and electronics?
Shane: Sounds and creating new sounds, are my main attraction to electronics. However, being able to have alternate interfaces to trigger sounds is a nice thing to work with. After playing acoustic instruments for many years, I loved the sonic possibilities with electronic instruments. I use quite a bit of synthesizers and sequencers in my solo music, but I like a mixture of processed acoustics and electronics in the overall sound of my compositions.
Synth ME: Tell us a little bit about your music studio.
Shane: The studio is based around two pc’s spiraling outward with the synths first, then the acoustic instruments next. I use Reaper as my DAW and go to Audacity a lot for quick editing. I’m still fairly new to software for music but, I run Native Instruments gear, assorted freeware, and occasionally use an old version of Abelton Live. The main hardware I use is the Juno 106, Alesis Qsr, Emu Proteus 2000, Roland MC909 and SP303 for sequencing and sampling, m-audio controllers, Korg padcontrol, Malletkat, and iTouch. I also use Soundcraft mixers and an Alesis quardreverb4 for outboard efx. I use an Akai Headrush and Line6 DL4 for live looping as well. I have small wind collection of didgeridoos, chromatic and native American flutes, and ocarinas.
Apart from electronic music, I have studied African, Brazilian, and Cuban drumming for nearly two decades and have a variety of drums and percussion instruments from around the world that I pack into the studio. I also have a beautiful Ross vibraphone, and an assortment of gongs, cymbals, and found sound percussion instruments for bowing. I have recently built my first experimental instrument for bowing called a springboard, which is just a coil spring stretch out and picked up through a contact mic. When bowed, the springboard can make unique gong like sounds. I hope to build more instruments in the future, including eventually making my way into building modular synths.
Synth ME: What are your favorite synths and electronic gizmos?
Shane: I suppose that presently Absynth5 is my favorite synth. I recently became a NI Komplete owner and have been using Absynth and Reaktor so far. Absynth is very easy to use and I like how easy it is to mutate and craft your own sounds. I plan to explore much more with these instruments over the winter when I have a bit more free time. I have played hardware synths since I started in electronic music. I never liked the idea of a computer crashing live. Nowadays, computers are much more stable and I’m very happy to start incorporating software synths into my music.
As far as gizmos go, I couldn’t get by without mentioning how much I enjoying using my iTouch. I have it just for music creation and love it as a wonderful mini synth with a big sound. I use several apps, but most often I go to nlog, argon, synthpond, droneo, and bebot when I play. It’s the pocket computer I had been waiting for since the 80’s and the release of calculator wristwatches.
I also like experimenting with a little modular synth called the Morris Box, which was made for me by Damon Mar of Marsynth in Lawrence, KS. It is an old cigar box housing two independent square wave oscillators, low-pass filter, and lfo. Damon sort of specializes in housing his synths in uncommon objects like cigar boxes, plastic tofu containers, and suitcases. You can see Damon’s creations here: http://www.flickr.com/photos…
Synth ME: Can you talk a bit about using organic sounds and field recordings?
Shane: I am a lover of field recordings and I do enjoy incorporating them into my music. I like the way field recordings of various sounds can invoke images, feelings, and associations with the listener in a way that regular instruments cannot. For instance, If I used birds or oceans waves in a piece of music, it can conjure up individual memories, feelings, and connections for each listener beyond just the overall sounds. Each listener will have a different reaction to those sounds based on their own experiences and perceptions. However, I do also like the textures and timbres field recordings bring to a composition. When used dynamically, field recordings can have a powerful effect on the composition.
I mostly use organic or nature field recordings in my music, however I do incorporate some urban and city sounds as well. I have the amazing good fortune of living outside of town on a river corridor in a forested area. I make a lot of recordings just at my house and the surrounding area. It mostly depends on the composition and the underlying theme of the piece that I am composing for. I often choose some kind of scenario, theme, or idea that my composition/improvisation is reflective of, and try to reinforce that theme with the instruments, sounds, and field recordings as well. Sometimes the field recording itself is so interesting, that it determines the theme of the composition as well. It works both ways for me. I have another release coming out on the Just Not Normal net label that features such a field recording. The release is entitled “Train.to.Knowhere”, and it is based around a field recording of an Amtrak train that I recorded in Kansas City at Union Station. “Train.to.Knowhere” and the accompanying field recording of the train will be released on Dec. 7 at jnn.wordpress.com
Synth ME: You do a lot of live performances via online streaming?
Shane: I do indeed, mostly at electro-music.com and sometimes at stillstream.com as well. I began streaming not long at all after I discovered the technology to do it. I have been performing regularly on the internet for almost 2 years now in my own program, Atmosphera, formerly known as Space Port Zero Nine. Atmosphera is essentially a live music journal of performances streamed at electro-music radio. Now, Atmosphera is also a weekly podcast at stillstream.com on Tuesday nights. Sets last from one to two hours and the music is mostly longform ambient improvisations by myself looping, sequencing, and playing on a variety of instruments in the studio. I have connected with so many wonderful people around the world from my live streams, especially people in the EU, and I plan to continue doing it for some time to come. For more info about Atmosphera and my live streaming performances: http://electro-music.com/for…
Synth ME: What’s different about the music and gear you use in an online streaming performance as opposed to playing on stage?
Shane: I have a lot more freedom with instrumentation, and composition for that matter, in a streaming performance than a normal stage performance. Essentially, for normal performances, I am limited to the space available to transport my gear and the space available on stage. However, at home, I have the option to play “the studio” and all its contents. So, the instrumentation has a big effect on the final outcome of the music I will produce. Another advantage to streaming performances is the ability to have very subtle moments and shifts within the music that can sometimes not be heard or overlooked at a club gig. Some instruments require a much quieter stage environment in order for me to hear it and it be heard, such as gongs and other bowed objects. The vibraphone as well is much easier to mic and play in the studio as opposed to a regular gig. Depending on the situation, a streaming performance can last much longer than an average performance at a regular venue. I have done 4 and 5 hour live streams at times, which is fun.
Synth ME: How much improvisation do you do and what different does it offer from composition?
Shane: Improvisation has played a big role in all the music I have made since the beginning. Improvisation keeps the music fresh and keeps my own personal interest in the music alive and exciting. I’ve never been a player that will play note for note on the sheet music. For me personally, playing a composition the same way each time is more akin to “work” than it is to “creativity”. I was a visual artist for a long time before I became a musician; I bring a lot of ideas about creating visual art to the world of sound. Thus, I would never paint the same painting twice, and I would never play a composition the same twice either. With that said, I do love to compose and arrange music. So, for me, a balance of composition and improvisation is essential. Sometimes there is much more improvisation, and sometimes there is more composition. One thing about Ambient and Space music that I love is the lack of compositional rules involved in construction. If I want to suddenly go from an atmospheric harmonic soundscape, to a tribal ambient romp, then into atonal darkness, I can do that.
Synth ME: What kind of response has your latest release on the Earth Mantra label, “Magnetosphere,” been getting?
Shane: Magnetosphere was my first release on Earth Mantra and has been warmly received. I have been very happy with the response from listeners and to date is my most popular release. Magnetosphere, like everything I have done so far, is a live performance, featuring the Roland Juno 106 in a longform ambient journey that makes for a great relaxing atmosphere for all kinds of activities. One thing that interests me in music is the idea of the “function” of a piece. I like the idea of having compositions for more than just entertainment. I like to think that everything in life can have its own music that functions to the specific needs of the task at hand, whether that be sleeping, meditating, working, etc. With that in mind, I think Magnetosphere functions well for other activities as well as entertaining fans of ambient synthesizers. I have had good response from ambient and dark ambient fans, as well as new age listeners that like it for meditation. So, I feel the release has been a great success.
Synth ME: Are you working on any new releases you can tell us about?
Shane: Yes! In fact, I have a brand new release on the Earth Mantra net label entitled, “Premonition”, which was taken from a live improvised performance recorded on March 15, 2010 that is out now. “Premonition” was released November 1st 2010 on Earth Mantra and I’m getting good feedback on it so far. The album is a dark meditative longform soundscape that has a trance inducing quality to it. “Premonition” is one track that clocks in at 58 minutes.
I also have 2 other releases due out soon as well. I mentioned earlier that I will be having my first release on JNN with “Train.to.Knowhere”, which will be released on Dec. 7, 2010. I also have a third release due out on Earth Mantra soon which is a collaboration with touch guitarist Dan Minoza, entitled “The Ritual Space”. This release is culled from our 3 hour performance at the Kansas City Electro-Music Festival and distilled down close to an hour and a half. The interesting thing about this release is that Dan and I had never played music together before this day. So, the recording is literally a documentation of the very first notes and music that we shared together. The set was completely improvised with no discussion whatsoever of the direction of the music. I’m excited about this album. Dan is a passionate player and I loved the sound worlds we passed through that day.
Apart from these two releases, I will be spending the next few months going through many of live performances of 2010 and releasing some of them on the aforementioned netlabels and hopefully some others as well. I will also begin working on my first full studio record as well.
Synth ME: What would you like to see change for today’s electronic musician?
Shane: Electronic music is very popular now. Maybe it is even the most popular “style” of music around the planet. It is certainly safe to say it is not an underground thing anymore. People are doing amazing things technically and creatively. It’s an amazing time to be around and involved in the music. I think as more people are drawn to the more accessible forms of electronic music, more will also trail away to the other experimental sub-genres looking for variations and something new. For the most part, I don’t have any wishes. I enjoy watching the genres evolve and grow.
Synth ME: Where do you think electronic music will be in 10 years?
Shane: The truth is, the rate that everything is evolving nowadays, technology and mass communication, makes it difficult for me to make a prediction. Musically, I have no idea. With the largest population ever on the planet, and the popularity of electronic music now, seems like the sky or beyond is the limit. As far as the tools, I would expect software and alternate controllers evolving and expanding, wireless studios, solo performers and smaller group configurations coming into their own more, and massive improvements in streaming video and audio. I would also hope to see the continued growth and expansion of open source and freeware movements. I’m a believer that life, art, and creativity should not be so expensive in order to participate and make good quality stuff that others can enjoy.
Synth ME: Where can people find out more information about you and purchase your recordings?
Shane: Currently, I am releasing all of my music for free under creative commons. I have always been a big supporter of live music and taping. I love how creative commons has given a wonderful legal platform for artists to release their material in a way that works for everyone. As mentioned earlier, I have releases at Earth Mantra, Edp, and soon to be JNN, as well as many things in the electro-music archives.
As I improve on my recording engineering, DAW skills, and overall sound designs, I hope to produce some quality music both sonically and creatively, that is worthy of purchasing. The plan will be to offer something bigger and more calculated in a studio recording than what I can accomplish as a live solo musician multi-tasking on several instruments at once. Spatialization and spectrum of sound will certainly play a big role in the creation of studio albums.
Synth ME: Many thanks to Shane for taking the time to answer our questions. Do check out more information at the links the above. A great place to start is with his new release “Premonition” on EarthMantra that you can download for free at http://www.earthmantra.com/premonition