Extreme sound maker Randall Dunn discusses his recording philosophy and gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the SPECTRES sessions at his studio in New York.
Cult engineer Randall Dunn emerged from Seattle’s 90s grunge scene and has since left an indelible mark, lending his production talent to the likes of Tim Hecker, Sunn O))), and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. Specialising in the capture of the unconventional, he is celebrated for his ability to accentuate the human elements in music — embracing flaws, idiosyncrasies, and the intangible ambiance that envelopes a room when musicians collaborate.

During the pandemic, Randall brought this philosophy to the SPECTRES recording sessions — at his Brooklyn studio Circular Ruin, he microscopically captured the performances of each instrument, and then routed these recordings through a multitude of effects pedals and amplifiers to produce SPECTRES’ re-amplified channel.
What are your roots as a recording engineer?
In late 1993, I moved to Seattle for film audio studies. Engaging and recording with the free jazz and improv scene, I connected with Eyvind Kang, Matt Chamberlain of Pearl Jam, and Skerik. Through Matt, I met figures from Seattle's rock scene, including Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Jack Endino.

Seattle's collaborative atmosphere led me to diverse genres. I launched Aleph Recordings in my basement, working with metal bands, Sun O))), Earth, Wolves in the Throne Room, and other experimental and electronic artists.

I was influenced by Brian Eno, Connie Plank, and Tchad Blake, who transformed the recording studio into an instrument. At my own studio, I was exploring diverse recording methods — delving into distortion; learning how it could bring more richness to a sound. I spent years micing different instruments and collaborating with experimental musicians with large vocabularies.
Where did your interest in microscopic recording begin?
Eno and Tchad Blake aimed for microscopic, compressed recordings. I learned from Blake and Eddie Kramer to instruct quieter performances from musicians, leaving room for post preamp and mic saturation. Compressing high-quality, vintage mics at a lower volume yields richness. In particular, a vintage U67 or U47 captures subtle sounds distinctly. Combining these good mics with close micing, I refined a binaural recording technique.
How did you bring this approach to SPECTRES?
We adopted a hands-on approach, immersing ourselves with the instrumentalists. In each session, we actively listened to what the musicians were trying to accent; the ways timbres and frequencies would change or modulate. For complex sounds like multiphonics, we deconstructed instruments into valves, holes, keys, or even vocalisations, alongside performed notes to capture specific tones.

Microphone choice was key: a Coles ribbon highlighted midrange, a U67 ensured fidelity, and stereo Telefunken mics added focus. This four mic setup revealed unheard aspects in the extended techniques.
How did you come to work with SLATE + ASH?
I came across SLATE + ASH online when expressing my frustration with the prevalence of a handful of sample libraries. I was encountering too many poorly executed string arrangements made with these libraries, and I felt that this approach limited the creative potential of music. Once I learned that SLATE + ASH’s products are more than collections of samples — they are interactive instruments with underlying engines — I became intrigued.

We began conversation about what has become SPECTRES and about involving Lea Bertucci — someone I knew from my own circle. Given that some of my favourite musicians were going to be part of the project, I was eager to join.
How did you and Lea collaborate on SPECTRES?
It was quite serendipitous. She frequented the studio. I was familiar with her music and the way she was utilising the saxophone. My background as an improviser on saxophone in the 90s made her approach familiar to me as an engineer.

Lea and I discussed influential composers of the last 50 years. She had specific instruments in mind and had done thorough research on what's commonly referred to as "extended techniques" or simply advanced playing methods among these musicians.

We talked about close micing, compression, and adding electronic elements to amplify the dry signals. I explained how these elements interact with sound — when you work with outboard equipment, there's circuitry and harmonic distortion at play, and sometimes, these factors can accentuate different sonic facets.
How did spectral music inform the recordings?
Tuning changes, humidity! Lea mentioned spectral composers like Gérard Grisey, a strong influence on my prior work, including a Sun O))) record. Composers like Horațiu Rădulescu and Iancu Dumitrescu, associated with Stephen O'Malley, are part of this scene. Alvin Lucier also came up. These references are ambitious — lofty goals!
How did the players bring their own voices to the sessions?
Every musician was incredible, making it hard to quantify anything as "new" because their languages were so different to anything that I have heard. Exploring their unique approaches beyond traditional extended techniques within the European classical tradition was fascinating. Stepping away from classical norms allowed us to pinpoint each person's interests, expressions, and creative processes.

Each session involved the musician coming in and setting up, then we’d record, discuss, make sound adjustments, and gradually refine until we were happy with the representation. Many instrumentalists hadn't encountered recording this way before — the approach even led me to collaborate with John McCowen on a beautiful record.

It was cool to get really specific with each player because we found that for some, their language was more about a conversation. Once we started getting into a specific sound, another would emerge.

By the project's end, Lea and I realised that this type of cataloguing and recording might have never been done! There are lots of sounds in the SPECTRES library that have never been captured before or used compositionally.
Which recording session yielded the wildest material?
Claire Chase stood out as she played the contrabass flute — an instrument rarely seen outside an orchestral setting that I hadn't recorded before. She’s an absolute master of her instrument, with such command of what she’s doing, how she wants to present it and how it’s recorded.

John McCowen’s contrabass clarinet is bonkers. The subharmonic of the instrument is completely mind blowing, getting down to 50 Hz. I love the instrument's low mids and low end so I tried to accentuate it with the microphone set up, and tried to get John to be forceful when he first blows the air.

The larger instruments have such rich fundamentals, harmonics and overtones — you could really find where they were resonating in the room. Depending where the microphones were placed, it would lead to a radical stereo image or a really focused mono image. You have to make sure that everything is in phase so you don’t lose anything.
How did you curate the amp perspective in the SPECTRES engine?
I blasted the magnified, high-fidelity recordings through a wall of 20 amplifiers! My aim was to draw out unexpected tube harmonics and dynamic distortion. Sometimes I used a bass amp and sent the signal through an octaver that went two octaves down before hitting the amp. It would make the amp stressed out and I’d get a different type of break up out of it. I also introduced spatial movement using a Leslie cabinet.
How do you hope people use SPECTRES?
Unlike most plug-and-play sample libraries, SLATE + ASH instruments encourage a deeper engagement with the sample content and its compositional implementation through active listening.

Particularly with SPECTRES, I can spend time delving into a specific musician's sound. You arrive at minimal moments of the library content, subtle moments like the initial breath of a note. The engine offers a micro-granular view into musicians' minds, prompting active listening and interaction. I think this is very beneficial to creation, composition and music appreciation as a whole.

I hope users try to understand the musical language in the instrument and become more open to tuning, timbre, and ugliness. This curiosity could lead to users engaging with acoustic spaces or collaborating with live musicians.

I think as more musical tools are pushed into the digital domain, the industry is less and less intended to make you curious or experimental. Any instrument, whether it’s acoustic, electric or software, should inspire curiosity.
Interview by Simon Ashdown
May 2023