Respected producer, DJ, and sound designer Alex Banks presents his third studio album ‘Projections’, returning to Max Cooper’s Mesh imprint. The work follows up critically acclaimed releases on Modeselektor’s Monkeytown, Ninja Tune, where he remixed Bonobo, and his sublime sophomore album ‘Beneath the Surface’ from 2019.
Produced in his studio in Brighton, UK, the album is an immersive nine-track masterstroke covering the gamut of electronica, techno, breakbeat, bass, and IDM, fit for clubs and home listening alike.
The project was born in the early stages of 2021. With little outside stimulation to draw inspiration from, Banks
invested in new gear including a Moog Matriarch, DFAM, and a host of Eurorack Modules – and set about immersing himself in the possibilities of his new semi-modular synths
Below, he breaks down his tools of choice for the latest installment of My Toolbox
I bought this synth as a birthday present to myself just before I started work on ‘Projections’. I always find having new equipment to experiment with at the start of a project really helps inspire creativity and brings fresh sounds and excitement to a record. I already had some Moog gear in the studio so I wasn’t sure if I needed another Moog voice in my setup, but this synth is a different beast. The semi-modular functionality means the possibilities are almost endless, but as it’s wired as a hardware synth, I can start playing it straight away without having to patch everything first if I don’t want to. It’s featured on most tracks on ‘Projections’ somewhere, most notably the lead melody in ‘Into the Realm’ where I found a cool-sounding patch online, tweaked it, and then jammed for ages recording lots of cool-sounding, unexpected melodies.
Strymon Big Sky:
Before I got this, I already had some decent reverb units but had heard good things about this unit and so wanted to try it out. The sense of space and depth the reverb has makes everything I put through it sound huge and having the controls on the front instead of in ‘menus’ makes it fun and intuitive. I like to have it patched into a send on my desk and play around with the controls, sending certain notes or parts of phrases through it, then turning the send off quickly so the long reverb tails can be heard over the top of the dry signal that continues to play. I used it on the main techno synth stab on ‘Recall Mindset’ and on the high-pitched, sporadic melodic synths in ‘A Way Out’, mixing the wet and dry signals together through a compressor to bring out the details.
Scroll to Continue
After I finished work on my first album ‘Illuminate’, I decided to upgrade my studio setup and get more hardware involved. I found I’d been using 1176 plug-in emulations a lot and this aggressive style of compression had become part of my sound, so I invested in trying to get real hardware versions of the plugins I was using. Though not an 1176, an 1178 is very similar and is stereo (whereas an 1176 is mono) so much more practical for what I do as most of the sounds I record are in stereo.
I always use it on my drum mix, usually in parallel to help push the mix forward and smash things together in a nice way. I also love putting it in parallel on the mix bus, particularly when sketching out ideas. The way it glues everything together and pushes the sound forward can make a rough mix sound really exciting, which helps me envisage how a track might sound when it’s finished without having to spend time working on detailed mixing at the early stage of the process when all I want to do is write and get ideas down. After I’d owned one for a while, I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to use it on the drums or the mix, so I got another one so I could have it on both!
Allen and Heath GSR-24m
This 32-channel mixer is the hub of the studio. All of my gear is patched into it via the patch bay or direct line. I find if I don’t have all my gear connected and ready to go, I’m less likely to use it, so I’ve set everything up ready to play and record as quickly and easily as possible. The desk is designed as a hybrid between analogue and digital, with the soundcard built into the back of the desk and connected to my Mac with FireWire. Anything going into the desk with show up on its own channel input so I can easily record it, and then at the touch of a button, listen back to the recorded versions on the same channel. The EQ design is similar to an SSL with really weighty low-end bass and sparking highs, and it has a stereo valve channel which is great for recording sounds through for extra warmth or crunchy distortion. I don’t mix through it in the traditional way with every sound having its own channel as my projects are too large, so instead I usually assign groups from my DAW to stereo channels on the desk and mix that way, using the EQ, hardware compression and reverb to give it an analogue feel.
Roland Juno 106:
This synth has been in my sound palette since I bought it when writing ‘Illuminate’ in 2013. Some producers based in Brighton in a studio near me were selling it cheaply on eBay so I grabbed it. It’s a simple synth with a very distinctive sound, and whilst not the most versatile of synths, I never get bored of playing it and usually find a way of incorporating it into a track. I love playing chords on it and writing progressions, the oscillators sound so raw and rich, I find it really inspiring to compose with as you can really hear the frequencies of the notes in a chord working against each other. I used this to write and record the synths pads in ‘A Way Out’, playing long-held chords and playing with the LFO and filter controls to give subtle movement.
This is one of my favourite pieces of Eurorack gear and was really useful in creating the new album. It’s a granular looper, so I can record sounds and samples into it and then use the controls to manipulate the loop speed, length and pitch. It’s almost impossible to recreate the same sound twice, so it’s best to hit record, play around with and edit out the best results. At the start of the album writing process, I spent a day feeding old vinyl drum loops through it and totally warping them beyond recognition. It’s unusual for me to work in this way of creating sounds with no particular track in mind, but proved to be really useful as I kept coming back to these recordings and using parts in the tracks I was writing to add some cool, lo-fi sounding, characterful percussion loops. The weird descending percussion in the album opener ‘Transitions’ was made in this session, using a bandpass filter to transform the sound from high-pitched clattering percussion to a deep bass line.
Another purchase made just at the start of the album writing process, this synth is designed as a drum machine but is great for twisted melodic lines too. The 8-step built-in sequencer isn’t notched, so the pitch of the melodies programmed in is never quite exact, giving it a cool, off-kilter feel. It’s got two oscillators and a noise generator, all the controls are on the front of the machine, so it’s quick and easy to manipulate the sounds and come up with something interesting. If I need some inspiration, this is one of the tools I turn to to get some ideas going quickly and it’s great for making quirky percussion, fat basslines, and weird techno melodic loops. The main hook at the start of ‘Recall Mindset’ is a great example of what this machine can do, it sounds really raw and upfront.