Interview with Immersion Theory

Cosmic storytelling & sound design:
An interview with John-Mark Austin, aka Immersion Theory

Date: Aug 28 2008

John-Mark, how did you get in touch with electronic music and what made you decide to start the Immersion Theory project?
I started in electronic music back in the early 80’s. My first synth was a Mini-Korg and ever since then I’ve had a certain fondness for Korg instruments. I was in a typically awful band doing covers of The Cars, The Kinks, and various other pre-New Wave bands. Fortunately, humanity has been spared any recordings from that endeavor.
But while the band went the way of the dodo, I kept the synths and started picking up recording gear shortly afterward.
Like many people, my first exposure to Space Music was listening to Stephen Hill’s “Music from the Heart of Space” in the wee hours of the morning. At the time, I was a night DJ at a radio station in New York. I had a day job at another station and I was only getting a few hours of sleep between the two. Listening to something that was so profoundly relaxing and completely different from the commercial music I was hosting made a significant impact on my ability to cope with the stress.
I’d originally gotten into radio in hopes of being a part of a revival of radio drama. CBS Radio Mystery Theater was one of the last bastions for radio drama – the show finally ended in 1982 – but I was fascinated with the idea of storytelling and sound design. That, fused with listening to lots of thematic progressive rock from the likes of Alan Parsons and Pink Floyd, instilled a strong desire to blend the two elements together.
“The Icarus Foray” is a story of sorts…at least in my head. There are recurring music themes, dialog suggestions that what we’re hearing might, in fact, be quite literal, and long sections of ambiances that suggest motion and discovery.
So in a sense, it is a sort of radio drama. More than likely, that aspect of storytelling is an avenue I will continue to explore with future Immersion Theory releases.

What was the conceptual idea for “The Icarus Foray” ?
The story fragment in “The Icarus Foray” is based on a recording of an astronaut launched on a one way mission into deep space. Instead of mourning his fate, he discovers something beyond the expected. What that is, exactly, I’ll leave to your listeners’ interpretation.
“Icarus One” sets up the story and ends the first chapter with a sort of enigmatic “2001”-like ending.
“Echoes of Apollo” is a broader view of the space program that draws from the Christmas Eve broadcast of the Apollo 8 astronauts. It reflects a time when we viewed science and spirituality as complementary facets of the human condition and not mutually exclusive.
“Resonance” also reflects the early years of the space program, but more the way that a an eight year old might see it. There’s even a little nod to “Star Trek” stuck in the middle, too.
“Solar Garden” takes us back to the pilot in “Icarus One”, having arrived on some unknown world. It’s not exactly clear what sort of state he’s in, but we follow his journey over the planet, down into the ocean, through the crust and ultimately into the core of the world.

What kind of other (space)music inspired you to realize this project?
You know, it’s funny. I couldn’t tell you of any specific tracks or artists that inspired “The Icarus Foray”. It gets compared to Steve Roach, Constance Demby and others, which is certainly flattering, but I have to admit that I didn’t knowingly listen to their music until the project was almost complete. Their music must have been included in the old “Hearts of Space” shows though, so that would have been material that I was exposed to.
So to answer your question, it’s more like “The Icarus Foray” was inspired by my memory of Space Music from the 80’s rather than anything I was listening to at the time of recording. The album has a distinctively retro feel to it, which is no doubt the result of the music from that era. It’s the way I remembered Space Music being, rather than the way it’s recorded today.

How did you start out anyway, as the music seems quite complicated?
From a compositional standpoint, “The Icarus Foray” was a sort of experiment. I’d always approached music fairly linearly in the past and it produced reasonable results that rarely surprised or excited me.
So for this project I tried something completely different. I would write a piece, pin down the melodies, chord structures and progressions and then tear it to bits! I’d chop up the files, filter them, process them through granular tools and re-import them back into a clean project file. Then I’d start reassembling the pieces from scratch and compose new melodies and progressions on top of the original.
That gave me a whole new perspective on what I was doing – one that wasn’t solely based on my preconceived notions about where it would go and what it would be. It was more a process of letting the individual tracks shape themselves and I would guide them from the abstract back to the musical.

What gear did you use in the whole process?
I still have some vintage gear around from the old studio. A KORG Mono/Poly, some Yamaha stuff, an old and battered Alesis ADAT machine and hundreds of tapes from early projects, some of which were sampled for “The Icarus Foray”.
But most of the compositions use VST instruments on the computer. The KORG Legacy package makes a big showing, along with Reason, an orchestral sample library and some profoundly weird and off the wall packages that produce some amazing babble. On the practical effects side, I have boxes of noise makers of one sort or another that produce tones the old school way. I turn to these when a track is getting to cold and electronic, and I want to inject some warmth back in.
I compose and record in Sonar in 64/32 bit and then dither down to cd quality, so that keeps everything pristine throughout the whole process.

In what way did you meet Robert Rich and what’s this special thing that Robert added to your music in the mastering process?
I explored a number of different avenues for mastering the project, and living in L.A., there are a lot of options available. But I had a hard time believing that a mastering engineer who just finished a pop or metal session was going to be able to instantly retune his ears for something like “The Icarus Foray”. So I started looking for ambient musicians who also had mastering facilities. Ultimately, that led me to Robert.
I sent him the files and after a bit of back and forth, we ended up flying up to his studio for a mastering session. Robert’s ears are golden. By that point, I’d been working on the mixes for a couple months and while I was comfortable that everything was “proper”, I’d long since lost the ability to be objective. Robert brought back the objectivity and had a remarkable ability to acutely listen to everything that was in the mixes.
It was strange, to say the least. A track would be playing, and we would be chatting about something or other and I would think he wasn’t paying attention to the sound. Then he’d stop and say “You know you’ve got a little resonance there that we should clamp down.” And he’d go to work.
By the end of it, I was quite confident that we really had something. Robert was able to correct some technical issues while opening up the mixes and expanding the overall sound.

In what way do you like to continue your project?
I’m about halfway though with a new album now, but I’ve not yet decided whether to put it under the Immersion Theory moniker or give it a new name. It’s not space music, although it does make use of ambient sections and storytelling.
I’m mildly concerned that listeners who are familiar with “The Icarus Foray” might be expecting something quite different. It’s more downtempo / midtempo stuff along the lines of Cell, Solar Fields, and Carbon Based Lifeforms.
The working title is “The Skin Between Us”, but that might change before the release.

I do expect to be getting back to space music though. “The Icarus Foray” has been nicely received and I’ll always have a soft spot for long form pieces.


Sonic Immersion
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