Artist interview: Jason Corder / offthesky

Artist interview: Jason Corder / offthesky

Intro: For this artist interview, we will be talking to ambient/drone music composer/creator and game audio director Jason Corder (artist name: offthesky). This is what ResidentAdvisor has to say about him: "offthesky is the ever evolving sonic quilt of Denver, Colorado artist Jason Corder. Wielding instruments such as a vibraphone, guitar, piano, and various others accoutrements, mr. Corder makes home-spun and spacious sound-scapes of majestic proportion..."

Jason Corder / offthesky
Photo credit: Sarah Marie Miller

SampleSumo: Hi Jason! To start off with, could you tell us a bit more about your personal background and how you got into making music?

Jason: Exploration and experimentation have always been huge for me since day one. Some of my oldest memories are of messing around on the piano - those sustained notes’ tails stacking, heterodyning, and pulsing together. The inherent drone of the long held notes– they magically had my attention for hours, even though I was normally an over active kid.

Sampling was also huge for me as a young adult. During the 80s, my friend and I would record a late night hip hop radio show onto cassette, and then copy sections from one tape to another to create our own crude remixes. I still love sampling to this day as it can lend unexpected results (of which inspiration is most often born).

Trackers also were key - once the 90's hit and we bought our first 386sx PC, I acquired scream tracker and a 16bit gravis ultrasound card. Again I found myself sitting there for hours sampling and manipulating the piano, guitar, and radio in the computer. Pitching hip hop beats or my guitar down -48 octaves - whole new landscapes would often crawl out of that.

I finally decided to get serious about pursuing audio production in the early 00's. I dove head first into Cubase, Buzz (a primitive yet powerful modular tracker) as well as AudioMulch. Explorations within those apps often turned into sketches that ultimately would turn into songs. Around that time I was also introduced to plugins. A friend gave me the amazing KTGranulator VST (now SaltyGrain) - I’ve, no joke, used it on just about every song since.

SampleSumo: How would you say your music has evolved since your early works up to the latest releases you've made?

Jason: It's evolved in many ways. For one I would say that my music has become less glitchy (because my ears have become more sensitive after years of deep listening) and I use more orchestral instruments in my music now, which is no surprise since I listened to classical music and film soundtracks a lot growing up.

I would also say that along the way my sound has become somewhat more generative. I’ve found that one of the greatest benefits to using generative concepts while making a song is that it prevents creative burnout. You will tend to listen to a song hundreds of times for hours on end before calling it done. Composing with generative ideas, even down to the simplest forms of generative technique (such as random velocity or subtle, random drum patterns) - those little moves can greatly minimize artistic fatigue while composing.

SampleSumo: You are also audio director at the game development company Dire Wolf Digital. What exactly is your role there? What would you say are the main differences between composing works as "offthesky" and working on game audio?

Jason: As audio director I compose music, sound effects, and manage a team of sound designers. The audio director role is similar to a creative director in that you have to decide what styles or moods of music and sfx fit what sections of the game. Beyond sfx work, I also design effects chains for our voice actors - dragons need to sound deep and demonic, the robot characters need to sound a bit metallic... SaltyGrain’s pitching abilities have been really useful for this role. And the Pitchwheel plugin by QuikQuak has seen a ton of use in my workflow. Convolution is also a major effect that I use daily.

But as far as the main differences between what I do off hours as offthesky - it mostly comes down to genre and process. Most of our games exist in the fantasy RPG strategy arena so I’m writing mainstream type songs that have more of an orchestral "game of thrones" style and quality. offthesky is all about experimental acoustic drone exploration with generative aspects – those aesthetic tenants don’t often make sense with more commercial styles, where "simple" translates better. But often ideas I exercise within the offthesky project still get carried over into my commercial song writing - well, because creating is a holistic process.

SampleSumo: In your work, we can often hear acoustic instruments combined with synthesized sounds. Do you have a preference to use one or the other for specific feelings or functions in your music?

Jason: For offthesky, I love to use all manner of sound sources. However acoustic sources are always going to take precedent for me over synthetic ones. This is probably because I started out experimenting on the piano (and then taught myself guitar + effect processing as a teen). So piano or guitar will usually be the first instrument I start sketching with since I’m so comfortable with their sound and behavior. Sine waves have also been a good starting point for me when I’m away from my mics / acoustic instruments. For the offthesky project, the one mainstay, beyond what sources are being used - will be the use (and most often times, the abuse of) wild effects chains to create endless custom colors and fascinating textures. Composing with effects chains is paramount to the definition of my style and honestly, for me, it's also what keeps the whole thing fun.

In my commercial work (i.e. the video game music I compose during the day) I definitely use synthetic sound sources for any sort of sci-fi songs. But for the fantasy games it's mostly orchestral sample libraries (i.e. Symphobia) via Kontakt + midi mockups - for that more realistic, cinema quality kind of sound. Sometimes I’ll mix in a little Absynth with the orchestral sounds since it can produce such a wide range of organically shifting timbres with just a single note.

SampleSumo: How do you usually work when collaborating with musicians playing acoustic instruments? I assume the creative process may be substantially different from making a mostly electronic work in your studio?

Jason: Well it just comes down to all musicians having a common ground stylistically and us each checking our egos at the door, so to speak. In my experience, the best collab albums have come out of a positive, agnostic, open-minded paradigm between all parties. So whether they play an instrument or not - that doesn't matter to me as long as they have a great aesthetic, are hardworking, and hold the idea of "all changes are okay as long as they support the greater good of the album as a whole". Some artists are not open minded and are not keen on others experimenting with their recordings or layers. That, to me, is a sign of egotism and artistic immaturity and I try to steer clear of that kind of mentality as much as possible because it ultimately can make the collaboration uninspiring and cage-like (and ultimately make the music from the collab suck).

offthesky studio

SampleSumo: Just out of curiosity: how does your studio actually look? What kind of equipment are you using?

Jason: Over the years I’ve found that a cluttered space creates distraction and makes it hard to focus so my studio setup has evolved into something quite minimal and streamlined. Plus I find the challenge of squeezing as much quality and sound out of a smaller amount of gear very entertaining. So anymore, my setup consists of: a few moderate quality mics (I actually really love the zoom h2n), an acoustic guitar, a vibraphone, a piano, a couple of synths (a Korg minilogue and an mg1 and a couple other small ones I built) and a highly portable 11" laptop (because being able to go into new spaces and make music anywhere is very inspiring to me).

But besides my ears, the most important part of my studio are my speakers. They’re not ultra high end by any stretch - but my Mackie HR824s have such an honest flat response which is massively important in any studio. Because they're so flat, if I can make the music sound good on these speakers - it will translate well to most all other systems and listening situations. I also feel I’m lucky in that the room I’ve placed them in doesn't have any real terrible resonances or bass traps. also I’ve listened to so much music of all kinds with my Mackies over the past 18 years - I feel I can now get a really great mix or mastering job done with them since I am super familiar with how they behave. I believe this kind of relationship between an artists' ears and their speakers is important - and is obtainable even with lower end speakers such as ROKITs (although for the final stage of an album, it's always good to get a second set of ears - a mastering artist - in on the mix).

I also work with ADAM A3Xs and ROKIT 8s. I guess if I had to hoard any kind of equipment it would probably be various monitors and microphones... but I’m still being a minimalist about gear, for now as I have this dream of living in a remote area in a small space one day. However samples and plugins, there's a whole other story! Since multi-terabyte drives are so small and cheap now, I will take as many digital tools and media as I can afford and hoard.

SampleSumo: Your music also features a lot of nature / environmental sounds. Do you typically go out to "find" a good sound fitting a composition you're working on, or is it more a process of collecting sounds and then going through your collection to find the right one?

Jason: It just depends but more often lately I like to go on hikes and record sounds and then put them into folders for later use. The act of getting out of the studio, getting some exercise, letting my ears rest and my mind rest when I can't figure out what to do next with a song (or if I just don't have the creative confidence/energy to be able to sit there and sketch) - yet still wanting to feel productive as an artist - the "phonosafari" as I call it- those hikes with mics are the best. But finding those super unique sounds in nature or the city is very difficult. I’ve heard so many bird, water, or traffic recordings used loosely in songs that it's gotten to the point where I don't ever want to use those super obvious sounds in my offthesky project again, if I can't help it. But if I find a truly unique field recording - like this train in a valley near this lake I love to visit - the wheels drag along the tracks and if the temperature and weather are just right these gorgeous alien tones emerge and roll down the valley getting smeared into a sort of spectral string orchestra sound. But the other way around, I love the challenge of trying to create super organic, almost field recording-like sounds via 100% synthetic means - VERY hard to pull off (and not have it sound synthy, or fake in some way) but I like the good challenge of it.

SampleSumo: This may sound a bit strange perhaps, but for me, your music seems to evoke some kind of visual aspect when I'm listening to it. Has your work been used in art installations or visual artworks/movies?

Jason: Yes - and it's funny you say that because for extra inspiration and challenge I’ll often drop a video, that I grab from Vimeo or wherever, into the timeline and try starting a sketch to that. Vimeo is a priceless goldmine for interesting diy artful films that work great for this starting point purpose. As for installations, I’ve done several in the past. "type-set" was one of the more recent ones which was held for a short period at the museum of contemporary art in Boulder. It featured an old typewriter with a sensor inside. When you typed on it and listened in the headphones, each key press would move the song along by one or two steps. So the faster one typed, the faster the song would go. And the song was very generative so it changed all the time. I noticed a lot of kids having fun with that one which felt great. Honestly the best artwork is the kind you can play with.

SampleSumo: You are using our granular effect SaltyGrain in your work, which has a more or less non-deterministic way of combining sound fragments back together to create new sounds. More generally, how much does chance (or chaos) play a role in your music production or composition process?

Jason: These days, chaos plays as much of a role as possible! As mentioned before, random or generative techniques make listening to a song a million times (before calling it done) easier on the soul. One thing I love to do with the SaltyGrain plugin is to combine 5 or more instances of them together with all the parameters hooked up to random LFOs, and then send a field recording or a synth sound through all that. So often new sketches or even songs will be born out of this kind of wild thinking + action - "sketchploration" is what I like to call that.

SampleSumo: Since the moment sound creation could be done electronically, but especially now that sensor technologies have become so accessible, people have experimented with using non-audio signals as inputs to generate or manipulate sounds. Is this something you are interested in as well?

Jason: Absolutely. I’m of the firm belief that artists should use whatever means they can get their hands on to create their works. Sensors are a perfect way to allow the art to interact with the surrounding physical world - to bridge that gap between reality and the creative fiction, so to speak. I actually used some atmospheric sensors in some of my songs over 10 years ago - the kind of sensors that read air pressure and temperature. offthesky has always been about feeding off of and being inspired by the weather and cloud-like formations, and how all that evolves and shifts over time. My album “the lowern decay”, was based around concepts of climate change - it was an homage to all that. I’m especially fascinated by the use of plants to generate tones via sensors. Mileece is an experimental artist who does an amazing job of this - I highly recommend anybody checking out her work.

SampleSumo: Last question: if you were asked to introduce people to your work, which would be the 3 albums/EPs you would recommend them to have a listen to, and why?

Jason: I’d say the latest 3 major releases are the most important because they exhibit the most current combination of all my sonic studies from the past 20 years: enfolding, silent went the sea, and the serpent phase.

More info on Jason and his work as offthesky:
offthesky web site