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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Brandstetter

IHSAHN: In-Depth Talk with the Norwegian Composer and Black Metal Legend


Isahn
(c) Andy Ford

Norwegian composer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Vegard Sverre Tveitan, better known under his moniker Ihsahn, rose to fame in the early 1990s with his seminal Black Metal band Emperor. He pioneered Symphonic Black Metal, incorporating classical, cinematic, and progressive elements into raw, brutal music. In 2006, Ihsahn launched his solo career with his first solo album "The Adversary." Eighteen years later, he is releasing his eighth solo effort – and it is undoubtedly his most ambitious. His new, self-titled record is actually two records: one is the metal version, and the other one presents the songs in a fully orchestrated way.


I had the pleasure of having an in-depth conversation with Ihsahn about his compositional process, studio work, and gear. You can also watch the full interview as a video (linked in the very end of the article).




When working on such a huge project as your two new records, where do you start?


Ihsahn: I start with the core idea of what kind of emotional impact I want an album to have. I have a sketchbook where I jot down all kinds of ideas and then narrow it down. When you work in a studio environment with today's technology, there's really no limit to what you can do. So I think it's even more important to sketch it out. This time, I wanted to go back to the core elements that I've been working on since the very beginning, since the first Emperor record. This attempt to blend extreme black metal and extreme metal with orchestral elements from soundtracks. I decided to have the traditional metal lineup – and also just a full symphony orchestra. No synthesizers, no hybrid anything, just those two. I decided to, instead of just adding orchestral elements to the metal version, before I started writing anything, I said, I'll try to orchestrate and arrange things so that they work together and independently. With this idea of maybe exploring different dynamic and emotional ranges of in principle the same music. The first single, "Pilgrimage," is a very hard metal song. But when you listen to the equivalent in the orchestral version, it starts with whispery quiet cellos. It's the same music, but it has two different impacts. Technically, since it was, in principle, a rather simple approach, just write old music as a piano score and then just distribute and arrange it for the metal ensemble, if you will, and then arrange the same music for orchestra parts. Then, of course, fine-tune the arrangement to make everything fit. The idea is very simple. And then the programming and everything that goes into it are really just a lot of work.


What's your setup like when you start?


I have my studio, you know, and sometimes I'll just start with guitar riffs. Oftentimes, I will just experiment with my keyboard and piece it all together.


Are you working with software synths?


I usually start with a software synth with some kind of piano sound. I'm a gear nerd, and I have a few hardware synths, but not for this record. When you work with hardware synths, sound design becomes a significant part of the composition. I wanted this to be very pure. If it works with a piano sound, it will probably work when you flesh it out. I've been a Cubase user since the early '90s. And for the orchestral parts, I was working with too many Spitfire audio libraries (laughs). For this purpose, it wasn't going to be ensemble patches, but individual parts for all violins. I predominantly used the BBC Symphony Orchestra samples because it sounds great and has all the individual articulations needed to achieve a detailed sound. I did a full mock-up like that and then added some light percussion. Later, we recorded some real violins on top and blended the parts. So for the orchestral part, even though it's predominantly samples, it always includes organic elements layered on top of it.


You are a pioneer in metal, having combined the black metal side with the symphonic side like you did in Emperor. What were your influences for those compositions, especially film composers in general?


Thank you, that's very kind of you to say. I have no formal musical education or anything; it's all DIY and self-taught, even back in Emperor. The reason I wanted to add that element to music was that I've always felt that metal was very one-dimensional. But we'd listen to a lot of soundtracks, like Jerry Goldsmith's "The Omen," which is probably still my favorite soundtrack. Also, "Alien," all the John Williams scores, and the works of Bernard Herrmann. Additionally, the analog synthesizer stuff that John Carpenter did for the "Halloween" movies, which is making a comeback with the "Stranger Things" soundtrack. There were so many influences. These composers were emotionally charged with dynamic builds in their music, which was influential. In metal, the sonics were very static with all the blast beats and heavy guitars. Adding orchestral elements allowed me to simulate some kind of ebb and flow. In the beginning, it was super simple, using my Roland JV 1080 with the orchestral card, doing ensemble patches, playing chords and melodies on top. It was nothing fancy but had a lot of ambition.


Ihsahn: "We took the more epic, cinematic style"


Would you say the idea back then was the same?


The idea was very much the same. One of the most influential records for me was Iron Maiden's "Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son." I know some Iron Maiden fans were initially apprehensive about the band incorporating keyboards, but for me, it enhanced the music. The keyboards made it even more epic, which is why I embraced it. My fascination has always been experimenting with different layers, and that elevated black metal to new depths, not only compositionally but also in terms of cinematic quality. That was the whole idea. If you look at the lyrics and aesthetics of early black metal, you can almost say it took two directions. We took the more epic, cinematic style, while Darkthrone went the other way, returning to the core, primitive Hellhammer, early Bathory side. If you trace it back to Bathory, early Bathory was really in-your-face primitive. But with "Blood Fire Death," my favorite Bathory album, they also introduced a huge, epic element. Some early Norwegian bands followed the path of the more evolved Bathory style, while others went back to the early, primitive sound.


There were also differences in the scope of sound and sound quality. For example, Burzum recorded with just one microphone, aiming for a deliberately terrible sound.


Yes, he [Varg Vikernes of Burzum]| would initially use a plastic bucket as one of his toms!


Other than that, when you compare your early approach to composing, how would you describe your journey?


It's been about adding new experiences and tools with each recording. I always aim to have a new educational element or challenge with every new record. I love that part as well. I want to have as many tools as possible. I started writing my first songs at a very young age, around 11 years old when I got my first four-track recorder. Creating musical puzzles was the core ambition and joy for me. Every time I started a new album, I wanted to introduce some new experiences for myself to build upon. The motivation behind it has been a constant throughout my career. These experiences allow me to delve deeper and explore new territories while maintaining some constants. Harsh vocals and distorted guitars are probably my most fluent forms of expression, and I try to change everything around them.


This exploration of new territories also requires a lot of laboratory work in the studio – experimenting with different means, aside from compositional aspects. How would you say those two sides are weighted?


There's a lot of exploration, especially between albums. But when I start working on an album, it becomes very focused. I put on different hats and follow a systematic approach. However, before and in between albums, I blend creative work with laboratory work. I've been creating and programming expression maps for all my libraries, which is super tedious... and then ended up using individual tracks instead (laughs). Programming string parts with modulation and expression using controllers is something I've become accustomed to. However, woodwinds and brass are trickier because they have different attacks and a certain ebb and flow related to breathing. For this record, I bought a breath controller to make it easier to program the dynamics of woodwind and brass parts. Achieving a more authentic breath sound makes it sound more real. I also combined libraries and studied orchestral textures, balancing elements in the foreground and background. There was a lot of learning and studying, but it's much easier with the internet and YouTube today compared to back in the day when I had no formal background.




What would you say is the trickiest part of orchestration, not from a composer's perspective but from the technical side?


The timing and attack of notes are crucial. Working with negative delay to ensure everything lines up and the transients hit in the right places is challenging. Different instruments have variations in when the peak transient hits. To make it work, in the beginning, when you're researching libraries, it's easy to get obsessed with recording quality. Later, you realize that the most crucial part is probably making it sound real. Properly orchestrating and studying the old scores of composers who knew how to do it correctly is vital. Being conscious of voice leading, dynamics, foreground/background, texture, melody, harmony, and counterpoint helps give each element its place without mashing up the harmonic range. So, it's the old-school techniques of arranging that are probably more important for the end result than having the most expensive libraries, as I found out after buying them all (laughs).


Let's talk about guitar gear. I know you've been using Neural DSP quite a lot.


For many years, I've been recording D.I. because when recording, I have to wear different hats. When I'm recording guitar, I have to be the guitarist and can't simultaneously be the engineer and assistant. So I record with basic patches, whether it's a Kemper, a Quad Cortex, or software by Neural DSP or Bogren Digital. Then I can put on my engineering hat and reamp and handle that part. I still use Neural DSP a lot for leads because it's very hands-on and creative. For rhythm guitars, I brought out all my old amp heads and reamped with pedals and other equipment. I used the TwoNotes Captor X and went with IRs or the GGD by GetGood, which has fantastic IR modules allowing blending different cabinets and microphones. Jens Bogren, who mixed the album, also reamped some of the rhythm guitars with his setup and incorporated them into the mix. Digital technology is so advanced these days that, in the end, it's hard for anyone to notice a significant difference. Still, for the tactile experience, I enjoyed setting up my pedals, dialing in the sound, and capturing that.




You mentioned Jens Bogren; how has your collaboration with him been?


I've been working with Jens since 2009 or 2010. His team at his studio Fascination Street is amazing. He has mixed most of my records. I also work with Linus. As a self-recording artist, he and his team have always managed to enhance my recordings. The way I do things and how he transforms them is a great match. He's brilliant at what he does, and his attention to detail is incredible. Have you tried the MLC and the Sub Zero 100?


I have a couple of Bogren Digital IR packs, but I haven't used anything else by them yet.


I use them a lot for tracking now. The One Knob has a great rhythm sound. The MLC amp, I have the original one, but they have also developed a full emulation of it with pedals and everything, not just a static IR. They've incorporated some new technology involving dynamic randomization processes within the IRs themselves, which makes the sound more lively and authentic. While the IRs are static, this dynamic aspect adds realism to the sound. I'm not sure what goes on under the hood, but it sounds pretty impressive.


Which amp heads did you use?


I have a vintage JCM 800, a 100 Watt from the '80s. I also have an Orange Tiny Terror, my Engl Savage 120, and the Blackstar Artisan 100, which is handwired like an old Plexi and sounds really good. For the majority of the rhythm parts, I used the MLC SubZero 100. It was a mix and match of whatever fit the part. I was constantly rewiring and bringing in different pedals.


What about guitars?


Aristides! I've been using them for years now, and they've been very generous to me. I play their six-strings, seven-strings, eight-strings, and they even sent me a nine-string. But for this album, there's only one song that features an eight-string guitar because of the orchestral nature of the record. I wrote the entire thing in Drop C tuning, which aligns with the cello tuning, and it felt like a natural choice when writing for an orchestra. The Drop C tuning gave me a harmonic range that I hadn't explored much. My main guitar for this album was the HO headless guitar with Lundgren pickups. Then I doubled up with the TO tele model with an Evertune Bridge and Fishman Fluence pickups, which complemented the other guitar nicely. I mixed in lead parts with an 060 model, which has a more traditional Strat tremolo. I also used my fan-fret 8-string from them. The main guitar was the headless six-string. I can't speak highly enough about them; they have an amazing team, and the quality of their builds is unparalleled. It's unconventional since it's all composite material, which might raise eyebrows in the conservative guitar-making industry. However, the way those guitars resonate with no dead spots is exceptional. Even when I got a nine-string, which can be overwhelming, it still felt comfortable and familiar. I aim to acquire different models with different setups to have a variety of tonal options. But on a technical level, I always feel at home with them. Additionally, the practical aspects of traveling with these guitars are excellent. You can fly to Japan with them, take them out of the case, and they're still in tune. They're rock solid for all situations, making them an amazing choice.


When you travel, do you go full digital with modelers?


I preordered the Quad Cortex, and I've been using it since. Before that, I used Kempers. When it comes to rental amps, especially for festival shows, there can still be randomness in the sound despite having the same model with the same cabinets. During a bus tour in Europe in 2018 with many club shows where the direct sound for the audience is crucial, having live sound from the drums while everything else is digital can sound strange. For the Kemper, I purchased Combos to provide sound coming from the stage as well, so there was still an amp sound onstage. However, for festival stages, where the audience rarely hears the stage sound, it just makes for a cleaner stage and simplifies things for everyone, including the sound engineering crew and performers.


So you don't miss the feeling of moving air from speakers when you're on stage?


No, I mean, that's always nice – but only for your own sake. But from a practical standpoint, it can make things very difficult for everyone else!



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