Interview: Savaran

Interview: Savaran

Mark Walters is an electronic musician and sound designer recording from his home near Shrewsbury on the Welsh border under the moniker Savaran.

His debut album, Strange Landscape, was released as a free download on the WASAMIX Netlabel and he also has an upcoming album due out on Feedback Loop in April 2011. Mark also runs a blog called Savaran Music and Sound where he regularly reviews the best new independent releases as well as posting items of interest and new tracks of his own.

Hi Mark, how long have you been making music now and how did you start?

Hi, firstly thanks to Future Sequence for the opportunity to do this interview and let you all know a little more about me and my music.

Lets see….well I was quite a late starter musically. I did music up to O-Level and could read and write down basic musical notation at that stage, plus I had a year with some piano training, but at the time I thought I wanted to be a geologist and promptly dropped music at A-Level for the sciences. It was a decision I have regretted ever since. By the early 80's though I was intrigued by the sound sculpting capabilities of the early mass produced synthesizers and while I was at University I blew a fair chunk of my savings buying an Oxford Synthesiser Company OSCar monosynth (an early one without midi), a Roland TR606 Drumatix drum machine, a Carlsbro bass amp and a Boss delay effects pedal. I proceeded to make a wide range of generally unbearable noises judging by the feedback of friends and neighbours and these were certainly the formative years of my more experimental side. A few of us subsequently played live as The January Club which included a friend of mine who had a fretless bass and a Sequential Circuits Pro-One monosynth plus anyone unfortunate enough to agree to sing or read poetry with us. After Uni. the pressures of real life took over and the music equipment was sold to fund driving lessons. Move forward 22 years and in 2008 it seemed like the right time to get back into music as I had the spare time and some spare money to set up a small home studio. I spent just over a year buying equipment and learning the basics of recording then started releasing demos and finished tracks in March 2010.

I believe you're an archaeologist. Is the name Savaran inspired by the Sassanian heavy cavalry of ancient times?

Ahh, I see you have done your research! Yes, I am an archaeologist by profession. I have a huge interest in the Classical civilizations, Greece, Rome and their neighbours, and I wanted to work abroad initially so I joined excavations in Israel and Italy to start with. The money wasn't great and there were no real opportunities for career progression so I came back to the UK, did a whole load of short contract fieldwork jobs, then got my present permanent job in 1992. I'm a Development Control Archaeologist ie. I monitor all development across the eastern half of Wales and where it impacts on archaeology I give advice to the Local Planning Authorities on how to preserve it in-situ, or fully record it before it is destroyed.

The name Savaran does indeed come from the group of elite nobles who formed the Sassanian heavy cavalry units in the 2nd – 6th centuries AD. They were the true forerunners of the medieval knight – head to toe armour and all that. There is no actual connection between the Savaran and my music, it just seemed like a good name at the time and I chose it while reading a book on the Sassanians. I have always been fascinated by the Sassanian culture which made a huge contribution to the arts, music and astronomy - and they thoroughly enjoyed bashing the Romans about too!

How big a part does your work as an archaeologist play in your songwriting and is there much crossover between the two?

The day to day office based job has zero influence on my music but I do get to visit some amazing places with my work, usually out in the middle of nowhere. Some of these places have great atmosphere, or amazing views and some can feel quite desolate and forbidding. That pretty much sums up the Welsh landscape which can be both beautiful and haunting at the same time in many of the remoter locations. I guess some of that does subconsciously feed back into the soundscapes I create. Many tracks like Spirit of Place and Hiraeth are influenced by the Welsh landscape and environment.

Occasionally my research interests in the pre-Christian mystery religions, cults and mythology of the Greek and Roman world also feed into the music and tracks like Elysian Fields and Ritual definitely had their origins there.

I also had this crazy idea that I would make an album with tracks based on the main archaeological periods from Palaeolithic through to Industrial and Modern which would utilize field recordings made at chosen sites representative of each period. I may still follow that up and the track Neolithic was an early attempt to get started with that themed album.

Which bands/artists inspire you?

I listen to a very wide range of music including medieval, choral, baroque and early classical through to contemporary electro-acoustic, electronic, experimental, ambient and neo-classical with too many sub-genres to list here.

At the moment it is music from the independent labels like Hibernate, Under the Spire, Home Normal, Experimedia, Somnia, Audiobulb, 12K, Serein and Type, to name but a few, that really captivates me. My own music slowly seems to be taking on a more minimalist and experimental form, perhaps partly in response to listening to this kind of music. I also listen to a lot of free netlabel and creative commons music by artists within the genres listed above.

I see from your studio pictures, you use Ableton Live, why Ableton? Are there any other favourite DAW's or audio software you use?

Initially I was using Cakewalk's Project 5 v2.5 DAW, but I had only had this package a few months when Cakewalk announced that they were dropping development of Project 5 so that they could concentrate on Sonar. I didn't fancy sticking with a DAW that would eventually lose support and new features so I looked at DAW's with a comparative workflow and decided to try the Live 8 Suite. This proved to be a match made in heaven as the Live workflow doubled my output in less than a month. It is just so intuitive to use, has a clean, modern interface and I find the session view so inspiring and responsive to quick ideas which can be thrown together then fine tuned into a complete track in the arrangement view.

Live is also a great sound design tool with its excellent warp engine, clip and loop creation tools, powerful sampler and multitude of excellent instruments. I can easily waste a day just playing around creating weird and wonderful sounds when I should really be finishing up a track!

I have so much still to learn about Live 8 though, I reckon I probably utilize less than 20% of what it can do at the moment.

When writing tracks and ideas, do they generally come from 'jamming' out ideas or is there a more deliberate approach? Please talk us through a typical songwriting session.

It's a bit of both really, but always starts with some sound design. Being a very visual person I often try to paint pictures in music and visual references frequently feed directly into the sound design. For the track To The Lighthouse I was influenced by seeing the rotating beam of a lighthouse slashing through the night sky while standing underneath the beam and wanted to represent that in sound so I went to Absynth 5 for a slightly electrical buzzing sound and then made the sound rotate with some extreme panning. Variations in the strength of the panned sound could be modulated by the modwheel to give this kind of Doppler effect which matched the intensity of the light beam flashing above me and then fading as it moved away to the opposite side of the lighthouse. I also wanted to recreate the sound of the calm sea down below the lighthouse and used one of my own field recordings for that. Then I created a separate evolving pad sound, again in Absynth 5, and that became the background ambience for the complete soundscape which was also modulated by the modwheel. I looped the sound of the waves and then recorded the other sounds live while tweaking the controls on Live 8 and my controller keyboard.

Once a track is written, is it then generally left alone or will you continue to work on it?

I tend to leave them alone. I quite like recording material in one take after a practice run to make sure the sounds are working together as it keeps everything exciting and dynamic for me. I very rarely dive back into a recorded track and start tweaking the mix as I find that a frustrating exercise and I am lousy at mastering in any case. I would always prefer to leave mastering to someone who knows what they are doing. The most I would attempt is changing the volume levels on some tracks if I think a particular sound is being swamped or too forward in the mix, but I usually make sure I have all the levels correct before I press the record button.

When writing music, do you tend to use mainly software synthesisers or hardware instruments? Do you have a preference for either and if so, why?

I use both and cannot see that changing. I love the hands-on control that hardware offers and I usually record audio from the hardware synths directly into Live. I have always had a fondness for the Korg synth sounds so a lot of my hardware is from Korg. The hardware also has little impact on CPU usage so I can get extra sounds into the mix for almost no CPU hit, unlike some of the software synths I use!

Software is playing an increasing part in my setup though, particularly for the sound design. I rely heavily on Native Instruments software including Reaktor 5.5, Absynth 5 Kontakt 4 and Kore 2. I also like some of the small independent software companies who make products for sound designers like Ambient from Audiobulb, the granular synth Granite from New Sonic Arts and the utterly bizarre and unique Synplant from Sonic Charge.

Are you musically trained or self taught?

Any musical training I did have back in the early 80s has long since been completely forgotten. I am effectively completely self taught, particularly since I put the studio together in 2008 and started recording. I would really like to take up piano lessons again at some point although I think the restriction of learning piano in the classical way would probably dampen my inventiveness with sound so I am a little nervous of being influenced in that way.

Do you bring outside sources into the mix such as field recordings or instrument samples or is everything done 'in-studio'?

I have a very basic M-Audio Microtrack II solid-state recorder for field recordings, but I have been pleasantly surprised at the quality of recordings it can make with its little stereo electret condenser mics. I always carry this with me on days out for capturing sounds. Back at the studio I either utilize the sounds as they are or create completely new sounds by mangling them with Live 8's powerful and very deep Sampler instrument. I could seriously get into field recording in a big way, but it would require a hefty financial commitment to get some decent kit together, so that is just a dream at the moment.

Is there any gear in particular you feel like you're missing or just otherwise would like to own right now?

I urgently need to replace my four year old single core, 2Gb, 2.4Ghz self-build PC which is now seriously starting to limit the complexity of my tracks and sound design. I am frequently having to freeze tracks to give me some CPU headroom while recording and I can rarely use more than three instances of a softsynth before the CPU maxes out and distorts the sound. It is a major pain, but I just don't have the finances to do anything about it at the moment. Looking on the bright side this may encourage me to do more minimalist stuff ?

I would also like to get the AKAI APC 40 controller for working with Live at some point. My existing controller is quite clunky and not the best piece of equipment for interfacing with Live so I tend to use the mouse a lot at the moment.

You've got an album coming out on Feedback Loop next year as a free download and you also released your last album, Strange Landscape as a free download too. Is Creative Commons something you are attracted to as an ethos, or is it just a good way of getting your music heard?

Both really. It's great to be able to get your music out there for people worldwide to listen to while retaining your full creative rights as an artist. I have been approached by some netlabels recently with quite restrictive and downright dubious contracts and that side of the music business doesn't really attract me. I got into music because I love creating sounds and if those sounds happen to come together and make someone experience a range of pleasant emotions then I am happy too and feel creatively fulfilled.

What are your future plans; any plans for playing live? Or collaborations?

My number one plan is just to enjoy making more music. I don't think I have found my particular sound yet, it is still very much an evolving process, so it will be interesting to see what direction sound and all my various influences take me in over the coming months.

With my current setup playing live is just not feasible. I would need a sufficiently powerful laptop and some decent controllers to make the whole thing portable. It would certainly be fun to do though and it would be great to meet people who like what I do.

In terms of collaboration it would be great to work with a female vocalist who writes poetry. I have been very impressed by the works of artists like Alicia Merz and Michelle Seaman who vocalize poetry over an ambient or experimental music background and I think this adds a wonderful new dimension and depth to the music.

In the immediate future I have the EP release coming up on Feedback Loop which you have mentioned. I have a single track coming out on a compilation album with Ambientaria Records early next year. There is a possible CD and download EP coming out with Gradient Audio if I can get the contract sorted out. I am also collaborating with artists individually and collectively on the Ember Music label to provide two new tracks for release on two albums in October and December. I then hope to get another solo album released via Ember Music sometime next year. It is going to be a busy year ahead !

Equipment List:

DAW:
Live 8 Suite

SOFTWARE:
Native Instruments:
Reaktor 5 inc. Spark, Prism
Kontakt 4
Battery 3
Kore 2 with hardware controller
Absynth 5

Camel Audio:
Alchemy
Camelspace

Korg:
Korg Legacy Analog Edition with MS-20 Controller

Cakewalk:
Dimension Pro
Rapture

New Sonic Arts:
Granite

Audiobulb:
Ambient

Sonic Charge:
Synplant
Microtonic Drumsynth

HG Fortune:
STS-33 Pro

U-He:
Zebra 2.5

XILS Lab:
XILS 3

WOK:
Dronos

Novation:
Bass Station
V-Station

Applied Acoustics Systems:
Ultra-Analog

HARDWARE:
Korg M50-61
Korg Microkorg
Korg Monotron
Novation X-Station 61 (a controller but it includes the full Novation KS synth)
Dave Smith Instruments Tetra 4 analog synth

MONITORS:
KRK Rokit 6 v.2

AUDIO INTERFACE:
M-Audio Fast Track Ultra USB


Savaran blog - http://savaranmusic.wordpress.com/

Savaran debut release - here

Savaran facebook here

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