X-PANDA: Fusion of Surroundings

X-Panda interview in support of new album "Reflections"

It took five years for an Estonian progressive metal group  to come up with the release of their sophomore studio full-length. Reflections sees the band expanding their sound palette in multiple dimensions, and even though their debut Flight of Fancy was an excellent release the quintet from Tartu makes by far their strongest statement with the new material. 

Prog Sphere talked with the band about their work — we dive deep into their creative process, the new record, and future.

Define the mission of X-Panda.

The mission of X-Panda is simple  to create music we like, enjoy making it and give ourselves and other people goosebumps from it. The rest is secondary. We are friends sharing similar musical interests and the band is like a professional hobby that we’d like to do as well as possible. Of course the secondary goal is to grow bigger, find new audiences, travel the world, get new ideas, repeat.

Tell me about the creative process that formed your new album Reflections and the themes it captures.

Natural instruments and sound:

We had some ideas which, in order to become alive, needed to be accompanied by a symphony orchestra. As more ideas came by, we decided to go that way and record as much natural instruments as possible. For example wherever there was a flute part, to record it with a real human, real instrument. So the vision of this album was to sound as natural as possible. This was also a key element in the songwriting phase. The idea was to write parts for the instruments where they needed to be, rather than jamming in the rehearsal place and filling the pauses out of boredom. It happened to be out of functionality, why there are a lot less synthesizer/keyboard parts. We wouldn’t need the close enough synthesized sound when we can record the natural one.

Vocals:

X-Panda‘s previous album only had a few places with a singer. This time Tamar sings on most of the album. This was new for us, a very interesting place to explore. The songwriting had to be a little different, because when we previously had to fill out the blanks with some instrumental phrases, now we could use the voice. Of course, with voice you must have more primitive(technical wise) melodies than, for example, in the case of guitar. The accompanying must be out of the way of melody, but can have its own perks. It made the whole creative process a bit different, but definitely very interesting. The parts for the instruments in this album are definitely more functional than before. Although it probably won’t be sounding like a “Less is more” album, we tried to apply that technique.

X-Panda - Reflections album art

What is the message you are trying to give with Reflections?

That people are influenced by their ancestors, culture, history, social norms – we are a fusion of our surroundings. We are the reflections of the people before us. That can be either a positive or a negative thing. On our album, there is a character with a different story in every song. Some are more troubled, some less. The final song of the album is called “Esivanemate pärand”, which is our first song in Estonian Kaarel wanted a song to appraise his grandparents and other ancestors, to carry on the legacy – in a positive, peaceful and respectful way.

How did you document the music while it was being formulated?

Pro Tools, a Digital Audio Workstation program was mainly used for songwriting. We had recorded all the ideas into the computer on separate tracks, so we could modify and combine them easily. Easy options for testing different versions of the same idea made the process maybe more analytical than one could do in real time. But in the computer world, grid is the king and this time we didn’t want to sound too much in the grid. In order to get to the point where the click doesn’t destroy the musical movement, some parts of songs were demoed to Pro Tools without metronome and bar measures. That way we achieved some accelerandos and ritenutos which can be heard in quiet orchestral parts. Later on we made the metronome follow the initial feeling and the extremely weird “emotional” click followed us through the studio sessions and now you can hear the natural flow on the album.

Is the dynamic flow of the pieces carefully architected?

Well yes and no. Almost nothing on the album is by chance. In that aspect it should be defined as carefully architected. However, some of the dynamic parts were recorded in the demo version by Kaarel playing and singing at the same time, without metronome and bar measures. In many of the songs there are off the grid accelerandos and ritenutos, which have received their natural dynamics out of the demos. We created an “emotional” (meaning accelerating and decelerating by the demo) click track, where we recorded all the parts onto. You can feel the nice musical flow, because it was there when the demo was originally felt and played. Usually in the studio, especially when you record all the instruments at different times, different locations, it is almost impossible to get good dynamic results. The natural orchestra was also adding their own touch, so in that sense the dynamic flow is carefully architected, but out of “nature” in the first place.

X-Panda promo 2016

Describe the approach of recording the album.

We recorded all the instruments separately. We chose the places to record certain instruments very carefully. For example we went to Sonic Pump Studios, Helsinki, to record drums. Kaarel had studied for a year in Helsinki Sibelius Academy and had been in that studio with a lot of very good drum sets and snare drums. It was because of the variety, the acoustics of the room and of course the preamps and mics, that we went to record there. We think we got extremely good results. We can proudly say there are not very many albums of this music style that have not replaced the snare drums with samples. It was our initial idea to try to get as good sound as possible without having to “fix it in the mix”.

For the bass recording, we took a lot of bass stomp boxes and some amplifiers and of course a great variety of microphones to get the best results. The idea was to get as close to the final sound as possible.

Guitar recording had a similar idea – to have the sound done in the recording stage. We used a lot of amps and mics, spent several days just comparing different setups and instruments.

With vocals we tried to find the most suitable mic for every song. Tamar has a specific timbre, which changes frequency response very much depending on the loudness or the character of a specific song. We had at our disposal a variety of the best vocal microphones out there: Neumann u47, Manley Reference Cardioid, Brauner VMA, Lomo19a19, Microtech Gefell um70, Neumann U87 etc.. It was interesting to explore and find a suitable mic for each different song. Of course, more special effects were later added.

For the orchestra recording we rented a concert hall, compiled together a symphony orchestra and had a very successful recording session. We also recorded the choir in the same hall.
Mixing the tracks was easier, because all the recorded material sounded very well already in the rough mix.

How long was Reflections in the making?

Although we had been working on our material earlier, active work on this album started about a year ago. This means we had some more or less finished ideas gathered together during past three-four years. But the ideas were finalized when Kaarel took off work to go to the countryside and complete the writing process. We can say the whole process altogether took more than a year of very active work.

Which bands or artists influenced your work on the release?

The influences varied a lot on this album. Because the demos were created in different times over three or four years, we have had surges of different trends within the influences. Maybe some of the most important ones have been Nightwish and Kamelot, because of their use of orchestra sounds. But because all the members of X-Panda are professional musicians who are actively involved in many projects in different genres, the influences are too wide to even start mentioning. A lot of them are even in the current pop music scene, no kidding.

X-Panda promo 2016

What is your view on technology in music?

Kaarel speaking: Technology is great, workflows are faster than ever, people can use nice analog gear in hybrid setup with the digital domain. Times are getting a lot better than they used to be. The music industry had reached the point where the music couldn’t be any louder, more “perfect”, more sterile. Natural approach to the sound is in favour again, dynamics is back in music, that also means now albums can sound better, because they do not need to be thin sounding in order to be louder! That has changed so much to me. A lot of indie and pop artists are paving the way back to a good old naturally recorded human approach. Grid is not so popular anymore, mistakes(tasty, with great feel) can be in the recordings. We do not need pitch perfect vocals. Imperfections are the essence of human nature and musicianship! The bottom line is: everything is possible in the technology of music, but careful use of technology whilst keeping the human element, energy and feel is the real key! Emotions are real, let’s’ not get rid of them :)

Do you see your music as serving a purpose beyond music?

Of course. It makes us feel better and if we can make someone’s’ day greater by for example giving them a few extra goosebumps, great emotion, great memories, then it totally serves a greater impact than just plain notes.

What are your plans for the future?

X-Panda is planning to widen the audience, travel to new places, enjoy creating music and try to be better every day.

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