An Interview With Anthony Baldino
On Modular Synths, Latest Record, and more
Anthony Baldino is a composer, music producer, and sound designer from Los Angeles, CA, whose work heavily revolves around modular synthesizers. He is known for very detailed and elaborate sound sculpting, and there is a good chance you’ve already heard his work in numerous movie trailers, including Prometheus, Interstellar, Ex-Machina, Star Wars: Rogue One, and Avengers: Infinity War and End Game.
On top of that Baldino is a prolific live modular synth performer, and remixer. At the end of the last year, Anthony released his much-anticipated record, Twelve Twenty Two, and we’ve finally got a chance to talk with him about it, as well as his practice and approach to music, and many other things.
Beginnings and Workflow
Eldar Tagi: Hey Anthony. Thank you for talking to us. To kick things off, can you please tell us a little bit about your background? How did you originally get involved in music-making?
Anthony Baldino: Hey Eldar. Thanks for having a chat with me. Well, I got into making music when I was in college. In my first year there, I was exposed to a lot of music I had no idea was being made and I quickly gravitated to electronic music and a lot of cinematic music. I would just spend hours and hours experimenting and trying to create the types of music and sounds I was hearing.
ET: Listening to your music, there seems to be a very strong emphasis on detailed sound design. What is the relationship between composition and sound design in your practice? Are they one and the same, or are they part of separate processes?
AB: That’s a really great question. For me, sound design plays a few different roles, and it’s definitely both of the things you’re wondering. It’s as important as any other voice in my music. You can find thematic information built into it and at the same time, it can create a space or atmosphere for other voices to exist in. Some of the rhythmic patterns in my music aren’t too different from what you’d hear anywhere else, they’re just being played by a different “instrument”. It also kind of forces one to listen a little bit closer. Although the classic drum machines are amazing for many reasons, by replacing an 808 snare with a few layers of sound design, it’s not as easy to associate a piece of music with a specific style or genre.
ET: What and/or who inspires your work? What drives your creative process?
AB: I’m really fortunate to have some really talented friends and I love hearing their music and how they are implementing synths and sound design into their work. Getting to hear the story behind their work, whether it’s a new synth or a recent breakup, makes everything much more visceral and that really gets me thinking. Also, weird electronic sounds and tools have found their way into so many different areas of music it makes it hard not to be inspired hearing how people are pushing boundaries with the same tools we’re all using.
ET: When you work on music, do you prefer collaborating with other artists, or just working by yourself?
AB: I typically like working alone. I like collaborating but I’m always more comfortable working on my portion in my own space.
The Power of Modular Synthesizers
ET: When did you first start working with modular synthesizers? What attracted you to the Eurorack format initially, and how has your relationship with the instrument changed since then?
AB: I first started working with modular synths around 2009. My first synth was an ARP 2600 and it really changed everything for me from how I would approach thinking about sound creation to raising the bar in terms of quality of the sounds I was making. At the time, the Eurorack format was still fairly small but it was really intriguing getting to piece together your own system and after having the 2600, I fell in love with the hands-on experience you get with modular synths and the exploratory nature of them. I really wanted to expand on that and the Eurorack format offered a pretty affordable way to do that and some really esoteric modules were being developed so it felt like the right direction to go.
I guess my relationship hasn’t changed too much with the instrument. It’s certainly become more a part of my composition process but I’m always trying different modules and experimenting with how I can work modular synths into different projects I’m working on.
ET: In recent years modular synthesizers, and the Eurorack format in particular, have increasingly grown in popularity. What, in your opinion, caused this spike? How does it influence your practice?
AB: A good question, and I don’t know that there’s any one specific thing that caused it. I think in general, there’s a greater acceptance of electronic music and electronics in music. I love that artists like FKA Twigs are considered mainstream. Her music and production really push some musical boundaries in my opinion and because of that, I think it’s easier for people to not only be open to different musical ideas but also different musical tools. The Eurorack format is great because it allows anyone to start exploring and experimenting at their own pace without having to financially commit to a single stand- alone synth that doesn’t allow the user to evolve and grow. You also have, for better or worse, a shift in internet culture. For a long time, Muff Wiggler and a few other sites were the only places to research and connect with other synth users and now there are so many YouTube channels and social media outlets that make understanding these tools much easier.
The spike in popularity influences my practice by making it easier to apply what I would do in my own music to other projects I’m working on, like film or video game scores. With more people interested in modular synths it only helps open the door for more applications of them.
ET: You often use modular synths in your live sets. Based on your experience, what are the strengths and weaknesses of these instruments as live music tools?
AB: My live sets for the past five years have been all Eurorack modular synth sets. Even though a modular synth can seem really daunting, it’s actually the most comfortable I’ve ever been on stage. The strength of using these instruments is if you put the effort in, you’ll always have your own distinct voice that is unique to you and with Eurorack, you’re in control of designing your own system so no one will be more comfortable with it than you. It also opens up new ideas and forces you to really think about what you want to do live.
ET: I imagine your studio is packed with all sorts of equipment. What are your favorite pieces? As an extension to this question, what is the one thing you absolutely couldn’t do without?
AB: Oh man, this is always such a hard question to answer. Some of my favorites are my ARP 2600, Cwejman modules, Make Noise and Qu-Bit modules, TipTop Audio Circadian Rhythms….I could go on about modular stuff for days but stepping out of that world, I’ve been getting a lot into 500 series outboard gear and a few of my favorites there are the Shadow Hills Dual Vendergraft, Kush Audio Clariphonic as well as the API 527s.
I think the one thing I couldn’t do without would have to be the 2600. There’s just a certain magic that thing brings and always finds a way into everything I work on.
The Making of Twelve Twenty Two
ET: Your latest record is called Twelve Twenty Two. What does the name refer to, and what is the story behind it?
AB: The title of the record has a lot of personal meanings buried in it. Things that connect me to my family, create a timestamp of where I was in life when I finished the record as well as offer me a reminder as to why I started the record in the first place. All stuff that probably has no significance to anyone else but the title is also vague enough that anyone can put their own meaning on it.
ET: What was your writing process like on this record? Was it similar for all the tracks or did you approach each song differently?
AB:This record is kinda split into two different approaches and then woven back together. I was playing out a lot more when I started this record and at the time I decided to try to apply some of what I was doing live and do a record by capturing performances from my modular system. I would generate a really complex patch and then sort of deconstruct that and figure out the sections and arch of the piece and perform and record it in real-time, much like I would do live. The modular system was as much a compositional tool as it was a sound creation tool. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a really emotional patch that triggered a different approach, much like how I was used to writing. I started using the modular as a tool to harvest different melodies, ambiences and tons of percussion sounds and from there I would layer and arrange everything in a DAW.
ET: What was the most challenging part of creating this record?
AB: I think the most challenging part of this record, and maybe any record for that matter, is finishing it. It can be really difficult to take time away from work and life to finish a record but it was really important to me that I did that for myself.
ET: You’ve also collaborated with QuBit Electronix on the limited edition Nebulae module? Can you tell us more about that?
AB: I love those guys. I had reached out to them before my record came out and asked if they’d be interested in doing a collaboration to help celebrate the record and they were really into the idea. The Nebulae is such a powerful module and a tool I reach for regularly so it seemed fitting to do a limited run of special Nebulae. The limited-edition module has the album artwork from Twelve Twenty Two on the faceplate and the QuBit team did an absolutely amazing job with it. It just looks gorgeous. It comes with a custom library of pads and drums created using techniques similar to the ones I used to make the record. We did two giveaway contests through the record label where people had to mangle some sounds and then turn those sounds into compositions or “remixes”. It was really fun to see what people did with it!
ET: I’ve heard that a whole batch of the records was snatched from your porch. Did you ever find them? Are you planning on making more records available in the future?
AB: Yeah, that was a really heartbreaking day. The record label shipped them from Prague and my mailman signed for the package himself and just threw it over my landlord’s fence. Just over an hour later, they were stolen. This was days before the record release show with Tom Hall, Surachai and Richard Devine, which made it even more painful and kind of embarrassing to show up to your own record release show with no records. I have the person on camera and checked the local record stores but my guess is those records found their way to the nearest dumpster. But who knows…maybe they’re being used as frisbees or dinner plates.
Words of Advice
ET: Given your experience with modular synthesizers, what advice would you give to people who are just starting out with it?
AB: I think the best advice I could give is to just dive in and don’t read the manual until you absolutely have to. Sometimes I miss not knowing what these machines do. The inspiration offered by stumbling on an idea or sound accidentally is one of the best feelings for me and you’ll definitely find that in a modular synth.
ET: What are you working on now? Are there any shows or releases on the horizon?
AB: At the moment, I’m working on a movie and I’m always working on movie trailers. I’m also currently working on a few remixes, so keep an ear out for those in the coming months. As for shows, I’m hoping to get a few on the books soon, just been tied up in the studio.
Thanks for reaching out! It was really great getting to talk with you.