Composer, producer, and engineer Rafael Anton Irisarri’s sonic fingerprints are audible in much of the past decade’s most vital ambient music and beyond. Alongside his own influential records, he’s collaborated with dozens of artists, including Julianna Barwick, Leandro Fresco, Steve Hauschildt, Benoît Pioulard. And his New York mastering facility, Black Knoll Studio, is credited on releases from a veritable who’s who of left-field electronica and ambient-adjacent music – from Ryuichi Sakamoto, Telefon Tel Aviv, and Loscil to William Basinski, Eluvium, and Grouper.
While it’s not altogether easy to describe Rafael’s own music, many have tried. His output has been labelled variously as “deep-smeared textures of noise, mortar and drone,” “beautifully bleak,” and “shrouded in mercurial darkness.” Perhaps the best description yet compares 2010 single “Reverie” to “an ambient symphony recording that’s been rescued from attic entombment after half a century.” It’s fair to say that Rafael is drawn towards the more melancholic fringes of modern ambient.
On his latest album, Peripeteia, Rafael filters influences from the worlds of metal and classical through various processes of textural deconstruction and reassembly. It layers choirs, guitars, and custom KONTAKT instruments with his trademark washes of octave fuzz, found sounds, and cavernous reverberations.
We recently reached out to Rafael – a long-time user of NI instruments and effects – to see if we could glean some insights into the dark art of ambient. He graciously agreed to spill the details of his process in the conversation below, giving us the low-down on the aesthetics of ambient sound, environmental inspirations, and building your own sampled instruments.
What, to your mind, makes a sound “ambient,” or suitable for use in ambient music?
Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” back in 1978. He said at the time ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” If you think of where early ambient or experimental electronic music was then, and some of the music we hear today, there’s a wide range of ideas. Compare, for example Eno’s Discreet Music (considered by many as the quintessential ambient album) to Virgins by Tim Hecker. They’re miles apart sound wise, yet it all fits in the same ecosystem.
Part of what makes “ambient” sound so interesting to me is its timeless quality. Records made by Brian Eno, Harold Budd, Cluster, and many others almost 40 years ago still sound fresh and interesting with every new listen – they had something to say, a story to tell. What’s the point of having a perfect sound quality, but nothing interesting to say? Some of my favorite recordings are not technically perfect but they have an aesthetic I appreciate very much. Ultimately, what sounds good for me could be horrible sounding for another person.
I have a very particular aesthetic, I gravitate towards the accidental, the broken sounds, the errors. As you may know, with digital technology everything is supposed to be perfect and stable (unlike all the glorious accidents you get with analog equipment), so it’s amazing when you hear someone creating a unique sound out of a technology that is meant to be precise and homogenous by design (hence zeros & ones).
To me ambient sounds are never about a particular tool, technique or process. It’s more about the feeling it evokes and what you can creatively achieve with any particular sound, how you use it in the context of a musical piece or incorporate it into a live performance.
While there may not be a set routine that works in every case, are there still identifiable steps you go through when designing a sound? Could you generalize some kind of process?
My sound design process starts with inspiration from a source – it could be something as simple as a field recording. A few years ago I went to Iceland on holiday. While I was visiting and traveling around the country, I witnessed many of the melting ice caps on ancient glaciers around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Locals (and scientists) attribute this phenomena to rising temperatures, accelerated by human activity.
This horrific realization inspired me to write, so I started gathering field recordings in the area – anything from the sound of melting ice to “activating the medium” (think of it as foley) and capturing recordings of eroded terrains.
Upon my return to Black Knoll in New York, these field recordings became the basis for sound designs. I’d experiment with feeding a field recording into Metaphysical Function [part of the REAKTOR factory library] and spent many hours creating new environments with it, recording all the different improvisations, building a library of sounds (which became the source material for my 2019 album Solastalgia).
Before I start composing, I build the sounds, which are inspired by a particular subject matter. In the case of Peripeteia, my latest album for Dais, I designed my sounds thinking about unexpected changes in fortune. A bit eerie thinking I wrote all of it in 2019, not knowing 2020 would be filled with such radical changes at the time I worked on it.
So the sound design comes first, and the actual composing of music is a separate process?
They are intrinsically linked when it comes to ambient music. Many times the sound process will guide the composition, whilst other times the composition will guide the sound design process. Take for example, William Basinki’s masterpiece The Disintegration Loops – those compositions wouldn’t have been possible without the process and accident (the tapes disintegrating as the artist was transferring old reels of tape loops). The sound design of those compositions is also only possible through the process itself. To me is akin to creating a sculpture. Many have tried to recreate it, but lack that specific unquantifiable thing that happened at that particular moment in time captured by Basinski.
Like Basinski, you employ a lot of tape-looping and related techniques in your music. I’m always curious about how – or to what extent – those are kept in sync or “playing nicely” with one another.
It all depends on the kind of piece I’m trying to make. Some of the more “composed” ambient, I’d have a click track and sync the looper to a specific tempo and will follow it accurately as I play and loop myself playing motifs. Or I would take a sample of something and figure out the BPM, then figure out how it changes after I’ve processed it (by varispeeding it for example).
Other times, for more amorphous pieces, the random interactions between two loops that go in and out of sync is more similar to the early tape experiments that producers like Brian Eno and Robert Fripp were exploring in the 1970’s. Part of what made those early ambient records very interesting and special was the way their loops interacted in random ways. You could listen to two loops in this context for really prolonged periods of time (think of anything on Music For Airports, for example).
Ambient music is often more associated with the processing of sounds – to the extent that the sound sources themselves are almost secondary. The mythology surrounding the The Disintegration Loops is a case in point, I suppose. Would you identify with that bias in your own work?
The source is more about what inspires a particular idea. In my case, I’m inspired by my natural surroundings, but also stringed instruments. I learned to play guitar and bass when I was a teenager and that informed a lot of the way I tend to work. In some instances, I use the guitar as a sound source, processing its sound to the point it is no longer recognizable as a guitar. The same can be said about other sound sources, like field recordings, synthesizers, etc. For me it’s always more important to create something unique with the sound, something that reveals the person you are and the person you strive to be. The emotions and feelings that a sound evokes is so important to this process, and learning to recognize what those are is critical. The old adage “know thyself” couldn’t be more true here: “Know your sound.” Find your own path.
“I used Kontakt to sample my own guitar playing through amps and pedals, then played the samples with the S88.”
When it comes to processing those sources, are there any go-to tools and techniques you can tell us about?
Whenever I’m working with a guitar, I’ll use all kinds of effect pedals on it, depending on what exactly I’m trying to achieve. I will also experiment with extended playing techniques, for example, using a cello bow to create sounds. Other times, I may arrive at an incredible sound using only hardware, so I’d record a C note, just that, so I can import the audio into Kontakt then use that sound as if I were working with a synth. That idea, by the way, is not just limited to guitar. It can be applied to pretty much anything.
On my Peripeteia album there are layers I built using FM8, for example, as a source. I’d apply the same logic and run the sound card output into guitar pedals like distortion boxes and modulation units.
“The lead synth that comes in around 2:26 and plays until the end is a heavily processed FM8 patch (run through hardware, re-amped, taped, etc.)”
Do you keep a library of your custom instruments, or are they built to play specific parts?
I don’t have a custom library per se, but I do have sounds that I like using in Kontakt. Samples of different sounds I’ve created in the studio. I don’t use any pre-created sounds or presets when I’m writing. Everything I create specifically for each album, most of the time from scratch. I feel the best way to create & learn is doing your own thing, experiment and not get bogged down by how anything is “supposed to sound.
Do you have any parting advice for producers looking to explore ambient music – or perhaps just some of its sound design techniques – for themselves?
Be inspired. Followed by: be true to yourself. Create something that works for you. By this I mean: what may work for X person might not necessarily work for another. There are many great tips on sampling on the internet but all of it is irrelevant If you can’t come up with something interesting. Something that is unique and specific to you and your circumstances.
A lot of time, I find, we get distracted by the thought process of “if only I had X, I could create something much nicer.” I find that what you already have is all you need to make something sound great. You just have to spend the time figuring out how to make it sound great in the context of the piece you are working on. It takes a lot of exploration and experimentation. Hours upon hours, but the end results could have so much more potential. You have to take that chance first.