by: Chris Stack
by: Chris Stack
Dec 16, 2020
Arkana is the audio-visual fantasy of Oregon-based producer Samuel J. Finn, who recently released his debut album, Iskatallith. His artist name is an allusion to “arcane,” which denotes “secrets or mysteries,” and his body of work reveals a boundless well of tantalizing hints for his devoted fans, who frequently copy freeze frames from his videos and analyze flavor text to fuel their fan theories.
In an interview with Dancing Astronaut, Finn discussed the foundations of his audio-visual outlet, stating,
“As a kid, I was always fascinated with storytelling and fantasy universes such as [those in] Star Wars and Zelda. My fascination with fantasy worlds has never stopped, and I find myself seeking that same cinematic inspiration in different forms of art and the world around me. Looking at it now, I realize that all of these interests have come full circle in the conception of my debut full-length, Iskatallith.”
Arkana invites listeners to engage with music as the primary thread of a narrative mythology. The new album, Iskatallith, delivers musical journeys rich with ethereal soundscapes, mysterious liminal passages, and intricate ear candy that will envelope streamers in an immersive, cinematic experience sure to leave new and old fans alike wanting more. Find Dancing Astronaut’s interview with Arkana about the album and its intricacies below.
Can you tell us why you decided to name the LP Iskatallith?
Arkana: “Iskatallith (ees-kah-TAHL-ith) is a word I made up that translates to something like ‘underground fortress.’ I feel the word sounded both aggressive and elegant, which encompasses the sound I was going for. While writing the album, I was heavily inspired by fantasy universes such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I’m absolutely fascinated with the fact that they took world-building for their books so seriously that they both created their own languages. It’s an astonishing level of detail and commitment. I wanted an album title that reflected all of that, and that hinted towards the fact that there’s something more than just the music there.”
The project is very cinematic; is there a story envisioned through the music?
Arkana: “There’s definitely a story! My wife and I have been writing a storyline for the Arkana project ever since I started this album. The idea happened naturally between my own interests and my fans. Ever since I started creating music, people would say they always imagined a story or a scenario going on while listening; some people would go as far as to write their own short stories in the comment section of my songs. This was just amazing to me because my art was inspiring more art, so for this album I decided to go for the gusto and start slowly introducing a more defined narrative. I don’t want to say too much about it now because there’s still lots of work to be done, but we put small hints of the story into our album length long visualizer on YouTube.
Fans on my Discord server have been creating their own theories for what the story is, which has made the release process of this album super fun, and gives me an opportunity to engage with the people who listen to my music.”
Tell us about when you started producing and some of the major milestones in developing your technical skills.
Arkana: “I started producing music a little over eight years ago. I was playing guitar and singing in a few high school bands, and always was the guy who just took it a little too seriously. When band members wouldn’t show up to practice or not put in effort to write music, it was always a bit disappointing to me; [I was] always wishing I could just do it all myself.
Then one day, a friend of mine introduced me to FL Studio, and I was blown away that I could compose entire songs on my laptop. Ever since then, I never looked back and have been obsessively creating any opportunity I could get. It’s difficult to [identify] one major milestone since there’s so many aspects that go into music. I would say I want to excel in every aspect of it from production, mixing, mastering, composition, and theory. With Iskatallith, I focused hard on blending a balance of experimental sound design with complex music theory. I always find myself creating a set of new goals for myself every song, and consistently trying to touch up on old skills I feel are important so I don’t get too rusty.”
Do you have a typical production process? If so, what is it?
Arkana: “Often, the thing that really gets a track moving for me is when I have a certain set of sounds that create an atmosphere I can live in. Then, I can start fleshing out the composition from there. As for a starting point, it’s always different. Sometimes I start by jamming a drum loop, playing piano, or browsing samples. I don’t think it really matters where you start from as long as you’re actively trying to do something that will spark an ‘aha!’ moment.
To stay organized, I’ve created a bit of a template in Ableton for my projects, already having pre-colored and separated groups for drums, bass, synths, etc. A skill I’ve learned to practice post-album is to separate your sound design workflow from your writing workflow as much as you can. Having to sound design something with intent during a writing process could ruin your flow, and having separate sound design sessions without such intention can get you some really interesting results.
The biggest thing that helped expedite the production process on this album was when I learned you could drag and drop midi/audio/groups from previous project files within your ‘current projects folder.’ I had to do a lot of audio bouncing to preserve CPU and it was extremely helpful to be able to drag and drop unprocessed audio, or unbounced midi from previous projects. Some songs like ‘Umi and the Serpent’ actually required three completely separate project files to finish so this function was a lifesaver for me.”
What was a go-to synth for the project and why?
Arkana: “Since I was striving for a cinematic sound, I used a lot of Kontakt, and Eastwest libraries. It’s difficult to say which libraries or synths were my go-tos since I used such a variety of plugins over the two years I was producing the album, but I think that Analog Strings and Spitfire Albion One were my most used. [The] reason being is that I think those libraries had incredible sample tones that I could work with. With Analog Strings, you had a set of weird and diverse hybrid string sounds, and Albion has this amazingly lush string orchestra. Since I unfortunately didn’t have the budget to hire my own orchestra, I would bounce out single note samples from the libraries and resample them in Ableton Simpler, or just use audio processing on the timeline to create these alien-like hybrid orchestral sounds, striking a balance of digital, organic, and analog sound design.”
Do you have a go-to MIDI controller?
Arkana: “I don’t really. I bought a Novation Launchkey like seven years ago and have been using it since. It does the job well, and honestly I don’t feel like I need anything other than a set of keys to get melodic ideas started. I prefer to manually draw all my automations, and since I don’t play piano quite efficiently just yet, I drew a lot of the melodies in midi manually. I’m sort of a gear minimalist and really only used my laptop, Ableton, and VSTs for the entire production of this album. With that being said, I finally decided to spoil myself and I invested in a Moog Sub 37 for future music, so I’m curious how my low-end sound design will change having actual analog gear now.”
Was there any special VST that really took the production home?
Arkana: “Aside from those libraries I mentioned earlier, some FX vsts that helped out a lot were Vulf Compressor, MJUC Compressor, Cytomics ‘The Glue,’ RC-20 Retro Color, Decapitor, and SDRR2. I mention these because I think they’re plugins that aren’t brought up as often but that helped tremendously in giving a digital production process some analog warmth. Another plugin I want to mention is Ableton’s Grain Delay. I used this a lot on sounds that I wanted to give an interesting stereo space in the mix. Since it warps the tone a bit, it gives sounds their own space in the mix, especially when you’re like me and cram like 300 layers into a song. Just mess around with the spray, frequency, pitch, and set the time to low ms and you’ll get some interesting results.”
Do you have any pet peeves with your DAW?
Arkana: “Honestly, a lot of my complaints have been already fixed in Ableton 10, and now Ableton 11. I think they’ve been doing a fantastic job adapting to producers’ modern needs and allowing a relatively fast-paced and organized workflow if you learn all the keybinds/shortcuts. If I could have one request be granted, it would be that Ableton and Image-Line partner up and allow FL Studio’s piano roll and drum sequencer to be implemented inside of Ableton. For the first four years of production, I was using FL Studio, and I still prefer that aspect of FL more than Ableton. Somehow, it just feels more natural and easier to get your ideas out.”
Which song took the longest to make and why?
Arkana: “Man that’s a hard question because I wrote each song slowly over the course of two years. I don’t think there’s a single song I was able to finish in one sitting or even in consecutive production sessions. My best guess would be ‘Echoes of Elruthen’ because that was the first idea I started, but also one of the last songs I finished.”
What was the most difficult sound to conquer on the project?
Arkana: “I think it was creating the bass sound for ‘Pharros’ Lockstone.’ For some reason, I just really wanted to make a bass sound out of a string orchestra in the context of a heavy drop/chorus. Personally, I’ve never heard anything like that before, and it was extremely challenging to do. Took me days of tinkering away, resampling, layering, and cutting disgusting resonant frequencies to make it sit just right in the mix, but in the end it was worth it because the lowest note tone has this deep organic ‘rumble’ that no sine wave sub-bass would be able to replicate.”
Which song took the shortest amount of time to make and why?
Arkana: “‘Silentium’ was the fastest because near the end, I was telling myself, ‘Man I just gotta finish this thing!’ Also, a lot of the melodies from that track were from a song I made about seven years ago, so all I had to do was to adapt the melody/chords to the new structure. It was nice because it didn’t require me to write a bunch of completely new parts like all the other tracks, but still felt to me like a perfect conclusion to the album and brought my old and new ideas full circle.”
Is there a certain producer’s sound or production technique that you admire and wish you could re-create yourself?
Arkana: “Not really, because I strive hard to have my own unique sound. I will say that there’s a lot of artists I admire, and all those artists inspire me in some way. Sometimes, I’ll start a track with a specific goal in mind like ‘I want to try to write melody modulation like John Williams did in this song,’ or ‘I want to make a bass sound like Koan Sound,; then I’ll go dissect and learn how they did it. By the end, each song becomes a collage of many ideas I’ve recycled from many artists.”
Do you have any unique studio habits?
Arkana: “Hmm. I’m not sure if this is unique, but I think allowing yourself to take a healthy amount of breaks between production sessions and songs is great for creativity and your mental health. If you run out of ideas after an hour or two, go take a walk, meditate, or make something to eat. Building other healthy habits outside of the studio will help your creativity out tremendously. I strive to do at least three to four hours of music a day if I can, sometimes more, or less, but if I’m really not feeling it, I just accept that and move on. There’s plenty of other great things to do in life besides music, and oftentimes it’s those non-music related things that will give me my best ideas.”
What was your most memorable studio moment when producing Iskatallith?
Arkana: “My most memorable moment was when I created the first half of the song ‘Einvik’s Curse.’ At that time, I was living up near Mt. Hood at an emu farm ranch, and my soon-to-be wife Kamilla was visiting from Canada. The whole setting was really inspiring for creativity, but I didn’t really know what I wanted the concept of the album to be; I just knew I wanted to write really good music. After I created that part, Kamilla and I listened to the section over and over again and idea browsed story scenarios, and it was that exact moment that I knew exactly what the album had to be.”
Do you have any inspirations for your production style?
Arkana: “Absolutely! Some notable mentions would be Ekcle, Igorrr, Lorn, Alon Mor, Jon Hopkins, Koan Sound, and Chee. I could write an even longer list of composers, but these are the producers who have inspired me the most in terms of sound design over the past couple years.”
What is next for Arkana?
Arkana: “Well, I have a lot of plans but a lot of them may take years to come to fruition. In the shorter term, I’m thinking about doing some smaller scale projects like collaborations, and hopefully wrapping up a single we’ve been sitting on for my duo project Death & Rebirth, and maybe an EP before I decide to dive into a second album. This month, I’ve been helping New Dawn Collective with the production of Satellite Empires’ next EP. Lots of stuff, so we’ll see how it all goes!”
Categories: Features, Music