Read CLUSTER LIZARD interview for 15 Questions about production, technology, and creativity:
What was your first studio like?
If we talk about the studio where the first two albums of Cluster Lizard were made, it was a huge multiroom space, with all the best and known consoles, compressors, and other gear from such names as SSL, Neve, Empirical Labs, Dynaudio, Manley, RME, and so on. And no limitations on working time, loudness, or anything basically.
How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
When we started our solo electronic paths many years ago, music hardware was mostly inaccessible for us because of its price, and our geographical and political location. We were able to buy some machines after having some of our albums already released and concerts already performed.
On the opposite side, all the music software was just coming up back then, and many new programs were in their very early stages of development. So, computers and new software naturally became our main and only gear. It was very easy to install and try new programs, throw away the ones we didn’t like, and go deep into others. It is hard to tell now how many DAWs and plug-ins we went through back then, but for sure we’ve tried a lot of them. Many of today’s established DAWs we follow from their first versions.
When we could finally get our hands on hardware, we were choosing our first music machines due to the possibility to perform live with them, and later on to change our creative process, to expand outside of a computer.
If a computer can be counted as gear, it still remains the main core of our final productions. No matter how much of a track we produce with hardware synthesizers, samplers, or guitars outside of a computer, we finish the final composition and all the pre-mastering details in a DAW. There’s not a single piece of hardware at the moment which can offer the complexity level of assembling a track, which can be easily achieved with software.
As for the most important hardware machines. We keep those that allow us to fly during the process, the ones which allow us to be artists and not engineers or coders. Roland, Waldorf, Korg, Doepfer, Soma are among our favorite companies.
The digital studio promises endless possibilities at every step of the process. What is it that you actually need from these potentials and how do go about you selecting it? How do you keep control over the wealth of options at the production stage?
Digital possibilities give us the freedom to always know that we can achieve our desired goals for each album. Basically, modern technology installed the default thinking in our heads, that the sky is the limit.
To keep control, one of the methods is, for example, not to buy any new piece of gear until the one we bought earlier is known and discovered and learned.
There is not one machine or software that we know 100%, but there are plenty of them in which we know deep, weird or undocumented features; machines that we use like nobody else does. For us to know one machine so well and master it to our needs is much better than to know 10 just on the surface.
We select gear by reviews and recommendations, or by searching by specific functions we need at the moment. Then we try them out and see how much nice reviews correspond with reality.
A studio can be as minimal as a laptop with headphones and as expansive as a multi-room recording facility. Which studio situation do you personally prefer – and why?
Even though we can easily work only with a laptop and headphones, there is nothing better than having your own dedicated and prepared studio space, where you can go, turn off the world and immerse yourself in the music. Hard to explain rationally, but working in a studio creates a different level of concentration and flow compared to a laptop on a dinner table.
The studio is as important for a musician as a laboratory for a chemistry scientist. Each process requires its time and space.
From traditional keyboards to microtonal ones, from re-configured instruments (like drums or guitars) to customized devices, what are your preferred controllers and interfaces? What role does the tactile element play in your production process?
Tactility is one of the important elements, yes. You feel the machine before you hear it, and then you feel it all the time along the process.
We believe that electronic music instruments, be they software or hardware, must have the same qualities as the best traditional music instruments – no matter if they’re complex or simple. They must be friendly towards the artist in terms of quality, playability, and functionality. It is obvious for any artist who plays live music, that the same six-string guitar or a violin or a flute, when made badly, is not the same instrument when made with great care for each element. One poorly made knob can kill the mood instantly.
When an electronic instrument forces an artist to always keep the manual nearby, constantly dive deep into menus for any given change, hitting the wall of badly configured structure – it doesn’t matter how many possibilities it offers – this acts like a brake in the creative flow. Some small number of perfectly implemented functions give us more freedom than hundreds of poorly made or unfinished options.
We’ve had many different custom or experimental music devices. A lot, actually. Most of them had extremely bad implementation, and even though some had truly amazing ideas inside, constant repairs, constant glitches in workflow eventually made us get rid of all of them.The first company that makes really unique and experimental machines with bulletproof quality is SOMA electronics.
There is a time to learn machines, and there is a time to make music. And the process of making music is like a meditation for us. No disruptions are welcome.
How would you describe the relationship between technology and creativity for your work? Using a recent piece as an example, how do you work with your production tools to achieve specific artistic results?
We think of a concept, and then we look for the available tools. Technology helps and boosts. And sometimes we go in the opposite direction, some steps away from using only new synthesis.
For example, on the Star Corsair album there are plenty of electric guitar sounds. We never used it before, but for this album this instrument was essential.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
It is true. We do make huge sound libraries for every new album. In the beginning, there is always a lot of improvising and searching. Days of recording, then days of editing and selecting, until we feel that the starting base of sound material is ready. At this stage of the process, usually, we already have a brief understanding of which direction the album’s sound will develop towards.
Also, when this library is big enough, it is much easier to delete weak ideas or sketches. There is always more than enough material to work with.
Despite the aforementioned near endless possibilities, many productions seem to follow conventional paths. How do you retain an element of surprise for your own work – are there technologies which are particularly useful in this regard?
Technology has nothing to do with keeping us creatively free, constantly searching and experimenting. In order not to get stuck, we have a lot of methods, practices, checkpoints, and reminders to keep us always awake. And none of them is about tools.
New CGI technologies in cinema can’t stop the director from making deadly boring movies. It is not a typewriter or a text editor on a computer that defines writers’ creative freedom. The same six-string guitar hundreds if not thousands of times became the same main creative tool for so many different styles and genres in music.
Artists got stuck not because of a lack of instruments or too many available technical possibilities. There are no tools that can set anyone free.
Those artists who really seek freedom will always find it.
Production tools can already suggest compositional ideas on their own. How much of your music is based on concepts and ideas you had before entering the studio, how much of it is triggered by equipment, software, and apps?
The music of Cluster Lizard is 100% based on concepts created before we turn on the machines.
Here we say again – tools can never stand in front of our ideas. Our tools do help us, yes, as well as bringing their influence and expanding our perception. But we would never build an album’s concept based around a synthesizer or a guitar pedal.
Let’s imagine the situation that tomorrow we lose half of our studio equipment and for a long time we would be unable to bring it back. Would it mean that because of such a situation our next albums must appear weak and shallow?
It may sound strange, but for us, the key is to accept and research new technologies as much as possible, by keeping our ideas as independent as possible from what we have access to at the moment.
How important is it for you that you personally create or participate in the creation of every element of a piece – from sound synthesis via rhythm programming to mixing?
We are always present together, one way or another, at every stage of the creative process of Cluster Lizard. We always exchange our roles for each new work, re-define the rules and involvement at each stage. And by doing this each one of us always has the feeling that Cluster Lizard is really something new for us and that we did it together.
One of the best and most intriguing feelings for us in Cluster Lizard comes when during listening to some tracks from a previous album we are not exactly sure who of us made what. We do control each element together, and this often brings us to the point when we manage to really blend into something new.
Have there been technologies that have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
No, we can’t name any.
To some, the advent of AI and ‘intelligent’ composing tools offer the potential for machines to contribute to the creative process. Do you feel as though technology can develop a form of creativity itself? Is there possibly a sense of co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
If we, in theory, talk about working together with a real AI, when a machine has the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior or consciousness equivalent to a human, then what difference would it be from a collaboration with another human artist?
About the possibility for an AI to develop creativity, of ever becoming conscious – sure, why not. But if that AI won’t have such motivations as fame, greed, sex, and popularity, what would be the driving force and the aim for its creativity? Without consciousness, no matter how complex it’s algorithm may be, AI is not far from a vacuum cleaner when it comes to art.
And even though there is definitely an influence of machines on us, it has nothing to do with any sort of co-authorship.
Do you personally see a potential for deeper forms of Artificial Intelligence in your music?
What tools/instruments do you feel could have a deeper impact on creativity but need to still be invented or developed?
We only wish that companies would spend more time on new ideas, instead of re-releasing their old hits. It is always such a pleasure when music engineers offer us something unexpected.
There’s probably only one thing we are still waiting to appear – standalone hardware with computer-like characteristics of memory and processor.