This Sound Check is brought to you from the distant lands of east-central Alabama, where I’m in Auburn, the hometown of digital engineering nomad Darby Cicci. Cicci composes and produces music; plays piano, synths, trumpet, and bass; and builds and repairs instruments. In the 18 years of our friendship, I’ve seen him go from playing tiny, grungy bars in Brooklyn to performing at Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Primavera Sound, and Radio City Music Hall. The three albums he released with his former band, The Antlers, made the Billboard charts, garnered him tours with The National, Death Cab for Cutie, and Arcade Fire, and landed him performances on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. During the 2010s, Cicci released a solo EP called School of Night and created both the film I Have Seen The Future: A Tour of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its original score. More recently, he’s been repairing instruments, producing two cocktail-themed podcasts, and composing music for commercials. And if you happen to be a student at Auburn University, you might be studying from the textbook his father wrote that Cicci illustrated hundreds of charts for in his 20s (Fundamentals of Engineering Mechanics: Basic Concepts in: Statics, Mechanics of Materials, and Dynamics). On a frigid January afternoon, we went into interview-mode in the makeshift music room, adjacent to his parents’ kitchen, where Cicci was mixing Sazeracs and adding felt-muted piano to a commercial soundtrack submission.
You mentioned that you were at Michaels, the craft store, recently, and found something super useful.
I go to Michaels a lot. I always find things that are useful, whether it’s potpourri or styrofoam deer, anything you want is at Michaels, with a 60% off coupon! But I was there to buy an X-Acto plastic saw for repairing synthesizer keys. This was for an AKAI AX80 [synthesizer]. It looked like somebody had physically punched the keyboard many times. It needed, like, 12 keys, most of them were broken in half. I bought as many as I could and didn’t have enough, so I bought keys that weren’t for that [model], sawed off the front piece, which was different, and used the original back piece and glued them together. It sounds great, works great. I recapped it. It had an issue with the setting buttons because the circuit board underneath cracks and the connectors are all bad. I fixed the transistor mount. It’s in good shape now. I use it.
What was the first synth you ever repaired?
I run an electronics repair shop on and off, when I don’t have work. I started almost 14 years ago. Someone brought me an old KORG [minilogue] Polyphonic Analogue synth. They’re known for having battery leakage problems that corrode the circuit board and the whole thing just stops working, so you have to replace the battery, clean up the circuit board, fix corroded traces, a little soldering, bridging. It was for this art space in Brooklyn called House of Yes. Their studio had burned down. I remember when I went to bring it back to them, there were acrobats everywhere.
Currently, you produce two podcasts for VinePair.
Yeah, I do lots of noise reduction. A lot of our interviews are over phone call or Zoom and most of the people we’re interviewing are not audio people. They use whatever is available to them to do the interview and can sound pretty terrible, so I do everything I can to make them sound as clear as they can be. If a podcast can have great content and great audio, those are the ones I listen to and keep coming back to. I’m a listener as much as I am a producer. I love knowing what makes a cocktail so excellent. I have learned quite a bit about making cocktails in the past year.
Cocktail College is about a different cocktail every week, either an interview with a famous bartender, oftentimes the inventor of the cocktail itself, or an expert in the field, and we interview them about the history of the cocktail, their preferred preparation, and all the ingredients. Some episodes are just techniques. We did a whole episode on stirring techniques. Both of our hosts are really cool and they have great voices. For the studio in New York, where we have guests when they come in, I use Electro-Voice RE20 [Dynamic Broadcast] mics, specifically the black ones, ‘cause they’re cooler. I went all the way out to Jamaica, Queens, just to get the black ones.
Do you miss physically being in the studio? And running everything?
With studios, a lot of your time is spent scheduling, waiting around for people, setting up and breaking down. And I found that, when I spent most of my time on tour, it was a lot of loading gear and waiting around and scheduling and then I’d come home and not feel like I got a break from that sort of environment—it was just a continuation of tour, so I gravitated towards more things like composing, independent producing, things that didn’t require me to run a full studio and pay two sets of bills and deal with two landlords and all the complications that go with it.
Now, I’m completely remote in pretty much all of my work—I travel with a very minimal rig. For mixing podcasts, all I need is a laptop and headphones. I travel as much as I can with a [Universal Audio] Apollo Twin X that I love and is great for recording. I do a lot of commercial writing for broadcast TV commercials. It’s great for writing those and making demos. I’m currently at my parents’ house in Alabama and I was able to write and record a commercial spot while I was here, while all of my other gear is in storage.
I remember you having a very funny issue with your Brooklyn studio.
My studio was right near the broadcast tower for Radio Disney in Bushwick and we were plagued by Radio Disney. Ribbon mics loved picking it up. Guitar amps, guitars—it was everywhere. I remember one time I had no mics or anything plugged in and I was hearing it in the studio monitors—It was just being picked up in the air from open connections in the studio XLR jacks. I would have been OK with a cool jazz or classical station but this was the most annoying children’s music. Lots of spots I’ve had to edit out of years of recordings that were interrupted by, “This is Radio Disney!”
Anything can play a radio signal. Radio signals are around us at all times, so any piece of metal, any wire, can collect radio signals. It’s all about how they’re decoded into actually hearing the radio. Amplifiers will pick up a low level signal and amplify it if it gets in before the power stage of the amp. All your cables are just big antennas. A guitar is one giant antenna and anytime it all makes a loop, you’re making the same thing you’d put on your roof to get radio.
Your band, The Antlers, blew up when NPR put Hospice at number one on their “2009 Already Better Than 2008” list, but that album was recorded super low budget, while you guys were still experimenting with the sound. So can I ask about how you recorded your major follow up, Burst Apart?
Burst Apart took about nine months, start to finish. It was way bigger in scope than Hospice. I had a full mic collection, plus access to my studio partner’s collection, better monitors, mixing desk, [and] isolated control room, where I could actually mic my drums and then listen to them not in the same room, which took my drum recording to a way different level. I could actually start hearing phase relationships and I could hear individual mics and be isolated properly. It went kind of big.
A restored 1937 Zenith tube radio, mic’d with an AEA R84, Royer R-121, Shure KSM44A, and Shure KSM313 for I Have Seen The Future: A Tour of the 1939 New York World’s Fair
Photo courtesy Darby Cicci.
Which instruments created the essential sounds on that album?
Back then I was touring with a Fender Rhodes so that was on there. The main synths I started using around then—and will for the rest of my life—were a Roland Jupiter-6, which is my big, beautiful polysynth that I adore more than anything on this Earth, and an old KORG MS-20 [mini monophonic synthesizer] with a good filter in it. Those two synths, I did pretty much everything on.
There’s an external signal processor that I used on the MS-20, so I would actually sing through that. I had a [Roland] RE-201 Space Echo tape delay. I used that on everything back then. We had this old Hammond organ too. I want to say an M-102. It was the first Pink Floyd organ. It’s sort of a mini B3 but it had a rotating Leslie speaker with it and it sounded great.
Was that your touring rig setup as well?
I didn’t tour with the Jupiter-6. I was like, “This is going to be a bad idea. It’s not going to take the abuse on the road.” I did tour with the MS-20 for a while but I realized the same thing with that. I toured with the Space Echo, probably not a smart idea but it held up pretty well. I mainly toured with a bass rig: an Ampeg SVT PRO [head] and a[n Ampeg SVT-]410HLF cab, that I ran everything through. I did all the bass in the band on keyboards, so what I did was, I had a Nord Electro for the piano stuff and then I had the MS-20, before that a microKORG, and the bass, I played with my feet. I had a Roland PK-5, which is a [dynamic] bass pedal controller designed off of organ pedals and I played shows in my socks and connected that to a few different things over the years.
I started off with a really simple analog bass synth; after that, I got a Dave Smith [Instruments] Mopho, which is a mono little tabletop box synth. Then I quickly replaced that with a Dave Smith Tetra, which is a four-voice polysynth, so I ran most of the bass through that and then played Rhodes on the Nord Electro, and then I would have another synth that varied from either being a microKORG or MS-20 or later a [Dave Smith Instruments] Prophet ‘08… After that I got a Nord Stage 2 because the keys are weighted and I got sick of playing with my feet.
On the next record after that [Familiars], the bass lines were a lot more complicated because I recorded everything on bass or upright bass, so, you could split the Nord Stage  into midi zones and external midi, so I had the left hand just play bass, which I connected to a eurorack modular skiff that was two oscillators, basically just two sine waves an octave apart, that made this huge, powerful synth bass. I started running that through the PAs and the subs of the house at whatever venue we were performing at, and that could seriously rattle the walls of a place. That thing was demonic. At that point, I switched the patches on the Nord to be more Wurlitzer and piano sounds.
You’ve played festivals, arenas, Radio City Music Hall. How do you keep the sound intimate and consistent in places of that size?
We played this one arena with Death Cab for Cutie where our green room was the away hockey team’s warm up space. We had Segways to get around backstage, it was so big. When you play venues of that size, there’s a lot more reliance on the sound guy. They’re doing most of the work. Most of your sound is in the PA. Honestly, your amps, at that stage, are just on for you to hear and on so they can be mic’d. I mean, there’s no reason, in any size venue, to have any amp turned up loud, unless you’re a sociopath. Even if you’re playing an arena and you’re playing a Fender Twin or something, your amp is still gonna be on 2, maybe. You never turn things up too loud ‘cause they will end up bleeding into all the mics on stage, nothing subtle will be picked up from the drumset, everything will just be blasted and feeding back, except in a small venue, where you’re not mic’ing guitar amps or drums. Especially at festivals, you could be 30 feet or more from the first row of people and much further to the back, so you’re relying on the PA to transmit all of your sound. There’s synth bands where everything is DI and there’s no sound onstage and it’s completely silent. That’s a little weird too because if you see a band like that, it feels like there’s a weird sound hole in the middle of the stage. Bigger venues will have center fills, so they’ll have speakers along the front of the stage that will balance out that stereo image. It’s all up to the sound guy. You trust them and you accept that there’s no way to actually hear what you sound like.
Top photo: Tracking piano with a Royer R-121 and Sennheiser 441. Photo by Sabrina Stone.