Capturing a true pandemic-era album: dive into A Path Untold’s production of Sourcery

Today, we’re exploring the depths of the Sourcery album, the latest release from California-based musician A Path Untold – a project from producer and composer Daniel Merrill, who has been creating and releasing under the moniker since 2015. It’s his third full-length album – and his most intricate and ambitious album yet.

Not familiar with A Path Untold? It’s a name worth exploring. His sound fuses elements from organic slow-house, future garage, downtempo, breakbeat and ambient genres. It’s unique and eclectic to say the least, and a journey that continually kept our ears peaked. It’s also the first musical release from The Chambers Project, an art collective that has worked with psychedelic visual artists like Ralph Steadman and Mars-1.

We spoke with Merrill to hear about the project, his production process, what it was like to produce an album across three different locations admist a roaring pandemic, and more.

First off: how do you describe your sound?

I’d describe my sound as “Ancient Future Garage Downtempo Spirit House”, which is an over-the-top but effective way to describe it for those who follow the myriad genres in electronic music. It’s fusion music that weaves together a variety of elements that I love deeply, resulting in a blend of cinematic, emotive downtempo, slow deep house and ethereal future garage with an emphasis on mood, atmosphere and melodic storytelling. It’s aimed at providing infectious dancefloor functionality – while also being immersive listening music to just get lost in. 

What influenced you to create this cross-genre style?

They are dense and diverse. In my 25 years as a producer, I’ve gone through numerous genres that had a lasting effect on my sound. I spent my teen years into melodic, gothic metal (i.e. Type O Negative and Paradise Lost) – and later got into electronic music via creating industrial music. I was inspired by bands like Frontline Assembly and NIN, and eventually discovered the rave scene in the late 90s as I became obsessed with drum n’ bass (Certificate 18 for life), trance/house (old Sasha and Charlie May), IDM, downtempo and breaks. I’ve always been into the deep and melodic sounds within each genre. 

I had a 12-year project titled Aligning Minds (IDM/downtempo/breaks) with a friend, while I simultaneously made liquid drum and bass under the moniker Motive Within. I was also heavily influenced by Burial when that sound emerged, and became hooked on future garage – which led to my love for melodic house and techno. I’ve obsessively made and studied all of these forms of music and drawn upon them in various ways – it’s all there.  

On top of that, I’ve taken influence from South American medicine music. This is the best way I can summarize it without writing a book-length synopsis on how this music has touched my life and is interconnected. My taste has always been wildly eclectic, but it centers around epic, uncompromising, emotive, melodic and ethereal music that serves to transport me to unexpected, mystical places. That’s a running theme.

How does your experience as a composer layer into your production work?

The term “producer” is a catch-all that often, but not always, also implies “composer”. I like to differentiate a bit between the two roles, as they occupy different spaces in my process. 

Composition is the first stage of my overall workflow. It equates to a focus on the intuitive and emotional aspects of making music – songwriting, idea creation, improvising, arrangement and generally freely exploring my emotions through sound. It’s about following my imagination and intuition wherever they lead me without worrying about how they’ll work practically in the “real world”. There’s a feeling of unboundedness, which is central to the way I write. 

Producing is the second stage – and feels like a different role altogether, as it focuses on technical engineering aspects like sound design, mixing, and mastering. These things are creative acts unto themselves, but there are more constraints – it’s more about harnessing, controlling and perfecting. This stage is much more technology-centric and concerned with wrangling wild ideas into tangible ways for others to experience. It’s important for me to differentiate these processes and balance them in a symbiotic way, and that leads to the best results in my work. 

Can you elaborate on your relationship with The Chambers Project, and your experience as the first artist releasing music with them? 

The Chambers Project is a collective of visual artists making waves in the art world with their psychedelic works. They curate and represent the artwork of Ralph Steadman (Hunter S. Thompson’s best friend and visual art collaborator) and the Gonzo art legacy, as well as works from artists like Mars-1, Oliver Vernon, and Miles Toland (my cover album artist, whose work is also featured in ‘Better Call Saul’).

The founder, Brian Chambers, was a long-time fan of my previous work. We met in 2019 and quickly became close. He invited me to work with the collective as the first musical artist on the roster, as well as to initiate the platform’s record label with Sourcery as its first release. We are working closely together on a number of projects, and I’m curating the label roster of artists. It’s been an honor to work with them, and I have been a resident DJ & sound artist for their gallery events, performing alongside fellow residents Dj Qbert and The Gaslamp Killer. 

Being the first musical artist on the roster has been an inspiring process. My studio where I spent about a year finishing Sourcery was the first functioning creative space in the gallery’s Grass Valley, CA-based compound. I had countless late nights working there while prior to the public grand opening, which was an interesting journey – often alone in this massive, empty building and watching the gallery come to life piece by piece over time. It’s now evolved into a thriving creative ecosystem, and being surrounded by unique and innovative art really keeps my music flowing. 

On a technical level, how does Sourcery stand out from your previous two albums?

Sourcery has been the most ambitious A Path Untold album thus far – both as an overall body of work and within each individual track.

The biggest fundamental undertaking was carving out the album’s sound palette. Acknowledging my earlier discussion of the composer/producer roles, I created a tailored creative environment and sound palette for each body of work. This has been quite helpful before diving into the compositional process, as I can write and explore freely while utilizing materials that inspire me and align with my highest preferences. 

The album was a true embodiment of that approach, moreso than previous works as it took years to build the discipline to see this kind of methodology through. I started the album with numerous sound design experiments, learning new tools and instruments (Straylight, Auras and Cycles), collecting and processing samples, creating Ableton racks, drum kits, etc – and organizing it in a way that was intuitive to navigate. This was all part of a larger effort to create a “sonic lexicon” that would serve the narrative of the whole album. 

Melodically, I got deeper on this album in terms of exploring harmony and contrast by focusing on the chord progressions and incorporating borrowed chords, major/minor integration, interesting inversions, etc – and building harmonies around those relationships. I wanted the tracks to have bold sounds and contrasting emotional expressions. 

What did your gear kit look like?

Some of the gear and tools I used include:

  • NI Straylight (granular synthesis and sample mangling)
  • Output Portal
  • Nord Lead 2 (pads and drones)
  • Modal Electronics Skulpt (bass and leads)
  • AAS Chromaphone 3 (physical modeling and plucks)
  • UVI Drum Designer (snares, claps and top loops)
  • Max devices like K-Devices Twistor, Hexo, etc. for rhythmic and modulation purposes

I’m looking forward to going deeper into all of these as I move forward with new projects.

How did the pandemic shape your experience and production process for Sourcery? 

I lived in Baltimore, MD pre-pandemic – my home for 15 years – where I wrote the album’s first half. I did not initially intend for Sourcery to be a full-length album, but rather a 5-track EP. I had a few tracks by early 2020 – Spiritus, Heart Matters and Sunrise on the Moon – just before COVID hit. However, once we went into lockdown and I had more time on my hands, I became drastically more ambitious about what the project could become. I started creating tracks that encapsulated the emotions and internal stories I wanted to express – as well as captured my feelings about the evolving situation. This is definitely my “pandemic album.”

Living in Baltimore during both the pandemic and the riots and turmoil of the George Floyd incident was a simultaneously challenging and inspiring backdrop. I wrote a lot of music that expressed my emotions resulting from what I was seeing.That Which Binds Us, for example, explores the unity and passion I felt from watching a community come together to rise up and stand for their beliefs, and how humanity can be be bound by that so powerfully. Writing the first half of the album through this lens resulted in what I’d call quite serious music. The experience was transmutational, and provided an incredibly inspirational soundtrack. This process allowed me to see things in a more hopeful light and served a means of self-therapy. 

Midway through the pandemic, I moved to Grass Valley to be closer to The Chambers Project when we began our collaboration. I wrote the second half of the album here – in an isolated off-grid cabin in the Sierra Nevada mountains, actually on the land that Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, Gary Snyder bought, lived in, and worked on together. Needless to say, there was an intense level of history and creative power in that space – and with that perspective and inspiration, I wrote Procession Of Titans, Maturin and Fallen Rise.

Ultimately, Sourcery reflects a lot of contrast and personal growth. I mixed and mastered the album at The Chambers Project HQ, and producing across such an interesting array of locations was inspiring – I was using my physical location as a catharsis to express what was around me. 

What was your gear kit for the album? 

At the heart of my setup is Ableton running on an i7 Windows 10 laptop with 64gb RAM, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i6, Adam Audio T8V monitors, and JBL 306P MkII monitors and Genelec 8010As for B testing. I use SennHeiser HD300 Pros for headphone referencing and Sonarworks for room correction. I use an Ableton Push 2 to control Live and a Roli Seaboard Block to control soft synths.

For hardware, I used the Modal Electronics Skulpt for bass sounds – it’s VA, but has some lush bass tones – and for a few pluck/lead sounds. I typically layer synthesized plucks with more organic sounds – either from Kontakt libraries or physical modeling patches like with Chromaphone – to create hybridized plucks and lead melody sounds with interesting timbres. I used a Nord Lead 2 primarily for pads, strings and sustained melodic sounds, which I’d also sample and process with plugins like Output Portal. 

On the software synths front: I layered together Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Imaginando DRC, and Output Analog Strings to create lush, textured chord and stab sounds for the chord progressions. I used each one for a different frequency range/octave, and EQ/processed each layer in order to make the frequencies compliment and balance each other. I also heavily used Slate and Ash’s Auras and Cycles instruments, which are incredible for melodic sounds with a lot of movement. I used these for strings, plucks, drones and ostinatos, and would sample, effect, and resample a lot. I utilized AAS Chromaphone 3 for physical modeling to get interesting plucks and strange tones and ambience. I also used Ableton’s Operator and Wavetable for ostinatos/drones here and there. 

As far as effects went, I love 2cAudio Breeze for reverb, SoundToys EchoBoy and Valhalla Delay for delays, and WavesFactory Spectre, Softube Tape and Saturn for saturation, etc.

I mixed and mastered with Fabfilter ProQ-3 for almost all of the EQ, Pro-C for compression, and then NewFangled Audio Elevate for limiting and Kazrog K-clip for clipping – both of which, I’ve found, allow for cleaner masters. I’ve been getting into the clip to zero method lately, which I used a bit in this process. 

Which tracks were your favorite to produce? Can you elaborate on their creation?

Heart Matters and Procession Of Titans were two of my favorites. As far as writing goes, they both came together quite fluidly. To put things into perspective, in contrast, the album’s intro track – Stand and Be True – was quite the opposite, as it took months of trial, error, and refinement to get to a final version. 

Heart Matters

I started with the primary beat and chord progression with this track, which became the foundation for everything that followed. I focused on building something really infectious within solely those elements, as I found that the rest of the ideas come together more easily once that’s established. These tracks are a perfect example of that. My key approach with this track – and really, with the whole album – was lots of harmonic, melodic, and textural layering. I’m always looking for interesting new sounds and timbres, and usually end up layering synthesis and acoustic sources for a rich, hybridized result.  

I also used multiple granular synthesis approaches to accomplish this: Spectrasonics Omnisphere, NI Straylight, and Slate and Ash’s Cycles. Here’s a look at those techniques.

Procession of Titans

With ‘Procession Of Titans’, I created my pluck/lead sounds on the Skulpt, playing with different wave shapes for each oscillator to find interesting timbres, I then routed the output through Output Portal by 100% wet, and set up an audio channel to record the output of that. From there, I triggered some notes (in key with the chords) and tweaked the parameters on the Skulpt and Portal simultaneously to create a symbiosis between the source and effect. I captured several minutes of this as an audio track and then chose a few bits that I made the main granular lead sound. That sound resounds throughout the track, which I ran through an Echoboy on send/return for added delay.

And lastly – what’s next for you?

I’m working on a new EP slated to release in the fall with The Chambers Project. After that, I plan to release my second EP in the “Numinous” series – a project I started a few years back on Timewheel Records that’s finally coming to fruition. Sourcery will also see a remix EP likely later this year, as well as a full vinyl package.

You can listen to Sourcery on Soundcloud and buy the full digital album on Bandcamp.

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