Last summer, a friend was all excited about an upcoming show by a "keyboard duo" from Seattle. They played some kind of experimental electronic pop. Octant? Never heard of them, I shrugged. How exciting is a keyboard duo? "Well," he said, "they build their own light-controlled instruments and they have a robotic drummer that plays on stage with them." If you have a geek bone in your body, this should grab your attention, as it did mine. I went to see them and, sure enough, front and center were case-mounted kick, snare and cymbals being played by robotic arms. Octant's set, however, proved them to be more than a mere gimmick act. A couple months later, I called Octant mastermind Matt Steinke at his new secret lab (which he shares with bandmate Tassy Zimmerman) in Chicago...
Let's start by talking about your current approach to recording. I saw that the most recent Octant album [Car Alarms and Crickets] was finished this summer.
Yeah, we started in October of last year and worked on it over a seven-month period.
And were you recording in your house mostly?
We pretty much did it all out of our apartment. In Seattle, the rent is so high we just had a tiny little apartment. Compared to now, in Chicago, we have a much larger apartment paying the same amount of money. But it was tiny in Seattle — we had one room that we lived in and one room we converted into a recording studio. And then I did all the drum tracks in a practice space, which was really hellish because I was surrounded by hardcore bands. I would have to get there at five in the morning, before all the slackers got there. There were many times when I set up all my microphones and then there would be this loud "bwwwwwah." So that's part of the reason that it took so long. There were a lot of re-dos.
So, would you bring an ADAT down to the practice space?
I have a [Roland] VS-880 hard disk recorder. I use that to do all my field — I call them field recordings, where I go places and record my instruments that are too loud to record in my apartment or I go and record other people, other instrumentalists, in their homes. Then I sync them up in Pro Tools after that.
Are you using the Digidesign 001?
On the last record I used Pro Tools 4.3.1 and I didn't have the Digi card — I actually did it on the Mac A/V card on the G3, so it was all in 16 bit, it wasn't 24 bit. But then what we did is we went into a studio that had a full-on Pro Tools 24-out system and we bussed all the tracks out through tube compressors and tube amps and tracked it analog to clean off the rough digititis. And it seemed to work pretty good. In retrospect, I would probably invest in a 24-bit card and do it that way, but we were kind of tight with money.
So with only an A/V card in, you could add, at most, two tracks at a time?
Some of the stuff was done mostly on the VS-880, where I would put a test tone on every track, and then peel them off, two at a time, into the computer — sync them up there. I really focused on getting good tracks, trying to develop each track, as opposed to when you're in a studio where you're pressed for time and you just play and then see what you get, make the best of it in the mix-down. I wanted to do the opposite thing and work on all the tracks, work on incorporating digital-style recording with live recording. "Digital", meaning loops and edits and sound manipulation.
How did you record your first record [Shock-No-Par]?
I tracked that all on the VS-880. It has 64 virtual tracks, although you can only play back eight at a time. I used it as a storage — a tracking device. I would record the drums in Tassy's parents' garage, or in various other places, and then go home and add tracks. I would store up about 16 to 24 tracks, and then we took it into the studio at Jupiter and at that time we synced it to a 24-track 2" machine. We then peeled the tracks off onto the 2" and mixed down analog. It was similar to the second album, but done a bit different. With the VS-880 you don't have as much editing capability as you do on a computer.
Would you choose to do it that way again?
I think for the next recording we may go into a studio and do it live because there's more acoustical elements to the new material. I'm really longing for really deep analog sounds. It'll probably be partly...