On August 13th the new album from Amberfern will be released, AquaEssence: An Ocean of Calm. Clive Brooks (aka Amberfern) sat down with Real Music to discuss the new album, recording, and everything in between.
Real Music: Can you tell about your “Essence” series of albums, and how they’re different from the “Distant Horizons” series?
Clive Brooks: Thank you for the question. The Essence series focuses on specific, organic elements that make up our world. The series commenced with a compendium of calm on Quiescence, which literally means “being quiet”. On the first album, I wanted to introduce listeners to the flavour of what was to come in the series, so it’s something of a compendium - a sampler - there’s some ocean-related tracks such as “Misty Harbour”, some mountain ones such as “Dharmasala”, and some hot, desert ones like “Bedouin Sunrise”.
The developing intention for the rest of the series is to try capture the essence of a particular element, and as the series continues, there’s a focus on one element for the whole of each album. For the second release, AquaEssence: An Ocean of Calm, I’ve turned my creative attention to the wonders of our great oceans in all of their beauty and majesty.
RM: Why did you choose the oceans theme for of the second essence release?
CB: My wife and I recently got a place of our own right next to the ocean, and I’ve been spending a lot of time just watching, listening and immersing myself (no pun intended) in the very different vibe of the beach. Until I was there, right next to the ocean for long periods, I didn’t realise, for example, how much the water changes from green, through a multitude of blue hues, through to turquoise. A cloud across the sky can turn areas of the ocean into different islands of colour that drift quite mystically across the scene. The ocean has a rhythm too, with its ebbs and flows, swells, currents and, of course, the endless procession of waves as they tumble, foamy and white, onto the sand. All these things and so many more were influencing, inspiring and enticing me. I guess, rather like a painter who sets his or her eyes on scene and wants to capture it canvas, I felt a real need to do the same through sound.
RM: You seems to range between a lot of instruments on your albums. Do you have a main one?
CB: Not really, although when I first starting playing music back when I was twelve or thirteen, I began on guitar, but that soon expanded out to bass, then drums and keyboards. I’ve never been someone who is content with working within the confines of just one instrument, largely because, early on, I developed an interest in musical textures from other cultures and corners of the world. I would always be trying to find out how a particular sound was produced or how a particular instrument was played. Back in those days, samplers for replaying and emulating these sounds were non-existent, and so I tended to fill the house will all manner of strange musical instruments.
RM: Such as?
CB: Well, it might have all started when my mother bought me an old Hawaiian guitar one Christmas when I was just a little lad, but there was an Indian sitar, which I still think is a fascinating instrument. That led to tabla drums as I recall. More recently, I managed to track down an old Celtic harp from a tiny island on the north coast of Scotland, which I’ve been using. Then there came a growing fascination with Native American flutes — they have a lovely, earthy quality and I’ve used them on the Real Music albums quite extensively. I even had one made specially to an Arabian scale, which apparently was something of a first, and that was used on the Distant Horizons: Mediterranean. That led me to the quite wonderfully evocative Japanese shakuhachi flute, which I just can’t seem to leave alone. I find it genuinely quite incredible how what is essentially a bit of pipe with five holes in can produce such exotic tones. The list goes on I’m afraid, and I have conga drums and a Djembe African drum too. The other instrument that has captivated me recently is the pan drum. It’s like a round spaceship with indentations on it that are all tuned to notes of the scale. I could go on... the big thing for me right now is my restored Japanese koto, a six-foot long floor harp that has been the mainstay of musical culture in the Japan for over a thousand years, and sounds quite magical when combined with the shaku flute.
RM: What do you think of modern technology, where you can simulate these instruments electronically?
CB: I embrace it, because it gives me an even wider tonal palette to paint with. The gradual emergence of digital sampling technology back in the early 1980’s was what encouraged me to learn keyboards in the first place. Things have changed since then. In those days the concept of sampling was a creative pursuit where you went out and pointed a microphone at something, captured the sound electronically and started warping, manipulating and twiddling with it to make something new and different out of it. Even the most mundane things like tapping a wooden surface could result in useful and interesting instrumental textures. Nowadays there are huge sample libraries of almost every instrument, and I readily use some of them when I don’t have the right instrument for something that I’m doing, but the act of “doing sampling” has largely died out. Interestingly, however, the software company Propellerheads in Sweden have been trying to bring back the simple art of sampling within their Reason multitrack recording software, which I use for my albums. I’ve also got a portable Roland sampler that I get out and about with in the traditional old manner of working, and the iPad is increasingly becoming a platform for this sort of old-school thing too.
RM: You must have seen a good few changes in recording technology since you first started out in the 1970’s?
CB: Incredible changes. Actually, my first creative love was sound recording, and it still is. I remember asking Mum and Dad for a tape recorder when I was about nine or ten. I’d seen them used in school, and had become fascinated by the simple act of recording and replaying sound. At the time, it was very difficult for my parents to afford an expensive item like a tape recorder, but in the end then managed to find me an elderly old Fidelity reel to reel machine with a fascinating glowing, blue diode that indicated recording level. I loved it, and started by recording things off the radio, and then progressed quite quickly to recording myself doing things. The motors were quite worn out, and the tape would slow down as it reached the end of the spool, which all added to the appeal. Soon, I’d got a splicer and was cutting up bit of tapes and turning them round and generally messing around. I didn’t know it at the time, but I think I was making musique concrete.
Anyway, when I was just thirteen, my Dad died suddenly and unexpectedly, and Mum kindly used a little of the money that seemed to have been forthcoming from somewhere or other to buy me a new tape recorder. I was an only child, and I think she wanted to see me occupied and help me get over the awful shock. This lovely, new machine was an Akai 4000DS, and the big deal about it was that it has something called “sound on sound”, where you could record one track and then, while you were doing that, you could record another one over the top of it. Working in that way, I could start to build up musical compositions, where I played one instrument and then another, because by that time I’d started messing with several instruments. It was the start of everything for me, and I remember selling old toys to afford more recording equipment initially. Eventually, I went through big four-track reel to recorders and then onto eight-tracks and even wound up with a little purpose-built recording studio in Mum’s back garden! Although computers have made it possible to do such a tremendous amount now, for me, it was a rather sad time when those lovely big reels of tape became obsolete. The end of an era for recording and also for me too. I’m sure that a lot of photographers probably felt much the same way when cameras went from rolls of film to digital imaging.
RM: So, do you still take care of all the recording of your Real Music albums today?
CB: As a matter of fact I do, and it’s all done on computers now. I have one dedicated to recording duties set-up in my studio with a great big thirty-inch screen, and another little tiny computer called a MacBook Air, which will, quite incredibly, run the same recording software if I want to go mobile with my recording, which do quite often. The trio is completed with an iPad, which I use as a musical sketchpad on location, usually just capturing initial ideas. It’s all too easy to get bogged down indoors, staring at the same studio walls or the view from a window, so out I go.
Once and album is completed, I send a CD across to Real Music and Terence Yallop has a careful listen to it. Sometimes he suggests a few mixing tweaks, and often the running order is changed. Terence is the undisputed expert at making things flow. The next stage is the production, here in England, of the pre-master CD, which then wings it way back across the good old Atlantic, and then onto the next process which is the mastering, which is often carried out at Bay Records in Berkeley, California, where the final tonal adjustments are made before the disc is made ready for release on both CD and download formats across the world.
RM: Finally, what are you working on right now?
CB: I’m researching Japanese music and scale systems for my next Distant Horizons album, which is going to feature the Far East.
I’m also exploring ways that sound can be manipulated and modified using technologies such as granular synthesis, where a waveform is fragmented into thousands of tiny grain-sized fragments and then put together again in different, quite unique and compelling ways to develop somehow familiar, yet, at the same time, quite different new textures.
I’m becoming interested too, in ways in which tablet-based computers are enabling us to interact with sound-waves by directly touching them in ways that have been impossible before. I think it’s good to keep in mind that the piano keyboard as means of replaying music sound is only one of many possible interfaces that could exist to do a similar (or perhaps even better) job. I personally find that a non-keyboard approach to musical interface design offers all sorts of new possibilities, because the shackles of old well-worn musical conventions are removed. It’s easy to forget that Moog never really wanted to put a keyboard onto his first synthesiser, and Don Buchcla simply never did. So it’s not anything particular new, it’s just that the iPad in particular has provided a new paradigm for the low-cost design of these sorts of things — the point being that many musicians have these devices already now, and so all that’s required is for the hardware to be instructed to do something new and exciting via a bunch of computer code. It’s fascinating just what’s appearing in that area right now.