Splice Originals Q&A: Susie Ibarra

Originally from the Philippines and raised in Houston, percussionist Susie Ibarra boasts an eclectic style that blends an array of influences.

Her deep training in polyrhythmic Filipino kulintang gong music seamlessly blends with her jazz drumming background, and she has been taught by the likes of Sun Ra’s late Buster Smith, Vernel Fournier, and Milford Graves. After traveling to the Philippines in 2007 on a research grant, she sought to better understand and preserve the region’s indigenous and folkloric musical traditions through her own compositions. Her forward-thinking explorations of percussion, drumming, and composition build an abundant body of grooves that are simultaneously uninhibited, intuitive, and profound.

In an intimate studio session in New York, Ibarra recorded an exclusive sample pack for Splice Originals. We sat down to chat with her about her experience recording a global selection of percussion instruments, drums, and kulintang loops and one-shots to inspire fellow music makers.

To start, tell us about your overall experience recording this pack. Was this your first time recording a sample pack, or was this familiar territory? Did you go into the session with a plan or vision in mind, or did you leave room for improvisation?

This was my first time recording a sample pack. It felt very organic in the studio session – I set up different stations to play various percussion and drums, and this also informed how we moved through sounds and catalogued them. I was very excited to work with Splice at Figure 8 Studios in Brooklyn to record this pack. Several wonderful engineers and musicians had suggested this to me (including Olivier Chastan as well as Justin Frye and Gregory Fox at Pioneer Works), and I had stepped into studios to track and explore different ways to record my music, but this was the first time I created a sample pack.

The team at Splice helped think about, collaborate on, and plan the structure of the session. They asked me questions about my music and percussion vocabulary and offered different ideas on ways to package the samples. We also left room to improvise moments. Eli Crews engineered the session and was helpful in cataloguing the sounds as well as getting a great sound for my instruments and playing.

What kinds of instruments or sounds did you work with? As a musician, how does recording individual samples feel compared to creating an entire composition or song from start to finish?

For this session I brought my Yamaha maple custom 4 piece drum set and snare with wooden rims, an array of Paiste cymbals including flats, rides, crashes, chinas, and hi-hats, and single and double bass drum pedals. I also brought my Philippine kulintang 8 rowed gongs, 8 rowed sarunay xylophone, and wooden akayo xylophone. Alongside those I had my Chinese opera gongs, small cymbals, Tibetan cymbals, shakers made of nuts and shells from Indonesia, Japan, Peru, and Brazil, bells from Israel, Indian brass bells, Tibetan bells, nylon and wire brushes, and an assortment of mallets and sticks from Vic Firth.

One-shots are very different from recording an entire composition. A one-shot could be used as an accented moment, an event. In some way, I feel like it’s the science and execution of delivering each sound and attack for a recording. I could think of it as providing a palette of colors for people to play with, or micro-organizing the attack and sonority of each note, instrument, and aesthetic. When recording a composition, I’m thinking about what’s needed to make it sound as great as it can be in that session. It’s more about the song or composition, phrasing, ensemble playing, solo moments, or embellishments, alongside playing rhythms and grooves.

Loops might feel more organic and lend themselves naturally to drumming and percussion playing. Yet, playing these relatively short ideas makes them like a musical study, a phrase, motif, or gesture while in rhythmic motion.

We know that it can be an insightful yet challenging process to create something for a specific audience – in this case, fellow musicians and producers. What were some of the challenges, if any? For instance, did you ever feel any tension between retaining your sound and creating a pack that anyone could use? 

Hmm… I think it was important for me to think about the overall aesthetic of these sounds prior to the session. I had to think about how I would play them for people to use in all sorts of contexts. Without this, I think the recording session would not have been as intentional.

Some other challenges were choosing specific rhythms to loop, thinking about things like “why these and not others?” I played these particular loops for this sample pack because I felt they musically related to the overall material while utilizing various techniques.

It’s very exciting for me to think about how my music and sounds could be used for many different musical contexts. I’ve developed a lot of extended techniques on the drum set and percussion which I’ve written into some of my compositions for ensembles and also recorded on other musicians’ records or my own. The thought of people being able to use these sounds in their own compositions and recordings is really amazing to me. I think it makes the breadth of musical possibilities so much larger, with hopefully many unexpected and delightful musical surprises. I’m not worried about other people using a sample pack of my playing. I don’t think anyone could ever sound like me playing, but they could use my aesthetic in their own musical ways. I would be so surprised if someone did sound exactly like me playing – I would want to meet that producer or musician to find out their tricks!

To close, what do you hope producers and musicians will create with your sounds?

I hope my sample pack will help open up a larger world for producers and musicians to explore rhythm, vibe, melody, ambience, and color. Regardless of the genre or intent of the music being created, I hope the sample pack is an inspiration to their imagination.

Explore Susie Ibarra’s distinctive percussion and drum sounds here. 

December 5, 2018

Ayesha Chugh Ayesha is a DJ, music producer, and former talent booker based in New York City. She is currently working on the Content team of Splice.