In house music, there’s a fine line between a track feeling fresh or seeming stale. The building blocks of the genre have barely changed for almost 30 years, so crafting infectious grooves requires a fine balance of expression and restraint, and a whole lot of trial and error. You can hear this balance on John Barera and Will Martin’s forthcoming LP, Graceless, which is available soon on Dolly, the label run by longtime Panorama Bar resident Steffi. We talked to the Boston-based duo about the challenges of tasteful sampling, juggling musicality and functionality, and why breaking new ground isn’t all its cracked up to be.
Crafty arrangement and sample selection are at the core of your productions. How much of this process is trial and error? Are you ripping records based on instinct, or have you gotten to a stage where you know what you need from a sample, where to find it, and how to chop it up?
JB: Man, my whole life is trial and error—it’s a big part of my process. If there’s anything I have to offer, it’s that I won’t give up, and I’ll keep trying until something sticks.
WM: We both listen to a lot of music throughout the day, and it seems like sampling records is a jumping point for the creativity that follows to make music.
JB: Exactly. We spend a lot of time listening to a variety of music, and in the back of my head, I’m thinking, “Okay, I might be able to loop that melody or break.” I’m a big fan of tasteful sampling and trying to respectfully recreate and rebuild a track. When checking to see if a sample might be something we could work with, we will start trying it out and I’ll know right away if it’s is a failure—or we’ll hone in on some special loops, and know right away that something dope is happening.
Do you tend to mix and match samples from multiple sources? Or is it important to limit your samples to a single source in order to build the most organic sense of acoustic space possible?
JB: Really simple, tasteful sampling is important, so we do limit samples to a single source almost always.
WM: There are couple things that we have combined samples on, using two tracks from the same record, but that decision was made in the moment. Generally, we find one sample that works and go straight to the drum machines and synths.
Despite being structured in a track-y manner, your new record certainly has a performative edge to it. How do you go about balancing your instinct for hands-on expression with the restraints imposed by the dance floor?
JB: We keep the dance floor in mind with all our arrangements, but everything we do has to have that human touch. Playing music is very important to the way we produce. Being able to sit down with an instrument that you can touch and feel tends to bring out the best music we create. As opposed to writing in stuff with a pencil in Ableton, we sit down at the synth and say to each other, “How does this riff sound? You want to try playing a take?” A lot of our tracks start as jams, and then we hone it down into what ends up being tight and build from that.
What do you guys think about artistic personality in dancefloor music? There’s a common assumption that personal expression is vital to the value of most artistic endeavors, yet a lot of dance floor music seems to be about rendering your personality subservient to an aesthetic, to disappear behind the music. Do you have any opinions on how these extremes can be reconciled? Or is it more a matter of saying screw you to those who don’t understand the artistic value of functionality?
JB: I want to stand in front of the music, for sure.
WM: I think that in a lot of the best dance floor music, the person producing it comes through in the track—you can hear the person that’s producing it putting something real into it, love and emotion. We want to make music that comes from real emotion—joyful tunes, aggressive tunes. That’s the kind of stuff that translates on the dance floor and people can make a connection with. Personal expression is probably the most important thing in music—any kind of music—and that’s what we want to put forth. Art is all about personal expression, right? At least, the good stuff is. At the end of the day, all we’re trying to do is make tracks that feel close and personal and intimate to us.
On that note, what is the artistic value of functionality?
WM: Making a track for the club can be cool, because it gives you limitations. It’s like blues or haikus, anything that has a rubric. You have to do something really interesting to stand out.
JB: I think some artists struggle with functionality and wiggle around it, but I want to embrace it while still being creative.
How does one go about breaking new ground in sample-orientated house music? Is it an artists’ responsibility to push musical formats, or is the concept of artistic drive more complicated than merely focusing on the “new”?
JB: By taking a sample as a jumping off point, beating the shit out of it, adding Rhodes, vocals and stuff—look at Moodyman, he does stuff like that, and he’s breaking new ground though his music. Also, Dilla raised the bar with what you can do with sample-based music. He takes a little sample and twists it into the most amazing groove. I don’t think anyone necessarily breaks new ground on purpose.
WM: I don’t know if you can intentionally go about breaking new ground. You just show up, put your head down, and keep hammering away until you make the kind of stuff you want to be making. Dilla did that, and his music changed the way people think about hip-hop—but really, we’re not trying to change anything. We just want to keep our heads down and keep hammering away at music until the stuff that comes out is the kind of stuff that we like, which has been happening recently.
Do you guys feel like you’ve reached a point where your abilities are in sync with your taste? Are there still musical gestures that you reach toward but can’t quite perform?
WM There’s a really good piece by Ira Glass where he talks about a person’s abilities reaching the level of their tastes, and how there’s this gap of time when you’re working and working but your shit just isn’t there yet. I think that we’re just coming to the end of that gap and starting to produce tunes that both of us can be really proud of, and can go back to without being too sick of them. We’ve just come to a place where we’re starting to get really happy with the music, so there’s definitely a ton of room for growth.
In our new tech series, Gearache, producer and journalist Mark Smith investigates the production methods and setups of a new generation of artists. This edition sees Mark sitting down with Tin Man, the Finnish producer who’s forthcoming album Ode takes a familiar muse—the mental fallout of a night’s raving—and explores it through the prism of subdued techno and sinuous acid lines.
In the last edition of Gearache I spoke to Palms Trax, an early twenty-something still finding his feet in the production game. This time around I hit up a man who is six albums and fifteen EPs deep into his career. I wanted to know if the existential trivialities that Jay and I labored over were merely symptoms of a transient youthful fever, or if there’s a skin of doubt that no amount of musical experience can shed.
Where Jay was questing and doubtful in his disposition, Tin Man, aka Johannes Auvinen, came across as measured and methodical. Our conversation was often punctured by silence. He paced around in circles. When questioned about specific production techniques Johannes was erudite, economical and more than willing to share the methods behind his gorgeous acid lines. And when I reached for some abstracted fluff, he would call my bluff with a grounded response. I got the sense that here was a guy more interested in the doing of things, rather than shooting the breeze about topics that might not get you anywhere. I mean, what’s the point in understanding your frustrations if you could’ve spent that time doing some drum programming?
Johannes, what’s going on?
I’m actually recovering from surgery I had last week. I had back surgery for disc herniation. They had to open up my back and take out a bunch of particulate matter that had leaked out of my disc into my spinal cavity where my nerves are. I was in the hospital for 5 days . . . I can’t sit down for too long, I have to either walk or lie down.
Jay [Palms Trax] and I had this whole conversation that struggled over how to build trust in your own ear as a young producer, despite being bombarded with all this online information about the do’s and don’ts of music production. As someone with years of experience under your belt, how do you feel looking back at this vulnerable stage of the production learning curve? Does it seem like a distant memory tied to the insecurities of youth or are you plagued by the same diffidence to this day?
Because there are no prescribed routes in the music world and no farmer’s almanac, young producers can get caught in a rough spot. There are two challenges. The first is freedom. The challenge of orienting and deciding what you want to say and what you want to achieve is an existential challenge overcome by coming to terms with one’s environment. It is also about focusing your wants to a smaller field. Then as the young artist starts along their path they can seek out the information and tools which move them further along in the direction they know they want to go. They will of course need help, mentors, advice, knowledge, but they must be able to filter their intake knowing what is good for their advancement. This process continues for all artists with adjustments made along the way. Because there are no rules, you can react by inventing a focused dogma for yourself that will guide your decision making.
You’ve said in the past that one of the reasons that you focus on the acid sound so much is for its a-musical qualities. Yet the way you program the 303 is really tender in a harmonic sense. You can tell that you’ve got a romantic tonal instinct that runs alongside a love of non-human noise. I was wondering how you feel about reconciling those.
I think it gets reconciled more in my live sets because then I tend to go into a non-musical, acid-based flow. In terms of writing, it’s more that I’m pretty focused on the melodic style of acid because that’s my niche and it’s also what I can pull out of the instrument. The basis of my relationship with the 303 is being able to express myself through programming melodic lines.
How do you go about programming them? Not many producers seem to be able to squeeze so much detail out the 303, particularly in the way you use glide and irregular step lengths. The intricacies of modulation are quite nuanced. Are you doing this all on the machine itself?
When you know how the 303 works—of course, there’s some magic in the randomness and impossibility of programming correctly the first time—but for those long melodic lines it’s pretty easy to sketch them out. I have a basic idea of the note order and then I can tap them in over four bars. Then I’ll sit down with those melodies and go into step time and keep reprogramming all of the accents and slides per bar over four bars, altering each part selectively, until it works. It’s a lot of reprogramming.
To what extent are you aware of musical theory and playing instruments in the traditional notion of being a ‘musician’?
Technically I don’t have any education but I’m trying to learn more all the time, just by watching YouTube videos about music theory and whatnot, or just playing around on a keyboard to try to understand harmony or what’s possible. My ideas change all the time as I learn stuff, or if I play more my ideas about music theory change. Sometimes I can throw everything out again and start over.
Because it seems for a techno producer (to paint you in broad strokes) that you have quite a musical disposition, mainly from the minor inflections of your melodic lines. Techno producers often seem afraid of being openly beautiful whereas you seem to be able to court that in a decidedly non-cheesy way.
Maybe it’s just a confidence thing. I’m not afraid to be cheesy. Of course I like the minor mode and I’m always looking for melodies in the minor mode because that’s an easy route to get to some touching melodies. But I wouldn’t see that as a fault, that techno producers are necessarily afraid of going down the same route. I think that if you’re in the world of techno your thinking is much more loop and groove based rather than sitting at the piano and trying to figure out a touching melody. It’s like you’re starting point is different.
Your new record and some of the stuff you’ve done in the past with Donato Dozzy falls under the umbrella of ‘ambient techno’, to use another generic term. I find music like this emulates nature in that it focuses on systemic unity and a perpetual focus on horizontal movement, punctuated by subtle modulation. So where do you know where the line is between something being hypnotic and something being boring?
[Long silence] . . . I don’t know. That’s a very personal thing. My hypnotic is your boring, your boring is my hypnotic.
When I was listening to your record and thinking about your sound design, I kept coming back to the construction of space. It seems simultaneously expansive, intimate and alienated at the same time. I was wondering what some of the processes you use to create this multifaceted construction of space, one that allows multiple angles of interpretation.
I take effects as instruments. I’m keen on spending a lot of time with the dimensionality of sound production. Specifically the contrast between large and small existing in parallel. It could be a mixing technique I use where I take reverb and spatial effects that make things seem closer or further away; I’ll use that as an out rather than equalising the sounds with an EQ to change the spatial landscape.
So you’d rather keep the colour of the sounds intact once you’ve recorded them and use effects as a way to push them around to make them fit?
Right. Yeah, kind of like a typical mixing technique where people say “visualise that you’re standing in front of a cube that is going back into perspective and imagine that the bass sits here on the bottom tier and the hi hats are in the left and right corners etc.” So I also do the same thing when I’m mixing but I would prefer to use more effects to confuse those spatial aspects rather than just using EQ or volume changes to achieve the same thing.
Do you find yourself thinking about the elements in your productions in terms of phrases like weight, direction, speed and depth? Is there a physical vocabulary to understand and come to terms with your sounds?
I do make some associations, but also I’m curious about creating a kind of confusion. I like when you start playing with the spatial effects so that your mind can’t really grab a hold of it. It’s fascinating how sound can confound you. Rather than just trying to fill up the cube so that everything is balanced, it’s more interesting if there are different things flying around and turning inside out. ~
The new Tin Man album Ode is due out September 22nd on Absurd Recordings.
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
Clown & Sunset, the record label of Nicolas Jaar, are preparing a new compilation that does not come on one of the normal vinyl, CD, or digital formats. The compilation, which contains 12 tracks from the likes of Valentin Stip, Pavla & Noura and Jaar himself, is housed in an aluminium box that you connect headphones to in order to hear the music. Designed by Jaar the cube has two jacks for shared listening and we would guess the technology is not dissimilar to the Play Button. Check the track-listing and promo-video below. Just don’t mention Richie Hawtin and his ill-fated cube shaped experiments..
01 Brandon Wolcott & Emil Abramyan: “YouAndTheSpace Between”
02 Pavla & Noura: “Siblings Music”
03 Nikita Quasim: “GHOST”
04 Nicolas Jaar: “Why Didn’t You Save Me”
05 Pavla & Noura: “Don’t Owe Me A Thing”
06 Just Friends: “Avalanche”
07 Acid Pauli: “Palomitastep”
08 Nicolas Jaar & Will Epstein: “Never Have I Ever”
09 Vtgnike: “Untitled Juke”
10 Nicolas Jaar, Will Epstein, Dave Harrington, Ian Sims: “Ishmael”
11 Valentin Stip: “Hiathaikm”
12 Nicolas Jaar: “Don’t Break My Love”
So Megaupload. You might have already heard about it: in the midst of the international debate about controversial US anti copyright infringement laws SOPA and PIPA, the FBI shut down Megaupload, a file-hosting website and arrested six people, as well as MU’s founder, German-Finnish entrepreneur Kim Schmitz aka
Mount Kimbie Kim Dotcom, yesterday.
As if that wasn’t ironic enough Universal Music tried to take down the popular, celebrity-driven ‘Megaupload Mega Song’ in late December ’11. Then the anti-censorship movement Anonymous brought down Universal’s website (as well as those of RIAA, MPAA, Warner Music Group, BMI, the US Department of Justice and FBI.gov, amongst others) last night. To add even more intrigue, it was also revealed on Wednesday that US-american producer Swizz Beatz aka Kasseem Dean (who once was signed to Universal Motown) is also Megaupload’s CEO.
Now the site appears to be back online, operating from an IP address site with no proper URL – although this might well be a scam or phishing attempt, which is why we strongly recommend you not to visit the IP pictured above. In the meantime, until they have a proper domain for us to investigate, check out the Mega indicment below:
The author on Twitter: