Published Nov 18, 2019David Psutka has just delivered a walk-through of all the synths adorning the wall of his Etobicoke, ON studio when things take an abrupt turn.
"Guitar's kind of my main instrument."
As the mind behind Egyptrixx (recently retired), as well as projects like ACT!, Ceramic TL, and half of the brain trust responsible for Anamai and Hiawatha, the Toronto producer has built a name on mapping the architectural character of electronic sounds, so it's the kind of revelation that might prompt a re-evaluation of his catalogue. But when it comes to writing and composing, Psutka says he generally reaches for a six-string, often using them to send analogue signals to MIDI and control synths — a caveat that gels more with the tumbling electronic landscapes we associate him with.
"I'm not a great piano player, so the guitar's a lot more fluid," Psutka explains. "That's a part of how I write, creating something on one instrument and then mapping it to something else, then maybe doing it again — maybe sending it to an algorithmic thing."
Most recently, Psutka has favoured a setup that sends guitar to a computer, as well as a Waldorf Blofeld synth. Sure enough, if you listen closely to recent output like ACT!'s "Ecstatica / On Patrol," you'll catch moments of twangy richness peeking through a canopy of shimmering percussion, and Psutka says he also used the technique to generate some of his contributions to the new Anamai album, Dream Baby.
"You can have half-guitar, half-synth, or all-synth or all-guitar," he says. "You can just create interesting sandwiches of sound."
Once a devout user of Gibson SGs, there are a couple of those perched on a stand nearby, but he's recently gravitated towards Steinberger guitars, attracted by their compact, practical minimalism.
"Tone and all that kind of shit is pretty meaningless to me now. So having the big heavy Gibson that's expensive or irreplaceable is just completely pointless. Or an amp. A 70-pound amp. Don't need that either."
This preference for practicality is king in Psutka's studio. Just as he accesses guitar for its compositional fluidity and immediacy, he recently traded out a collection of analogue synthesizers in favour of the "weird, crappy obscure digital synths" on his wall (there's a Korg Wavestation, a Roland JD-800, a Yamaha DX7), declaring them more precise, while praising them for their fantasy-evoking palettes. Meanwhile, a compact modular unit sits on a shelf with a Roland Space Echo and a ribbon synth he can send CV to for occasional textural noodling — a to-scale physical representation of his workflow priorities.
In a similar vein, he's resisted the urge to accumulate a towering stock of equipment while casually observing a "one item in, one item out" policy.
"If I have something that I haven't used for a few months, I'll get rid of it," Psutka shrugs. "It's very fast and efficient. Everything is plugged in and everything works, everything has a simple workflow, and that's it."
Following the birth of his daughter, for the past two years Psutka has scaled back his live appearances and taken a break from touring, becoming exceptionally prolific in the studio. He estimates he's working on a handful of projects at any given time, and when Exclaim! drops in, he's between several of his own while also having started producing for hip-hop and R&B projects.
Meanwhile, a series of conceptual Snapchat filters by Toronto-based artist and documentarian Karen Vanderborght contain 100 mini-compositions he completed for the project. He's usually joined by someone else in the studio at least a couple times a week, and he's developed the studio to optimize workflow and stay productive accordingly. At one end of the room there's a desktop computer equipped with Pro Tools and Reason for engineering needs, while a laptop is set up with Ableton for live performances. To switch from one task to the next, you literally have to get up and walk several steps to the other side of the room.
Just as the advent of his Halocline Trance label allowed him to compartmentalize and focus his artistic impulses and release music more freely under different project aliases, Psutka's now erected a physical shrine to task flow optimization.
"It's very contained."