Experimental pop duo Tauri explains how studying at CalArts led to a creative partnership that fuses sound design and songwriting.
"Are we ever gonna make it?" asks Tauri frontwoman Nicole Orlowski on "In The Dark." "Do we get what we deserve or just find a way to take it?" It's a question, a doubt, a provocation, an earworm hook — and the opening salvo for Bitwig Studio 4, as the project is included as a demo project (download here).
"In The Dark" demonstrates Tauri's strengths as a music production duo: Nicole's knack for direct and effective songwriting and Alex Monasterio's mastery of sound design. Their band is a collision between a lifelong pop fan with engineering chops (Nicole) and an arts high school dropout with a punk/hardcore background and music composition graduate (Alex). Their paths crossed at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in southern California, where Nicole honed her knowledge of live engineering and recording as a student in the Music Technology department and Alex studied Composition and Experimental Sound Practices.
Throughout their studies and personal exploration, Orlowski and Monasterio have learned to use a number of different DAWs — but they eventually settled on Bitwig Studio. The demo project illustrates how they used some of the features that sucked them in, like MPE integration and comping, which is new on version 4. But rather than putting words in their mouths, we'll let Tauri explain in their own words how Bitwig won them over.
What kind of audio production programs do they teach you at CalArts?
NICOLE: I was producing a little bit beforehand, but in GarageBand. I knew the basics, and then I learned most of it at CalArts. I think the first one that they taught is Ableton, and in my recording and studio engineering classes we used ProTools.
When I went to CalArts, Music Technology was my main focus. I pursued it because I wanted to be able to not have to rely on people to get my music out. I wanted to learn how to mix, master and produce it so that I could just make music and put it out and be self-sufficient.
But focusing on Music Technology felt like a weakness at the time, and I wanted to expand my knowledge. Then I fell in love with doing live sound. The energy and atmosphere is just the best. I think I would be willing to do anything just to be in a live show environment. Despite holding a few positions in the field, working in studios was never really my thing. When I was figuring out what type of work I wanted to pursue, live sound was the obvious choice.
ALEX: I wasn't in the software realm of things. I was in the music conservatory branch of the Music Department. I studied mostly music composition, like chamber music and stuff like that. There's this thing with colleges where all the people teaching there are either done with their careers, or they haven't worked in those worlds in a while, or they’ve come straight from academia. So there tends to be a shortage of newer stuff. It's more "Here's how things have been working." So it makes sense to teach ProTools in recording departments, because most of the old-school studios are still running it. As for me, I learned Sibelius and stuff like that.
I've learned quite a few DAWs at this point. I switched to Bitwig because one of my old work computers was barely running, so I switched it to Linux, and your choices for Linux DAWs are Bitwig and Reaper. I guess Ardor, too, but I've never used Ardor.
I think the thing I really like about Bitwig specifically, and what drew me to it, is that the entire software is kind of built around combining little components and building them up until you have a song. It feels like you're creating tools to address certain problems. I like being able to build solutions myself and have the tools to do that, rather than systems that are already built for you but very complicated. It just works for my brain.
Then I started writing the first track we wrote in Bitwig, which was "Never Wanna Be With You Alone." After that, I couldn't really justify going anywhere else. My biggest trouble, honestly, and probably most artists, is the idea of starting with a blank page. For whatever reason, with Bitwig I can get in there and start sound designing or playing around to get a starting point going. With comping in Bitwig Studio 4, that made it the one-stop shop for us.
“It's definitely a rare thing for me to find a software that aligns with my sense of productivity and organization and workflow in the same way that Bitwig does.”
Tell us about how you guys make music together.
ALEX: There's been tracks where like, I've taken it from start to finish, tracks where we've split it up and tracks where Nicole has done everything. We're trying to find some sort of standard for how we do things...
NICOLE: It's hard to tell who did what after a while. I will say that you do the sound design. I tend to do more of the melody and songwriting stuff. Most of the time, I’ll just improvise and play around until something I like starts to take shape. Other days I’ll have an idea of what I want to write about, jot down a couple sentences and try to find a melody that way. Of course, if I write starting with lyrics, the lyrics always end up changing. I let the melody dictate a lot. I like to either write on the piano or just sing to myself in the backyard until I come up with something I like. I think I end up finding my best melodies when I’m writing with nothing but my voice and my imagination.
ALEX: Nicole is normally the inception point. She creates the demo and the feel for the project. More often than not, she'll write something that resembles a little mini-song, we'll open it up on here and then just kind of remix it, basically.
You mentioned Bitwig Studio 4's new functions, like comping. What functions do you use the most?
ALEX: Obviously comping is big, but the biggest thing for me is the modular sound design aspects of it — specifically Polygrid. Being able to figure out algorithms for generative sounds inside of Polygrid is huge for me. MPE being used as a parameter to control anything is huge for me.
We did a cover of a Halsey song called "Clementine," and for the bassline — instead of having to automate all the modulation for weird wobbly basses, we did that inside of MPE and set it to which parameters we really wanted it to effect. The note-specific controls, and specifically the pitch modulation in there, is really helpful in terms of keeping organized. I'm super uptight when it comes to my projects being organized, so automation always really stressed me out. I tend to mess it up or move stuff around a lot. With MPE, the way it's more specific to the part rather than the track made it one extra step more modular and neat.
Let's talk about the song you made that’s Bitwig Studio’s new version 4 demo song, "In The Dark." When did you start making it?
ALEX: We were in the middle of working on "Clementine" when we started it. The idea was to make something that was for artists, because it was going to be listened to by people who were opening up a software for making art. We wanted it to be about, like, defining your own terms of success and figuring out what aspects of creation are worth it and not worth it. It kind of served as a vehicle for expressing how I feel as somebody who — I consider myself a musician, even though, in order to make that work, I've got a whole lot of other things that suffer for it.
NICOLE: It's an existential crisis of a song. I wanted the vocals to sound as good as they possibly could. There were several times we tried to record and I was like "Not yet. That's not it." I’ve become a bit of a perfectionist with my vocals.
When we first started releasing music, I had never professionally recorded any of my vocals. I was just using a little USB mic and had never completed a finished, “polished” song — I’m talking mixed, mastered, all of that. So it’s been a learning process and that’s kind of cool cuz people get to watch you evolve and grow as an artist. I just want the vocals on the next song to be better than the last.
ALEX: There's a reason that comping is a big deal for us. We work from sometimes up to 30 vocal takes compiled over a couple of days and slowly build stuff up. We used comping to record shakers, and we made the snare out of a bunch of pieces of celery Nicole was cracking. As things start to get really complicated in the project, I like to be able to keep my track in a way that I can still understand the composition on a visual level by looking at my Arranger, but still understand what's going on inside of each track at different levels of granularity.
It just makes sense for my workflow more than anything I've ever used. I'm a big software geek — I write a lot of code and do a lot of game design, and I work in Unity and Unreal all the time. It's definitely a rare thing for me to find a software that aligns with my sense of productivity and organization and workflow in the same way that Bitwig does. I guess it just feels really thoughtful and minimal in the right ways.
Load up the "In The Dark" demo project in full detail by Tauri by opening the Bitwig Studio Dashboard > Quick Start > Bitwig Demo Projects.You can also download the project file here.