Progressive Metal Goes Digital

By Hollin Jones

TesseracT is a progressive metal band based in the U.K that toured the world extensively and released a number of acclaimed albums and EPs. Their latest is "Portals", which combines a striking visual experience with a journey through the band’s back catalogue. We visited founding member and producer Acle Kahney at his studio to talk about going digital, the DIY ethic and the challenges of collaborating online.

Can you tell us a little about how you got into music? Presumably, you became a guitarist first and then a producer later on?

I started playing the guitar when I was 8, I had an acoustic guitar but I always knew I wanted to play electric. My stepbrothers had Strats hanging on the wall and I remember picking one up once when there was a Led Zeppelin song playing and just learning the song, figuring it out, and I knew it was for me. So by the age of about 10, I had an electric, a Gibson Epiphone SG — I still have the headstock.

Did you have musical training?

I’m mostly self-taught, I had lessons when I had my acoustic then when I was about 15 or 16 I went to Rock School. That’s where I met a lot of friends that I still have today, and also people that were in my previous bands Fell Silent and the one before that Mikaw Barish. They formed from Rock School and people also formed other bands like Monuments, there’s a whole movement that stemmed from that time. And ultimately my band, TesseracT.

And at what point did you start with the recording side of things?

I think I had a tape four-track I had maybe borrowed from school with my first band, which was a bit limiting. Recording-wise it was pretty basic, maybe just a mic in the room or a mic near the drums. But it’s a good introduction to how to record. After a while, I found Cubasis. I had a demo of it on a CD. That was my first DAW. I’ve always been a Windows guy, I’ve never had a Mac but I’ve always been comfortable with building and running Windows PCs

You produce other bands as well as your own, under the 4D Sounds name. What was your route into the more heavyweight side of production?

I think the first proper production I did was a cover of "Rollin’" by Limp Bizkit. I got a drum loop and looped that up for 5 minutes in Cubasis and took a line out of my amp, so it sounded nasty and played the track over that. And then it was sort of a slow evolution from there, working out how to make things sound better. Back then there weren’t all the online tutorials that we have now where you can just learn new things by going to the internet. So a lot of it was trial and error and experimenting.

Have you always done most of the recording and production yourself rather than in commercial studios?

It’s always been DIY really, the only time we tend to go to studios is to record drums, although a lot of our stuff is programmed drums for reasons of time and money. For our first album, we did drums at Metropolis Studios in London and we’ve also worked at Sphere Studios. We have done some live jamming in studios, it’s less time consuming because you can get it done in a day. But usually, we bring stuff back to my studio for overdubs and mixing. It lets me be really attentive and spend too much time tweaking the guitars!

What does your production process look like?

I write all the music in my studio, so I’ll program all the drums then we’ll rehearse or jam it, Jay the drummer will put his flare on it and then I’ll re-record the guitars afterwards. So we’d track the drums to the demo guide tracks and then do overdubs. That might change for the album we’re working on at the moment, I might be happy with the guitars I already have for that.

And you program your drums?

It’s only on our first album that we used fully live drums, the others have been programmed, with additions from our drummer. Now that he’s got an electronic kit, sometimes he’ll play the parts and send me a MIDI file. It’s nice because it’s got more of a performance feel to it.

From your live performance videos, and seeing your studio, it seems like you very much embrace the digital side of music technology rather than the more conventional technique of mic’ing everything up.

We do, but in the early days of TesseracT, I used to use an Engl Powerball amp and cab which I liked, Mesa Boogies, the first few tours we did in the U.S it was all 5150s. But we were starting to tour a lot — Australia, India, Russia, and sometimes you’d get given gear to use that wasn’t great. So we were using some Axe-FX’s at the time and we started to go more heavily down the digital route. We’re using Kempers at the moment but we’re thinking about going over to the Neural DSP Quad Cortexes. It’s got everything in a 1 or 2 U case — it’s just so much easier for touring, and you can store all your tones. I love real amps, but it’s just easier. And for writing, I’m a tone tweaker so it’s easier to be able to capture everything precisely. Plus, you can’t always be mic’ing up loud cabs when recording, so it’s a good solution.

What are your go-to studio tools for recording and production?

Toontrack for the drums when writing, Cubase for my DAW running via my RME and Burl Mothership interface. UAD, Fabfilter, Slate Digital and Kazrog are my workhorse plug-ins. Everyone in the band is on Cubase now, so it’s easy enough to send each other stuff. Sometimes it’s stems, and other times if there are weird tempo maps, it’s project files. I haven’t used VST Connect yet, but I need to look into it since our drummer is in the U.S. One of the main things I liked about Cubase in the early days was that it was the only DAW I knew of that had a drum editor instead of a piano roll one. So for me, that was just so much easier to program drums with. We also use Cubase live for our backing tracks, and we have a MIDI track going to our lighting guy as well, which cues him and his lights to trigger things in sync. It’s even connected to our amps and effects, triggering program changes. So it’s one less thing to worry about, not having to have pedals on the floor.

Your new album, "Portals", is a combination of a retrospective of your work plus a visually striking live performance. Can you tell us the idea behind it?

We approached "Portals" with the desire to create something a little more cinematic and engaging compared to a normal live stream. We've always taken the audio side of things seriously, but this felt like the first time we could step up visually. "Portals" is essentially four sets that span our discography. Jay our drummer unfortunately couldn't make the show due to COVID so Mike Malyan helped out on the drums, learning the parts in about six weeks!

The four sets run off a Cubase project — we play to a click for MIDI changes —and I think I had to mix the whole thing within two weeks. We’d like to do some "Portals" gigs but we’re still talking about how to incorporate some of the more complex visual effects into a live show.

Now that things are hopefully getting back to normal, is it business as usual for you or have your plans changed?

We have a tour with Bullet For My Valentine coming up in November. The downtime has been useful in a way just to focus on writing without too many distractions. We’re hoping to hit a few festivals in 2022, including ArcTanGent. Once the album is finished we should be back to touring as usual!