Limitations Inspire Joshua Van Tassel's "New and Strange" Synth Sounds

"I used only the ARGON8 for all the sounds, including the percussion/drums, which were made from samples I took of the box and packaging"

Photo courtesy of YSL Pro

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Jun 9, 2022

"I love limitations," explains producer, composer and drummer Joshua Van Tassel. This explains why, when YSL Pro challenged this East Coast-born, Toronto-based artist to make an original piece of music using a Universal Audio Apollo interface and a Modal ARGON8 synthesizer, he took the assignment extremely literally.

"For the piece, I used only the ARGON8 for all the sounds, including the percussion/drums, which were made from samples I took of the box and packaging," Van Tassel tells Exclaim!

Using a single synth for melodic tones and its packaging for percussion displays a resourcefulness that has doubtlessly served Van Tassel well across his decade-plus career — which has found him playing drums with Great Lake Swimmers and Donovan Woods, producing for Sarah Slean and David Myles, and composing a string of works under his own name.

The result of this latest experiment is "Half of Your Better Half Is Twice as Much," a dense three minutes of bell-like arpeggios, stuttering grooves and futuristic synth moans. Beginning with chiming tones and spacious, squelchy textures, the soundscape gradually coalesces into a head-bobbing groove, paying off with a flute-like melodic figure before drifting into an ether of robotic grumbles.

"YSL Pro offered me the choice between a couple keyboards, and I purposefully chose the ARGON8 [because] it's a wavetable synth, and my experience has been mostly centred around more analog synths like Moogs or modular things," says Van Tassel. "I guess, in a way, I wanted to try to avoid certain sounds that I love and would normally lean into when it comes to synths, like Bibio, Boards of Canada or Todd Terje. Wavetable synthesis rewards the deeper dive into finding combinations of waveforms that [sound] new and strange together, so it felt rewarding to focus on the sounds first and let those steer me in the direction it wanted to go."

Van Tassel's process typically involves modifying sounds using outboard hardware, such as guitar pedals or modular synths. In keeping with the adventurous spirit of this project, he pushed himself to completely avoid outboard hardware, instead focusing on software effects and using the Apollo's Unison Technology features.

"I was really impressed at how good they sounded," Van Tassel says of the Unison plugins, "and also how fun and alive they still felt once I mapped some of the controls to knobs and faders on a MIDI keyboard. I think of effects as instruments themselves, and the [Universal Audio] plugins really did feel organic and alive — and, unlike my Space Echo [reverb/delay unit], [they] worked every time I turned them on."

The producer is letting fans and fellow synth adventurers in on the fun with a free sample pack of the sounds he used to make "Half of Your Better Half Is Twice as Much." It includes the percussion samples made using the packaging, 15 presets for ARGON8 users, and 15 WAV files for those without the synth. Van Tassel says, "I'd love it if any of those sounds inspired someone to make something they wouldn't have otherwise made!"

Download the free sample pack here. Listen to "Half of Your Better Half Is Twice as Much" below.

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