In electronic music references to science and technology are ten a penny. Right from Kraftwerk’s 1975 album Radioactivity, arguably one of the founding pieces of early electronic pop music, science has understandably been one of the key fascinations of much of modern techno culture. From the Mad Professor, to Dopplereffekt, artists have often imagined themselves as scientific geniuses delving into the fundamental elements of the universe to bring you the most mind melting, booty shaking sounds. This week for Creative Technology? I spoke to someone who doesn’t need to pretend when it comes to the meeting of science and electronic music.
By day Scientific Dreamz Of U spends his time studying a PHD on the magnetic properties of nanostructures, working with lots of crazy machines that look like they’re off the set of Dr Who (I’ve been round his labs so I can verify this). But in his spare time he produces hypnotic electronic sounds incorporating trance, EBM and psych but blending them with modern techno aesthetics, with releases on the likes of Tabernacle, Bokhari and 1080p. I sat down for a chat with Jack, AKA SDoU to talk about his relationship with both the instruments he works on in the lab and the machines he uses in his studio and how they influence his creative process. We also have a few choice images from his beloved electron microscope.
What is your relationship with your studio? Do you have an emotional attachment to the gear and the space or is it just a tool to allow you to express your ideas?
For me the studio is a really soothing place with great memories attached, knowing that I’ve got an uninterrupted day ahead in it is one of my favourite feelings. There is certainly a lot of love for some of the bits in there, balanced a bit with mild rage towards others (I’m coming for you slightly-too-small drum machine table).
When you’re not producing music you’re studying for a PHD in physics, surrounded by electron microscopes all sorts of other scientific machinery. It seems that machinery and technology is pretty ingrained in your psyche?
The machines in my laboratory at work are some of the coolest things you can imagine, the electron microscope that I operate is pretty breath-taking when you step back and look at how it actually works, also the ‘magnetic force microscope’ which allows you to look at the magnetic field structures of tiny nanostructures (I specialise in little magnetic wires about 20-30 atoms thick).
I have a definite affinity with various gizmos and machines, but a completely different relationship with my scientific equipment than with my music gear. The scientific stuff is research-grade, which means that you can typically fiddle with every last minute aspect of the system’s function, but if you don’t know what you’re doing it will very rapidly stop functioning. A lot of my time at work is spent wrestling the machines into the delicate parameter states where they will actually function properly at all. As a result it’s a very exacting process with often about 90% of the time spent setting things up and 10% actually running experiments.
The music gear on the other hand is produced as a consumer product, meaning that they’re generally relatively ‘idiot-proof’ and you can spin all the knobs more-or-less however you want and they’ll still function. This is a really welcome relief after coming home from the lab and one of my favourite things to do is try to push audio gear into doing things it wasn’t intended to. The two processes (scientific equipment and music stuff) are thankfully worlds apart and serve as a nice relief/contrast to each other.
Your music is often very intense and hypnotic. The kind of thing you can lose yourself in. Do you try to lose yourself in your machines when you’re working or are you using them in a precise and considered way to realise your ideas?
As described above, the majority of my time is spent in an experimental Physics lab, where you have no real choice other than to work in an extremely precise and controlled manner. As a result, I like to try to keep my music practice relatively impressionistic/emotionally-loose to try and inject a much-needed bit of colour into things outside of the monochrome world of science. After enjoying this approach a lot for my first few records, I’ve been trying to introduce a little more subtlety and finesse into production to try and challenge myself/keep things fresh. It’s going nicely but taking a long time to properly get my head around, hence the slower release schedule recently.. Sorry Patrick!! (record coming soon).
How much does happy accident play a part in your creative process both in the studio and also in your work on your PHD?
Happy accidents are a constant theme throughout my science and music practice. The main focus of my PhD came about while trying to do something completely different. We kept seeing weird stuff which we initially wrote-off as the equipment malfunctioning, but on closer examination turned out to be a really interesting phenomenon which solved a problem that researchers had been struggling with for a while. Result!
Music-wise the same stuff happens regularly; you may have a specific idea of what you want to write or a certain element you want to introduce to a composition. In the process it often turns out that you don’t really know exactly how to execute that idea, and as you try to work it out other more interesting things present themselves by accident which turn out to be the focus of the track.
Is there too much idolisation and mythologising of classic gear, or do we correctly revere the machines that have shaped the music that we love?
I think that there is definitely an over-fetishisation of certain bits of gear. This comes in the form of massively over-inflated prices which people queue up to pay and a reduced tonal palette as people stick the same recognisable machines all over their compositions. I’m partial to the odd classic sound for sure, they typically become well-loved for a reason, but also have a lot of fun searching ebay for less fashionable studio bits. For example, all of the late 80’s/early 90’s digital ROMpler synths (think Enya/New Age dolphin communication soundtracks) which were technologically ground-breaking and cost thousands when they came out can now be had for £50-100, just because they’re not considered ‘cool’ at the moment. I think that they’ll become our generation’s equivalent of the oft-romanticised £50 pawn shop TR-808/TB-303, along with maybe some of the early virtual analogue bits. I also think there’s an unhealthy disdain for VST’s, which rule.
And now for a little electron microscopy...
SDoU: These first two images are diagnostic scans taken in a scanning electron microscope (SEM) at the focusing stage. An SEM is very similar to an old cathode-ray tube TV, you have a thin beam of electrons shooting through a vacuum which are steered by magnets to trace out an image
SDoU: When setting the system up, you need to be sure that the shapes of the magnetic fields are well-aligned and symmetrical. In an electron microscope the magnets act as the lenses, if they're a mess then your image will be blurry and useless. We use spheres of Tin deposited on a Carbon film to look at while focusing the SEM. Tin really hates touching carbon, so it rolls itself up into a sphere to minimise the contact area. This gives us really nice round dots to image and check everything's working properly.
SDoU: This is a close up of a silicon wafer. We use silicon as a base to make our nanostructures on. Usually it's super smooth and boring to look at, but at its edges where we've cut it you get a glimpse into the interior crystal structure of the silicon. It looks super cool and I often waste valuable time on the expensive equipment gazing into the crystal abyss.
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