Holly Herndon thinks electronic music should sound like it’s “alive and breathing”

“It gives electronic music a more organic sound”, the Tennessee-born artist explained.

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Holly Herndon

Image: Boris Camaca

For Holly Herndon’s third full-length studio album, PROTO, the electronic avant-garde composer has recruited the help of not only humans collaborators, but also Spawn, her AI child. She tells us more about what’s it like working with a complicated and interesting form of technology…

Make your own AI

As advanced and experimental as this all sounds like, Spawn still has to exist physically, Herndon explained. Spawn’s body, if she can be described as having one, is a souped-up gaming computer – basically, a GPU housed in a tower with a sound card and a cooling system connected to wifi.

Don’t expect your new AI collaborator to respond to you immediately, though. Even with today’s super-fast computer technology, rendering time is a factor. Herndon jokingly calls this lag “the render gap”.

Mutating your music

“I try to have the sound evolve. The thing that drives me crazy is that when people set up one effects chain and it’s usually on a voice – that’s what I’m most obsessed with. Like when people put one delay sound on the voice and they’d be content. I’d say ‘no’. Each moment of the song could have a different process. It doesn’t have to be the same. It could be like moving in and out or have an interesting chain that’s constantly evolving and shifting. You could automate some of it with LFOs or with automation on a timeline,” she recommends.

Herndon also endorses getting under the hood with your software, suggesting: “Have something that sounds like it’s alive and breathing, it gives electronic music a more organic sound. If you have access to some kind of software that allows you to customise, that will help you get a sound that’s not the same as everybody else. You don’t have to be the best programmer in the world, but if you don’t program at all, then come up with an idiosyncratic effects chain, not using presets, that’s creating a new timbral world for you.”

Fundamentally, combining the unusual with the relatable is an approach Herndon advocates: “If you can do some programming, you can open up whatever processing unit you’re using and change it or build your own. You could even add some of yourself to it, so that it’s not just this out-of-the-box sound. Then that can be combined with things that are more familiar. Not every aspect of the production has to be alien. You can use an 808 kick and maybe have a Foley recording for the hi-hats. You can mix these things up.”

Read our full interview with Holly Herndon here.


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