Ireland-born musician and producer Brendan Gregoriy is known for his distinctive style of melodic house and techno under the alias of Chymera, with releases on influential labels such as Cocoon, Ovum and Delsin.
Gregoriy’s more recent, ambient productions under the pseudonym Merrin Karras reflect an evolution of his musical interests and processes: "With Merrin Karras it was more about making music that was similar to what I was listening to at home," he describes. "I came up with strict rules in the beginning. At first I would only use synths. There were no drums or percussion, and no samples; however that has changed over time.”
As part of this month’s XLR8R+ edition, the producer took us inside his new release as Merrin Karras, “Still Life”. We caught up with him on Zoom to discuss the inspiration and techniques used to produce the track – and he has kindly shared a download of his Live Set for a direct look into his process.
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Please note: this Live Set and included samples are for educational use only and cannot be used for commercial purposes.
Brendan, thank you for sharing such an interesting Live Set with us. Can you please tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the track?
When it comes to inspiration it really depends on my mood on any given day. With the music I have been making during the pandemic, it has ended up sounding either quite meditative or even a bit morose. Still Life has more of a meditative vibe; there are uplifting elements and a few melancholic components as well. I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from a YouTube channel called Sounds of the Dawn, which features a lot of rare, new age, jazz, and ambient cassette recordings from the 80s. There are a lot of synthesizer-based recordings featured, with someone making really beautiful music in their garage – these have definitely influenced my work in the last year.
When you began making this track did you start off in Live’s Session or Arrangement View?
I always begin in Session View and get a few loops going until I reach a point where I think there is a chance it could turn into a full track. When the time feels right I normally start recording things into the Arrangement View. This track actually started differently. Originally it was two different tracks that I merged together. The beginning section with the drone was nice, but I wanted the composition to move to a different endpoint, so I stitched it together with another sketch I had.
After starting his sketches in Session View, Merrin Karras moves into Live’s Arrangement View to develop a full track
You mentioned this drone that appears in the first track in your Live Set. It sounds like it may have been originally derived from field recordings of animals and birds. There is additional processing with the Spectral Resonator and Spectral Time devices in Live 11. How did you use these devices to craft this sound?
I wanted to have some kind of background texture going on in the track. The Spectral Devices are really good for that because you can completely mask the source material. First I down-pitched the audio and reversed it; then I was able to use the Spectral Resonator device to create these blurred harmonies that I could tune to a specific note. With the Spectral Time device I have used the Freeze function, which captures and holds a slice of audio. I have then enabled its frequency-based delay function, which gives the sound of that otherworldly echo and reverb-like effect.
Merrin Karras uses the Spectral Resonator and Spectral Time devices in Live 11 to create tuned harmonies and frozen, frequency-based delay effects
There is an expansive and eerie string section on track two. You have used Live’s Wavetable synthesizer, along with some MIDI effects, Spectral Devices, and Hybrid Reverb. Can you walk us through the steps leading up to this sound?
I remember when assigning an LFO to Osc 1 in Wavetable the sound took on a quality of someone going a bit nuts with a violin and sliding up and down with the pitch. The first three tracks in this project are more atmospheric and textural and I will often aim to position those kinds of sounds far in the background. To help achieve this, I used the Ableton Kantine impulse response within the Hybrid Reverb device, to make it sound really wide and washed out. I also used Random on this track, which is my all-time favorite MIDI device. In this case, I have set the device to generate random fifth notes with a chance of 50%, which means half of the time, the notes will be shifted up by seven semitones. There is also another instance of Random doing exactly the same thing, except it is set one octave higher. Then, I have used an instance of the Scale MIDI device set to Dorian Mode. I really liked how the notes within this mode interplayed with the rest of the track. With this combination of MIDI devices, I can generate all kinds of sequences that I would never be able to come up with otherwise.
Merrin Karras uses the Random and Scale MIDI Effect Devices in Live 11 to generate interesting melodies and patterns
On track three there is a stutter and glitch effect, applied to a sampled bowl that looks like it has been created with Live’s Arpeggiator device. How does this work?
I love using the Arpeggiator device, especially for these tracks. A lot of my Merrin Karras tracks don’t have much of a rhythmical pulse; some of them are quite droning. With these kinds of tracks, you can get really creative with any rhythmic elements you do decide to add, as they don’t have to follow the same tempo as the overall song. In this situation, I was able to set the Arpeggiator’s rate to Free, which means it no longer syncs to the song tempo and I can calibrate it in milliseconds. I have then automated the Arpeggiator’s rate parameter, which gives it that speeding up and slowing down effect. The sound itself comes from a bowl that I literally just struck in my kitchen.
You have used Live’s Wavetable synthesizer on track four again, to create a warm, evolving, and sustained tone. Especially interesting are the additional harmonic overtones appearing in the upper registers at regular intervals – can you describe how you achieved that?
If you check Oscillator 1 in Wavetable, I have loaded the Spectral 2 wavetable from the harmonics category and then assigned an LFO to its Wave Position; that is what is giving the effect of those random high harmonics you hear coming through.
A sustained Moog bass with some guitar amp emulation is introduced on track six. Did you record a real Moog for this?
Yes, that comes from a Moog Minitaur, which has a really nice heavy sub to it.
It looks like you may have used a hardware synth on track nine and recorded it into track ten. What synth did you use, and can you explain how Live’s Random MIDI effect helped you create this melody?
That track was recorded from my Sequential Prophet 6. In this case, I actually recorded the MIDI being generated from the Random device into a new MIDI Track. I then used that new MIDI part to trigger my hardware synth and recorded the results as audio.
On tracks 11 through 13 you’ve built up some harmonically rich, sustained chords. There’s an interesting use of Live’s Chord MIDI device on track 12. How did this device help you with this section?
I like to double up pads. As you can see, on all those tracks I have different pads playing the same MIDI notes. On track 12 I have a Chord MIDI device generating an extra fifth note (seven semitones). I use fifths all the time, they always sound so good.
How about that otherworldly modulated pad sound on track 13? Is there anything you can tell us about it?
That sound comes from the Sound Objects pack by SonArte which is a collection of sampled objects typically found in a hardware store. In this project, I have bounced the part down to audio, but I have left the original MIDI part in Track 14 below it, in case anyone wants to get the pack or try their own sounds.
A wonderfully intricate sounding Instrument Rack appears on track 16, containing some Sampler patches and an instance of Wavetable. How did you put this one together?
If you look inside the Instrument Rack there are two instances of Sampler in the chain, each containing recordings of me plucking notes on a guitar. I have looped short slices of the guitar notes in Sampler and set the Sustain Mode to Loop Back and Forth, which gives it a pad-like effect. It reminds me of that Steve Reich kind of vibe. Last in the chain is another pad sound coming from an instance of Wavetable. I have used Hybrid Reverb and Echo devices to add some additional depth and space. I really like this technique of using short notes over pads, it often has an interesting effect.
Merrin Karras uses an Instrument Rack in Live 11 to layer sampled and looped guitar notes over ethereal synth pads
An instance of the Wavetable synthesizer is being driven by some Max for Live MIDI effects on track 17. You have used the Mono Sequencer device together with two instances of Live’s Random MIDI device. Can you explain the effect this combination of devices is having on the MIDI signal?
Mono Sequencer is one of my favorite Max for Live devices. It makes it very easy to program these interesting sequences that you can turn into more elaborate evolving ones if you want to. You can set different lengths for all of the individual data lanes like Pitch, Velocity, and Octave, but in this case, I have set them all at 12 steps. I have added two Random devices like before, but this time I have set the Chance values a little lower; this has the effect of bumping occasional notes up by either an octave or a fifth.
Your sustained Moog bass makes a departure at bar 193 and on track 20 you introduce a new bass sequence at bar 219. Was that recorded from the Moog again?
Actually, for this one, I used the Monark software synth by Native Instruments, which is a clone of the Minimoog. The sequence itself is recorded from the Mono Sequencer on track 17.
In the final tracks 22 – 26, it appears you have used a combination of four different kits to build a rich, organic drum and percussion bed. Can you tell us a bit about your process, where you found the right sounds, and how you went about drum programming?
I am not that good at finger drumming or anything like that, so most of my drum programming is done by clicking the computer mouse. Maybe this speaks to the impetus behind Merrin Karras because I didn't use any drums originally; drum programming is probably not my strongest point. For this track, I wanted simple repeating patterns. To add a little more life and movement I used the Velocity MIDI device to alter some of the note velocity values in a random manner. One of the kits in this group of tracks is from the Arsenal pack by SonArte and the other three come from the Cinematic Percussion pack by ProjectSAM. Again, for the purposes of this project, I have bounced these tracks down to audio, but I have kept the MIDI tracks below, in case anyone wants to get the packs or experiment with other sounds.
Lastly, on the master track, you have added a Master Bus Effects Rack. Is this something you configured yourself?
This is an Effects Rack I made myself. It contains Live's Utility, Glue Compressor, and Limiter devices. I am not a mastering engineer, so all I want to do is bring the loudness of the track up to a similar or relative volume of other tracks. I don't go brutal on taming the peaks and I don't tend to use compressors all that much in my music, I'm only doing some basic processing here. For anything deeper I leave it to the mastering engineers – that is their job.
Brendan, this has been an exceptionally interesting Live set to dive into, with so many layers of rich harmonies and advanced sound design techniques. What is next for Merrin Karras and when can we hope to hear more new material from you?
I have an album called Silent Planet that was released last year on A Strangely Isolated Place as digital-only, which will now come out on vinyl. The release date is still TBC as we are always at the mercy of the pressing plants with these things. I am also working on new material that will eventually go towards the next new Merrin Karras album. Other than that, right now I am just experimenting and trying to grab as much spare time as I can to keep making music in these strange times.
Keep up with Merrin Karras on Facebook, Twitter, and A Strangely Isolated Place
A version of this article appeared on XLR8R+.