Paleman: “With modular, the excitement comes from the collaborative experience of the machines and the human”
Find out what’s in Paleman’s modular setup, and how he used it to make his signature subtle techno sound featured on debut album Veiled
Paleman – real name Calum Lee – is renowned for creating deep, hypnotic and raw techno. In fact, his whole life seems steeped in never-ending layers of tense and sonically stirring electronic textures.
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Lee doesn’t just release music under one moniker as Paleman, the name once associated with the UK bass cult favourite record label Swamp81. In recent years, he’s dived into another love of his – TV and film – creating soundtracks under the name Fresnel Lens. Aside from his explorations into soundtrack territory, though, his well-executed debut album Veiled is still as typically Paleman as ever – “dancefloor music, for clubs and headphones driven by minimal percussion and high quality textural sound design and informed by momentum and rhythm”, he says.
We speak to Paleman about why he’s invested so much into modular and how he uses his stunning setup to create everything from swirling atmospheres to microtonal percussive stabs. He also tells us about his ever-updating list of favourite gear, as well as what things keep him motivated and “grounded” in the studio.
Tell us about Veiled, Paleman.
I wanted the LP to be a representation of Paleman, not Calum and not Fresnel Lens. The album is dancefloor music, for clubs and headphones driven by minimal percussion and high quality textural sound design and informed by momentum and rhythm. I think this theme and thread has always been one of the driving forces behind my Paleman work. So, instead of attempting to show all sides of my musical work with the album, I chose to condense what Paleman is about right now.
You’re a man of modular. What excites you about modular gear?
With modular, the excitement for me comes from the collaborative experience of the machines and the human. Sometimes you can’t fully control or decide what happens, you can set boundaries for the machine to roam, but it will roam. This unpredictability has been really refreshing and it sometimes feels like the modular synth is offering suggestions I would never have considered. It feels like a musical accomplice, with its own mind sometimes and its own vision. I also love the sound quality, and the tactile satisfaction of patching and wiggling stuff. The learning curve is definitely worth it – there are tons online now to learn, and you can always start small.
Are you more of a hardware-based producer or do you combine hardware and digital instruments, effects and processors?
At this moment in time, I’m about 85% hardware. I record almost everything that you hear in these tracks, and the EQing and effects are part of the recording chain too.
However, I do work in the box, too. I love the unfiltered audio stuff – Soundtoys, fab filter and the usual suspects. Some of the more complex tweakable reverbs and granular stuff in the box are a joy to use, and layering it on top of a treated analogue recording is lovely. Digital and analogue shine in different areas.
Tell us a bit about the studio and its vibe.
I just moved back down to London after relocating to Manchester for a couple of years post-pandemic. I’ve been here a week. I love working in my house so I’ve set up my studio in a spare room here. I’ve worked in studios outside the house in years gone by but I think I might be an introvert so I feel most comfortable and happy working at home.
Acoustics can be an issue, and one day I hope to build a treated room in a more long-term home. For now, though, I measure the room with a high-quality mic and software and so I’m able to just about work around any acoustic issues (within reason of course). The idea is a space where I can create, be comfortable, focus and relax, and express myself.
I like to be alone when I work. I have art around the room at various points. There’s some work by two of my favourite tattoo artists, Robert Ashby and Saint Molotov, their work always puts me in a space that reminds me of who I am when I’m feeling a bit unsure – reminds me what I like, or something like that. I guess it’s grounding. I find visual art really inspiring. I’ve got a toy shark, too.
How do you use your studio?
All my work is done in my studio. The layout is designed so I don’t have to think too much to capture an idea. I have six channels for multitracking the various machines in the studio then I layer on top.
Which DAW do you use and why?
I use Apple Logic Pro X and have done for about eight years now. I began on Reason 4 then I had a close friend highlight to me that (at the time) Reason was restricting me.
What is your favourite piece of gear and why?
That’s a tough question. It really depends on what I’m doing. I suppose I can slightly avoid a direct answer by saying that all my favorite pieces of gear seem to offer a shift in perspective when you work with them. For example, I use the Lyra-8 by SOMA labs a lot for my Fresnel Lens work, and also as textural drone stuff in the background of Paleman tracks. When I use the Lyra-8, I think differently – it’s laid out and performed in such a way that you enter a new headspace when working with it. Some of these exceptional instruments even move me to think about life a bit differently from how the synth is laid out, what it suggests to you from it’s layout and design choices, the implications of the reasoning behind its layout and circuit design. From ultra simple origins to infinite complexity, kind of like the Universe in some ways. It’s profound really.
I’ve been working with the Tip Top Audio Buchla 200 series reissue system a lot recently too – an amazing instrument that again inspires and provokes you to view yourself, your choices and how you use it in a profound way.
I couldn’t live without the OTO BAM reverb either… too many to mention!
What synth or effect can be heard the most on Veiled?
There’s a lot of distortion from the OTO BOUM, valves all over the final mixdowns from the Thermionic Culture gear, and OTO BIM delays. I used a lot of low pass gates for the percussion and complex VCOs like the Make Noise DPO. There’s modular, OTO machines and analogue EQ and compression all over the album.
Tell us about how you build tension on Ravine using sound design and atmospheric sounds?
For the main percussion line in Ravine, its very subtly phasing. The white noise line behind it is phasing too through an AJH phaser in the modular. The drones are wavetables, slowly moving and shifting into reverb. There’s distortion subtly spread throughout the track, which contributed to a sense of urgency and toughness in the mix. Some Lyra-8 drones were very very quietly layered in there too. Subtle delays on the percussion buried in the mix add width and atmosphere without removing focus.
How do you coax percussive elements out of your modular gear?
I use low pass gates a lot – FMed VCOs into LPGs, the classic Buchla bongo patch but rammed into distortion and effects to create an almost war drum type feeling. I have a few 808, 909 modules and a sampler too where I mangle recordings from the machines into more percussive elements.
I like to create percussion myself – things that resemble percussive instruments but aren’t directly sampled from them.
Tight fast delays, and Karplus Strong synthesis works wonders for creating hats, or more toppy elements, too.
There’s a feeling of swelling, hypnotic psychedelia in tracks such as Procession. How do you create this?
The main line in Procession is kind of out of tune. I’ve studied microtonality a fair bit, although not to the level of the experts! That concept informed the idea a bit, but I have to confess that the line in Procession was done by ear as opposed to adhering to an established microtonal tuning system.
The grey areas between pitches, instruments, rhythms and textures are particularly evocative for this psychedelic feeling. It’s almost like audio optical illusions – something is never quite settled. Its two things at once, or none.
What is next on your shopping list studio-wise and why?
That’s a dangerous question! I’m looking forward to seeing what Tip Top Audio bring out next in the Buchla Eurorack series and i’m looking into some hardware based Granular stuff too. To be honest, i’m also leaning more and more into compositional tools in the box, string libraries and stuff at the moment as I work on more and more film projects.
If you were left on a desert island, what one item would you take with you to make music with forever?
Right now I’d probably take something from SOMA labs – my Lyra-8 to jam around on forever or even the Ether, and a few batteries. The Ether is a wide band receiver that makes it possible to perceive the electromagnetic landscape around you. Maybe if I knew I was getting picked up, and had a way of recording I could make an album based around the electromagnetic landscape of the island…
What is your top piece of production advice?
In practical terms: practice, imitate, research and repeat. Keep learning, keep pushing and asking others and yourself questions. Try to move outside your comfort zone. Take inspiration from ideas beyond music and see how that informs your musical work. If you write a certain style, try to learn another style and you’ll pick up something new.
On a more philosophical level, I think learning to listen critically is a valuable skill that takes a long time. Stop hearing what you want to hear and start listening to what’s actually coming out of the speaker.
What is the one piece of advice you would give someone starting out building a studio, particularly a modular setup?
I think start small, really learn a handful of things inside out and possibly have a rough idea of what you want from your set-up, you don’t have to know everything you want, but a vague idea of what you want the machines to do that you can’t do already will kickstart the process. Some will work and some won’t – give it time and start slow. Learn at your own pace.
You can listen or buy Veiled by Paleman via the artist’s Bandcamp.
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