Xtended Sound: Imogen Heap and Kelly Snook in the studio

5th September 2011

Propellor seeds

Imogen Heap's recent single, Propellor Seeds, is a whirling cloud of sonic and musical ideas. When we heard that Soniccouture sounds had played their part in its creation, we were excited to find out more. Imogen and her engineer/ Studio Manger Kelly Snook were happy to share some insights.

How did Xtended Piano end up slotting into this whirling sonic cloud?

"Imogen is a gifted sound designer and found the Xtended Piano samples to be rich with possibilities.  Together with samples from Felix and his Machine (http://www.felixsmachines.com/), the Xtended Piano samples actually formed the nucleus of the sound in the beginning of the recording process for Heapsong 2, later called Propeller Seeds."

Imogen - what appealed to you about the Xtended Piano sounds? I understand you created a patch using the Mute & Bowed instruments together?


"Yes, the Mute Piano and Bowed Piano libraries were chosen as key elements of the main keyboard line that moves throughout and creates the harmonic structure of the piece.  The final keyboard sound included around 6 different layers combining elements from Felix's Machine, the Sonic Couture libraries, and one other non-Soniccouture library."

Can you talk about the 3D sound concept in Propellor Seeds? The custom convolution impulses are an interesting aspect of this is there any extra spatial processing going on, like Soundfield mics etc, or is it simply a case of panning and mixing in a different way?

In addition to panning, two main techniques were used for the 3D elements.  The first involved field recordings by Imogen and Nick Ryan of sounds representing ideas in the narrative of the song with binaural head-mounted microphones and surface contact microphones.  The second involved recording impulse responses in actual spaces from the story (by popping balloons in the hallway where Imogen and Thomas met, for example) and using those impulse responses to create specific 3D reverbs in different parts of the song. There was also some modeling done to create reverbs for spaces that couldn't be recorded.  The song was then carefully mixed by Imogen with Nick's help to ensure that the 3D nature of the sounds were preserved in the mix with the music.

Kelly - can you describe your role in the production process at Imogen's studio?

I serve in a few different capacities with Imogen. One role is as her studio manager and engineer, ensuring that all the technology and instruments she needs are working well, sounding good, and playing nicely together. This can mean anything from computer maintenance to tuning her Marxophone, from trying out new studio monitors to redesigning how midi is routed in the studio.   Another role is as a musician and engineer, often editing, mixing and/or mastering projects with her.  Imogen engineers, produces, and mixes her own solo releases, but she also tackles a multitude of other projects that provide opportunities for her team to support.  There are also others who sometimes come to work on their own music in Imogen's studio and I prepare the studio and sometimes engineer or produce those sessions. Her demanding schedule sometimes calls for her to be in two places at once, so another role of mine is to stand in for her in rehearsals if she cannot be there herself.  Finally, I am very interested in music technology and helping to develop new modes of musical expression. Imogen is known for pushing the envelope in this area, but does not always have the time to navigate learning curves on her own. I assist in developing new technologies (such as her musical gloves) or learning to use emerging new instruments and software to support her visionary performance plans.

They say you're a rocket scientist too..?

As a matter of fact, yes. ;)  As luck would have it, my formal degrees are all in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, with my doctorate on the optical properties of the dust in the atmosphere of Mars.  You'd be surprised how often this expertise is needed in working for Imogen.  I'm only half joking - Stanford and NASA both trained me to think like and engineer and a scientist, which often comes in very handy when designing and troubleshooting complex studio or live performance systems.  Sometimes it really *does* take a rocket scientist!

Have you ever tried writing KSP scripts within kontakt to create new behaviours and sounds? if so, what was your aim?

I have only dabbled with this, but plan to do more in coming months.  Imogen is writing and releasing a new song every three months for her next album and we would like to have new sounds to play with for each new "Heapsong."  The aim of the scripts I wrote so far was to find interesting ways to use some of the sounds submitted by Imogen's fans for her Heapsong 1, called Lifeline, that could be used with her Eigenharp in newly expressive ways in subsequent projects.

Imogen - you have a few Array Mbiras now, i understand? what are the differences between the models you have?

Imogen has 3 Array Mbiras: 2 hollow-bodied acoustics and one solid-bodied passive-electric.  The two acoustics vary in size and age; they are both hollow bodied and travel on tour with Imogen. One of the acoustics does also have an electronic pickup. The solid-body passively-electric mbira is used in the studio.

Thanks to Kelly for the text, and to Tom Kelly for the photos.