Published Jun 20, 2017Emma Olson is part of a feminist wave that's challenging hetero-normative ideals of the electronic music community. Performing as Umfang, she's a Brooklyn-based techno DJ who co-founded the New York-based Discwoman collective. The Bronx-born producer just dropped her debut full-length, Symbolic Use of Light, via Ninja Tune imprint Technicolour.
Equipped with a couple of Boss DR 202s, an x0xb0x, and a Korg Volca FM synth, Olson has crafted an explorative style of production that's perched on the cusp of dance floor mechanics. With influences spanning from Motown to German minimalism, Olson embraces the sparse and ambient sensibilities hidden beneath the hard surface of techno for a thoughtful body of work that is uniquely her own. Exclaim! caught up with Olson to talk about what inspired Symbolic Use of Light, why she found production incredibly daunting and how she overcame intimidation to make a progressive and cathartic record that's driven by her curiosity about analog machines.
1 Her album doesn't use any samples.
"I'm using one drum machine, for the most part, exploring what sounds are already in the drum machine and how I can change them to kind of make something cool," Olson tells Exclaim! "Some of that space is created from effects on the drum machine itself, like echo and delay adding a depth to the sounds. When you're using hardware and recording into an audio interface, it kind of goes through a new depth before it makes it into the computer, which can affect the sound a little bit. There are little details that kind of add to it, because it's compressed each time it passes through something new."
2 Each track is recorded in a single live take.
"I try to minimize any editing. I do really simple EQ adjustments on Ableton, and might change some levels around, but I don't want to have to be meticulously moving little pieces around. That's not exciting to me. I try to do it in one take, and I try to do as much adjustment before it gets into the computer as possible. Sometimes I'll make a song that's too short, so I'll copy and paste part of it that I like to make it a little bit longer — like an edit of my own recording — but I don't like working on the computer."
3 She'll listen to trap instead of techno if she's looking for inspiration.
"If I wanted get some thoughts going, I would probably be on SoundCloud looking at trap instrumentals instead of listening to a techno mix. I tend to not listen to music, because in my mind, when I'm listening to music, it's for a purpose. So when I'm listening to music to relax, it's kind of rare almost. Future and Drake, I really like; I would rather listen to that than listen to a techno mix, because for me, I'm thinking really intensely if I'm listening to techno. I'm really analyzing it."
4 She was always fascinated by production, but intimidated by the hardware.
"I didn't know that many people who were producing music with hardware, or what to use. In New York City, clubs have equipment for DJing. I learned how to DJ before I owned turntables, because I would just go to the club and try it. I had to make an investment to have any hardware to play with at all, so you have to spend $250 on something that you're totally unfamiliar with. You take a lot of consideration and research, so it seemed more personal — I really wanted to do it, but I was scared. I wanted to express something, but it seemed really intimidating to me in the way that DJing didn't feel as personal."
5 She's working to bridge the gap between her work as a DJ and as a producer.
"Lately, I've been trying to think more about making tracks that I would play. I feel like my explorations in music production are a lot softer, and really sparse. Some of that's just what I know how to do, but then some of it is also my preference. I find that when I think about music production, I'm a lot more inspired by the history of hip-hop and rap music. There are kind of some relationships between the sounds that I like; they might be similar, but the way that I'm using the sounds is different. I try to go with what happens with the machines that I'm working with, and I'm not really trying to copy a certain sound."