Digits: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Melancholy electronic pop
File next to: Milosh, Mr. Little Jeans
Playing: Red Bull Sound Select Showcase a.k.a. WL 601, Thursday May 29, 2014 at Adelaide Hall.

Alt Altman has been performing as Digits since 2009, and though he currently resides in Toronto, it was during extended stays in London and Berlin that he began to garner attention for his singular style of crooning over shimmering synths and fragile beats. Dean Williams caught up with Alt between mixing sessions and peppered him relentlessly with questions, leading Alt to issue a screed on the collapse of music journalism. It was glorious!

Tell me about the genesis of the Digits project. Was this noodling you did in absence of other collaborators, or did you actually set out to form a one-man electronic/pop type outfit?

I bought a MIDI synth in 2004 and it came with recording software, so that’s when the noodling began. I had an early collaborator, the only person I knew that liked Junior Boys as much as me, but then he moved to Philadelphia. Then I started a band called Europe in Colour, and some of our songs were in a synth-pop vein. Half of the first Digits album (released in 2009) is basically a Europe in Colour EP.

Do you write music during the day or is the nighttime the right time? Your music definitely has a very late-night vibe.

I don’t really have a set pattern, I’ll write at all times. But staying up working all night usually yields good stuff. I do try to create nighttime-y textures though.

Do you remember the first record that turned you onto electronic music as a form, the first “a-ha!” moment you had for synth-based music?

It came late. I hated synths and electronic music when I was a teenager. I think it took a super-organic electronic band like Air for me to actually acquire a taste. The song probably would have been “La Femme d’Argent“. Hearing Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” with Giorgio Moroder producing was probably the turning point of becoming hooked.

Following on the “a-ha” moment — was there a time you recall that you realized music could be more than something you just listened to, but also something you made? A moment where you thought, “hey, I should make some of this stuff!”?

I’d been writing songs since I was a kid, just playing an instrument and learning how to play others’ songs naturally made me want to try my hand at writing, usually on guitar. But it took listening to the Junior Boys in 2004 for me to start trying to write electronic music. And that would never have happened if hadn’t had a synth and software on hand to experiment with.

Often with electronic music, the songwriting process IS the recording process, which IS the production/engineering process. Do you have any experience in more traditional bands, and do you find the “fiddly-ness” of composing electronic music sometimes hurts the actual songwriting/composition process?

I’ve played in a few rock bands, and even played trumpet in high school jazz and concert band. I also was a member of The Ghost is Dancing for a few years. Yes, combining the writing, recording and production stages can hurt the songwriting process in some ways, no question. There’s definitely a bias towards eliminating bridges or pre-choruses, I’d say. But it has a huge strengths: spontaneous song creation is a lot easier, and you can rework anything at some future date. As long as you’re able to critique what you’re recording, you can always make drastic changes after the initial songwriting/recording attempt if you need to. You can also mix and match between different arrangements of the same song until you find the exact fit. I feel that on balance, songwriting using a computer creates more interesting possibilities and pathways to completing a song, rather than the old school methods.

Presets or built-from-scratch patches?


Is a computer involved in your tracking/composition, or do you use outboard sequencers / record yourself actually keying the notes?

I used a computer to both compose and track. I often perform most of the synth parts rather than program them, to give it a slightly more human feel.

What’s your dream synth, a synth you’d own if you could afford it?

I’m a weirdo in that I actively avoid studying all the different kinds of synths. No sense in creating a desire for them. I’m pretty happy with what I have or playing whatever kind of synth serendipitously ends up in my hands at a given moment.

What’s your “Swiss army” piece of kit, the one item you turn to again and again for inspiration?

I could not function without Ableton. It’s the brains of this whole operation, really. I don’t know how I’d write songs without it.

Is your gear integral to your process or do you feel like you could write just as readily with say, a wooden spoon and a thumb piano?

I think I can write good songs with different instruments besides my usual synths and drum machines. But would they be songs that others would enjoy too? I don’t know about that. I definitely can’t play a thumb piano properly, but it’s a wonderful instrument, kind of electronic too. I would find the wooden spoon challenging as well.

London… Berlin… Toronto. From a creative standpoint, what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of some of the cities you’ve called home over the last few years?

I think living in different places was very good for creativity, generally. Being itinerant, and seeing and experiencing new things was very inspiring. But looking at the three from the perspective of an artist trying to make a living, Berlin has huge advantages in terms of a low-cost of living, not to mention performing in Europe also pays more. I did love all three, but I find I like Toronto best. It’s an amazing place!

Playin’ to the home crowd! Good move. What’s the most heinous, apt or even surprising artist comparison you’ve seen for your music?

I don’t recall, nor do I really care! Writers are forced to rush reviews and make snap judgments and comparisons. Bad comparisons are always amusing to me, and I’m just happy to be written about. I think you can’t be too precious about the things you make: people are going to bring their own preconceptions to their experience of listening to you, and there’s no sense in getting worked up over “unfair” or “inaccurate” interpretations. And most journalists aren’t lazy, they’re usually overworked and have no time to give everything careful consideration. Journalism’s collapsing, and the music media specifically is dealing with the exact same financial pressures to stay afloat.


Digits plays on Thursday, May 29th as part of Red Bull Sound Select Presents: Toronto w/ Dan Deacon, DIANA & Digits, 8PM @ Adelaide Hall (250 Adelaide St W, Toronto, Ontario). This event is brought to you by the letter D.

Photo by Arnold Frolics.