XILENT - About the Creative Process
Interview courtesy of Beat Magazin, Germany, December 2015 issue. Read the Interview in german here.
Q: You released your debut album We Are Virtual earlier this year. You've already hinted at the fact that there's an overarching theme to the entire release, manifesting itself through the sounds and lyrics. How did this conceptual angle influence the writing of the music in terms of the results - and how did it possibly also influence your own experience of the production process?
A: Keeping a certain style in mind throughout the process is definitely a good thing, despite its limitations. When I started working on the album a couple of years ago, plenty of my tracks had already been out. A huge chunk of my fanbase expected the album to be nothing less than a combination of all my styles and ideas that I’ve been “feeding” them so far, so I had to deliver exactly that. A neat package of energy and futurism combined with catchy melodies and vocals. This mindset also helped me focus on a proper story-like theme to be associated with We Are Virtual; and what better story than one that makes you doubt your existence - which is actual feedback I’ve heard from a couple of fans after they heard the album.
Q: You grew up as a classically educated musician and then turned to producing electronic music. What changed for you when you started working on music in a virtual/simulated environment compared to using an instrument like the drums? How does it change the creative process and what are the benefits and perhaps deficiencies of such a digital environment?
A: Good question! Until last year I thought that I’ve been pushing my thus far learned music theory skills towards production. I thought that I’m utilising what I already know. It wasn’t until recently when I realised that I can’t properly handle drumsticks or perform on a piano as fluidly as I could as a kid anymore. I forgot a lot of theory and vocabulary which I’ve been fed since childhood. The keyboard, mouse, buttons and knobs took over my life. My connection to creation of music became based on new skills that had to be learned to be able to operate in a DAW. In a way, I lost my classically educated musical side and became a machine that’s somehow still able to compose. One of the good outcomes of it was how fast I was able to produce and how little else mattered at the time. Looking back now, I think it took me 4 years to finally say that I’ve arrived at a stage where I’m no longer ashamed of my mixdowns, etc.
Q: Tell me a bit about your current studio, please. What are some of your most important tools and why? How much time do you spend in it each day and how much of that time is allotted to production time (compared to patching things up, re-arranging the equipment and, possibly, procrastination)?
A: I’m using a simple set up, which is supposed to allow me to become mobile. My best friend in the studio are my Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones, which serve to me as my main reference point in production. I spend 80% of my work-time wearing them and when I finally take them off I feel abandoned. They’re connected to my NI Komplete 6 interface which sends the signal out to my KRK Rokits which serve as the 18% of my audio reference time (the remaining 2% being either laptop speakers or a TV). This system is plugged into an i7 Quad-Core CPU which runs on high speed in a soundproof case. Midi keyboard here, Novation equipment there - all speeding up the production/auditioning process.
The amount of time I spend surrounded by these daily is around 10 hours. Procrastination and writer’s block is quite a part of that which is why I’ve recently decided to get rid of my internet connection in the studio for the times when I’m not streaming on Twitch. The studio is in my apartment and I gotta say at the end of the day, you don’t really get motivated to exercise your muscles until you find yourself at the gym… That said, I spend roughly 6-7 hours productively per day.
Q: Could you describe your creative process? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas? Do ideas generally tend to come from playing around with your equipment or are they already there right from the beginning?
A: I’m sure you won’t be surprised if I say that it varies every time, but I admit that it all mostly begins with the drop. There isn’t a time or place where I wouldn’t take influence from, starting from old synthwave goth music through metalcore ending at neurofunk & glitch hop as well as space ambient. Touring is a major part of the idea process, I don’t remember having more ideas than seeing and hearing all the amazing music that’s happening on and behind the stage at the shows & the people I get to perform alongside. More the reason to become mobile and be able to produce on the road to be able to quickly incorporate new ideas into music, which is something I’ve recently managed thanks to Dropbox, etc. Then there are other times when I’d find myself listening to some piano jazz/bossanova variations or vaporwave work from the Dream Catalogue - usually in my spare time - and think ‘that kind of chord progression would sound amazing played through one of my synths’. 30 seconds later you’d see me open up Bitwig and mess around.
Q: I re-listened to your breakthrough track "Choose Me" while preparing for the interview and it still sounds incredibly fresh today. You did mention, however, that you've progressed as a producer since then. In which way? In how far have your creative process and workflow changed since that piece and were there adjustments in your production process that were real game changers, would you say?
A: I definitely progressed. The main improvement would be my drums, which are now way stronger and cleaner and have proper transients which help them pop out. Apart from drum mixdown and layering, what I also used to take for granted was the low frequencies, the sub-bass - a lot of my really old tracks don’t even include a sub-bass channel with a nice, steady sine-wave on it. Instead I would just boost the low-end on whatever “reese” bass was audible at the time. “Choose Me” is an example of that. Another mistake of mine was downwards - instead of upwards - compression on the master. I would pay little attention to the volume/gain levels and end up with an overly loud mix, which I would then squish down to zero.
Today I have full control over my mixdown and I make sure that every fraction of a bar and its spectrum has room to breathe, that the dynamic range is just as visible as audible and that things sound big on any soundsystem. What helped me get to this point are things I’ve learned from other producers and people in the industry. Some advice from certain smart people include phrases like “less supersaws, dude”, “too much compression” or “don’t overcomplicate, simplify”. You can also learn a lot when you compare your music against some of the big guys in a proper studio. Hardware upgrades, particularly buying a high-end PC plays a major role in simplifying and speeding things up. Having a solid machine that doesn’t overheat, blue-screen or crash because you’re using too many VSTs in one project makes things easier for the brain. On top of that, switching to Bitwig felt like a fresh start and to this day feels like the best decision ever. Once I got used to the interface and devised a template for myself, my workflow and the amount of work I could do per day tripled in speed compared to last year. I could go on about Bitwig, really.
Q: Whereas some things have changed in your process, others have remained the same, if I understood correctly – such as re-importing complete mix-downs into the arrangement and then adding new elements to them. Is this just a habit or do you also see some advantages in this?
A: Good point, I tended to do that a lot before I switched over to the new DAW and had a less-than-decent PC. It was a necessity if I wanted to continue to work on a track. Now with my new monster machine, Bitwig’s hybrid tracks and the possibility to bounce MIDI in place I still find myself stemming out an entire project once I’m sure I’m not going to want to change it anymore. Then I re-import it only to continue with a fresh mindset. It is just a habit and I guess the old ones die hard, hehe.
Another one that still remains alive is my urge to over-complicate things. Everytime I make a simple drop or melody that gets a good response from people prior to finishing, I then end up having the project filled with glitches, staccatos, square wave bleeps, supersaws and quick vocal chops. I’ve been doing this since the beginning, starting with “Evolutions Per Minute” and I can’t seem to stop, fearing the track would ‘lack elements’.
Q: Especially with some of the complex and smart software solutions available today (like, for example, stutter edit), there is a real temptation to leave the creative work to the software and merely arrange the results. Is this a temptation one should resist in your opinion, or actually an improvement? Generally speaking, in which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity?
A: I guess this really depends on how lazy you are and what your goal is. My music has pretty much always been glitchy and stuttery. BT did an amazing job with Stutter Edit and he remains one of my main musical influences of my life. It is essentially an FSU plugin, but done so well that I looked no further than to get it for my live performances to make things even crazier. When it comes to production though, I try to do a lot of the glitches by hand. Massive or Serum, some of the Bitwig’s native plugins like Freq Shifter, bounce in place, slice, mix up. You’ll see me use Illformed’s Glitch2 a lot, yet I still automate a lot of it. I tell myself that the more I use it, the more it means that I’ve had no good idea in the first place, so “let’s see what happens”.
Creativity can go hand in hand with FSU tools, if you use them in an interesting way. Same thing with ROMplers for example. Nexus is by design supposed to be an easy to access sampler with no synthesising possibilities, which is technically pretty limiting. Yet, if you use it wisely, automate and post-process the sounds your way while adapting them to your style - it’s all fine. None of your creative process has been disturbed. We’re given the tools, it is up to us to either abuse or use them responsibly and up to the listener to judge whether we’re still worth listening to.
Q: Can you reveal just a little bit how you work on the sound design for your tracks? It seems you prefer an aesthetic of 'more is more' when it comes to the sounds, but obviously, you still have to avoid excess … How do you hit the right spot and what makes a great sound in your opinion? How do sounds and compositions mutually influence each other?
A: True, for the past 3 or 4 years I’ve had a very maximalistic approach to what I make and what constitutes as ‘better’. As I said before, I’m about to dial things down a little. The advice I’ve been given is definitely correct and I can easily tell by the audience’s response that the days of my hyper sounds are on their way out and the way to go now is minimal & catchy. To us producers this might sound obvious, but we tend to focus too much on the mixdown and less on the idea, melody & lyrics. Sometimes instead of considering putting more gain on those 200Hz of that snare, it’s just better to take a step back and ask yourself if the people will even want to listen to the track or find themselves humming it in the shower.
When it comes to compositions mutually influencing each other, it definitely happened with, for instance, my album. On many levels. I knew that the theme has to be out of this world, packed with synth-based glitches and voices, so the transitions between the songs had to do their job accordingly. I can easily tell that some of the music I make now will affect my releases next year either via the melodical patterns I’m using or the amount of pads and vocals that I include. It happens all the time, everything is a remix.
Q: One of the greatest things for many artist is to get asked to remix one of the heroes. What it was like to do a remix of J Majik, one of the absolute masters of drum n bass?
This happened during the biggest dubstep boom of my career, haha. To add to the irony, the original by J Majik wasn’t drum’n’bass either, it was a hype’y melodic dubstep track with the sweet vocal of Dee Freer. Since “Choose Me” came out, we were being hit by labels for Xilent dubstep remixes left and right and we’ve had to make some tough decisions. This decision however was an easy one, reinterpreting J Majik’s idea was pure pleasure.
Q: How, exactly, are you using Bitwig at the moment?
A: At the moment I’m using it purely for production. I’m about to use it for live performance with Novation equipment starting next year, switching from Ableton.
Q: How, would you say, does Bitwig help you integrate the different aspects of your work – from live performances to your studio productions? What makes it particularly useful for you? (only production)
A: Ever since I was introduced to Bitwig I was attracted to it, seeing as it’s a perfect blend of Ableton and other DAWs like Logic or Cubase. I used to be an avid Cubase enthusiast and worked in Ableton occasionally for studio mixes, so it’s exactly what I’ve been looking to switch over to.
To start with, I’m a big hater of exporting, importing and browsing through folders. The fact that I can click on a MIDI clip on an instrument track and turn it into an audio clip by turning the channel into a hybrid track was the first thing that made my jaw drop. I can have both MIDI and audio on one channel. This thing alone has made my production process 80% more fluid compared to last year. No more setting allocators, no more exporting and then looking for the project to import back. All in just one “bounce in place” click.
Another great thing is the “stretch HD” algorithm with manual onsets. I can write a track in 150 BPM and after I nearly finish - decide to actually change its tempo in Bitwig to 140 BPM. It would take about 2 seconds and the track would have barely any artifacts or accidental looping audible on either individual clip.
The “Note FX” and “FX” linking features are next level. For instance, you can actually link attributes of two separate plugins, so that, say, the velocity at which you strike a pluck in an instrument will be macroed to the ‘dry/wet’ knob of a reverb plugin that’s lying on top of it. Or it could control the cutoff of another synth. Just last hour I made a chain where was able to control the speed of the delay effect on top of a Serum pluck along with the pluck’s pitch depending on how hard I press the key. The possibilities are literally endless.
Q: Using one of your recent productions as a point of departure, can you describe how you're using the software with regards to particular aspects of your production process?
A: Instead of a recent production - let’s start with a new template. I mentioned it earlier and it serves as my ‘starter track’. I begin with the drums. Luckily here I’m halfway in the process of finishing up my branded sample pack filled with drums that I’ve synthesised using Bitwig’s E-kick, Massive and E-snare for the ‘meat’ frequencies and the Yamaha’s Nektar library for transients. I use the Sampler to change the pitch or decay of each impact or tail. Quite a lot of EQing, distortion and compression goes into this as well. Once ready, I put them into a Drum Machine which then goes into a ‘DRUMS’ Group Track.
There are more groups - BASSES, SYNTHS, SNIPPETS, VOCALS and EFFECTS are typically what my projects consist of. Each one with its separate Dynamics sidechain linked to the Drum Machine and a Peak Limiter to make sure nothing is clipping. At this point whatever I import into the BASSES group, will be neatly compressed and sidechained with the drums. I do the same to the other groups, some of which already consist of Polysynth and other external VST instruments with patches loaded up ready to go. This template system helps me to get to work as soon as I get a sudden idea and want to implement it into music, and Bitwig did a great job on that.
The good thing about Hybrid Tracks is not only the MIDI + audio aspect, but also that you can have a lot of different sounding results on one channel. Let’s say I have a set of Massive presets ready, each one of them being a different bass impact or growl, and you’re making a complex electro house track. I import Massive into my BASSES group and set a note in the MIDI sequencer. I bounce in place. I change the preset and the note or chord, bounce again. I do it 3 more times and end up with 5 different sounding basses/synths sitting next to each other with Massive running, ready to create more. After a couple of minutes and a couple of dozen audio snippets I decide to import them all into a Drum Machine, colour it silver and call it the “Bass Machine” where each key on my MIDI controller corresponds to a different F-minor bass stab, chord or a squeak. I throw in some Freq Shifter, tune it to 43Hz and the fun begins.
Q: Do you have some useful tips and tricks to share with our readers on how they can get the most out of the software?
A: The fun thing about the DAW is that you don’t really need to know many tricks to make it work. Its seamless work flow and great design should make any Ableton or even Logic user be able to immediately dive in. But OK, here’s one: want to create a riser using a 50 millisecond voice snippet saying ‘ah’? Wait no more. Import it, using Stretch HD stretch it to 4-bars, bounce-in-place, for the upwards pitch glide automate the pitch - which is another gamechanger feature - add Rotary, add Reverb, turn the Mix all the way up. Done, in 15 clicks, I counted.