Zen of Recording

Le Masquerade

David Bowie, one of pop music’s most notable stylistic chameleons, was once quoted as saying: “Once you’ve heard something new, it’s already out of fashion.” I remember how startling that statement was to me at the time. Outlandish, even. How could someone work so hard to create a singularly unique sound, only to abandon it immediately because you subscribe to such an absolute position? Certainly, the opposite is a much more commonly shared stance. That an artist finds their “voice” through a lifetime of experience, personal growth, and creativity. Not to mention good, old-fashioned trial and error. As this emerges, it is nurtured and crafted into a mature artistic viewpoint that hopefully, continues to evolve and improve throughout our lives.

Blues, jazz, and folk music are all certainly idioms that share this “dominant gene,” which may be why many of their sub-genres are regionally oriented, i.e., West Coast jazz, St. Louis blues, Appalachian folk, etc.

Pop, rock, and soul are much more schismatic, due to the sheer number of artists competing to have their voices heard above the din of a million others. This challenge becomes even more…let’s say, mathematically problematic when one starts to figure in record sales, etc. Then the solutions are often more systemic. So you either develop something like an ABBA-type approach, basically trying to come up with a repeatable formula for hit songs or if you already have one, like Lady GaGa has, the test is to keep it sounding fresh, even as you are giving your audience what they asking for.

Although Bowie has tirelessly flitted about stylistically for more than 40 years, often utilizing physical reinventions of himself (Aladin Sane, Ziggy Stardust) as a vehicle for these often thrilling, sometimes random excursions into the musical unknown, his vast catalog of recordings makes perfect sense when looked upon as a whole.

I like to think of our artistic consciousness as a single, ever-evolving event, like a pebble dropped into deep, still water. As the ripples proliferate and spread outward in every direction, more and more of the water becomes influenced by this single event. Obstacles and disturbances can also play a part, as can co-operative and synergistic events… But the pebble is always dropping. It’s influencing things below the surface as well, until it ultimately comes to rest. The art is in the mystery of how all of that comes to be.

Mysterious and unique are both great words to describe an amazing new delay plug-in I recently discovered called Le Masque: Delay (Mac/Win €59.00 – currently about $78) by Xils Lab (ww.xils-lab.com).

To simply call Le Masque a delay is a little misleading, though. Sure, you could certainly reach for this in any situation that requires an echo/delay type effect and you’ll be very happy with its sound and ease of performance, but there is so much more horsepower “under the hood” that you may never find your way out of the deep library of presets (more on those in a moment).

Le Masque: Delay has a true stereo input/output path, with independent (but linkable) right and left delays. With  host-sync enabled by default, these delays are automatically synchronized to your host program’s tempo, so auditioning presets is quick and intuitive. The left/right delay time and feedback buttons are located at the upper left of the plug-ins interface, with a space-saving inner/outer knob scheme. Located directly below are two more such knobs for level and pan. Below these are the very intriguing keyboard-style modulation wheel and dry/wet and gain knobs. Bam! Great sounding and easily edited basic stereo delay, right?

Things get a little more interesting from here…

The delay controls are fed by the area to the upper left called “The Grid,” which can be broken down into eight custom “Masks.” Essentially, users can select which beats get effected and for how long and which pass through untouched. There’s even a settable threshold, so you can be even more choosy about which elements get effected! This allows for an infinite amount of variations that not only effect rhythm and timbre but are affected by rhythm and timbre as well.

Let’s say you have a drum loop that you want to liven up. You can “mask” different beats in or out of the delay input, so for instance you could delay only the downbeats on 1 and 3, or the upbeats in between, or just the 4. These can be set up over a 1 to 4 bar interval, with a resolution of 1/4 to 1/16th n notes. It’s easy to draw in the rectangles on whatever beats, defining their duration and a triggering threshold. There’s even a handy attack and release control for avoiding plosives and clicks in your feedback! But wait… there’s, more!

There’s also a superb-sounding filter section, utilizing the much of the same architecture as their popular XILS synths, an LFO Envelope section for even more psychedelic sounding delay trails, and a Modulation Matrix that allows you to specify which elements effect which others… The result is a totally musical, groove-oriented, warm and gorgeously fat-sounding animation that can be applied to entire mixes or individual elements with a dizzy array of possibilities. It doesn’t just bring things to life; it makes them do the Bugaloo, too.

I am one of those blissfully lost souls still wandering through the magical forest of presets, as there is always something close to what I want (or never knew I wanted until now) and exploring from there is easier.

Part of the mystery is that this thing sort of “lives” in the background… it whistles, moans, and whooshes and just sort of “excites” the air around you. Beware though: It often pastes a gorgeous trail at the top of your mixdowns, so leave at least two measures blank at the start to accommodate this loveable little quirk!

Its haunted leanings aside, I have found all kinds of great uses for it: vocals are set into strange new surroundings, drums get funkier and fancier, simple guitar rhythms can be spiced up and brought into a much cooler rhythmic and textural space. I’ve already seen a review of Hans Rotchi’s new album that likened my production to Brian Eno (!), and I can attribute almost all of that to my heavy usage of Le Masque: Delay on that recording.

Whether looking for something really new and unique to make your mixes stand out, or you’re just trying to blend in, Le Masque: Delay represents a very cool new go-to option for you.

I know it does for me.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is an award-winning independent record producer, singer and songwriter. He will soon release Monarchs with Seaholm Mackintosh, and is currently working on his solo album, The Sexy. He performs this month at Adams Avenue Unplugged.

  • April 2012

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