Archive | The Philosophy Of Production

Any Ideas on Ideas?

Music Production – Any ideas on ideas?

 

This is a question that comes up fairly often – where do you get your ideas from?

And the simple answer is, I don’t know.

There. The end.

 

Not really.

 

But it is a difficult question to answer, because often I find that ideas really come out of nowhere. Perhaps a more interesting question is how do you take a idea and make it into a finished track or project? Unfortunately, I have only done that deliberately a few times in my entire career. So thats not something I ca write about either.

Hmmm.

 

Okay. I have to start somewhere, so lets see where this leads…

 

For me, ideas come from all sorts of places. With any track or set, I usually like to start with a theme. What normally happens is that I will hear a sample and then I will wonder what could be done with it. Sometimes it is a vocal sample – I have one at the moment that I have been trying to use for a number of years. It is from the TV show Kyle XY and it is a girl sarcastically saying “Awwww, sweet clueless little muffin”. Why do I like the sample, and why do I want to use it? That I cant answer. All I can say for sure is that a) it sounds good to me, it has personality and the way it is spoken is both amusing and easy to remember and b) It hasnt worked in any of the tunes I have tried to put it into.

Yet.

This sample is one of any number that I have in the back of my mind at all times, waiting to find a tune to be in.

 

Other times, the sample and its potential is more specific. I will hear a breakbeat, usually in a rock or folk track, and it will appeal to me for some undefined reason. So I will take it, slice it up, and then use it on whatever I happen to be working on. I usually don’t save specific samples for specific tunes – I try to use whatever I have just found in whatever I am currently working on (unless it is an obvious Luna-C / intro / outro sample). I do it this way because I am always listening for samples, whether watching TV or reading a book. Yes, I sample books. If I read a good passage, I will find the audiobook version, then try to get the sample from there. I usually have to use these samples immediately, because unless it is particularly amazing, I will forget I even took it within a week. The result of my relentless sample taking is an elaborate filing system and a terrabyte of samples on a hard drive. Some of them are downloadable sample packs, but a large portion of them are taken from my own sources. I don’t do this because I really enjoy taking samples – its actually a bit of a hassle. But if I am offered samples from a friend, or I find a sample pack online, I am never that enthusiastic about it. Firstly, because I don’t “know” the samples. Making the effort to sample a beat embeds that beat into my mind. I have to cut it out of the original source material, edit it, name it and put it somewhere. Downloading a sample pack means that I have an extra 300 faceless samples that I don’t know, haven’t listened to, and wont think of when making a new track.

The other problem is that if I downloaded it, so did everyone else. Probably a year before I found it, too lol.

 

Here’s the thing. if you want original ideas in your track, then you have to have original samples / source material. There are three elements that effect your ideas in any track:

 

1. The samples

2. The equipment used

3. The artists ability.

 

Someone like Darren Styles, who is very musically accomplished, can have the same samples as everyone else, the same equipment, and still make an original track. He is a musician first and foremost.

People like Dj Ham or Hattrixx have musical ability, but they also have technical ability. Either of them could come into my studio and make a track that would sound nothing like the stuff I produce using the exact same equipment. This is because they enjoy working the equipment to the point where it is a talent in itself.

Then there are people like me. I am, at heart, a cut and paste sample guy. This is where I excel. Sure, I can play some music, but not as well as Darren Styles, and I can work my studio, but both Hattrixx and Ham leave me in the dust. But I think its fair to say that I can out-sample most people.

None of this is to say anyone mentioned is any better than anyone else. These are just the skills we have, and they have good and bad points. And good artist will try to be as versatile as possible and master every aspect of their art – so it is that I spend time learning the equipment even though I hate doing that, and I try to play music even though it is a struggle for me.

 

However, without original ideas, Darren Styles, Hattrixx, Ham and myself would be unknown to you. It is the ability to have an idea and make it a reality which has put us where we are (wherever that is lol).

 

I mention all this so that you can understand why most of my ideas come from samples. Where I might think “What could I do with that beat I sampled?” Hattrixx might think “What if I processed that beat using this technique?” and Darren Styles might think “Would that beat work with this song I am writing?”. I am guessing of course – I could be (am probably) totally wrong about how any other artist thinks. But the point is, I start all my tracks from a sample point of view, even the ones that don’t have many samples. Thats how I am built.

 

So I cant tell you where I get ideas, except to say that the launch pad is usually a sample of some kind. Sometimes it is from a passage in a book that gives me a specific emotion that I want to capture. Does that make sense? No. But its still true. More often it will be a sample or a sound effect or a video on youtube or anything audio that makes me excited. I based a track around the sound the garage door made at my in-laws place in New Jersey. It wasn’t a very good track, but still…More often than that, it will be a theme, or a combination of theme and sample. For example, Supaset 4 was the theme of a live radio show, combined with the idea of sampling all the wrong music and changing it into hardcore. Piano Progression was the idea of extending the piano riff a ridiculous amount, and not using a sample.

On the other hand, my track “My Angel” was the idea of using an electro beat (sampled from Radiohead’s Idioteque, incidentally) and combining it with the theme of loss – because my father had died and I was grieving when I wrote it. The main vocal sample was actually an afterthought, and I used it because it fit, but it wasn’t part of the initial idea for the track.

This is something that happens fairly frequently for me. I will often have a great idea for something, but by the time I have finished the track, that great idea is just a side element while the main hook of the track was just something I threw in there without any thought. It has occurred to me that my best ideas are the ones I don’t think about – but as I cant think about them, there is no way I can do them on purpose. So thats no help.

Sometimes, I will try to force it, making sure that the original idea is what comes out as a central theme at the end, but that rarely results in a good track in my experience.

For the most part, I tend to have an idea and then just see where it leads me. Sometimes it is to a brick wall – no, you cant make a swing styled hardcore track, it will sound shit. And no, trying to make a track where all the breaks are reversed will not sound good. Other times, messing about with something stupid redefines your whole work ethic. Wouldn’t it be funny if I added Johnny Be Good to Johnny Jungle – YES! And that leads too….every Supaset since lol.

 

One thing I cant do is start a track from scratch with no ideas. I cant just boot up the studio and start work. I have to be doing a remix, or playing with a vocal or a beat. I have to have a theme, or something to trigger the creative process. It is one of the reasons I don’t really make Freeform. There is nothing for me to start with, nothing for me to hold on to. I like some of the freeform out there, and I have made some with Genki, but I find it extremely difficult and also kind of unrewarding because it often feels so faceless to me. Incidentally, I was asked to remix the classic “New Zealand Story” many years ago, and I did a really lousy job simply because I had nothing to work with. This is not a fault of the music in either case, but a result of how my mind works. An idea is fine, but I need something solid to work with as well.

 

I have been making music for a long time and I know that for me, inspiration comes and goes in waves. I cannot say why, or what it is that causes me to make music. And I don’t now where ideas come from. I do know that it is important to run with the ideas when I have them, and to understand that when I don’t have them, I have to stay away from the studio. I cannot force it. I used to be able to, back in the 90’s, but not now. Whenever I do, it results in a frustrating day followed by no results.

I think this is because I have done so much music over the years that it is much harder for me to be inspired in the first place, and nearly impossible to make something that I feel has broken new ground. I understand myself so much better than I did even five years ago, and I know that just having an idea or inspiration is not enough for me. I need the challenge – I always have. It’s why I ended up doing the hardest form of Kung Fu I could find, rather than being content with reaching black belt level in Karate. Its why I still make hardcore, when there are plenty of easier and more profitable musics to make. And its why when I do something within the hardcore scene, it is usually something that no one else is doing. Not because I am super awesome or have better ideas, but because I am actively seeking those things that I haven’t done before, or even better, things that no one has done before. This thread runs through my entire career – from making plastic sleeves, to releasing a hardcore CD long before most other labels (Vinyl Is Better) to giving away the entire back catalogue, to, well, all of it. If it is not interesting, if it is not inspiring, then I usually cant be bothered to do it. Incidentally, that is also why I get bored of most social media stuff really quickly.

This is obviously a bad thing when if comes to financial stuff. Even now I am doing the 20/20 project – do you have any idea how much 20 remixes can cost? And then posters and stickers and an actual manufactured CD? Do you think I will make a fortune from it? Trust me, I will be lucky to break even. But here is the thing…no one else has done it. No one else has a 20 year old label, and is idiotic enough to try and do such a project. I know all this – but the idea was irresistible to me. And so here I am, working my ass off to pull off an idea that for all intents and purposes is ridiculous. And yet, it pleases me, and makes me happy, and so from my perspective it is a great idea lol.

 

In the end, isn’t this is what ideas are for? Not for money, not for fame, not even to benefit anyone else. They are great big “what ifs?” that I feel compelled to answer, and that thrill me when they work.

 

So I think understanding yourself, and your motivations, has a direct effect on how you deal with your ideas – and your lack of them. I seems plain to me that my output has lessened, and equally plain that I cant really do much about that. But that’s okay. When I do something now, it comes from a pure place, and is better for it.

 

And as always, these are MY ideas, and how I work. If you work in an absolutely opposite way, thats excellent. There is no right way, and the only wrong way is if it leaves you feeling bad.

 

Okay, I think thats all I have to say about that. As usual, I have meandered about a bit, but I hope you enjoyed reading it anyway!

 

Nice one,

 

Chris / Luna-C

1

Production – The Most Important, Least Important Thing.

“You cant polish a turd” – anon

So lets talk about production. As usual, I am more interested in the philosophy of it than actual studio techniques. Partly this is because I work via instinct more than by intellect so I cant explain why I do the things I do. And partly because Dj Bexxie definitely leans toward the intellectual side when making music, so I often ask her to do things for me that I don’t know how to do. There is a valuable lesson there, about how you should use the help available to you…or maybe its about me learning to do things lol…but thats another article.

Besides, it has always been true of me that I am more interested in making the music, than in knowing the techniques to apply to the music I am making. Its a weakness and a strength. Kind of. Anyway, we better start with some definitions, so that no one is confused about what I am talking about when I say “production”. This involves a little bit of a detour, but stick with me.

Firstly, lets separate the title of producer, and actual production. There are many ways to name a person who works in a studio. The usual titles used back in the days before electronic music were artist or group, the studio engineer and the producer.

The artist made the music.
The engineer worked the studio.
The producer decided what things needed to be added / removed / bought to the front of the track / changed and arranged.

Put another way, the artist spoke English, the engineer functioned as a translator into German, and the producer made sure the German words were arranged both poetically and so that everything was clear.

Of course, more often than not in modern electronic music, these three separate people / jobs are done by one person. This leads to a bit of confusion when the term “production” is thrown around. So I need to split it up a little more.
I am Luna-C the artist. I have the ideas for the track. To make those ideas work, Luna-C the engineer translates the ideas from my brain and into the studio. Then Luna-C the producer messes about with what Luna-C the artist has done, to achieve the sound the Luna-C the artist wanted. The result is a track written, engineered and produced by Dj Luna-C. And Luna-C usually thinks he could have done better lol.

What I want to talk about is the actual production of the track. This is the bit that Luna-C the producer does, separate from the artist and the engineer. Its not about the idea of the track, its about making each individual part of the track shine. Taking the kick drum and making it punch, for example. The artist has chosen the kick drum, and the engineer has put it into the track. But its the producer that then adds compression, makes sure it is the correct volume in relation to the rest of the track. It is the producer that changes the eq, making sure all the frequencies are in the right place, and that nothing is distorted or too quiet. The engineer plays a part, but the producer makes all the final decisions as to how the music sounds.

Of course, all these definitions blur as there is no “right” way to do it.

It seems like a lot of words to write just to start the article, but it is needed because so many people use the word “production” in a way that muddies the water. As an example, I can quite honestly say that Justin Beiber tracks have brilliant production. And at the same time, I can say that they are awful, awful tracks. I am not commenting on the quality of the production, but the fact that the music makes my brain wish to devolve back to when I was a fish. Nevertheless, the quality of the production is outstanding.

The point of all this is to say that while production is extremely important, it is also the least important thing because in the end, if the actual track isn’t very good, no amount of clever production tricks will fix it. The problem with everyone being so focused on production is that they are forgetting about the actual music part. The other problem with it is that there is a formula that everyone is following, and it makes everything sound the same. And that is the worst thing of all because it is boring, and boring is doomed to fail.

So it goes back to the quote at the top of the page – You cant polish a turd. Having said that, have you noticed how many shiny turds are out there nowadays? This is because people are making a fundamental mistake by always saying how great the production is. What about the actual artist part? When I hear people say that a track “is really well produced” I think what they mean to say is “Its a very good piece of music”. Its just that saying its well produced sounds like you know what you are talking about lol. Really, if the production is good, it should be the shiny invisible coating, the polish on the outside, and if its really good, you shouldn’t even notice it. Unless you are an engineer / producer, in which case you will grind your teeth in envy lol.

Ideally of course, you want it all – your track to have great ideas and musical content and good production.

In hardcore, I think we have a large amount of people that do very good production, but less that are genuinely good artists in the first place. Actually, I think this can be said for the vast majority of the dance music scene. This is possible because you can learn any production technique as long as you have the right vst or plug in and are willing to spend your time using online tutorials and reading manuals. It is a skill that does require some of your own inspiration, but mostly it has been broken down to such a fine degree that its almost a mathematical equation. You can get plug ins that analyze your favorite track, that show you wear all the frequencies are, and then you can compare it to your own tune and edit accordingly. This will make it easier to get your production sounding better. But there will never be a plugin to analyze a platinum selling record, then tell you how to make one.

However, production, like everything else, takes time to learn and implement…and I cant help but think many people spend much more time on that side of it, rather than on the actual content. This is why it is no surprise to me that we have so many talented producers, but not so many talented artists. This is a problem, because progression requires ingenuity, and we are not progressing the quality of music, even if we are progressing the quality of how the music sounds. It’s like we all made the fastest 2008 sports car, and instead of working to make a faster one for 2009, we are just putting better stickers on it. Then for 2010, a new coat of paint. The for 2011, new coverings on the seats. And sure, it looks fantastic, but actually its the same car and nothing has changed.

Let me give you an example of a few artists / producers, starting with one who gets both parts right. Andy C has both artistic and production talents in abundance. He’s a good example because love him or hate him, he is someone who has arguably changed the face of D’n’B three times. Firstly, with Valley Of Shadows (31 Seconds). I remember when this came out, and it did so when Jungle / D’n’B was either very heavily edited amens, or kinda glitchy clever beats. It wasn’t the first D’n’B tune to do the now standard kick / snare rhythm thing, but it was so successful that it made it the only real option from there on out. It was a huge breath of fresh air, and D’n’B has been doing basically the same rhythm ever since. The actual track was also crystal clear, sparse even, and it contained only the elements that the track needed – nothing more. Another example of a person who makes tracks like this would be Scott Brown. Much of his work is deceptively simple. Precise. Perfect. Nothing that isn’t needed is in the track. I admire this a great deal, although I am the opposite and like to have as much noise as possible lol.

If Andy C never made another track after Valley Of Shadows, he would already be high on the list of artists / producers that made a mark on the scene. But years later he made Quest. Once again, he wasn’t the first to do the wobbly bassline, but his track was so good both artistically and production wise that, once again, he changed the direction of D’n’B. Years later he did it a third time with Bodyrock, introducing the world to triplet drums. All of these tracks were both musically superior, and very well produced.
Its my belief that it was the combination of the two things that made these tracks so huge.

Here is the thing though. If you removed the fantastic production, you would still have good music and I think the tracks would still have done well. Maybe not as well, but still they would have sold. I base this observation on the fact that other tracks of those eras had appalling production, and still did well. But if you remove the good music from those three Andy C tracks and leave the excellent production, they would have disappeared without a trace and no one would have heard of Andy C.

Don’t believe me? Have a listen to these examples of tunes that were huge, but were terribly produced.

Pseudo 3 – B-Line Stepper:-

This is one of my favorite tracks. The quality isn’t bad because its on youtube – its bad because its bad. It is also not a very clever track – it is mostly chunks of other peoples work. But it was pretty big for its time. Perhaps it is where 31 Seconds would have been if it had sucky production.

Or this:-

Satin Storm – Lets Get Together

This one is my favorites, because it may well be the worst produced track in the history of hardcore. The stab at the beginning is out of time, the whole tune drifts around all over the place. The “Come On” vocal is also all slipping. Then the drums come in at 39 seconds and are badly looped and too quiet. But the crown on this production turd is at 0:55 when the bass comes in and is completely distorted.
This track gets everything wrong. The production is absolutely awful, so bad that it is virtually unmixeable. It was a huge anthem (at least in London), and I love it. Always have and always will.

Now listen to this:
.

The Prodigy made this track before either of the two above. It still sounds professionally produced, even today. There are many reasons for this, but part of it is certainly choosing the right noises, which is one of the ironies of production. It is the last thing you need to do to your track, yet you have to be aware of it right from the start. This is because if you want something to sound really good, you have to use good sources. You have to go back to the core building blocks of your track. If you choose a shitty sounding hi-hat, no amount of work will make it a nice sounding hi-hat, juts a less shitty one. So there are better and worse hi-hats…better and worse kick drums…better and worse trancy stab noises…The trouble is, everyone else is using the same “better” things, and the result is all the tracks are sounding like they came from the same place. The tracks that stand out are made by artists who invent their own sounds, and those sounds are as good or better than the “better” ones everyone else is using.

I wanted to show you an example of a track with really good production but crappy music – and I couldn’t think of one. And that kinda proves my point, no? The only other option would be to pull up and example of what I think is a well produced but utterly boring hardcore tune. And that would just be offensive to whoever made it, so I am not going to do that either lol.

Hardcore has some artists that are both musically stunning and fantastic at production. Some are obvious – Scott Brown of course, S3rl, Gammer and Dj Ham spring to mind. Then we have some artists that have the same qualities, and for some reason haven’t broken through into big name status. Hattrixx is a good example of this, as is Jon Doe. They both suffer from the same thing that Dj Ham does – their music is a little bit too inventive for a scene that has been doing the same thing for too long. We have to hope that the scene will catch up with them, rather than they get as mundane as the scene.

Then there are others, and I think I am one of them, who’s music is just as inventive, but the production isn’t always as good as it could be. I have thought about this a lot, and for me it comes down to the fact that I am unwilling to get rid of the kick drum that sounds right, for the one that would work better. I am happy to override the standard perception of good production for an interesting track. And I have worked on tracks that just lose their soul once they have the dirtier (for want of a better word) elements cleaned up.

It seems to me that fewer people are willing to do this, and maybe they are right not to do it. Hardcore music is made for the dancefloor, so perhaps all efforts should be geared to making it as effective on the dancefloor as possible. The trouble is that that has now become how we all judge “good production”. Its a term that has been honed down to such a fine degree that it can actually hinder the musician. Because the thing is, to get really high production quality, you need to have exactly the right sounds. And if you only chose your sounds based on what will work best production wise, you pretty quickly stop using some of the more interesting ones. A good example with this is the Amen loop. It is one of the best breakbeats ever – that is undeniable. So if you want a loud, exciting break in your track, you ought to use the amen right? And there is some truth in that. But while it gives you that edge, it takes away the amount of options available to you. This can be a problem because a scene made up of the same breakbeat gets boring real fast. This can be applied to any element of a piece of hardcore music, the beats, the stab, the vocals. Use it too much or too often, and it gets played out real fast.

So it seems to me that we have a whole scene circling around getting the best production…It uses the best kick drum, the best trancy stab, the best strings, the cleanest vocals with the finest compression. On one level, its brilliant – it kicks on the dancefloor, everything is crystal clear, and all the frequencies are in the right place. On another level, it is boring as fuck lol.

Pop music is where the problem is most obvious. There are mashups online of many of the big tracks of 2012, and they all sound like they came out of the same studio. They all have exactly the same production, like they have been designed by a computer to press all the right buttons. And thats because they have. Throw in Auto-tune and it all just blurs into one perfect sound. Perfect and dull. Interestingly the biggest track so far this year has been Gotye – Somebody That I used To Know. A track which doesn’t have the production-by-numbers sound because it wasn’t produced that way.

I guess my point is that production is a very important, but perhaps we are emphasizing bits that we should be discouraging. For a start, it doesn’t matter how good your production is if the actual track is dull in the first place. Also, it isn’t well produced because you got everything right, its well produced because you got everything right AND it sounds unique. I cant stress the unique bit enough, because without it, the track will just fade into all the other tracks that are produced exacty the same way. Lastly, we should consider the fact that a non perfect interesting release may do more good for the scene than a perfectly produced track that hits all the right points in exactly the same way as all the others.

None of this is easy to do. Production is a steep learning curve, and you can never really know it all because every track requires different things. But if you find yourself loading up the same kick drum, the same stab noises and the same bass line for every track because it makes for good production, then you need to think about this.

But I might be wrong 🙂

3

Why Make Music? No Really, Why?

WARNING – this post is super long…like 4000 words or something. So grab a tea or whatever…

“I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored” – Josh Ritter – Snow Is Gone

At some point, I will look at more practical matters as far as the creation and the production of music goes. But mostly, the questions and thoughts I have about music are of the more philosophical bent. I think maybe this is because I have made music for so long that the actual process is almost instinctive. To explain how I make a track is like explaining how I breathe – both easy and impossible to do. When I have the urge, I will dive into the practical side and see what comes up, but for the most part, it is the other side of the creation process that interests me.

Not the how, but the why.

It is also true that I find writing easiest when I have some idea or notion that I want to put forward. If I think about writing a blog about how to cut up a breakbeat, it feels to me like work. Whereas the other questions feel like an exploration, and I want to write about them partly to see what others think, and partly because writing clarifies my thoughts. This is well know to writers (and to therapists), and I have always found it to be true. Likewise, teaching helps the teacher learn – when you have to explain something, you gain a greater understanding of the thing you have to explain. It exercises the mind, it breaks down the complications, and it hones the edge of your thoughts. So writing about this stuff is a benefit for both you and I. At least in theory, ha ha!

Let me start with a caveat: When dealing with the philosophical aspects of the creation of any art, there are many questions, but I think there are no universally correct answers. There are only opinions, and because art is personal, those opinions differ from one person to another. There is no right and wrong, just what is right for you or wrong for you as an individual. I am not debating a fixed theology here, just what makes for better art for the artist.

Having explained all that, we finally arrive at the heart of the matter. It is one of the most important, if not the most important question you have to ask yourself as an artist. And strangely, very few of us ask it. Stranger still, even fewer are honest about the answer, even with themselves. The question is this:

Why do it?

Its such a small question, so small that it slips past us without noticing. I didn’t truly ask it for myself until after Kniteforce crashed in 1997, and yet I had been creating music for over 6 years by that time. It’s crazy really, especially when you consider that the answer to that question is so massively important. The answer will shape your music, and in the end it will define you as both a person and an artist. If you don’t know the answer, the direction you are heading in will be much less clear.

Those of you reading this that Dj, or produce, or are involved in any aspect of the rave scene, should stop reading here for just a minute and think about it. Be totally honest with yourself. Why do you do it? Why do you struggle with this thing? (if you don’t struggle with it, you are doing it wrong lol)
You don’t have to tell anyone the answer, and there are certainly answers that would be frowned upon by some – although not by me. I am not here to judge, and having spent a good deal of time reading both religion and philosophy, I am certainly not here to say your reasons are right or wrong, low or high. My question is simply one to make you consider a) what you want to get out of being an artist, and b) how to satisfy and achieve your aim.

Lets start with the obvious, most often used reason people give when asked why they make music, especially with hardcore or D’n’B. Its the one you hear all the time, the only acceptable answer…”I do it for the love of the scene / music”.

It’s an easy answer, but one that doesn’t really come close to the truth. Put another way, it is certainly a part of the reason for everyone, but its rarely the only reason. More often, I think its because people love the scene, but they also want to be loved by the scene. I can only go from my experiences, but I certainly didn’t start making music for the love of music itself. If any of you have read my book, you will know that I had no interest in music when I was at school – I had no desire to understand chords and notes and composition. I did not want to learn a musical instrument, unless you count turntables. Which I don’t – because although it takes a phenomenal amount of skill to scratch and mix etc, you cant play a song with scratching. Unless you are Kid Koala – I will wait…

There were lots of reasons why I started making music, the main one being because I could. Also because I knew someone who had a studio. And because I was in the right place at the right time. Because it was something to do. Because I wanted to be cool. Because I thought it would impress people. Because I was self conscious and wanted to prove to others I was good at something. Because it interested me. And lastly, because I loved the scene. All of these things at once, priorities always shifting, some stronger than others. I fell into making music via Smart E’s, and those were my reasons when I started. None of them are particularly concerned with the actual creation process, but what of that?

The reasons for making music changes over time. They change with circumstance and with experience. By the time Smart Es was successful, I had different reasons for making music.

I think sometimes, without even knowing it, you make art because of who you want to be, or what you need, rather than as a demonstration of who you are. Its an expression of desire on various levels, for acceptance within a group, or for money, or for fame, or so that people will like you, maybe even love you. These things are what we crave anyway, they are part of our genetic makeup, and art is both a way to express these feelings and a way to achieve what we desire.
Smart Es taught me first hand that musicians get idolized, and that can change your outlook as well – you can start wanting the attention, the adoration given when playing for a crowd – and at its basest level, the advantages that come from that situation. To say I made music just so people would like me is untrue, but its true to say I wanted to be liked, respected, desired, and to feel like I was worth being liked, respected and desired. If you are shaking your head about this, bear in mind that much of the art ever made since the beginning of time was done out of love or lust for someone or something and as a way to gain the acceptance of that person or group. Otherwise, it is usually from grief and loss. The point is that its an expression of our emotional state.
I also wanted money. It was great to be paid, and I loved my small time of being rich. But like the acceptance from the scene or from strangers, the money was only a temporary sign of the approval I sought. You can throw in silver discs and chart placement and any other external marks success as well. Those things were nice to receive, but once you really start to focus on your art they don’t really mean anything. Its all just physical stuff, and no amount of that can help your emotional state. I think any true artist might get swayed by these things, and sometimes they are not bad things to be swayed by. But there is a line between wanting to tell the world a thing, and telling the world something so that the world loves you. For me, once I had the money or fame or acceptance, and once I had given back to the scene, I still felt the drive to make music. Why was that? I had received the things I needed.

Of course a large part of the reason I made the music was simply that I liked making music. I didn’t love it. It wasn’t an art for me. This is because at that time, I was part of a group, and I didn’t engineer the music myself, I merely helped create it by bringing ideas and suggestions and samples. I loved the rave music and the rave scene – it was my life – but I didn’t love making the music. Not then. That came later.

You might be thinking I was too young to distinguish these things at the time, and I was. It is only long after the years have gone by that I can be honest about my motivations. It is essential to understand yourself – whole religions have been built around this concept. While I doubt I will ever reach any great level of enlightenment, I know from experience that honesty with yourself is key to moving forward. And moving forward is a defining interest for me. So there was a fundamental change between between the person in Smart Es, and the person that ran Kniteforce.

Let me be clear – I don’t judge myself or others for wanting money, fame, or whatever else from the music industry. These are things we want anyway, regardless of what we do in our lives. And I am painting a picture with large brush strokes – of course there are thousands of reasons for making a piece of music. I am just touching on obvious human desires, and saying that we all strive for certain things in our lives because it is part of our biological make up. We are social creatures, and we strive to be loved and liked in all things, work and play. And in art we are even more vulnerable because it is often our strongest desires that feed our creation, and these desires are desperate to come out in our work. It would be nice to pretend we are all interested in art because we are morally superior, pure of thought, and enlightened. It would be great if we all made music to push boundaries and make the world a better place. But I think for a huge part of it, that is wishful thinking. I think a huge amount of the best art comes from places of pain, desire, anger, lust and any other deeply felt desire or emotion. It might not be “pure” but there is nothing wrong with that.
But art DOES give back. And sometimes, you get those things you wanted. What then?

During the Kniteforce years (1992 – 1997) my reasons for making music became a little purer, a little more precise, and a little more useful to my life. I had never had a lot of self confidence, but I had faked that for so long with Smart Es that I was good at pretending to be confident – and as the old Chinese saying goes, “what you practice, you become”. I felt with Smart Es that I had really just been very lucky. I still feel that way. But Kniteforce was all on me. There was some luck, and some help from friends, an enormous amount of work, but the fruit of that labour was mostly mine. Kniteforce was my plan, and I put it into place. The business side of this turned my lack of real confidence into a genuinely beneficial and honest appreciation of my own abilities. I began to trust myself, and it gave me a stronger sense of self worth. The beginning of Kniteforce mirrors the beginning of me as an artist, rather than a person who just made music because he could. I started to make music because I loved it, rather than from any outside needs. And I found that I wasn’t strictly a musician, and it wasn’t only the music element that I loved. I fell in love with the entire creation process, as well as the actual industry I was functioning in. I loved learning how to do things – I struggled with it too – but I keenly remember the first time I actually understood how a sampler was used. It was like new doors in my mind opened, and I began to travel different, unknown paths. Likewise when I started designing the sleeves. I felt I was creating a whole world from beginning to end – the concept of the release, the sound, the art on the sleeve, the whole thing. And I went from “person who made music for various reasons” to “person who had a musical mission”. What was that mission? I didn’t know lol. But I was heading towards it using only instinct, even if I was doing it blind.

With Kniteforce, I began to want to create something really new, more for myself than for any other reason. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I also wanted to show the world, “Look at me – I can do this. I am good at it. I am the best at it”. I didn’t need to be recognized in the street – I wasn’t interested in that side of “fame” (for want of a better word). I had experienced that with Smart Es, and despite its benefits, it made me profoundly uncomfortable. I felt like a phony. With Kniteforce I wanted other musicians, Djs, and producers, (as well as the buying pubic) to recognize my work, but more importantly, I wanted my work to deserve that recognition. I guess you could say my wants had gone from being very basic and crude, to being a little more focused and a little bit purer. Not much, but a bit. I was firmly under the assumption that if I just made a good enough record, a clever enough pice of art, that success and happiness would follow. If I could just put the emotions I was feeling into it, if I could just get the sound exactly right…

Then a strange thing happened. Some of the music I made almost without effort did very well, even though I wasn’t especially proud of the work and hadn’t invested any deep emotional desire into it. Six Days springs to mind – neither Jimmy nor I were very happy with the track, but a lot of people loved it and it was a huge success. The people that loved this track really felt something for it. How could that be, when I did not share that feeling? It wasn’t that I thought it was a bad track, I actually thought it was a very good track. It simply wasn’t a personal track, it wasn’t one where I invested my own feelings or paid any heavy price to create it. And other pieces of music I made failed, despite how much love and care I put into them. While I enjoyed the success of Six Days, I found that my mind was more concerned with why other tracks, ones that I felt were better, had NOT done as well. This made no sense to me. I didn’t know it, but I was at a crossroads. Part of me loved making tunes that other people loved…but the larger part of me wanted to make tunes that I loved and that meant something personal to me, regardless of sales. While I still made both, I think I had started to understand that art functions best when it comes from a pure place, and when it helps the artist, and everything else was really just a distraction. In the end, sales are irrelevant. Because I was fooling myself – I didn’t need other peoples approval or acceptance any more, I needed my own, and that is a totally different thing. If I didn’t feel the track I had made was brilliant, no amount of sales would change that opinion. And if I made a track I was deeply satisfied with, I didn’t really care if everyone hated it lol.

I had finally started to become an artist.

In a way, this is the very definition of an artist, as opposed to a business man. An artist is interested in the progression of his art, over and above what makes him money or gets him fame.

I do not say an artist is a better person than a business man. I do not think either goal is better or worse than the other. A business man wants to make money, because it makes him happy. An artist wants to improve himself through his work, because it makes him happy. Both are entirely selfish things. They can sometimes go together, hand in hand, but this seems to happen very rarely. I also don’t think we really have a choice. I did not consciously decide I was going to be an artist. It was just how I developed, it was where my feelings took me, and where I ended up. You cant force yourself to care about things, you either do, or you don’t.

On the other hand, I do think we can consciously decide how we will progress in our lives. So at that time I tried to make successful music that was also pushing me emotionally forward. Some of this worked, some didn’t. But it was a compromise that I didn’t know I was making. I gradually became aware that I was happier making music when I felt I was putting myself into it without external considerations. Maybe happier is the wrong word, because actually it was emotionally draining and incredibly frustrating. It was simply the thing I had to do. So I concentrated more on my complex Luna-C tracks than on the successful Jimmy J & Cru-l-t tracks. And while there were many reasons for Kniteforce falling to pieces, thats got to be a part of it, don’t you think? What if I had spent all my time trying to make big anthem tunes, instead of concentrating on the things that interested me more?

So we go back to the original question – why do it? I mean, really? Why? Making music from the heart is difficult and often unrewarding – at least financially. It can be harmful to personal relationships, and it makes you into a total weirdo who’s main concern is finding exactly the right sample rather than eating enough food or having a shower lol.

There have been periods of time when I didn’t make music, and I felt fine about it. There have been times when I made music for money reasons – and almost every one of these resulted in disaster, or at best, stunted work. Other times I made music for the love of it, and created something truly pure, and no one noticed. Once, I did that, and everyone noticed (My Angel) and it was a remarkable thing. That release was the perfect blend of a track I feel is pure and came from deep within me, and also sold really well.

Why doesn’t that happen more often? Is it my own fault? Is it even a fault? Am I not reaching the right level of emotional commitment or something? What are these urges that make us sacrifice so much for something that rarely matters to anyone but a handful of people? To this day, I don’t have an answer to that question. After as much analysis as I have done, all I have is tentative ideas and uncertainties, and a few small guidelines that I follow. You might find them useful, you might not, but here they are:

1. I can probably never know why I make music. All I can know is there is something in me that wants to come out, and music is the way I release that thing. When I do it right, I know it in my heart. That is the thing I am searching for, that piece of knowledge that only I can recognize. That is the reason I do it. There is no word to express what it is, and no explanation would ever make sense to anyone else anyway.

2. It doesn’t really matter what your motivation is, as long as it is your motivation, not one you have taken on because of an external or physical need such as money. Unless what you desire most in the world is money – in which case, your motivation is as pure as anyone else’s, as long as you don’t try to start making music to show how emotionally broken you are lol. Do you see what I am saying? Its not the motivation that matters, it is about whether you are willing to understand why you are doing it, and then follow it through honestly without deviating from your chosen course. I cannot make a piece of music just for money or fame. Not because I am so pure, but because I simply don’t work like that, its not in me, not anymore at least. Maybe in the past, maybe in the future, but not now. If I try to do that, all my ideas get mixed up and I stumble into a place which I don’t understand, and in which I don’t belong.

3. Be yourself. I have massive admiration for people like Scott Brown or Darren Styles…but I am neither of them, and I never will be. It’s not how I am built, and in trying to be like either of them, I would simply be a poor imitation of either, or more likely, nothing at all. The difficulty is understanding what you are, so that you can progress from there. Taking inspiration from other artists is a beautiful thing. Copying them to learn a skill is an important tool for progression. But trying to be like them in essence is a sure path to failure, it’s as foolish as dressing up like a horse and then thinking you are one.

4. Be aware that these things change. I have changed in the last year, in fact. Since making the Breaking Free album, I have felt an ambition that had been dormant in me for a very long time. The ambition to become a stronger part of the scene, to make better music that is more accessible, to have an “anthem”. One could say this was a step back, but I don’t think it is. I have been out in the wilderness for the last few years, trying different things, trying to understand myself and my music, and I have learned a huge amount about myself, the industry, and my place in it. I am better equipped, and my mind is sharper than it has been since the Kniteforce era. Writing my book made me re-evaluate my own work, and I find myself making plans. I am not the same artist I was a year ago, I am a better one. Because I understand my motivations. They are much purer than they were, but more powerful for it. I have no need for the fame or the money, but I do want to make something that pushes hardcore forward. To do that, I need to be a little less esoteric, and a little more streamlined in what I am doing.

I think thats all I have to say on this subject right now. As ever, these writings are more to think about than to be taken as rules to live by. There are no rules, except the ones you give yourself. And there is no right or wrong here – you can say everything I just wrote is bullshit, and I wont argue with you. It may be bullshit for you – but its not for me. I think it bears thinking about though, whatever you decide.

18

A Question of Limits

“If you always put a limit on everything you do, it will spread into your work and your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them”. – Bruce Lee

I have thought long and hard about limits, and I have come to the conclusion that when speaking of limits, I am not speaking about an abstract idea, but about a tool. I am not talking about the limits in the physical sense, so much as the limits I place upon myself as a musician. I tend to keep every tool I have at hand because you never know which one will be right for the job. And I am not just talking about VSTs or sample libraries. I am talking about concepts, about ideas, and about the execution of those things when creating a track.
For me, it is one of the trickiest elements of creating a piece of music, and it is therefore one that must be considered very carefully. The musicians I admire the most are the ones that manage to break boundaries by going past the limits of what has previously been done, and yet still manage to keep the music within the limits of the scene it is in.
Good examples would be Nine Inch Nails in rock, Skrillex in dubstep, The Panacea in drum’n’bass, or Hyper On Experience in Hardcore. But the ultimate boundary breaking artist in electronic music would have to be Aphex Twin. These artists are wildly different in every way, but all of them are absolutely willing to go into realms others barely hint at, and often enough don’t dare go to at all.
I suspect that they all do this instinctively. I don’t think any of them sit down and really consider how to bend the rules, but I could be wrong on that score. Every artist approaches his art in his own way, and I doubt any two are similar.
As for me, I am always thinking about how to bend the rules, and yet keep the music I am working on within the boundaries set by the scene itself. This is no easy feat, and it is one I fail at far more often than not. It is essential to keep the music within the boundaries, because if I make a hardcore tune with a violin at 120bpm, it will no longer be a hardcore tune, no matter what other elements I put in there. However, the actual boundaries are always changing, and it is impossible to draw a line and say “this is hardcore” and then work to that because 6 months later the line wont be in the same place anymore. It cannot be defined. So the question of limits is more complex than expected. You can never be exactly sure where the line is drawn, and so you can never really be certain when you cross it.

When I think back over the many tracks I have made, I come to the conclusion that I have only really managed to get the “limit” balance right about three times. Piano Progression, My Angel, and Fuck Me Egyptian Style. Each of these tracks fit into the hardcore scene, but they are all beyond it, or outside it, because I have pushed the limits of what is possible to the very edge without going over it and into the abyss.
I should probably make it clear that I am not afraid or worried if I do end up in the abyss – there is much to be learned by going too far. And I am not saying these are the only three tracks I have made that are good. But they are the three I am most proud of. There are others that come very close. Mindrider (with Dj Bexxie) was nearly right, and Wot For, Not Sure (with Dj TC) also rates highly with me. But as I had help with both of those tracks, I cannot claim the credit for getting the limitations correct.

These examples are all tracks that I consider to be my most innovative, and they are so because I have pushed my limits just far enough. And here is where the question of limiting yourself becomes tricky, because it isn’t always a good thing to push past the boundaries. Sometimes, the opposite is true, and the application of limits makes for a better track.

Are you confused yet? I hope so. Its a very confusing topic, and probably not the best one to start off a series of writing about music, but its the one I think about most often.

What I am trying to say is that you have to:-

a) Know the limits of the scene you are working in.
b) Know your own limits.
c) Know when to push past both and…
d) Know when not to.

When I first started making music, I was limited by equipment. I couldn’t make a track that was 15 minutes long because my Atari simply couldn’t handle it, unless it was 15 minutes of the exact same loop going around and around. Likewise, I had a limit to how many samples I could use – the Akai S1000 had limited space. This meant that there was only so far I could push a track. And this is why Hyper On Experience really were an amazing act. If you put aside the composition and musical elements for now, and consider that they managed to fill their tracks with an enormous amount of samples and ideas, and to this day I wonder how many samplers they must have had – perhaps they had unlimited money? Or unlimited time? I don’t know. But I do know that when everyone else was releasing music that might have 4 main parts repeated, their tracks would constantly evolve and often not repeat at all. In this day and age, thats hard to do. Back then? It was close to miraculous.
As equipment evolved, so did the electronic musicians ability to push past previous limits. Time stretching meant that we no longer had to just speed up vocals by pitch. This was a big deal. Modern producers don’t seem to realize that the “mickey mouse” high pitched vocal wasn’t a deliberate style, more just a side effect of not being able to do anything else. Most of the vocals we sampled were sung much slower than hardcore’s 160bpm, so all we could do was speed the vocals up.
Each time a technical innovation was made, another wall fell down, and there were fewer limits as to what the producer could do. This is undoubtedly a good thing, yet to my eyes it had at least one negative side effect. The lack of limits seemed to make some producers get more reserved rather than less so. How else to explain the fact that the music fragmented so much, and so many rules were put in place to define each style?

Nowadays there is virtually nothing you cant do musically, as long as you have a powerful computer and the willingness to learn how to produce. There are almost no limits at all.

The lack of any real restriction caused by equipment means that we are in a place where the question of limiting yourself has to be thought about. I find that placing restrictions on myself can be very useful. For example, if I am making an old skool track, it sounds much more authentic if I use the same equipment that I used back in the day. I cut the breaks up by hand, instead of using a VST. This is not as accurate, but it serves to give the track the right sound. Likewise, I use old samples rather than digital keyboards. Samples from records always have the sound of the needle in the groove on top of it, and add to that rough sound. I have even sampled a records run off groove and layered it onto a VST stab noise, just to make it sound “older”. It is a ridiculous thing to do, but it works. I have come to the conclusion that to get an authentic “old skool” sound, you need to use modern technology in a limited way. Its ironic in a way – I have to do much more work to get a much less refined sound. So for that style, applying limitations to yourself is useful. Its the easiest way to use limiting as a tool.

Slightly harder for me is to say to myself “I will not use a piano”. I limit myself this way fairly regularly, because piano’s are easy for me. At least, they are an easy thing to create and use, and it is much harder for me to get that “happy” sound without one. Many of the current producers do this with the “trance” sound. Its a good sound, like the piano. And when its used well, its very very effective. But, like the piano, it has been done a thousand times, and chances are the riff you just played or the piano line you composed is going to sound dated as soon as you play it. Relying on these elements for your track will almost always mean that your track will not break any boundaries. I want to emphasize that in itself, this doesn’t matter. Not every track has to change the world. But if you truly want to develop your music, its good to forbid yourself the elements that make it easy for you. Even just as an exercise.

But the hardest thing of all is to understand these limitations, to understand that doing things a certain way might work well but will almost certainly result in an “average” sounding track, and then to ignore the restrictions and do it anyway.

It is no surprise to me that of the three tracks I am most proud of, only one uses a piano. And even then, I took the idea of a piano and pushed it to a ridiculous length. At a time when most hardcore piano’s were 8 bars long, Piano Progression’s riff is 32 bars in length. Meanwhile, My Angel does nothing the right way. It has an electro beat that I sampled from Radiohead’s Idioteque, d’n’b stab noises, vocals from Marylin Manson, spoken vocals from a christian CD, and it doesn’t really fit in anywhere at all. Both tracks were not deliberately designed to be “different”. Rather, they were ideas I had pushed into other realms. I did this without thinking about it. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to analyze and question my own motivations.
Fuck Me Egyptian Style was different in that it was a deliberate effort. I wanted to push glitchy editing as far as I could, and yet still make it just about possible to dance to. Not easy. It took a very long time to make, and there are very few repeating bars in the whole track.
Are these three tracks my best work? Personally, I think so, but thats not the point. The point is that all three balance on the edge of the hardcore sound, all three are built on the principle of reaching the very farthest limit of what could be done by me at the time they were made. All three mange to just about stay in the hardcore genre, despite themselves.

This is why I think about limits. How do I reach those heights again? I cannot say, as there is no map, no guideline to follow, and no obvious answer. But whatever the answer is, I am certain the question is about limits.

Hyper On Experience – Lord Of The Null Lines:-

The thing to listen to here is how the track develops and mutates all the way through, and then remember this was made without any of the modern computer based cleverness!

The Panacea – Carborundum

Listen to how chaotic and violent the music is, it seems to be screaming all the way through. The use of samples and the amount of energy contained in the one track is outstanding.

Nine Inch Nails – The Great Destroyer:-

This track starts off as an almost standard rock tune, even though ti has some clever effects. But when it gets to the the 1:50 mark, it suddenly becomes ear candy for anyone who loves to hear drums pushed to the limit.

Skrillex – First of the Year

Okay, I know many people are anti dubstep. But Skrillex has pushed bass sounds further than any other artist in recent memory, and even if you hate it, you have to give the guy props for going so far in one direction that everyone else was left scratching their heads in confusion.

Aphex Twin – Windowlicker

You need to get past the first 5 minutes of swearing lol…Pretty much any track from Aphex Twin will bend your brain out of shape. I use this one as an example because not only is the editing incredible, he also makes the track go out of time and out of sync, which is incredibly difficult using modern equipment. And its even harder to make it sound right. I would also say that Aphex Twin is a terrible example of someone who knows his limits. All his tracks go way past that. But the fact that he sells so many records means that, no matter how much you want to say “he went to far”, he obviously didn’t!

 

Comments are welcome!

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