Known for performing in an aviation mask and filling floors with his take on Detroit electro, Galaxian is fast becoming one of the most prodigious experimental music producers of 2017. Based in Glasgow, Galaxian – a.k.a. Mark Kastner – melds polyrhythms, complex sound structures, and dark ambient textures to create his trademark sound. Native Instruments caught up with Kastner to get his take on music production and lift the curtain on his production processes. Spoiler alert: It’s all about chaos.
Recently you made a podcast for Resident Advisor using TRAKTOR. Do you use that same configuration for DJing?
I’ve not done a whole lot of DJing out recently as I’ve been mostly producing. I’m pretty much an old-school kinda DJ, and back in the day I was happy to have just two Technics with a working mixer. I think that is still my basic starting point, even with Traktor. Having the ability to use Cue and Loop points, Cruise Mode, and a host of effects is a fantastic improvement, and means I can get really creative.
Why do you use TRAKTOR as opposed to CDJs or vinyl?
I have never bought a CD in my life so I went straight from vinyl to digital and MP3s. I used to be a big vinyl buyer, well before the days of digital music, but it just become too expensive for me. I got into Traktor with its first or second incarnation and I thought it was incredible to be able to DJ in the digital domain. I like vinyl and Traktor and they both offer compelling ways to play and craft a DJ mix. With Traktor timecode control vinyl you can get the best of both worlds.
On the song “Magic Feathers”, the kick drum is heavily distorted while the synthesiser is very clean and almost crystalline. Did you want that juxtaposition to be very apparent or was it by chance?
It’s interesting you mention this specific track as I can tell you it was created entirely using Maschine. The kick is from one of the bundled Maschine kits, pitched-up and run through one of the Reaktor distortion effects. The whole group is run through that effect, which is on all the percussion sounds. I put the melodic pads on another group and deliberately left them sounding lush and lighter, to give it a sense of counterpoint. I have been doing a lot of sound design lately, entirely in Maschine, as it lends itself to this kind of work flow. What’s really nice is the ability to make many variations of patterns rapidly and spontaneously. The bulk of that song was made in a few hours, and I doubt I could have produced something like that with anything else that I use in the studio. The way in which I work, and the kind of music I produce with Maschine, is very different from other workflows I have used in the past, and it is really refreshing.
Referring specifically to MASCHINE, how many groups are in a song on average? And how do you decide how many to use?
There is no average, as such. Some songs have four or five groups and others will have only one – it really depends on what kind of song I’m working on. With a simple drone ambient song, I can easily place a few sounds or synths on various pads and keep them in one group. Parts full of drums I may place on two or more groups and synth sound effects on other groups. The “Magic Feathers” track we mentioned above is spread over three groups. There is a project I created which was supposed to be one song but became four or five songs in the one afterwards, spread over about six or seven kits. It’s a bit mad and all over the place, but once I sort it out I think it will be pretty good.
What hidden MASCHINE techniques do you use that other people could benefit from?
I’m not sure if it’s well-hidden or not, but I do like the group tune ability to pitch the whole group down. I really enjoy doing that with percussion and drum kits. You press and hold in the Group key and turn the jog wheel clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on whether you want to pitch it up or down.
Do you tend to use the Arpeggio function in MASCHINE for synths and melodic elements or for drums? And as a follow-up, do you like to use static arpeggios or more rhythmically complex, unexpected patterns?
I’ve used the Arpeggio and Note Repeat option on both, but probably more so on the percussion parts. It’s a cracking tool to really change up a stale or uninteresting drum pattern. The Arpeggio is really cool for synth parts as well, and being able to record the arpeggio midi notes is useful. I tend towards a more static arpeggio or note repeat on some drum parts, and a bit more random and complex on synth parts. But then again, if you do that the other way around you get some effective and surprising percussive patterns.
Are there one or two scales you gravitate towards when you are developing the melodic side of a track, and if so, why?
I’m not a keyboard player and have very little musical theory and notation know-how to speak of, so the scale and chord function has been a revelation for me.
What I conceive of and hear in my mind can now be realised. Hooks, chord phrases, and progressions that I was completely unable to play, or even program, have become possible – and that opens up a whole new world of creativity. For people that lack theoretical skills, that deficit no longer poses a barrier. Having this new capability means that my musical ideas are not hindered by my lack of ability, and it allows me to be more expressive.
When it comes to composition and song arrangement, how much of it is planned out and thought through and how much of it is improvised while recording?
I usually start off creating some patterns, and variations of those patterns, imagining where they might go in a song – how they work together, and what role they play. I keep doing that while I’m jamming out the parts and overall character of the piece. I continue to do that until I have enough basic elements to start forming a fuller arrangement. It’s here that new aspects of the song – for example, the essence and spirit – can become more apparent. I can see how everything is combining and working together, or not, as the case may be. An arrangement that really works can elevate a song from the mere ordinary, to something special.
My compositions are usually intricate and complex, sometimes way too much. Right now, I’m really liking the idea of recording live and spontaneously capturing instinctive moments – but there’s always something I want to edit, or think I can do better, and I end up with a grand composition. In many ways, Maschine allows me to generate complex patterns, rhythms, and scenes in less time, but with results that are no less deep and creative. That’s one of the things I really like about it.
What effects in MASCHINE are fun to play with and change the character of a sound or group?
The reverbs are lovely, Metaverb and Iceverb both have a great quality to them, and [are] ones I play around with again and again. Grain Delay is another favorite. It really morphs and contorts the sounds into some amazing tones and textures, especially when used in conjunction with some of those reverbs and other delays. The Analog Distortion is also pretty great. I use a lot of the on-board effects with Massive and Kontour. Just trying a bit of everything and finding something new or unexpected. The Resochord effect is very powerful – I’ve not used it that often but I really like it.
How do you know when to stop working on a track and either take a break from it or bounce it down to a stereo file?
Usually when I’ve been at it for 15 hours straight! Throwing loads of effects and too many sound modifications, making it too busy, can really kill a song’s vibe and energy. I’m interested in experimenting with sounds and trying out new methods, but I have a bad habit of overcooking songs, and I end up having to wind back a lot of bits just because it begins to sound overbearing. Sometimes less is more. I’m trying to get back to the basics while keeping things interesting and refreshing.
I try not to be over-analytical about creating music – I get the feeling that can sap the creative energy. If that goes, what you can end up with is a rigid, clinical, sterile approach that doesn’t leave any space for that unknown quantity – that secret ingredient. Some of my better music has come from giving very little thought or attention to what I’m doing or direction I’m going.
photo credits: Matthew Arthur Williams