Cian Ciarán
Cian Ciarán

This month I interviewed Cian Ciarán [kee-AHN kir-ON], keyboard player and sound sculptor for the Welsh band Super Furry Animals, about his use of the UAD-1 and UAD-2. Super Furry Animals was formed in the mid-nineties and has released eight major studio albums and numerous singles and remixes. The “Furries'” sound is often described as psychedelic rock with electronic experimentation; it’s a deeply layered and mellow sound that’s sometimes called "space rock." They tour the world often (even opening for Oasis on a stadium tour) and have headlined many festivals, but still call Cardiff, Wales, their home. Cian is also a sought-after DJ and remixer, and has been using both the UAD-1 and UAD-2 in his system. He was excited about the new Moog Multimode Filter (one of the Furries' first albums was called Moog Droog). Cian is working on his side project, the Acid Casuals, and preparing to tour the Furries' most recent album, Hey Venus, which was recorded at Miraval Studios in France.

Tell me about Super Furry Animals.

We started out in '95, signed to Creation Records. At the time, we were label mates to Oasis. First album came out in '96, and we've done probably, I don't know, maybe an album every other year, nearly. I think we're going to start a new album now; it will be our ninth album.

How do you describe the music?

I’m probably the worst person to ask, to be honest. One good comparison that ran in the past has been "upside-down, Beach-Boys-esque, bubble-gum-pop, psychedelic rock." Those kinds of words have been mentioned. I think we do different styles because the influences we have are so vast. We don't have one formula; we don't have one way of working. Every time we go to the studio, we have an idea of what we might want, but we don't know what the finished product will be … which makes it kind of exciting. Not just making it up as you go along, but always open minded.

Tell me about you. Where are you from?

I'm from north Wales. There's an island on the top of north Wales, called Anglesey. I now live in Cardiff where we’ve been for the last fourteen, fifteen years. Me and my brother, Daf, who's the drummer in the band, and Griff, who's the singer, we all grew up within 20 miles of each other.

When did you start playing music?

Well, when you grow up in north Wales, I suppose you grow up in the country, so you have to make up your own entertainment. All the clubs close at half-past eleven, and there was not much to do, really. So listening to the radio, and music--making music--was a big part of growing up. Then there was the outdoor rave scene, in the early '90s, which I was involved with. My first love, I suppose, was acid house music. One of my first records, other than Michael Jackson's Thriller, probably, was acid house. When I was about 13, I had my first band. I started out playing the drums. By the time I was about 14, 15, I started doing electronic music with a couple of friends. My first synth was a Yamaha DX100, which I learned to program, so I didn't use any presets. But it was a good grounding for later years, because you get to grasp how synthesis works, and what you can achieve with a little amount of gear.

The Super Furry Animals
The Super Furry Animals
Tell me about your role in the band. You're the keyboard player?

Yeah, predominantly the keyboard-piano player--live, anyway--and then sing a little on backing vocals. But when we get into the studio, I suppose no one's got a set job in the studio. Everyone swaps instruments, and plays each other's instruments and that. But on stage, I play the keyboards. Then in the studio I'm more hands on when it comes to editing and programming.

Do you guys have your own studio?

Yeah. We've got a little space in Cardiff Docks, and been there maybe seven years now. We've mixed our surround stuff there. We’ve done two albums in surround there.

Really? I love surround. That's great.

The first album we did in surround was Rings Around the World, with Chris Shaw, who's from New York. The second one we did was Phantom Power, which me mixed ourselves in surround, at our studio in Cardiff. Also Lovecraft we did in surround as well. The last one, Hey Venus, we didn't do. But the studio, really, we've used as a mixing, writing, production room. Because it's so small, we don't really have the facility to do a multi-mic set up, but we'll do the odd overdub, and singing and stuff there. Predominantly it's for writing and post production. We've mixed and recorded B-sides there, actually.

I've heard your music, but I've never seen you perform. Tell me what the lineup is. You're on keys …

Yeah, well, I think last time we were in the U.S. on tour was in February. On that tour we'd gone back to basics, if you like. It was only five of us. But we have, in the past, had a percussion player; we've had brass traveling with us. We did one show in London where we had a little string quartet as well. But I suppose at the core, there's me on keys, then there's a drum, bass, and two guitarists. Four of the five of us all sing. We try and do the harmonies, maybe not as successful as Beach Boys, but maybe that's where the comparison comes from. [Laughs.]

What kind of acts have you toured with? Oasis?

We did a couple of shows with Oasis a couple of years ago. In like football stadiums, which is good. We did a tour with Blur a few years ago. We did a millennium New Year's Eve show with Manic Street Preachers once, which was amazing. There were like 60-, 70,000 people. … That was a good one. Though we've mostly done our own shows, try to do our own tours, especially in the last five, six, seven years anyway. And then there are the festivals, of course. We headlined Glastonbury a few years back, on the second stage.

You've played in front of some really huge crowds.

Yeah, I suppose. I think the largest one would have been Glastonbury, or that New Year's Eve night. Like 60-, 70,000 people.

Let's talk about how you guys work in the studio, how you record. Once Jerry Harrison [Talking Heads] told me that when they worked with Brian Eno--he produced some of their early albums--what they learned from him was to use the studio as an instrument. Do you think that's something that you guys do?

I think probably in the modern age, everyone does, even if it's subconscious. The amount of software and equipment available is pretty affordable, compared to what it used to be. So all these little bedroom studios spring up everywhere. You sort of teach yourself, so everyone's got their own way of working. In a way, it's like teaching yourself an instrument, and you might do stuff that's not necessarily technically correct, if you know what I mean. So in that sense, yeah, it is like using an instrument. For us as musicians, being able to grab a piece of audio, chop it up, reverse it, spin it on its head, move it six bars--that's just like playing the beats. Total rhythm to me, you know?

But there’s also the problem that people can’t really afford to write in a big, expensive studio. People have to be more prepared when they go in to record, unless they have their own studio the way you guys do.

Yeah. Even when we do record, sometimes we'll rehearse in a little rehearsal space for two weeks before we go in the studio, and then we'll have three weeks recording, maybe. Then we'll take that recorded material back to our place, do overdubs, and develop ideas there, before we go back and mix.

In your set up, what’s your DAW of choice?

We use Nuendo [Steinberg].

On a Macintosh, or PC?

A PC at the moment. I grew up on PCs because they were affordable.

Do you use any kind of mix control surface?

Various MIDI controllers.

You don't have a traditional mixing console.

We have a Neve, an old Neve board I use to record. It's an old broadcast desk, I think, which we sort of modified, because it didn't have any inserts and direct outs. I think it's called a Series 44; we use it to record more than mix on.

Does it have mic pres in it?

Yeah. There's 10 mic inputs on it, and then 10 line ins, so there's 20 inputs if you want them. There are a couple of built-in compressors on the master outs.

Have you had a chance to compare that sound to the UAD Neve plug-ins?

Yes, and no. Compared them, but you can't make a direct comparison, because they're not the exact same modules.

Cian Ciarán in France
Cian Ciarán in France
They're not 1073s.

Exactly. But it's interesting when you see it use the compressors, how they react. I think my favorite Neve plug--well, I've been using 1081s a lot. … Nearly every time, actually.

What are you using them on?

Definitely vocals, but I'll try them on just about anything.

What do you like about that sound?

It's hard to put your finger on. I like the fact that you can brighten something up without it hurting. Like you'd get that nasty digital thing in the past, where sometimes I'd cut an EQ rather than boost something. But the 1081 allows me to add to, rather than subtract from, a song. I also like the compressor as well.

The 33609? How do you use that?

I've used that on various stuff, especially drums. I've used the limiter on the master outs.

Do you use any of the others?

Yeah. The multi-band compressor — The Precision.

That's a great plug.

That's really good. I only got to grips with that in the last couple of months, using it like a de-esser and stuff. Being able to be so precise [laughs] with the Precision is good. You can get in there really accurately.

How about the Moog filter? Have you tried that yet?

Yeah. I have been playing with it. It sounds like the real thing.

Have you ever had a Minimoog?

No, unfortunately. Our producer, Gorwell Owen, who we worked with on the first three albums, had a real Minimoog and I instantly fell in love. I think everyone did. We did a lot of using inputs, audio in, on it to affect real acoustic instruments.

What else do you use the Moog filter on?

I like using stuff like that on organs and pianos, just to give them a warble--not like a Leslie effect, but I guess like a lot of Beach Boys stuff, like "Surf's Up," that kind of era. I see it working well with those kinds of sounds.

What was the source on those test files you sent me?

Yeah, just my voice and the filter.

That's pretty crazy.

Some of them, they're self-oscillating, and then using the LFO. You can get a lot of different effects out of it, rather than just using it like an EQ. Between the envelope, then the LFO, then if you start using the spacing function as well, you start getting really good, trippy, stereo--left/right, like octaves apart, and then you can bring the split stereo closer together in the mix.

It seems like it's going to be a lot of fun for you. It'd be really effective on guitar and keyboards.

Yeah. But for exploring it, I just wanted to use it on it's own to start out with, 'cause you get to work out what all the functions really do. Putting other stuff in it straight away, I think I would tend to just use it as they would in the past, like I'd just put a little LFO on--give it a warble, like on the piano or something. I did play around with it on kick drums, putting a sub underneath the kick.

You were using the Spacing command in the Moog?

Yeah. It's good, because it's like having two oscillators. It works well in stereo.

How’d that work out? Is that an approach you take often on the kick?

Well, it really depends on the mix, of course, what you want from a mix. I was just experimenting to see what was possible to get. With a lot of soft synths, you can hear the notches zipper as you're sweeping through the frequencies, whereas with this Moog filter I didn't find that noticeable. You can get smooth climbs through, from the whole frequency range … very close to the real thing, like an analog piece of gear. It gives it a really good analog feel that I haven't been able to get from soft synths.

"It's like having the right tools to do the right job. And having them there, you don't worry as much about is this good, or is this bad, should I be using this? Because you know all the gear's quality."

How about the +20dB switch? It’s something that was added to emulate that warm, analog distortion sound of the filter input of the Minimoog when it's driven hard.

I had a go with the +20 just yesterday. Great for a guitar fuzz sound, especially if you don't have a board to overdrive. It's a firm favorite with the Furries. We have a fuzz guitar on almost every record, but we usually go direct through a board and overdrive the channel. But this is an option with it's own characteristics--a welcome addition indeed. It doesn't sound like your usual digital fuzz/distortion that's usually too nasty to use. Like you said, it has that warmth similar to that of an analog signal.

The envelope together with the LFO is cool in Self-Oscillating mode. Depending on where the LFO is in its cycle, you can get specific notes by triggering the envelope. Put the LFO in sync and with a little automation you can write bass lines or melodies. It's basic, but a good writing tool because it enforces a set of rules on you. The Spacing function can then give you variation whilst your sequence is running, fattening up or a doubling of the sound, as you effectively have two oscillators. Add to this the cutoff and change the key of your sequence or individual notes or quarter notes, et cetera.

It’s just such a versatile plug, more than just a one-knob filter. And from what I remember from the MiniMoog, sounds like the real thing--but who cares really. It has it's own charm.

You’re using the new UAD-2 card. Are you running it in parallel with your UAD-1 cards?

Yeah, I am, two UAD-1s and the UAD-2. They seem to work seamlessly together--pretty invisible to the user. It sure gives you a lot of power!

What other plugs have you been using?

The Roland is amazing.

Which one? The Dimension D?

The Space Echo.

I would think you would really be into that.

We like sounds and psychedelics or whatever, and the fact that we own one--we used to own the Space Echo and the Space Chorus, which is essentially the same--we had a Chorus switch on it.

Have you compared those sounds?

That's the thing. Mine broke, and I haven't had one for years.

You must be happy to have that plug-in then.

So I'm back to my old ways [laughs]. But it's brilliant, because it's instantly recall-able. I think you'd be hard pushed to tell the difference between the real one and the plug-in. We're not purists in that sense, but I still think it sounds amazing, and the spring reverb's amazing. Even the way the repeat rates react to when you turn it, it's like a real tape. [Laughs.] The attention to detail is brilliant.

What else have been using lately?

Oh, yeah the Transient …

Yeah. I was using that the other day on drums. It just seems to make things … tighter.

I really love the Plate 'verb. When I start a new project, I'll have a bunch of call-up plugs, three or four effects, at the beginning, and that's usually the first one I'll pull up. Obviously I'll change the settings as the song and mix progress, but I like to have two or three reverbs of different kinds. I'll also use the RealVerb Pro. I like the way you can choose your "surfaces," like marble or grass, cork, concrete. I like both reverbs a lot. And then there’s the Space Echo, obviously. The Boss chorus, I was using that on the guitar the other day. I never use chorus as a rule--just don’t use it--but now that I have played with it, I'll probably start using it more. It's like rediscovering chorus again.

Your sound is so lush and layered, I would think chorus is something you would use a lot.

Personally and as a band, I think, we all like phasers a lot. You've got the flanger, and the phaser, and now the chorus. But phaser is our favorite. We've got this old Mu-Tron bi-phase echo that we use. Do you think UAD will do a Mutron bi-phase pedal plug-in? I would buy that straight away!

I'll pass that on [laughs]. Have the UADs had an impact on the way you work?

It's like having the right tools to do the right job. And having them there, you don't worry as much about is this good, or is this bad, should I be using this? Because you know all the gear's quality. I think it just make's your work process faster, because you don't worry: I know what I want, I'll grab that, I'll put it in, I'll patch it up, and you're working, rather than scratching your head wondering what to use, or should I or shouldn't I.

You also don't have to go set up some hardware. It's just there.

Aye. So your working progress is faster, I think. You're not scared to use them, if you know what I mean. Because you know you're dealing with quality.

Are you guys working on a new album? What are you up to?

Yeah. I've been working, writing new material for the Furries--backbone stuff mostly, working on the keyboard or whatever, and some vocal ideas.

I'm also mixing for Acid Casuals, which is my techno house music side project. I imagine the Moog Multimode Filter is what I'm looking for there. It'll work with electronic music, and it'll work with the more traditional band stuff I do. It’s that kind of equipment-nice and versatile, you know? It'll cross over into all genres, I think. So in that respect, it's a great piece of gear to have.