Mason Self On His New EP, Computer Programming, and His Sensory Percussion Evolution
If you're a Sensory Percussion user, you're probably already familiar with Mason Self. For years, he's been pushing the boundaries of what's possible with the combination of Sensory Percussion and modular synthesis. He's also constantly providing great educational content via his Patreon and YouTube channel.
We caught up with Mason ahead of the release of his new EP 'Obscurity' and chatted about the evolution of both his artistic mindset and his physical setup, and how this resulted in some new approaches to making music with Sensory Percussion.
You mentioned that while you were making Obscurity over quarantine, you were wondering about your future as a musician, and whether live music would ever come back. How did this inform your process?
My last several EP's were very much written with live performance in mind, and with live gigs off the table for an unknown duration it didn't feel right to continue putting my creative energy in that direction.
In the spaces that would have been filled with traveling / live gigs, I decided to finally get serious about learning C++. It's been a dream of mine to make my own audio software / instruments for a long time!
Between being unsure of what my creative energy should / could be put towards and all of the sudden being immersed (innundated) with weird abstract programming concepts, it felt like I was slipping into obscurity in several ways. Acceptance that in the future I may not get to be the peformer that I had wrapped a part of my identity around. Bewilderment that so much of the modern world depends on these obscure (to me) computer science concepts. Acknowledging that these songs I'm writing may not be able to be shared in a manor I've become accustomed to and rather enjoy.
It was actually a really healthy shift for me. These are songs that I wrote with no agenda, just a very abstract way of expressing what's been going on in my mind.
It seems like your use of Sensory Percussion has evolved since we last spoke in 2019, both in terms of how you use the software conceptually and your physical set up. Can you tell us about the journey from then to now?
It largely evolved due to not focusing on performance anymore. The capabiliies Sensory Percussion offers for live performance are clearly awesome, but there are so much less obvious but equally worthwhile uses for Sensory Percussion smack dab in the middle of a production process.
Generally, I've been working towards interfacing Sensory Percussion more seamlessly with the rest of my production workflow, rather than treating in as an end-to-end platform unto itself. Throughout most of the Obscurity process, I had a one mesh head drum and a kick right snug next to my desk. That way I could play it from my desk chair while still playing Push, using my mouse, or do something on modular. That encouraged things like treating Sensory Percussion as a "quick and dirty resampler / sample manipulator" that I might have thrown into Live's Simpler or the Make Noise Morphagene just as easily or even using Sensory just for generating automation. The results from using Sensory Percussion in that way are very compelling.
You’ve said that your taste is polarized between “sounds that are either really subtle or sounds that smack you in the face”. Obscurity seems to fit that description perfectly. Do you consciously try to balance these two poles when you think about the project as a whole, or does it come naturally?
It comes pretty naturally to me. I usually don't feel good about a collection of songs if it doesn't make my eyebrows raise at times AND make me want to close my eyes peacefully. In the music I choose to listen to, if it leans on one side or the other too much it's music for when "I'm in the mood." If it has both, I'd be happy to listen to that everyday. Same goes for music I'm working on... if I'm going to work on it consistently, it's going to be more a more sustainable project for me if there's some balance in the pallete and energy.
While there are certainly some signature “Mason” moments on this EP, it also sounds like a bit of a new direction in terms of the more intense, darker moments. Some of them, like the end of “Levels Of Indirection,” are downright spooky! Do you feel like Obscurity is darker than your other projects? And if so, was that intentional?
It is definitely darker than my previous EP's that were geared for performing, however if you dig through the depths of my bandcamp page you'll find some dark moments there too! I have less idea than ever what the future holds, but I am grateful for what is very good in my life and want to be where I am now without illusion.
Can you tell us a little bit about the track names, which are all references to concepts in programming languages? What’s your programming background, and how does this inform your music? How (if at all) does computer programming relate to EP’s themes of worrying about the future of music, etc.?
These are songs that I wrote with no agenda, just a very abstract way of expressing what's been going on in my mind.
Some of these songs started very unceremoniously as a way of testing audio plugins I was in process of developing at the time. At first the "Levels of Indirection" was called "Less2 test" and I had dropped in a piano recording I had made recently just to have something musical to try it out on. Rather than just doing the same test over and over, I kept developing the idea with excessive use of Less2. Going back and forth between an IDE and a DAW is a good recipe for writing weird music.
With all of the other thoughts previously mentioned, arbitrary programming concepts I was (and am still) learning about felt like an appropriate scheme for the song names.
With all the possibilities between Sensory Percussion, Ableton Live, and modular synthesis, do you have limitations that you set in order to not be overwhelmed with musical choices?
Musical choices are always a threat to the modern music maker. When I'm in a writing mode, a mantra I find helpful is "get your idea out in the simplest way." For me, particularly with the live solo performance material, that means generally using soft synths for melodic / tonal things, and using drum samples via Sensory Percussion to start. I then go back in and do something in modular or some other bit of kit if something still can't fulfill the role it should with easy parameter adjustments. My hardware instruments sound amazing, but it's more important to get my idea out than utilize everything.
There are also many other modes or headspaces I make music in. One other headspace pertinent to your question is simply curiosity or exploration. In these instances, there really isn't a goal of musical output, moreso just "what if." What if I use my eurorack filter as an LFO and control the rate from Sensory Percussion? What if I duplicate MIDI clip sequences and utilize chance informed follow actions in Live? These are often gear dependent experimentation sessions and more time consuming than making a song sometimes. I still find it valuable though, it's what helped me become fluent in the interactions between Sensory, Live, and modular. Usually there's quite a few inspiration moments as well that get harvested down the line.
You mentioned that you’ll be focusing more on your video series Adventure Sampling in the future. Can you talk about the concept of “lifestyle” as a musical practice, and how that relates to Adventure Sampling?
Yeah,I feel like especially in the past couple years, a lot of people are rethinking things and have been forced to slow down. And I started realizing that modern music making is very insular. If you're making electronic music, you’re just hole’d up in a room that may or may not have windows, disconnected from the physical world outside.
I'm not against technology at all. Clearly I'm pretty steeped in it, but I also love being outside and it felt like almost an existential problem that I'm spending so much time making music or teaching other people how to make music using these tools that are completely separate from that, when you could go grab a field recording and throw that into your song or whatever.
But that didn't feel like enough, so Adventure Sampling came out of just thinking, “Well, I should get out. I should just go outside right now instead of searching for a sample pack on the internet or something. I should just go make my own.” I go in on a walk, listening to environments, I almost always find something cool. I mean, if you're open to some deep sampling, you don't even need a good sound. You just need some raw material to work with.
My family and I are going to be doing a lot of traveling this year, so I felt like I should make it a practice for myself to exercise, to get outside, to just listen to an environment. And not just recording for 10 seconds and then saying, “Got it, sweet. I'm going back inside” but actually staying somewhere. My daughter's getting into birding and you have to sit somewhere pretty quietly for a long time before the birds come usually.
You have to wait for them to come back after you’ve scared them off.
Exactly. Yeah. And then once they do come back, the pattern of their songs and their communication is super long form. Like this Brown Thrasher that my daughter found the other day. It’s related to a Mockingbird, but their calls are in pairs or couplets, whereas a Mockingbird is in triplets. So a Brown Thrasher would do the same call twice, but a Mockingbird would do that call three times in a row. That's so cool. But you have to already be an hour into sitting in a spot outside to be able to notice that. So mm-hmm anyway, it just seems like a healthy move for me to make myself spend more time outside, which I already enjoy doing. To try to connect what I do “in the box” and in the digital world with my love of being outside.
For sure. It must be great to have your process connect those two worlds. Speaking of “in the box” vs. “out of the box” production, obviously everything with Sensory Percussion and Ableton is all in the box and then the field recordings are actual audio from a zoom recorder. But other than that, do you have a traditional studio drum recording setup that you used on Obscurity?
I do have a very modest setup for recording a full kit here. I’ve done some remote sessions and that sort of thing, but I didn't end up using any acoustic drums on the EP. I totally could have, but it just didn't happen. I mean, I also moved several times during the process of making it, so a lot of the EP was made with most things still packed up in boxes.
I think a lot of people are probably in that situation where they don’t have the time/space to record at home but maybe don’t want to be book a studio session and feel rushed. That seems like a good workaround to including acoustic elements: just record with whatever you have and process the sounds afterwards.
Yeah, I have a couple field recorders now and they're both only a little bigger than a phone, so it's really easy to keep it in your backpack or your car. It’s very accessible. The more you have to set something up, the less often you’re gonna use it. If you don't have your drum kit actually set up and it's just stacked in the corner, you're not gonna play it unless you have a gig coming up or something. But if you have Ableton Push on your desk, you're gonna use that all the time because it's just there ready to go. So for me, the happy medium has been having one sensor on a mesh head, so I can keep my whole Sensory Percussion rig in the snare case and that's pretty darn easy to set up.
I realized the power of a niche. Sensory Percussion is a great example. What a weird application of technology that a community of people came out of the woodwork and said, 'Yes, that's for me.'
You mentioned that you’ve been using Sensory Percussion more as a production tool than a performance tool. Are there any examples on Obscurity where you used that approach?
Yeah, definitely. I was pretty into resampling throughout the whole thing. Resampling as an iterative process. So yeah, some of those songs started out as a way of demoing a plugin that I was working on building. And rather than just doing the same test, you know, opening the DAW, running the same thing every time I would kind of morph it based on the inspiration from the plugin and it was just a cool way to see what would this actually be like in a creative process as opposed to just testing whether it world or not. I ended up chopping up that thing that I made and throwing it into Sensory Percussion in same the way you might take an audio clip and slice it to a drum rack in Ableton. I did that with Sensory Percussion quite a bit. I also did the reverse, where I would slice to a drum rack in Ableton, but then use Sensory Percussion to figure out what MIDI notes are gonna be a cool combination with that, and then play it that way.
That’s a great alternative to dropping a really long sample into the Sensory Percussion sampler and trying to edit from there.
Yeah, that’s probably not the best way to edit a sample, but if you're open to the chance of it, I love to throw a long sample into the Sensory Percussion sampler. Then if you put an LFO on the start time of a minute-long sample, there's so much cool stuff that comes out. I did that several times on the EP. Like, “Here’s some interesting material. I don't really know what I want to do with this, so let's just roll the dice.”
So what made you initially want to learn computer programming? Was it always with music and plugin-making in mind, or do you have other other plans, other applications?
I don't know, honestly. I've been interested in making my own music software tools ever since I got into electronic music and realized the power of a niche. Sensory Percussion is a great example. What a weird application of technology that a community of people came out of the woodwork and said, “Yes, that's for me.” You know? I mean, Sensory Percussion is way beyond the scope of most of my ideas; it’s pretty dense, but I’ve learned enough to realize how deep it is. And it's amazing that it does what it does without taking 10 seconds to come up with the result.
So it’s all about niches. With Sensory Percussion, there’s a niche community of people that are really stoked on it and down to put in colossal hours, exploring it and making art with it. And there are all these other niches that we find ourselves in, like the community of drummers who use modular, that's another pretty small niche. I've come across all these things in my own journey thinking, “Wow, wouldn't it be really cool to have something that did this random thing.” Like with my Sensory Percussion journey, I really wanted to be able to use a sample and hold technique on MIDI information. And I was able to make Max for Live devices to satisfy that, which I was really happy with. But I have a lot of ideas that would be more cross-platform. So I wanted to take a deeper dive into learning how to do the programming that’s a little more “under the hood” than what Max offers. So it was time to time to learn C++, which is how most music software is made. It's been two or three years now that I've been learning it. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I have traction with it now, so I’m happy with that.