Harlo Holmes: Signal Processor, Beat Maker, Coder, etc …

Harlo Holmes_lady beat maker_ tom tom magazine

Exclusive Tom Tom Magazine Photos by: Maggie Owsley

At the Tom Tom Magazine Photography Show and Drummer Showcase at Envoy Gallery, Harlo Holmes, aka Lovers v Haters, took to the sound booth while Jenna Weiss-Berman sat down behind the kit. A curious departure from the line up of pure drum solos of the evening, Harlo was there to demonstrate her talents in sound composition. “I’m going to be doing live signal processing of Jenna’s drumming,” Harlo told the crowd. “We’ve never done this together before!” Soon, Jenna began improvising behind the kit, and within moments, her solid beats were being distorted and projected around the room. Pounding bass and snare were thinned out into a snapping noise, the sound being stretched and multiplied. Cymbal crashes popped, spliced from their full sound. The effect was sometime subtle, other times compellingly disorientating. I kept looking around the room, as if these new sounds were something that could be visually perceived. Jumping up to peer over the sound booth, I could see Harlo, hunched over her laptop, the artist bringing all these new sounds to life. (Little known secret — Harlo is also the web mistress for Tom Tom Magazine).

Full name: Harlo Holmes

Nickname/pseudonym: Lovers v Haters

Age: 26

Hometown: NYC

Where do you live now: Currently living in NYC again after a few years away.

What you do for a living:
I’m a web developer and grad student at NYU.

Harlo Holmes_lady beat maker_ tom tom magazine

Exclusive Tom Tom Magazine Photos by: Maggie Owsley

Bands you play in currently (or Current DJ alias/Project name): I have always pretty much been a solo artist, especially since my practice is more focused on sound than music. So sometimes, I’ll have like an albums worth of songs to get out of me, and other times, I’ll just want to build and installation. But it’s all the same practice. I do love to collaborate! I collaborate frequently with Vicki Simon, actually (although it’s been a couple of years). Lovers v Haters is definitely my main project.

Tom Tom Magazine: When did you start playing music? Or, perhaps more relevant, when did you start programming beats/composing sounds?

Harlo Holmes: I started doing the digital music stuff in undergrad, when I discovered Fruity Loops, and my interest in that developed in step with my new found love for computer languages. So it kind of came together. Fruity Loops (now called FL studio, I think?) is a software-based sampler. It’s pretty good, actually, and gives you a lot of control if you’re willing to learn the program inside and out. And it’s got a totally different work flow than Ableton Live, which is so simplistic, I find it hinders me when I’m making music.

Tom Tom Magazine:
How so?

Harlo Holmes:
Ableton was kind of built with the express purpose of making loops easy, and so you get into a spot where you’re not thinking about complexity beyond just like “4 bars.” It’s very rinse and repeat. And 4 catchy bars is borrrrrring.  Fruity Loops puts up a very distinct barrier. It’s pretty much a virtual drum machine, but you are made more conscious of the patterns you’re creating. Then there’s workspace to pile them up, switch them around, and break into them in so many levels. It’s definitely a matter of preference. That’s just mine!

Tom Tom Magazine: Can you talk about the performance you did with Jenna at the Tom Tom Magazine photo show?

Harlo Holmes: That was SOOOO FUN!

Tom Tom Magazine: I know descriptions of your music include that you use live signal processing on acoustic instruments. Was that an example of such?

Harlo Holmes: Yes, and it was totally unrehearsed, which was so liberating for (I think) both of us! The performance space was set up with a simple mic above the drum kit, so I just routed that feed into my computer and did “spectral analysis” on the microphone feed. Which means, in this case anyways, that I split up her drumming into bands of separate frequencies (4 bands), and performed delays, ring modulation, whatever onto them. Then I would feed them back.

Harlo Holmes_lady beat maker_ tom tom magazine

Exclusive Tom Tom Magazine Photos by: Maggie Owsley

Tom Tom Magazine: Is that similar to the process you used when you live signal processing on other instruments?

Harlo Holmes: Yes–I rarely change the set-up. So much of the effect depends on the space you’re performing in, and the way that feedback gets generated. So it’s never going to be the same, and it’s always going to have a very thick aspect of randomness to it. Actually, here’s the point to the whole piece: live instrumentation has such physicality to it that you can never match. Take the flute, for instance, which is a very violent instrument despite it’s mellow sound. There’s a lot of gasping, a lot of spitting, a lot of sonic artifacts that come part-and-parcel with live performance. And even though my contribution is digital, I wanted to find ways to preserve that physicality, and even play that like an instrument in its own right.

TTM: Do you play drums, or any other instruments?

HH: Yes, I do! I haven’t played live since I was 15, though! I was in a band, and there was a horrifying experience when the power went out during the student talent show. Suddenly it was just me,  drumming,  all alone. Mortifying! I also play piano, which was my first instrument. And I dabble in the guitar and electric bass.

TTM: How long were you playing the drums for?

HH: I played the kit for about 2 years.

TTM: What effect does playing instruments physically have on your sound composition and beat making?

HH: I think I have a lot of respect for percussion, coming from being a musician first. It’s very easy in pop-culture, or DJ culture, or when you get to IDM or whatever, to think that beats just come from patterns, and to forget the organic aspect of it. Overall, sound is made by violence, you know? It’s air being pushed forcefully all over the place! It’s not all just 1s and 0s, and we have to respect that!

TTM: What do you consider to be the most challenging aspect of making beats/sound compositions?

HH: The performance conundrum! I talk and talk about having respect for physicality, but ultimately, I am just moving a mouse, and clicking at the right times. I always give every performance 100% thought, as in, I am always making decisions about sound when I’m on stage, but I couldn’t really prove it to an audience! It takes a lot of trust (on the part of the listener), and I haven’t quite figured out how to create a performance that wasn’t entirely just…catatonic! I mean, you could needlessly create physical systems, or bring out objects to interact with, etc. But that’s not what I want to do, because I shouldn’t have to “prove” anything. So, yeah, maybe it’s just a paradox I have to live with!

TTM: So I know you’ve mentioned using software in your compositions. Do you use any hardware? Any preferences?

HH: I don’t perform with too much hardware, but I do have strong preferences for microphones and recording equipment. I think those are like the “bread and butter” of my practice. Being totally poor, I’ve always made sure to join whatever organizations I needed to in order to get access to the good stuff. So when I was living in Boston, I taught at Cambridge Community Television, in order to get to their mics and recorders. And I love Marantaz products for recording. The Marantz pmd660.

Harlo Holmes_lady beat maker_ tom tom magazine

Exclusive Tom Tom Magazine Photos by: Maggie Owsley

TTM: What’s your basic studio set up?

HH: Gorgeous! My studio is a fun place overall. I have a temperamental set of dub reels that, when they work, are great to record off of and on to. [There’s] a couple of microphones. And one thing that I absolutely love is this toy piano, very tiny, about 2 1/2 octaves, that a friend of mine fitted with a contact mic on the inside. So you can pick up the sound of the piano, but also, if you bang on it or something, you can hear the nails vibrating on the inside. I think it’s a very thoughtful way to work with a toy. I think the cornerstone of the studio is the mixer, though.

TTM: What’s your favorite part about making beats/sound compositions?

HH: Hmmm, I don’t know. That’s such a tricky one! It’s different, depending on the project.

TTM: What have been some of your favorite projects?

HH: My favorite projects have been the ones dealing with spectral analysis, hands down. I like it because it’s a physically impossible feat that you can only do digitally. You get results that are so unnatural, and I like that power! I did a project called RUB last year that involved playing a large tree (percussively) and stitching the recordings back together in impossible ways. That’s just an example of a good project like that.

TTM: If you had to describe what they sounded like (the effect produced by spectral analysis)…?

HH: Once again, it depends on how you do it, and what your sound source is. But the sound is clearly digitized. It almost always has this scratchiness to it, like something is going wrong in the machine. Which I guess is a combination of the method of playback (digital sound over a speaker), and the dissonance we all experience when you’re hearing something that is just not possible naturally, kind of like an optical illusion.

TTM: I also noted that your artist statement for LvH says that your best work has been in the medium of community. Can you talk more about this idea?

HH: Yeah, definitely! Are you familiar with the group called “share”? Share.dj is their site. It’s a bunch of clubs where people get together to just plug in something and make noise with it, in a safe, and incredibly noisy place. This goes on in NYC every Sunday evening (8-12 I think) at Issue Project Room! But it’s not only about computer music. It’s about connectivity, and in a way, the computer is only a metaphor for that.

I opened up a club out in Boston that was televised. Kind of like a challenge for people to, in whatever way you have available to you, to take part in that connectivity. So, ostensibly, people could “call in” to the TV show with whatever noise the want to make,
or just come down and take over the studio. Then that developed further to allowing people to remix audio and video from the performances on the web, and then shoot that back to us. So under the context of music, you’re actually fostering this dialogue. We might do it again this year, but I’m not sure.

Have you experienced any setbacks as a female beat maker/sound composer?

HH: It is difficult whenever you don’t fit the physical profile of the “computer musician.” I’m probably the opposite of what one would expect me to look like! For instance, when we were doing Share in Boston, people would immediately go up to my boyfriend and start asking him questions. And he’d be like, “Um, no…you need to talk to her.” But luckily, it’s also a community founded on this kind of “open source” utopianism, so people do give you your respect when you can prove that you deserve it. But then again, ask me in a few years if I have any trouble getting shown at the Whitney or something! I might have some war stories then!

TTM: Who are your favorite beat programmers/sound composers?

HH: Oh, I love this question! I was definitely very inspired by this artist Tracy Lee Summers, who was very active a few years ago. I’m not sure what she’s up to now. Solex is also my biggest hero. What I love about her is that she creates these beautiful sonic collages, and she knows how sound works. She’s got an amazing ear. A great artist who doesn’t do music, but sound installation, is Keiko Uenishi (who goes by o.blaat). She’s a very thoughtful artist who also likes to explore the collaborative aspect of the medium. But I would like to re-stress how awesome Solex is.

TTM: If you could change one thing about beat making/sound composition, what would it be?

HH: That would be the performance issues! It’s the biggest problem! It’s weird, because it’s ok to just press the space bar and pretend to DJ if you’re at a club, but most audiences are smarter than that, and they want “proof.” I guess iPod DJs are giving us a bad rep!

TTM: What’s the best piece of advice you got as a beat maker/sound composer?

HH: Beware of the loop! It’s very tempting to get into a composing groove where you’ve got a few bars that you find totally intoxicating, like you can listen to it over and over again. It’s a great moment; it’s a great itch to scratch. But that’s the moment when you have to break what you’ve just created and try to put it back together again in a totally different way. Or else what you’re creating is like dead on arrival.

Harlo Holmes_lady beat maker_ tom tom magazine

Exclusive Tom Tom Magazine Photos by: Maggie Owsley

TTM: What would you recommend to a new beat maker or sound composer starting off / advice for new beat makers/sound composers?

HH: A few things. One: go outside and just record some audio, then take it home and listen to it. That experience will take you very far! Also, play with some open source and FREE digital signal processing stuff, software like Spear and Pure Data. It’s like Max/MSP, which is a very expensive programming environment for sound manipulation (and data manipulation, micro controller interfaces, etc.), but [Spear and Pure Data] are 100% free!

TTM: Do you do anything else programming related besides work on your own music? (i.e. teach, etc.)

HH: I do teach—web design, mostly. I also am the educational director for Boston’s Young Composers Festival, which is an awesome yearly event where kids (all ages, kindergarten to college students) learn about composition in its various forms. We’re going to be doing an electronic music workshop for kids interested in sound art, too. I’m working on the curriculum right now.

TTM: You also did all the coding for the Tom Tom Magazine website, right? What was that like?

HH: Building the site was fun! And it’s still evolving. Candice Ralph gave us a superb design to work with. I’m good with the programming languages–I’m not the strongest visual artist, so I’m glad I got matched up with her!

TTM: Any current work going on for Lovers v Haters?

HH: I’m trying to keep busy! I’m working on a project called nomad a/v, which is in direct answer to my performance question. In this project, I’m removing myself physically from the performance space entirely, and I will be controlling live video and audio from the telephone. I think the work will translate well as a TV show. I might do this on cable access sometime soon, but it’s premiering in December.

TTM: Awesome! You will have to let us know the date!

HH: Totally! If you want, you guys can be on my show.
Exclusive Tom Tom Magazine Interview by: Courtney Gillette

Exclusive Tom Tom Magazine Photos by: Maggie Owsley

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