Stories from a Pro: Atticus Ross

Atticus Ross

Producer, programmer and arist Atticus Ross has seen the rise of the electronic dance music scene and the incorporation of programmed beats into modern and industrial rock. Armed with the Roland TR-808, Atticus began programming (i.e. making music through computer-based hardware) at 22. He began programming tracks for Tim Simenon’s Bomb the Bass releases, and then formed the band 12 Rounds with Claudia Sarne. In addition to being signed to Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records and releasing 2 albums, Atticus also gained ground behind the scenes as a programmer and additional production for Nine Inch Nails' "With Teeth” and a co-producer of the upcoming KoЯn album along with working on a number of other projects including Zach de la Rocha, Tapeworm and Rancid. For "With Teeth”, Atticus and Trent used Trash regularly in the creation of the gritty, Nails industrial sound. Here Atticus tell us about his past, his present, and how iZotope continues to help him make it down and dirty.

We checked in with Atticus while scoring the sountrack to the movie "The Book of Eli".

It's been quite some time since we last checked in with you. Can you briefly let us know what you have been up to?

I'm lucky to be able to say it's been a busy few years; I've been coproducer (alongside Trent Reznor and Alan Moulder) on three Nine Inch Nails albums (Year Zero, Ghosts and the Slip), some new recordings by Jane's Addiction and also did a bunch of programming on Trent's production of Saul Williams. I've done two coproductions with Joe Barresi - the forthcoming Coheed and Cambria album 'Year of The Black Rainbow' and an EP called 'Human Nurture' from a London based band called Loverman. Also did the Korn album 'Untitled' and an as of yet unreleased album 'The Anti Fire' by Union of Knives. I've done a little bit of remixing: Grace Jones' 'Corporate Cannibal', Telepathe's 'Michael' and Dillinger Escape Plan's 'Unretrofied'. Also started to do some work for TV and film, mostly for the directors the Hughes Brothers. Writing with my wife Claudia Sarne and my brother Leopold we did their TV show 'Touching Evil', their vignette for the movie 'New York I Love You' and their current film 'The Book of Eli'. Also worked on Perry Farrell's track for the movie 'Twilight'.

Has working with new mediums changed your focus as an artist since our last interview?

I've never had some big game plan so not really - I just try to do things that seem like they may be interesting and fun and that I may be able to contribute to in some way. The film stuff is just something that happened rather than by any design. I really enjoyed it and I hope I get to do more but I don't view it as a change in direction - more like an addition. I start another record on Monday and I'm very much looking forward to it.

As for your recent movie work, you scored the entire soundtrack for "The Book of Eli" starring some Hollywood A-listers. That album has been described as a blend of "electronic elements with traditional instruments, leading to a truly unique hybrid that's only fitting for a post-apocalyptic Western."What was your inspiration for scoring this film?

The inspiration really came from spending time with the directors before the movie production started. We'd go through different ideas and swap albums, scores, DVDs etc. of stuff we liked. Beyond the script they had also put together a detailed 'Look Book' with various photographs and drawings as well as some writing and quotes which conjured up the kind of world they were going for. We had to try and find a musical companion for it and did the first chunk of writing leading into the start of the shoot - I think we delivered about ten tracks of which three (or some version of them) ended up in the film. I don't know how other people do it but that initial writing was very important as it gave us a place to start from and a kind of road map to develop once the picture started coming in. There was one piece written in that first batch, called 'Panoramic', that they particularly loved - it became the main theme and set the tone for what followed. There's a certain consistency in terms of the mood, which is deliberate, and that allowed us to move between the different instrumentation and eventually the orchestra.

What as the recording process like with such a varied instrumentation?

The great majority of it was done at my home studio, which is my favorite place to work. It's not flash but I have everything I need there - we only left to do live drums (at Joe Barresi's studio) and the orchestra (at Abbey Road). My wife and brother also have writing spaces in the house and it was a really fun and creative time passing ideas back and forth. Everything would end up in my room for the final recordings - any limitations studio wise just encouraged inventiveness and I think in some ways the lack of experience in movie scoring worked in our favor. I had no idea if we were doing it in the 'right' way, and like all things I don't know if that even exists, but it sounded good to me, seemed to work well with the picture and kept somewhat to the roadmap I'd discussed with the Hughes Brothers. Obviously there were some bumps along the way but for the most part the direction was pretty focused and everyone involved with the movie seemed excited by the results. After a few months up at the house we found ourselves sitting in Abbey Road recording with an 80 piece orchestra which was surreal but definitely one of the best musical experiences I've had.

Did you use any iZotope products in the recordings?

The Hughes brothers wanted a very textured score, which is the kind of music I love. My brother had got a couple of looper pedals and became excellent at using them to generate a certain type of weirdness, the only problem was a clicking as the different layers were introduced. Some of the best pieces would have been rendered useless if it were not for RX. I also found myself using RX on some of the work I've done with Barresi - he has the most incredible collection of vintage amps but there were a couple times when the noise to signal ratio was  just a little unacceptable, even by my standards. Where RX stands out to me is that I am able to get rid of, or greatly reduce, what I don't want without affecting what I do want. All the iZotope stuff would have been used at some stage or another but my favorite one, and one of my favorite plug-ins, is still Trash. I notice you call it a toolbox on the website and that's fair enough - I love the different sounds I can get with the distortions but there's plenty of times I use it without engaging the distortion at all; the reason I'm drawn to it (and the family of plug-ins as a whole) is that the different pages allow a depth to the programming without getting all beard scratching about it. I can get something that sounds cool to me, and different to the last time I used it, quickly. 

Having worked on so many different kinds of projects, do you find you feel closer to some than others?

I'm the type of personality who tends to become consumed with whatever I'm doing, but there's obviously a closeness that comes from the continued musical relationship - in essence that's what a band is. Beyond the ideas I used to think it was about the studio or the gear and although that plays a role I think the important thing is the personalities and how well they communicate. In my case I've done a lot of work with Trent over the last 8 years which I feel very much a part of and which I'm very proud of. It's always been a challenge and a musical adventure; every project is approached from a different place to best try and avoid falling into our musical comfort zones - it's the opposite of 'I recorded my first hit with this amp and I've used it on every record since'. It keeps things exciting in terms of the work and the history and friendship allows a healthy level of honesty - it's hard to tell someone you've just started working with, or for them to tell you, that there may be an element of sucking in what's going on. Musically challenging is fine but I work best when I feel at ease which is why I also enjoy working at home so much with my wife and brother. I think some of my best stuff has been done there  - we've made music together for so long and are all so close that it becomes an intuitive experience.

In our first interview you said "Five years ago, when I first moved to America, I wasn't even sure whether I was going to keep doing music." Looking back now, are you glad you stayed the course?

Of course. I am very grateful that I get to earn a living making music and I'm sure I'd be doing it regardless of whether it was a living or not. It's not something I take for granted - I've had my share of disappointment same as everyone else. I've enjoyed making music more in the last few years than ever before; in my case, experience has definitely added up to more confidence. I try and not worry about the results - it's the process, and how creative it can be, that counts.

 

*original interview from 2009

Tell us a little about working with Tim Simenon (a.k.a. Bomb the Bass), an act that had a major influence on the budding electronic dance scene in the early nineties.

To my mind Bomb the Bass is an overlooked band. There's an album called "Unknown Territory" that was so far ahead of its time and pre-dates the great electronic music of the late nineties. It was a landmark album and a great influence on the bigger electronic bands of the late nineties I'm sure. Before it was a lame idea, it was all Blade Runner samples and insane programming, really clever stuff. Tim is a very talented guy; he went on to produce Depeche Mode and Massive Attack and tons of stuff. We became friends and I started working for him, so I did the next Bomb the Bass, and various other things. We did another album that didn't come out called "Strange Cuts" which was interesting, and at the same time Tim got the demo of Chemical Brothers and he played it to his label, and they said, "Oh, that's never going to happen."

It was an interesting time as I've never seen myself as an exclusive electronic musician and we both had a pretty varied palette. Tim was involved with bands like Psychic TV, Tackhead and [Adrian] Sherwood, which was all a little more exciting than just sitting infront of a computer and I learnt a lot about combining different styles of music.

How has the way you've felt about making made music evolved since then?

For me, there are a lot of people who have a great idea and they do their idea, and they're done. For me, it took up until the last three years to be able to make music that comes out of the speaker that reflects what I'm hearing in my head. I am a big believer in technique and having experience. It's not a one trick pony thing anymore. I feel comfortable with what I'm doing, I feel a lot different. Five years ago, when I first moved to America, I wasn't even sure whether I was going to keep doing music. It's in that time that things have changed for me and that has to do with some luck and some reward for just sticking to what you believe in.

You mentioned that you've recently been able to make music that reflects what it sounds like in your head. What was the first track that made you do that?

I think that the last 12 Rounds album that we did. We went to New Orleans and worked on it with Trent. It hasn't actually been released, but there are some songs on there that were the starting point of feeling like, "Wow, this is something that's really good." The other thing for me is that technology has made a big difference to what I'm doing, and I'm committed to it wholeheartedly.

How has the change in technology changed your view on how people make music?

I have my own studio, and it's still expensive for a kid, but a kid can now access a lot more stuff. I'm working on KoЯn, but I'm working on a lot of it in my own studio. I can bring it back here and work on it, and it's not going to suffer, when in the past it was more of an issue. Before, you were up against it—the person with the more money had a better shot at making the better record. Nowadays, that playing field's been leveled so much. There are no real excuses, we can all compete.

I went from drum machines and tape machines, to a Mac with a soundcard, moving up the scale. Now I work with a Pro Tools HD rig, fully loaded on the new G5, and a secondary rig which carries Logic. It's got the stuff that I like and I know.

Trent and I come from a background where the computer was the instrument, a sequencer was an instrument. What's happened is that a lot of people who aren't from that background—they have a Mac, they have Pro Tools, and they understand you can put things in time and tune things. To me that has nothing to do with the art of programming. That's the fast lane to boring and soulless music.

So what is the art of programming to you?

I think it's a whole lot of different things. There are some professional aspects to do with knowing what you're doing but basically it's the same thing as playing a guitar—why is one guitar player better than another? It's all to do with what you're trying to put across, what your taste is.

I heard for your work with Trent Reznor on Nine Inch Nails "With Teeth", you and Trent built your own modular synth array. How did that add to the album?

One of the things we were doing in New Orleans is that we were trying to make something that sounded exciting, so we did get into the whole modular world. That was something new to me, but I started learning by watching Trent, because he's a great programmer on that thing. He has a whole wall of it. He would hear a sound in his head, and he would start patching away and always come up with something good. What we were into was the fact that it was very in the moment performance based recording. Unlike midi instruments we could never recall the sound and that in itself made the approach different. I would record, and might work with the parts, but it was more about embracing the imperfections than trying to fix them.

"Hand that Feeds" was posted as a Garageband file for Mac addicts to remix, and now the parts to "Only" are available for fans to remix in Mac Garageband, Sony Acid, Digidesign Pro Tools, AND Abelton Live. What is your opinion on remixing by the masses?

That wasn't concocted by some marketing guy, that was Trent's idea. For Garageband, he did that one. For "Only", I worked on the Pro Tools session, he did Garageband, and someone else worked on the others. I think it's for the people who are interested. If I saw that I could download the master tapes of a band that I really liked, I would do that, to have a look and see what's going on. In terms of the remixing aspect, I don't really know. I doubt I'll be spending much time ploughing through everyone's mixes but I think it's a good thing. I know as a fan, I would like to be let in to stuff that people are doing that intimately.

Tell us about working on the new KoЯn album. I hear it's a departure from your normal way of working.

It was weird—just as Nine Inch Nails was finishing, KoЯn was starting up, and they had this producer shootout. They had everyone in the world come in for three days, and you had to prove yourself. I didn't expect to get very far but eventually it ended up with me doing half the record, and The Matrix doing half the record. It has been really good fun. Our worlds are quite different, in some ways. They've always done their record by rehearsing a song and recording it. My preferred way of working is in the control room with everyone plugged in. They were just so open to trying new things, and I think it's come out really good. It's still obviously KoЯn, but it's different to what they've done before.

This was the first experience of really going in the studio with a big band, and not really knowing what was going to happen. As it turned out it was probably one of the best experiences I've had in terms of working. Really nice guys - I'm proud of what's been done I think it's going to be good.

How has iZotope helped you in your programming process?

When Trent and I were working in New Orleans, we had a PC running only for Trash—before it ran on a Mac—because we thought it was so good. I think what you've got now are these programs, where you can really go deep if you like. That's what I like about your stuff. When you open it up, it's not on and off, you have many pages to go through, and you can really define your own sound.

We used Trash through the last Nine Inch Nails album, and it would be our first stop in terms of plug-in distortions. We found the way Trash is laid out, it's probably some of the best programming in that realm. I think that it sounds great. A lot of the stuff that I like and work on requires distortion, and I found it's something I use a lot.

Spectron I'm still getting into, I am processing one of Jonathan's vocals as we speak [lead singer of KoЯn] and I want it to sound cold. I found I gravitate to Spectron as a vocal processor, because of the layering you can do in terms of the effects.

Doing any album there will come a time when you have to play rough mixes for suits and non musical people who you need to impress. A number of mastering plug-ins have come on the market in the last few years but when I recently did a shoot out amongst them I found Ozone won hands down. It just sounded great, and we used it for everything. The thing I like about iZotope's products is that it's not really like opening a plug-in; it's like opening a separate program and being able to get involved in what you're doing.

Any last thoughts?

I think the layout on your stuff couldn't be better, and they sound great.

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