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For chillwave maestro Tycho, effects are as much instruments as the ones you play

“I’m trying to find a way to be more and more hi-fi without losing the patina or coloring that makes the music what it is.”

Ambient chillwave maestro Tycho always has his head in the clouds — something the man also known as Scott Hansen takes as quite the compliment. Hansen got his stage name from Tycho Brahe, a 16th-century Danish nobleman, astronomer, and alchemist who vigorously pursued the value of empirical data. (Heady stuff, to be sure.) Hansen is also known for his stellar photography and design work under the name ISO50, and he masterminds all of Tycho’s visuals.

Tycho set new ambient standards with his 2006 analog nostalgia snapshot, Past Is Prologue, then switched from using Cakewalk Sonar to Reaper for the serene dreaminess of 2011’s Dive. After touring with a live band in support of Dive, Hansen added other musicians to the studio proceedings for 2014’s Awake, an album awash in a mesh of synthetic blends and live energy, as evidenced by the dreamy underwater vibe of L, the new-wave callback jam on Dye, and the percussive delay fest that defines See. In Hansen’s mind, there is literally nowhere to go but up. “I want to introduce some new elements and try to push in new directions instead of going in a linear way,” he affirms.

Currently, Tycho is gearing up for the band’s first-ever appearance at Coachella by testing out some new stage elements on their current spring 2015 tour. “It’s kind of intimidating, because you hear all these stories,” Hansen says about the iconic music festival. “We’ve heard about all these crazy productions by people like Daft Punk, so I feel like we have to step it up. Right now, we’ve been experimenting on this tour with a few volumetric effects, like projections through smoke. But we’re going to have to scale that up even more for Coachella.”

Digital Trends rang up Tycho during a tour stop in Denver to discuss the different recording initiatives he undertook for Awake, how high resolution has changed his thinking for the next album, and get his assessment of his guitar chops. The man sure is a Cloud pleaser.

Digital Trends: Your recording process for Awake was a bit different than what you’ve done before, seeing how you worked with an actual band in the studio this time.

Scott Hansen: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I’d say the process overall was very similar to what I did before, but some of the sources for the material were different.

How so?

On previous records, my process was I’d write things and record in passes, and then make it into something that resembles a composition or a song. And then I’d reassemble them and just start over again. Everything changes. The arrangement process came later.

But at the very beginning for Awake, I had more diverse material because I was working with Zac (Brown, guitarist), and then I brought Rory (O’Connor, drums) in during the second phase, for the initial arrangements. From Rory’s playing, I could envision, “Oh wow, we could do this,” and that’s when the remixing happened. I took it and moved all his drums around, and then we brought him back into the studio, and he added another layer over that. Once the finished structure was there, he played to that structure, and that was the finalizing element.

So you and Zac played live together to start things off, and then you did the same thing with Rory?

Some songs came out of jams where we were just sitting there. I wouldn’t say there were any songs where we just sat down and played the song, you know what I mean? The title track to Awake came out of a fragment that was an outtake and not even part of any song.

“As far as the effects, I used a lot less analog and a lot more digital.”

And you’re still using Reaper?

Yes. I use Reaper for everything. I love Reaper. During the process for Dive, Cakewalk just wasn’t working anymore for my flow. As far as preamps went, pretty much everything was the UA 6176 vintage channel strip, plus UA 610 preamps and a UA 2-1126 compressor on the end. And then I used a Chameleon Labs 7602 MKII (microphone preamp) for the grindier parts of stuff that I had to push harder, which is like a solid state. And I also used things like Ursa Major (Space Station) reverb, and some analog space-echo delays.

In the interests of time, I ended up moving a lot of stuff over to a lot more software. Not for tone generation, but there was some DSD stuff going on there, though not more than what was on Dive. As far as the effects, I used a lot less analog and a lot more digital.

Is that a surprise to you? You’ve gone for a lot of analog textures over the years.

The software has matured so much and there’s so much out there now that I feel like I can do more of what I want to accomplish in digital because I have so much more flexibility and control. I can have multiple instances and do complex routing that I just don’t have the ability to do, since I don’t have a large-format console for doing a lot of the interesting parallel effects. That isn’t really a possibility for me, so I’m having to do it in the box. I have to strike a balance.

I had to decide, “What are the effects I want?” The Ursa Major is something I’ve never felt I’ve heard emulated properly anywhere — although that is a digital device and there’s outboard gear too, so you’re going to get all the color of the stuff going on with that. Little things like that I said have to stay. The 1176s had to stay, preamps, delays, all that kind of stuff. For a lot of the delays, I’d been using a (Moog) Moogerfooger pedal, and I was using a space echo, a (Electro-Harmonix) Memory Man, and a (soundtoys) EchoBoy. I became more familiar with how to use all the tweakable aspects of it. I realized what it lacks in some very specific way from the tone of the original, it makes up for in some other way. You can’t really compare the two, but I realized I enjoy working with the software more — in that instance, at least.

Tycho

Songs like Montana and See are your delay and echo tour de forces.

(chuckles) Who knows how many instances are on those songs? That’s the beauty of it — I can have two different types of delay on the same sound. I have it all over the place. In my studio, I have five different delay units. To put all of that work together for tracks like those would have been pretty time-consuming.

You’re the modern-day Edge, U2’s delay master. That’s a good thing, right?

(laughs) Oh yeah, he’s definitely a huge influence on both Zac and me. And that’s an apt comparison. I play the effects. I’m not a virtuosic guitarist or keyboardist by any means. But I like to use the effects as an instrument just as much as guitar loops.

Is there one particular track on Awake that you consider the most challenging one to record?

The most challenging song? I think it was probably Montana because it’s a very dense, complex arrangement. It’s almost like a rock song, and not really in the center of what I’ve been doing for a long time. I’m not used to arranging drums that way or guitars in that fashion. It was a learning experience, and especially complex from a production standpoint. We probably ended up spending the most time on that one.

You’ve got that pretty cool jam section on the back half too.

Chopping that up took forever! It was ridiculous. (chuckles)

In the old days, you would have had to take out the razor blade to do all that chopping and cutting. 

I can’t even imagine how to do that. I’ve never used tape, other than this reel-to-reel I have that I fuck around with. I have a space echo, and that’s it.

“I used to not believe there was a big difference between digital converters, and I’m a believer, now that I’ve heard the high-end ones.”

Is Montana the hardest song to play live as well?

Yeah, putting it together live is one of the most difficult things to do. There’s a lot of stuff going on at once there. Some of the older songs have more complex keyboard passages, like PBS (from Past Is Prologue). But no matter how many times I play Montana, I feel like I still haven’t gotten it.

What are you recording at — 96/24, 88/24…?

Well, I used to be at 16/44, and then I moved up to 24. I forgot to set it at 24 when I started recording Awake and I didn’t want to re-record what I’d done to that point, so I just kept it. I used an RME Fireface 800 (FireWire audio interface) for that record, but right after Awake came out, I got a Fireface UFX, which is their new flagship. I can hear it working, so I’m sure I’ll be using that for everything moving forward. For some reason, I used to not believe there was a big difference between digital converters, and I’m a believer, now that I’ve heard the high-end ones. The difference between a 12-year-old interface and the UFX is pretty substantial.

For those of us who prefer listening to high-res files, the nuances of productions as detailed as yours get lost in a typical MP3, wouldn’t you agree?

Yeah, definitely. That’s something I came to terms with a few years back, when I switched my collection over to FLAC and WAV. It forced me to re-evaluate the way I record and put everything together, because there are people out there who I’m sure are tuned into that and want to hear the highest resolution possible, and not at 44/16. I knew I had to step it up.

This next album, I want to do DSD, even though I don’t have DSD equipment yet. When we track the drums, that will be DSD. And then we’ll get the rest of it down at the highest quality I can with the UFX.

Have you started on new material yet?

Yeah, we have. Just before this tour we’re currently on, Zac and I spent a week hashing out ideas and getting some sort of basic foundation to work off of so that when I get back home, I can start sorting through them and get into arrangements.

I realized my old way of going about it was to dirty things up and put this texture all over everything — which makes sense here and there if you pick the right place, but when you do it on every track, it just becomes overwhelming and takes over everything. I’m trying to find a way to be more and more hi-fi without losing the patina or coloring that makes the music what it is. I think Awake was a step in that direction, and I think the next one will get even closer.

Is there one specific Awake song that you consider the beacon for your more high-res leanings?

It’s hard to say. I feel like Montana could have been, but it’s a pretty smashed song from a master bus perspective because there are some things going on there where I tried to loosen up the compression on the master bus and the sub buses. It never really felt right, so I went, “Well, it is what it is.”

Awake feels pretty hi-fi to me, but when I listen to the album now, there’s a lot of dirtying up and coloring going on. I don’t think any of the mixes achieved the level of clarity I was going for, but they got a lot closer than Dive, that’s for sure.

The sweet spots for me on Awake in terms of overall production value are the songs L and Dye.

Yeah, that’s true. Those are good examples. All the parts kind of fit in place on Dye. There isn’t too much overlap, whereas in Montana, there’s just so much going on that there’s a lot of mush, you know?

“Awake feels pretty hi-fi to me, but when I listen to the album now, there’s a lot of dirtying up and coloring going on.”

Oh yeah. Now you’re hearing Awake for what it could have been, because your headspace is already in the higher-res zone.

Yeah, exactly. That’s it.

You’ve reissued some of your catalog on vinyl, so I’m sure that’s gotta be important too.

I think it’s great. There are some advantages, sound-qualitywise, if you have the right equipment, but it’s still great for the average consumer who maybe doesn’t have the highest-quality turntable or amp. It’s a physical object that you can attach meaning to. I grew up with that format and listened to my dad’s records, and all that. Just having that real thing where you can see all the artwork and have all these different panels, and own the actual piece of media — I think that’s an important part of the whole experience of getting an album and listening to it that way. I’m glad it’s been making a comeback.

What was the one record that had the most impact on you growing up?

My dad’s friend gave me some of the later Beatles stuff like The White Album (1968) on a mixtape, so it was all jumbled up with the more psychedelic stuff. I think that was the first time I became aware of music being something I liked, and not just something my parents played. I felt some ownership over it, like, “I chose it, I like it.” That made me start exploring more. My dad had Led Zeppelin III (1970). The album cover was so cool. That was what initially drew me to it.

Oh yeah, with that crazy spinning wheel —

(laughs) Yeah, that was so awesome!

What about the first record you bought yourself as a kid?

The first record I ever bought was some R.E.M. record. I bought a 45 of theirs, which I remember distinctly had the R.E.M. logo on it. I always wonder if that’s what drew me to it. In hindsight, you wonder if the look is what grabbed you. Looking back on it, I loved the whole Guns N’ Roses aesthetic, especially on the double album they did, the two Use Your Illusions (1991). I dug that stuff for some reason. That was before I was really aware of graphic design.

Do you have a favorite album cover, from your designer’s eye viewpoint?

That’s so hard to say since I like so many different styles, but Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew (1970) is one of my favorites because I always wish I could get that illustrative painter style. I look at some of Roger Dean’s Yes album covers, because I love that kind of stuff — that psychedelic, otherworldly painting style. Any of that looks good to me.

Tycho

Opening up a triple-gatefold album like Yessongs (1973) or Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974) was a kind of multimedia experience for those days. Your visual style is the modern version of that, especially the way you present your show onstage.

Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do with the live shows — to bring that other dimension back to it.

To wrap things up — do you have a sense that the way you, Zac, and Rory will be recording together will influence how the next album goes?

I’d imagine it’s going to be definitely continuing down the path of Awake. I want to introduce some new elements and try to push in new directions instead of going in a linear way. I want to have some new ways of thinking about stuff. I’ll see how it all comes out; I mean, you never know if it’s worthy. (chuckles) But I definitely want to keep moving beyond what we did with Awake.

How do you feel your chops are now as a guitarist?

I feel a lot better. Because we’ve been playing so much, I’m practicing a lot more. I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I can translate my ideas a lot smoother into reality. That’s good, because that makes my job as a producer a lot easier. (laughs) I used to have to chop everything up and reprogram it in the computer, so I’ve been enjoying that more lately. 

That must free you up some when you’re recording, so that you can put down some full passes.

Yeah, although I always have to be wary. The favorite part of all of my records has happened as a result of that — in the arrangement and production process, not the writing process. That’s something I don’t want to lose, but at the same time, I want to introduce a more fluid feel to all the parts, like you’re saying — like full passes — but I don’t want to lose that inspirational part where I make these happy accidents, you know?

Part of what makes this music sound the way it does is that element of things being resampled and retriggered. When you’re chopping that stuff up and then putting it all back together, you make mistakes that you never would have put there before. You move the back portion of it into the first or second segment and you go, “Whoa! That’s amazing!”