I still remember my first experience hearing Taylor Deupree's Northern on a winter night back in 2007. Reaching into a stack of borrowed CDs in my apartment, I randomly selected a disc for some musical accompaniment while washing the dishes. The album began so stealthily that it took 10 minutes of half-listening for me to register anything in particular about the music, other than that it was quiet, ambient, and glacially-paced. However, as the record progressed, I became increasingly aware of the delicately arranged layers of sound casting an extraordinary spell over my apartment. Compelled to sit down and listen more deliberately, its microscopic gestures began to take on greater magnitude. Now I could clearly hear it was brimming with a previously hidden world of emotion, intentionality, and color.
Deupree has been honing his signature "microsound" style, which incorporates a wide variety of acoustic and electronic sources, for over 20 years. Hardware and modular synthesizers, electric piano, acoustic guitar, percussion, tape loops, guitar pedals, and field recordings have all found a place in his oeuvre. In addition to his solo albums and numerous collaborative recording projects, he is also the founder and curator of 12k, an experimental record label started in 1997. The label has, in many ways, defined the contours of a new sub-genre, releasing over 100 records by some of the most notable practitioners of the art form from around the world. In 2005, Taylor and his family relocated from Brooklyn to a rural area north of New York City. There he constructed a studio space behind his home, filled with natural light and views into the surrounding woods. In addition to serving as his creative workspace, the studio was designed to function as a full-fledged mastering room – a role which Deupree has increasingly taken on for both 12k releases, as well as those of other artists seeking his attention to sonic detail. I visited Taylor at his studio on a beautiful summer afternoon to discuss his many activities, interests, and inspirations in music production.
It's rare for someone to be equally well known as a musician, record label founder, and mastering engineer. You are also active as a photographer and graphic designer. Is there a hierarchy or natural order among these roles?
Making music is just what I do; it's why I'm here. I feel like if I could do nothing else, it would be that. It's how I express myself. Mastering is really my day job now, because in today's music environment it's harder to make money writing music. Mastering can pay my bills, and I like to do it. I was always a very technical person. The label was started 20 years ago to fill what I thought was a certain creative gap in small American electronic music labels. It probably takes the least amount of time, because I've dialed in the process. I'm not doing a ton of releases; just a few a year. Most of the work involved is online; communication, production, and promotion. Mastering I have to do every day, because I have clients waiting for me, as well as deadlines. My own music, unfortunately, is the first thing to get pushed to the side, even though it's what I want to do the most. So I have less time to do my own music – but still enough time. The three are often combined, too, because I master most of the releases that come out on the label. I offer that to all the artists, as well as the graphic design for the album covers. That helps keep costs down with the label as well, because they're important services I don't have to pay someone else for.
How do these different roles play out on a day-to-day basis?
It's tough, especially with family and kids. I'm sure lots of artists my age have this trouble, when you have a family life and all these different professional roles you're trying to play. I never wanted a regular 9-to-5 job, so I've always done whatever I needed to do to make that possible. I love every minute of it. My day-to-day work time is largely spent mastering or doing label tasks, such as shipping orders or overseeing some aspect of a new production. There will be design or photography days, when I'm working with an artist on a new release for 12k. It really comes down who needs what the soonest, and I usually prioritize that way. It can be tough squeezing things in, but I manage to get all of it done. There's a lot of variation in the things I do, and I have to balance my studio to be ergonomic for both mastering and writing, as well as to be able to sit at the desk and work on label management.
Do you have to explicitly set aside time for your own work?
One thing I started doing last year is what I call "no-mastering Thursdays," where I just spend the day in the studio messing around and working on my own music. I had to make that time. Usually I work on an album of mine until it's done; then I take a break for a while, and then do another album. I've recently released an album [Somi]. When I'm in between projects, and nothing's pushing me to get something done, I tend to get a little lazy, except for just messing around – making sounds or something like that. Yesterday I had 20 bells out here, a mic, and a looper, just making cool loops. I record it all and I keep folders on my computer of 3- to 5-minute passages. They're going to be fodder for an album or something down the line. If I can get someone from out of town, like Marcus [Fischer] or Stephen Vitiello, in for a few days and we're working on an album, that's great, because it's just time for that. I'll tell my clients, "I'm not going to be able to work these days." Collaborations always go more quickly than working on solo recordings.
What made you decide to move your studio up here from Brooklyn?
On a practical level, it was family. Thinking about schools for the kids was something we'd have to consider in just a few short years. We had a great place in Park Slope, but I wanted to get back into nature. I think we were just getting a little fed up with apartment life, even though we love Brooklyn. It was really tough for a couple years. This is a very quiet, small town. We didn't know anybody. All the like-minded people we knew we left behind in Brooklyn. For a couple years, we were like, "Oh man, we made a mistake." But we decided to give it a couple years, and now we love it. I couldn't have this studio in Brooklyn for a reasonable amount of money. I had a cool little studio, but it was a separate bedroom.
Do you like having your work space attached to your house?
I've thought about that a bit. I've gone through iterations of studios in parents' houses, apartments, and basements. I worked my way up to a nicer facility. I have friends who rent places in town, and they really like being able to get up and go to work somewhere. I don't think I'd like it, because I do so many different things. When dinner's done and I need 45 minutes to make some DDP files and send final files to clients, I can do that because it's right here. I'm doing the grocery shopping, doing the cooking, watering the vegetables, weeding the gardens, and making sure the kids are home from school. It's easier to be here and take a break from work to do that.
How did you get into mastering?
I really got into it about ten years ago. Looking at the music I did, and what my friends in the genre did, it was all about the sounds. The music was sparse and empty, generally, so the sounds were really important. Every sound was emotional. We were all recording with suboptimal converters and Mackie boards in our bedrooms. Which is fun, but I said, "Let me see if I can't do something to take these recordings to the next level a little bit." I wasn't really thinking, "I'm going to be a mastering engineer." The first piece of gear that I bought – which I thought would be all I'd need to make everything instantly sound better – was the Manley Variable Mu compressor. I got that to take music I released on the label hopefully sound a little better. And it did, but it wasn't the "magic box." Then I thought, "Well, maybe I need a better converter." So I bought a better converter. Then I thought, "Maybe I need a nice analog EQ." I started becoming aware of mastering as a thing, and realized that that was pretty much the path I was headed on. Ever since then I've been focused on getting better sounds, better speakers, room treatment, and converters. I learned pretty quickly that there's no one magical box, it's a combination of things. As soon as I built up a decent analog chain, then I could hear a difference. Every piece added a little bit; nothing on its own was the solution, but in the end it really was better. I began doing it for my friends and for the label releases, and eventually I felt that I could safely do it for people I didn't know and not ruin their music. That fact also guides a lot of decisions. I built a room like this for other people, not so much for myself. I feel responsible for other people's music, especially as I moved away from just doing friends or label work. When you're mastering or mixing someone's music, you're ruining something that the artist put their heart and soul into if you screw up. There is a responsibility on my end to do the best I can for my clients. I want to have good speakers and a good room so I don't make bad decisions. It also helps that I'm a gear head and don't mind buying a cool piece of gear to make the job better.
What did you do to educate yourself about mastering when you were just starting out?
Trial and error, first and foremost – being able to learn on my own music and close friends' projects. Also books, magazines, and the internet. But a lot of what I've read on forums talks about the gear in a really certain way, like in rock or pop. I felt like I was on my own a bit, because all I read was about different genres of music than what I was working on. I'd hear demos of these compressors; they're putting a drum track through it, and getting these big compressed drum sounds. My compressors have never been used for that. The gear can be so program-dependent. I've gone through different pieces of gear that have not worked as well for what I'm doing. Pretty much everything I've done, though, except for photography, is self-taught. I taught myself a few years ago how to brew beer. I love to cook. I really relate cooking to creating music. If I find something, I get really into it and I want to do it myself.
I read something interesting on your website about your mastering philosophy: "I don't claim to be a transparent mastering engineer. Because I am an artist myself, I cannot help but to approach projects from that vantage point... to explore different paths, and to bring forward the artistic concepts inherent in the music." How do you find your clients respond to that philosophy?
Well, because I come from an experimental music background, most people come to me to master because they know my label or they know my music. I think if I didn't have that whole background – [if I was] just an empty slate, musically – it would have been a lot harder. Early on I didn't have the mastering credits to back me up, but people who came to me knew my music and the label. They said, "I like your sound, I like your philosophies. I'll trust you with my project." Still, to this day, a lot of clients come to me because they know what I do musically. If they're comfortable with that, or they have a similar sound, they know what to expect. I don't want to be someone, or put on some face, that I'm not. At the same time, I don't necessarily want to be typecast as a mastering engineer who only does a certain kind of music. I can do any music, and I've done all kinds of music. I have the room, the speakers, and the skill set to work on anything. I might specialize in the more experimental types of music, but I've gotten calls to do all genres. Coming from a photography background – and I mention that on my website too – I always find correlations between mastering and photo editing. Preparing a final photographic print for a gallery show is the exact same thing as mastering a record for final presentation on a record or CD. I'm adjusting lightness and darkness, reducing or adding grain, balancing levels, and adjusting it to be optimized for the final medium. Fortunately, with a photograph, I'm printing it on a specific printer and it either looks good or it doesn't. Whereas with mastering, someone's going to listen to it on their phone, and this speaker and that speaker, so I have to have something that translates well. I think all my work in photography and Photoshop gave me skills that help me in mastering. At the end of the day, mastering is primarily technical. I have to make it translate well, and sound the best it can first, before I can get creative with it.
To what degree are you creatively inspired by gear in your own music?
I've been pretty much obsessed with music gear since I was 15 – I had a subscription to Keyboard Magazine – and every waking moment for 30 years has been about music and gear. I constantly read websites, read magazines, and talk to all my friends who are musicians. I've definitely been obsessed with music gear, but friends of mine who have very rudimentary recording equipment can make albums far more beautiful than my own, [made] in a room full of fancy things. The gear is fun and the gear helps, but websites like <gearslutz.com> can be dangerous. People always make you think you need X and Y piece of gear to get a good sound. While that's true on some levels, it's also not true on many levels. You have to learn what you need and what you don't need. My new album is almost all electric piano, glockenspiel, and [Yamaha] DX7. My next album will probably be all modular [synthesizer].
When did you first get into modular synths?
I used to have a Doepfer [modular] system when I lived in Brooklyn, and I was doing much more synthetic music then. I liked it, but I eventually sold it for a Nord Modular, which I liked better at the time. As Eurorack has become so popular again; specifically modules to do sampling, external processing, and looping, I started to get back into it. In 2013 I started building my current system. So much of my work lately has been about organic, less synthetic sounds: electric piano, bells, and tape loops. So I said, "Can I do what I do with the modular?" So I tried – and I could. I'm hoping to show other people that you can do all kinds of music with a modular synth. I perform live now with just a modular. Like any instrument, there's definitely a learning curve – you can't just pick it up and be an expert. But I've found this synth to be great for what I do live.
So you're using the modular system for mostly processing and sampling, or is there synthesis involved too?
Probably half and half. If I can have some slow-moving sinewaves – and I have a lot of them – that's about all I need. I have friends that make fun of me because no matter what new synth I buy, I make the same sound on all of them. On the modular, like any monophonic synth, as soon as you play a second note, it cuts off the first one. The tough thing with modular is that I have to have something in mind before I do it, as opposed to a subtractive synth where I just hit a note and start turning knobs. I have to plan ahead where I'm going to patch. Once I get a patch, then I can think again, re-patch part of the middle of it, and then think about where I want to go. But I have to think before I do, which can be hard to get used to.
Are there things that you can do with modular that you can't do elsewhere in your studio?
I could probably do anything that I can do on the modular on a plug-in, but I have no desire to do that. I want the physical interaction; I want to have to turn the knobs. I love how ephemeral modular synths are, and how organic they are. Because there's no patch memory, when I pull something out I'm done. And if I make one parameter change here, it ripples down through the signal path and makes changes in other places that I may not expect. A little change somewhere can make all these other things happen. One of my favorite things to do is to get a really nice patch and then turn all the knobs to random locations. It's amazing how the same patch through the same modules sounds completely different with different knob settings. I don't have a single software synth installed on my computer. I used to, but over the last five to ten years they've all gone away. I mean, there are great software synths; I'm not knocking them. It's just a different way of working. I enjoy the hands-on process; it's a way to get away from the computer screen.
What is the role of the computer in your recent solo work?
I mix in the computer, at least the EQ. I usually sum it out to the console, but I do a lot of subtractive EQ with plug-ins. When I'm mixing my own material, I'll use massive filtering to create separate spaces for instruments. I don't have enough hardware EQs to do that. Sometimes I'll use the computer for reverbs, although I often use hardware reverbs. I also compose in the computer by copying and making layers, but everything else pretty much happens outside the computer. I will make the loops, do some performance on the instruments, and then use Pro Tools as a multitrack machine. My album that I just finished has very little editing. I did the looping manually – instead of making a loop in a looper and recording it for 10 minutes, I played the loop manually for 10 minutes. I'll get all the inconsistencies that come along with that; every repetition is different. I'll watch a counter on a laptop so I know when to repeat my phrase. Then I'll layer that with another loop that's looping at a different time. It's all single long takes. Then I adjusted the fade-ins and fade-outs of each track, and occasionally cropped out a note. A lot of other times I'll use a looper pedal, like the [Electro-Harmonix dual stereo looper] 22500, or multiple loopers, so I'll get continuous variations. If I'm in here working on the website or something, I'll let a loop run. If I can listen to it for a good hour or two, I know it's pretty good. A lot of times there'll be one note [that's not working], I'll have to erase it and try something else. I like to make long pieces that are very repetitive, but it has to be able to pass that test. I'll record it for 10 or 15 minutes, and maybe do some performance, tweaking a filter or whatever.
Are a lot of the effects being recorded on the way in?
Yeah, sometimes. Like the [Eventide] H8000 – that's such an instrument. If this place was burning down, I'd get my screwdriver and pull that out of the rack. That's one of my favorite pieces of gear. It's a multi-effects unit – reverbs, delays, and distortions – but it's the cream of the multi-effects crop. I call it the "cheating box." I have some programs in there that I made, where I'll just hit a couple of notes and then the H8000 makes them go into this other world. It can do so many crazy and creative things that I'll often record it going in, because it is part of the sound. As opposed to a reverb or such that I could add later. I tend to record with effects because I like to make that commitment. Like the [Roland] Space Echo [tape delay], where it's instrumental to the sound I tend to record. It's all live into the computer when Marcus [Fischer] and I work together. The last record we did, Twine,was just two mono tracks for the whole album. It was the easiest mixing job I ever had. I EQ'd them to make them sit together a little better, faded them in and out, and then mastered it. Collaborations tend to be more fluid in that way, because there are two of us working so we can bounce ideas off of each other and get things going a little more quickly.
Some of your later releases have embraced a more lo-fi "weathered" sound, with lots of surface noise and a natural noise floor. What got you interested that, and what are some of the techniques you're using to achieve it?
If I were to go back 15 years and tell the young me that I'd embrace noise, I wouldn't believe myself. Back in the early digital days, I just wanted to get rid of noise. We finally had DAT machines. I sold my 4-track. I had digital, which was clean, clean, clean. Digital photography was clean, and I could sell my film camera. And just like any of this, eventually I realized that we were missing something from those old dirty cameras. For me, creatively, it was really a slow arc and it happened alongside my photography interests. With photography, I got interested in Polaroid cameras again – all these lo-fi cameras. Creatively, I found a way to put another layer over what I did that I had no control over. When I take a Polaroid, I have a picture of something, but the Polaroid adds its own layer, in all its inconsistencies, and makes it something else. It gives it some implied story or something. I can't control what the Polaroid does. It's the Polaroid film that makes it look like a Polaroid. It's the same with the tape machine. I'll record a glockenspiel in, and have nice mics and a nice pre[amp], and it sounds good. But coming out of that tape machine, it's got a different sound that I can't do anything about because that's what the tape machine added. I like that. It's a way of abstracting it one more step from what I'm consciously creating. Over the years, I've embraced that more and more, and not been afraid of noise. I used to want to get rid of all noise. I thought noise was unprofessional. But I won't just add noise, it'll be noise from something. On my new album I was recording through the Space Echo. When I stopped recording and went to play it back, I realized it was missing something. I realized it was the motor from the Space Echo sounding in the room, which makes noise as it goes around. At some points, the tape almost gets crinkled – just for a second I'll hear something struggling in the motor and then it keeps going. [The internal tape loop's splice. –ed.] During the half-hour I was recording, that all became part of the sound. I was like, "That was it!" I put a mic on the motor and recorded the motor sound to another track in Pro Tools. I also ended up using the switches on the Space Echo on another song, so the motor and the switches all became part of the instrument. I also use a lot of cassette. A lot of times, if I get a nice loop going on my gear, I'll record it from the speakers through the built-in [cassette recorder] mic and layer in that hissy, crappy recording. When I'd finish a song on my new album, I'd feel it was nice; but it needed something else. I ended up taking the whole mix and recording it through the speakers to this cassette machine. Then I'd be mic'ing the built-in speaker of the cassette player and layering that under the whole piece. Sometimes I'd be delaying, or pre-delaying, the sound. It becomes this noisy, ghosted version of the studio recording. I get this sense of texture, as well as a more human sound. It just became part of the process. That's a big part of what I've been doing lately. Not to be noisy and loud, but a gentle, weathered sound.
Do you think moving up here, away from the city, has inspired your work to move further in that direction?
It's interesting. I attributed my initial love for all things minimalist to living in the city; I felt that the city was so "on" all the time that minimalism gave me peace of mind and escape. I always said that I made quiet music because I lived in a loud city. It was just a way to keep the balance. I said, "I wonder if I move to where it's quiet, am I going to start making louder music to get that balance back?" But it was just the opposite, which really surprised me. The environment really took over as an influence. I'm living in all this nature, and I'm appreciating all the imperfections and the grit. My music got quieter, more natural, more organic, and less electronic. It was pretty profound, and it's still continuing on that trajectory. But in ten years, I may be somewhere else. I never try to predict the future, at this point I've realized that everything changes – processes and interests come and go, fade, and loop back. It's all part of the adventure.