The ease of modern music software has allowed for the creation of an abundance of average, homogenous, electronic records; but over the last 14 years, Dan Snaith's project, Caribou, has consistently stayed above the fray. Here's a peek into Dan's musical mind, and a look into the tools he uses to bring his ideas to life.
Are you in London now ?
Yeah, I'm in my basement studio room at home here.
Is that where you made the new record?
Yeah. There's a drum booth in the corner, a Fender Rhodes with a pile of cables on it, a couple of modular synths, a [Roland] Juno-106, and an EMT turntable. That's it.
When you were in Tape Op #37  you were still called Manitoba, just before you released Caribou's Up in Flames. How has your recording process changed?
I've always recorded at home. Back then it was in a corner of my then-girlfriend, now-wife's, bedroom with a little bit of equipment in it. I had the same Fender Rhodes, the same piles of records. I didn't have any outboard [gear]; I still don't have much. I didn't have any synthesizers, aside from a Yamaha kids' organ. I didn't have a proper audio interface. I now have a couple of API preamps and things, but back then I had nothing. I was plugging a mic into the microphone input on a laptop.
It's still a pretty minimal setup. The computer is where you're doing most of the work.
I've always used lots of software, but that's something that has changed so dramatically in the last decade. I don't think I was using any VST synths. Was that even a thing then? I was using [Sonic Foundry's] ACID. It's very similar to the way I use Ableton Live — I don't use it as a DJ thing, but more as a looping, multitrack arrangement tool. That hasn't actually changed so much. I use a fair bit of VST synths now, in complement with the external synths. I have lots of friends who have lovely desks and consoles, but I'm tracking a maximum of three or four channels. If I'm doing a drum kit or something, it's pretty stripped down. It's just me in here, so I don't need to track a whole band or anything. I can get good sounds without a lot of gear since I go through things one at a time.
When did you switch to Ableton Live?
Did you use it on the album Andorra [in 2007]?
Actually, no I didn't. That was probably still ACID. I didn't even have MIDI then. There was no MIDI on the interface, so I just had to play everything, sometimes while I was tweaking the filters at the same time. It's only recently that I've had what would be considered a "barely acceptable" setup. [laughs]
In the last interview, you said that not using MIDI contributed to things sounding more human. Are you still trying to incorporate that kind of feeling?
Yeah. All the tracks are made to a grid now, but I definitely use quantizing sparingly. I only do that if I want a really metronomic feel.
What's your integration of Ableton Live into your live performances?
There are four of us onstage with one laptop, two MIDI controllers, and a bunch of MIDI foot controllers — they are all connected to the same instance of Abtleton Live. We can all control one another's reverb sends, filters, mapping and arrangement, or changing the sound of what somebody else is playing. I'll have control over the arrangement, and I can skip to another section. Even though we used the modular synth for a lot of sounds on this new album, I love the Ableton Live setup so much that we will convert all the parts to software, just so we have that flexibility to play songs differently. I don't think we could travel with a lot of this gear anyway. The things that we gain from having that internal setup live are more valuable to me, even if it doesn't sound quite as good as the real synths.
For the live show are you on a click, or is Ableton keeping up with you somehow?
It's a bit of both. Most of the time there's a click, but only the drummer is hearing it. We need something keeping time for when it would be too difficult just by listening. There's no rolling backing track — everything is played by us — but that could mean triggering a loop. There are other times when the click stops in a song... maybe I'm playing a keyboard part by myself and that's kind of dictating the tempo for a while, and then everyone joins in. When it needs to lock in again, the drummer uses a foot controller to start the click on the beat.
Are you changing tempos on the fly?
There're times when I'm playing by myself and the click doesn't exactly match. We are all trying to feel out tempo and the drummer will restart the click on the downbeat. We'll all be off for a little bit, and slowly come together. I miss seeing live music where the tempo fluctuates. We even have a song now where the guitarist/keyboardist has a fader that controls the tempo and he changes it throughout the song. If we want to feel like we are rushing, we can get that, even though certain things are sequenced.
What about recording in Ableton Live?
I use it exactly like I might use Pro Tools. Lots of people jam out the arrangements. You hit record and fire off clips, and it remembers all that. I've done some tracks like that, but generally with Caribou I think more in terms of composition, rather than a jammed-out track on the records. The live show has more of that kind of approach, such as, "What happens if we mute this? What if we jump to this section?" On the record, I'm thinking much more in terms of a conventional arrangement. "What would be good to make the verse go to the chorus?" I'm thinking of it more like a song. Sure, there's lots of tracking with me setting a sequence and noodling; but it's heavily edited down, so it's more concise.
In the previous interview, you said you were striving for simplicity but your tendency was to use lots of layers and tracks. Do you think you've achieved that on your recent album, Our Love?
It's funny. I was saying that in 2003 because the records I was making at the time were just a big, sloppy mess. There was no simplicity; it was a pile of sounds. On this record I got to enjoy there being more space. I still love music where there are zillions of crazy, sloppy, psychedelic things going on; but for this album it made sense to be more selective. For years I never sang onstage because I was conscious of my voice, and when I did I would mask it with layers of reverb and effects. Part of the impulse to pile up the sounds in the past was to hide behind them. I've become more confident in my voice and the arrangements over time.
Speaking of reverbs and delays, you are always manipulating parameters and getting great sounds in that department. Are those in the box, or do you use any outboard gear?
Most of them are in the computer, but there are a few... Have you heard the [Knas Ekdahl] Moisturizer? It's a spring reverb with an LFO and a filter. There's a spring in my modular synth too. I love spring reverbs. To be honest with you, the convolution spring reverbs sound really great to me. Sometimes I compare the real spring to the software and I prefer the software. I have lots of friends who have an idealistic, or nostalgic, attachment to physical equipment; I feel it's not entirely evidence-based. I would like to think that I'm rid of that; and I that I can just choose between software and hardware, based on the sound.
The technology is getting better and better...
Yeah. Even four or five years ago, the software was way behind on things like convolution reverbs and the filters for VST synths. It takes so much more processing power than it used to, and they are modeling things that are more non-linear and in-depth. It's getting harder to tell between the real playing and the software. All the Sound Toys delays are amazing. If you're on a PC, there's this free plug-in called Nasty DLA — it's a Space Echo emulation. Ableton just released a Max for Live delay [Dub Machines] that sounds great. I use the new Roland Space Echo pedal when I'm DJing sometimes. I've always toyed with getting a proper tape delay, but I have a really low tolerance for having to fix things. I'm just not technically minded. All the friends I know with old Space Echoes; those are constantly in the [repair] shop. I'm lazy.
Why spend the time when you can just pull up a plug-in...
That's always been important for me, because I don't write the music and track it later. I need things to be quick. I'll forget an idea if I don't track it right away. Maybe I'll go back and re-track it, but I need something that I can get my hands on quickly or the moment will pass.
How do you usually get started on a song?
It really varies. My main instrument is a keyboard. I grew up playing piano, so that tends to be the easiest way for me to write something melodic or harmonic. A lot of the songs on this record started with the Juno. I've never had a proper hardware polysynth before. The minute I got this, two or three tracks got started right away. It's such a pleasure; it has that immediacy.
Can you describe your modular synth?
Basically there are all different formats of modules. The main one is called Eurorack; that's just a standard for size and power usage, but they are all made by different third-party companies. There are filters, oscillators, gates, or whatever, and you patch them together, depending on what you want. I designed it out of premade parts. I buy them and slide them in. I get an incredible variety of sounds from it. I'm surprised I get as much use as I do, being someone who likes things to be immediate and easy, because it does require a bunch of work. The person who got me into these is James Holden; his release, The Inheritors, is my favorite album from last year. He's a dance producer who is now making more experimental music. He's one of those guys who programs everything in Max/MSP. He's the kind of guy who will smoke a joint and spend all night making a patch. I'm like, "I want this sound now!" I guess I've put in enough time that I know how to get what I want on the modular, and it sounds way, way better than the software. The filters are incomparable.
So there's a lot of it on Our Love?
Yeah. The glassy digital sounds; that's the strength of the software [synths]. There's no reason to do that on the modular. Here's an example: the first single, "Can't Do Without You," starts off with an ARP 2600 emulation soft synth and, as the song builds, you get those detuned weirder polyphonic filter-opening sounds. Those are all programmed on the modular. I'm turning the dials and bringing it in and out of tune and adding FM [frequency modulation]. That's typical. I'll start with the software, something that's easy to pull up and pick out chords that I like. When it needs more richness, I'll turn to something that I can mess with a little more.
So you record the MIDI into Ableton and send it back through the modular while you tweak it?
It has a [ADAT] Lightpipe in it, and it comes with software that converts MIDI-to-pitch and 1-volt per octave CV [control voltage] information. That's the way of bridging out from the computer. The original idea with [the previous album], Swim, was to build one of these, but it took me so long to figure it out that the album was already done. [laughs] I put out a record under the name Daphni [Jiaolong], and that was very hands-on with the modular synth. By the time I got to the new Caribou record, I finally understood how to use it.