How to Build a Time Machine: Inside Michael Oakley’s California EP

If you’re stuck on the Stranger Things soundtrack, here’s some good news: the tide of 80s nostalgia is still rising. The sentimental synthpop of Michael Oakley’s debut EP, California, is recent proof. 

On the lead single, Oakley laments his inability to “Turn Back Time.” With chiming synths doubling the chorus melody and a bitcrushed beat underneath, the production ironically does just that. Topped off by a vulnerable, pleading vocal, it’s a downtrodden but danceable jam reminiscent of Orchestral Manouevers in the Dark or When in Rome.

It can sound like a retread at first, but Oakley makes all the right moves in his wholehearted pursuit of an idealized 80s aesthetic. 

Consider “Devotion,” which sneaks in vocal samples from Depeche Mode’s “Insight” (all credit to our resident post-punk priestess, Soraya the Great, for that pull). It also layers keys and vocals to create a bright, pulsing pad accented by electronic toms and cowbell. And if we’re being honest, it’s pretty hard not to love a track with electronic cowbell.

“The End of Summer” is another high point. Oakley’s lyrics reflect on how the end of a relationship can feel like the end of the world, as anxious arpeggios and a muffled kick drum beat lend him a sense of doomsday urgency. At the same time, if it’s really the end, why not at least rock out and have fun with it?

Influenced by contemporary electronic acts like The Midnight and Ulrich Schnauss, Oakley is an artist who knows how to harness the bittersweetness of looking back. For those curious on how he does it, he spoke to The All Scene Eye about the sources of California’s synth-soaked sound.

How did you make the tape sounds at the beginning of “Rabbit in the Headlights,” and why did you decide to start the EP that way?

I was looking for some retro sounds to use, and I found a cassette pack from Moon Echo Audio. It was only about $9, and it has, like, 100 different cassette sounds. I put together the start of Rabbit In The Headlights from that. Very simple, but chopping the samples to get the timing right is a little bit tricky. This was the first song I wrote when I started writing music again, and at the end when I had written all the songs for the EP, it just felt right to start the record this way.

My biggest vice in life is collecting samples and sound libraries, as well as patch banks for virtual synthesizers. I recently had to delete about 50Gb of sounds off my hard drive simply out of principle, because I know I won’t ever use most of them, and it takes so long browsing through stuff when I’m composing. I’m still on a mission to diminish what I have down to only what I’m planning to use on the follow up album.

What kinds of synths did you use on this record?

I write and record everything on my Macbook using Propellerhead Reason. I also use Ableton Live, but I think Reason is a creative dream for electronic musicians. “Rabbit In The Headlights,” “Turn Back Time,” “Devotion,” and “End Of Summer” were all recorded in Reason, and “Here Comes The Night” and “California” were recorded using Ableton.

I used Reason’s native synths and effects–things like Korg Polysix, Rob Papen’s Predator, and Bitley’s Way Beyond Fairlight, which is my favourite sound bank of all time. I used a heck of a lot of sounds from that on California. Reason also has Scream4 Unit, the best effects plugin ever. This thing is on everything I do. It has a beautiful tape compression on it, and a smooth bit crushing effect. The Thor Synthesizer should be an external VST plugin because it sounds just as good as any virtual synthesiser I’ve heard, personally. It can do really expressive analog recreations as well as having a wavetable oscillator for PPG-type sounds and glassy DX or digital sounds.

Now you can have VST support in Reason 10, which means I can use all my favourite external plugins like Spire, Sylenth1, UVI Workstation, Soundtoys 5, and Korg M1. So I’ll continue to use Reason for my next record, for sure.

What about the beats?

All of my drum sounds are samples from Israel Medina, who’s a genius at making and programming drums. He makes the best retro drum sounds for a company called Sample Magic, and those are on every track on California. Sometimes I layered them with Linndrum samples, and layered several sounds to make whatever hybrid drums I wanted, but I mostly have Israel to thank. I was lucky enough to sit down with him in a studio, and he worked on “Here Comes The Night” with me. He programmed all the drums on that track.

I love old drum machines. I’m not such a fan of the electronic-sounding ones like the Roland TR808 and 909. I much prefer acoustic sample based drum machines like Linndrum, Roland TR707, Oberheim DMX, or Yamaha RX5.

What was it like working with John Glenn Kunkel of The New Division and mastering engineer Pete Maher?

Well for me, John is a total genius. He consistently produces incredible music, not just with The New Division, but on other solo projects and collaborations. It was a real honor working with him on my album. It wouldn’t sound as good without his input, and It was amazing watching him work in the studio. I plan on working with him again, for sure, on my next album.

Pete Maher has the most incredible client list–U2, The Killers, Depeche Mode–and after reading that, I was sold. Class through and through with both John and Pete.

Can you tell me about the process behind “End of Summer,” the last track?

End Of Summer came about after I watched a movie called Risky Business, with Tom Cruise in it. It’s a great movie, but the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream is what really inspired me. Each track starts with two arpeggios juxtaposed against each other, which creates a really nice hypnotic effect. I started End Of Summer with that same kind of arpeggio style, and built the track from that.

I used mostly sounds from Rob Papen’s Predator, which is a really nice synth for digital-sounding analog sounds. It reminds me of virtual analog synths from the mid 1990’s like the Roland JP8000 and Yamaha CS1X. Halfway through writing it, I started to worry it was sounding too left-field or 90s compared with my other tracks, but it sounded like what I imagined Trance music would have sounded like in the 80s. At the end of it, I think I struck the right balance. I took the track to John, and he put down some really beautiful, dreamy, shoegaze-y guitar on it.

To keep up with blog updates, follow The All Scene Eye on Twitter or Facebook

Leave a Reply