Junto Profile: Aethyr

From Sheffield, England: eschewing perfection, tweaking genres

This Junto Profile is part of a new series of short Q&As that provide some background on various individuals who participate regularly in the online Disquiet Junto music community.

What’s your name? I prefer to just go by Aethyr, rather than my legal name. I’ve released music solo under a variety of names in the past (Care of Machine, Anechoic Frame, Schrödinger’s Dog, probably others I’m forgetting) but use Aethyr for everything now. Within the last few years I’ve tried to unify all my creative work under the same name, and used that for social media and other points of contact as well; much as I hate to say it, I suppose this is “building a brand.”

I feel more comfortable using this alias, not out of any intention to be deceptive, but because it enables me to be more truly myself. Using my legal name feels more like something that’s a bureaucratic obligation rather than something that really identifies me.

I’ve only worked with others on music on a few occasions, and mostly that’s been in the form of remixing or otherwise reworking something they’ve made. This is not out of selfishness or egotism but just lack of opportunity; I would not be opposed to being in a musical group, but the chance has never arisen, so the great majority of my work has been solo.

Where are you located? I live in Sheffield in the UK, and have been here for nearly 25 years now. I originally moved here for university (which didn’t pan out) and didn’t expect to stay here for too long, but evidently plans changed. It’s where I’ve done all my “serious” music making, and I’m fond of the city; I’ve made a lot of connections here. It wasn’t a factor in my initial decision to move here, but Sheffield has some important musical heritage that has certainly been an influence on my own work; among other things, synthpop acts like the Human League and Heaven 17 are from here, along with industrial groups such as Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA. The “bleep techno” genre arguably originated in Sheffield, and Warp Records had their HQ here for many years. Of course, some of these were around before I lived here, but I feel connected to that history.

I was born in Greater London and lived there for some years, until we moved to Leeds for my father’s work. It was there that I made my first forays into making music; I first started trying to learn guitar (which I’m still no good at), and I used some rather primitive music software on our home computer, an Atari ST. Later, as a teenager, I found great enjoyment in using the Music series of games for the PlayStation — also known as MTV Music Generator — and I suppose those are my first real tracks. I recently discovered that there is still a small but thriving community using this software, which I’m hoping to explore further.

Aethyr‘s online avatar

What is your musical activity? As mentioned in the last question, I’ve been working on music in some capacity since my teens. I’ve never had any formal musical education, so everything I’ve done has been self-taught; at times I wonder if this means I can sometimes approach things from an angle that someone who knows the “right” way wouldn’t think of, but at others I think it just means I make more mistakes.

After using those PlayStation titles, I moved on to eJay (which was largely the same thing but for computers), then used ACID for many years, with much of my music being based around arrangements of samples, until I branched out into more fully-fledged DAWs. In the last 12 months or so I’ve started using Bitwig Studio as my main software. In terms of the kind of music I make, I don’t like to confine myself to any particular genre, though I hope each piece has a little of my own style to it. I’ve tried making many different kinds of tracks, though I’ve had probably the most success with more experimental and ambient works, and least enjoyed my attempts at anything adhering too strictly to genre conventions, particularly when I’ve tried to make commercial/mainstream EDM (largely to see if I could). I’ve recently been trying to prove (to myself, if no one else) that it’s possible to make good metal music using a DAW, and have had some success in that regard. I’m also very excited about the possibilities of AI in terms of music creation, and have already made numerous experiments using those kinds of tools — but there’s still much to learn.

What is one good musical habit? I think the best piece of advice I can give is “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Which is to say, it’s better to have a piece of music “good enough” and finished rather than endlessly chasing perfection. The Junto has been helpful to me in this regard, because the limited time for each project naturally imposes a restriction on how much each track can be polished. Indeed, I often challenge myself to complete Junto projects as rapidly as possible.

Also, if you can, I think it’s smart to keep everything you make, no matter how rough or sketchy it might be — you never know when it might come in useful. Of course, this can be easier said than done, with storage media always prone to failure, but I wish I’d been more careful about preserving my early work.

What are your online locations? I use Twitter (@Aethyrulf) but that’s about the only social media I’m active on. For my music, I use Soundcloud (soundcloud.com/aethyrulf) regularly, and I have a Bandcamp (aethyrulf.bandcamp.com) with far too many completed records that I’m too anxious to set to go live. I maintain a presence on a few art sites, as I’m also a 3D artist and occasional photographer, and besides that I regularly find myself as a viewer on Twitch and YouTube.

What Was a Particularly Meaningful Junto Project? One that sticks in my memory was the 20th project, “Nodebeat,” perhaps because it took an inordinate amount of work — the prompt required the use of a smartphone app, and at the time I didn’t own such a device, so I had to use the web version and figure out a way to extract the audio from that. I had to jump through a lot more hoops to get that track working, which at the time felt like more trouble than it was worth (and would be too lengthy to describe here), but in retrospect it’s probably among my favourite pieces now.

Pleasingly, quite recently, I was able to make a companion piece/follow-up to that track, in project 0562. I feel like the two complement each other very nicely, even if they came a decade apart.

You mention the idea of making metal with a DAW. Given your interest in exploring numerous genres, what are your thoughts on the way specific technologies, tools, or instruments lend themselves to specific genres? This is actually something I like to play around with. I find there can often be an interesting result if I use an instrument, effect, or what have you, that doesn’t “fit” or “belong” with the genre of the piece. Sometimes, of course, it sounds absolutely terrible and I have to abandon that idea, but there’s a certain satisfaction in deliberately using the “wrong” things and still having the track come out well. In the same vein, I enjoy mixing otherwise conventional elements of very disparate genres, which has been the subject of at least a couple of Junto projects.

Although a certain sound or instrument or whatever might lend itself to a particular genre, nothing says that it can’t be turned to a completely different one. The measure of success, to my mind at least, is whether the end result sounds good, not what went into creating it.

I remember reading something from John Cage that there is nothing actually different about a “musical” sound versus a “non-musical” sound; sounds are just sounds. I like to bear this in mind when making music, because it means any sound at all might be useful in any given piece. In a way it’s intimidating, because you have the choice from anything in the world, but at the same time it’s also liberating for the same reason.

I’m also interested in software recreations of particularly unusual and/or rare instruments; I’d collect physical ones too if money (and space!) were no object. This is not being obscure for its own sake, but I’ve found a lot of these kinds of instruments have unique characteristics that can’t be found elsewhere.

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