Studio Focus: Tom Middleton / Hugh on February 2nd

Tom Middleton

For our readers who are not familiar with you yet, can you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

I’m a classically trained electronic musician, sound designer, producer, DJ and remixer, known for pioneering ambient electronic music with Mark Pritchard as Global Communication, Jedi Knights, Secret Ingredients, Reload and Link. My best-known solo projects are as Cosmos and Modwheel.

I’ve toured and performed at clubs and festivals in 49 countries, to audiences as large as 125,000. In the last decade or so I’ve quietly transitioned into consultancy, psychoacoustic research, music and consumer psychology, sound architecture and sound branding. Examples of my current work include applying sonic science to create soundscapes for products, experiences, brands and spaces.

The last 5 years or so has been focused on the R&D of relaxation and sleep soundscapes, particularly in the hospitality sector. You can check some of the curated content I produce and playlist here.

What is your current studio set up?

It has been a mix of analogue and digital since the beginning, but these days I’d say I’m 70% in the box. I always add at least some processing in the analogue domain, using an old tape deck, esoteric outboard or pedals. I then record back in for stem mixing/mastering.

I’m also a big fan of recording in live performances of analogue and acoustic instruments to run alongside midi and automated processes, to add feeling, groove, personality and soul. To do this I keep synths, modulars, percussion and instruments around in the studio. I also head out with a Zoom H2N for location and field recordings regularly, gathering found sounds for original sound design.

A Macbook is the centre of my studio universe, and is packed with soft synths and plugins galore… All the usual suspects! I’ve also got a large collection of vintage synths, effects and drum machines. Beyond studio monitors, I also use a SubPac either attached to a Herman Miller chair or backpack version to physically connect with the low end below 120Hz. Coupled with a pair of Audeze LCD-Xs this is a great combo for balancing bass and getting into detailed sound design, with this extended frequency range.

Tom Middleton

When working on a track, what is your process?

My process is instinctive, emotional, spiritual, soulful, but very focused, depending on whether it’s a brief for a client or my own composition. Initiall, I follow that gut feeling, to capture those first pure emotional responses before they could get diluted or lost by geeking out in gear and processing! It happens to us all at some point, noodling and tweaking for hours on a kick, snare and hat combo.

Regardless of where the inspiration comes from or whatever sparks the idea, I go down a rabbit hole… Researching in depth, gathering reference sounds and music to create a playlist, sound palette or mood board. I then script or outline a narrative in detail, quite like visualising films with story boards. So I’m normally quite clear about the direction and have the essence and spirit of a track more or less ready to go in my head before recording anything.

Then it’s all about getting it out of my head into the box ASAP, so I quickly grab the acoustic, analogue and digital tools I need to preserve the spontaneity and keep the momentum flowing. Whether it’s, voice to midi, strumming, bowing, performing, hitting, I’ll do whatever is needed to get the notes and groove locked in. Reason is usually my go to for ‘preliminary sketching’ of midi parts, it’s fast as ****! After that, it’s all about refining the performances to add texture, tone, colour and ambience. This last part is one of my fortes, getting the background layer of atmosphere to add authenticity and set the scene.

Then I spend some time focusing on rhythmic elements, drum and percussion grooves, followed by developing and arranging parts, tweaking and automating or recording in human performance. I then write notes, add in sound effects and sound design elements to punctuate sections for added emotional drama and impact. Adding those subtle and minute sonic details goes beyond most ears, as you are probably unaware of what’s going on, but in context it all adds a unique flavour and makes what you produce unlike anything else.

Breaks from the process are essential, to give the ears a rest, and reenergise the body and mind. So is critically listen back to what you’ve created on a few different sets of speakers and devices. In the car is a good one!

How do you normally go about sourcing and designing sounds for your music?

Having learned the ropes on classic vintage Rolands (e.g. Aphex Twin’s custom modded SH101), Korgs, Arps, Yamahas, Moogs, Oberheims and Sequential Circuits, my approach to synthesis has always been building a patch from scratch as opposed to using presets.

So whatever the synth is I’m using, I’ll typically reset it to a sine wave, and start creating what’s in my head. I’m very lucky to have had that hands on trial and error experience using analogue synths from as far back as the late 80’s. I understand the physics and language of synthesis. So I find it natural and intuitive to move a slider or knob to get more or less exactly what I imagine and want. Whether this is physical or virtual, the results are usually what I predict.

However, I am a fan of the unpredictable, and striving to push the boundaries of sound design into the unknown… Alien sounds from other dimensions! This tends to happen in the box with digital processing as most of the physical and analogue processes and pathways are reasonably predictable. With the exception of the next generation of Eurorack module producers who are getting super creative in the last few years, with mind blowing next level devices for triggering, modulating, clocking, randomising and shaping. Just check Richard Devine’s Instagram. Say no more.

If you experience a creative block in the studio, do you have any particular rituals that get the inspiration flowing again?

I must be lucky in that regard, I don’t really get it! I feel there’s so much music inside me still to get out. Not enough time in fact, and the ideas are accumulating at a relentless pace. But I would say, it’s always good to break up the day with moments to move, breath, do chores, cook. Get out of the studio. Go out and get culturally inspired. I guarantee if you go to a concert, club or festival you’ll get inspired. Even scanning internet radio, delving into curated Spotify playlists, auditioning and discovering new artists on Bandcamp, Soundcloud.

What advice would you give for getting tracks ready for the club?

Always tune your ears before mixing down by listening to tracks you’ve already heard on big sound systems. Critically listen to these on your monitors. Compare, contrast. Write notes. Play back in a car even so you can crank it up a bit.

Have a deep look at the sound with a spectrum analyser plug in and watch how the frequency bands move. Learn what’s going on in the low end, mid range and tops. Question if your mix has a similar balance to something you know works in a club and has been mastered well. I’d say don’t worry too much about slamming your track into a limiter. Try and leave plenty of headroom. Let your tracks breath. No need to turn it up in the box. Turn it up on the DJ mixer if you need to, and let a mastering engineer help you get those extra dB’s of level, sheen, depth and width.

I hope we’re finally way beyond the stupidity of loudness wars. If you listen back to almost a decade of electronic music, it’s mostly all slammed and clipped into digital limiters to create bricks of undynamic compressed noise. Nasty. What was the world thinking? Dynamic masters that capture performance nuance, detail, space and emotion are what we need.

What’s up next for you, any releases in the pipeline?

Quite a roadmap of releases and products this year - Vinyl LPs, EP’s, CDs, Cassettes, apps, skills… Stay tuned for updates.

What do you like about Circle2?

Simple and intuitive GUI, playable, fun, effortless turbo workflow, drag and slide colour circle modulation, impressive and authentic sound with personality, heft and girth. Four, yes four analogue classics or sick vector phase shaping oscillators, or over a 100 comprehensive wavetables - plus noise and feedback - thank you very tweakin’ much! I can extract imagined and unique never before heard sounds in no time with Circle².

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