Tim Catlin: ‘Overtones and Invention.’ Interview by Catherine Meeson

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Tim Catlin is a very innovative Melbourne artist. Somewhat an inventor, he’s fascinated by the sounds of non conventional instruments and tunings, determined to experiment and make new instruments capable of delivering sounds that are unusual and eery. Whilst he’s released a series of solo albums such as Radio Ghosts, he’s also collaborated with Dutch artist Machinefabriek for Whorls and Glisten. His current instrument of choice is what he terms Vibrissa, which is a number of tuned aluminium rods that he strokes to build up standing waves as they begin to resonate. He also uses massed hand-bells, quarter-tone bells, e-bowed acoustic guitars, re-tuned glockenspiels, wineglasses and long wire instruments with his experimental group the Overtone Ensemble. I did a recent review of the new Overtone Ensemble release, that you can read here. During the writing I felt I needed to know more about Tim to properly conceptualize his work. I asked Tim a few questions about the Overtone Ensemble, the work and recording process.

Catherine: Can you explain in a sentence or two why you got into the creation and use of non ordinary instruments?

Tim: I was drawn to the work of instrument makers like Ellen Pullman, Harry Partch, Hans Reichel, Robert Rutman, Glenn Branca and others.Their instruments were able to produce sounds not possible with regular “off the shelf” instruments. I also thought – if you want a unique sound, make a unique instrument..

Catherine: How and where did you record the work?

Tim: We recorded it all at The RMIT Design Hub. It’s a huge room that is very reverberant and therefore quite suitable for what we do.We performed there as part of the Liquid Architecture festival in 2013, so knew what it would sound like.We need a reasonably large space to set the vibrissa up in.It was recorded over a couple of days with a mix of close microphones and ambient microphones to capture the room sound.We recorded a number of takes of the group performing each piece.Byron Scullin was the recording engineer.

Catherine: Was it an improvised process?

Tim: We had worked out the general shape and idea of each piece beforehand. Most of them were based on similar pieces that we had been performing at shows.There was an element of improvisation within the playing of each piece.

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Catherine: Why did you choose not to process it even at a minimal level, though the website implies it was mixed and mastered?

Tim: Maybe you are referring to our website where it states “no electronics or sound processing”(?)These pieces are really to let people hear what the vibrissa sound like. They are acoustic, but sound as though they could be electronically produced sounds.I thought it was important to state that, as that is an important part of the conception of the group. Personally I’m far more interested in an instrument that produces these sounds through resonance and just intonation tuning, than using a laptop or synthesiser to similar effect. There didn’t seem to be a need to process or change sounds, and I find it more interesting to achieve these sounds without resorting to processing.(Although I’m not saying we couldn’t use electronic sounds in the future.) For the album recording we recorded a number of takes or sections for different pieces. I edited and mixed them together and applied some eq to sections that needed it. Yes technically EQing is processing, but I don’t have a problem with that. It was mastered by Byron Scullin.

Catherine: How did your fascination with sound engineering and instrument design begin? The website suggests you understand the physics/ acoustics of everything really well? Is there a background in science?

Tim: I’ve been performing and recording experimental guitar music since the late 90’s. My approach to experimental guitar and drone music was to use “preparations’ on the guitar and customise the instrument (e.g. additional strings or necks, magnets and mechanical playing devices etc). I did some study which furthered my interest and knowledge in this area. (sound design and engineering – not instrument design. That I’ve had to learn myself). Throughout this time my interest in experimental music led me to hearing many interesting instrument designers and and also performers who used “extended” technique on regular instruments. I don’t have any background in science or maths. (It would make things a lot easier if I did!). I’m still learning this stuff and don’t consider myself a great expert compared to some great local instrument makers who’ve inspired me (Warren Burt, Kraig Grady). Some of the principles relating to the Harmonic Series and tuning theory I had picked up through my research into ‘extended guitar.’ (‘extended guitar’ was the subject of my Masters research at RMIT). All of the information on actual instrument design I’ve learnt through a lot of reading and research. Really my interest in creating other instruments flowed on naturally from my interest in ‘extending’ the sounds of the guitar.

You can find out more about Tim and the Overtone Ensemble here.
You can check out the Cyclic Selects he did for us here.
And here is a previous interview we did with Tim back in 2008. You can read that here.

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About Author

Catherine Meeson is a solo ambient electro / progressive folk rock songwriter/ composer from Melbourne, fascinated by the wealth of brilliance in the musical world.