Native Instruments heralded the release of the Komplete 11 audio production suite with Komplete Sketches: a set of 24 commissioned compositions by a range of artists, all of which were made exclusively with the new software. We’ve linked up with five of the enlisted Sketches artists—WIFE, Chino Amobi, Throwing Shade, Jlin and Deru—to go in deep on their workflow processes, the useful tips they’ve learned throughout their career and the techniques they use to create their own distinctive sound. The fourth installment features a conversation with London-based DJ Throwing Shade (aka Nabihah Iqbal), who’s mostly known for her work as a radio show on NTS but contains multitudes. She also has a background in karate, human rights law and African history, and, as she explains below, she’s a music producer as well.
The idea behind Komplete Sketches was that people would put down their first ideas, stop working on them and send the result over to us. Was that approach different to the way you’d normally work on a track?
Well, I guess it’s just the preliminary stage of making a track. The requirements were nice in that sometimes when you come up with a good idea, that’s what comes out first. Getting the idea is hard because you can’t control it—when you’re in the zone, you’re in the zone. That’s when you might come up with a couple of nice chords or a nice beat or some other idea you can then develop. The developing stage is difficult too because it requires a lot more focus and it sort of brings together two strands of your brain that don’t always necessarily come together. You’ve obviously got the creative, impulsive side, but you’ve still got to structure it. I guess I didn’t have to come up with a finished track for the sketch, so I had more freedom, which was nice. I could be a bit more experimental with it.
The sheer abundance of gear and software that’s available now can lead to a kind of mental block. Do you ever have trouble with that?
I totally understand that. It’s true that you can find yourself drowning in all this stuff. When you have so many options available to you and so many sounds, you need to have quite a lot of self-discipline. For example, right now I’m in the studio trying to create 45 minutes or an hour of music. It’s really easy to get bogged down in the trying-out stage where you just run through 500 different sounds. It’s nice when you have all the time in the world, but if you’re working to a timetable, it’s not great. I think it’s cool to just choose a couple of programs you want to work in, find a sound you like as a starting point and work from there. In my sketch, for example, I used Massive. You have to have that sort of focus. You know how fun it is when you get new sounds and want to go through everything.
Is the way you’re working on the album now different to the way you worked on the EP?
It feels like there’s more pressure. I’m trying to ignore that because it really gets in the way of actually creating music. I suppose the process is a bit different in other ways too—I’m using different software and trying out a few different approaches, which is all cool. But then the more negative side is that there are people waiting to listen to it, and I have to block that out of my mind. I’m also thinking about the commercial angle: whether it’s going to sell and stuff like that. But that can cloud the creativity. I think I was worrying about that side of things a bit too much before, and now I’m blocking it out and just making music.
So you’re trying out new setups now for the album? What’s changed?
I’m using more guitar, and doing a lot of it with Guitar Rig, which is so cool. It’s good on other stuff, too: I’ve been using the effects on vocals and even on drums. The other day I recorded some drums in from a Korg Volca Sample on the wrong audio channel by mistake, but then there was this epic texture from Guitar Rig. The drums had this really big, bouncing reverb, and it sounded cool, so I kept it.
It’s funny how mistakes like that sometimes end up defining the sound later on. Some artists talk about “waiting for stuff to happen.” Do you have that as well?
Yeah. I’m in the studio all day, every day right now and have been for the past couple of months. But when you’re doing something creative, there isn’t necessarily a correlation between the number of hours you put in and your productivity. So I can be working in here all day and not come up with anything good, and then the next day think of some great ideas and put down the skeleton of a track within the first half hour. The way I see it, being in the studio so much is not really going to make me produce that much more music, but if I’m not here I might never make it. You have to motivate yourself.
That might sound strange to a lot of outsiders. After all, music is meant to be fun, right? But being creative isn’t always “fun,” is it?
Not always—especially if you’re trying really hard to do something. It is hard to make a song, you know? Even if you hear a song you don’t like on the radio—some three-minute pop song or whatever—it was hard to make. If someone tells you to go into the studio and make something like that, it’s really difficult. A crazy amount of work goes into those three or four minutes of music.
A lot of people who don’t make music don’t realize what a complicated process it is.
Yeah, like my mum! She’ll ask me things like, “How many songs did you make today?” Or “Did you make any good music?” I’m like “I dunno. It doesn’t work like that!”
We’re living in an age in which every question imaginable has been answered in a YouTube video. What do you think about generally having access to all of that stuff via tutorials?
I think it’s great. I’ve resorted to YouTube loads of times. I work on Ableton a lot, but I don’t know it inside out. I’m just teaching myself, so sometimes I get stuck. For example, I was trying to find a good way to de-ess vocals without EQing out a big chunk of frequencies. There are some really good tutorials on YouTube with tricks for getting around that problem. I think it’s really nice that people take the time to share that stuff.
Is that how you learned to produce in the first place?
I did a production course ages ago, but it was on Cubase, which I never used again. Then I picked up stuff from friends—just hanging out and getting them to teach me things. I look at things on the internet, too. It’s a mixture.
Do you have a set way of starting a track? Every one of the artists we’ve interviewed for this Sketch series seems to have a completely different method.
I guess I have a few set ways of starting. One of my favorites is to come up with some nice chords or sounds—or even just starting with one chord and developing it from there. Other times I’ll start with the drums, but more often than not I’ll begin with the more melodic side.
So is sound design a focus at the beginning, or is it more about harmonies and melodies?
Sound design always comes last for me because that’s the really time-consuming and cerebral bit. When you’re in the zone in terms of having really good, creative ideas, I think it’s better to knock them all out as quick as you can before you lose it. I always start with a rough sketch of a track. I put all the different textures down and the different layers and the drums, but I won’t touch any EQs or anything. It stays super rough until I reach a point where I have all the elements I like and want to keep. Then I’ll go into the more technical, sound-design side of it. Once you’ve got your ideas down, working on the sounds and bringing different things out is a different process and you don’t necessarily have to rely on being in the creative zone for that.
Some artists say the opposite: that they can’t write anything if it doesn’t sound sonically interesting from the start. Working the way you do, does the final version of a track still resemble the first, or does it change a lot?
Sometimes it does sound similar, but sometimes it’s completely different. I might make a track and be like “Oh, I don’t like this.” Then I’ll literally delete everything apart from one or two sounds and start again from those. They might even be the most recent things I made, so I’ll delete all the earlier work. It depends on what I’m feeling.
How do you know when a track is finished?
This is the annoying thing. I think all musicians would probably tell you that it’s so hard to know when something’s finished, because it’s a never-ending process. I listen back now to some of my records that have been released and it’s like, “Oh my god, I should have done this and this.” But it’s the self-discipline thing again. When you’re happy with it and it sounds good out of different speakers, you’re good to go. Sometimes you end up working on things for way longer than you need to.
It’s difficult to stop tweaking when you have so many options available. Do you think having a lot of gear is something that can help the process or do you find that it can actually slow you down?
It just depends what you do with it. You could let it slow you down, but I don’t see it like that. For me, it’s amazing that you can have so many different sounds and effects at your disposal. Going through all the Komplete stuff, for example, I can get lazy with it and stick to one sort of sound that I like. What I’m trying to do instead is use completely different sounds, or at least some different sounds, in every new track or project that I work on.
Have you ever learned something in the studio that you could apply to life in general?
Don’t waste time. And don’t take things for granted. Okay, it’s hard to make music—especially when you’re starting out—but I’m so lucky to be able to do what I’m doing right now full-time. It’s taught me just to be grateful and make the most of it, both in and out of the studio. You should be happy that you can do things, that you’re healthy and that we have so many opportunities. 2016’s a pretty depressing year. Just be positive.
Read past Native Instruments Komplete Sketches interviews with Jlin and more here.