Tech talk: Paddy Free of Pitch Black

We caught up with one half of the incredible New Zealand duo Pitch Black: Salmonella Dub producer Paddy Free.

He talks to us about all things tech, software and what it’s like performing electronic music live ahead of their show at the Attic Bar in Bristol on the 23 March 2017.

What kit did you use when you first started making electronic music?

I bought a second-hand Roland SH-101 in 1985, a month after leaving high school and getting my first real job. The next thing was a delay pedal and with the 100-step mono sequencer in the 101 I would play back three-note riffs endlessly while tweaking the knobs and sliders going into the delay. Believe it or not, I still have a couple of cassettes labeled something like ‘synth march 17 1985’ or something like that – I thought I was Tangerine Dream!

Did you teach yourself to play or did you have guidance from anyone?

I had a couple of years of classical piano lessons as a kid but never got very far with it. I got to Grade 4 or something. After getting the synth, I went over to the dark side… I can still bust out a few ten-fingered party pieces though!

What do you use now?

A Mac laptop, Ableton Live and Logic Pro 9 mostly, with a bunch of controllers: Ableton Push 2, Novation SL61 and 25 Mk2, Novation Launch Control XL. I still have a few oldies – the SH101 (never sell it), an Ensoniq TS-12 workstation and a Weltmeister Combo Bass (below), which a weird thing from 1960s East Germany that’s like a Rhodes Bass — in keytar form!

Has kit changed as technology has advanced?

Has it ever! Getting into music technology in the 80s was a great time, there were so many breakthroughs. In 1979 a sampler cost $100K, by 1989 it cost 2K, and sounded better! Keyboards gradually became computers, then computers became recording studios, and I became a sound engineer and producer by default, learning as I went.

How does the kit you use influence the unique sound of Pitch Black?

We’re a dub act, and we use two Doepfer Drehbank MIDI controllers – 128 knobs total – set up in the classic 16 channel mixing console format: 3 band EQ, 3 FX sends + volume, except now it’s all manipulating a virtual mixer in Ableton. But this classic layout lets Mike set up cross-patches and feedback loops in an authentic dub style. Every control single-purpose and no ‘banking’ over – he can grab whatever he wants instantly.

What software do you use to produce on?

Ableton Live and Logic Pro 9. I’ve used Logic since ’95 and I got into Live early on in about 2002. I think Live is the most exciting music software in the last 20 years – it lets you do with a laptop, on stage, what used to take us lugging a 24 channel mixing desk, 2 Akai samplers, 6 rack-units of outboard effects, and endless patch cables. I got heavily into the Ableton user forum early on and in 2006 I was invited along with about a dozen other guys to Ableton Camp in Berlin at Abe’s HQ. So I’m a bit of an evangelist for it really. I participate in alpha testing for them, and do clinics and demos about the place.

How much of your set is live, and what effect do you think that has on your performances?

Very, very live. Each song is broken up into probably 10 to 20 ‘scenes’ in Live which I can call up at any time play live keys over the top. That goes into Mike’s dub-mixing structure on the Drehbanks, so he has control over the arrangement to with what he dubs up and turns on and off. We can stay in any scene for as long as we want, adding intensity with the dub until the crowd and us feel its time to move on.

Playing electronic equipment live can sometimes be a bit of a risk – have you ever had any major disasters and how did you deal with it?

I can think of only two show-stoppers in the last 20 years! One, about 15 years ago, I knocked my giant 76-note weighted-action TS-12 off the keyboard stand – it was MIDI sequencing the whole show, which died… My fault! For some reason that night I hadn’t gaffer taped it to the keyboard stand, and I always do.

The other only show-stopper was just last month, oddly. At a festival we played at, our power got knocked out by a careless roadie just as we rolled on to stage. After it came back I thought everything – MIDI and audio interfaces – had reacquired properly to the Mac, but there were issues that didn’t become apparent until halfway through the show. We actually had to stop for five minutes while we rebooted and power-cycled everything completely. In hindsight, I should have made the call to delay our start and power-cycle everything properly before we went on, but you know… adrenaline and all that.

What advice would you give to budding producers and musicians who don’t really know where to start with the kit they buy?

If you want to make electronic music, I think the Akai APC-Key Mini with Live Light is an incredible package for like 200 bucks. It’s really easy to start with and you can actually do a hell of a lot with it. If you’re a more traditional muso, and you’re on a Mac, you can’t go past Garage Band. Its ‘free’ and again, what you can actually achieve with it is incredible.

What’s the one bit of kit you’d buy if money were no option?

Haha! A malletKAT. It’s a MIDI controller with pads that you play with mallets like a xylophone/marimba. I’m a frustrated percussionist really (keys aren’t physical enough!) and this is nirvana to me. Its like the best of both worlds – you can do super-fast physical triggering/drumming – with the infinite sound-set of MIDI. That or a grand piano.

Catch Pitch Black at the Attic Bar in Bristol on 23 March

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