FEATURES Gearhead: Wax Idols By Jes Skolnik · Photos by Camille Cruz · July 29, 2016
Photo by Matt Licari
“To me, what’s fun is being able to synthesize the sound, sequence it out, and physically be able to plug a wire into a pot, turn knobs, and everything like that. I just appreciate anything that’s more of a tangible experience, because I feel like in this time we’re kind of distancing ourselves from that, a little bit. Let’s bring it back.”

Wax Idols are known for their intense live performances, but they shouldn’t be underestimated in the studio either. From the fairly stripped-down garage sound of their early recordings to the lush, dense darkwave of their latest, American Tragic, Hether Fortune’s powerhouse band works together to meticulously assemble their sound. Every instrument choice and production decision is conscious—and conscientious.

We caught up with Fortune and drummer Rachel Travers before their recent performance at Slutist’s second annual Legacy of the Witch event to talk about Travers’ passion for modular synths and Fortune’s engineering and production history (and how both prefer analog processes to digital for a number of reasons). This is the first installment of our Gearhead column, where we talk with musicians about the gear they use—and how they use that gear—to get the sounds they want.

Rachel, Hether was telling me that you are a builder. You build keyboards… ?

HETHER FORTUNE: No, she’s into modular synths.

RACHEL TRAVERS: I’ve recently been getting into modular synthesizers. Do you know much about those? Right now I have a nine-unit Eurorack setup with a couple different voices in there. Right now I have three different voices, which means I can have three different rhythms, sounds, happening at once. So you can create really interesting things. If you have a specific sound that you want to create you have the luxury of being able to synthesize it on your own, because you can choose, like—what envelope am I going to use, what VCA, et cetera, like, how do I want this envelope filter to work. So there’s a lot of flexibility, but also rigidity, when it comes to modular synthesizers, because a lot of the time you do depend on sequencers and other options like that just depending on what kind of artist you are. But it’s definitely a lot of fun, because you get to customize your own system. It’s been a lot of fun exploring it.

Wax Idols gear
Racks on racks at ruminator audio, where Wax Idols have recorded all their output so far.
Illustration by Camille Cruz

How did you get into working with modular synths? I know you’re usually a drummer.

RT: Yeah! I’ve always been interested in synthesis. I have a pretty mathematical mind and a pretty scientific mind—I know how cheesy that sounds, but taking physics, being able to study sound, how to bring up and attenuate signals, that’s something I’ve always been interested in. Eurorack [isn’t] the most inexpensive [format], but it’s definitely the most accessible right now, because there are so many different manufacturers. I have a couple of different friends who have been my gurus, who have been guiding me and helping me figure out what kind of sound I want, so definitely with the help of my friends and the growing modular community, that’s definitely how I got into it.

Cool! I got into audio engineering because of my dad, and I’m a pianist from way back, and I played analog synths actively in a band for a few years, and it really is the best, that modular world.

RT: What did you have?

I played a Mini-Moog and a Korg Radias.

RT: Oh, cool! That’s awesome. I know, I really want to get one of those Mother-32s. I’ve always wanted that Moog filter, but Eurorack was definitely calling my name a little bit more to start out. But it’s funny, I have a friend, and I went to a show with him recently, and he was like “Oh, that keyboardist is doing a shitty job,” and I was like “Hold on a second, she’s not a keyboardist. She’s, first of all, playing a synth.” Doing all kinds of crazy fills and stuff? That’s not necessarily going to happen.

Right. You don’t have to be a pianist to play synth—it requires a totally different skill set and approach.

RT: Right! When you’re playing synth you need to really understand how the sounds you’re making will complement the rest of what’s going on on stage. A lot of people don’t make that distinction—more people do, now that synthesis is becoming more popular.

Yeah, that was something I had to learn as a pianist, because I was so used to playing this whole complicated melody and complementary rhythm myself, so when I started playing synth in a band, I felt like an amateur, because I didn’t feel like I was pressing enough keys. But the point of my synth in that band was to create textures, not to play lead melody.

RT: It’s easy to use factory patches, and there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s how a lot of people get started with synths, but in order to really explore everything that a modular synth can do, people really need to create their own patches. It’s a real skill.

Yeah. You can also definitely take a factory patch and manipulate it, build something off of it, to start out.

RT: Yeah! Right. So that’s what I’ve been doing, really focusing on creating my own patches.

Wax Idols gear
Rachel’s drum kit. Illustration by Camille Cruz

Cool! Have you been doing any musical projects with your synths?

RT: Right now I’ve been talking to a few people about starting weird modular projects, because you don’t see too many of them out there, but the hard thing about it is the practical application, since it’s difficult for people to want to play instruments to something that’s so rigidly timed. nd you have a sequencer, so you’re really constrained by that, unless you’re doing more ambient ethereal-sounding stuff. It definitely takes a lot of steps to figure out how to make Eurorack work in a band, but I’m trying to figure it out. I’ve been writing things on my own, trying to write songs that move linearly throughout, both vocally and with the synthesizer, so it’s hard, but it’s definitely a new medium that I’m really embracing these days.

That’s so awesome. Hether, you recently produced an album, right?

HF: Yeah, it’s not a new thing. This is my first time producing somebody else’s record. I don’t even know where to start with that. I spent my childhood going to summer camps for audio engineering, like, when I was 15. I just really wanted to be a producer. I was too shy and weird, I thought, to be a performer.  So I thought, all right, well, I’ll be the person behind the scenes doing all the cool stuff. And obviously that changed somewhat. So I don’t know, man. I went to school for a while for audio production. I pretty much only learned how to do analog production, reel to reel stuff, how to work tape machines and stuff like that. I learned on a 16-track board and shit. But then I had to drop out, because I couldn’t afford stuff.

That’s real. That’s very real.

HF: So I had to stop that train scholastically. I got an internship at a studio called Spank! Music in Chicago. That’s where I learned to use ProTools and stuff. It wasn’t very hands-on. As an engineer I prefer analog engineering; just sitting and clicking, I’m too ADD for it. But my goal was never to be an engineer. I wanted to be a producer. So I learned that shit. Then I started performing, so I got sidetracked, but then I was like “I have to record my own stuff, because nobody cares about what I’m doing, so I have to figure out how to record it myself.” So then, of course, came GarageBand, which after everything I’d learned was really a walk in the park. I was like “Sick, so easy!”

It’s incredibly self-explanatory, especially if you already know what you’re doing.

HF: Yeah. If you have a background in recording stuff, it’s so simple. It’s like “This is child’s play!” You don’t have to think about it so much. You can just get the ideas out and keep moving.

Wax Idols gear
Hether’s guitar during recording at ruminator audio. Illustration by Camille Cruz

Right, because everything you’re used to doing these laborious manual processes for has a menu and a macro, basically.

HF: Right. It cuts out so much time. So if you’re just one person doing it yourself, it’s so helpful. When I started doing Wax Idols, I just produced the records, because I knew how, and I’m a control freak, and I knew how I wanted everything to sound. At first I started playing everything myself, and then as I started delegating different instruments to different members and they came and went—the role of being a producer came really easily to me. It’s the perfect marriage of my knowledge of recording and sound and my experience as an artist, because the producer has to be able to communicate with the artist and give them what they want.

Like, your goal is to draw out what the artist wants their record to sound like.

HF: And you have to be the liaison between the artist and the engineer, basically. So I produced my first record for another artist recently, the first time I hadn’t just been producing myself, and it was really fulfilling for me, really easy.

You weren’t engineering the album yourself, though.

HF: No, thank god. We had an engineer. I played—[the artist] is a vocalist and a composer, and he composes on synth, but instrumentally I had to do almost everything else. Peter [of Wax Idols] played most of the guitar on that record, and a cellist came in as well. If I had been doing instrumentation plus producing and engineering we never would have gotten anything done. The engineer was a genius. We did use ProTools, and it was in this place called Different Fur, which is a really beautiful studio in San Francisco. We used a Juno a lot. He used a Moog 7, too. For drums, I MIDI-programmed a drum machine and also played live drums to the click, and then we re-amped the snares. That’s something I love, that really big drum sound. And I played guitar, too. I did a lot of that stuff—I did the bass through this crazy-ass amp. It was the craziest amp I’ve ever seen before. It was one of those studio specialty amps.

Yeah. It was home-built specifically for the studio.

HF: Yeah. It was sick, though. It had this really dirty, nasty sound to it. I was like “I want this to be really nasty,” and [the engineer] was like “I have just the thing!” And I did a lot of bass direct, too. I like doing bass direct into the port because you can control the sound so much better. I get really excited about bass tone.

That’s actually something I’ve thought about a lot with the Wax Idols stuff. You’re definitely playing with this ‘80s sound that I love, but so much of the stuff that was recorded back then has this shitty, farty bass tone.

HF: Yeah, yeah. None of that. I like nice, round bass.

RT: I was in a friend’s car recently and he was playing this band [on the stereo], and he was like “It’s so sick because the guy plays his bass through a guitar head,” and I was like “No! It does not sound good! It actually sounds so wack. But I’m gonna let you have that, I guess.”

When you do that it sounds so heavily processed you can’t even tell what’s going on sometimes, like what the person is playing.

RT: Right! Exactly.

HF: I definitely have ways that I do things for my own Wax Idols records. We always create our own drum sounds. We always have programmed drums, and then [Rachel]’ll play live over it. That’s a thing that I always do. I have really specific bass tone preferences. But this record I was producing, since it wasn’t my record—this artist, his music is totally different than what I do. So it was interesting to take my habitual studio tricks and then try to re-approach them in order to best suit his music, which was really fulfilling. We did weird shit. We put a microphone in a garbage can. We did a thing where we put one mic up close to him, the singer—I stole from watching the Tony Visconti video about Heroes.

RT: As you should!

HF: Inspired by Tony Visconti and Bowie. So we definitely did some interesting mic placement work, and we did weird room mics. We used an old army walkie-talkie. We did a lot of fun things. It definitely was—especially on the topic of my first producing a record for someone else—it was also my first time working on a record where there were no straight men in the room. There was a female engineer, we had female interns, I was producing, and the artist is a queer man. The engineer that Wax Idols has always worked with is a 52-year-old straight man, but he’s like a Zen master old-school goth daddy. He’s one of the best humans on earth. It’s not that working with men in those fields is a problem, it’s just that it’s always men. It’s nice to change it up. It’s just overwhelming, you know.

RT: It’s just ubiquitous to have a male engineer.

HF: Right. It’s the norm. It’s the usual. So it was just special to me. It was really cool—my first time producing a record for someone else, someone who’s like ‘I really like and value what you do’—and then also to have a female engineer that I worked with side-by-side, twelve hours a day. It was so nice, that kind of energy. It was easy. So that was great. I hope to produce many more records.

Wax Idols gear
Rachel’s synths. Illustration by Camille Cruz

That’s really, really cool. I was just going to ask you guys one more thing, since we’ve been talking about analog processes vs. digital processes, and the visceral nature of getting your hands on things, how important is that to you guys?

RT: To me, it’s pretty important. Obviously drums are analog by nature. But when it comes to synthesizers, I’m not such a stickler right now. Even though Eurorack is analog, there are a lot of digital modules—additive vs. subtractive synthesis, you know—so it is cool to be able to get chordal structures inside of your music now. But the main reason that I like [analog] is that it seems a little more hands-on and tangible, rather than doing it on the computer. To me, a soft synth isn’t fun. To me, what’s fun is being able to synthesize the sound, sequence it out, and physically be able to plug a wire into a pot, turn knobs, and everything like that. I just appreciate anything that’s more of a tangible experience, because I feel like in this time we’re kind of distancing ourselves from that, a little bit. Let’s bring it back.

HF: I’m pretty much with Rachel on this. I use digital processing for a lot of things in the studio just because it’s easier and I like to stay modern. I like to utilize all the tools we have available. But I really like using my hands with things. If I can’t physically play what I’m hearing in my head, or articulate it with my hands, I feel like I’m not really in control. It’s not quite as satisfying. There really is something about it that I don’t think can be replaced, no matter how many digital options are out there that are easier. I have an iPad, and I have GarageBand on it. I have a sick Moog plugin, where you can drag—you can plug in the cable. But it’s on a fucking screen, and you’re tapping it.

RT: I like being able to look at my pile of wires and think “Oh, shit, I only have six inches of cable here, how can I modulate this sound in an interesting way.”

HF: As opposed to just going [waves her finger in the air as if on a touchscreen] “I’ll just go like this. Boooooop!”

RT: I have virtually everything at my disposal if I’m working on a computer. If I’m not, it makes me think more creatively, because I’m thinking about how to use my resources. It makes me think outside the box.

Jes Skolnik

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