In our new tech series, Gearache, producer and journalist Mark Smith investigates the production methods and setups of a new generation of artists.
First up, he pays Berlin resident and lo-fi house newcomer Palms Trax a visit to hear about the frustrations of production on the cheap and the fallacies of the analogue-vs-digital debate.
Every producer—be they a pre-teen with an Ableton crack or a veteran with years of experience—knows that frustrated feeling. A fleeting moment of inspiration has boiled down to a soulless battery of MIDI clips. You stop what you’re doing to scour the Internet for an answer, and what do you see? Thousands of pages of contradictory, didactic forum posts; photos of studios whose net worth eclipses the GDP of small nations; advertisements for shiny new gear presented as objective reviews. Three hours later and what have you got to show for it? Maybe a skerrick of helpful information, if you’re lucky. And now that initial point of inspiration feels like a dream that happened to someone else.
Despite being two hit records down, Jay Donaldson—aka Palms Trax—is no stranger to these problems. He is a young producer sitting at a laptop in his bedroom, dealing with the same issues that hold you back. In our discussion we tried to get to the crux of the dilemma.
This media focus on mega studios will only ever be a fantasy for the majority of people, yet you’ve got kids who are looking on the Internet sussing what people are using because they’re after some sort of silver bullet. They see someone with an $8,000 Toft desk and it becomes some sort of symbol of power, yet here you are as an established artist using iPod headphones.
There’s a lot of focus on stuff like that, but I can’t really relate to it. I don’t really understand any of it so it’s literally no good to me, even if it is fascinating in a materialist way. I can’t even afford bed linen, let alone a 909. You know how if you feel a bit under the weather or a bit groggy you think “There’s something wrong with me, I better go to the doctor”? It’s the same thing with your production. If you’re producing on the laptop and things aren’t working for you, then you’ve got direct access to all this information telling you what you should be doing differently, what you should buy, what you should learn; it’s a big wall of confusing info standing in as a sort of magic answer. For so long I was like “I need to get a Roland Space Echo” and that’ll make everything sound incredible. I remember chatting to Genius of Time and they said “Yeah, all our stuff sounds like crap—but then we run it through the Space Echo and it sounds amazing.” I took this so literally that I was like, ok—that’s what I have to do next.
Then everything will be alright. All your problems solved.
I don’t know. I just feel like there’s this emphasis on hardware and analogue sounds but really, what is an analogue sound? Stuff made on a laptop doesn’t have to sound cheap and digital. It has less to do with the process through which it’s made. What we need is more emphasis on staying focused on your own ear.
That’s the thing—no one wants to hear that their ear is the most important thing because you can’t download a $20 sample pack that makes your ear more acute. “Ten tips for better drums” goes down a whole lot easier. But really the problem with your drums probably has nothing to do with your drums. There are all these elements outside of the physical making of music that have an effect on it. Moving to another house. Not being able to afford lunch because you’re an exploited intern. That’s the reality of it. Yet we’re sold this idea that music making is meant to be fun and easy and as fast as possible. But people need to understand that struggle and confusion are an integral part of it.
I used to be really into what people like Untold and Martyn were doing. Untold didn’t put out a record for ten years. He’s arguably a lot more skilled than I am because he sat there learning how to do everything properly. Whereas most people now see production purely as an avenue to get more DJ bookings and they’re impatient when it comes to achieving that. But it is a massive struggle. Even just getting to the point where production is somewhat intuitive. You sit there and you’re thinking about so many things to the point where you’re not even writing any music. It takes years.
Look at people like Huerco S. and Anthony Naples being attributed to having a really thick analog sound. They’re using Fruity Loops on their laptop. I think it doesn’t really matter at all. You can get drum sample packs that are recorded a million times better than anything you could do yourself. I’ve got some drum packs which are 808 hits sampled through an MPC60 and slammed on to tape. Even if I could ever afford an 808, I’d probably still find a way to make it sound bad recording it myself, so why would I not use these samples that are recorded by a professional that you can rip off the internet? There’s also a problem with over complicating everything and I’m still guilty of that. Thinking “Ok, I need to EQ this perfectly, I need to use these effects, I need to get the parallel compression right”. But if you’ve got a really good recording of a drum sample there’s literally no need for that.
With people who are starting out, you’re on a laptop pretty much by default. You’re looking up articles on how to recreate analogue warmth. It doesn’t work out how you want it to. You’re still unsatisfied. But then again, on a computer you can recreate analogue sounds with 1s and 0s so accurately that even the most experienced engineers cannot tell the difference. There’s this separation between what is actually possible and what people are pushed towards as a route to achieve that.
It becomes more about the process. You find a lot of people who develop an interest in modular synthesis, and they end up not making as many tunes because they’re more interested in the process of making it. You can achieve anything on a laptop. You can make any sound. It’s proven, and a lot of soft synths literally sound better than their analogue counterparts—in a perfectionist sort of way. It’s more about capturing those imperfections that you don’t get straight out of the box on a laptop. If you’re using presets that are really clinical and designed by a programmer in Tokyo whose life is dedicated to achieving crystalline quality, as opposed to something with a little bit of warmth, then you’re never going to get there. I’ll EQ something to where I think it would sound really good, then I’ll leave a chunk of 20hz at the bottom end just for that character we were talking of. When everything is too separated, that’s when you get the sound that people describe as ‘digital’.
That’s another one of those catchphrases, the separation of frequencies. You’re told everything has to have its place—don’t let the lower mid range overlap with the bass or you’ll lose clarity—and that’s true to an extent. But it’s just another one of these things that people starting out can get caught up in which takes them away from achieving their own vision. There’s a mindset that is more about self determination in production which is so much more vital than anything someone can tell you on the Internet. But how do you get there?
That’s true. I still don’t know the answer, but if you know what you want something to sound like and you’re trying to stay aware of that point then you’ll be able to get there. When you take on too many people’s opinions you lose direction. Everyone has something to say about what you should and shouldn’t be doing. But how do you know that they’re aiming for the same goal as you? In a lot of older house records the bass and kicks are mixed awfully, ducking in and out of each other, but if that’s the sound you want then you can do that. It’s about the clash of frequencies more than anything.
I studied music technology and I was always told to do this and do that. Things like “Always have your bass in mono, never put reverb on a kick drum” and such. For so long I thought “This sounds nice, but technically it’s not quite correct”, so I’d change it, but I eventually realized, no—I just like the sound of this. It takes a while to get the confidence to leave it how you hear it, not how it should be done. I remember this interview with Rashad Becker where he said that you don’t actually have to put your bass in mono, that it’s a myth.
Even with ping-ponging 20hz thumps. At worst you’ll frustrate the vinyl cutter.
You’ve got all these rules. There are times where I’m thinking that the bass sounds better in stereo, but I just put it in mono. I don’t really know why, but I do it anyway because I was told by someone on dubstepforums.com that I should! But how are you going to shed this mentality?
That’s something that I can’t tell you and probably no one else on the Internet can either. You need to accept that confusion and struggle are going to be constant companions when you’re creating. This shouldn’t be a depressing fact because once you realise that no one can help you but yourself, that’s when you’re on the road to really doing something worthwhile. ~
Photo: Camille Blake
Published July 24, 2014. Words by marksmith.