Four Tet – Composer, Producer, Musician?

Following his breakthrough album Pause in 2001, Kieran Hebden has established himself as something of a cult figure on the electronic music scene, even being credited with creating the genre known as ‘folktronica’. However, his production techniques are well worth a closer look…

Music Without Playing

Hebden recently appeared in a video interview with Future Music, where he demonstrated how he went about creating some songs from his latest album There Is Love In You.

Interestingly, he admits that he very rarely plays synths on his records, and in fact doesn’t even own a MIDI controller keyboard. He is very much a man of audio, and indeed his earlier albums were created primarily on Ross Bencina’s shareware program Audiomulch (which he still uses, although most of the later Four Tet canon has been rendered in Pro Tools and Ableton Live).

Into The Details

So, despite the quite organic feel to much of Hebden’s work, it is generally based on a meticulous process of selecting sounds, chopping them up and rearranging them manually into something completely new. He doesn’t use automated tools such as Beat Detective to assist with this task; it’s all done by eye and ear. In fact, he doesn’t even use a grid – his arranging of sound is done in slip mode, just moving slices of audio until they sound like they’re in the right place.

Although he does play guitar, this often goes through the same chopping, stretching and pitch-shifting process that his sampled audio does; and in fact, most of his sounds seem to come from vinyl or other random sources. This sort of workflow truly illustrates the power of sampling – you can ‘steal’ other people’s sounds, and yet create something entirely new and unrecognisable; you can create complex musical arrangements without being a virtuoso (or even competent) on a traditional instrument.

I’m not alluding to Kieran’s guitar skills here, but rather to the general premise that one can create music by manipulating the audio output of an instrument rather than the more conventional technique of physically manipulating the instrument itself. It’s a (relatively) new type of skill, a new realm of musical artistry that is open to all comers, but which in practice will be mastered by very few.

This clip from the FM interview shows Kieran demonstrating his Tenori-On, and how it ended up being used in the track Sing (the vocals for which were provided by his wife, and then processed in classic Four Tet fashion)…


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