Magnetic Skies

Magnetic Skies

Artist / Band

Magnetic Skies are a synth pop/darkwave band, formed in 2018 by Simon Kent and Jo Womar. We’ve recently supported Heaven 17 and Altered Images, and are preparing to release our debut album, “Empire Falling”, in Autumn 2023.

Digging into the creative process, Byta speaks with artists, musicians, producers, DJs and anyone involved with music creation. A conversation about how they create, collaborate and share music. From studio setups to routines, and the first person to hear about the next 'big' work.

Where are you based?

I’m Simon Kent from Magnetic Skies. The band is based in London, Winchester, Christchurch and Portsmouth. We get together for rehearsals leading up to live shows, other than that communication is electronic!

How, when and where did you start making music? Are you primarily a musician or a producer, or do something else?

I’m definitely not a great musician! I had some piano lessons when I was at school, and I taught myself basic guitar – but I do everything by ear, does it sound good? I’ve just finished mastering our debut album “Empire Falling” this morning, and I would say that for this album I’m a songwriter/singer/producer.

Jo Womar (keyboards) and I started writing in summer 2018, a one-off project. We both loved a lot of the same music, especially synth pop, and ideas started flowing freely. I had been in bands and a solo performer before, but Jo had absolutely no live experience, so to start with we were unsure whether this was going to be a studio-only project. We spent a while exchanging ideas and writing a set of songs throughout the rest of 2018 and 2019.

We were asked to open for Heaven 17 in Brighton in 2019. I think we had only played two really low-key shows by this time, in small pubs, so this was a big show for us, still as a duo. It went really well and we decided to develop the live shows. It took a while to find the right people, but in 2021 Carlos Aguilar (guitar) and Lenin Alegria (drums) joined the band. In 2020 we released a couple of EPs, and followed that with a stream of singles through to this year.

Magnetic Skies Home Studio

Who would you consider some of your biggest influences when it comes to your “sound”?

Jo and I had a really strong idea of how we wanted Magnetic Skies to sound – a modern synth pop band that draws on inspiration from the 70s and 80s, but adding our own modern perspective sonically. There are many influences from Kraftwerk/Bowie/Roxy Music through Japan/Depeche Mode/Gary Numan/The Cure and right up to contemporary artists like Drab Majesty/Boy Harsher.

Explain your creative process. Do you have a routine?

Writing songs is rarely quick for me, often a collision of musical ideas and lyrical content that comes together after a period of misfiring. I tend to have a set of lyric ideas and song titles hanging around at any given point in time, and I’m often playing around with a musical base for them to work with – that could be anything – a bassline, a set of chords, a drum beat or a riff. I don’t write every day or even every week. There are times when everything is working and times when it’s just not! I find it really hard to try to force it, but also painful when ideas aren’t connecting.

What is your “studio” setup?

I’m lucky to have a studio space at home, with everything I need at hand. I record onto Logic Pro X in an old Macbook Pro. Most of the vocals have been recorded at home on either a Shure KSM44A or a FLEA47 microphone, and then through a TL Audio VP5051. I love both of those microphones, they sound so good when you are recording a take and help pull out the best performance. The keyboards on the album are mainly Roland Juno 106, Roland V-Synth or Behringer Deepmind 12 (our latest purchase) running through the TL Audio. There are a couple of soft synths in Logic that are useful too, like Retro Synth and ES2.

I often write using the soft synths, then send midi out into the hardware synths to capture the sound I want on the record. The 106 is my favourite synth, it’s so easy to program and has a great chorus sound. I’m also enjoying the Deepmind 12 so far, it’s great to kick off sonic ideas. Lenin sends midi files over for drum parts, and I then take everything to Aubitt in Swaythling where I put the mix together with Rob Aubrey (Big Big Train engineer).

Carlos usually records guitars at Aubitt, occasionally he’ll send files over from home recording. Rob puts the parts through some amazing outboard (he has his own custom Fairchild 670), and we mix and master the track down there.

What is your process when working with other people? How is collaboration different in the studio vs working remotely? 

I work a lot in isolation, I’m not for jamming. I’d rather work on an idea until it has some meaning before I share it. I develop a basic idea of the song (lyrics/chords) and send that to Jo for feedback and tweaks. Once we’re set on basic lyrics, melody and keyboards the songs go (sending demo files) to Carlos and Lenin to work on the guitar and drum parts. I’ll often re-write parts until the song feels like it’s complete, and then we start recording the instruments. We haven’t used session musicians on this album.

At what point(s) are you comfortable letting other people hear what you are working on?

When I feel like I have a solid, meaningful outline of lyric idea/basic chords/melody that I have lived with for a while I can share that with the band. Even then, as I said before, I often re-write the vocal line. The other thing is, it takes a certain perspective to visualise where a song is going when it is in a raw state. A lot of people can’t see through the fact that “it sounds like a demo”, or “the drums sound a bit basic” – well, yeah it’s just an idea at the moment.

Do you share your work in progress (streams or downloads)? Any technical frustrations?

I like to wait until the song is mixed and mastered before it’s shared. That’s the point at which it feels right to let it go. I absolutely don’t like sharing half-finished ideas outside of the band.

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How do you know when a track/album is finished?

That can be difficult, you just kind of feel it I guess. Rob helps a lot with this as studio mix engineer, he’s great to double-check – have we done everything we can here, is it time to shut this one down? Most of the songs on the album had between 5 and 10 mixes before I was happy. “You Shine On” was unusually difficult, I really don’t know why that was – the levels just didn’t sit right and I changed the snare sound a few times. I think we did around 25 mixes before we closed the song down.

How do you listen to the final mixes/mastered work?

I always need to listen to the final mixes in the studio at home to make sure I am happy. I have a pair of M-Audio BX5s, and I know them so well, it gives me the security that the songs sound right. When I’m happy I play the track to Jo for a final check.

How important is pre-release security when sharing new work?

I think it’s really important to be in control of the narrative around the release. This is your work, and you should share it in the appropriate way to ensure it gets noticed.

Who on your team gets to hear the final versions first and why, what formats do they each need?

We tend to share the final mixes on private Soundcloud links. Once the song is finished, it’s finished. I can’t remember changing a mix because of any feedback outside of the band.

Outside of your inner circle who are the people that will need to hear the new tracks next?

Final tracks are sent to PR/plugger for feedback on choices for promotion, and once we know what we’re aiming to promote the song would then go to Scott Chalmers, our video producer to discuss visual concepts. Again, these are private SoundCloud links. That’s the extent of sharing prior to release.

Anything you are working on, anyone you are working with and want to share?

It’s all about the album, “Empire Falling”. We’re planning an October/November release with two singles leading up to that. Artwork is complete, album is mastered. I’ve already written basic songs for most of the next album, so we’ll be recording/mixing new songs by the end of the year as well.