Interview with BBC and National Geographic Composer David Oliver

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Interview with David Oliver by Craig Peters


In this interview we talk with composer and percussionist David Oliver. Who’s intuitively inventive style has brought him to work with award winning composer William Goodchild. David later went on to create rhythm ensemble recordings for National Geographic wildlife documentary Ultimate Honey Badger, which received its highest number of Nat Geo views. In this podcast we talk about his musical background, he also gives some insight into the genesis of what became Rhythmic Odyssey which is the Loop based percussion library we recently released with him and much more.


1. What is your musical background and how did you get into the world of drumming?

Hey Craig. I am largely self taught although I had some drum lessons in reading when I was a teenager. I discovered rock, ska, blues and jazz. I cut my teeth from playing live which I did from age 16 playing in a covers band. My earliest drumming influences were Ian Dury and The Blockheads (Hit me with your rhythm stick) and tracks like Chic (Le Freak and Good Times), Ska bands Madness, The Beat and The Specials and reggae band UB 40 and the genius of Bob Marley, James Brown and Quincy Jones. When I was a kid my dad took me to see the late great Buddy Rich a couple of times and I managed to obtain his drum stick that he broke during the performance which I still have. It was the most exciting experience listening to him play and inspired my practice. Later in my teens I starting listening to Funk and contemporary jazz rock bands such as Stanley Clarke, Weather Report and Carlos Santana and got into soloist drummers such as Phil Gould, Neil Peart, Omar Hakim and inspired by percussionists Alex Acuna, Manolo Badrena and Trilok Gurtu amongst many others. ...then I took up percussion when I was 20 with my first Gon Bop congas and discovered world music notably the Township music of Soweto in South Africa. From that I learned that songs can be about anything, even chickens. Paul Simon’s Graceland is one of my favorite albums.

2. You’ve done a lot of stuff for BBC and National Geographic as well as PBS, Netflix and the list goes on. When did you decide you wanted to start writing music for media?

That happened by chance actually Craig. I had written and published a number of songs and instrumentals for Just Another Label around 2010. I made a series of loop-able ring tones for Blackberry mobile phones and I dipped my toe into the world of app developing. I made a loop based app for Apple with animated cartoon characters where you could swipe in a new drummer or guitarist and sync them up to jam using a combination of midi based loops I created at the same tempo and key that were all interchangeable. That was fun and I think was a primitive seed for this project.

In 2011, I met Will Goodchild at a talk he gave on music for film and tv and about a year later, a mutual friend recommended my African drumming skills to him and he got in touch. He sent me over a cue with strings and I layered up a whole tribal combo and sent it back. Thankfully he loved it and sent over a whole bunch more for the project. At the time I didn’t know what animal he was scoring for. All I knew was that it had a lot of intrigue and energy and was African. I was surprised to discover it was about a Honey Badger, a formidable fearless little animal. That was a lot of fun and Will used individual stems and chopped them up and mixed and matched instrument performances. Back in 2012-2013 it occurred to me that I’d love to do more. Over the next few years I invested in more suitable recording equipment and added more instruments to my collection whilst playing live more and continuing to write and record songs.

3. What are some of the biggest projects you’ve had the opportunity to work on?

Biggest in the sense of my involvement was perhaps for the BBC, Elephant Family and Me scored by Barnaby Taylor. Many of the cues remain in their multi layered combo state and some were written on top of my percussion which I then fleshed out having received Barnaby’s structures so there was a fair degree of collaboration on that one. Ultimate Honey Badger for National Geographic in 2013 had the highest number of views in the history of Nat Geo Channel in its category. Ghost of the mountains (DISNEY NATURE, NETFLIX 2016). Warhammer Video Game, Film JAGO a life underwater was shown on Smithsonian and BBC now on NETFLIX won several awards, including Best Cinematography at Wildscreen and the music scored by Will Goodchild was nominated for best score.

4. Are there any projects you’ve done that were more interesting than others? If so can you elaborate?

One cue that stands out was for Warhammer scored by Ian Livingston. It was for a race of creatures called Skaven which are blood thirsty rat like mutants who scurry around on 2 legs wielding jagged swords. They are erratic in nature and favor the number 13. I create a musical soundscape full of suspense and bursts of energy which is almost random sounding. In fact underneath I mapped out that on every 13th bar a gong sounded. I played pulses and deep bass drum hits, scratchy metal brushes and close mic’d velcro multiplied with jerry cans with occasional sword clash sound which was a carving knife brushing on the edge of a spinning bicycle wheel. Otters for BBC scored by Will Goodchild.

Will wanted watery sounds so I experimented with washing up bowls and discovered that some round metal mixing bowls made great water drums so I made a set. (How to make your own water drum: Buy some cheap mixing bowls that ring out nicely when you tap them. Fill up larger hemispherical metal bowls with water to about half way - when they sound harmonic - and sit an upturned smaller plastic bowl on the water surface. It will look like a blancmange. To keep the floating bowl from moving and hitting the sides of the base bowl I drilled 3 holes 120 degrees apart near the rim of the floating bowls and attached elastic bands which then wrap around the base bowl. As fate had it my bowls were near enough in concert pitch.) The bowls and jerry cans feature in Rhythmic Odyssey. Several interesting cues in JAGO A life Underwater which you can watch on my website Taiko style drumming for underwater warrior sequence called I was strong which feature a really neat effect made by an array of many cameras enabling the film to appear to animate around Jago as the film paused like they did in The Matrix film.

I believe this may be a pioneering technique being used underwater. Boys running on jetty was completely percussion based. I made some bamboo slit drums for the project. I played cajon, shakers and for a bit of expression I close mic’d a tom and struck it lightly with my finger whilst pitch shifting it with another finger one hit every 2 bars. For I kept searching I also played my drum kit softly completely open with no dampening using a straw brush on a vine rainstick to mark time and an open tone tabla for occasional hits. Then I overlaid bamboo marimba to give it more of an Indonesian flavor. I also played one of my favorite instruments which is a Sansula thumb piano with a floating head. Beautiful sweet ambient sound which you can make a wah wah sound by lifting up one side of a surface while playing. For some underwater effects and a sense of foreboding for conga eel I recorded the Sansula resting on a snare drum and edited out the attack so this eerie note rings out. The project was a lot of fun.

5. So we have a library that just came out with you called Rhythmic Odyssey which is a loop-based percussion instrument for Kontakt Player featuring your unique approach to rhythm and percussion.

I started recording for this project in the late summer of 2016. Having heard what composers were doing with my stems by slicing up and rejigging phrases here and there it occurred to me that I needed to come up with something that allowed a lot of creativity and inspire composers at the same time. I discussed my idea with some of the composers I have worked and others I respect with and came to the conclusion that it needed to be performance based to enable composers to have a wide pallet of instruments played in a multitude of styles evoking a myriad of cultures from all over the world and often generic and non country specific. The idea than the sounds could be non region specific allowed me to tune into the spirit voice of the instruments. If anyone has read Planet Drum by Mickey Harte of the Grateful Dead you will understand what I’m talking about.

Basically the tone and timbre of an instrument evokes a certain energy which enables the player to tune into a voice, tempo, time signature and pattern and thus express themselves through the instrument and the instrument through them. Many of my tracks were composed while walking or lying still and I recorded them vocally on my phone and then recreated them in my studio. I work very instinctively and organically so rather than meticulously planning what I thought people may like I decided to allow myself to record what excites me pure and simple and as the catalogue grew with patterns, styles and tempos, fill in the gaps at it were as I went. For instance if I had just recorded some high energy intricate Taiko style tracks, then I might focus on some simple ambient heart beat pieces. My choice of instruments per track varied as I recorded. Many of them were started on my Cajonico which is a beautiful sounding and looking bongo size cajon with snare on off switch on both sides. I built the tracks up with a view to playing instruments throughout the frequency spectrum from high pitched shakers down to large deep drums. I color coded each instrument from 1 to 8 ending up with a rainbow of stripes. I recorded several tracks in one session while the mics were set up in each configuration. I kept creating until I had a set of pieces that I felt covered a wide spectrum of performance and end user flexibility.

6. Where did you record all these loops? Did you record them in different environments or studios?

I recorded the vast majority of them in my home studio which is a converted barn with a drum booth installed for a controlled sound to minimize room reverb so composers can add anything of their choice afterwards. I also recorded logs in a pine forest using a small Tascam recorder which was a fun experience.

7. In the library there are tons of various drum loops. How long did it take you to record all the content?

As I mentioned before I started in late summer 2016 and completed the recording in October 2017. It was way more than 800 hours work. Probably more like 1000 hours. Editing included in that time was an intense amount of hours. I use Logic for MAC. Making sure every instrument on every track was perfectly loop-able at every four bars or so was meticulous and a labor of love. That’s 100 tracks with 8 stems or in the case of many instruments such as a drum kit, groups of stems. The task there was a lot more mental focus than mechanical as I had to make sure I didn’t kill the live feel of the pieces which is after all Rhythmic Odyssey’s main selling point in a musical performance sense. So before submitting it to you guys I had probably made something in the region of 40 to 50 thousand beat edits which I had to listen to a number of times to ensure no glitches were there. That’s a heck of a lot of cross fades. Due to many instruments being tonal I found that the algorithms I used varied in flex and most times I mechanically moved slices by tiny amounts to achieve seamless loops.

8. You definitely have a giant collection of instruments! What are some of the more unusual instruments in your collection?

Whenever I come across an instrument I have never seen before I have to try it out. Unusual for most people in appearance and sound may be the mixing bowl water drums. Also the mouth bow harp which is a bent stick with a narrow gauge tension-ed guitar string played by striking the string with a chopstick and using the mouth to as a variable sound chamber by resting the end of the stick in your lips. This is an instrument played by the San people, the bushmen of the Kalahari. I made mine from a stick of hazel which I wet and wrapped around a chair for a day to make the kink. Others are a bundle of wicker. My UDU clay pot drum which is called Udongo made by LP percussion. Rusty Jerry Cans played with soft beaters and brushes. The one string Gobijeu from India. Thunderstick which is a spring attached to a head at one end of a cardboard tube. Bicycle spokes. Plastic Car engine tube...

9. How do you go about choosing the instruments that you use?

I give myself plenty of freedom to choose rather than being bound by rules so go by instinct a lot. When I resonate with an instrument and feel excited I can make music with it off I go and do just that. I frequently stop and tap fire extinguishers and metal beer barrels and can usually find something to jam with round a camp fire if I don’t have any percussion with me which isn’t often to be honest.

10. During the recording process of Rhythmic Odyssey were there any funny or strange things that happened? I once got some light relief when I bent down to untangle a mic lead and accidentally head butted one of my large Temple Blocks which sounded exactly like a slapstick head pop. I laughed out loud alone. It would be awesome to know a little about the behind the scenes of the project. I experimented a lot with drum heads and commissioned a bass drum to be made especially for it. Searching for a real organic sound I discovered a goatskin head made by Gope which really made the drum sound really earthy. For the full drum kit I opted for imitation Calfskin heads made by Evans. I found these to have much less of a plastic ring and made the overtones sound warm sweet and rich to my ear.

I spent a long time tuning my kit and isolating any squeaks and rattles that any of the drum hardware might make during playing that you’d normally not hearing in a rock band but as these stems needed to be clean I used a product called WD40 and dismantled my bass drum’s mounting brackets to avoid tom vibration in the bass drum mic. The Taiko drums were loaned to me by a friend. I discovered some interesting sounds by playing them with my hands instead of heavy and loud sticks, conga style. My favorite mic for this project was Audio Technica AE2500 which is a dual bass drum mic with phased aligned Condenser and Dynamic mics in one. It’s range of frequencies is superb. It makes it great for capturing delicate and dynamic performances on big drums. My Stereo pair of Sontronic STC1 mics were amazing. I used a Clearsonic drum booth padded out with acoustic foam. Another favorite mic is my Aston Origin.

11. Other than Rhythmic Odyssey are there any projects you’re currently working on that you can talk about?

Right now, I’ve added more instruments to my collection and I’m working on a shakers project which will be pretty extensive.

12. Before we wrap up the interview I want to know with all the percussion that you own…Do you have an instrument that is your favorite and why?

The Cajonico I mentioned before. It’s a drum kit percussion kit in a box. When I play it live I constantly get people coming up to me and asking about it. It’s made by a guy called Thomas Ben Tov in Israel. I first played and fell in love with one at a music festival here in the UK in 2016 and got in touch with him to hand pick one with my preferred sound. Great guy, he even brought it over on the plane and handed it to me in person as he was due to perform at a hang drum meeting. Superb musician by the way. His Cajonicos are works of art as much as a great sounding instrument but most importantly it records very well and for live gigs is fantastic being so portable. The variety of tones is really interesting and for a small drum it can have a big sound. People sometimes say “I thought you were playing several drums” or in an acoustic environment with no mics “I thought you had it mic’d up”. Love that drum. The Cajonico features a lot in this library.

Listen to the full podcast interview with David Oliver Here

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