‘My process actually begins with writer’s block’: Talking Tech with WeTurnToRed

Before adopting the WeTurnToRed moniker, Shamanta Chandran was a singer. Classically trained in the traditions of opera and vocal jazz, Shamanta’s deft musicality translates across her machines. The Toronto artist signed to MSTRKRFT’s Oro Records imprint and has gigged industriously around the city. Propelled by inquisitiveness and an affinity for hands-on experimentation, her continued exploration of analog synthesizers has output percolating jak-tracks, refined techno and sequencer-led kosmiche. 

Having spent time with an impressive array of vintage gear, including a large-format moog modular and the Synton Fenix, an esoteric modular synthesizer beloved by Coil, Chandran developed a particular love for modular synthesis. Her current setup is based around a Eurorack-format modular, which allows for an incalculable amount of flexibility and spontaneity compared to fixed architecture synths. 

In our conversation, Chandran gives us an insight into her personal history and creative process, talking about translating the potential of specific modules into music, the jaw-dropping studio that served as her introduction to synthesis, and her inspirations.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music? 

It all started with a microphone and GarageBand, but it wasn’t mine. It belonged to a former roommate who was a singer. It was simple and exactly what I needed to channel my inner grime.  But it’s hard to describe my first set-up without acknowledging where I learned how to make electronic music in the first place. Initially, all I wanted to do were vocals like Tracy Thorn or MC Tali, writing and singing to some sweet beats about love, ecstasy, and you know, being horny in your 20s. Let’s just say there was a tiny spark that was lit and never ended.

In 2008, I was introduced as a vocalist to producer Z. It was in his studio that I discovered the abyss of the analog and modular world. This basement studio was stacked. A collector of vintage synthesizers and drum machines, the space was covered from floor to ceiling with knobs, buttons, wires, and synths. The only visible wall space was for the light switch. I had no idea what I had walked into, but I knew I wanted to know more. 

This place became my foundation of modular synthesis and my introduction to the Toronto synth community. I was hungry to learn more and went deep into all the manuals. With Z’s mentorship, we created many beautiful tracks over the course of 10 years.  It was a synth lovers fantasy come to life. I was fortunate to have laid my hands on an original Moog modular system, Serge system, the Synton Fenix, Linn drum and 707 through to 909. Name it, he had it, I learned how to use it and loved it (see “I Dream of Wires” trailer at 0.25 sec for some ultimate knob tweaking). It felt like a synth oasis and I was able to borrow pieces like an electronic library. My first piece was the Roland TR 606. Let’s just say it was an old skool piece. I remember it having a thick layer of duct tape to hold the batteries in place along with other quarks which made it even more fun to tinker with. This was also my foundation to the chaotic world of random power adaptors and vintage gear. My favorite borrowed set-up combo was the MonoPoly and ARP 2600 booming through my KRK Rockets. Braaap!

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

A sale at Moog Audio, Toronto (RIP). I purchased the components for my first Eurorack system and a Beatstep PRO to support my live performances.

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components? 

What I have here is a pretty standard set-up when I play live. With the MC-707 as the main brain and Beatstep PRO driving the Eurorack system. There is a 3rd sequencer that I like to use for filter/pitch to create randomized movement to liven things up and the Vermona DRM1 MKIII analogue module drum synthesizer for added grimy percussion. The KNAS Spring reverb produces a rich output and now-and-then I smack the exposed springs to bring on the thunder.

Where is it located, and do you share with anyone else?

Right now, it is in the den of my pie in the sky loft in the East End of Toronto. I share it with my husband who is also a talented music enthusiast. Just like children we each have our own favorites that we spend more time with. Our brains are wired differently. He doesn’t touch the mods. 

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

Balancing the aesthetic for a multi-purpose room for various functions is challenging.  The main puzzle in creating this space is trying to jam bulky gear in a small area which also doubles as a guest room with a pull-out couch. The non-musical touches like our large painting act partially as a baffle and visual inspiration. Near and dear to me, is a tiny baby Ganesh (the remover of obstacles) playing the violin carved in stone. Sometimes I carry the baby Ganesh statue in my pocket for good luck during my live PA or DJ performances. And of course, Yoda and a Jawa are a great audience.

What’s been your method for creating this studio? 

Creativity in chaos.

Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? 

I’d say it’s been a gradual accumulation, combined with an amalgamation of gear with my partner. 

Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

A jasper keyboard stand really helped get everything off the floor.

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change? 

Yes, not necessarily adding equipment but playing Tetris with what I already have and refining the functionally of the space.

If money were no object what would you add?

A larger room to fit a GenoQs Octopus sequencer. It is my favorite sequencer I got to use in the basement synth oasis. It’s that matrix grid and how it’s all laid out. The logic of the sequencer speaks to me and its aesthetically pleasing to the eye and touch. It’s big, blue, and bitchin’.

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

I can’t only choose one piece. But I’d say one of my most treasured is the Radel Digi 100. It is a digital tabla, mainly used for Carnatic singers to practice when they don’t have a tabla or mridangam player by their side. With a touch of reverb and delay the sound transports me to the temples in Tiruchirappalli, Southern India, or the Siwalik Hills in the North. 

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets? 

The key word here is “condense” which is something I hadn’t done since a chaotic live performance.  Performing on a light wooden stage, the sub bass, modular and kick severely vibrated the floor, causing the 808 to drift in time/sync. Throwing everything out of time, it took numerous attempts to reel it in….it didn’t. I was gutted. I was embarrassed. I cried. BUT, I learned ALOT. Lifting my spirits were Jesse F. Keeler (MSTRKRFT), who gave me a high five after explaining what happened and Tiffaney Haddish’s comedy special talking about how she bombed at her NYE show. It inspired me to rethink my set-up and consult with the synth community (thanks Butterworth, Dustin, Jay and KTA) and purchased the MC 707 Groovebox. It’s been smooth sailing…so far.

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

Go for a walk, sun salutations, shot of tequila.

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

I usually start with a simple drum pattern and bassline and build from there.

What’s your musical education?

I started singing at a very young age in choirs, vocal and piano lessons, attended a performing arts school studying classical vocal and jazz… Musical theater nerd with a minor in Music (UofG)

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

There have been times where I have laboured over a track. Trying to find the right kick, snare etc., Agonizing if the mods are in tune? Or not. If it was okay if they weren’t. A lot of tracks throughout the years were shelved for this reason. However, the past few years I’ve taken a raw approach. Perhaps this is because I have been composing more music for live performances.

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writers block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

I think my process actually begins with writer’s block. Trying to translate the ideas of what is in my head into the gear and out through the board is like unravelling the Matrix. Sometimes I like to reset by going for a walk for a change in environment. Other times I say to myself “today is not the day” and turn everything off! Revisit the next day, or two.

What inspires you outside the world of music? 

My whole life I’ve been split between two worlds. Outside of music, science and healthcare is my passion. As a South Asian immigrant, I wanted to be a doctor growing up but also an opera singer. I was torn between these two worlds of wanting to focus on a career in health sciences or dedicate my life to music. For years I felt like I had to make a choice between one or the other.  As a young child I remember my father playing Spanish guitar almost every day. But then he stopped for about 20 years and picked it back up at the age of 60. He is hardcore now; plays daily and performs with his guitar collective in random coffee shops or online. This really resonated with me. It made me realize that whatever it is I’m doing, music is in my soul. The Libra in me tried to find the balance between the two. By day I am implementing equitable funding policy to the chronic dialysis population in Ontario, and by night I like to throw down badass booty beats, in my creative lab.

Another big inspiration, especially during the pandemic is my diverse network of talented friends that lift each other up every. Looking at you Forsythia + Misfit, Capp, EWS crew, VJ, Rose, Whitewolf and The Spade.

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new EP, and why?

For my debut EP, Smoked Glass it was the Waldorf NW1 and Intellijel Shapeshifter that laid most of the groundwork. I used these modules as part of a live performance back in December 2020, and recorded the set on multiple tracks to use as a foundation towards composing the EP. What I love most about the Shapeshifter is the CHORD mode where you can produce fat luscious and percussive chords that cut through the “bloop blop bleeps”.

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

I’ve been working on another EP for Toronto label Cosmic Resonance. I’m hoping to indulge in a bit more experimentation while brushing up on my vocals and use of samples which I’m really excited about. This EP will sharpen me up for my next show scheduled for late this year. 

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