Com Truise’s Immersive Musical Research: Joy Division – “Unknown Pleasures”

Seth Haley (Com Truise) in the studio

+ This lesson is presented courtesy of Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk. To access this, plus hundreds of videos and tutorials on production, songwriting, composing, and mixing, subscribe to Soundfly.

In Seth Haley’s online course for Soundfly, he talks extensively about his approach to “immersive musical research.”

Often finding himself more inspired by the sound of a specific song than the song itself, it’s the technical elements of how an artist or producer achieved that sound — including what gear or processing they used and how they dialed them in — that he really finds fascinating and actionable.

Understanding this part of the process is not easy, so when Seth hears a sound he likes, he tries to find out who created it and how. He even spends time trying to imagine himself in the studio with the artists making those decisions. Since he frequently cites the legendary producer Martin Hannett as one of his influences, why don’t we start there!

Let’s imagine that you’ve been listening to some Joy Division, maybe something from 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, and there was something in it that struck you, some element of the sound that just tickled your ear the right way. How did they achieve that sound? You do a quick Google search and discover that Hannett was an innovative producer known for making use of experimental and non-traditional methods.

But that’s really just the first step. Let’s dive even deeper!

Starting With Your Ears

Alright, the next step in Com Truise’s Immersive Musical Research approach should be fairly obvious. Get your ears on as much of Martin Hannett’s catalog as possible.

As an example, check out the playlist we’ve curated for you below. While you listen, think about what similarities you hear in the production, the overall mix, the song’s arrangement, and its instrumentation:

Now that you have a general idea of Hannett’s “sound,” let’s go a step further. Let’s get a sense of how his style influenced Joy Division by listening to a song they released before working with him compared to the records he put his stamp on.

First, let’s check out “Warsaw” from the band’s self-produced record An Ideal for Living, no Hannett involved.

Pretty standard production for a punk EP from the late 1970s right? Now have a listen to a track from the band’s breakout record, Unknown Pleasures, produced by Hannett:

The difference between the two tracks is felt immediately. There’s so much depth and atmosphere in Hannett’s production, and that’s in part due to all the different effects he used. Hannett was passionate about creating space in his productions.

Let’s take the treatment of the drums, for example. Notice how wide the drums are panned in the intro and then throughout the track. That kind of panning was unique for the time and goes a long way in creating the atmospheric vibe of this song. Another ingredient to create that atmosphere? The drums are loaded with reverb to create a boundless soundscape.

Digging Deeper

Here’s where we might really start to fall down some rabbit holes. Seth uses this next phase of research to ask questions like: who programmed the drums, what equipment was used, what time period was it, what did the liner notes say, what session musicians were used, and on and on.

Let’s see if we can figure out more on how Hannett approached the production and specifically drum production on this record. Luckily, there’s a lot out there on this topic.

A simple search of Unknown Pleasures on Discogs will give us a ton of information. We can see when the record was offically released, where it was recorded (Strawberry Studios, which was Hannett’s studio at the time), who pressed the record, etc… What we’re really after here though is the personnel on the album, which we can uncover by clicking the link to Joy Division’s Discogs page.

Lo and behold, we see the band’s drummer on this record (and all Joy Division albums) was Stephen Morris.

Now if we look up “Stephen Morris and Martin Hannett” we can get a glimpse of how they worked together through this article. Morris says of working with Hannett:

“He wanted it as clean and as treatable as he could get it, which meant you couldn’t really play a drum kit because you would get spill. And you could forget playing cymbals. You had to basically take the drum kit to pieces and play each bit separately. At the time I thought he was just doing it to drive me mad – which he did, quite successfully.”

This offers some very important perspective on how Martin Hannett viewed drum production in 1979. He was treating the kit much like a producer would come to use a drum machine, giving himself total sonic control of each part of the kit.

Martin Hannett in the studio, 1980. Photo by K. Cummins.
Martin Hannett in the studio, 1980. Photo by K. Cummins.

Exploring the Equipment

Finally, we can’t discuss Mart Hannett’s drum production without mentioning some of the tools he used. Searching for “Unknown Pleasures drum production” will lead us to this in-depth article about the AMS 15-80 digital delay unit, one of the earliest digital delays, of which Martin was one of the earliest users.

As opposed to setting the drum delay to specific settings, Hannett would use much more random intervals of delay to create a more experimental results. The most iconic example of this is the opener from Unknown Pleasures’ “Disorder.”

Unknown Pleasures also features the use of an early synth drum — the Synare III (as Morris explains in this old interview). You can hear them experimenting with these sounds in “She’s Lost Control,” as well as putting the drum sounds through various effects. We’ll see later how synthesized drums is something that clearly influences Com Truise’s sound.

Making It Actionable

So what’s the point of all this? Well, for one thing, this can be fun! Seth loves learning about the technology and imagining what it would have been like to be in the room with Martin Hannett trying this stuff out. Hint: apparently, not very fun (he was not the easiest person to work with, by all accounts).

Plus, picturing yourself working on a record you pull inspiration from can really help you get in a creative zone.

But it can also influence your sound and open you up to new possibilities. Seth picks up plenty of inspiration from other artists and producers using these methods that you can begin to hear in the Com Truise sound.

Just listen to the incredibly atmospheric sound of “Disorder” above and compare it to a Com Truise track like “84′ Dreamin” below.

Now it’s your turn.

Think of a track that inspires you and conduct your own immersive research on it.

You’re welcome to think about what questions you want to answer on your own, but feel free to use the list below to get started.

  • When did the record come out?
  • Who performed on it and what instruments did they use?
  • Who engineered or produced it?
  • What other artists has the producer worked with?
  • What did the artist in question sound like before they worked with the producer of your selection?
  • What gear or processing did they use?
  • What other production methods were used to get that sound?

Some of this info will be hard to find, so you may have to use your gut or live with some uncertainty here. Trust your ears when it comes to listening for the producers impact on the artist and follow the rabbit hole wherever it takes you!

Don’t Stop Here.

Keep learning about production and beat making, composing and arranging, theory and harmony, mixing, songwriting, and so much more, with Soundfly’s in-depth online courses. Subscribe for access to all, including Com Truise: Mid-Fi Synthwave Slow-Motion Funk.

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