Super Sharp Computer: DJ Zinc talks about his journey from OctaMED to Bitwig Studio
DJ Zinc’s life in music has dovetailed with the rapid evolutions of UK rave culture since the late '80s. But far from being merely a passenger on the locomotive of history, he's made a habit of steering it with historically prescient works like his turn-of-the-millenium UK chart-hit "138 Trek." His arc traces the giddy early days of hardcore, through the development of jungle into drum & bass, then breaks and 2-step, and back into modern derivations of house. The first productions he released alongside his longtime creative partner DJ Swift remain high-water marks in the transition from hardcore to jungle almost three decades later, while the first Zinc solo record contained "Super Sharp Shooter," arguably one of the biggest jungle anthems of all time. Following the success of "138 Trek" in 1999, Zinc founded the label Bingo Beats as a vehicle for a style landing somewhere between breaks and UK garage, a crossover that’s been zealously mined by a new generation of DJs and producers in the last decade.
Zinc’s journey also traversed years of great change in music production technology. From his early years typing code into tracker programs and scouring cryptic manuals of hardware samplers, he learned through experimentation, hearsay and sheer persistence. Around the turn of the century, personal computers were becoming powerful enough to host audio and plug-ins, leading to over a decade using Logic and conversion into a self-confessed "plug-in addict." Speaking from the train lines of Wales, Zinc shared some thoughts on the changing face of music production and technology, how access to knowledge is changing the creative process and his recent years working with Bitwig Studio.
I noticed a couple of years ago that you were streaming production tutorials with Bitwig on Twitch. Perhaps this is an old fashioned idea these days, but I had the impression that a lot of producers of your generation tended to be somewhat secretive when it came to production methods. Carl Finlow is another Bitwig user we’ve seen streaming tutorials.
I think that idea has changed. For sure, it used to be like that. There were producers who were very secretive about their methods. They would be very reluctant to tell you what techniques or equipment they used. But there are so many methods and so many things you can do with production nowadays that I don't think there are so many secrets to give away.
So much has changed since I've been involved in music. In the old days, the producers were completely in control of the release of the music, how many copies they made and so on, but in the digital world it's completely reversed. So there’s much more openness now. I like that.
Maybe this goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the process of acquiring production knowledge is almost unrecognizable from when you started out. How did you go about learning when you don't have a trillion tutorial videos online?
Yes, the bad old days. It was really, really hard and frustrating. I was very keen to learn, and there were no resources. I came from a poor area in East London. I knew a couple DJs in the area, and we were into the same sort of stuff, but no one knew how to make a track. It was a completely alien concept. Like rocket science.
I first heard about samplers in the late '80s, early '90s. My idea was to take some records I like, try to find some samples I can use and then try to make a new track out of that. Of course, that's a pretty simple idea in hindsight, but how to actually use a sampler was beyond me. I used maybe about 10% of the sampler's capabilities. I just didn't know what I was doing and had no one to learn from. The manual was completely impossible. So I love that now there are really great channels to learn from covering a range of different skill levels.
“Take OctaMED for example. I made 'Super Sharp Shooter' with it. And every single hi-hat in that track I had to put in a bit of code. So it was incredibly labor-intensive. I don't miss it.”
I would agree that greater access to information and knowledge is a beneficial thing. But do you think now that the information is so readily available that it's changed the learning process? Even though they were frustrating early days with your sampler, perhaps this could lead you to use it in a way that wasn't directly intended or considered "correct." Even though it's great that there is this information nowadays, does it also somehow limit the process of discovery?
I think that with most things that involve progress, it's 90% good and 10% bad. I think it's like that with technology generally, not just music production. With music production, yes, it was very frustrating, but this would lead down paths where you might end up with an unusual or unintended effect.
For example, I remember Dillinja made a track where he controlled the filters on his sampler using automation over MIDI or with an envelope to make squelchy drums. And everyone was like, "How on earth does he do that?" We all had the same samplers, we just didn't know what buttons to press! So we tried to work out what he'd done, to reverse engineer it. People came up with attempts at something similar that were quite interesting and creative in their own way. So yes, definitely something is lost in the creative process when you are given the answers.
It's like a child doing some maths puzzles. If they know the answers are at the back of the book, they don't learn to use their brain in a certain way. So there's definitely a downside to having all the information available all of the time, but I think the upsides far outweigh the negatives.
There is a loose community of people from a younger generation who didn't live through this era of technology who now use trackers like OctaMED, old Akai samplers and an Amiga — precisely the equipment that was giving you guys such headaches decades ago.
I think it's quite charming. I remember the American producer Todd Osborn — he's a very intelligent bloke, one of the smartest people I've met, and he used to use tracker software because he thought it had a certain way of handling breakbeats, that it made you work with samples differently. So when somebody I admire that much says there's a good reason to do it, I think fair enough. But for me, I'm more interested in being able to get quickly from an idea in my head to an idea coming out of the speakers. That's the ideal purpose of the technology for me, so I love how things are today.
Take OctaMED for example. I made "Super Sharp Shooter" with it. And every single hi-hat in that track I had to put in a bit of code. 8-0-3-G-0-0-4 or whatever. That's for every single hat, every snare. So it was incredibly labor-intensive. I don't miss it.
It can also work the other way. Most people under the age of 40 haven't had to work with a hardware sampler. With breakbeat-driven music, the idea of taking a break and assigning different start-points to different keys on a keyboard then jamming out your patterns was second-nature in the hardware sampler world. Now there are plenty of young people interested in complex breakbeat patterns trying to replicate it with, say, one-shot samples.
There were certain recurring techniques involved because of the limitations of the time. The way we used to chop up breaks, as you say, by laying different startpoint across the keyboard — the results you get doing that are so different from the others. If you chop up a break into individual hits, then it's really hard to come up with these insane patterns. Because you naturally then put the kick and snare where you think they should go, and it becomes simpler…
But allowing the break to play back and loop in its entirety, triggered from keys with a few different starting points, leads to all these syncopations that would be fairly difficult to program otherwise.
Exactly. Generally we’d have the kick on C, nothing on C#, then on the D we’d have the snare part onwards. So the first key is your kick, hi-hat, punchy sound, and the second would then play snare, the following ghost notes and so on. Sometimes we would start with the snare, whereas normally a break would start with a kick. Then the way it plays out from that start point generates rhythms that you'd otherwise have quite a hard time making from scratch.
Overall it sounds like you were pretty happy with the development of music technology from the '90s into the 2000s. Did you feel that way at the time when running DAWs and plug-ins became feasible?
I've always been pretty keen to get involved in new technology. To be fair, some stuff feels like it's a bit beyond me, so I don't embrace everything that comes along. But when there is a significant shift in the technology, I tend to check it out and embrace it. I'm a plug-in addict. Any time there’s a new one I get it straight away.
Obviously plug-ins changed music production in general, but things like software limiters seemed to especially change the sound in dance music and drum & bass in particular.
When the L1 limiter came out, it was revolutionary. There are a few plug-ins from back then that really changed what everyone did. L1 and L2 were two of those. All of a sudden, you could just push it louder and louder. That definitely changed the sound.
To be fair, producers and engineers had been working towards maximum loudness before plug-ins were easily accessible.
To return to Dillinja, he cut his tracks really, really loud and we couldn't figure out how he did it. Years later he told us. In the '90s we used to record to DAT. With a DAT machine, if the signal went into the red, we'd stop and start the recording again. Even if the peaking light flickered for a quarter of a second, we'd start it over. Then years later Dillinja said he used to ram his DAT recordings into the red all the time. That's how he'd get his tracks so loud. I wish he'd told me that five years earlier! So people were working all these different techniques to try and make their tracks louder before software limiters were introduced. We were creative in terms of how to try to make stuff sound good. We would use layers to make certain sounds louder, layer multiple breakbeats.
You mentioned you like to embrace new technologies. So you're generally happy to change your set-up rather than stick with things?
I used OctaMED and then Cubase on an Atari with a sampler. Then I switched to Logic around 2001. I think Logic felt like it was more computer-native, whereas Cubase felt MIDI-centric. Keep in mind that previously we were only laying out MIDI in the arrangement, so it was a significant change when you could have actual pieces of audio there. I think Logic seemed like the best software for that at the time — at least, people I knew who were using audio early were using Logic. So I used that for about 15 years.
I got to around 2015 and saw that a lot of the newer producers were using Ableton. At first I really didn't like the way it felt. Then I gave it another try and realized it was better for me at the time because it felt more modern. Logic felt like it'd been coded 15 years ago in comparison. At the time there were a couple of things that weren't right for me in Bitwig. It didn't support Audio Units, which was my plug-in format of choice. But after some updates I checked back to it. It sort of felt in-between Logic and Ableton but combining the better parts of both. I've used it ever since.
Bitwig is a bit like a boutique hotel. It's not the Hilton, it's not the Holiday Inn. It's maybe not as well known, but it's much more fun to stay at. I still use Logic and Ableton sometimes, but Bitwig's the best for me. The way it handles is more intuitive in my experience. What you want to do with modulation routing is up to you, the user, rather than up to the DAW. Sometimes you just want to be able to, say, sidechain this to that. You can't in most DAWs. So it's the ideal solution.
Are there any other key features of Bitwig for you?
The way you can have a bunch of arrangements open at once and drag tracks from one arrangement to another. Or dragging a group of plug-ins from one project to another. You don’t have to load it up, you can just grab and drag it. It's so quick. That sort of stuff is so handy for the increased speed.
Also, I know this is so nerdy and boring, but bear with me: I only ever use the arranger timeline and never the clip launcher. Basically, if you select a piece of time that includes a gap between pieces of audio or MIDI and you drag and drop that, it also copies the gap. Other DAWs don't include the gap so you can end up accidentally pasting things on top of each other. You can pick up the gap between events itself, which is also really handy. It's such a small thing, but then when I use a different DAW I instantly miss it. I feel like I save about 15 minutes a day using Bitwig. I do it every day, and if you add that up over a year it really counts.