Composer and multi-instrumentalist Deniz Cuylan has released a new album No Such Thing As Free Will built around classical guitar, the first instrument he learned to play at Lycée Saint-Joseph, the French high school he attended in Istanbul. Born in Istanbul, the artist has gone on to live and work in Stockholm and New York City, while touring across the US and Europe. He has worked on scores for shows and films like Rise Of Empires: Ottoman, The Mars Generation, El Chapo and Janicza Bravo’s Lemon, while also providing music for ads, fashion shows and more.
The new album No Such Thing As Free Will is a beautiful focus on the guitar, but brings in other elements to give it a rich and textured sound. At just under 30 minutes, it is a breeze of a listen, with sweet, simmering strings on “She Was Always There” or soft, subtle piano on “No Such Thing As Free Will.” The project is filled with moments of serendipitous bliss that allow you to take a deep breath and relax. As someone who gets hundreds of emails a day, taking a pause every once and a while is necessary. This is Cuylan’s first ever solo album.
To get a better idea of how one can create a great record focused around classical guitar, we asked Cuylan to show us How It Was Made. Read on as he describes the process of getting the guitar, working with the mix engineer, using all of the instruments just right and much more. Pick up your copy of the album here and stream it as you read.
1. Thomas Norwood Santos 2011 Classical Guitar, Spruce/Indian Rosewood
I’ve had many releases with my bands in the past but they were always joint efforts. As I share my first solo album, No Such Thing As Free Will, I’m realizing how addicted I’ve become to collaborate in the studio. This time I had no option but to make a big change and collaborate with my gear instead of real people. They have become my bandmates during the production of this minimalist, ambient album and my precious classical guitar has turned out to be my alter ego.
In early 2020, right before the global pandemic hit Los Angeles, I had decided to put my favorite instrument, nylon string classical guitar at the center of my debut solo album. Since my plan was to focus on the timbre of the instrument rather than the virtuosity, it was crucial for me to find a very special guitar. I started trying out different instruments.
I went to the Guitar Salon International in Santa Monica and played a bunch of amazing hand made guitars but as it always happens, I truly bonded with only one of them. This was a beautiful 2011, spruce and Indian rosewood guitar made by Thomas Norwood. This extraordinary Luthier was born in Pasadena, CA and moved to Paris in the mid 70’s where his atelier remains to this day. He based this model on the legendary 1935 "Santos." Its sound is true to the original, extremely warm, vintage and loose.
As it turns out, the price was way over my budget so I left the shop like a 10 year old that couldn’t get his favorite Lego set and carried on to try other guitars for a month. But I couldn’t get “Santos” out of my head. So I went back. Folks at the Guitar Salon somehow knew that I’d return. I explained the situation in the most dramatic way, like a Turkish movie from the 60’s and they helped me out with a great deal. I stretched and said yes to compose another Netflix series to be able to afford this unique guitar. This is the story of a film composer’s life.
When I took Santos back to the studio, I immediately started experimenting with it. I wasn’t only trying different mics, preamps but also checking my compositions with the guitar and oh man, the first days were truly desperate. This guitar was so arrogant and stubborn like a true special instrument that I had to change my playing, even my writing accordingly. And when I did, Santos started offering himself to me.
2. Soyuz 017 Large Diaphragm Tube Condenser
So the next step was finding the right microphone. After many tests with different mics, I found out that the Soyuz 017 Tube was a perfect match for Santos.
Soyuz is an amazing high-end, boutique microphone company, run by Beck’s former sax player and my dear friend David Brown. I had produced David’s album for Brazzaville when I was living in Istanbul in 2008 and we had become good friends since then. I was so happy that old friends and new friends were connecting together even if it’s for a solo album.
The Tube version of 017 is Soyuz’s flagship microphone and it deserves that title. I kept the mic a little farther away from the guitar than usual so it can capture the whole vibe that Santos was radiating. I couldn’t be happier.
3. Ampex 351 Tube Mic Preamp
The next big choice was going to be the preamp. Following my long time collaborator and dear friend Brian Bender’s advice, I narrowed everything down to two vintage preamps. One of them was the famous 1960’s Tape Machine preamp, Ampex 351 and the other was a lesser-known gem Klangfilm KLM 007 by the 60’s Siemens/Telefunken. By the way, Brian is a heavy producer and a mixing engineer based in Los Angeles. He has produced Grammy-nominated records, worked with artists such as Nate Smith, Jose James, Bing & Ruth. He is also the other half of my Chill Wave project Bright & Guilty. You should follow him and his exceptional collection of studio equipment wherever you can.
Ampex 351 rolled the unwanted top frequencies and added that sweet 60’s tube warmth to the beautifully resonating spruce body of the guitar. So I decided to use the 351 for closer, more intimate layers in the compositions.
4. Klangfilm KLM 007 Tube Mic Preamp
For the main arpeggios and the backbone of the arrangement, I went for Klang Film. It’s really hard to describe what KLM 007 does to the input signal. It widens it up, polishes with soft brightness and makes it sound “of the times” and “timeless” at the same time. Klangfilm is my absolute favorite secret gear in the studio.
Now that the signal chain was set, I started recording night and day. I come from a background of electronic music. So I wanted to incorporate that style of loop based writing to the performance of acoustic instruments. My aim was to achieve that by superimposing layers of repetitive patterns in different time signatures and lengths on top of each other. A 5 bar loop converges with the 7 bar loop on the 35th bar and an event like the chord change happens there. This way, I still had a programming effect, an electronic feel -- hence the title No Such Thing As Free Will -- but also kept the human element by performing all those lines with the guitar phasing in and out with the rest of the layers. The dichotomy of exercising free will and accepting the deeper, unconscious urges and patterns at the same time was the core idea behind this album.
So I recorded and recorded. Like I said, I wanted to keep that human element throughout the whole album so I decided to avoid punch-ins as much as possible. Especially for the main arpeggios that hold the piece together, I always went for a full take. When I was sufficiently content with what I had, I started editing. It’s always useful to avoid being too precious at this stage. Don’t get too attached to your initial ideas. You should let the song guide you in the right direction rather than forcing your will on it. And that’s what I did. I muted whole sections, even deleted full songs entirely and I ended up with 10 tracks that only consist of guitar recordings.
I gave 9-10 days as a full break from the project, then came back to the studio and listen to everything again with fresh ears. At this stage I always try to become an honest listener, instead of a producer. Also since this was my first solo record, I wanted to get my close circle of friends’ opinion so I shared what I had done so far with a small group of trusted people. With my honest listener reaction combined with the feedback I received from others, I eliminated two tracks and decided to add clarinets, pianos and cellos to the remaining 8.
5. Buffet Crampon Bb Clarinet
I had an entry level Buffet Crampon Bb Clarinet in the studio that I played occasionally. Since I was planning to manipulate the sound of the instrument, I didn’t need anything more fancy.
I recorded the clarinets with the Soyuz 017 Tube and Ampex 351 preamp and it was exactly what I wanted. My plan was to create breathy textures in the background and add unpredictable open chords, accompanying the well-structured guitars. I aimed to inject a bit of chaos to the mechanical order of the guitar layers. I stole from the best when it came to the arrangement. I studied Bill Evans’ modal piano chords, and drew inspiration from my favorite Bing & Ruth record, No Home Of the Mind.
Next stop was the piano. A friend of mine had left her piano in the studio and just like the clarinet, I decided not to be picky with the instrument. Its role was only to accentuate some chord changes, and add the sparkle on top. I needed a stereo pair microphone set to record the piano and once again Soyuz came into play.
6. Soyuz 013 Small Diaphragm Condenser
When used as overheads or stereo setups in general, Soyuz 013 FET pair are very precise but still as smooth as their other siblings on Soyuz’s roster. My Klangfilm preamp was also stereo, so they were a good match for the 013s. The whole record was going through 60’s preamp tubes and that became the distinctive sound of No Such Thing As Free Will.
The only thing left now was the cellos. I asked my partner in crime, Brian Bender again to play and record in his room, Motherbrain. And he used his beautiful Marco Polo cello and the Vintage Neumann 47 FET microphone to track the added layers.
7. Neumann 47 FET
Cellos were supporting the open clarinet chords and adding some low end to the mix where it was needed. They also did the classic minimalist, 8th, 16th and Triplet note pulses made famous by household names such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass.
When we had everything together, edited and cleaned up nicely, Brian started mixing the record. As it’s always a pleasure for me to hear his incredible work, he makes it look so easy. Whether it’s the dynamic eq he was using to balance the resonances on the multi-layered guitars and other accompanying instruments, or his vintage compressor collection with so much character, Brian brought out the vibe that I was longing for from the very first minute.
At this point it’s perfectly normal for every musician to get a little precious about their music. That’s why if you don’t have a clear vision from the start, the mixing stage can be painful for some artists, because you’re losing control and letting the album go where it needs to go. But if you choose your collaborators carefully, you can easily set them free. Just like Frank Arkwright at Abbey Road, who wrapped the album without any notes on our end with his masterful mastering.
Now I had the record in hand and I wanted to find a welcoming home for my debut solo album. So I played it to KEXP DJ, Alex Ruder who runs Hush Hush Records. I had been following his show Pacific Notions for some time and loved what he was doing with his label. As a good producer, he responded back with a clear feedback. He wanted to leave out two tracks. He felt like the album was going to be more cohesive that way and although it was really hard to let go of my finished tracks at this stage, I listened to his advice. It’s really important to have an open mind when you work with people that you trust. And that brings us back to the art of collaboration. Whether it’s your stubborn guitar or the slightly out of tune vintage Moog or your strongly opinionated friends, we should always sit back, listen and find a middle ground where we can all work together.