We talk to prolific producer Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith about her ambient compositions and love of Buchla synths.
In the increasingly crowded field of electronic ambient composers, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith stands out. Working with modular synths — mainly Buchla systems — Smith's meditative, new age-y music was initially inspired by '60s minimalist pioneer Terry Riley, but has developed since 2012 over eight albums, resulting in the dreamy soundscapes of her latest, The Mosaic Of Transformation.
Growing up on Orcas Island, off the Pacific Northwest coast of America, Smith was first motivated to make music at the age of 15, after watching a friend of her family playing piano during a visit to their home. "I remember seeing the joy that it brought them," she recalls. "I could feel what it felt like to play the piano. After they'd left, I remember sitting down at the piano and starting to try and emulate what I saw in them. Of course, it didn't sound like what I heard for a while [laughs]. But it sparked kind of like a muscle memory in me that I didn't know was there."
In her late teens, she turned to classical guitar, going on to study sound engineering, orchestration and composition at Berklee College of Music in Boston. On a visit home, she happened to mention to a neighbour that she was a Terry Riley fan. By chance, the neighbour owned a '60s-built Buchla 100, which they generously loaned to Smith for a year.
"That kind of reopened music for me in this lovely pressure-free way," she says. "It was a really magical time in my life. I felt like the Buchla was a perfect way to explore sound in a really new way for me. Because even though I'd just come from music school, the aspect of zooming in on what makes sound and how much can be heard in one note I felt was not really covered in music school. It's one of those topics that people just assume, if you're into music, it must be innate knowledge. But there's so much wisdom within that basic foundation of sound."
Initially, Smith experimented by feeding her guitar through the Buchla and treating its sound. Then, progressing past making what she calls "bleepy bloop" sounds, she'd work with two oscillators and make incremental changes. "Mostly just listening," she explains. "I would practise just making really subtle adjustments and trying to understand what was happening to the sound. Trying to just really break into how many things change when you make a subtle adjustment. I had just come from intensive study of building on sound, and I kind of wanted to go the reverse way of deducing how sound is affected. So, it felt like this research project in the beginning.
"Just in general, I'm always wanting to find, I guess for lack of better language, 'beautiful' sounds in every instrument. And for me beautiful sounds aren't just the pleasing sounds. It's where two extremes are meeting, or where two things that don't feel like they have something in common are meeting. So, I think that's why it was really fun for me to explore with the guitar and the synthesizer. Trying to find how they can connect through their capacity to, like, move air."
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's big discovery, however, and one that was to help shape her sound, was the Buchla Music Easel. In 2013, Smith bought one of the new Easels developed by BEMI and launched only three years before Don Buchla's death in 2016.
"I bought my own," she says, "or I guess I did with the help of a community. It was kind of a funny story because my husband and I asked for donations at our wedding for us to buy a cow [laughs]. And then we ended up moving to Bolinas, which is a small town in West Marin, California, and we didn't have space for a cow there. So we used that money for a Music Easel instead.
"This was one of the first remakes," she adds. "We were on a wait list before they had really shared that they were remaking the Easel. This was when Don was still a part of the company. We were number 15 on the wait list and then we got an email that said that the first three or four were ready, but they didn't have these certain nuts that screw onto the switches. They asked if there was anyone who wanted it, even if it didn't have those. And we were like, 'Yeah, we want it now.' And so, we got bumped up."
Smith stresses that, like the original Music Easels, the new models all have their own individual characters. "I've played, like, four or five of the newer ones and they all are still very different, even though they're remade. Honestly, all Buchla instruments are really different. A lot of the original Buchla components aren't being made any more or are harder to find. So, as technology progresses and older components get discontinued, it changes the sound and it changes the way that it interacts."
While she sometimes uses Moogs in her recordings, Smith is very clearly devoted to Buchla synthesizers. "Well, they're different kinds of synthesis," she points out. "Buchla synthesizers are additive synthesis and Moog synthesizers are subtractive, so they have different approaches." Smith's third and fourth albums, 2014's Tides and 2015's Euclid, were made exclusively using the Music Easel. "As far as the sound goes," she says, "for me there's a certain resonance in Buchla instruments that I really connect to. To me, it has a more potent tone."
In terms of DAWs, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith tried out various ones before settling on Ableton Live. "At school I had learned Logic, DP and Pro Tools," she says. "So, Ableton was a really new world to me. I learned it six, seven years ago. I just like how seamless it is to go between recording and the live performance. It just seems like you can create this environment in the software so that it can easily translate to live. 'Cause I really like to be in control of mixing my own sound. So, when I perform, I always use Ableton so that I can set up my effects in it, third party or not. I can keep my equipment load pretty light for travelling and just have the hardware be the synthesizers and not worry about bringing a lot of pedals and other things."
On her fifth album, 2016's Ears, Smith broadened the range of the synths she used, to include the EMS Synthi, ARP 2600, OSC OSCar, Korg Mono/Poly, EML ElectroComp 101 and Moog Werkstatt-01. When it came to the rarer, older or more expensive items of gear, she travelled to various studios or company HQs where the synths were in residence and she could capture their sounds on the fly.
"I started really learning about rare vintage synthesizers," she says. "I would find out where they still exist and visit them and just record everything I did. So, I would just have all these samples or lots of sessions of recorded takes that I didn't know what I was gonna do with it yet.
"That kind of began a study process for me of seeking out residencies in places that have this equipment, rather than trying to own it. 'Cause it's very expensive and it's a bigger responsibility. But they all have really incredible aspects. I especially appreciate the tactile interface of the EMS that makes you feel like you're playing Battleship as you're patching [laughs]."
Ears was the first album that Smith made while consciously keeping in mind the fact that she would have to tour and perform the album live. "That one I wrote just by figuring out what my live set was and then recording it," she says. "I was practising a live set and then I just pressed 'record', basically."
In a 2016 'In The Studio' video still available on YouTube https://youtu.be/95UvPlhjbE4, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith can be seen showcasing some of her techniques, utilising an impressive setup involving both new and old modular gear. In the Eurorack department, she operates Make Noise's Tempi six-channel polyphonic module as a master clock to trigger various units such as the MATHS and RxMx synth modules and the 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator. In addition, she uses the '70s-era Oberheim Two-Voice Pro and the Studio Electronics Sensei Hybrid System.
"I don't actually own any of those," she laughs. "Those I was borrowing. The way that I go about equipment in general is either through residencies or finding really kind people to lend me their stuff. Honestly, I don't have that much experience with Eurorack besides the Make Noise system which I used on the album The Kid , and some Jomox modules. But that's about as far as it reaches out for me.
"In that video I was lent some Eurorack gear, but it never really stuck for me. I don't have negative things to say about it, but I just haven't found a Eurorack oscillator that feels the same to me as the vintage oscillators.
"Sometimes I wish I had a set way that I work," she says. "But I really don't. It changes from song to song, from day to day."
These days, Smith's current setup comprises her trusty Music Easel, a Buchla 200e, a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, an EDP Wasp, a Roland SH‑101, Moog Grandmother and an Oberheim SEM. Also, despite her mixed feelings in regard to Eurorack gear, she does use a fair few modules, including Make Noise's Pressure Points touchplate controller, Mannequins' Just Friends tone generator and ALM Busy Circuits Akemie's Taiko drum voice FM synth.
"I feel very fulfilled and like I can make lots of music with all of that," she says. "And when I feel like I don't have anything that is within a palette that I'm trying to communicate, then I have a list of residencies to go to."
In terms of sequencers, Smith's workhorse is her Buchla's 252e Polyphonic Rhythm Generator, visually distinctive for the interface's 11 concentric rings displaying the generated patterns. The 252e helps her create the complex polyrhythms that are a central feature of her sound and which come back to her love of Terry Riley.
"I've always had an appreciation for polyrhythms," she says. "That's always felt like the most natural expression of rhythm for me. I love the way that Terry Riley's melodies and his rhythms kind of float over each other in this very expansive way, where it doesn't feel like it's repetitive. It felt like there was always variation happening in the way that it lined up.
"That really spoke to me. Even though, to some people, they think that's really repetitive. Like, I know a lot of people think minimalistic music is really repetitive. But it's those subtle rhythmic adjustments that have always been really exciting to me.
"So, I'm using the 252 and then I do a lot of looping. Looping is oftentimes the way I go about sequencing things. Sometimes I use sequencers, like I have some MIDI controllers that are extensions that have sequencers. But, again, it really depends on what I'm doing."
I just haven't found a Eurorack oscillator that feels the same to me as the vintage oscillators.
From Ears on, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith has always remained conscious when making records of how she'll perform her modular music live. "I do have one thing that is like a constant in my workflow," she says, "which is when I make an album and I know I'm going to perform with it, then I have a [different] setup for that. I practise for usually, like, a year to a year and a half, and I don't change that live setup for the whole album cycle. 'Cause it takes me so long to figure out a live setup."
Nowadays, the centre of her live show is her Buchla 200e. "The 200e has a preset manager," she says, "so I spent the first four months just programming all of the sequences or all of the presets, 'cause it takes a really long time to do that. I programmed, like, 17 presets that I'm using in my live set. Then I usually go through a memory process after I programme something, where I just test my memory and my muscle memory. Like, I make a list of how many things can go wrong in the live set [laughs]. And then I come up with a solution for all of them. I practise quickly solving all of those, and I practise unpatching and patching the modular within a certain time period. Then I go through a muscle memory for tuning, where if one of the oscillators were to go out of tune slightly, I have it memorised what fundamental it's supposed to go back to. And then I start to get into the more granular process of going through the parts on each song and break down the parts and just practise those for a long time."
On a perhaps more esoteric level, the meditative qualities of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's music, particularly on The Mosaic Of Transformation, are for her directly linked to tuning into what she calls her "inner ear". During lockdown, Smith has been doing online consultation sessions teaching others how to make music and clear their creative blockages through what is essentially a meditation process.
"These songs all were made in kind of like this process of internal listening," she says. "'Cause I've always had a relationship with my inner ear and, y'know, writing music through closing my eyes and listening. But this album in particular was the most I'd used that. I would do sessions of just listening for music inside and then try and create it with the synthesizers."
That sounds quite, er, hard? "I think it's only hard in the beginning when you can't hear the music," she reasons. "Honestly, I think the hardest part is in the beginning, learning what are the fundamentals that make up sound. But then once you start to practise, like, how many sounds make up the sound of a door opening, then it gets easier to break down each sound that you hear. To be like, 'OK, it's really six sounds layered and they're staggered in this way.'"
Which begs the question: how close does she get to realising the sounds in her head on her recordings? "It takes me a long time," she laughs. "And I rewrote this new album, like, 12 different times because it just wasn't there yet. But what I've shared now was what I heard internally. And so, I just keep going until it's there, and take a lot of breaks."
In her studio at home, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, given her complex system of synths, uses various interfaces in conjunction with Ableton. "I have four different interfaces that I use," she explains. "I use the [Universal Audio] Apollo, I use a Native Instruments one, and I use two different types of MOTU interfaces. Just for different sections in the studio. I use the Apollo for the UAD plug‑ins. Then the Native Instruments one is really nice for performing live. The MOTU ones, you can send CV out. So, they all have just different functions."
Monitors-wise, Smith has Genelec M040s and a 7360A subwoofer. "Yeah, I really like those a lot. They're great. I haven't changed actually since I got those. They've just been really seamless in the mixing process. When I get a song sounding really good on those and then I go and listen on headphones or in the car or on my laptop, it feels like a pretty seamless transition."
Her solution was to create 27 microtonal pitch-shifted tracks within Ableton and use a Novation Launchpad to control her vocal input by playing chord-like shapes to manipulate the harmonies. "It's just me in real time changing the pitch of my voice..."
While many of Smith's tracks are instrumental, a handful feature her vocals. On The Mosaic Of Transformation, one song in particular, 'The Steady Heart', stands out with its choral layering of her voice. Smith name-checks her Peluso microphone specifically, but as with the rest of her collection, she isn't particularly interested in mic manufacturers or model numbers. "I have eight different vocal mics and I just have my own names for them," she laughs. "I don't have a set vocal chain. It depends on the song. I used all eight on 'The Steady Heart' and I heard that way of layering in my ears and I just sang it. There's no processing. It's just dry voice."
In contrast, live, particularly going back two or three years, Smith's vocals were much more processed than they are on her current album. Initially, she struggled to find a harmoniser that could create the modal harmonies she was after. Her solution was to create 27 microtonal pitch-shifted tracks within Ableton and use a Novation Launchpad to control her vocal input by playing chord-like shapes to manipulate the harmonies. "It's just me in real time changing the pitch of my voice," she says. "I like using the Novation Launchpad and how you can map it to whatever you want. I made all those microtonal harmonies that I would play as I was singing and then I go through the Music Easel."
Of course, having only one Music Easel at her disposal when performing live, Smith compensated for the layering of the Buchla that features on her albums by sampling its output live into a Teenage Engineering OP‑1. "Most of the time, whenever I'm using anything live, it's as an extension to the Buchla," she stresses. "So, I'm just finding ways to create more versions of the Buchla.
"And then also for live," she adds, "because you can create in Ableton your own version of unity [gain-staging] on each fader, you can fully mix how you want all of your tracks to be. I tend to have a lot of dry tracks and then I'll have a lot of record-enabled tracks for the Buchla that have different processors on them. Then I set how I want [the processors] to be mixed and I make each of those faders the new version of unity, so then when I map it to my hardware faders, it's at the spot it's supposed to be mixed at."
Back in the studio, when it comes to mixing, Smith chooses to zone in fully on one sound element at a time before stepping back to look at the bigger picture. "I mostly do mixing as I'm going," she says. "To me, mixing is a very important part of the composition and each sound has its own way of being mixed that communicates something. So, I'll fully mix one sound and then work on the next one.
"I'm really sensitive to the way that other people mix sounds, because it's such an important part of the composition. Any time when I've had someone else mix, it changes the communication of the song. So, I tend to be the one who mixes it."
When it comes to mix EQ plug‑ins, Smith moves between the stock Ableton ones and Waves and UAD plug‑ins. "I really don't have a set system. It's a process of I think about what I'm gonna do and if I need an EQ, then I try lots of different EQs until I find the right one. I think about, 'Which kind of EQ do I need? Do I need a parametric EQ?' And then I do research on what are all the possible ones out there. So, sometimes it's just the Ableton ones, sometimes it's the UAD ones, sometimes it's Waves. It really depends."
Speaking of plug‑ins, has Smith tried Arturia's software version of the Buchla Easel? "Yeah, I have tried it," she says. "To me, none of the emulators sound like it. They have qualities that I can see are inspired by it. But it definitely doesn't sound like it to me."
In 2016, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith collaborated with ground-breaking Buchla artist Suzanne Ciani — who has been making records since 1970 — on the album Sunergy, firmly underlining her place in the lineage of exploratory modular synthesists.
"That was an enjoyable process and she's such a wonderful person," says Smith. "It was a really neat experience to collaborate with another Buchla synthesist, cause that was the first time I had tried working with another Buchla player. I think I learned just how fun it is to play two Buchlas at once." [Check out the SOS Suzanne Ciani Podcast]
Looking to the future, are there any areas in particular that Smith would like to move into sonically? "That's still being born for me," she says, "'cause I feel like I'm still in the process of sharing this album. And because I haven't really shared this album live yet, that space hasn't really opened up for me.
"Usually in the beginning of a project, I start to collect adjectives and textures for the next one. And so, I'm in that process right now where I'm starting to get textures. But they're not in a language form yet. When I hear a sound in the world, it'll pique my interest, but I won't know why yet."
So, finally then, any specific tech purchases that she still wants to make? "Not at this time in the current economic state," she laughs.
In other words, like many of the rest of us, she is working with what she's got. Given the amount of gear she has at her disposal, though, we can expect from Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith many intriguing sonic adventures to come.