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. In the final installment, Los Angeles-based producer Deru talks about the techniques he used to make his last two albums: Say Goodbye To Useless (2010) and 1979 (2014).
What is your setup?
At the heart of my studio is a computer. Everything gets funnelled through it, and it’s my main instrument. Then I have a collection of outboard gear, analog synths and acoustic instruments surrounding it: an acoustic piano; dulcimer; kalimbas; a modular synth; analog distortion; tape decks.
How did you get into making music?
I grew up playing piano and trumpet but was never super passionate about either of them. They were just skills that I learned and got better at. The first thing that I did get passionate about was DJing. I was a DJ for years, and that eventually led me to wanting to make my own music. The first piece of gear that I got was an Akai MPC2000, and after that everything clicked for me. I fell in love with making music and manipulating sound. I became fascinated with recording something and pitching it down or filtering it—really simple modifications that could have a drastic impact on the sound. The ability to manipulate sound is something that’s driven me for my whole career. It’s something that I still love and think about every day.
Has your process changed since the release of your last album, 1979?
I’m just finishing my new record now, and the approaches between this new one and 1979 couldn’t have been more different. When I wrote 1979, I was simultaneously working on two TV shows, and I was overworked. At night I would write these stripped-down ambient songs and record them straight to a cassette deck. Lots of those songs were recorded on their first take, and some of them took only a matter of hours to write. The album flowed out of me without too much thought towards the process. This new album has been way more challenging to write, partially because it’s taken me a long time to dive deep enough to figure out exactly what I wanted to say and also because I’ve learned new techniques. The process started with acoustic recordings; I wrote for a small group of musicians and recorded them as an ensemble. At some point in the process I learned about a style of microtonal composition that I became very interested in.
Do you find it difficult to begin working on something when you know that the final version may be entirely different?
I don’t mind that something might end up differently then planned. The hardest part of the writing process for me is starting, so anything that I can do to get started is great. The smallest idea can get me going in terms of engaging in the process of work, like putting some samples in a granular synth like Form or messing around with a new plugin or melody. Or it could be that I suddenly feel like writing something for a particular instrument. I keep a running list of little things that I want to try. It’s hard to sit down and say, “Okay, I have to write music now,” so I try to have something to start with.
I have a friend who is a painter. When she starts a new piece she often dips her hand in the paint and puts it on the canvas. It’s hard for her to stare at a blank canvas, so she makes a mark to have something to fix. Once she has something, she can start the process of work and transformation. Even if it’s just, “No, I don’t like that, so I’m going to remove it and try something else,” the important part is that the ball is rolling.
How do you overcoming creative difficulties?
In terms of writer’s block, I have two main approaches. The first is learning, which tends to spark new ideas. The second is perseverance. The author Haruki Murakami has a great book called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. He’s a long-distance runner, and it’s a book about his running practice, but it’s also about his discipline towards the creative process. He said that he goes into his writing room every day for a few hours each day. He only writes for those three or four hours, but he tries to be totally uninterrupted and focused during that time. He does that every day, even the day after he’s finished a large project. If he doesn’t feel like writing then he goes down and sits. If nothing comes to him he’ll just sit there for three hours or he’ll write a letter to a friend or a grocery list—or anything. The point is that he’s there every single day, because motivation is a fleeting thing, and to get through the bad parts you also have to be there to capture the good parts. You need to work through all the crap—all the bad ideas, all the false starts and all the frustrations—to get to the other side.
When you start a track, is it important to get your sounds right from the beginning, or do you prefer to get your musical ideas down first and take care of sound design later?
Sometimes I’ll start manipulating a sound and figure out where it wants me to go based off of the results. It can lead me down a path, and I might end up somewhere very different from where I started. You can’t always predict the outcome. A lot of the time I’ll let the sound direct me and then write the music around that. One of the more deliberate approaches I’ve taken lately is writing for a group of instruments while thinking about how I’m going to transform it after I have the recordings—in other words: designing and composing my own source material to manipulate later. It’s very satisfying because the results generally have the qualities that I’m already looking for with some happy accidents mixed in.
There’s one track on Say Goodbye To Useless that features a sample from a woman known as “The Singing Nun”. How did that come about?
Records had a big impact on my early musical output. When I was DJing, I would go to thrift stores and buy records by the pound. I was constantly looking for odd, interesting sounds. One of the things that’s great about sampling vinyl is that you end up with artifacts of the recording process and medium. That’s one of the reasons I like to record my own samples now. Once you get a bunch of players in a room with a microphone, all these interesting things will occur, like the noises of the microphones, the pitch drifts and people shifting in their seats. Say Goodbye To Useless was the last record that had any samples on it; 1979 didn’t, and this new record doesn’t either. I think sampling can be an incredibly powerful place to start because you don’t need to start from zero, but I’m now at a point in my career where I’m more exciting to start from the ground up. I still love records, though. I love the noise, the static and the imperfections.
When you’re working with a computer you have fine control over almost every aspect of the sound. Do you feel like you surrender some of that control when you commit a project to tape?
I did give up a lot of control when I recorded those tracks to tape, but that’s what I wanted at that time. I wanted the pitch warbles and the noise and the saturation. The lo-fi qualities of the tape were something that I accentuated as much as possible. Until Say Goodbye To Useless, I’d been very careful with my mixdowns and the things I put on my master bus. I tried to do everything in a technically “correct” way to get as pristine a sound as possible. Eventually I came to the realization that I was being overprotective. There’s a whole world of sound available if I take the two-track and feed it through a tape deck or blast it into a room and record it with a mic. Compressing and distorting the master can sound great as well. It’s hard to control, but it can sound very alive, which is really what I’m after in the end.
Read past installments of the Native Instruments Komplete Sketches interviews with Jlin, WIFE and more here. Cover photo by Tim Navis.
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.
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. This week we chat to Chino Amobi, one of the founders of the intersectional and activist-minded NON Worldwide crew along with UK-based Nkisi, Cape Town’s Angel-Ho. Chino, who currently lives in Richmond, Virginia, discusses the development of his creative process from his formative music-making experiences with PlayStations to his current setup.
What’s your production setup?
I’ve been using Logic. I use a MIDI controller with an Alesis keyboard, and it’s really simple. I use some of the factory instruments, my samples and my vocals. I mix all of that with melodies that I play and things that I find online. There’s a lot of sampling.
You’ve sampled Alicia Keys on your tracks.
I’ve been using a lot of that kind of thing: Rihanna; Beyoncé; Alicia Keys. In a certain way, I love working under that pop context, taking those tracks and then reusing them with classical music. I’m primarily a visual artist, and this is basically collaging. I love to create sonic interpretations of the methods I use in my visual work—it translates really well. I think those vocals make a great stand-in for a female vocalist. And it helps that they’re so flawless and compressed already. I used Beyoncé’s “Formation” vocal at Berghain, and I’ve also used it in some mixes. She sounds great, and I love that song.
Do you work with soft synths as well as sampling?
Yeah, I use some plugins. I like using Absynth, for example. I like Native Instruments plugins in general. The Logic instruments are good when you need strings, but they’re not as rich as the NI ones. With those, you feel like you’re there—it feels live, you know? I love that aspect of it. And especially with the drums, like the India or the West Africa kits, it feels like somebody’s really playing it. With synths or plugins or instruments, I want things to sound rich. If it sounds rich, I’m all over that. If you get something that doesn’t have that sound, you can play the exact same notes and it just won’t sound cool. If you do have that rich sound you can even play a bad note and make it sound good.
What’s your general approach to creating new music?
Some creators can say, “Okay, I’m going to make three beats per day,” but I’ve never really been like that. I’m kind of a romantic or something. When I see that theme or hear that note—that spark of divine creativity that moves me—then I get moving. So I think that it varies from person to person. It’s good to have balance, though: If you wait for that inspiration and it never comes, then what? I released some tracks recently that have a vibe or type of sound that I wouldn’t normally go for. Right now though, I feel free enough to just put it out there. My identity isn’t at stake to the point where I can’t just share these things. It’s been a while since I’ve actually allowed myself to have fun with a track or just be a little less serious with it.
Were you more serious in the beginning?
Yeah, definitely. It’s still important for me to be taken seriously as an artist, but play is important too, and I want people to be aware of that. My music is not this thing that’s removed from interaction and my environment. You don’t have to suffer to make a good track, but sometimes I still do. There are times where I just get so frustrated working on something that I’m just like, “Ugh.” At that point, I’ll take a break. But I haven’t gotten that way in a while—not to the point where I feel super frustrated while working on a track. You know: if it works, it works. If it doesn’t, I’ll move on and watch a Nigerian movie or call my girlfriend.
You were born in America to Nigerian parents. Has that heritage influenced the collective you’re a part of, NON?
For sure. Growing up in America, I always felt alienated. My parents were hesitant to teach me and my brother Igbo, which is the language they speak, because they were concerned about us not being able to assimilate. So I’ve always been in love with Nigerian culture, but then there’s this thing of, “I don’t speak the language” and I can’t talk to my grandma when I go to Nigeria. There’s this disconnect that I felt, and I’ve always wanted to fill that void.
[Fellow NON members] Nkisi and Angel-Ho have similar experiences. Nkisi is in London but grew up in Belgium, and her mom is from the Congo. Angel-Ho’s dad is Portuguese and their mom is South African. So there’s this interstitial state that I feel like we’re all in. I like to draw the connections, and I really love doing that on a global scale. And sound is such a powerful tool right now. It’s always been that way, but now information is able to spread so quickly and open people’s minds so quickly. I love doing that on a global scale, and I’m starting from Africa because that’s where my origins are. They also transcend into other territories though, and I think it’s interesting to think of sound itself as a territory. That way, you can appoint yourself as your own governing body creatively. That’s really cool to me. Anyway, the response has been great, and NON is its own self-sustaining entity now. That’s what I love about it.
You use a lot of sounds of weapons on your tracks. Would you consider that to be related to the idea of a sonic “state”?
Right. It’s like sonically embodying this militant state: We’re protecting one another and looking out for one another, so it’s this symbol of unity. It’s like we’re our own troops. We are our own people, and we are together. Militant aesthetics have always been really cool to me.
Is NON a label, or do you see it as more than that?
I see it as a holistic experience—a total way of living. It extends into the fields of social justice, art, literature, film, fashion; total immersion. Sound is just where it starts: the foundation. That’s one of the reasons we changed the name from “NON Records.” I like “NON Worldwide” because it just sounds like a shipping company or something. It’s a bit removed from the context of records—actually, we don’t even have a record! We’ve got a distribution deal, but we haven’t put out any vinyl yet.
So NON could be doing fashion or anything else really?
That’s it; absolutely anything. So writing a book or a letter, holding a rally or doing a speech, or even architecture and city planning. I don’t want to limit it in any way. Also, I really want to work with kids more because they’re such fast learners and so receptive to information. They have great ideas, too. I’d like to do workshops and open up a design firm that transcends into sound and performative design. Kids who haven’t had access to anything like that before can come in and learn. From there, they can start to teach each other. I’d like to do that in South Africa, in Nigeria and in India.
Did you get involved in music as a kid?
I used to be jealous of the kids that did music lessons, but I was always doing art as a kid. I got lucky. A lot of parents from West Africa or Nigeria specifically would say, “I want you to become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer” because they want you to make money and do something safe. But my parents always nurtured my artistic side. As a kid, that meant messing with computer programs that involved sound creation, like eJay or MTV Generator for the PlayStation. I was drawn to them. I also used to rap in high school with my brother and his friends, so sound was always an important tool for communication: the fact that you could always lay a beat down and use your voice. It also unified us. That was our common ground. It wasn’t until I went to art school and thought about performance more that I started to think more seriously about the whole thing. Also, going to shows in the city and seeing people perform at punk and queer spaces really started to open my mind to the possibilities. I just grabbed a laptop with GarageBand and started messing around. There’s always been a computer involved: a laptop or PlayStation or whatever. Some kind of computer was always the foundation.
That’s often the way. Nowadays a lot of electronic musicians have never even owned a hardware synthesizer.
The MIDI controller was the first instrument I ever got. The computer just felt natural. Making music was part of the flow of being on the internet or playing games, and I never really felt like it was something separate from that.
Did you have artists that you looked up to when you started or were you more into PlayStation games?
When I was making that stuff, PlayStation games were a huge inspiration in terms of the sound design and stuff. I used to look up to those because they were always so next-level. But in terms of artists, rappers like Nas and Wu-Tang were important for the way they created their own world. I’m into any artist that can do that. Take Björk, for example: I would listen to her music, and it would take me into her world. I’d see it through her eyes and always loved that. Radiohead too—the things that they do sonically would just be so different to the extent that it started to feel other-worldly.
Those artists aren’t necessarily making music primarily with computers. Do you play any traditional instruments?
I used to tour with a cymbal, hi-hats and drums, but it got a little tricky because I like to travel light and I’m not into driving all that stuff around. I don’t have roadies so it’s just not efficient. I do love playing live, though. I was in the studio with Dutch E Germ a month ago, and he brought in some old synths—some Moogs and these really cool polysynths. He was playing the drums and we were just jamming out with those. It had been so long since I’d done that. I feel like I used that experience to bring some looseness back into my work. It’s still tight now, but somehow looser at the same time.
Do you feel that becoming proficient with an instrument can actually inhibit your creativity?
I do feel that way. I’m not gonna lie—sometimes I hear a classically trained pianist and I’m like “Dang, I wish I could do that.” But at the same time I do think that kind of thing can get a little formulaic or feel premeditated in a way. Untrained musicians have a lot of room for intuition. I think that as long as you can feel music, you can produce it. You don’t have to be able to read it too. If I like something, I’m going to loop it and play with it. And it does feel more like play than really working on something.
Do you watch tutorials for software and things?
The only tutorials that I really watch are about how to use a plugin or a specific instrument. I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. But all those tutorials about how to make a specific Metro Boomin beat or whatever can be kind of a negative. It’s okay to watch that stuff and learn from it, but you need to take the basics and manipulate that to do your own thing. You don’t need to get that exact sound and practice it over and over. I’m not anti-tutorial and I’m always up for learning, but taking somebody else’s sound and using it as a crutch is self-defeating. It takes away from the play. You can make a lot of money by re-creating whatever is successful at the moment. But why not try to create your own sound and your own niche? People will be way more receptive to that in the long run. I think it’s very important that music comes from your soul. When it comes from your heart, people feel it. Whether you’re this expert or not, people respond to that.
Read past Native Instruments Komplete Sketches interviews with Jlin and more here.
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. In this second installment, Indiana native Jlin describes her philosophies on music-making and building a collection of gear.
What is your production setup?
My production setup changes constantly. I usually take stuff away, not add to it. Most people would think the opposite. I own a Maschine MK2, which was my first bit of music equipment, and also an AKAI MPC Studio controller. I’ve also got some low-budget JBL speakers. Here’s the funny part: most people think, “The more expensive, the better,” but these speakers—which I use to mixdown my tracks—only cost 139 U.S. dollars a pair. I’m definitely a “whatever works” kind of person. My main DAW is FL Studio—a friend introduced me to it when I was first starting out. But sometimes I use Reason as well. There’s no set way that I do anything. When I first started out around 2007, I thought I wanted to make footwork tracks. That’s what I intended to do. But after a while, my music turned into something very different. I wasn’t getting the sound that I wanted, so I had a love-hate relationship with FL Studio at the start. But ultimately I loved the challenge. Every day I was stepping a little closer to what I thought I wanted to do. By early 2010, I had really gotten somewhere; I’d developed a lot of my skills by that point.
How did you get into using gear from Native Instruments?
My first introduction was through Razor. And it’s crazy because I recently met the guy who made it, Errorsmith. I was playing CTM festival this year, and as soon as I walked into Berghain, I got lost and couldn’t find the backstage area. He was the first person I ran into, and he helped me find where I was supposed to go. I was so excited to meet him in person because I love Razor. It turns out he had been following my work for the last three years and was a big fan. Honestly, outside of Razor and Massive, I wasn’t receptive to other synths at all, so meeting him was a BIG deal. I met Razor!
How do you usually start a track?
It completely depends on my mood. Everything I do starts out as a blank sheet of paper. I’m very abstract in that respect; there’s no blueprint. When people ask me what my method is, I’m like, “What method?” I think if you always take the same approach it becomes stagnant after a while. You can depend on that approach too much and it makes you less innovative. Having no set method definitely makes the whole process more challenging and ultimately more rewarding for me.
Does the final version of your track always resemble the first sketch? Or is it unrecognizable by the time you’re finished?
Sometimes the final version may end up sounding similar to my first draft. But most times the track is completely unrecognizable by the time it’s finished. The only thing I might keep from an initial idea would be a set of hi-hats or something like that.
How do you know when the track is finished?
I would say it comes down to experience. When it’s done, there is just a sense. It’s almost like your body aligning with your spirit; your physical aligning with your spiritual.
Do you ask for feedback from other producers or friends when you’re working on something?
My mom and also my best friend give me feedback and are very honest. My mom usually bothers me when I’m in the middle of the track. She’s on pins and needles until I walk into her room and tell her I’m done. She’s always the first to listen to all of my tracks. She comes in my room and sits on the end of my bed and I play the track to her.
You mentioned that you don’t play any traditional instrument proficiently. Do you find that your lack of music training liberates you while making music? Or would you like to know more about things like music theory?
For me, music theory is more of a hindrance. At one point I was trying to learn how to finger drum, so I decided to take piano lessons to strengthen my fingers. I actually had a professional piano player who studied at Juilliard, a prestigious music school in New York, tell me that she could not teach me. I wanted her to show me some basic things on the piano and played her some of my music. After hearing some tracks, she said there was no point in teaching me because I already had everything I need. Then she recommended another teacher to me who had mentored under her. I went to his house, played him some of my music once again, and after some sessions he said the same thing: he couldn’t teach me because he would be undoing what I already know. He said my innovation might be undone by learning this instrument. So I got turned down twice and realized that I’m never going to learn how to finger drum.
Do you think it helps to have a lot of gear at your disposal?
Not at all. It’s not about the music equipment; it’s about you. You can have the best of the best gear, but your production can still be poor. I say to people who have absolutely nothing, “Make it sound like you just came out of a grade-A studio.” Everything comes through you, the person. I’ve heard guys working with buckets and sticks make better-sounding drums than some fancy drum set.
Do you think it helps to gain knowledge from watching hours of YouTube music production tutorials?
Watching too many tutorials reduces your creativity, your imagination and your innovation. That’s why we have—and I hate to say it—so many imitations now. It’s okay to say about an artist, “I like his or her sound.” But like my mom said to me when I first started making music: “What do you sound like?” A lot of people don’t want to do that because that means you have to step out of your comfort zone. I would say that the main aspect of finding your sound is 98 percent non-music-related, but about actually figuring out who you are as a person.
Is there a moment when you usually get stuck while making a track? How do you deal with that?
I usually just start hating everybody around me when that happens. I hate them until something comes along, and then I’m fine again. Usually when I get stuck, I just stop. If I don’t hear it, it means I’m not supposed to hear it right now. But when you’re a creative person, it’s hard to step away and take breaks. Taking breaks is essential, though, because your mind needs to rest, your heart needs to rest—all your senses need to rest. Taking a break does not mean that you’ve given up. I was in a rut when I came back from playing in Europe recently. I couldn’t focus; it was terrible. You have those days. We all have some vice that affects our creativity. There are definitely times when I ask myself, “Why on earth am I doing this thing that causes me so much anxiety—on purpose?” On the track “Black Origami”, I experienced that in a big way. The track was basically done; I just needed an ending, so basically the last 24 bars had to be done. It took me three days to get through those last 24 bars.
Where is your studio?
My studio is at home in my bedroom. To me, studio means, “Roll out of bed and get to work.”
You’ve quit your day job now, right?
Yes. Until recently I was working in a steel mill doing 12-to-16 hour shifts a day. Physically, it was extremely taxing on my body. I’d basically work for four days straight and then have three or four days off. But on my days off it would take me at least a day and a half to recuperate before I could start making music again. And God forbid I would be in a creative rut during that time. Then I’d feel like my time was being wasted. Some people tell me that my music sounds very industrial—perhaps that’s because of the steel mill. But honestly, I don’t hear it. For me, music was an escape from that place. Now that I’ve quit that job, I’ve found that my music has actually turned a sharp left from where it was before. It’s really moving in another direction compared to my last album. That’s important to me: to keep moving. I could easily make another album that sounds like Dark Energy, but I don’t want to do that. I’m over that album now. It’s time to move on.
Do you enjoy collaborating?
Honestly, not so much. But there have been collaborations, like the one with Holly Herndon for my track “Expand” on Dark Energy, which felt very in sync. We were having the time of our lives working on that. Holly had heard my track “Erotic Heat” and wrote to me saying how much she loved it. After that, we just kept talking, and it escalated into us collaborating on my track “Expand”. When we released it, it totally blew up and we ended up being featured in the New York Times. We’re both really proud of each other.
Is there anything you learned inside the studio that you can apply to life outside the studio?
Yes. Take simplicity and make it complex.
Your music is played in clubs. Do you enjoy clubbing yourself?
I hate it. In fact, when I turned 21, I ditched my own party at a club so I could watch a National Geographic documentary about the wooly mammoth. It was a two-hour special, and there was no way I was going to miss that. I also really like the History Channel, but it’s not as good as it used to be.
Read past installments of the Native Instruments Komplete Sketches interviews with WIFE and more here.
As we previously reported, 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. Read below as Tri Angle Records signee James Kelly, better known by his artist name WIFE, digs into why presets and plugins are the perfect production starting point for him.
How did creating the Sketch work for you? How did you feel about only using Komplete to create your Sketch?
Whenever I get a new set of software or plugins, I’ll have a notepad and write down the names of presets and instruments I like and stuff that I’m into. Once I identify those things, I try to either build on the sound that’s there or do some reductive stuff, like tweak it to make it more my own and less out-of-the-box, so to speak. It’s amazing when you find something like a preset or plugin that’s perfectly suited to your taste. It just means you can work fast and start developing an idea way quicker instead of painstakingly tweaking a sound just so you can get started. I know a lot of people who subscribe to the idea that you should get the ideas down first and worry about the sound later, but I can’t even get my idea down if the thing I’m working on—the kick or synth or whatever it is—doesn’t sound like how I imagine. I’ll just stop working on it. That kind of “design” is becoming a part of my work more anyway. I think the idea of writing a unique melody or a unique chord progression is almost redundant at this point. Instead, I think what’s starting to make some music sound unique and separate from other things is the sound design and the production quality. That’s why I need them to be right for me before I can start developing my ideas.
What have been the most useful things you’ve learned over the years? Is it more about specific techniques or new software? Are there any particular game-changers?
It’s kind of 50-50. On one hand, a really good piece of software makes you up your game. Some of the stuff that comes out of Polyplex is so good you’re like, “Damn, the drums that I’ve been programming sound like shit next to that.” The other part has been trial and error. Over time, you’re honing your craft and developing your skills and ideas a bit more, constantly writing, constantly trying new things. Starting to do paid commercial gigs made me step up my game a little. When someone’s paying you—whether it’s for sound design or composing music for adverts—you need to deliver something of a certain standard. It needs to be good.
Do you find that paid work needs a different approach than your own music does?
Yeah, absolutely. What was good about starting to do that was that I put out an album on Tri Angle and then basically didn’t write anything for WIFE for about a year. In the meantime I was working on these different commercial projects, and one of the things that taught me was that I am able to write quickly and turn out really good-sounding stuff when I need to. But when it comes to my own stuff, I have this classic mental block where I just can’t finish anything and nothing’s ever good enough. With the EP I’ve just finished, it was the opposite. I forced myself to work like I would on a commercial project and finish things more quickly. I put myself under the good kind of pressure just to give myself a deadline and get it done.
What was different in the process for this EP?
It was more about turning things around quickly and actually saying “This is done” when I felt it was done. If it’s commercial stuff, I’ll give myself until, say, Friday evening to finish it and then I may never think of it again. But if it’s my own stuff I’ll end up tweaking things until the eve of mastering. And I’ve definitely learned from experience. Some of the tracks on the album I did for Tri Angle were at version 53 or something by the end of it. You realize once you get to version 53 that the thing was done back at version five, but something kept changing and kept getting tweaked. If you’re at a point where you think your song’s not good enough because you need to change a snare drum, something else is really wrong. A snare drum isn’t going to change anything.
So I guess the difference now is that you try to keep an eye on the big picture?
Yeah, exactly. And just try to take a bit of an objective step back from it and let it flow as naturally as it should rather than completely overcooking it.
So how did it work with the last EP? Did you know you were going to do a five-track EP beforehand, or did you just do it track by track?
I just started writing. After a while I started to come up with things that I felt good about, and for the first time in a long time, I was in a good place about my music and my writing. I just wanted to write that feeling and get it wrapped up while I still felt good about it. I’m very lucky to have a partner who I can bounce ideas off of, and sometimes that’s what you need: an objective opinion from someone who can say, “You’re really onto something here” or tell you that you’re totally wrong and that it isn’t working. That helped me a lot, and I just kept rolling with it. In the end I had these five tracks that fit together nicely for me, and that’s how it ended up happening.
Do you like to show unfinished stuff at an early stage, or do you wait for it to be nearly ready?
I’ve gotten better. It used to be like everything was cloaked—I wouldn’t let anybody see or hear anything until it was 100 percent, and that’s a terrible idea in my opinion. I don’t know anybody out there who wouldn’t benefit from some sort of input. And nine times out of 10, the input you need is just big picture, objective input. Nobody ever steps in and says, “Your track would sound way better if you tweaked the EQ on that hat” or something. It’s never that kind of input; it’s always the bigger picture. I’ve definitely gotten better at knowing which of my friends I can rely on for constructive criticism and when it can be beneficial.
It’s really important to get the right ears on it.
Definitely. It can be a mix of reasons: insecurity, or you feel shy, or sometimes it’s to do with competitiveness. I remember when I was living in London I had a bunch of friends who were music producers living in the same house, and they used to only work on headphones because they didn’t want anyone to hear them. That’s crazy.
How do you know exactly when a track’s finished? Do you turn it into a time thing, where if it’s not working after two or three weeks, you move on to something else?
Yeah, I’ve definitely gotten better at that. It’s the same thing people always say. I think the best work gets done when that creative spark and excitement is there in the first half-hour or so. You know it’s worth the labor if you still feel excited, if it gives you a buzz every time you open the project and you still feel like you’ve got ideas to throw at it. But if it gets to the point where it’s like pulling a tooth and it’s barely changed after four months, it’s not good.
When you do get stuck, do you have strategies to get things moving again?
I’ve got to say, when I was just learning how to use Ableton and how to produce in general, I was on Dubstepforum a lot. They had a really cool producer Q&A thing, and one of the most beneficial ones ever was with Objekt. He gave a list of points about how he does shit, and everybody should read that. One of the ones in particular that I thought was great and that I’ve used ever since was about when you’re doing a mixdown: turn the screen off, put headphones on and take notes with pen and paper. I’ve found that really beneficial to do.
There was one Q&A with him—maybe it’s the same one—where he said that by version 40, a track is going to have nothing to do with its initial version.
I’ve definitely been through that stuff. With this EP, some of the tracks stuck really close to their initial inception, and one or two really went in a different direction with only tiny relics of the original left in them.
There are a lot of tutorials on YouTube that teach you how to make every beat under the sun. Do you watch that kind of thing?
I used to. Back when I was reading Objekt’s Q&As I watched every single Red Bull Music Academy lecture and every YouTube tutorial. It becomes so satisfying when you’re at the point of not needing to do that anymore and you’re very intuitively connected with your DAW and the other software you use. And now I’m at a stage where if I want to do something, I can just dive straight in and do it.
So what’s your setup now?
It’s mostly Ableton, and then I use the Komplete Kontrol keyboard for a lot of things because it’s nice for automation and things like that. I like outboard effects units occasionally, mostly for vocals and things like that. And then I track a lot of my own voice and put it through samplers and things like that. The whole thing ends up being very much in the box, but a lot of the elements that end up in the box are recordings of instruments or my voice—different things like that. With this record I did a bizarre, tedious thing, but it ended up getting me the results I wanted so I can’t complain: I went to a studio to track all of my kick drums. I had them all in my DAW, then I went to a studio to send them through this big rig of Ampeg bass amps and track them coming into the room live. So there’s no reverb on my kicks. It’s like they’re being performed live in the recording space. Definitely tedious though. I got an email from Bobby, The Haxan Cloak, after I put out my record saying, “How did you make that kick drum?!” That’s another little success at least!
Many artists spend a lot of time in the digital domain trying to make things sound less perfect. So they might have this lush, beautiful reverb but spend a lot of time trying to make it sound like there’s something slightly wrong with it.
For sure! It’s really interesting how there’s a trend in electronic music at the moment where people are trying to fuck up the digital perfection more and more. That’s really cool. And again, that relates to what I’m talking about: with electronic music at the moment, I feel the most interesting factors are often cosmetic, more than actually in the songwriting.
2016 was really interesting for sound design. There’s quite a lot of artists about now who really focus more on sound than on melody and harmony.
I think I definitely moved more into a spatial thing with this EP. And as a writer, what’s exciting about that is that it builds up this massive spectrum within which you can express yourself, not only with a melody and with the drums but with the movement and the way you play with the listener’s perception of the song.
Not to be too skeptical about it, but I hope this movement doesn’t reach a saturation point where it becomes style over substance. I’ve seen that in metal. It begins as these really pissed-off people starting a band and screaming because they really have something to scream about—maybe they’re unemployed and living in a really shitty social situation or whatever. They really have a reason to scream. Then it continues on as a trend and at the top of the food chain is someone screaming who has nothing to scream about and is just doing it because everyone else is. It sort of catches on and the people doing it no longer know why they’re doing it.
I guess there’s always that danger of emulation.
Of course, and it happens so much in music. There’s so, so much interesting electronic music coming out right now, but these things obviously move at such a stellar rate. It’s crazy. And it can change so quickly. It’s really to my taste in that I come from a noisy metal background, and electronic music is getting to be the noisiest it’s been since Rusko was putting out tracks.
Who’s been really interesting for you this year?
I’m a big fan of all my friends and peers in Berlin; the Amnesia Scanner guys are amazing and super inspirational in a lot of ways. In terms of what I listen to at home, I’ve got a love/hate thing with that new Bon Iver. I think sonically it’s incredible. I’m still a sucker for songs, but I don’t know why. As much as I can appreciate a lot of the stuff that’s going on right now, I sometimes really crave a song at its core. I love Amnesia Scanner for that reason: they do the amazing sound design thing, but at its core is a track you can really lock into.
It’s funny how people have been saying, “It’s never been easier to make music” for the last decade or so. I’ve always found that to be a pile of shit because it’s always been easy to get a guitar or get a piano. And at the end of the day, the people who really have that drive in their soul to make it work are gonna do it. And I think every person I know at some point has downloaded some music software, loaded it up and given it a go. But they give up two weeks later because they’ve got a Karate class or whatever. Some people try these things and you know it’s just a fad, but I think the people who actually want to make music will always find a way to do it.