Leeds synthesist and producer Toby Lindenbaum aka Lindenbaum Modular chatted to Ben about his debut EP release 'Chroma' - an immersive project that brings together natural sounds through experimentation on his modular setup. Toby gives us an insight into his craft, how he builds his instruments and programs music as well as sharing his love for improvisation, audiovisual projects and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack.
"It's almost like opposites" Toby explains. With the juxtaposition of the organic sounds created on a large electronic setup of wires and cables, they bend and twist around each other ready for him to play with and manipulate. "I really like trying to make the synths sound as organic as possible. And when you do that, you kind of get to this weird territory where things sound like you recognise them like bugs or feathers or something. I tried to make ruffling feathers and it sounds like some sort of machine."
His modular setup is known to the Leeds scene with a couple of notable performances at the Inner City Electronic festival in 2019 and 2020. He has also received support from the artist development organisation Music:Leeds Launchpad as well as receiving airplay from BBC Music Introducing. He previously released singles 'Opus' and 'C Is For Canada' as well as headlining shows at Belgrave Music Hall and Hyde Park Book Club.
Chroma, however, has been approached "more like a piece of composition that's there to enjoy" as opposed to the live setting that he had settled into before lockdown.
"This is something I've kind of been trying to weigh up. I don't think I can perform this EP live because of the process as it involves so many layers and layers of synths and my modular. I could do a show that was around the ideas of the song. But I don't think I could ever reproduce them. It's quite nice because I know that they've been captured. Quite a lot of this stuff just comes from random jams I'll do and I'll just record it and then chop and change the different parts."
The layered approach to the EP begins on 'Berclas', with sounds bouncing back and forth like currents rippling underwater. The euphoria builds with Ollie Sargent's soprano sax floating in before the break, where the drony and heavy machine-like breathing whirs and emits like a thick fog into the atmosphere. His sound is like an amalgamation of Leifur James and Floating Points.
It's on 'Lyra' you get the sense of the energy Toby puts into his live shows that always has the crowd gurning for more electronic heaviness. The garage drum break adding a meatiness to the acidy synths gurgling through. The bassline rumbling and shuddering through, almost rising through your body to rattle your bones. The delicate, trip-hop piano phrase comes out of the climax of the intense soundscapes.
The collaboration between Toby's work and the visuals is important to take note of when listening to his work. With Ben Momoh providing the visuals on the 'Lyra' video, the artwork for the first single 'Song For The Sky' and the EP has been created by Jay Vaz, who runs the creative studio The Mannequin Collective and arts discovery platform Dreaming Vinyl.
Having been commissioned works with the likes of Alicia Keys, Jorja Smith, Yussef Dayes, Kali Uchis and labels such as Blue Note, Rhythm Section International, and Eglo Records,
Jay's inspiration comes from Toby's setup that he mostly built himself. He uses designs shared by companies that detail instructions online on how to build their modular gear. "It's not patented or anything and no one's trying to keep their ideas close to them. It's all shared."
"I've kind of tried to design the system to be for playing live. Basically, you pick what you build. And if I wanted a little section that was another drum sound, I can add that on. It's just like Lego putting different bits together, solder them together and hope it doesn't blow up or anything. The kind of issue I'm having now is that I've run out of space."
There's inevitably a lot of trial and error that goes into making this kind of EP. The spiralling setup of machines seems to have endless possibilities for creation. "It's a bit of a weird process," Toby explains. "What I've really found in the past sort of year is that I've just come to accept that if I go in with an expectation and try and make something, I will just not use it or it just ends up being not what I'm looking for. It almost just has to happen by accident. Then you get that golden moment and sometimes you're recording, sometimes you're not and the ones where you're not are the ones that get away the most."
The patience and perseverance in creating such a vast tapestry of sounds connected together is what Chroma is all about. The connection between Toby's music and Jay's visuals, the connection between the organic sounds and the electronic setup. It's not surprising to hear with such a meticulous approach to production that Toby has been used to such a demanding process. He continues to study Medicine at uni whilst producing these enormous arrangements.
"I was approached by the label Local Network Records. They liked my singles from before and asked if I wanted to write an EP for them. I've been thinking about doing it for a while but I just kind of needed someone to say this is what you got to do now. I was so glad they did reach out because I have been so busy with uni work."
"It's been so nice to try and design it as a whole project and just have a vision for it instead of just having a standalone track. I want it to be like a cover to cover listen. Some of the songs do work on their own but I wanted it almost like you sit down how you would do to watch a film. I'm really proud of the pacing of it."
'Song For The Sky' resonates both the impressive strength of the song on its own as well as its role in the whole of the project. The glitches wiggle out at the beginning before the vocal textures combine with George Purnell's drums. They pound to the synths and it is completely hypnotising. The power of the modular sounds spark off the melodies and brighten your mood. There's a sunshine beauty to the track that breaks up the EP though. This song moves away from darker sounds and allows the serenity of the nature Toby tries to emulate to come and chug through. This begins on its introduction track 'Environments'.
"It starts kind of like a rainforest," Toby tells us."I've been doing lots of panning between the speakers so you can place them in the space. And then if you do that like five times with different sounds, it puts you in a space, in an environment. I really loved hearing it for the first time properly stitched together with 'Song For The Sky'. You hear the single and you think "how does this fit into the whole picture?" Then you hear the six tracks together and it just makes sense."
The breather track 'In Motion' goes deeper into ambient tranquillity. The piano, soprano sax and synths feeling somewhat minimalist in comparison to the rest of the EP. It's on 'Singulairty' where Toby tries to move away from composing a track straight from his modular setup.
"Sometimes I sit down and think this would be like a synth session. But I like to play the guitar for the fun of it as that's my first instrument. I used to play quite heavy rock music like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Thin Lizzy and occasionally, I'll try and program in a classic rock riff. This is actually something that I tried to work in a bit to the EP with the final song 'Singularity'."
"It takes one of my synths and I run it through guitar pedals so it's really distorted and I get a few big chords. So the left speaker is doing chords from the guitar and the right speaker is doing chords sent through the guitar pedal and they melt together. It creates this big, swirling, distorted boom that comes in."
The artists who inspire Toby's production methods are varied, but all seem to come from the sphere of either improvised or hugely atmospheric music. "Floating Points is a big, big inspiration. as well. Crush was my favourite album of his. I really like Nubya Garcia in the UK jazz scene at the moment and saw her at Belgrave a couple of years ago which was amazing."
"I have been revising loads recently for exams and something I've been listening to loads actually is the Lord of the Rings soundtrack! A great band called Goat from Sweden have a song called 'Gathering of Ancient Tribes' which I love. I've been listening to a lot of ambient stuff like Brian Eno too. There are so many people putting out good electronic stuff in Leeds too. There's a guy called Tom VR who's released a single from his upcoming EP too which I'm liking."
These inspirations explain the semi-improvised "controlled randomness" approach that Toby uses in many different guises throughout the EP and his previous work. "Improvisation is definitely there. For example, some of the ways that I've made melodies would be through taking a random generator of pitch, and then just letting that run its course."
"Then you can even put any effects on there like a delay or a nice reverb, and you can set up certain like rules that mean that it always sounds nice. You can constrain it to play certain notes in a scale, but it will be playing them randomly. That is almost like improvisation but it's also controlled randomness. That's the essence of the whole thing, it's controlling randomness. You can even have one knob that you turn and the more you turn it the more random it gets. It's definitely a really fun way to make music and that's why I enjoy it so much."
Finding alternative ways to create sound is none better seen through some of his Instagram clips of him using a Wii Nunchuk live at Inner City as part of his modular performance. "There's a few bits and bobs that I did before that too. I got a bowl from IKEA and got these pressure sensors. There are two kinds of signal in modular synths, there's something called a gate which is an 'on' or 'off' kind of trigger. And then there's a continuous signal which can be pitch and it can control voltage."
"I set this IKEA bowl to be a gate so anytime it gets a signal, it sends a trigger for anything to happen. So I dropped a marble into the bowl, and it would trigger a cascade of different sounds and stuff. And then each new marble would be a different pitch in the scale so I'd be sat in my room throwing marbles into a metal bowl and it ended up sounding quite nice."
As much as Toby enjoys using objects to operate and control music, it's playing live with other people and collaborating that he misses in some ways. "I come from a background of playing in a band and I do really miss it. I used to play in a soul band for functions back in Oxford. I miss that kind of energy you get playing as a big group. That's part of the reason we did the Sgt Lindenbaum project to play as a trio live, but also work in the modular stuff."
"I really want to do a big audiovisual show next. I'd like to work with Paul Miller again. I have done video stuff with Paul after I met him at Wharf Chambers as he was doing live visuals with the DJ sets. He did the live visuals for my first performance at Inner City too and does exhibitions all around Yorkshire. He does projection mapping. So he scans an object and it projects onto something that moves like it did on the woman in the 'C Is For Canada' video. That's one of the first things I want to do when I get back to playing live."
With hopes to have a performance of sorts in the autumn, Chroma has set Toby up as one of the most promising and interesting producers around in the UK. His ability to create gripping soundscapes that can transport you from a relaxed to a heightened sense of immersion is nothing short of extraordinary - both live and recorded. We're excited for the next chapter of Lindenbaum Modular.
Buy Chroma here:
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Follow Local Network Records here:
Read our 'Song For The Sky' premiere here: