From Music-X to Bitwig Studio: The electro veteran talks about his music-making journey.
Carl Finlow rode the wave of a revolutionary period in the interaction of music and technology. His body of work across aliases and collaborations like Voice Stealer, Silicon Scally, IL.EK.TRO and Scarletron dates back to the 1990s, but he's been active as a producer since the 1980s. Back then, Finlow experimented with classic electronic instruments and recording equipment like a Juno-106 and a Sinclair Spectrum computer. By the end of the decade, he was using Sysex messages and the early proto-DAW Music-X to hack into primitive Roland boxes like the MT-32. He soon graduated to Macs, Cubase and a fully-stocked analog hardware studio as the dance music explosion of '90s England took over his life. He started to throw parties in Leeds with Daz Quayle and Andrew Weatherall, who turned him on to the style he would become most known for: electro.
By the turn of the century, Finlow had made a name for himself as a producer — and then he promptly sold all his gear. Developments in personal computing promised a brave new world of fully digital music production, and Finlow wanted to dive in. For the next 17 years, he worked fully in the box.
Recently, a new audience hungry for electro brought demand for Finlow to new heights. For Finlow, this was the perfect opportunity to overhaul his music production and live performance processes once again, this time by diving into Bitwig Studio. Speaking from his home in the south of France, Finlow explains the reasons behind the transition, the creative benefits he's enjoyed from the experience, and how witnessing technological progression over time shapes your perspective.
That was an unusual thing for me to do because I've always been… not secretive about what I do, but it's the first time I've allowed the camera to be open in the studio and to discuss the way I do things. I've been doing this so long, I thought it was time to share a bit more.
It can go both ways. There are legitimate arguments for withholding and sharing creative processes, but of course the latter is strongly encouraged these days.
Funnily enough, I think deciding to do it had something to do with getting into Bitwig. I'd used Live for 17 years, and prior to that I was with Cubase. I've been making music on a computer since 1986. My first was a little Sinclair Spectrum paired with a Juno-106. Then I moved on to more professional equipment. It's good to have a change, to give yourself new challenges and ways of approaching music, especially because I've been doing this so long. I'm always looking for new ways to approach it. Since what I do seems to be gaining more popularity, I need to continually move forward. Regardless, electro should be a very forward-looking style.
Bitwig offered me many new and interesting ways of doing things. But changing DAWs after such a long time was quite a bold step to take because I'm doing really well at the moment. I've got a lot of work on, and it seems kind of suicidal jumping ship at this point when everything is rolling along nicely. But COVID hit and the wheels fell off everything for most people. All of a sudden I had all this time on my hands when things weren't mission-critical. So ultimately it wasn't so problematic to jump ship and try a different DAW.
Because I was in that frame of mind and I was discovering all these new ways of working, it coincided really nicely with the invitation from John [Selway] to share what I do. I thought, "Well, this is a very interesting period for me because I'm radically changing." The timing seemed right to share what I do and also make it a point of interest to other people out there who might be in a similar situation, because you get stuck in a rut doing the same thing year in year out. It was an interesting way of showing that change is doable. The transition actually worked out super easy for me, which was one of the things I was so happy about. It wasn't as hard as I thought by any means.
As you've alluded to, this isn't the first transition to your workflow that you've undergone. How has your studio setup and approach to making music changed over the years?
I lived in Paris for about 15 years, and during all that time, I had one computer for making music. I didn't have a studio. I didn't have keyboards — no hardware at all. We left Paris, moved down to the south of France, and we've got a nice big house here. So now I finally have a room that I've been able to dedicate to a studio. I've been able to get back into buying drum machines, synths — all the sorts of hardware — and trying to integrate that with software.
I hadn't touched a MIDI cable since the '90s. When I was living in the north of England, we had an amazing setup with everything you could imagine: Polymoog, Linn Drum — you name it, we had it. Fully hands-on, fully analog, fully MIDI. I spent the best part of the '90s on that side of things, then all through the 2000s up to 2015 I was totally digital. So I'd spent a long time on one extreme and then the total opposite with just a little Mac.
Now I've come to a hybrid setup. Getting back to the MIDI side of things, I was starting to plug in machines again and realizing that I didn't even have certain cables — I'd forgotten about things like S-trig cables for my Moog and stuff like that. But I started almost immediately running into MIDI jitter and a timing shakiness that I hadn't experienced before.
In the '90s, we had really simple computers that dealt with MIDI rock-solidly. Computers back then didn't have much else to do. They pale in comparison to what we have now. Now the computers are so powerful and have so much going on behind the scenes in the operating system, it seems like the MIDI protocol gets pushed to the back of the processing queue a bit. I think for me, that's where a lot of the MIDI jitter came from.
This integration of hardware and the digital side of things really started to wind me up. I couldn't get things sitting right. After being purely digital for so long and the timing being razor sharp, no discrepancies with anything, all of a sudden I was uncomfortable and couldn't get things to sit right. I ended up buying a couple of different sync boxes to try and solve it. I tried an E-RM box, but that didn't work out well. Then I bought the Expert Sleepers USAMO, which sends out an audio signal so the timing is sample-accurate.
Because it's audio pulses?
Exactly, and the MIDI clock in the DAW locks to it. This worked, things seemed to be falling where I expected them to be. But then there were little issues. With USAMO, you have to run a plug-in inside the DAW alongside the external box. If you solo a track besides the one running the plug-in, you'd lose sync. Of course this is by the very nature of soloing, so I understand why. But that became annoying, I couldn't work like that. I can't have things in sync and then want to listen to a channel on its own and then the clock flies off.
So I read through the forums and gauged different people's opinions. I saw people talking about Bitwig and raving about its internal clock. I thought, "What the hell, nothing to lose," downloaded the demo, plugged in my usual setup without the sync boxes, pressed play and everything was all in time without me having to do anything. It just instantly sounded miles better to my ears. That was the thing that initially piqued my interest in Bitwig.
I thought, "If things are going to work out down this route with the synchronisation and things being so much easier out of the box, I'm going to go all in and see where that takes me." This was without really knowing Bitwig's feature set. Then within a really short space of time, I started discovering the Modulators. They just blew my mind. That was another main selling point for me. Being able have a Sampler running inside Bitwig, filling it with hundreds of different samples, and then have the Modulators — I think I talked about this with John Selway…
You're talking about mapping Modulators to the Select control on the Sampler?
Yes, and having a single 16th note running in a clip and using Modulators to bring their own randomness to how the Sampler accessed the sounds. That was revelatory for me. I thought that was the best thing ever. Those two features: the syncing and the Modulators. I thought, "That's it for me, that's a massive, fundamental leap."
Have you been using Bitwig Studio for live sets?
I am, yeah. For my first few gigs in a year-and-a-half, something like that, I took the plunge and used Bitwig. I have eight drum channels all dumped into one group that I can collapse or expand as needed. I have bass elements with maybe three or four different channels, which again are grouped down. Same for keys. At its most condensed, I can collapse the set down into four groups. Those can be expanded out when I need access to individual parts.
In a live context, I'm a big fan of Turnado by Sugar Bytes, which is a plug-in that can hold a choice of eight individual effects. So one instance on, say, the drum group gives me eight different effects that I can bring in. They're really radical effects. So I have Turnados on all those groups I mentioned.
I use the Launch Control XL, which is 24 knobs and eight faders. I have that in conjunction with a typical Launchpad, which gives me a massive amount of flexibility within Bitwig to skip through scenes and access all the effects. It was bit nerve-racking because I'd been doing live shows with Ableton for so long, but it just worked. I tested it over and over, and its been rock solid. It's very very good on the CPU.
You mentioned earlier the old computers you used to use, the Sinclair for example. Maybe you've noticed that a younger generation is discovering the capabilities of early MIDI sequencing and tracking software, and they're realizing that there's something about this supposedly more "primitive" way of producing that plays a big role in the music they want to make. Are there elements of your current workflow that stem from using older technology?
After the Sinclair Spectrum I went to the Amiga 500. I had a DAW called Music-X, which at the time was just extraordinary: 16 MIDI channels, full color. This was late '80s, early '90s. I had a color TV with Music-X running on there. I could see multiple MIDI channels in different colours, different velocity layers, automation lanes and all that. I'd see my friends using Atari STs in monochrome — I thought the Amiga was so advanced in that sense. Color has always been quite important to me, I've always had a specific way of color-coding channels. For some reason I've always done my drums in green, basses are blue, keyboards are in red.
Carl Finlow's studio in the 1990s and today.
There was a post on Medium by the creator of made Music-X that basically told the whole story. He goes into close technical detail but also tells the narrative of the development and release side of it. It talks about the whole feature set: It had a whole performance view for arranging, every track has a piano roll, a matrix for customising MIDI assignments, a patch librarian…
It had eight channels of samples as well. When I dropped out of university, there was a guy I shared a house with who also had an Amiga with Music-X. He also had the sample integration. When he was out all day, I'd take his Amiga and hook it up with my one, so I'd end up with 16 channels of sampling, which was phenomenal. It wasn't the greatest audio quality but, at that point in time, doubling the number of samples you could use was massive.
Going back in time to the Spectrum, I had a sampler and programmer called the RAM Music Machine, which actually came with an audio interface and a microphone. It was atrocious quality. But I could record things in my bedroom. I was recording whatever I could find, making noises into the microphone. This was at a time when I'd been listening to The Art Of Noise, Depeche Mode, Yello, who were obviously using Synclaviers and Fairlights and expensive stuff like that. All of a sudden, I had my own primitive Synclavier and Fairlight in my bedroom with the little Sinclair Spectrum and this terrible microphone. But RAM Music Machine also had a MIDI sequencer, so I could sequence my Juno-106. It had a separate sample page drums — your samples would go into something resembling drum pads, and you had a very rudimentary grid-based sequencer for programming rhythms.
I could replicate what I heard from my favorite artists, or try at least. I was self-taught in that sense. There were no YouTube videos or things like that, so you had to piece together what you knew in your head. It was a similar process with Music-X, just on a much bigger level with much better sound quality and vastly improved MIDI. I had a little Roland MT-32. It was a little sound module running the linear arithmetic synthesis-type protocol. So top of the range was the D-50 and then the D-20s, D-10s and then the MT32 was bottom of the entire range, a little unit that sat on your desktop.
Music-X allowed you to use Sysex. You could enter Sysex messages within your sequences, so I was able to peer inside the MT-32. It was by design a very closed system. You just had presets, and that was it. But with Sysex and CC messages, you could get in there and start manipulating individual parameters. I also had an Oberheim Matrix 1000, which is still here on my desk actually. Again it was a similar thing — with Music-X, I had the ability to load up an editor and tweak the internals of the Matrix 1000.
The feature set was limited but, necessity being the mother of invention, you push these simple systems in your own peculiar ways, creating happy accidents and stumbling across unexpected things. It was all new at the time. MIDI hadn't been out that long. Sysex hadn't been out that long. It was a brave new world.
You look at the growth in modular systems, and sometimes it seems that the fact that a single MIDI channel can send a modular's worth of information down a single channel, with multiple channels running down a single cable, is somewhat overlooked.
That was another wicked side of Music-X. Going back to the MT-32 example, I could access the controller information, I could be drawing in paths for the panning, the volume, whatever parameter, all on a single channel. That side of things was phenomenal. Doing automation on Music-X at the start of the '90s really foreshadowed what was to come. I can't rave enough about Music-X. It was absolutely central to how production exploded for me.
“To try and remain original, you need new ideas and new ways of doing things to perk up your inspiration, to give yourself a challenge.”
You also mentioned Art Of Noise, Depeche Mode and Yello. At the risk of typecasting some electro producers, there seems to be a contingent that consider it a closed-off formula, a genre unto itself. But someone like yourself who lived through the '80s would implicitly understand its proximity to hip-hop, new wave, post punk, any sort of DIY electronics of that era. Do you think being open to the historical richness behind electro helps you to do it better than focusing exclusively on "electro" electro?
I'd have to say yes. For me personally, being from the north of England, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (OMD) were a half-hour from where I grew up. Human League were from Sheffield, which wasn't far off. There were so many amazing electronic bands in the north of England. I'm from Liverpool, so it's a very Beatles-centric, traditional kind of rock 'n' roll environment. But then with the whole explosion of the '80s and having it in very close proximity, this was game-changing for me. I'd heard Kraftwerk, but they existed in a very distant horizon to me personally. But then I heard OMD. Some mates at school gave me a copy of one of their cassettes. And they're like "Yeah, they live not far from us. Your dad could drive you there in 20 minutes." I was just floored. "Wow, there's people like Kraftwerk right near where I live!"
You would obviously know from where you're sitting that electro has had chasing fortunes over time. Labels like SCSI-AV and Satamile Records were all bargain bin buys six or so years ago. Now the market has completely changed. What has been your experience of this?
I wasn't really aware of electro until the mid-'90s. I was involved with people who were doing house and techno music like Ralph Lawson. It was through my friend Daz Quayle, who set up SCSI-AV. He was a DJ, we were friends with Andrew Weatherall and we'd do parties together. We had a little club in the centre of Leeds doing Wednesday nights with Daz and Weatherall DJing. We'd just come down and hang out getting drunk while they played electro and acid. That was my first introduction to it. Daz introduced me to the usual stuff, Underground Resistance, Drexciya and that type of thing. I'd not really heard it before then.
Those experiences changed everything. I absolutely couldn't get enough of it, to the point where that's all I wanted to write. Elektroworld by Elecktroids on Warp, that one just floored me. As a direct result of that I started trying to make my own flavor of electro. That's where the Voice Stealer project came from. The All Electric House, which I think I started writing in '96, that was my first dive into the pool. Daz and I also started making music together as Scarletron. We worked very heavily on lots of music that didn't really see the light of day. It was too wacky for a lot of people at that time.
There's a Scarletron track from 2004 off The Claw EP on Outside Recordings called "Bad December." It's not wacky but rather genuinely touching, melancholy electro with welcome acoustic or breakbeat-sounding drums.
It wasn't made then, though. That track was written in about '98. We sat on a load of Scarletron stuff for years. It just didn't get put out. Daz become friends with Andrea Parker at Touching Bass. She was really into it, Daz was playing all our unreleased stuff, but we had a big chunk of Scarletron that never saw vinyl. I released that on my Bandcamp years ago now as a collection called Return To Scarletron. It's some of my favorite music. Daz and I made this music with no aim whatsoever. It was just, this is what we like, we're going to go really far out with it without giving a damn. Which is probably one of the reasons why nobody would go near it. We did send it out to people. The nearest it got, we did another group called IL.EK.TRO…
The Klang Elektronik EPs…
Yeah, we did those two releases there with Klang. That was me and Daz again, but a bit more palatable for the punters. The Scarletron stuff was pure experimentation. I have a very deep attachment to that one. Return To Scareltron is a real treasure I think because it doesn't give a damn. It was pushing electro and electronics as far as we could at that point.
Out of that came Silicon Scally. After Voice Stealer, I wanted to do something that approached the kind of darkness that Scarletron moved towards. Silicon Scally became the outlet for that more dancefloor, darker, introspective stuff. Voice Stealer was always more melodic — there was some harder stuff as well, but there were vocals and melodies. Silicon Scally was the flip side to it.
You mentioned making music with no aim being very rewarding, regardless of whether it's released or not. I'd agree that artists to some extent have to be out of the loop, at least for certain periods. I know that there are worthwhile counterarguments against this idea, but is that the angle you gravitate toward?
I heard so much music in the '90s, we were just gorging on it. My head was filled with enough stuff to last me several lifetimes. That went hand-in-hand with the whole clubbing experience and understanding what those two things brought to each other — how audience interaction and the club vibe shaped the music. So I really fuelled up in the '90s. When I moved to Paris, I left all my friends behind, left the studio behind, left that previous life and just had my one computer in a little apartment in the middle of Paris. I was away from the club scene as well. It was literally a new page in my life so it was a chance to become a lot more focused on what I wanted to do.
I like to lock myself away and formulate everything I've learned over the years and really grind away at it, which comes full circle back to Bitwig and finding new ways of doing things. The grind, it gets relentless at times. And to try and remain original, you need new ideas and new ways of doing things to perk up your inspiration, to give yourself a challenge.
Press photo of Carl Finlow by Mario Garabetov