In our new tech series, Gearache, producer and journalist Mark Smith investigates the production methods and setups of a new generation of artists. This edition sees Mark sitting down with Tin Man, the Finnish producer who’s forthcoming album Ode takes a familiar muse—the mental fallout of a night’s raving—and explores it through the prism of subdued techno and sinuous acid lines.
In the last edition of Gearache I spoke to Palms Trax, an early twenty-something still finding his feet in the production game. This time around I hit up a man who is six albums and fifteen EPs deep into his career. I wanted to know if the existential trivialities that Jay and I labored over were merely symptoms of a transient youthful fever, or if there’s a skin of doubt that no amount of musical experience can shed.
Where Jay was questing and doubtful in his disposition, Tin Man, aka Johannes Auvinen, came across as measured and methodical. Our conversation was often punctured by silence. He paced around in circles. When questioned about specific production techniques Johannes was erudite, economical and more than willing to share the methods behind his gorgeous acid lines. And when I reached for some abstracted fluff, he would call my bluff with a grounded response. I got the sense that here was a guy more interested in the doing of things, rather than shooting the breeze about topics that might not get you anywhere. I mean, what’s the point in understanding your frustrations if you could’ve spent that time doing some drum programming?
Johannes, what’s going on?
I’m actually recovering from surgery I had last week. I had back surgery for disc herniation. They had to open up my back and take out a bunch of particulate matter that had leaked out of my disc into my spinal cavity where my nerves are. I was in the hospital for 5 days . . . I can’t sit down for too long, I have to either walk or lie down.
Jay [Palms Trax] and I had this whole conversation that struggled over how to build trust in your own ear as a young producer, despite being bombarded with all this online information about the do’s and don’ts of music production. As someone with years of experience under your belt, how do you feel looking back at this vulnerable stage of the production learning curve? Does it seem like a distant memory tied to the insecurities of youth or are you plagued by the same diffidence to this day?
Because there are no prescribed routes in the music world and no farmer’s almanac, young producers can get caught in a rough spot. There are two challenges. The first is freedom. The challenge of orienting and deciding what you want to say and what you want to achieve is an existential challenge overcome by coming to terms with one’s environment. It is also about focusing your wants to a smaller field. Then as the young artist starts along their path they can seek out the information and tools which move them further along in the direction they know they want to go. They will of course need help, mentors, advice, knowledge, but they must be able to filter their intake knowing what is good for their advancement. This process continues for all artists with adjustments made along the way. Because there are no rules, you can react by inventing a focused dogma for yourself that will guide your decision making.
You’ve said in the past that one of the reasons that you focus on the acid sound so much is for its a-musical qualities. Yet the way you program the 303 is really tender in a harmonic sense. You can tell that you’ve got a romantic tonal instinct that runs alongside a love of non-human noise. I was wondering how you feel about reconciling those.
I think it gets reconciled more in my live sets because then I tend to go into a non-musical, acid-based flow. In terms of writing, it’s more that I’m pretty focused on the melodic style of acid because that’s my niche and it’s also what I can pull out of the instrument. The basis of my relationship with the 303 is being able to express myself through programming melodic lines.
How do you go about programming them? Not many producers seem to be able to squeeze so much detail out the 303, particularly in the way you use glide and irregular step lengths. The intricacies of modulation are quite nuanced. Are you doing this all on the machine itself?
When you know how the 303 works—of course, there’s some magic in the randomness and impossibility of programming correctly the first time—but for those long melodic lines it’s pretty easy to sketch them out. I have a basic idea of the note order and then I can tap them in over four bars. Then I’ll sit down with those melodies and go into step time and keep reprogramming all of the accents and slides per bar over four bars, altering each part selectively, until it works. It’s a lot of reprogramming.
To what extent are you aware of musical theory and playing instruments in the traditional notion of being a ‘musician’?
Technically I don’t have any education but I’m trying to learn more all the time, just by watching YouTube videos about music theory and whatnot, or just playing around on a keyboard to try to understand harmony or what’s possible. My ideas change all the time as I learn stuff, or if I play more my ideas about music theory change. Sometimes I can throw everything out again and start over.
Because it seems for a techno producer (to paint you in broad strokes) that you have quite a musical disposition, mainly from the minor inflections of your melodic lines. Techno producers often seem afraid of being openly beautiful whereas you seem to be able to court that in a decidedly non-cheesy way.
Maybe it’s just a confidence thing. I’m not afraid to be cheesy. Of course I like the minor mode and I’m always looking for melodies in the minor mode because that’s an easy route to get to some touching melodies. But I wouldn’t see that as a fault, that techno producers are necessarily afraid of going down the same route. I think that if you’re in the world of techno your thinking is much more loop and groove based rather than sitting at the piano and trying to figure out a touching melody. It’s like you’re starting point is different.
Your new record and some of the stuff you’ve done in the past with Donato Dozzy falls under the umbrella of ‘ambient techno’, to use another generic term. I find music like this emulates nature in that it focuses on systemic unity and a perpetual focus on horizontal movement, punctuated by subtle modulation. So where do you know where the line is between something being hypnotic and something being boring?
[Long silence] . . . I don’t know. That’s a very personal thing. My hypnotic is your boring, your boring is my hypnotic.
When I was listening to your record and thinking about your sound design, I kept coming back to the construction of space. It seems simultaneously expansive, intimate and alienated at the same time. I was wondering what some of the processes you use to create this multifaceted construction of space, one that allows multiple angles of interpretation.
I take effects as instruments. I’m keen on spending a lot of time with the dimensionality of sound production. Specifically the contrast between large and small existing in parallel. It could be a mixing technique I use where I take reverb and spatial effects that make things seem closer or further away; I’ll use that as an out rather than equalising the sounds with an EQ to change the spatial landscape.
So you’d rather keep the colour of the sounds intact once you’ve recorded them and use effects as a way to push them around to make them fit?
Right. Yeah, kind of like a typical mixing technique where people say “visualise that you’re standing in front of a cube that is going back into perspective and imagine that the bass sits here on the bottom tier and the hi hats are in the left and right corners etc.” So I also do the same thing when I’m mixing but I would prefer to use more effects to confuse those spatial aspects rather than just using EQ or volume changes to achieve the same thing.
Do you find yourself thinking about the elements in your productions in terms of phrases like weight, direction, speed and depth? Is there a physical vocabulary to understand and come to terms with your sounds?
I do make some associations, but also I’m curious about creating a kind of confusion. I like when you start playing with the spatial effects so that your mind can’t really grab a hold of it. It’s fascinating how sound can confound you. Rather than just trying to fill up the cube so that everything is balanced, it’s more interesting if there are different things flying around and turning inside out. ~
The new Tin Man album Ode is due out September 22nd on Absurd Recordings.