Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Motor City Drum Ensemble: Studio Talk

Motor City Drum Ensemble isn't just a name. Danilo Plessow's moniker is quite literal. The young Cologne-based house producer has amassed of all but one of Roland's TR- drum machine series (he recently sold his 808), and counts units from Emu, Novation, Korg, Casio and Veromona among his collection. It could be argued, though, that Plessow is most famed not for drums but for his judicious use of samples. The Raw Cuts series, of which there were six tracks spread over three 12-inches, made ingenious use of weathered soul, jazz and funk records, lifting everything from whole bars to single hits to create a collection of modern house classics. With this in mind, you may find it surprising that Plessow also possesses an enviable array of analogue synths. But as I found out when I called him up late last month, he’s about ready to draw a line under his sample-based exploits (for now at least) and dive deep into the world of synthesis and experimentation.

I understand you started out playing the drums. When was this?

When I was either six or seven years old. The lucky thing with my family is that I had three brothers and everybody had to play an instrument, but my parents didn't force us into playing a specific thing. I just fell in love with the drums. I mean, as a kid, this big, loud instrument...

Were you playing all throughout your childhood?

Yes. I played for ten years almost, and then—actually it's a little bit of a funny and a sad thing at the same time—I sold my drum kit to get my first professional monitors, my first Genelecs. I'm in this phase right now where I want to have drums again, so I'm seriously considering buying a drum set again.

What else did your first set-up comprise of?

I got a really cheap sequencer as an Easter gift from one of my uncles. It was back in the '90s when you had advertisements on the television like, "Be your own musician, be your own producer," stuff like this. So it was Magix Music Maker, a really cheap, super-boring sequencer, but the good thing about this program was that there were a couple of other things like eJay and cheap '90s sequencers, but Magix was just a stripped-down version of Samplitude. So, actually it was good software. It's just you shouldn't ever use the samples that come with it, you know? But you could put any sample in there, so it was basically just a super-cheap arranger.

And what sort of samples were you feeding into it?

At first I ripped everything I could get hold of. So in the beginning, like when I was still 11 or 12, it would be some CDs I bought. Or some jazz CD from my brother's collection. Even my training CDs I got off my drum teacher, with just drums. Then as I got a little older, I realised through magazines and everything that the whole culture is based on DJs and vinyl. I would go to the local record store and start buying vinyl to sample.

Was that the point at which you began to take things more seriously?
Yeah, I didn't really discover the DJ culture...for me, it was more the production. In my city where I grew up [Schwäbisch Gmünd], there was no nightclub, there was no scene whatsoever. There was a record store and some magazines like Groove or De:Bug that you read, but for me it was really more about trying to be like DJ Shadow, or trying to sound like Nightmares On Wax back then. This hip-hop, sample, abstract beats kind of thing. Imitating the heroes that I had back then.
I had a partner [Joachim Tobias] and we did music together [as Inverse Cinematics], and through a mutual friend we got in contact with a record label from Stuttgart. We just gave them like four or five CDs full of tracks, and from all of those they liked one track and wanted to put it on a compilation. So, actually that was the first release. That was 2000 or 2001 I think.
Shortly after I was super-motivated also because the guys took me to a nightclub. It was the first time I was exposed to DJ culture and how records work, and what makes a record a dance floor record. Before I would always try to fit in as much as possible in one track. But then I realised, "OK, maybe it's good to just strip it down, because that works on the dance floor."

As always with most of my tracks, the work on "Monorail" started afI wanted to discuss your "drum ensemble":

What was the first drum machine you picked up?

It was a TR-626. It's like a really cheapish ROM kind of thing, but it has the classical—like the 505—Chicago bass drum and claps, so you got the feeling of the 707 for cheap.

And now you have most of the TR series, right?

Yeah, at one point I had them all, but I sold the 808.

Are there particular tasks you turn to each of them for?

Yeah, sure. The 909 is still the mainstay. I mean I sold the 808 because it didn't have MIDI and I couldn't do...like, I used the 909's trigger-out a lot with arpeggios on the Juno, and MIDI—the whole sequencer on the 909—is just the perfect sequencer for any drum machine. So, you can also control other synths with MIDI, and I use that a lot, because you can have the swing of the 909, which is also super-sexy, I think. I also love the 606 for the hi-hats. But yeah, I pretty much try to use all of them and modulate them. Everybody's using a 909 and has been for ages, but there are still ways you can make it sound different.

What are some of those ways?

Put it through a vocoder. Or put it through some compressors. A lot of people wrote to me on Facebook, "How do I make it sound that raw?"—they even have a 909, but they just can't get these really kind of crazy claps or whatever. It's just triggering them through really cheap compressors or even recording it onto tape. There are lots of different things [you can do] to make it sound even more gritty.

How much use do you get out of the other drum machines in your collection?

There's some I really like, for example, the Drumulator from Emu. It's like a cheap LinnDrum, but it sounds pretty near. So, I use the claps quite often, and then there's this strange little piece of DDR history called Vermona DRM, which is also super funny and sounds very unusual, I think.

In what sort of way?

It just doesn't have the punch of the Roland drums, you know? Like, the kick drum sounds like a fart, more or less. [laughs]

Would you be layering it with other sounds then?

Yes, actually I still try to find a way to sync everything, so I can just work with all drum machines together. But it's super hard. Schneiders Buero has this Clockwork thing, and I tried that, but even this is not 100% accurate. So, I think it's a dream if everything would just work like I wanted it to.
I wanted to move on and talk about jazz, because I know it's been a huge influence for you. Are you still sampling a lot of jazz records these days?

I mean with MCDE there are two [methods] (or there used to be). I don't know if I'm gonna carry it on. The Raw Cutsseries is entirely sample-based, only vinyl rips and then straight into Cubase. Then there's the more electronic stuff where I use all the synths and stuff. So, for the more sampled aesthetic, it's still very much dependent on me buying records regularly. I'm still very much into that.

So you're saying with Raw Cuts absolutely everything would have been sampled?

No, I use drum machines on those as well, but no synths. All the musical stuff is completely sampled.

Are you able to name some of the samples you used?

Well, the very first Raw Cuts record, number two, which I'm actually a little bit ashamed about, is really just a re-edit of Frankie Hooker & Positive People ["This Feelin'"]. That's the only one that is like, really depending on a sample and not just flipping it in a clever way. But with the others, I was really focussed on not using a sample with a bass drum underneath and calling it my own track. I wanted to do something more creative with it. So...actually I don't really want to reveal the samples. I'm really surprised sometimes when people can hear something that is like, really small, and they come to me and they tell me "Hey, that's from that record!"—I'm like, "Wow."

Are you usually looking to sample bar-long sections? Single hits?

I take everything, you know? I mean, it can be anything from a micro-second shaker sample to eight bars. It just depends if it's in the right mood, or if I can imagine doing something with it. And what I also do is like, every two weeks I go through all the records I bought in that time and record every passage that I like. So I have a really, really huge sample library of my own collection.

In what ways would you manipulate these samples?

One thing that I did very often with the Raw Cuts was just pitching samples completely down or up. As far as an octave or even more, especially with like Fender Rhodes shots, or double: if it's just a single tone, play chords with it—and because it's a sample you have different kind of durations of it when you play it pitched. I don't time-stretch it, I just leave it as it is. You have a nice kind of artifact when you play it.
It sounds like, from the interviews I've read before, that you have a clear feeling—or harmonies—in mind that you're continually looking to achieve.
I'm not a trained pianist. I'm definitely going to at some point take piano lessons. In the future I just want to be able to directly achieve what I have in mind. To this day, it's still very much trial and error. I mean, I know harmonies, I know chords, but I can't play. Like, I can't solo or anything without playing some wrong keys. So what happens is I take half an hour to play the exact notes I want to play, and then I can play, you know? But I'm not very good at improvising.

With chords, it's a different situation. I know pretty much what I want to have, what harmonies, and usually it's a little bit more complex, minor seven, whatever chord. It's not just basic minor/major chords. At the same time, I also go away from all music theories. Like, you have your music scales book next to you, and you just ignore it and press keys that are not supposed to work together, and it can turn out really well. So sometimes it's good to just ignore music knowledge or whatever you want to call it.

Would you say that you're actively trying to capture the feel of some of your favourite recordings from the '60s and '70s?

Yes, definitely. Not only in aesthetics—I mean, that's my major goal—but also to capture the essence of what made these records sound so special. Meaning, I want to record straight onto tape, I want to have musicians over and just capture everything. I've also been investing in a lot of analogue stuff, or Fender Rhodes pianos, string ensembles, stuff like this. To just be able to, if I wanted to, make a jam session and directly record it onto tape and have that feeling.

Are there things you do in post-production to achieve more of a vintage sound?

The big problem I have is, nowadays, everybody's doing so much "post-everything," you know? Like you only do a MIDI bar and you do everything in Cubase or in the sequencer. There's no direct, raw live energy to it. I much prefer to do something that is definite and you can't touch it anymore. When it comes to post-production in the sense of mixing, compressors and everything, I have to admit that I'm not the best at that. I haven't gone into this much so far, but it's definitely something I want to learn or work with.

Is this something you're doing yourself: the engineering side of things?

Yeah, sure but with the Raw Cuts, it's just a very "blue-eyed" approach and that's what makes part of the magic, I think. Not knowing what it needs to sound completely clean and perfect. Ignoring certain red bars or whatever.

Let's talk about synths a little bit. You said before that the DX7 is your main source for your typical MCDE chord sounds?

Yes, it's still one of my favourite synths, that's for sure. I mean, the thing is, I talked with Floating Points about this recently and we agreed on one thing: now that we tour a lot, you buy a lot of gear but you have very little time to actually use it. So, the DX7 is something you can hear on a lot of records that I did a couple of years ago, or even last year. But by now when I'm in the studio, I have so much more than I'm using that currently it gets a little less love. But it's still, for the price, just an amazing synth. It sounds like nothing else and it's capable of all sorts of stuff. Just by accident you re-create some of the early '80s house sounds and you're like, "Wow, that's what they used."

Did it take some time to figur
e it out? FM is obviously a different way of doing things.

I mean, I still can't program a patch from scratch. So what I do is edit some of the patches I have. But what I restrict myself to is to not just upload anything from the Internet but really try to work with the few patches that are on there. I mean, once you understand the basics it's not super, super complex. There are a lot of parameters to it, and the interface is really shit, but it's like this with every '80s synth.

What others synths do you lean on heavily?

The thing with me is I always trade stuff, so I don't really have any one constant. The only constant that I could think of as well, would be the Matrix 6 from Oberheim.

Do you find yourself using particular synths for particular parts, though?

Yes, definitely. Like speaking about Monorail, and a lot of my other basslines, they come from a [Roland] MC-202, which is basically the SH-101 with a sequencer. And the DX7, obviously. And nowadays a lot of the sounds I work with are from a [Sequential Circuits] Prophet VS, which is like a vector synth, with the same filter as the Prophet 5, I think. So it's actually kind of the thing why I don't use the DX7 so much at the moment—this little beast.

And you also own a Doepfer Modular System: do you have much of a knowledge of modular synthesis?

I don't have that much, but I mean, when you have a Juno and you understand the basic layout of how you connect, or how the VCO works with the VCF, with the VCA and everything, it's the same on your modular. You just need to patch it yourself. So I use it. But the thing with the Doepfer is that it sounds really, really clinically clean. It's a very techno-sounding synth. I definitely use it right now, but nothing I've made with it has been released yet.

Do you think in general modular synths lend themselves to house music?

Yeah, it depends. Usually the people using modulars are more into techno, or more abstract kind of stuff. Also when I go through message boards, or when I buy stuff from people, [you'll see that the] big modular[s] are [owned by] the more scientist kind of producers. And I can understand it, but at the same time, it really takes time to actually come up with something cool with a modular synth, especially if you have a really big system. With the Doepfer it's still limited—it's only got two oscillators and two filters, so it's not super-complex—but with a big system you definitely spend hours and you will never be able to re-create anything, so...

Are you someone who likes to get ideas and sounds down very quickly?

Not necessarily. If I have the comfort of just jamming around, then I'd definitely take the time to test new things and also work a lot with the modular, or with the more complex synths. The DX7 takes a huge amount of time if you really want to program stuff.

If you have a whole day to work in the studio, how might you structure your session?

If there's something I have to do, like a remix or any kind of thing that needs to be done, then I'd rather have a quicker approach to it. Or a more productive approach to it, like starting with a bass drum and then building around it. But if it's something for myself, and I have the time and comfort, then I just also like go to the Fender Rhodes and test harmonies before I do anything with drums. So, it's really a time question.

Usually when I have the chords and the Fender, I then lay them down MIDI-wise, put them on one of my synths, and then try to find a cool sound on the synth. And then just go through the drum machines and see what fits and build up from there. I may also put some samples and go through the sample library, see what fits. There's no real, 100% same approach all the time. I like to jam as well.

How has touring affected your approach?

I decided to not do anything of my own until I have time to really think of how I can push things forward and not just repeat myself. So with the remixes it was the perfect thing, because in one way you are restricted to actually do something—there is already an idea. So you're bound to that idea, and at the same time you can just experiment, because one of your own records is always a statement that's going to be in people's minds.

Were there particular methods or sounds you are keen not to repeat?

Yeah, definitely. I'm not going to do Raw Cuts seven and eight, or nine and ten, or just stick to a cheap formula to generate money or interest. When you do this, you will be forgotten so soon; you're just a one-trick pony.

Monday, 30 May 2011

5 Magazine Review: Tomson ft. Diamondancer - Tap The Core

Something I rarely hear mentioned when lamenting the rise of 320 kilobits per second and the demise of the record store, the ruin of vinyl and everything that's gone with it is how easy it is now for a sound to crosspollinate. Once upon a time, you could work in isolation for years without knowing really if anyone liked or even cared what you were up to. A story told to me by Mike Dunn mentioned that Armando Gallop knew he was being cheated by a record label because he worked in a store and saw how many units were being moved (the implication here: that those who didn't have that kind of access had no idea).

Out of all those names who made a just a small handful of records on Trax, DJ International and the like: how many gave up just because they figured (wrongly) that they weren't getting anywhere?

So one of the most powerful benefits of this era is that kindred spirits can connect and even collaborate without existing for one solitary second in the same time zone. Take for example this release from label co-owner Tomson on his Development Music imprint. It's a collaboration with Diamondancer, a poet from Detroit that's been featured on labels from Still Music to Sonar Kollectiv, and featuring Mixmode's Delano Smith (another Detroit product), mixing with UK fellas Eddie Leader, At One and of course Tomson himself. Couldn't happen back in the day - and it's often a disaster when it happens even now - but works like a charm here, gathering an impressive braintrust of beat technicians for this deep and techy five track release.

The original mix is a storm of erupting chords, which go well with the rough spoken-word style vocal from Diamondancer. Delano Smith's remix has that hard, straight-ahead edge you naturally associate with his productions. In particular, I liked the stuttering organ effect, which plays well with the bass line (I thought it'd work on my last nerve after about 20 seconds; after about two minutes, I'd grown to love it.)

Leader & Yuriano's Remix is the most melodic of the package - it's kind of amazing how close Eddie can get to an "authentic" Chicago Deep House sound, which so many folks that grew up on the stuff from afar confuse with a kind of audio Sominex. The drums are really live here; the swirling keys worthy of a Larry Heard production. Finally there's At One, whose production is in the slower, trippier and dreamy fashion. I like the vocal mix better, but I suspect the Dub will find favor with DJs due to it being so easy to mix in and out of. It's sort of the perfect "bookend" track, which makes it a nice way to wrap up this release.

[ - Review by Terry Matthew / May 2011 - ]

Available: Digitally from Traxsource or Juno Download.

Tomson ft. Diamondancer: Tap The Core EP

Tomson ft. Diamondancer - Tap the Core (inc Delano Smith, Eddie Leader & At One remixes) by Development Manchester

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Resident Advisors Tips: On increasing Listenership

Anyone can make a record these days. The costs of buying the gear required are lower with each passing year. Whereas the content bundled with any of the major DAWs would, 20 years ago, have run to several thousand pounds, a few hundred can now buy you a set-up capable of releasable results.

But there's the rub. With more people taking advantage of the falling cost of gear and creating high-quality records, it's what you do with your finished product which is all-important. Towards the end of last year, I attended a seminar organized by a group of music organizations in the UK at London's Metropolis Studios which covered all kinds of topics, from rights of artists to advice on self-release. The standout quote for me came from producer Tommy D who said that, for a record to be successful, equal time needed to be dedicated to creativity, marketing and "business." The final slice of the pie covers balancing the books of a release but this got me thinking—how many of us actually only spend a third of our lives making records and dedicate twice as much time to marketing and business?

Not many, I'd guess. Through the early years of a producer's life, simply achieving the required standard is the be- and end-all and it's easy to get trapped into the pattern of only working to improve your skills. However, for those who do rise to the required standard, it can take a real mental shift to accept that the work is good and that the hard yards now need to be dedicated to furthering the possible outlets for your tracks. It can be daunting enough just figuring out where to start.

Obviously, the avenues vary depending on what sorts of tracks you're creating but it's fair to say that some clever marketing, or what I call "creative entrepreneurialism" will be essential if you want to get your records heard. But the truth is there have never been so many opportunities for new music, no matter what state the major labels might be in. For starters, there is a healthy independent label scene and, of course, it's relatively inexpensive now to self-release. Couple this to the fact that digital radio, cable TV and web-only channels are available for makers of high-quality product in ever-increasing numbers and it's not hard to begin to see where opportunities might lie.

What always surprises me is how frequently musicians fail to take onboard how other artists entered their own consciousness, as they begin the process of raising their own profiles. A good place to start is to write a list of five artists and then try to remember how you first heard their work. For the older generation, this will no doubt extend to radio or TV campaigns but for the younger crowd, it's likely to include content discovered online.

What was it about that content which piqued your interest? Doubtless the quality of the records but what else? A quirky video? An off-the-wall photo shoot? A carefully created and regularly updated fan page on Facebook? A Twitter campaign? Perhaps being invited to join a mailing list at a gig that you went to and which stayed in your mind through the next few days?

Next, work out what you'd (realistically) love your favourite artists to do to reward you as a fan. Obviously, they're unlikely to come and play a gig in your living room but imagine receiving an email, the morning after a gig, thanking you for attending and attaching a free live recording of a track played that night. Or maybe receiving a free track having signed up to their website newsletter. Perhaps you'd enjoy participating in a remix competition where the parts for a track by the artists were distributed, with the winner securing a B-side release on the next single. Simply opening dialogue with your fanbase is a major winner. These are but a few suggestions but they're ones we could all offer our fans and, in the context of playing a few live gigs to build a following of even 10 people, could lead to an exponential growth in popularity. How you approach the marketplace requires as much of your creativity as your time making records does and, if you can find a direction which rewards fans while offering a memorable user experience, your exposure will grow accordingly.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

This Weekends Activities

Warm & Electric Mind Present: Love Box The Warm Up @ Rivington Studios, Friday 27th.

Line Up

Room 1:
John Roberts
Tornado Wallace

Room 2

Tim Sweeney

Time: 11:30pm - 6:00am
Venue: Rivington studios, 1 Rivington street, EC2A 3DT
Cost: £10 - £20

Muak with Spen & Karizma @ EGG, Saturday 28th.

Line Up

DJ Spen
Nacho Marco
Toni S
Sol Brown
Johnny Kaz

Time: 10:00pm - 11:00am
Venue: Egg, 200 York Way, Kingscross N1.
Cost: £15 - £17

DeepCover, Fanatix + Assumption present the Studio PT 2 @ A Secret Location, Saturday 28th.

Line Up

Neil Pierce
Sy Sez
Simon Boi
John May
+Special Guests

Time: 9:30pm - 6:00am
Venue: TBA
Cost: Ticket Only £12

Buzzin' Fly Bank Holiday @ The Nest, Sunday 29th.

Line Up


Time: 9:00pm - 5:00am
Cost: DOOR £10

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

An Interview with Jimpster aka Jamie Odell

Jamie Odell, aka Jimpster and more specifically his labelFreerange has been a staple diet of most House-of-the-deeper-persuasion fans over the last decade… and then some.

He pretty much needs no introduction so I’ll spare you the chit-chat and allow you to indulge, with us, in five minutes of talking the Soap Awards, Freerange and being Dad with Jimpster.

Hi Jamie, where are you sitting right now?

Right now, I’m in my front room with the Soap Awards on the telly trying not to get sucked in by the hideousness of it all. It’s quite compelling in a car crash kind of way.

Tell us about the early days of Freerange, around 1996 right? What do you remember of the scene and setting up the label?

Yeah, we started the label in 1996 while I was at university in Salford and my partner Tom was studying in Luton. We had come through the rave scene in the early 90s then got more into the deeper Techno and House of labels like DJAX, Warp, Strictly Rhythm and Nervous. After going to Salford I got a lot more into Jazz, Fusion and also the emerging Trip-Hop and Drum ‘n’ Bass on Mowax, Ninjatune etc. Being in a very musical city like Manchester was amazing and I was gigging a lot in Jazz and Funk bands and meeting good musicians whilst making tracks on my own at home. Fat City record shop and label was very influential at the time as well as an amazing club called the New Ardri, which hosted a party called Herbal Tea Party where I went regularly around 1996 to hear the likes of Weatherall, Justin Robertson and the Dust Brothers as the Chemicals were then known. Basically, the scene was really wide open with a lot of different styles of music as well as subcultures all sitting very well alongside each other.

It’s obviously a vast amount of time to cover between then and now, but as an overview how has the label evolved in your eyes? Has there been a natural evolution through different sounds?

I think you could say that for the first five or six years we were a lot more eclectic and less club orientated but gradually and naturally we started finding our niche in the deeper end of House music. There was a couple of important releases on the way such as Switch’s ‘Get Ya Dub On’ that threw in a curveball and also helped establish us with a much wider audience and a different set of far more established club DJs.

It’s fair to say Freerange is up there with some of the best labels in the UK, if not the World. Has it’s success correlated to the rise of Deep House as a genre?

Thanks very much for saying so! Yeah I guess it has definitely helped us that the deeper end of House has become increasingly popular over the last 5-10 years.

From a personal point of view, how do you manage your tour schedule, producing and running a label? Must be a pretty heavy workload!

Well, the tricky thing is trying to be a good Dad to two young boys too, but I’m really lucky in that my partner Tom manages my label work very well and we also have Matt Masters helping us run stuff day to day. I only really gig at weekends rather than go away for weeks at a time and I actually manage to get quite a lot of basic ideas for tracks sorted whilst I’m travelling, but i wouldn’t be able to manage without a very understanding wife and my best mate Tom.

What I think people love about the label, is it’s loyalty, almost a familiarity with specific artists associated with Freerange - Shur-i-kan, Manuel Tur, Milton Jackson and more recently Tony Lionni. Even though they’ve got other things going on there a strong relationship. Is that something you’ve always tried to reciprocate when working with others? Seems quite a personal touch?

We definitely like to try and build lasting relationships with producers yeah, but I’m not sure it’s too different to how any other label operates. Inevitably, when you’re working on LP’s for example you go through quite a long process and potentially a lot of back and forth that can sometimes get quite stressful, so it’s important that mutual respect is there and there is good communication between the label and artist. We’ve been lucky in that pretty much everyone has been a pleasure to work with and we’ve gone onto become good friends, as well as getting to regularly play together at gigs, which is always good fun.

Your own productions tend to be fairly rare but strong. Is that a conscious decision to release quality not quantity or does time just not allow you to get in the studio that often?

I only get about one full day in the studio every week at the moment, so time is quite tight. I’m also a really slow worker when it comes to my own original productions but I don’t stress too much about it because I do prefer to have fewer releases, rather than releasing too much and people getting really bored of it.

Must be time for another album soon?!

Yeah, actually I have quite a lot of ideas coming together which might start to take form of an LP next year perhaps. Need to see how things progress with it over the course of this year.

With Freerange topping 15 this year, where do you take it from now? What are your plans for the future label-wise?

We’ve never had a master plan as such, so just continue to release the best possible electronic music that we can from some of our favourite producers. This will include a brilliant LP from Manuel Tur much later in the year or early next year and EP’s from Andre Lodemann, Alexkid, Mic Newman, Bas Amro and Lovebirds. These releases include remixes from Radioslave, Iron Curtis, Vincenzo, Bassfort and San Soda.

What have you got coming up in the next few months you can fill us in about?

Personally, I’ve been making a few remixes recently for Vincenzo, Kollektiv Turmstrasse and Youandewan. Nearly finished a new Jimpster EP too, although that wont be out until after summer now. Got quite a busy run of gigs over the next month or so taking in Mexico City, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Madrid and of course, Manchester, which I always enjoy playing having lived there for so long.