In our latest Producer Talk, we sat down with Simon who’s produced a number of popular Sample Magic releases. In this interview Simon speaks of his love for Ableton Live, his unconventional production method, and his affinity for breaking free of western harmony constraints.
SM: What’s currently being used on a regular basis in your studio?
Simon: “I had a bit of a creative block until recently mainly due to having too much stuff in the workspace to choose from! Since I streamlined my setup recently, I think the tool I use most regularly is the bare table next to the workstation. Having gotten rid of the clutter makes it much easier to invite friends round with vintage gear, sample the hell out of it and send them off to get beer, call another one, rinse and repeat.”
What are your favorite pieces of gear that you currently own?
“The UAD Apollo Twin has got to be the best audio interface I’ve ever owned, and an upgrade to their OCTO card setup is definitely on the cards. Meanwhile I have a close affinity for miniAtmegatron –it’s a build it yourself job, and I think that’s what made me fall in love with it because it’s a quirky yet powerful synth, but it feels like my baby, you know?”
Breakbusters was one of Sample Magic’s first releases. Tell us a little bit about the influences and the inspiration for this classic release?
“I was hanging out down at Vinyl Addiction in Camden (UK) quite a lot back then, and making friends with some producers down at Jamestown Studios in Whitechapel – now a religious school and overpriced bedsits. The Nu Skool Breaks sound was really entering its golden era yet had no royalty-free producer content to back it up and help it spread beyond the confines of a few quality studios. This is where my production partner and I were drafted in. Our own productions were heavily break orientated at the time so it just felt like the most natural course of action.”
What’s a unique, unconventional production technique that you would like to share with our readers?
“Writing any kind of melody in a conventional style – one sound across the keyboard – was always very counterproductive to the sound I want to get out there. I spent the first 10 years of my life as an electronic musician without a keyboard anywhere near me as it was the only way for me to break free of the constraints of western harmony, equal temperament, and other sonic atrocities.
“The culmination of that, in such a DAW as Ableton, is that I now prefer to have categorical samplers – that means a bunch of sounds that fit a category like bass, lead, kick, etc., all piled into a sampler or Rack, a different sample laid out on each key so I can trigger variations on a tone, and draw any melodic or pitch changes I need in the envelope window instead.
“For anyone reading this who may worry that this sounds a lot like ‘moussing’ around and not playing an instrument expressively, may I recommend they try to do a setup like this, and then make use of their keyboard and pitch wheel, and set up another controller dedicated to changing pitch to automatically achieve a stepped tuning system, giving the choice between jumping whole tones and semitones, or gliding between them.
“I normally start with the note triggers first, then add the pitch changing in the second pass and use the bend wheel for the third pass to add all the glides and slides I need. Getting used to this way of working has become a massive help to me because even if I’m just sat in an airport lounge with only the laptop and headphones, I have a lot more scope over melody creation in a much more compact environment, and don’t get turned off by the fact there’s no piano to express my ideas on.”
In the box, outboard gear, or a little bit of both?
“Companies such as Focusrite, Universal Audio, Waves, and Softube have really opened the door to superlative sound quality and vintage expensive studio sounding tones and also the awareness of such vital components to the music production process. The quality of their products is almost indistinguishable from the real thing, and the sheer weight of producer friendly hints and tips available online has flourished as a result, making it a lot easier for aspiring unknowns to get a sound that is on par with commercial productions – right from the computer itself.
“Here’s an example of where ‘in the box’ wins hands down – if you’re 15, still living at your parent’s house and borrowing dad’s computer to write the next epic ‘trap’ release for your mate’s label the bass end needs warming up and tightening, where in this reality does he/she go out and rent 50-grand worth of Fairchild compressor for the week? Quite simply, they don’t. Instead, a flick through Computer Music magazine and a tips section on dynamics compel them to ‘borrow’ the Waves emulation of a Fairchild 670!
“The tradeoff is that if you need your stuff to go through professional grade gear, you need the professional environment that goes with it, and the people who know what they are doing to help you out. This is why professional studios still exist: Expensive outboard gear belongs in expensive studios simply because of the power and temperature needs.
“There is no point in installing a 48-channel DDA desk in your lounge if you don’t have 380V three-phase power to run it. You’ll also need the rest of the outboard, patching and the air conditioning system which is all vital if you don’t want to melt a hole in the floor. Not to mention, what about the electricity bill?
“Nowadays there are even services online that let you run your stuff through professional gear and have it emailed back to you done by a competent engineer, and for a fraction of the price it would cost to rent the article itself. If you can afford to spend three grand on a channel strip for recording your girlfriend’s angelic voice, maybe the first concern is making sure your monitoring and room acoustics are up to scratch, and that there’s a suitable makeshift vocal isolation booth, with a smart choice of microphones, and an audio interface with excellent preamps.”
What’s your current DAW environment, and what are you go-to plugins? If you use multiple DAWs, explain what are the pros and cons of each one?
“Ableton will always remain the most versatile environment for me, although I love what Logic does naturally as a mixing tool. I tend to export my compositions from Ableton as separate tracks at 32-bit, then drag them into Logic Pro to do a final mixdown.
“I don’t know if it dithers or truncates the files but everything just sounds so much more real, there’s a kind of glue that just happens all by itself. Logic handles floating point a lot better than Ableton, so in the rare circumstances I have to redline a channel, it feels much more like the real desks.
“Harrison Mixbus sure sounds richer, but it’s just a bit too ‘glitchy’ for me, the GUI on plugins run far too slowly, and why is the default buffer set to 1024?
“My indispensable list of plugins is mainly about tones and saturation, as I like to perform most of my sonic shaping here. EQ and compression for me are workhorses; compressors move things in and out of the way of each other or create ‘in-your-face’ slamming tracks.
“EQ’s either cut away masking frequencies, or boost where weight, impact, clarity, presence, or shine are needed. So, plugins I can’t do without? SPL TwinTube, Sonimus Satson/Briston. LVC Audio Toned, preAMped. Waves J37, UAD Oxide, NI Guitar Rig, Nomad factory Bus driver. Fabfilter Saturn, Vladg Molot. Anything tube, tape, distortion, saturation and whatever synth or drum tone I can put through them. Favourite EQ for now is UAD Neve 1081, Maag EQ4, Elysia EQ is nice too. Surfer EQ is proper Swiss army knife on bass. My quest for the go-to compressor is far from over.”
What genre do you see blowing up in the next three to four years?
“Everywhere I go these days there seems to be hybrid punk/noise bands springing up and doing their own nights in small but very packed and energetic venues. The music is a mish mash of all modern cultures: hip hop beats infused with thrash guitars including dubstep keyboard wobbles and the vocalist is more often than not screaming at the top of his/her voice.
“The mosh and stage dive is definitely back, and a lot of these bands that feature keyboards are using backline to amplify the tones: there’s something so much more “alive” when you put a synth through a guitar amp, and mic it up to go back through the PA, and lots of these new bands I see are doing this.
“The crowds in these events are young, sweaty, high, nonviolent yet full of energy, very into swinging each other around the room, very open, very happy, and not about to bore you with tales of what happened at work today. The bands are often backed up with electronics – drummer with a drum machine close to hand for example, pedals and loopers for the vocalist. Technophobia is truly a thing of the past at last!
“Anyway it feels a lot fresher and active than most raves or clubs I go to, where if you even breathe wrong on some twat in a short sleeved tartan shirt with a beard he’ll complain and get you slung out by the doorman. Oh and did I mention the entry prices and drinks are much cheaper?
“I think the future is here, in the grimy underworld that is punk, where groundbreaking music and bands have always been and always will be. This is one generation who for sure, will not be using the dreaded autotune apart from in jest, and most importantly they’re not sat in front of a laptop trying to sound like everybody else in order to get famous.”
Any tips or advice for aspiring producers?
“It’s very important, listen to stuff you don’t like and work out why: It’s too easy to dismiss musical styles, genres, and artists as ‘crap’ in your opinion simply because you are blinded by your own ignorance, which is not a good place in your head to be if you want to succeed in music. Thus, try this: Analyse some current pop, a random metal tune, some elevator music, a bit of classical, all the things you would nearly never go anywhere near, and try to pinpoint what in its composition makes you feel bad, awkward, uncomfortable, or not as the case may be.
“It’s a brilliant method for finding stuff to sample, as online musical journeys are now endless due to the ‘This person also listened to / bought’ scenarios when using iTunes or SoundCloud. It’s also a great way to get to know oneself as a musician or producer. Come on admit it, there are parts about this that you cannot explain why you do what you do, this is one way to find out who you are and what you stand for.
The biggest benefit is you no longer have to answer the stupidest of all questions ever put on this earth: ‘What kind of music are you into?’”