Fusing Sound Design & Architectural Principles (Interview With Ténèbre)

From Sample Packs To Installations: Diversifying Musical Practice with Ténèbre

Ténèbre may be the model for many a music producer in the coming decade, with a career spanning traditional DJing and music production as well as commercial sound design in a variety of fields, including work for sample packs and sound libraries, digital art, stage sound and installations.

With a conceptual grounding based in architecture, he applies a variety of frameworks and methodologies to create sound and music when responding to the varying needs of his clients.

It can get academic at times, utilising software environments such as Grasshopper, Unity and Max, and drawing on concepts from architecture and acoustics. But at the core, he’s got a deep love of a good underground club banger.

What does your studio set-up consist of?

Ténèbre:​ It’s really very important to me that it’s the strict minimum because through the last past five years I was moving every six months from place to place, so I’ve really got to keep a very, very compact set-up. It’s a pair of speakers – Genelecs – and a Mac Pro.

I work in the box because I don’t have the option of collecting gear, so it’s really minimal. I use a Push controller and it’s pretty much the only hardware I use. When I DJ or I play hybrid-live I have the turntables of course, a Xone mixer, some pedals to add effects and a drum machine.

With respect to software tools, what are the main plugins or software instruments that you’re using?

T:​ Back in the day it was a lot of signal processing, a lot of sampling, resampling. I’ve dived a little bit deeper in synthesis. In synthesis, I’ve been working a lot with Serum, Massive X and Phase Plant recently. For processing, I try to have pretty good hardware emulation too. I’ve been working with the Slate tools a lot, Acustica more and more recently, yeah, I love their plugins.

For really creative stuff I’ve been working on my own drum racks and FX racks on Ableton. Most of the process is based on Ableton and I have a couple of obscure patches on Max that I use for sound processing and sample processing. It can be interesting, specifically for granular synthesis or time-stretching.

Are those patches in Max ones that you’ve built yourself or ones that you’ve found online? 

T:​ A little bit of both. I’ve had the opportunity to work with the great tools that are still in development at IRCAM here in France. There is one I’ve been using for a long time called CataRT. CataRT is kind of a granular synthesiser that is very interesting because you can move across very small grains within a corpus of descriptor-analyzed sounds, like brilliance, loudness, time or pitch. It’s called corpus-based concatenative synthesis, it’s very interesting stuff.

There is also physical modelling from the team who later became AAS – Applied Acoustics Systems. They were also a part of an acoustic team at IRCAM and they have really, really amazing physical modelling tools that I use. And after that I’ve been working a little bit on my own samplers and stretchers – that’s always interesting to use when I lack inspiration on a track, so I’m just going to run some of my own recordings through Max into Ableton, and that’s a really creative way of working.   

How did you start making content for commercial sound libraries?

T:​ Well, I don’t really know myself how I ended up there. It started years ago. A little bit before 2015 I was working in a production team and we were doing music for commercials and motion pictures. Some of my friends kept working in that industry but I didn’t. It’s a little bit weird to explain, but I think there was a cross-way there.

At some point, brands and commercials were looking for music that they could buy to sound like an artist. They wanted a track that is sounding like this or that, but through the years the artist price – the song price for commercials have been going down, so it has been more valuable for commercial companies to buy directly from the artist.

That part of business kind of faded away and into that there was the possibility of working on sample packs and I think that’s when everything took off. Sample Magic was growing steadily at that time. The big companies like Loopmasters were already pretty established, but I think the breakthrough was Sample Magic and now there is the new paradigm with Splice with the a-la-carte way of purchasing sounds.

I had a little bit of background with motion picture before, and I was doing my own stuff as a DJ and my sound was interesting to them, so I guess they were interested to have this type of sound in their libraries. I think that’s pretty much how I ended up working with those companies. It was pretty great because they were always really open to whatever I wanted to do, so I never had really any restraint creatively.

So they already had a strong idea of what your sound was and they didn’t have to give you too much creative direction or anything like that?

T:​ Yeah. Pretty much we set up a genre in particular for one release, for one sample pack. For instance, we’re going to say, “O.K., it’s going to be this genre and you’re going to range from that type of BPM and you can have, like, two or three, four different type of BPMs per pack.” After that you’re pretty free, doing pretty much everything you want and you can stick to your sound or you can even explore new tools and work on different types of things you want to do.

So far I’ve been doing most of – essentially I think it was techno packs or techno-oriented packs with four-four and broken techno, but, yeah, I guess they were really interested about working with an artist – they knew the type of sound I was doing.

What do you aim for when you’re making content for these sample packs?

T:​ In a way we have seen, as producers, the rise of new instruments shaping the history of music somehow, especially electronic music. So we’ve seen, for instance, Massive in the 2010s – we’ve seen that those kinds of tools really shaped the way electronic music was produced and it even gave birth to new genres and subcultures.

Companies are trying to emulate that kind of legacy they have on the market because an instrument like Massive, for instance, or Serum, has shaped the entire spectrum of bass-heavy music, electronic music or sound design in general. So it’s very important for companies to keep that in mind.

Like, can they still be on the lead of their sound being used to create new music? Being on the forefront of, “What’s the next sound?” you know, so that’s why they’re interested in niche markets and niche artists or underground artists, because even if it’s really underground, it could be able in the future to shape a new type of sound. But also I think it’s what artists want to do with their tools, because they want to keep a step ahead of everyone else.

So I guess those companies are looking for those producers who have either a unique sound or a unique perspective on how to work that they can tap into and propagate into a new genre or a new direction.       

T:​ Yeah, that’s my idea of it. I’m not known for doing any mainstream stuff – not that I wouldn’t like to do that – but the point is that companies know very well that when they are dealing with an underground artist they really want them to take advantage of their tools.

“Companies are trying to emulate that kind of legacy they have on the market because an instrument like Massive, for instance, or Serum, has shaped the entire spectrum of bass-heavy music, electronic music or sound design in general. So it’s very important for companies to keep that in mind.”
So when you’re working with these companies like Native Instruments, how do you integrate the feedback that you receive from them into your process of sound design?

T:​ What they do is they set a producer team per project, so you’re going to have five or six producers per preset project, for instance, and they’re going to have expansions for all their suite of instruments. I’m only working on Massive X, but I don’t know who has been working on FM8, for instance, I don’t know who’s working on Kontakt.

There’s a huge community on Reaktor – it’s kind of an obscure grey area where you don’t really know who’s behind a project, but I was quite surprised to see really big names working on those tools.

You have also very low-profile artists like me, so it’s kind of interesting. Like, you have a little bit the top end and low end at the same time, working on common territory.

Perhaps I can rephrase the question: In terms of criticism or guidance…

T:​ Like, the feedback?                   

Yeah, in terms of the people at those companies who have the final say on what goes into the presets or the samples that do get released, what guidance do they give you and how do you take that onboard?

T:​ Yeah, there is not that much guidance, there is a selection. So at the beginning […] I create a lot of content. I can do, like, a hundred presets, for instance, and they’re going to keep 50 percent of it, and after that, you refine.

You don’t really know what type of sound is really going to work, you don’t really know if it’s going to be “too edgy” or “too basic”. I think it depends on the product they want to showcase.

The fact that with a big company like Native Instruments is they’ve got – it’s difficult because they’ve got to talk to the very advanced users, at the same time they’ve got this door open for the mainstream because they’re going to do a lot of promotion for new producers, newcomers and kids that want to start with a Komplete, a small keyboard and the entire kit for a bedroom producer.

They’ve got to talk to those two very different profiles at the same time. So there’s not that much feedback. What I can say is that there is a selection that is being made, but to me, it has never been really explained why this type of sound is chosen and why this is not.

How does the workload compare and the pay compare between producing club tracks versus creating content for these sound libraries and sample packs?

T:​ This is day and night because you can have more work on doing sound design, but at least you’re going to be paid. You’re going to be paid for what you do because unless you’re a touring artist, you’re not going to make any money on producing club tracks until you reach a certain level of streams and sales.

I’ve been through all the scenarios so I can tell from experience. But now with the modern era of “streaming-only”, to generate revenue with a stream means that you’re going to need to hit probably a million views.

When an artist is generating a million views on his profile, though, it’s not just them and they most likely give a cut to major companies.

There is also “direct-to-fan funding”. You can do crowdfunding and Kickstarters and Bandcamp, that works pretty good, but you’re going to have expenses because you’re going to have to produce your own album, your artwork, your merch… If you want to do physical, do vinyl, it’s going to cost you a lot of money to only sell probably 300 to 500 copies at most.

Other than that, when you start to sell a little bit more than 1000 copies on vinyl it means that you are on a pretty well-established label and they take their cut on it.

With sound design, there is no comparison because – personally speaking – it gave me the independence to keep working on my music on the side without losing money.

If you are producing club tracks, your goal is to not lose money. If you’re working on sound design, if you’re working on your own tools, if you’re working with companies, if you’re working on sample packs, if you build your own tools, your own presets, it’s just going to be a lot of money that you’re going to get from this work that’s going to help your output. So it’s a win-win situation, right?

I’ve been through all the scenarios, the big label, small label, self-release, digital-only, stream – but at the end of the day, if you’re not generating revenue from touring, it’s very, very, very difficult to make a living.

What kind of arrangement or contract would a sound designer come to with sample library companies and that kind of thing?       

T:​ There are two types of contracts. You have a buy-out. They’re going to buy your entire pack for a certain amount of money, which can range from 1500 pounds to more, and you have royalties based contracts on sales on a 50/50 basis for the artist and the editor.

For presets, it’s a price per preset and all companies have different prices.

Native Instruments has obviously a higher price than a small editor, and if you are a third-party editor you would just do presets for a certain instrument. You’re going to have less per preset.

So it really depends on the profile of the instrument and the profile of the company because big companies like Native Instruments, they can pay the best sound designer to have the best factory preset pack, while you see that some editors, who are a little bit new on the scene, they don’t have so much budget to get their factory preset a good look

Can we talk a little bit about the software environments that you use in your installations and digital art? How do you make use of things like Unity and Max / MSP?   

T:​ So Unity is very new and this came in through the lockdown because I had the time to learn a thousand new things. I was always pushing back, “Oh, no, this is not the time,” but this was definitely the time to learn.

First off, everything started when I was working on stage design. A couple of years ago I started to work with some companies who were doing real-time light and visuals for stage and artists. You really want to have the lights going well with the sequencing.

So I had to switch on Ableton because Ableton had the ability, through Max For Live, to host Max patches. So that was the moment where I said, “O.K., I really need to learn Max,” and Max was really the first programming language I’ve ever experienced before. So it’s visual programming in Max and afterwards, you have Max For Live devices you can use and you can patch your own.

And most of the time what you’re going to use to link all different types of sensors for interaction – most of the time it’s not MIDI, you’re going to use what’s called Open Sound Control (OSC). It’s a protocol that is used among the professionals for show control.

You go through ethernet cables and most of the time you’re going to need to find a way to route your OSC signal from, like, let’s say, a Kinect or an Ableton Live parameter or a DMX address for lights, those kinds of things. They all have their own language so most of the time you’ll need to convert the data into OSC messages to communicate across devices. 

So, most recently, with the ability to script your own objects in Unity, you can actually send information back and forth through Max through this same OSC protocol.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with Unity, but Unity is a game engine using C#-based language and through C# you can edit your own scripts and then send data to whatever device.

There is not really a real-time audio engine inside Unity, so for me, it was really important to have Max as the audio engine of Unity. So, in that case, Max is really an essential part of being the brain behind all the operations.

So you’re connecting Unity and Max to use simultaneously for these projects so they communicate with one another quite seamlessly, do they?

T:​ Yeah. When I work with ExperiensS, for instance, Thomas, who’s the boss of the company, he works with software called vvvv, it’s another visual programming software.

And if we want vvvv to talk with Ableton, I’ve got to run OSC messages through Max, for instance.

So all the devices are going to communicate through Max using the OSC protocol and it’s a very, very common process in art installations, exhibitions, stage productions, showrooms, light design, audio-visuals, real-time visuals for VJing etc.

I hear that you hold an architecture degree. How do you relate concepts from other disciplines like architecture to your musical work?   

T:​ To me, there are two kinds of sound design. You have sound design, like, which is music design – you design music, you design presets, you design sample packs, but it’s a musical approach.

And you have, of course, sound design for films, sound design for video games, and foley, field recording…

But there is another type of sound design: putting sound at the centre of your design process, the same way that an architecture project makes you work on this entire design process based on plans, volumetry, terrain, the urban and the social context, project management.

So this approach of sound design as a design field is very different from the musical design, so I try to really differentiate the two processes and that’s why I think that is where I integrate the stuff I was doing in architecture in sound design, when I work on scenography and real-time audio for space, for showrooms and 3D audio.

This is where I’m going to just put the sound at the centre of my process. And in that way, it really helps you also to deconstruct the process behind composition, writing, mixing and mastering.

All these fade away and you have more room to conceptualise work on more intentionals, geometries, space.

I find it fascinating to think about sound from that other perspective – through the lens of a discipline such as architecture, where you’re conceptualising space, geometry and patterns, but in a three-dimensional kind of sense, in contrast with how a lot of people would typically think about music, I suppose, as either being linear in terms of a narrative, or two-dimensional in terms of stereo sound production.

T:​ Yeah, exactly, that’s exactly it, because we are used to this stereo experience and there is a lot of mixing and mastering trick wizardry. Producers are working with the ceiling as their limit, but if you tend to see the bigger picture, you can actually incorporate your design of sound into an entire artistic process.

Without space there is no sound, and without materials, there are no reflections. So it’s very important to take this into account and somehow forget a little bit the production side of music and the production side of music-making because it’s a totally different art.

Even though I love it and, yeah, I’m crazy about all the new techniques and mixing, mastering and stuff, but there is this entire field where you can break with those rules.

You have 3D audio (spatialisation, ambisonics…), real-time generative audio, you have non-linear composition, so it’s so much more to the experience.

J:​ And, finally, to wrap things up, what projects are you currently working on that we can look forward to hearing and seeing?

T:​ I have several EPs coming for Ténèbre, my techno moniker, a couple of collabs EPs here and there and on the side I’m also working on a full-length, so I’m hoping to finish that this summer. And on the personal side, I’m working on that project I showed you.

It’s a kind of a weird hybrid project between sound art and architecture where I’m trying to simulate sound architectures within a game engine. Mostly I work with virtual plates that I can emulate with physical modelling in Max, and I use Grasshopper, an algorithmic design software we use in architecture for form-finding related to the audio data.

I can then import my geometries into Unity to kind of give a simulation of what could be an architectural and sonic object inside a simulated acoustic space. I want to be able to showcase that type of installation within the 3D engine. So that’s a personal project of mine, a little bit crazy, but I get to deliver it by October, so I’m sure I’m going to be able to show some of my progress.

For the moment it’s at a very early stage because I needed to get into Unity. I needed to connect the different pieces of software together. It was really pretty difficult to make it all work at the beginning, but now I should be able to start the creative part of it, so it should be fun.

Yeah, I guess that’s the balance for anyone in a creative field between learning the skills and practising those skills, and then being at a level where they’ve got the ability to execute their ideas and those ideas may sometimes exceed our ability to realise them.

T:​ Yeah, it takes so much in the making. I mean, even if you just take into account the previous topics we’ve covered here – all the synthesis and preset-making and making a career with sound libraries – also requires a lot of experience and knowledge and a lot of failure or so. That’s very, very, very important, I think, because I’ve failed so much before.

You know, mixes and mastering that were crap and stuff that was not well-recorded, but, you know, experience is the sum of your mistakes, so that’s a very, very important sentence to always keep reminding.


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