How do you allow musical ideas to flower – technically, creatively, and when finding your musical voice? The floral images reflected in visuals and sound in Christopher Willits’ “Tiger Flower Circle Sun” are evocative imagery, but also an apt metaphor for Willits’ artistic process.

The composer and artist spins unique, organic ambient worlds with layers of sound and pattern, transforming the timbres of his guitar. He’s also known for making custom software to craft his results, a prolific patcher in Max/MSP with a regular series on Ableton Live, Max, Max for Live, guitar recording, touring, and other topics translated to friendly how-tos on XLR8R TV.

I got a chance to talk to Christopher about the technical and inspirational alike, reflecting on the new record.

PK: Let’s talk a bit about your approach to production as a guitarist. Part of what I love about your work, live and in the studio, is the way in which the instrument is interwoven with the music. In this album, what’s the relationship of the input to output? How much is live playing; how much is after-the-fact production work?

CW: When I’m developing new ideas, I’m always playing guitar and processing it, and recording it out … then I either let it be as-is, or develop it further. It’s like throwing out all of these seeds. Some grow into things and others decompose back into the soil and help the others along in a less direct way.

I have no expectation about where things will go when I’m in the experimenting / play phase of working. Sometimes I don’t even know that I’m in it. I’m just playing guitar and then something will stick and begin to resonate.

All of these pieces began through this method. None of the guitars that you hear have been processed after-the-fact; it’s all a live, in-the-moment process of recording the guitars through software. I want the life of those recordings shining through, [rather than it being] overworked.

As far as the guitar itself, any comments on tuning, timbre, and how you handle the instrument itself?

Pretty straight up, standard tuning, A 440. I used my strat mostly and baritone for some depth here and there.

Naturally, I’m interested in your software creations for this record, as you’ve been a vocal advocate of Max patching. What sorts of contraptions are involved here? New Max patches? Using Max standalone, Max for Live, or a combination?

Most of the processed guitars were created before I dug into Max for Live. So these processing patterns were developed through plug-ins I made with Max that I use with Ableton Live, as my mixer and sequencer / workstation.

Just to pull something out timbrally – “Heart Connects to Head” nicely represents some of the juxtoposition of organic and electronic sounds for me, in particular the synth arpeggio with percussion. Can you share some of your sound sources here, or in general how you view the ensemble?

That synth was Operator in Ableton Live, being played by my guitar with a MIDI pickup, an Arpeggiator MIDI effect on it, while the guitar output was running through some spectral smashing-ness.

So the bass synth, and chords are all recorded live in one flow, the guitar triggering the bass and the processed string vibrations together.

There’s a lot of microsampling going on, and percussive elements. Is this reflected in the software? How do you conceive the rhythmic activities of the record?

Some of it is from the Max plugs processing shards of guitar; others are recordings that I made — I EQ’d [them] and adjusted the envelopes into percussive ticks that occupied the right space for the music.

The percussive elements created spinning wheels, often in different directions from other melodic elements. These events for me create an opening into the patterns. Even the simplest triple click low in the mix can rotate and open up more surfaces to feel.

A couple of the tracks seem to burst into vocals; can you talk about what motivated these differently?

I was not attached to any sonic outcome with this record, and there was no plan to even use vocals, but at certain times i heard these big words, multiple people singing them. And it was really important to me that more than two people were singing these parts.

There’s a liquid sense of tonality to me, a sense of harmonic freedom. Can you talk about your harmonic influences, and how these evolve in these tracks compositionally?

The creative process is mysterious, but I know it does require devotion and love and time, and surrendering control. I feel like the music tells me what to do. I follow my intuition and the music either embraces it or challenges the adjustments / additions / subtractions. It’s an amazing process for me; nothing short of magic, really. With an intention and with some focus, love, and time. these things grow. The harmonic vibrations attract other vibrations and the flow keeps flowing.

Maybe my influences come out in this process, but that is never intentional. There is music I love — like Coltrane, Hendrix, Stereolab, Tortoise, Sun Ra, Steve Reich, Yoruba Andabo — that I can hear relationships to.

Obviously, you work a lot with visual imagery in your work and in your performance, and there are some evocative titles in the tracks and the album itself. Did specific visual images feed into your musical conceptions here?

Yes, definitely — images that were woven into imagining and intuiting what the music was opening up to. I’ve been shooting tons of video and composing video pieces for these sounds. Throughout the rest of the year, I’ll be releasing these videos.

The lastest is for “Flowers Into Stardust.”

nowness.com featured it recently and it’s on my YouTube channel.

What does your hardware rig look like in preparing for this album? What’s your software rig?

Adam at Guitar Geek did a pretty good job last year detailing my hardware setup. it has changed a little, but this is a good overview.

guitargeek | Christopher Willits

Software modules I’m designing, now in Max for Live, are mostly time domain-folding plugs. Sound is recorded in and I index to different locations using delays, jump-cutting buffers, and granular techniques. I also work on weird spectral morphs with convolution techniques, brittle odd and even-harmonic distortion, and different MIDI input from the guitar to alter filtration settings. These seem to be the processing machines that I’m always gravitating towards.

I used these plugs in about 12 audio tracks with input-only monitoring, with both dry guitar input and looped guitar, fed via return tracks. I then added extra tracks in Live for percussion recording and sequencing, vocal recording, baritone, synths, etc.

Guitar Geek examines Christopher’s rig. Image courtesy Christopher Willits; source/(C): Guitar Geek.

Chris’ Ableton Live setup combines live inputs and Max devices to produce his layered sound. Click for full-sized version.

How will you adapt the hardware/software setup for this material for live performance?

The system i use live is very similar to the recording setup, but without the extra tracks for supporting instruments.
The hardware setup will be scaled down for easier traveling.

For live shows right now I’m using:

MacBook Pro
MOTU UltraLite
iPad (for video control)
monome for improvised pattern sequencing
[M-Audio] Trigger Finger (for processing details)
Doepfer Pocket Fader (for controlling processing tracks)
Guitar + Line 6 Pocket Pod, or Korg Pandora (Still in a shoot out for small pre to take; I keep changing my mind)
Diamond compressor
Customized Big Muff (analog distortion)
[Behringer] FCB 1010 when I’m sitting in a chair or standing up while playing.

I’m experimenting a lot with sitting down and standing up in the last few years. Both feel good for different situations.

Some of the material I can play solo; other tracks need the stacked vocals and other elements, so I’ll wait until a band tour is dialed in for that. I’m really interested in playing with percussion lately. I either meet up with different percussionists, bring friends along, recruit audience members, or all of the above. In the last performance I had at twin space in san francisco, [I brought in] eleven audience members.

How do you see this album fitting in with your previous work?

I feel this album is a natural progression from everything I’ve been doing. That growth is not a linear. I’m more interested in creating a bunch of supporting branches of art flowing in a similar direction, rather than one main limb with only a few flowers.

TFCS brings together all of the sounds that I love into one statement, perhaps the most concise that I have made yet. And the really fun thing for me to think about is that I feel like I am just now beginning. After ten years of making records as a solo artist and in collaboration with some of my best friends, I’ve really honed my voice and focus and I can only imagine what the next 10 years is going to bring.

For more information

http://ghostly.com/artists/christopher-willits
http://ghostly.com/releases/tiger-flower-circle-sun
http://christopherwillits.com/

Listen: Christopher has a fantastic, exclusive, free set available via our friends at Percussion Lab. It’s a good taste of what’s on the album:
Christopher Willits Live on Earth Exclusive Mix

  • http://soundcloud.com/wodgod Gogmagog

    Ok, so I've never heard this guy's music before, skipped the interview, and played the video. Ok, nice. Then I went back and looked at the graphic of his rig. Huh.

    All that for a synth pad sound?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Gogmagog: I think that's the rig for pretty much everything he does, so not necessarily just the one sound you're hearing.

    Also, I don't think that rig is *too* complex; it looks fancier when you actually do the graphic and lay everything out. The basic idea is:

    1. guitar with direct manipulation of the strings with some toys

    2. synth source so it's not just the guitar as sound source (that's the GR20)

    3. signal chain for volume + distortion + wah

    4. software for capturing audio (which in some ways here stands in for what was one a tape deck and modular effects)

    5. control for your hands and feet of the software

    That's not that left-field. Of course, this is why some people (particularly those from a strictly synth/computer background) like to just move more things in the box, because it does vastly reduce the number of cables — and even if you do have a source like an outboard synth, you just have that synth into the computer.

  • http://soundcloud.com/ellulisthegeneral the general

    Great article. Christopher Willits is a cool guy and I enjoyed hearing about his artistic process. Good stuff!

  • Michael Coelho

    Interesting article. I am curious as to the visual aspect of his live performance rig. Is he using Max-Jitter patches to output visuals from within Ableton Live?

  • http://www.myspace.com/mikefontemusic Mike Fonte

    Another great article! Mr Willits's processes are fascinating, as is his willingness to share them.

  • http://udosson.com udosson

    very nice! thanks for the interview and the insights. i enjoyed reading it … really inspiring!

  • http://darrenhalm.bandcamp.com Darren Halm

    As a guitar player/processor, I was extremely excited to see guitar being featured in CDM, then I listened to the track and thought exactly what Gogmagog wrote. Not trying to be a hater, it's just that it really IS another synth pad, regardless of the process he took to get there.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Some of the timbres are guitar. Some of them, as he details, simply use the guitar as a MIDI controller (either using a MIDI pickup into software, or directly through the Roland instrument)

    But we can feature more guitars in CDM; up for recommendations of artists. ;)

  • Thomas Cermak

    Fantastic article Peter -I'm going to link to it. Can't wait to see Christopher perform at LOLAFest in my home town of London, ON. (lolafest.com)

  • http://www.myspace.com/gliiitches Leon Tricker

    One way of looking at this is it's just another synth sound.

    The other way of looking at it is this is a 'synth type sound' that was created in a unique way that you wouldn't get with a synth.

    I love electronic music, but I am fascinated with trying to create it using an electric guitar. One reason is the obvious (and pretty cliched, I admit) subverting of an instrument so associated with male rock-star posturing.

    The other reason is you get unique sounds this way, and a heavily processed guitar is in my view a more reactive and expressive instrument than a synth.

    The only drawback for me at the moment is I need a new laptop to do real-time recording and looping in Ableton Live – my current one just can't cope!

  • John G

    @Peter

    How about Fennesz?

  • Bendish

    I like the way Californians say "processeeeen" rather than "processing".

  • http://darrenhalm.bandcamp.com Darren Halm

    Ok, Leon, granted. But not to rag on Christophers music (it is a nice piece) but it's not exactly an innovative piece of music (Eno, Vir Unis, Gas, anything from the Pop Ambient series of the early 00's). So, somehow, the argument becomes that the PROCESS is innovative, therefore its worth listening to?

    What is coming out of the speakers and hitting our ears is, by definition, the music. What I see becoming increasingly common on this website and others is more attention being paid to process, equipment and programming, and less to the actual object or end result – i.e. music. I din't see a cappucino synth making a piece of music, rather it played a single note of varying timbre. Surely interesting, but not music. Would it not be more appropriate to retitle this site Create Physical or Coded Processes that may Eventually Lead to Someone Making a Piece of Music Down the Line? It's like if a site was called Create Guitar Music, and all they had was articles on Luthiers.

    By no means am I criticizing the site, Peter. You do a tremendous job curating everything thats happening in the world of music and sound creation (and everything is popping up at a dizzying pace these days). I just feel the need to make an observation and play devils advocate. It's the classic case of style over substance – which is more important?

  • http://darrenhalm.bandcamp.com Darren Halm

    I also started a Facebook page recently with the very idea that processed guitar is more express and interesting than synth:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Mangling-Guitar-Sou

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Darren: Well, to play devil's advocate to your devil's advocate, when you're making music, I'd say the process, the journey, probably is more important than the result. It's not that the output is unimportant, but the process is the part we directly engage. What I felt like Chris had to say had to do with his inspiration and how the ideas evolve; the technology is a means to that process. And I think the technical processes you use aren't independent from your creative process; on the contrary, if he's doing something with a specific signal chain or building a Max patch that microsamples in a certain way, or (in particular) recording ideas as he goes, it's because that's part of his compositional intent.

    These aren't separate things. Art historians study brush strokes, because they say something about the work. You might take in a sculpture as a totality, but also look at the hatching left by a chisel, and you can bet that every detail of how the object was produced was tied to the artist's intent. There are other outlets that focus exclusively on the musical object at the end of the process. There aren't actually that many that focus on the process, compositionally and technically, beyond just saying which gear someone used.

  • http://www.myspace.com/gliiitches Leon Tricker

    @ Darren – fair points. And I'll be signing up to that Facebook page! :-)

    I'd agree that piece of music isn't innovative in terms of 'musical genre'. But to my ears it was certainly a good piece of music.

    On a personal level, actually the process of making music has now become as important to me as the end result. Maybe more important. Ten years ago my reasons for making music were very different to they are now. Nowadays I'm not competing with anyone, I'm not trying to get signed, I'm not making a statement.

    The creative process for me is an end in itself – just enjoying using technology and making a noise. Occasionally I might pop up with a coherant musical release or play a gig. But I have enough deadlines at work without the pressure to 'finish' something musically and suck the fun out of my creative bubble.

    It's not about the distance you travel, but the direction in which you are travelling.

  • http://soundcloud.com/wodgod Gogmagog

    Good points, Peter & Leon, I agree. Me personally, I just get disappointed when I see a musician with such an elaborate setup and the result sounds like pretty much everything else out there, like maybe they aren't taking advantage of the powerful tools at their disposal. But that's just my preferred aesthetic; I like creating new, different sounds.

    Regardless, I'll bet that setup is fun as hell to play, whatever comes out of the speakers. Maybe I'm just jealous :)

  • http://soundcloud.com/wodgod Gogmagog

    BTW Darren, nice FB page.

  • Coden

    Excellent article, only wish there were screenshots teasing the M4L patches/programming.

  • Crampe

    Let's talk about Hans Tammen guitar processing then!

    http://www.tammen.org/

  • VgaForest

    i find this type of article very informative… i really enjoy seeing how different people approach similar problems, ie – how to create different sounds, there are so many possibilities today to reach what might seem like the same result, but to me it's more about creating the process that works for your indiviual creative style, and way of working. keep up the great articles peter!

  • Leon (another one).

    Having not heard the music (at work dudes) I'll still weigh in about process vs product.

    CDM is different from the mass of unwashed music appreciation sites in that it caters more to producers (in the generic sense) than consumers. So any interesting (creative) application of gear/ideas/musicality should be up for discussion regardless of the result(I personally like how macro and micro Peter goes in this regard).

    Plus ideas propogate ideas, so even if everyone decides something sucks it may motivate someone else to do better with a similar approach.

    Also: you kids might not get this but there's not neccesarily extra kudos for being different for differents sake. Something that is a clever reworking of an idea (or sound) can be sublime, and often (not always) extreme contrast is like the drunk loud guy at the party: everyone knows, noone cares. Just saying.

    Anyone had good or bad experiences with the FCB 1010? And what about experiences with soundcards for this kinda setup?

  • Benoit

    It reminds me of Eivind Aarset's sounds…

    http://www.ableton.com/pages/artists/aarset

  • http://www.soundcloud.comchris-v Chris Vine

    As someone working with the same kind of setup, I like Christopher Willets' readiness to share his knowledge. So, thanks for the article.

    ^^ @Leon (another one): the FCB is definitely the cheapest pedal alternative – I personally don't like having to switch through banks in a live situation so I try to use ten pedals only (I have enough other stuff to think about). It is easy to program with shareware. Soundcards are OK, best to get something solid in terms of connectivity and best possible sound. I used to use an M Audio FW410 which was just OK, but not 100% reliable; now I use an RME Fireface, which sounds fantastic and is very reliable. MOTU units are also recommended. Rumor says MOTU for Macs and RME for PCs.

  • http://myconicmusic.com JS

    May I suggest, to those debating the innovation/ingenuity of the piece in the video, that you take a listen to some of the other album tracks. Chris does some really cool, sometimes almost glitchy, work with guitar. This is a link to the album on the Ghostly International site. Pretty sure you should be able to listen to some of the tracks up there.

    http://ghostly.com/releases/tiger-flower-circle-s

  • http://myconicmusic.com JS

    (ps. sorry, realized I think he goes by Christopher… I have a bad habit of abbreviating names unintentionally. haha)

  • http://myconicmusic.com JS

    Also, @Leon, regarding the FCB1010, I had one, and like every other piece of Behringer gear I've ever owned, it died randomly and in an unexplained way after a few months of use. I replaced it with the Roland FC-300. Almost identical in terms of looks and function, but I find it very convenient that the FC-300 can be battery powered if needed, and it's built like a tank in comparison to the FCB. About twice the price, though, but worth it.

  • John G

    I've had my FCB1010 for years, lugging it around to gigs and rehearsals with no problems, very solid. A pain in the ass to program, but you do that once then forget about it. Can't really beat it for the price.

  • gray
  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Thanks, this is becoming a nice round-up — and one I imagine Christopher would likewise enjoy. Keep the suggestions coming, and I'll definitely follow up. (I know Hans, for instance, especially since he's here in NYC…)

  • Brendan

    Do you think willits just triggers live video from an iPad straight? or maybe he uses something like TouchOSC with VDMX or Resolume. but thats a whole 'nother level. It would be so sick to see chris get into live visual editing as well.