Vessel is the latest recording by über-modern guitarist Dan Phelps. GM has spoken to Phelps in the past about his more group-oriented projects like Modular, Arc, and Spirits Drifted, but Vessel is representative of the guitarist as he more often appears live: alone on stage with guitar, effects, laptop, guitar amp, and full range speaker system. Recorded as one 45 minute take, it incorporates techniques Phelps has described in earlier interviews and in some newer videos included here.
Is the new recording, Vessel, actually a live performance from start to finish?
We edited out three or four extraneous minutes, if something camped on a theme or a sound for a little too long, but otherwise it’s a live improvised recording.
How did you do the editing with all those delay and reverb tails going?
Judicious use of crossfades in Pro Tools seemed to work.
Did you do more than one take?
I did two full-length performances, both about 45 minutes long. I also did five to seven shorter improvisational pieces. Improvising for an hour is exhausting. I don’t really have many new things to say right afterwards so I created a buffer between the longer performances by doing some shorter stuff.
Did you do it all in one day?
It was recorded over the course of two days, and then mixed.
Did you combine performances?
No, even though it compromises some of the integrity to remove a minute here or there, the point of the project was to capture a single improvised performance, because that’s the stupid human trick I’ve been teaching myself over the years.
I’ve seen you do it, so I’m not surprised you were able to pull it off. I recently interviewed Ricky Graham, who also performs on guitar with Ableton Live. He’s done a beautiful looking and sounding LP. Each side is one continuous track and yours is a 45 minute, single track, so I am curious: is there a trend of attention spans getting longer? What was the motivation for doing it as a single track?
Self-sabotage maybe? I tend to err on the side of honoring the concept around a project, rather than its accessibility or practicality. It would have been more logical to chop it up into smaller pieces and get more plays, or different tracks on Spotify, or let people jump easily to one section. But for something that is one long series of connected ideas, it has more integrity for me to say, this is a single thing. Also, it’s a lot of extra mental work to decide where the exact dividing moment between one section and the next is supposed to be. I don’t want to define that for listeners. It’s like a 45-minute side of an album. You’re welcome to drop the needle anywhere.
I guess the question is, will people be listening to 45-minute tracks, undistracted? I suppose, under the right circumstances, like a 45 minute plus car trip why not?
I hope so. That’s the world that I want to live in.
At the beginning, you have an upper octave sound happening. What do you use for your upper octaves?
The Digitech Ricochet. Which is a pared down Whammy Pedal. It has a momentary switch. I use that because it sounds good and it’s small.
Are you getting the lower octaves with that as well?
I can generate notes above and below the guitar with the Ricochet, or sometimes I’m changing the playback speed of the loop. I might record something at normal speed and play it back halftime, or twice as fast. I can overdub on audio that’s already in the Looper playing at half speed. If I bump the Looper back up to normal speed, everything recorded on top will now be an octave higher and twice as fast.
The way you loop sounds like Frippertronic looping, where the loops fade out and you introduce new ideas as they’re fading. Is that fair to say, or are you fading in and out closed loops with the mixer?
On Vessel, there are a handful of different techniques happening: Definitely the Frippertronics thing, where you turn down the feedback of the Looper so the loop gradually decays and you can lay new things on top of that. Sometimes I will find a creative way to send the Looper into one of my effects, like a big reverb, and then take over with the actual guitar, using that as a transitional tool. Andre LaFosse coined a term for another type of looping called windowing down. That is, if I have a loop that’s the equivalent of something like 60 bars, I’ll window it down until I’m only listening to a couple of beats, or one bar of a particular session, and then remultiply that and build new things on top of that.
How do you do that with the Ableton Looper?
It’s a built in function, I have the Looper mapped to a foot controller with a set of momentary buttons on it. One’s dedicated to multiplying the loop, and one’s dedicated to dividing it. The Looper on Ableton is fairly comprehensive. I can do some of the stuff that I used to do with the Line 6 DL4 delay pedal looper section, and some stuff that I would do with the Digital Echoplex. It’s pretty flexible. A lot of times you’re not actually hearing the audio from the Looper, you’re hearing it through different effect sends. Sometimes multiple effects are happening, so when I’m windowing down to a smaller loop, or changing the speed in octaves, it doesn’t always register as a harsh jump as it might if you were listening to the Looper’s dry audio. The processing smooths over some of the transitional stuff and makes it a sleight of hand thing.
What are you using to smooth those transitions?
I usually have a send to the Valhalla DSP Shimmer Verb, which is like Brian Eno in a box. I always have a channel with some delay, and sometimes there’s a crystallizing octave effect that I can turn on.
There’s another channel that has a delay doing some square wave modulation. Lately I’ve been using Soundtoy’s Prime Time for that, so the delays are jumping around in an interesting fashion, as if you have Henry Kaiser on a fader to fade in whenever you need him.
I also have a channel with distortion and most of those channels can also feed back into the delay effects. It is a little like modular synthesis, or what I would do if I were mixing a project, trying to create something out of an existing track by applying those techniques and that processing.
It sounds like there’s some randomization going on.
Well the square wave modulated delays do that, in that they generate unexpected things and they’re not clocked to any rhythm. I can’t remember doing this on Vessel, but on some of the effects channels before the delay effect, or before the distortion effect, I’ll use a really extreme band-pass filter that’s set to sweep really slow. So it essentially is only letting through certain parts of the information that’s in the loop.
I think you might have gone into some of that in your Full Sail tutorial. There are also sounds like slicing or tremolo. Is that from a pedal?
It might be a Max MSP grain plugin, I forget exactly what it’s called but it has a randomize button you can hit that will reset every parameter randomly. I’ll put that right after the Looper before it goes to the sends. I can fade up the mix to generate something strange. It’s the audio equivalent of Tokyo at night, or being in a casino.
There’s some stuff that sounds more like tremolo.
I think I did that on the guitar using the Ricochet two octaves up, tapping high notes just over the twelfth fret with the slide, and moving that around. I layered a couple of passes of that. Sometimes, if I’m working with a long loop and don’t want to wait for it to cycle around to layer another sound over a certain section, I’ll reverse the loop a little, and then set it going forward again over the same section, like I’m winding the tape back and then layering things over a particular spot in the loop.
That’s really interesting. There is something sounds like white noise towards the end of the track.
That’s probably a lot of fuzz and distortion happening through the guitar amp. If I want to move from an arrhythmic loop to something that has more rhythm, I’ll start layering random abrasive sounds like string scratches or, on my guitars that have the microphone built in, blasts of noise and feedback, until there’s a thick blanket of that, and then I’ll reduce that down to a shorter section. It’s completely up to chance what section of noise will get looped. The human brain is so wired to find patterns that, even if it’s an irrational rhythm, after hearing it four or five times in a row you start to accept it as a rhythmic event. Then I will play rhythmically over that. I probably fed that live distortion and feedback into my distortion channel on Ableton, and then into a big reverb for a wall of sound.
What fuzz were you using towards the end?
That was a Catalinbread Katzenkonig, which is a really cool sounding fuzz. It’s a combination of a Tone Bender and a ProCo RAT. It has some Tone Bender hair and some of the smooth distortion of a RAT.
Were you playing the way you do live, i. e. sending some effects through the amp and other audio out from the computer to full-range speakers?
I’ll sometimes send the computer tracks direct into Pro Tools, but for this, as it was a performance, I wanted to play like I play live. I had my whole rig with the PA speakers set up. We close miked the amp and had a couple of stereo room mic set-ups. We took tracks direct from the laptop, but the stereo room mics helped reference the balance of regular guitar to loop in the room. You can get lost trying to remember how loud the looping track was compared to the guitar. There was probably subtle ambience added in the mix stage and some EQ. We favored different mics on the guitar cab or in the room depending on what I was doing. The recording process is not the same as just standing there and listening to it happen live. A microphone doesn’t hear the same as your ears. So, there was a bit blending happening in different sections, but for the most part it’s pretty documentary in terms capturing what happened live of the floor.
What the next project?
I’m not 100% sure. I’d like to continue live looping. I want to experiment with different settings. I did an event where everybody lay on comfy yoga mats with pillows, while I played. That was focused more on the peaceful and languid aspects of my live improvisation. The point was to create a space where, on a Friday night, at the end of your busy week, you could completely lose track of time, even for an hour—like a reset. I want to experiment with the psychological and physiological effects of experiencing music in different ways.
I am also producing and playing on a number projects for other artists through the end of the year. One is a band called Molter that I am in with Chris Benson, another is an artist named Claire Holley, with whom I have worked before.