For his recent tour of the States, synthwave star Seth Haley, aka Com Truise, has had to adapt his complex studio setup to life on the road.
Inspired by synth‑heavy movie soundtracks of the ‘80s, synthwave is a genre that makes heavy use of classic analogue synthesizers, arpeggiators, sequencers and effects units: not exactly road‑friendly gear. Although synthwave has been around, in one form or another, for close to 20 years, the recent successes of ‘80s retro‑fests like YouTube short film Kung Fury and Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things have propelled the genre into the mainstream. “A lot of people write to me thinking I did the score for Stranger Things,” says Seth Haley, aka Com Truise. “I have to say, ‘No, that was my buddies in Survive. My stuff is definitely a little different. I’ve got more beats in there, because I definitely focus more on the drums. But to see crowds and a whole culture springing from that is great.” Clearly, the time is right for Com Truise’s moody brand of retro‑electronica, which is built on his love for Reagan‑era synths like the Roland Juno 106.
Haley’s recent album Iteration is his first full‑length collection of new material since In Decay, which was a compilation of leftover pieces that he put together back in 2011. Based around the concept of a robot astronaut’s galactic getaway alongside the alien woman it loves, Iteration evokes a universe where the ’80’s sci‑fi classic Tron never ended. Unlike the über‑repetitive, dancefloor‑driven EDM that rules the mega‑festivals of today, Com Truise pushes towards a more heartfelt level of engagement from his audience. When it came to putting together these compositions, Haley feels like he broadened the soundscape for this release. “I felt like with Iteration there’s a lot more air on this record... a lot more space,” he says.
Given the synth‑oriented nature of his music, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Haley does most of his writing in Reason — although for this tour his laptop is running Ableton Live. “I always record into Ableton but sequence in Reason. I have tried to switch to Ableton for writing — I have used Cubase and Logic and everything — but I keep going back to Reason. I just really like the sequencer it has in it. I definitely get some quality out of using it, and now that I’m able to put audio right on the timeline, I think my sound has kinda changed too. There seems to be more headroom in there, [so] I don’t think I’m working as loud as I used to. The way I used to do it was to write and record into Ableton and then export long loops and lay them into a sampler. So although you could start from the middle [of a song], you’d always have to start from the beginning of the sample. Just having the ability to put a marker where you need it when playing a song is a big deal for me. I mean, I like Ableton, but I just feel I lose something if I try and write something in it. I definitely need more time to sit with it and build my process for how I would lay out a whole track.”
There were no oversized transit vans or tour buses when Com Truise came rolling into Athens, Georgia during a recent tour stop. Everything Haley needed for that night’s gig could basically be packed into a few large flightcases. Laid out on a large table in front of him is his current live rig, which is connected via MIDI to sync with four LED light panels behind him. A MacBook laptop and his OB‑6 polysynth from Dave Smith Instruments are prominent, and everything else looks like it could be cabled up in no time.
“I kind of minimised everything because when there’s a lot to carry around, stuff breaks. I get nervous when it comes to bringing out the big guns,” he says.
It’s all fairly tidy and unassuming, but when he steps out on stage later that evening and fires it all up, the pint glasses behind the bar rattle accordingly. A TARDIS‑like ‘whoosh’ kicks off the set amidst the faceless chatter of robot voices. Shrouded in darkness on stage, Haley begins to poke at a number of unseen controls as the sound of his 2011 track ‘Terminal’ fills the hall.
“I don’t think I ever got set up to take a record out on the road,” Haley says. “I think I play a pretty good cross‑section of my catalogue. I never play the same stuff. The thing is that some of the songs don’t have visual content associated with them yet, which I’m still creating. But for the most part the set is pretty versatile. I don’t like just playing things where I’m going down a list. I can morph it. Live music has always been a bit weird for me. I’ve always been a studio‑recorded album guy, so trying to make it interesting but not so different from the record has always been a challenge for me because I really like the songs as they are.”
Haley left his former Brooklyn‑based operation a few years back, where he worked in a dedicated studio space, to take up residence in a bedroom studio out in the Los Angeles area.
“I just kind of got bored with New York. I’ve lived on the East Coast my entire life. I did the Brooklyn thing that everybody did, and then I got back from a tour and I was hanging out at my parents’ place upstate and I just decided I was just going to try it.”
But his hermit‑like lifestyle of writing and recording at home keeps him mostly free of LA night life when he’s not touring — which is fairly often. Unless he’s turning up to a club with a few USB sticks to do a DJ gig, Haley and his performance setup are frequently in motion. He’s had to become fairly selective about the gear he tows around with him because, try as he might, things still get ruined on the road.
“I used to use the Dave Smith Instruments Mopho, and then I had the Mopho X4. I used to bring both of them out on the road for a long time, along with the Juno 106 and the Octave Cat, but as much as you try to take care of them, they still get beat up. But the OB‑6 is pretty sturdy. Sometimes the panels can get loose from being moved around so much, but that’s why I travel with a screwdriver.”
It’s appropriate that the OB‑6 takes up most of the Com Truise manifest, since the Oberheim sound is plastered over much of his work. “I’ve always been a big Oberheim fan. I picked up an Xpander a long time ago and I use that on almost every song. I love that sound. It’s so bright and sharp. The OB‑6 is nice and sturdy. I think it’s a beautiful piece of equipment. I love the old‑school blue lines. It’s just so aesthetically pleasing.”
At the core of his live operation, however, is the lightweight Akai APC40 MkII — the versatile, compact controller that wires Com Truise into his Ableton Live world, track by track.
“This controls Ableton. It’s where I do the sequencing of the tracks live. It’s very simple and a little more compact than the original. That one was built like a tank, and this is my sixth MkII, but I think that’s probably just from road abuse. I wish it was sturdier, but it does the job. All I have to do is plug it into Ableton and everything is just right there. I’ve looked at the Ableton Push, too, but I feel like the Push is more for writing in the studio.”
Each of the APC40’s faders is assigned to a track in Ableton, separating out drums, melody lines, effects, leads and bass, and so on. He uses the remaining faders to input random elements as well as the sounds from the other modules he has with him. The APC40 is also the tweaking centre for his effects sends, and a communications hub to control the Resolume VJ software that he now uses to drive his light show. Resolume gangs all the media and effects that go into the Com Truise show and links them to the music via a purpose‑built interface that receives cues from Ableton and some additional Max MSP plug‑ins. None of the processing is particularly over the top, since he has to rely on a closed Wi‑Fi network to keep graphics and music communicating soundly.
“I’ve always wanted to send MIDI from the computer to do certain things,” he says, “but this setup is pretty taxing, with the visuals and sounds both happening on the same computer. And for the most part, the computer is used in a pretty similar way to how I always have used it apart from the visuals, which I’ve done for this tour and the one before. That was something new that I had to learn, and now I know how to do it. I’m very interested in what I’ll be able to do with more time.”
An older Akai MPD32 handles additional performance effects for Haley including filtering, pitch‑shifting and looping, while the smaller Akai APC Mini also helps with managing the LED visuals.
A more recent acquisition to Haley’s arsenal is an Elektron Digitakt — the compact drum machine‑cum‑sampler that acts as an additional sound module for the show. “I picked it up right before the tour started. I use it for percussion and accenting, sprinkling it in there when it’s needed. It’s a pretty interesting little drum machine. One of the other acts I toured with a while back had an Elektron Analog Rytm which would sync up with his laptop, and that was really unpredictable. But this Digitakt seems really, really on, and doesn’t drift off.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of drum machines. In the past I’ve also had the Elektron Monomachine, the Analog Keys and the Machinedrum. So, to find one that’s pretty small is great. And I do like the Elektron operating system. It’s pretty funky, but once you learn it, it’s interesting what you can do. I can have MIDI going to the synth from it and write fully polyphonic sequences if I want to. I do want to get the new Rytm MkII [reviewed in the July 2018 issue of Sound On Sound — Ed.] at some point though, because the Digitakt is first and foremost a sampler, and with the Rytm being a synth there’s more sound creation possibilities with it. So, it’ll be nice to have all my sounds in there.”
A small red Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the audio interface in the middle of all of this, because Haley feels that they’re reliable but also sufficiently ubiquitous in music stores should one go down while he’s travelling.
With six voices and the classic Oberheim vibe, the OB‑6 slotted into this tour fairly easily despite Haley not having much time with it before heading out.
“It’s all you really need to capture ‘that’ sound,” he says. “It’s very clean. It’s actually the sound of the lead line in ‘Propagation’, which was one of the last things to be done for the album. But live I use it more for texture‑y stuff and string sounds. Simple stuff that’s just for accents. At home, I still find myself going back to the Roland Juno‑106. If I want to start a melody, I feel like I can just turn it on and come up with something pretty right off the bat. It’s like a piano in that you can just come up with something really fast.”
When Haley returns to California, he’ll once again have access to the plethora of kit that he’s accumulated over the years, instead of just the handful of items he takes on the road. But because of the practicalities of space, a fair amount of his equipment got shifted into storage once he recreated his East Coast production environment.
“Since I’ve been in LA, I’ve had a lot of stuff in storage because I think my studio had gotten too crowded. I just had too much clutter in there. Recently though, I did get the Oberheim Matrix 6 back out of there and I forgot how interesting that sounded. I still use the Crumar Bit One, too, and I picked up one of the Korg ARP Odyssey re‑releases, which is on the record too. I used a little modular stuff here and there as well, but it’s been a while since I bought a ton of gear. I’ve been buying mostly outboard processing to build up that side of things, because I really enjoy turning an EQ or adding real compression to drums. For me personally it’s just awesome to sit there and work with that kind of stuff.”
In the future, though, Haley thinks that he may eventually move his synth arsenal back East. “It’s funny to see the mass exodus from Brooklyn to LA right now,” he says of the switch. “But I’ve been there for three years now and I do miss winter and all my friends who are out this way.”
And speaking of friends, Haley mentions that he would love to work with Warp Records artist Chris Clark, whom he has toured with, as well as Alan Palomo of Neon Indian. But when nudged a bit, he does confess to being keen on the possibility of collaborating with some likely and unlikely musical heroes. “I think it would be great to work with Bruce Hornsby, because I’m a big fan, or David Frank from the System. He’s the Oberheim master, so that would be cool!”
Despite the equipment he may lean on in the studio, Haley isn’t necessarily married to bringing anything in particular with him out on the road. “A lot of my tour pre‑production just revolves around me finding a piece of gear I like and wondering if I can incorporate it. Like the OB‑6, which I had just a week or two before the tour started. I’m always going to have the APC40 and the MPD32. But as far as the synth goes, it’s interesting to switch it up. I’m still learning all the time, on every tour.”