James Bunton Lets His Synth Do the Talking on New Single "ARGON8 03"
"There's something fascinating about what comes from having tight restrictions as a starting point for creating something new"
Published Sep 27, 2021James Bunton may not be a household name, but you've almost certainly listened to his work. The Toronto-based producer has lent his talents to the likes of Donovan Woods, Vivek Shraya, Harrow Fair, David Myles, Regina Gently, Joey Landreth, For Esmé and many more, serving as a dependable pillar of independent Canadian music. He's also released a scattered array of lengthy, ambient soundscapes more focused on mood and texture than melody.
His new track, "ARGON8 03," named after the Modal Electronics synth that generated all of the sounds, takes a different approach, instead roaming through a series of synthetic melodies anchored by a steady percussive patter, like a Kid A jam session folded in on itself, generating just as much affect as a typical Bunton solo track but — at a scant three minutes — in a tenth of the runtime. Put on "ARGON8 03" below, and keep reading for our full chat with Bunton.
What did YSL Pro challenge you to do with this track?
YSL Pro generously offered me the challenge of seeing what was possible when creating with just a Modal ARGON8 Wavetable Synth, a Royer R10 Ribbon Microphone with dBooster, and a Universal Audio Apollo x4 loaded with the complete collection of UAD plugins. In terms of a set of "restrictions", this was definitely a nice palette of sounds and tools to get to work with!
What gear did you use to make the song?
In keeping with the parameters of the challenge from YSL Pro, "ARGON8 03" was created using only the Modal ARGON8 Wavetable Synth and the Universal Audio Apollo x4 and UAD plugins. Though I used the Royer R10 Ribbon Microphone combined with the UAD Vocoder plugin for other pieces that I created under the umbrella of this challenge, the "ARGON8 03" piece didn't end up requiring those tools.
In terms of plugin effects, I used the UAD AMS RMX16 Digital Reverb plugin for it's classic "nonlinear" setting and the unique sense of space that it provides, the UAD Lexicon 480L plugin when I was looking to add a larger sense of space with longer tails to sounds, and the Galaxy Tape Echo plugin for giving sounds a bit of warm and slappy character in moments. To craft and refine the sounds of the Modal ARGON8, I used a combination of the Sonnox Oxford Envolution plugin to shape transients as desired, the Teletronix LA-3A plugin for dynamic levelling, as well as the DBX 160 plugin for some character compression on the kick / bass sounds. On the master bus I had the elysia alpha compressor plugin working to shape the overall dynamics of the piece and widen the mix a bit, as well as the Sonnox Oxford Inflator plugin to bring everything to a nice overall blossom. I'm fortunate to be doing the majority of my mixing on a pair of ADAM Audio S3H Active Nearfield Studio Monitors which have an unparalleled level of listening depth and clarity, so I'm really able to hear all of the subtle differences that each of the plugin choices make. It's a true joy to be able to hear deep into a mix in the way that these monitors offer!
Where did the idea for "ARGON8 03" come from and what were its inspirations?
There's something fascinating about what comes from having tight restrictions as a starting point for creating something new. Artists use restrictions all of the time to help break out of habits or repetition — by placing restrictions on what is allowed in the creative process, we then can explore, discover and really understand what is available inside of a small frame of possibilities as opposed to working with the infinite. What often ends up happening is that the tighter the frame of restrictions set, the more we magnify what is available in that frame and discover new and exciting things that we would have missed had the restrictions not have been in place. And that was certainly the case with the restrictions set out here – the ideas in "ARGON8 03" came from listening to what the ARGON8 itself had to offer, and following those threads to hear where they'd take things. Certain sounds and settings lent themselves to certain melodies, so for this piece I just listened for the inspirations to reveal themselves as opposed to actively chasing a particular idea or intention at the outset.
How does "ARGON8 03" fit in with the rest of your discography?
"ARGON8 03" is a bit of an outlier in terms of the rest of my discography, which isn't surprising since it was created primarily using a new tool, the Modal ARGON8. Most of the work that I make these days is in longer form, and investigates the ideas of suspension and holding a "state" over an extended period of time. Because I was interested in exploring what the synth itself had to offer in this case, the "ARGON8 03" piece offers more moments, melodies and specific sounds than much of my work tends to.
How would you describe your typical musical output?
I'm really lucky as my musical output these days primarily comes in the form of collaborations with artists, most often with me in the producer role. As a result, I often have more to do with the shaping and refining of an artist's ideas and intentions than in the writing and creating the main ideas themselves. I think the refining process is an absolutely wonderful and special part of the creative process to be able to work in, and I enjoy it very much. Helping to actualize an artist's intention is a unique position in the creative process that requires trust, openness, vulnerability and confidence, and I am so appreciative of artists choosing to include me in their processes in that way.
Because of the fact that I spend so much time in the producer role, when it comes to making music for myself I really enjoy experimenting with how far sonic ideas can be pushed, how context-less it's possible to make things sound, and how much things like genre, emulation and history can be removed from composition and creation. I'm really interested in trying to create things that sound like they don't have a place in the current musical landscape — things that sound like "outsiders" as much as possible are really fascinating to me.
Given the limitations set by YSL Pro, what did you seek to do differently with this track compared to your usual work?
Given the limitations set out by YSL Pro, with this track I wanted to listen to where the tools at hand wanted to go as opposed to try and use them to accomplish something specific and predetermined from the outset. This allowed me to really listen to the ARGON8 itself and get to know the timbres and modes that it had to offer, and then to find out which elements I was drawn to and wanted to use to translate melodic ideas and moments. I find that when exploring a new piece of equipment for the first time, taking the time to let the instrument itself reveal what it's good at is more effective than relying on any promotional material or hype based on what others say it's good at. It's amazing how easy it is to believe a piece of equipment sounds a certain way without ever listening to it carefully, simply because we've read on the Internet about it enough to have convinced ourselves of something that we've never actually heard! When I get into that mode, the mode of forgetting to actually listen with my ears, I think that it's easy to end up missing out on how something truly sounds and what it's truly capable of. I wanted to make sure that I really listened to the ARGON8 before I made any predeterminations about what I wanted to accomplish with it, and I'm glad I did! It surprised me with how versatile it was in what it had to offer in the way of timbres, depth of sounds and ability to refine sonics in specific ways.
What music have you released or worked on recently, and do you have any projects coming up?
There are some really wonderful albums coming out over the next while from artists that I've had the pleasure of working with in the producer role. Ansley Simpson has an album coming out soon that is something very special. Rob Dickson and I just recently finished his new album, and it's a beauty. There are also new things from Donovan Woods and Celeigh Cardinal in the works to watch out for as well. Exciting times! And in terms of my own work, I've just recently released a collection called Field Recordings for the Mercury Terminal, which is up on good ol' Bandcamp if anyone is interested in checking it out.