Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos on Apollo, UAD & Creativity
Take a closer listen beyond the gorgeous dance-pop veneer of Passion Pit’s latest album—the surprisingly complex and layered Kindred — and a deeper world of overlapping synth textures, nuanced beat architecture, and finely drawn lyrics about life, faith, and love emerges.
The album’s synthesis of nerdy EDM tweaking and guilty-pleasure pop euphoria is no accident: the band’s founder and chief auteur — and, lo and behold, trained jazz guitarist — Michael Angelakos works with a deliberation and care that belies his music’s sugary exterior.
Digging for original, edgy sounds from a fleet of hardware and soft synths, Angelakos relies on Apollo Twin and Apollo 16 interfaces, as well as the rich sonics of UAD Powered Plug-Ins to burnish his creations straight through to final mix.
What does Kindred represent to you in your life as an artist and songwriter?
Passion Pit has always been a question of, how human can I make this music sound — flaws, contradictions, everything — and still pass under the radar to be deemed as pop? Kindred is a pretty glossy version of that. I’m proud of it. I began to understand what Passion Pit stood for, and I wanted to nail it in. I couldn’t care if people get it now, tomorrow, in a year, or never. I wanted people to come out of it knowing that Passion Pit has this sound and does what it does really well. That was the base level for me. I wanted to make a record that fit into the catalog and reinforced the concept. If it takes off, great. If not, I love it and I’m sure a few people will too.
Did you have designs on Kindred standing apart from previous Passion Pit releases?
Kindred was about having fun with the idea of what a “good record” in a “good studio” is supposed to sound like. Sometimes it’s fun to impose restrictions and watch where you overcompensate for them in the music, and see what you keep in. Anyone can go in and write great songs. But it’s such a good opportunity to create a situation where you can make things a bit more interesting and color the music differently.
What do you mean?
Instrumentally, each record is pretty much the same thing. It’s always me turning to weirder and weirder sound sources and getting better at certain things. Kindred was about processing. It was about self-referential sound sources, utilizing instruments, and getting things to sound crisp and glossy and pop when they were already mostly noise.
Where do your songs typically begin?
I start most of the songs on a Yamaha P250 piano, the original, gigantic one. That one finds its way onto songs, actually — it’s the greatest digital piano to process, I’ve had it since I was 16 years old. So I block songs out very generally on the P250 when it’s for Passion Pit, and usually it’s after I’ve heard the basic melody or rhythm changes in my head. Often I’ll hear the whole production, but that’s infuriating as you never explain it fast enough to keep up with your initial confidence and enthusiasm.
“Once I got an Apollo Twin and some UAD plug-ins,
my musical output increased exponentially.”
Do you have any gear that inspires you?
The Sequential Circuits Prophet VS always has patches that inspire me to move in a certain direction, whereas a Mellotron can just as easily start a song as the piano. Mellotrons are all over Passion Pit stuff. The Passion Pit sound is so heavy with Yamaha SK30 or SK50 synths, that I don’t even know where to listen for it! It’s laid out in such a way that makes writing just as fun as performing on it.
Could you describe your main writing/composing rig?
I have a few writing and production setups. There are a few rigs that all overlap at some point. Mobile Rig 1 is pretty much what I’ll bring to a session when there’s some good gear at the studio already. It’s pretty simple: my laptop, an Apollo Twin, a few small and lighter synthesizers such as the Korg MS-20 mini, maybe an Analogue Solutions Telemark or the Moog Sub 37.
Mobile Rig 2 expands on that and then starts including rack gear, like an Apollo 16, the new Neve 1073 DPX, Chandler EMI TG1 and TG2, some Distressors, Kush Audio Clariphonic, an Avalon AD2022 preamp, a Dangerous Music Monitor ST, and PMC twotwo.6 monitors.
What has Apollo brought to your workflow?
With UA’s offerings I started realizing that I actually can do it myself. And I’m not kidding when I say it’s changed my life. Once I got an Apollo Twin and some UAD plug-ins, my output increased exponentially.
What are your “go-to” UAD plug-ins?
I’ve recently been creating some templates, just to kind of file through new ideas quicker. I just want to get to the sound. I test signal flow and patching ideas so quickly now. The EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator and EMT® 250 Classic Electronic Reverb plug-ins are on individual stems — always.
What about the EMT 140 and 250 do you like so much?
They just react better to more information than other reverbs I’ve used. I can make them as forgiving or insane as I’d like. I typically keep the 140 for the shorter, quicker, brighter sounds, and the 250 for the longer, much warmer plate.
What about EQs?
I like the EQ on the UAD 4K Channel Strip, and the Pultec Passive EQ Collection gets a lot of use. One thing I like to do is, group a few tracks — like some gated synth sequences that are competing for the same space —and instead of individual EQ’ing, I’ll run them through the Dangerous Bax EQ from the Dangerous BAX EQ Plug-in Collection.
What are some UAD plug-ins that you use for synth processing?
In the case of sequenced/arpeggiated synths, the UAD SPL Transient Designer works just as well as it would on drums. I use that all over the place, just to screw with the intentions of a recording and see how it reacts.
The Little Labs® IBP Phase Alignment Tool and VOG plug-ins and the SPL Vitalizer help me create interesting textures in tracks where the dynamic is more about a soft warmth, an elegant, not overly aggressive grit. If I have the basic sound I want, and it’s simply about rolling off some of the higher or lower frequencies, I’ll always try the Moog Multimode Filter first. It’s easily one of my favorite plug-in filters ever.
There's lovely separation between instruments, vocals and parts, which one doesn't always hear in dance-oriented pop music. What's your role in how the parts sit in the final mix, and do you compose with an ear to clarity?
I have learned so much from Chris Zane and Alex Aldi, two of my close friends and co-workers My process remains pretty unorthodox, yet. Part of that is because I had a relationship with them that allowed me to play a much more heavy-handed role in the mixing.
Can you elaborate?
Passion Pit comes down to the mixing. Most all of our records have rarely had “demos” go to anyone, even my manager or people I especially trust. The three of us would just realize early on during Manners that doing so was pretty pointless, and the proof was always in the pudding because people would love the record.
People rarely acknowledge how much work goes into a Passion Pit record and the three of us have learned to just accept the fact that no one will ever understand how much of an insane process it takes to get from point A to point B.
Most bands map things out before — we never do. We pick a date to start, and we know it’s going to take months before all the filtering starts yielding a sound, and idea of what the record will shape up to be. Then it’s just off to the races — and we fly once we’re all on the same page.
Believe me, the process is tedious, but that actually means the mixing becomes another art unto itself. It becomes part of the production — an extension of it all.
Photo Credit: Juan Patino
— James Rotondi