British guitarist, composer and producer Leo Abrahams has worked with a legion of high profile musicians including Imogen Heap, Brian Eno, Ed Harcourt, Paloma Faith, Annie Lennox, Florence and the Machine and many more. In addition to his collaborative work, Leo has released several solo albums and not only composed music for a number of movies including The Lovely Bones and Hunger but also played guitar for soundtracks such as Oceans Twelve and Twilight: Breaking Dawn.
On top of all that, Leo has yet again joined forces with one of the UK’s finest virtual instrument developers – Spitfire Audio – to release Enigma 2 : The Rapture – a Kontakt-powered collection of distorted instruments and ambient sounds. We were fortunate enough to grab some of Leo’s (obviously rare) spare time to find out more…
First off, congratulations on the release of ‘Enigma 2: The Rapture’. For our customers who are new to the Enigma series – could you explain the concept and how The Rapture differs to the first Enigma title?
The first Enigma was made up of material I’d recorded in my own studio, and was sort of a consolidation of a certain way of making guitar sounds that was becoming obsolete because of software gradually becoming out of date. I wanted to have some sort of record of those sounds, and also to try and make a VI that had an ambiguous quality – not quite a guitar but not quite a synth either.
With Enigma 2, all the sounds were made live, at The Pool in Bermondsey, with a much more elaborate amp set-up. Some of it still has that quality of textural ambiguity (especially with the addition of the Evo Grid section), but most of it is informed by a desire I had to drastically improve what kind of guitar samples are available to composers. We multi-sampled lots of my collection of fuzz pedals, and I think it treads a great line between controllable and chaotic. Some of it really feels wild and alive, and that’s what I felt was missing in other more conventional guitar sample packs – usually guitars are called on when you want some sense of danger, and this collection really has lots of that – feedback, scrapes, hum – but it’s also possible to access straighter power chords and stuff.
How did you get involved with Spitfire? Were you a big fan prior to working with them?
I’d worked with Christian for several years before we collaborated on my first library in 2013. He was always interested in making sampler instruments, it was very inspiring – every time I went to a session he’d show me something new he’d made. So it has been lovely to watch the company become so successful.
Enigma 2’s articulations were created using your enviable guitar collection and pedal board plus a variety of vintage amps and signal paths – could you run us through this set-up in more detail?
For the fuzz sounds, the chain was: guitar into the pedal(s), then a split off to a DI (I love the sound of DI fuzz, especially blended with room mics) and on into 4 different amps, and two of those amps were being picked up by the room mics. We also recorded a clean guitar through an amp, with the split taken before the first pedal. This is so that you can blend in a bit of clean articulation into a very fuzzy signal.
The guitars used were 1968 Gibson 355, 1968 Gibson SG Custom, 1965 Danelectro Hornet, and a 1963 Meazzi Hollywood Jupiter. The main amp is a 1960s Klemt – they are not terribly well known but they are by far my favourite amps – into a 1961 Selmer cabinet. We also had a couple of small Swart amps, which I’ve owned and loved for years, and a Fender Showman for the clean signal.
The pedals are all listed as VIs, so people can go off and buy the real thing if they like the sound of them!
Despite using all this guitar goodness in the recordings, Enigma 2 isn’t just a guitar library per-se, could you give us a quick overview of the types of sounds it contains?
Well, all the sounds are generated by guitar through pedals, rather than being processed afterwards in the studio. That gives a very particular feel to the pads – they seem deep and alive. The fuzz stuff works best if you actually play what a guitar player might play, but the other sounds work however you play them. For me, most of the time I like just holding down a key and letting the sound run its course! There’s lots of evolution in the sounds themselves, and the Evo Grid obviously adds another level to that. I think the non-fuzz sections of the library work particularly well when you need a ‘what’s that?’ type of melodic sound, or a deep and detailed non-cheesy pad.
And for which types of projects and genres would you say this library would be particularly fitting for?
I always thought it would be great for film music – both as a textural tool and as a writing tool because it seems to be so easy to get started on a composition with these sounds as a starting point. But I’ve been surprised how much I’ve used the sounds in my own record productions. It seems to really work there as well.
The fuzz VIs are a bit of a different case – they are clearly intended to add rawness and convincing guitar distortion tones to any project.
What about the features/controls within the Kontakt interface, what options are there for customisation of the sounds and which are your particular favourites?The best part for me is blending the microphones – I usually prefer DI combined with distant room, but there are just so many surprising combinations, and the difference between the mics is so radical that each sound you load is really 3 different sounds that can serve completely different purposes in the sonic picture. I personally don’t use the effects much, but I do enjoy playing around with the ADSR – again, you can do so much in terms of shaping each sound’s function.
Why did you/Spitfire choose to record the sounds at London’s Pool Studios?
The live room has a concrete floor and a very high ceiling. It’s huge! And there’s no other room in London which sounds like that. I’ve done a lot of record productions there over the years and I feel at home there.
Can you give us an overview of the process of creating this library – from your own point of view?
We recorded for 4 days – the relative tedium of multi-sampling was broken up by outbursts of improvisation and noise-making that Stanley took away and sampled for use in the other parts of the library. When we were multi-sampling some of the notes lasted for an extremely long time because I wanted to capture beautiful extended reams of feedback. It was actually really beautiful just to stand in that room and feel the guitar vibrating and the sound all around me. Going up the instrument in tiny steps really made the experience about pure sound rather than composition, and it was making me think that I’d really love to make a guitar feedback record at some point, but a sort of meditative one rather than anything deliberately ugly.
You’ve had a long term working relationship with Brian Eno – has he taken Enigma 2 for a spin yet?
I don’t know, but I’m seeing him next week so I should give him a copy!
Well, I played on ‘Lay Me Down’, which is one of the bonus tracks. Mark Ronson produced it. I actually played on 2 Adele tracks for him, but with these things nobody knows until the record comes out what’s on it. Obviously it’s a good one for the discography, but I’m more excited that one of my good friends, Sam Dixon, actually got a writing credit on the album!
You’ve also worked as a composer on variety of soundtracks, such as award winning films ‘The Lovely Bones’ (with Brian Eno) and 2008’s ‘Hunger’. How did you get involved with that and how do you find the process of writing music for film compared to commercial music?
I’d been working with Brian for several years, and he asked Jon Hopkins and I to write with him for ‘Lovely Bones’. Similarly with ‘Hunger’, I’d been working with David Holmes for a while as a guitarist and after a point he asked me to help write the music for a few films. In a way I find film music more straight forward because, with some margin for disagreement, it’s pretty obvious whether music and picture marry – whereas a record is more or less free to be whatever it wants to be, and a big part of of the production is building a frame for the material, and trying to establish a consistent philosophy against which the music can be measured (basically, fulfilling the role of the picture when writing film music).
I don’t do too much film work anymore – I’m primarily a producer and writer. But I really like the Hollow Sun stuff, and I genuinely do use a lot of Spitfire products! Other than that, I get the sounds I need by making them from scratch with guitars, vintage synths, or re-processing acoustic sounds.
Has your opinion of music software changed at all since becoming involved with Spitfire?
I feel I have a greater understanding of what’s possible, and what sampler instruments are really useful for. I feel that Spitfire have proven that sampler instruments don’t have to be 2nd best, or what you use when you can’t get the real thing – at their best, and correctly used, they can be as good as ‘real’ instruments.
You’ve recently released your latest solo album ‘Daylight’ (how do you find the time?!). Is there a particular element of creating your solo material that you really love?
I’m always trying to find something out – in the case of ‘Daylight’ it was how to incorporate some of the techniques found in 20th Century Chinese painting, into music. I just get curious, and it’s refreshing to go on that journey on my own sometimes. I’m not trying to reach an audience even, particularly – I treat it as a sort of research and development period! But of course, it’s always particularly rewarding when people have a positive reaction to something you’ve actually written and recorded yourself.
And finally, what’s coming up for you work-wise in the coming months?
I have another record coming out later in the year – a project called Amoral Avatar, which is an improv thing with the drummer Chris Vatalaro. I’m also working on a bunch of productions – ranging from a 25-piece choir plus drum kit, to a collection of Lullabies from all over the world. I’ve just got back from a 5 month stint in LA, working on just 1 thing. Now that I’m back it’s quite bewildering to be suddenly doing lots of different things at once! I also want to take some of what I learned making Enigma 2, and apply it to a solo guitar show. I was trying to do that last year before I went to America, but the main problem was that the pedal board I made was so heavy that I could hardly lift it!
Photos of Leo courtesy of Steve Gullick.