An Interview with Mason Self

We discuss his upcoming EP: Bow + Arrow, his integrating Sensory Percussion with a modular system, and some of his philosophies on music creation

Most Sensory Percussionists know about Mason Self. Mason dives deep into the exciting frontier of controlling synthesizers from the drum set. Equal parts drummer and synthesist, he is a fierce experimenter who's passionate about sharing ideas and learning from others who are breaking new ground. Currently residing in Nashville Tennessee, he's a solo artist, musician for hire, educator, and the co-founder of Drum Tortillas with his wife Ginger.

Mason's EP 'Bow + Arrow' is out today –– go listen to it on Youtube and Spotify!

Mason recording ISO, a track on Bow + Arrow.

Tell us about your musical journey, how did it start? What has shaped your voice as an artist?

I started playing drums when I was about eight years old because I thought it'd be fun to jam with my Dad (he plays guitar). I ended up sticking with it and went to Belmont University in Nashville, TN to study music. I started playing with a harpist named Timbre for several years; that was my first gig that pushed me in an interesting musical direction. Playing acoustic drums in such a low volume context with no bass player when there were rarely "obvious beats" to play was a great way to cut my teeth and develop a unique style.

I was introduced to the Teenage Engineering OP-1, and it sort of took over my musical life for a while. I fell in love with synthesis and got to transition into being equal parts drummer and "synth guy" doing session work while we lived in LA for a couple years. I think having the opportunity to take part in so many interesting musical projects has been a huge blessing, kind of a ratchet thats allowed me to grow in both drum and synth camps to become more and more myself.

How long have you been using Sensory Percussion and what brought you to it?

I first heard about Sensory Percussion because a zillion people posted on my facebook wall when the kickstarter went up saying "MASON YOU HAVE TO GET THIS." I decided to listen to my friends when I realized how incredible of a bridge it could be between drums and electronics. It could translate my drumming expression into the synth world I've been immersed in. I started using Sensory two years ago and it's been a blast.

I love the timbres you use in your music - broadly what inspires your sound choices?

Thanks! I think my music taste is often polarized to really low key stuff - think Nils Frahm Solo - and pretty intense stuff - like M.I.A. or Knower. I think my ear tends towards sounds that are really subtle or something that smacks you in the face. I don't know if that translates, but that's how it feels to me. Juxtaposition of sounds is often more interesting to me than the sounds themselves.

What got you into modular synths?

When I lived in Asheville, NC I got to know several people at Moog Music. Enabling my synth habits, they let me "long term borrow" several modules and I started to discover really exciting potential that was in line with where I wanted to go musically. I was just getting started with Sensory Percussion and one of my first goals was to use Sensory to control my synthesizers. A lot of synthesizers let you control some parameters via MIDI CC's, but often not all parameters. I wanted to go deeper than just controlling filter cutoff (although that's almost always a staple!) and going modular allowed me to take controllers from Sensory Percussion and apply them to just about anything in my system. That capability in conjunction with still having all the knobs, buttons, and sliders in arms reach is really powerful and exciting.

I experienced a fresh surge of creativity getting into modular synthesis. It's a very different workflow than DAW life, or even most hardware synths. You're essentially wiring together your own synthesizer(s) with every patch. Rhythm and pitch information are handled totally separately which opens up a lot of new possibilities when you've been stuck with MIDI note messages your whole life.

Can you take us on a journey through your live Sensory Percussion setup?

When I play live, I'm sending MIDI from Sensory Percussion to both Ableton Live and my modular synth. Drum sounds are set up in drum racks in Ableton and I control some stock soft synths as well. For the soft synths, I usually automate MIDI effects to create melodies, which allows the static MIDI notes coming from Sensory to be transformed into a repeatable melody, chord progression, or bass line. For some melodic elements, I also control MIDI effects with controllers from Sensory, allowing me to augment the sequencing with my playing.

I use a similar approach for melodic content in the modular. Pitch sequencing is coming in from Ableton, but the gates (rhythm) is usually coming from my drums. Putting the sequence through sample and hold, I can use the gate from a drum to "sample" the pitch sequence and it will remain on that pitch until the next gate comes. This allows me to perform my sequences in a really flexible way.

Of course controllers from Sensory are flying everywhere to modulate timbre and articulation!

Almost everything you hear is directly played from the drums even though there's a lot of sequencing. The elements that happen on their own are usually heavily influenced by controllers from Sensory. For instance, one of my favorite tricks is to make a "trap hat" using the arpeggiator and one long held MIDI note in a clip. Modulating the rate of the arpeggiator with something like overall kit velocity from Sensory transforms that into a really cool part. I'm really into blurring the line between "tracks" and doing it all live. There's a lot of things like that you can do that feel like an extension of your playing.

Three very shallow drums outfitted with Sunhouse sensors and arranged in a triangle, a Eurorack style synth filled with modules is in the background behind and above the drums, as is a laptop with Sensory Percussion software visible onscreen
Mason's Live setup

Mason's Current Live Setup

  • 3 Sensory Percussion Sensors
  • (3) 14" custom Reverie Drums with mesh heads and rubber rims
  • Roland KD-7
  • 2013 Macbook Pro w/ Sensory Percussion and Ableton Live 10
  • Focusrite Clarett 4pre (Thunderbolt)
  • Eurorack Modular Synthesizer
    • Endorphines Shuttle Control MIDI to CV converter
    • Moog DFAM
    • Mutable Instruments Rings
    • Mutable Instruments Stages
    • Make Noise Maths
    • Make Noise Morphagene
    • Intellijel Quad VCA
    • Joranalogue Add 2

What was your process for writing and recording Bow + Arrow?

My grand goal is to create music using a set up whose architecture allows you to create quite involved content with intuitive human input and minimal preconception. That seems like the macro point behind music technology to me; it's a tool we can use to take the process of composition and performance further, and do it faster than ever.

So much great electronic music is made using a process not unlike sitting down to write a score for an orchestra. You lasso the melody or hook in your head and get it notated, then make calculated decisions for how to arrange and present the idea. I've never quite been able to do music that way. I tend to just try anything and everything that comes to mind kind of haphazardly, and then move on. That's a great way to experiment and learn, but songs and albums don't result from that.

I've been figuring out a set up that allows me to do that thrashing of experimenting and trying things in my natural workflow, but extrapolates it into a full sounding arrangement. I have definitely not "arrived" there; I have a lot of refining of this process to do. But this is the first collection of songs that has come from this journey which didn't require a ton of preconception, have a satisfactory amount of expressivity integration, and are feasible to reproduce live.

To record Bow + Arrow, I just played through my live Ableton file and recorded into separate audio tracks for each sound. Quite smooth! It's really amazing what computers can do.

Mason recording the title track of Bow + Arrow

It always interests me when I hear creative people talk about a current piece of work in the context of previous pieces and future ambitions. What do you see as your next steps in refining your creative process?

My favorite moments of Bow + Arrow are when the process takes a small idea and unfolds it into long form naturally. For instance, the general process for "Phased" is taking samples of short piano phrases and automating the start time through the sample gradually. It's trippy to play and it's weird, but I think because the process is clear there's a different type of beauty that can come out. I can be expressive within that framework without straining. If the result of the process isn't compelling, I start to overcompensate with density whether in my playing or the arrangement because I'm afraid to let the music breathe.

Moving forward, I'm going to put all the hard work into the process of how the composition is going to function. If the music doesn't come smoothly from there, I need to make the process more elegant or robust.

Was there anything that surprised you when experimenting integrating Sensory with modular synths?

I was initially worried that using a MIDI to CV converter would introduce latency. It's actually insanely fast. Once its voltage, the signal moves at the speed of electricity, so even in a super involved patch its basically instant. When you're used to a long effects chain of VST's taxing your CPU, it's really liberating!

In exploring the modular world to learn and know what kinds of modules even exist, it's been cool to see how many modules you don't need when using Sensory Percussion to interact with your system. Sensory Percussion provides ample gates and modulation signals... you don't even need an LFO module. All I really need in my system are voices and some relatively basic ways of processing the modulation signals.

I've heard that you plan to release a full length album this year, where are you in the process of creating it?

I have the concept for almost all of the songs ready to go. By that I mean I have core sounds and a process for how each song will unfold. This time I'm trying out waiting to sit behind the kit until I feel like the basic concept is strong. I can sort of sketch the majority of the album Skrillex style (just playing the computer keyboard as a MIDI controller). My thinking is this: if I think it will be cool with my imagination filling in the gaps of all the expressivity, it will be really magical when I finally sit down behind the kit. The crude concept will come to life with the nuances of my playing. I could be totally wrong about that, but it's been a fun way to work that is conducive to life with a baby that goes to sleep by 7 pm! I think the album will be ready by October or November if all goes to plan.

Have you recently discovered any new techniques for controlling modular synths with Sensory?

I recently realized I could use an inverted decay envelope not only to duck the volume of a sound, but also to flick the pitch of a voice down. I like to use a gate from the kick to duck the volume of the modular voices, and use velocity of kick to modulate the amplitude of that ducking envelope. Using that same envelope to subtract from the pitch voltages, you can create a really cool pitch expression that's very pitch-bend-wheel-esque and scalable with velocity. I would have done that all over Bow + Arrow but I ran out of patch cables, ha!

To be honest, the majority of the techniques I've discovered in modular you can do in software. However, I don't think I would have thought to utilize them in the ways I do now if I hadn't experienced it in the modular environment. Many things are actually less cumbersome to do in modular, even though it looks like it's the most tedious thing ever.

What advice to you have for Sensory Percussionists who aspire to use Sensory Percussion to control synths?

I'm pretty sure Loon (Nils Frahm and Olafur Arnolds) was recorded by running sequences through a synth and just riding pots with all four of their hands. It's such an incredible album, and it helped me realize that I like how synthesizers sound when they're really being massaged. Even though the notes aren't being played by a human, it sounds so alive because of what they're doing with all of the parameters.

You can completely play a synth from Sensory Percussion, which is obviously really awesome. But it can be a lot to manage! I've had a lot of success taking the approach of letting something or someone else manage some elements of the synth and choosing what contributions I should input that are going to make the most significant emotive impact. Delegate some of the work to a friend or a sequencer or some automation so you can focus on what's crucial to giving life to the circuits.

Your tutorial series is a helpful resource for Sensory Percussionists of all technical capabilities. What inspired you to start making the series?

I have learned almost everything I know about synthesizers and music technology through the internet. I've made a point of making Sensory Percussion and it's integration with synths my speciality, so I felt like I was in a position to contribute to the vast resource that's helped me. I'm really quite passionate about sharing information. If I share all of my tricks, people will take off running with them and then I'll learn from their tricks and we'll ratchet forward very quickly.

Mason's tutorial on using just one sensor to compose a full song

What (broadly) have you covered in the series, and where do you hope to go?

At this point we've covered many different applications for each controller type, MIDI input / output integration, and some examples / strategies for full song set ups. I'd like to get into the Sensory / modular workflow soon and be more thorough with external synths (hardware or software). In general I'd love to move away from technical details and focus on bigger picture concepts for finding your own voice with Sensory.

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