Route 1 – A Musical Trip Around Iceland’s Ring Road

Our actual route for Route 1

Looking back on the summer of 2016 from the vantage point of spring 2021 seems like a lifetime ago. It was during this simpler pre-Trump, pre-Covid time that I travelled to Iceland with my wife and her parents. We rented two camper vans and took a wonderful road trip that circumnavigated the country over two weeks. The route that we took is nicknamed the Ring Road because it provides a full loop around the outside of the island, but its official name is Route 1, which is where the name of my album comes from. Each of the seven songs are named after one of our stops along the way and feature a recording from that place. This blog will be split between a travelogue of my visit to Iceland and an explanation of how the music was made. The two are quite intertwined, so I’m hoping that learning about both will help make the music more exciting, meaningful, and memorable for you.

Our van at our first camp stop near Dynjandi

During our drive we naturally had a lot of time to listen to music, and my wife had just discovered a bunch of new albums that she shared with me along the way. I’ve made a Spotify playlist with some of the music we were listening to as it definitely provided inspiration for the atmosphere I tried to create in my own music. We found that deep spacey groovy electronic music suited the epic otherworldly landscapes quite effectively.

As usual I brought my recording kit, which consists of a Zoom H6 Portable Recorder, a Rode NTG-3 Shotgun Microphone, Roland CS-10EM Binaural earbud microphones, and a hydrophone and coil-pickup from Jez Riley French. While it might sound like a lot, it actually doesn’t take up much room and is fairly light, so it’s easy to pack all of this into a small backpack and still be able to fit whatever other essentials I need to bring with me. It also gives me a great deal of flexibility to pick up whatever sounds I notice as I’m wandering around. However, I quickly learned that Iceland is actually a fairly quiet country. There’s not a lot of insect life, so as a result there’s not a lot of bird life, at least compared to what I’m used to in Canada. It’s also quite windy, which often makes outdoor recording difficult. As a result, I recorded a lot of waterfalls, but also captured some really interesting things that are unique to Iceland, such as geothermal activity or the squeaking and tinkling of ice in a glacier lagoon.

Another epic Icelandic landscape, this one from Landmannalaugar

The album first came together as a live set that I gradually refined as I played it out at a few shows. I wanted to make the music as spontaneously as possible, so I created almost everything by jamming on my live rig. This consists of an Elektron Octatrack, Analog Four, Analog RYTM, and a Novation Nova. All of the drums come from the RYTM, and all of the synth sounds from the Analog Four and Nova. The leads are from the Analog Four and the pads are from the Nova, while the bass and arps are split between the two. The Octatrack is the nervous center of the whole thing. It controls playback and pattern selection for the other sequencers and sequences the multi-timbral Nova on six separate tracks. The field recordings play through the Octatrack cue output into the modular for processing. Then all of the audio from the modular comes in on one input pair, and the other set of inputs is everything else (the Nova goes into the A4, the A4 goes into the RYTM, and then the RYTM goes into the Octatrack). The advantage to this is that I can then sample and loop the live input, which is useful when transitioning from one track to another. While performing my live set, I needed to set up a patch on my modular that would give me the most flexibility to work with the various field recordings. Later when doing the individual songs I was able to make a unique patch for each recording, but I used a lot of the same techniques and processes.

Thunderous Dynjandi

Hveragerði kicks off the album with an ascending arpeggio. While it may sound like it came purely out of a synthesizer, that sound was actually made using a recording of a geothermal bore hole. Geothermal activity is very important to Hveragerði; they have a geothermal park in the middle of the town and even bake bread in geothermal ovens. Unfortunately, an earthquake in the 90s stopped the geysirs in the park from spraying, but the bore hole I recorded was still steadily belching steam from deep underground. It was by running that recording through Rings from Mutable Instruments that made the sound heard in the opening. If I remember correctly, I was sending pitch CV from the 4MS Spectral Multiband Resonator to create the arpeggio. While this song is the first on the album, it was actually one of the later stops in our trip before we returned to Reykjavik.

Sunset view from our campsite in Höfn

Track two on the other hand, was also the second place we camped on our trip. Dynjandi is a huge waterfall nestled at the end of a long fjord. With a name that translates as “Thunderous”, Dynjandi’s volume made it easy to get a few good recordings. The steady roar of a waterfall works quite well as a natural noise source for processing with my synthesizer. For this song I mostly used it to create percussive rhythms and swishy textures. I accomplished this by sequencing Quadrax with Steppy, then sending the envelopes to open Quad VCA channels and play with Morgasmatron’s filter cutoff.

Track three, Hraunfosser was the first waterfall we checked out on our trip. This one was interesting because it partially flows underground, then spills out along the side of a cliff seemingly coming from nowhere. Because it was more spread out and not as tall, the recording from this one is a bit more fizzy sounding. I used a similar technique as I did with Dynjandi to create rhythms and textures from the recording. This song actually almost got scrapped because I wasn’t happy with where it was going, but I really like how it turned out.

The morning view from our campsite in Höfn

We witnessed one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen in Höfn. Our campsite had an amazing view of a glacier, and the clouds lit up in vivid hues of orange and red above the white snow. The next morning while we had breakfast I could hear birds in the marshland below. They were some kind of wading shorebird, like plovers, and that’s what you hear at the start of this song. The recording was played back through a Qu-Bit Nebulae granular sampler with my usual Steppy, Quadrax, Quad VCA trio to shape rhythms. In this case I also used Tetrapad to play with the pitch of the recording.

Seyðisfjörður is the only place where I knew in advance that I wanted to record something. In fact, we partially went there because I wanted to record there, but it’s also a very cute picturesque fjord-side town. The thing that put it on my radar was a sound sculpture called Tvisongur, which is a cluster of round concrete domes. Each dome was made with a specific size in order to resonate and amplify the frequencies of the Icelandic musical tradition of five-tone harmony. I thought it would be cool to pick up a few impulse response recordings so I could try to recreate the response of those domes with convolution software. I still haven’t gotten around to trying this, but while we were in the domes my wife did some impromptu singing. It was the recordings of her voice that became this song. I sampled it into both my Octatrack and the Qu-Bit Nebulae; the Octatrack provided the rhythmic vocal portion and the Nebulae created the strange vocal atmospheres.

Tvisongur sound sculpture near Seyðisfjörður

We quickly discovered that Iceland is a country that often looks like another planet, which makes it no surprise that it’s been featured in so many shows and movies. We visited locations used in Game of Thrones and Prometheus, but one of the most otherworldly spots in my opinion was Jökulsárlón. It’s a popular tourist attraction for a good reason as I’ve never seen anything else like it. Jökulsárlón is a glacier lagoon, where huge chunks of ice calve off and serenely float before drifting off to sea. The nearby beach is littered with translucent blue ice of varying size on a black stone beach, with some pieces around the size of a small car. While Jökulsárlón is a busy spot full of tour buses and zodiac tours, nearby Fjallsarlon was much more quiet. It was so quiet and still that we could hear the icebergs tinkling and squeaking as they rubbed against each other. We also heard the occasional distant avalanche as more chunks calved off the glacier. I wasn’t able to capture an avalanche with my recorder, but I did get a really cool recording of the lagoon. This is what you hear at the beginning of Fjallsarlon, but with my usual rhythmic processing and a heavy dose of feedback from Springray.

Recording my mother-in-law performing a little rock on ice percussion

The last recording is a bit of an odd one because it has a somewhat tenuous connection to the location where it was recorded. Landmannalaugar is a beautiful remote inland area that features a natural hot spring river and a hardened lava flow. Before we entered the park we stopped under a large electrical tower. I think we were letting air out of the tires of the “super jeep” so they would be softer for climbing the sharp rocky roads. While I waited I thought it would be fun to try out my coil-pickup mic to see what kind of electro-magnetic interference I could pick up from the big tower. Because the mic was dangling from my recorder and it was so windy it made the buzzing tone warble in an interesting way. Sampling that recording into my Octatrack provided the main rhythmic foundation for this song.

I realized afterwards that these pools are basically sulphuric acid so they caused some corrosion on my mic

There’s lots of great recordings that didn’t manage to make it into the album. There’s one of a geysir erupting, another of some bubbling geothermal mud pools, and yes, more waterfalls. It’s possible that these will eventually turn into songs, so there may be some “bonus tracks” or an EP down the road. Hopefully you enjoyed learning about my trip and the making of this album. Please feel free to reach out if you have any questions about how I make my music.

You can check out the album here.

I also have t-shirts, tank tops, and mugs featuring the album art here.

Another other-worldly landscape, this one from Landmannalaugar

Modular By Nature

For a few years now, I’ve been gradually building a eurorack system for the specific purpose of processing field recordings that I have recorded from various locations. In the summer of 2018, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try using my system to process the sounds of an environment in real-time. I set up my modular on my balcony, aimed a shotgun mic at the nearby maple tree, and put together a patch that would use the live microphone input within my modular and recorded the output into my portable recorder. I also set up a camera to film the whole thing and posted the result to Youtube as my first Modular By Nature video.

Over the winter I got my hands on an Aimtom portable power pack, which allowed me to take my system into remote locations. Now I was able to try these experiments of processing environmental sounds in real-time wherever I wanted. For my first session I went to the nearby park, and then next to Locarno beach, but I had to end that session abruptly when I noticed snowflakes were falling on my case. It was cold enough that my patch cables and fingers were quite stiff. Once the weather warmed up, I did a few more sessions, and another one in November using the warmth and crackle of a wood stove in an off-grid cabin. If you’re interested in learning more about why I chose the Aimtom power pack you can read my article for Ask.Audio here.

I’ve grouped this first round of experiments together as “Season 1” of Modular by Nature, and you can watch the whole series below.

Modular By Nature – Season 1

This year I’ve made some additions to my case that have opened up new possibilities and helped with creating more musical results. First was the Intellijel Shapeshifter, a powerful digital oscillator. While this might not seem like an obvious choice for processing field recordings, it’s the vocoder mode that mostly applies here. Although, it’s such a deep module that I’ll probably find other methods that work, and in the rest of my regular synth patching it will certainly be a welcome addition.

Next I added a Happy Nerding FX Aid, a 4HP effects powerhouse that can house 32 different effects. The effects can be selected and arranged using a web utility, but I was mostly interested in the reverbs; especially the ones modelled after the Strymon Big Sky. You can learn more about the FX Aid here.

The AI Synthesis AI008 Matrix Mixer came next. This added a powerful and flexible means of routing signal around my system in creative ways. With Modular By Nature, I’m usually taking a mono input and sending it to a few effects processors. With the Matrix Mixer I can easily send an input to three outputs, and I can use this approach with four inputs. This is great for experimenting with feedback loops. You can hear some of my initial experiments with the AI008 here.

Lastly I picked up the Befaco Instrument Interface. This might not seem like the most exciting module, but it really levelled up my system for Modular By Nature. Because it has a phantom powered combo jack input, I can now plug my shotgun mic directly into my system so I no longer need to bring an external preamp along with me. When doing anything portable, the less gear you need to lug around, the better. Furthermore, this module also has an envelope follower and gate outputs, which make it easier to make patches that react to an incoming signal. Check out more on the Instrument Interface here.

In May I took my system over to Galiano island and recorded a few Modular By Nature sessions. I did another one on the rocks along the beach, one in the forest, and one on the deck in the early morning. These are now the start of “Season 2” of Modular By Nature, and I’ll be adding more throughout the summer.

Moduar By Nature – Season 2

Of course there’s also one main Modular By Nature playlist with all of the videos, but I may pare it down to just my favourites.

Modular By Nature Full Playlist

A Ceremony Of Synthesized Carols

As you might already know, I put out a synthy Christmas album a few years ago. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a joke, or at best a novelty album. What you might not have realized, if you couldn’t make it through the first song or two, is that I put the silliest stuff at the beginning to make it easier to skip. Furthermore, I’m actually quite pleased with how the last 10 songs turned out, and they’re based on songs that many people don’t know.

I first heard Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols shortly before I made that album. It’s a lovely piece of Christmas music that doesn’t sound overly like Christmas music. Which is something that I find to be a welcome relief when you keep hearing the same handful of songs over and over again every holiday season. So I’d strongly recommend giving it a listen, whether it’s my version or the original, or both.

If you start with track 13 you can hear my version here:

Or you can hear what it’s supposed to sound like, as performed by a Swedish Choral ensemble:

On The Road: Portable Power Options For Synthesizers & Electronic Instruments

In March of 2019 I decided to write an article on portable power options for synthesizers. I was interested in finding something for my own system, but I also found it to be a confusing thing to research. Naturally this made it a perfect topic for an article. You can view the article here: https://ask.audio/articles/on-the-road-portable-power-options-for-synthesizers-electronic-instruments

While writing this article, I also started my Modular By Nature Youtube series. In these videos, I use my eurorack synthesizer to process the sounds of the environment in real-time to produce a piece of music. In most of these videos I’m using some kind of portable power pack to power my synth as well as a preamp for the shotgun mic.

Portable power is an area where the technology is evolving very quickly, so there’s bound to be new options available since I wrote the article. I’d love to hear of any new alternatives that you have come across to power your gear, or just hear about how you use synths in a portable setting!

Ambient Playlist

Over the years of reviewing modules for Ask.Audio, I’ve accumulated a sizeable archive of diverse recordings. Some of them are even nice to listen to! I decided it would be fun to go back through my experiments and compile a list of my favourites that could fit loosely into the ambient music genre.

Some of these recordings feel like complete songs, while others are more rough with abrupt starts and endings. I hope you enjoy my selected ambient modular experiments!