I hear that Logic is your main DAW? Have you been a long time user?
Yes, I've been with it since Notator on Atari. I had Cubase as well and I understood it better back then because of the blocks, which were a lot easier for electronic producers. Notator was more complex. But I was just a DJ and there was a local studio to me which was professional and had many big bands recording there and they used Notator. I then used it too. But, I'm glad it happened as it made me understand the more complex side of sequencing. So, from that I stuck with Notator and when Macs were born I went on with it and luckily Apple bought it and I've been in a very happy place since.
It's interesting to hear as there are a minority of ex-Logic users who were concerned when Apple bought Logic from Emagic. They often say things like, 'Emagic was more responsive with updates and user feedback.' You've been happy with the transition?
In the beginning when Apple bought Logic I honestly don't think they knew what to do with it. They kept it ticking over. My opinion is that for Mac OS X they needed a photo app, movie app and music app. I feel they squeezed GarageBand from Logic for the music app. Though they did some work on Logic, it wasn't really worked on much. But, perhaps they realized there's a massive cult following of Logic users. And you must've noticed it, since Logic X there's been frequent updates and it's as if they are taking care of it with a dedicated, passionate team onboard. I feel like Apple are listening to the forums and implementing a lot of new features.
There was a time I wobbled a bit on Logic 9 when it didn't seem to be moving on with the features we wanted. Then Logic Pro X came and bang, the cracking update keeps all the moaners quiet!
"Then Logic Pro X came and bang, the cracking update keeps all the moaners quiet!"
I'm thankful to you guys at AskAudio Mag and macProVideo.com! I work alone in the studio, and when you get stuck with something in Logic you go to your site and watch the macProVideo tutorials. There's always some form of help there. You guys are dedicating the time and energy to solving and helping people and that's what I love about it!
Thanks! It's our aim to give something back to the music community.
This has made the world of difference to me because I used to pay someone to come to my studio to take a few hours just fixing stuff. I just wanted to make music and wasn't a computer guru or very good with the software. Now, I don't have to do that. I've become a specialist because of you!
Ah. Cool! Thanks John. Are there any features in Logic Pro X you use a lot?
You know, I'm not one of these people that when there's a new feature I instantly jump on it. I just want the whole mechanics of Logic to work as it should do. Little things like how it uses the Mac's processors are important. I have an 8-core Mac in the studio and in Logic 9 one core would peak and it wouldn't access the others sometimes. It still happens a little bit today, but it's much better. Beforehand you were almost forced to buy the latest Macs with the latest processors just to get the sequencer to work well. They seem to be fixing that with Logic Pro X. There are some great features like Flex Time which was a godsend when it arrived. Something like Drummer is a candy gimmick for me, which all the press talks about, but in reality it's not something I'm going to use. I like the new Retro Synth which I've been using quite a lot.
Did you do your recent album, JOOF Editions, in Logic, or did you use other software?
Because it's a DJ mix album I used Ableton Live. I know Live inside out and I think it's the best tool for mixing and DJing tracks. I know you can do it in Logic, but because I've been using Ableton since it was launched and I've got all my tracks warped: literally thousands and thousands of tracks! In Ableton, I set up warp markers for my tracks just by looking at the waveform.
Are you interested in Bitwig Studio?
I haven't seen it in the flesh, just caught somethings about it in magazine articles. It does look interesting.
Tell us a little about your background and how you got into DJing and music production.
I was about 15 in the mid '80s. Back then DJ culture was very different to now. A DJ was just a guy in the corner of the room who played the music in a club. There was no glamour to it at all. The only ones that used to get any form of fame were the radio DJs. Everyone listened to radio back then. They used to come into a club, walk around, sign autographs and not really do any DJing. They were the celebrity stars that came in for the evening.
When I was at school, in my lunch break I used to go buy records while all my mates would be playing football or rugby. So, I was the geek walking in with all these records which they'd associate with their mum and dad. I was almost like the weirdo. My headmaster clocked on to it and he wanted to put a 'Disco' event on for the under-18s. He got together with the music teacher and they asked me if I wanted to play my records at the disco. It was on a Thursday evening and finished at 9 p.m.! It was a huge success and I carried on doing it every week. From then the club asked me to play the big boys nights on Fridays and Saturdays despite being underage!
What gear were you using back then?
They had Technics turntables with a digital control button which you had to press constantly to try and keep the speed the same as the other track. With vinyl, the speeds move around so it was an absolute nightmare. Plus none told me what to do, so I was winging it for the first few times. Then I just naturally clicked and released the beats were all over the place and I became obsessed with trying to get the beats to go together. That was my first adventure into holding the beats together, which I just figured out would make the mix a lot smoother. It's weird how I taught myself to do it.
So you didn't get outside help or tuition?
Not really. I remember one obscure thing: today you count in the bars 1, 2, 3, 4. But I didn't know any of that because I wasn't making music. So, through my really horrible headphones, the defining mid-range sound was the clap. So, I'd actually match it up on the 2nd beat. [Laughs].
That's pretty cool! Do you still use that technique ever?
Oh no! I changed to beat 1, when I got some good turntables and a decent set of headphones. I don't know if someone told me or if it clicked to go on the first beat which is much easier.
DJing techniques and skills have changed with technology. Where do you sit on the hole vinyl vs. digital debate?
I think vinyl vs. digital is just a romantic story that vinyl lovers tend to hold on to. There's always the same argument, 'it sounds much warmer.' To me, it just sounds more boomy in a club. I don't think they know the meaning of warm. Vinyl is a brutal way of playing audio. There's a pin which sticks on a bit of plastic which is moving around and it's picking up vibrations to play the actual sound. Over time that plastic is going to wear when you have a dirty, big, sharp pin. In clubs, no one set up the turntables properly, so people would stick coins to the top of the pin which would make it really heavy, so it's really scraping on your vinyl. Effectively, what's happening is it's scraping away the top end which gets lost from the record and it's also picking up the vibrations of the sound system. That's what they call warmth. To compensate for this, in any club the EQ setting would have a big shelf at the high-end to push up the high-end which was lost and it would cut the bottom end slightly.
"I think vinyl vs. digital is just a romantic story that vinyl lovers tend to hold on to."
Then there was the change-over moment with CDs. I was one of the first to embrace CDs and it had more of a pure sound. The levels were perfect, so playing the CDs on the same settings as vinyl would push the highs too much and cut the lows, so CDs would sound really thin and brittle on that same setting. That's where the myth came from.
A big changing point was when I was playing at Ministry of Sound. They're tech savvy and they care for sound, hence the name. The sound guy would work with me because he knew I was playing CDs. He went and adjusted the sound for my set. Then at the end of the set he gave me a pin number and that was the pin number I used whenever I went back there to reset the sound system for my playing CDs. It was such a smart move! A lot of other clubs began embracing that system, like Godskitchen, Gatecrasher, and others around the world. I think that was the time when DJs realized that CDs don't sound thin and brittle, but they actually sound bloody good when the sound system was set up accordingly.
I didn't know about the pin number idea. A bit like going to a bank to withdraw money, but better!
It is. It's people that care about sound and understand it. They understand what vinyl is doing. The stylus on vinyl decks is basically a microphone. If you play the empty bit of a record and shout into the stylus it'll record it. So, if you have a big sound system the stylus also picks it up.
"The stylus on vinyl decks is basically a microphone. If you play the empty bit of a record and shout into the stylus it'll record it."
I'm getting that you do have a soft spot for vinyl though?
Of course, and I understand the feeling for vinyl. I must have about 30,000 vinyl records in my garage. Each one I pull out, the cover tells a story about a club somewhere around the world. But, you've got to move on. I think technology has helped me play a lot better. I'm a thousand times more organized with my playlists in the digital domain. You can do more technical tricks. You can remix tracks on the fly and re-edit tracks as you're playing. Say you've got tracks with breakdowns and while you're playing to a crowd they're sucking the energy out of the room, I can recreate the tracks without the breakdowns. I can still play the tracks I want and either lose the breakdown or put it over the top of a loop, so the set is unique to me. People will hear the same track but in a completely different way.
So you're essentially producing a mix live.
Completely. It allows me to read the dance floor and adapt what I'm doing to how people are reacting. Before we were restricted by musical tools.
He's at home on the decks!
What gear do you use at the moment?
I'm a product developer for Pioneer. I'm not mentioning their name because I do this, but I actually hounded them for years in order to get them to make the equipment that I needed. I jumped on CDs ahead of the time. I needed more. My relationship happened with Pioneer because the other companies just ignored me and didn't understand what I wanted, and Pioneer get it.
"When you're on autopilot you're just sitting there pressing buttons, but when you're on manual mode you can get hold of the controls and go crazy in there."
I prefer hands-on DJing. I feel uncomfortable about DJing from a laptop. From a fans point of view if you're watching your favorite band play, if the band members are standing on stage and all you can see is the back of a MacBook Pro, it's not the same as seeing the guitarist jumping around. I think for a DJ you've got two turntables and you're doing the action in the middle. For me I need to be hands on. A good analogy would be a pilot flying a plane. When you're on autopilot you're just sitting there pressing buttons, but when you're on manual mode you can get hold of the controls and go crazy in there. Being hands on, you can feel what the plane is doing. That's what I feel like with a turntable and a mixer.
Cool. I might ask you not be the pilot on my next flight, if you're going to get crazy with the controls!
Yes, it'd be really scary!
What direction do you see the future of DJ tech going in? Especially now that iPads and gesture control hardware are bringing DJs away from behind their laptops.
I think there's going to be mixers. Pressing buttons isn't an easy way to mix. You need more controls. I think Pioneer were very smart and have become the industry standard for DJ mixers now. Whatever someone is playing at home, the dream is to play in big gigs and events. Eventually, you'll look at what the pros are using and you'll want to start using the same tools when performing out. I think these other iPad apps and controllers are a good, cost-effective way to practice DJing at home. Most people can't afford to buy the top brands mixer, effects unit and two decks which could set you back £4,000 GBP (about $7-8,000). Most people have got iPads, laptops, so it's easier to get a controller and practice at home that way. I see these as important and useful tools.
Back to your music. You've been called 'one of the pioneers in the dance music scene'… are you ok listening to positive quotes about yourself?
No. I get uncomfortable. I'm not one of those DJs that likes the accolades… and I tend to shy away from the press. I don't want to be a superstar. I don't want to be a pop star or a top 10 DJ. I like doing interviews like this: focusing on the techy stuff though.
Got you. OK. I'll drop the accolades! So, you're still very much part of the underground scene and you consider yourself primarily a DJ. What's your philosophy on focusing on DJing as opposed to production?
The two worlds have kind of merged. Historically, there were always DJs and producers. Now they are both together. When torrent sites and file sharing came about, producers took the hit really hard. They used to earn a lot more than DJs! But, then they had to make a decision: to give up and get a day job or to start DJing. So producers started DJing. I think it's a natural thing for DJs to produce as well. Fatboy Slim is probably the best example.
"There's nothing better than going to gigs and playing the tracks I've spent hours trying to find. I'm just happier behind the decks."
For me, I love DJing more. There's nothing better than going to gigs and playing the tracks I've spent hours trying to find. I'm just happier behind the decks. At the same time, I love producing, too. And DJing gives me the knowledge, the feeling, and the ideas in my head of what works and what doesn't work. If I'm playing live and a certain breakdown works, I'm like a sponge and I remember all these ideas and put it into my own productions as when DJing I see firsthand what's actually working.
That's great to be able to take the ideas back into the studio.
Completely. I've got a long list of producer mates who will finish a track and give it to me to test it out. Then I'll report back to them after playing it. Like the kick might be too heavy or the breakdown would be too long… and then they'll go back and tweak it. So, I can help them as well.
Back to what you were asking about being an underground artist… What I like about producing is I want to be more creative in the studio. With commercial music production, you're almost more restricted to a template for that world and radio stations. Already your creative flow is restricted. Whereas I can go into the studio, grab hold of a synth and spend hours twiddling knobs to see what weird and wonderful sounds I can make. Then I just start making a track from that. That's what I like doing! Also, rather than having to play commercial hits to get the crowd going, I can be more creative within my DJ sets without using those mass-marketed tools.
What's your favorite studio gear and live gear?
I'm using the Pioneer CDJ-2000 Nexus. These take the Nexus to the next level. It has a sync mode which pure DJs may frown upon. But holding tracks together is just a small part of the mixing process. You've got to know when to mix and when to lift the energy up and drop it and there's so many aspects of it. Though I stay in manual mode most of the time, when I use sync mode you can have four decks linked together, so it allows me to be really clever and re-edit tracks on the fly. The Pioneer DJM-900 Nexus Mixer also syncs the BPM info.
I'm kind of boring in the production side. I'm from the old school mentality… when I first started producing with the guy that was using Notator, he had Minimoogs, Prophets, all sorts of stuff. Back in those days, one compressor was really expensive so you had to make a really conscious decision on what to buy. He had a rack of 4 main compressors and the same with EQs. By just sticking with those four, you really got to know the dynamics of every piece of kit, trying to mix something or add brightness without making it brittle… I knew exactly which EQ to reach for because those were the four that I'd learned to use inside out. Today you can easily get trapped into grabbing thousands of EQs if you want. That's what a lot of people are doing today: getting freebies, grabbing plug-ins of torrent sites, and they've got hundreds of EQs. How on earth can you learn about the colors or anything about the tools you've got when you've got so many of them? I really stripped down my plug-ins and I've got 5 or 6 main compressors, the same for EQs and the same for synthesizers. People are shocked when I make tracks with them.
"It's too easy to get tracked into the marketing world where you read reviews or interviews and find out the that Mr X uses a plug-in and you buy it expecting to sound exactly the same as him. It doesn't work that way in the real world."
Like Logic for instance. People don't understand how powerful it is. The Logic compressor is immense, but most people don't dig deeper into the different settings, especially as it emulates so many different types of compressors. I use Logic's compressor quite a lot.
What about the other plug-ins you reach for a lot?
Logic's ES2 is one of my favorite synths. Because my life is pretty much traveling every weekend, I don't use as much outboard gear. With software synths I can work on tracks at 35,000 ft. The ES2 reminds me a little bit of the Virus, and again people don't understand how you can re-route pretty much everything, everywhere in the ES2. Once you start being creative with it you can make some really wonderful and original sounds in the ES2. It's never ending what you can do in there!
I've started reaching for Spectrasonics' Omnisphere. Again, not the sample side so much but as a synthesizer. I was lucky that I got taught on a Minimoog in the early days. You couldn't save presets, you had to get a bit of chalk and mark where everything was. He taught me which knobs to twiddle to make the sounds I wanted. And the synthesizer side of Omnisphere is a complex beast.
Omnisphere is a musical sculpture's paradise!
Completely. I think the envelopes are really clever. And even when you go to the filter settings, you can control two different filters or merge them together. Those kind of tools are really out of this world. I don't think there's anything else like it out there. I don't think they need to do anything to update it. And after three years I'm still learning it… there's so much to it. Again it's the video like you guys do at AskVideo and macProVideo where you think 'wow, there's something else in there! I never thought about doing that!'
Tell us about your latest album, JOOF Editions. What was your thought process behind making a four-hour long mix?
Well, I'm a traditional DJ—not a producer/DJ as we touched on earlier. So, I've got a really open palette of musical traditions and styles which gives me the tools to keep the dance floor interesting. I'm a fan of playing long sets… four, five or six. In fact, I'm doing an eight-hour set in New York soon!
"The response has been massive because none else has done this. We're celebrating today as it's gone into the top 10 Beatport sales chart."
I've done so many mix compilations and they only last 80 minutes and that breaks my journey. I feel restricted as I have to stop the mix and then start it again on the second CD. Being a technology geek, I wanted to embrace the tech side to make a longer mix. When you look at today's world everyone is holding a smart phone or iPad, we're networking at home. I think CD is becoming an old format like vinyl was. But, technology is allowing me to bring my DJing experience of a full set into your living room, or car, unbroken. The response has been massive because none else has done this. We're celebrating today as it's gone into the top 10 Beatport sales chart.
JOOF Editions is available now on Beatport and iTunes.
I know. I'm so happy. I'm not comparing myself to him, but if you look at Avicii, world-renowned DJ superstar whose album was released the same day and I'm only two places away from him. That's what everyone's shocked about, because I'm not a commercial act but there I am up there with the big guys. So, it's obviously made a bit of a statement which is why we're super happy.
So where is it available from?
Beatport, iTunes and all the usual digital distributors. iTunes were really confused about it because they'd never handled something like this. At first, they just didn't know how to handle a file that big!!
Tell me about your creative process. Where do you get your inspiration from and how does that translate from life into your music?
I'm very lucky that I DJ every weekend and I have this memory cache built in my brain somewhere. It's really surprising the crowds reaction at the weirdest of moments that you don't expect. You see, when I speak to producers, their natural instinct for getting the candy moment is some sort of wind up/build-up or breakdown with an explosion and then a big melody. That's what you naturally think is the moment you're looking for when creating a track.
But the way I mix tracks when I'm playing, it could be the tiniest little noise when the crowd go absolutely ballistic! Like you wouldn't expect it. And when you play it again in more gigs and the same thing happens, you know it's the dance floor that's choosing that moment. So, I'm in a unique position where I can remember that and emulate it and put it into one of my tracks. That's what all artists do really: we copy or get inspiration from other people.
I think DJs get a lot of their inspiration from these events and many DJs go on to become A&Rs for labels or they go on radio shows because they have this natural instinct or natural ear to know what works and what doesn't work.
Aside from DJing and producing your own music, I believe you do a lot of TV and movie scores too?
It's not just dance music I make. One really huge project I'm really proud of is working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I made three tracks with them. I emulate orchestra parts when the BBC or someone asks me to do a project. With the tools we've got it's possible to do, but they're quite purist in that world and they could tell it wasn't live strings. I do a lot of digital trickery and micro-edits and adore completely screwing up audio, but when they asked me to work with a real orchestra it made me nervous because I knew I was going out of my comfort zone. How can I start cutting up some guy that's playing his heart out… and I'm just going to chop it to pieces. There's something wrong about it. But, they pushed me and pushed me and it turned out to be the Royal Philharmonic, and being recorded at Abbey Road Studios!
"It's not just dance music I make. One really huge project I'm really proud of is working with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra."
No pressure there, then!
Yeah! So, I'm faced with an 80-piece orchestra. I can't read score. But the conductor, Chris Egan, he made me feel so comfortable and confident in a down-to-earth way. I wrote the tracks and then we re-wrote some of the sequences to make it playable by a human being! Then once it was all recorded, he said to me, 'just do your thing to it. Don't feel like it's the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and you're going to chop them up or anything like that. You're here to do your thing.' So, I put all these electronic beats behind it and he loved it. It hasn't been used yet, and I can't reveal where and how it will be used at the moment… but, I was really proud that Chris and the orchestra liked it so much.
What advice would you give to kids coming through for DJing?
I'm glad you asked that, because I wanted to chat about something. I've been giving advice and tutorials throughout my career and I like doing it. A generation before me set up a wonderful scene for me to be a part of, and I feel in today's world it's a very selfish scene where people are just doing everything for themselves. They're the ones controlling what's going to happen next and I don't feel there's too many people giving back.
This annoys me that the industry seems to be more corporate run, almost like the X Factor culture. It's staged and you know what's going to happen. So, I got a bunch of mates together to give advice and stimulate ideas for the next generation. One thing led to another and to another and we've got a music conference. We've got 140 seminars and talks over two days covering all the information you could ever need to know! Like how to get gigs, how to start DJing, real-life stories, do you need PR, how to produce, what tools to use. There's so many A-list producers and DJs and PRS, Native Instruments, Pioneer, Roland, etc.
Sounds like an amazing event. Where is it?
It's in Brighton, UK: The Brighton Music Conference on April 11-12th. If kids are really serious about getting answers to lots of questions they should come down. I think it's the best £8 they'll ever spend!
Editor's Note: The Brighton Music Conference was a huge success. It looks like it'll be held again next year. You can be sure AskAudio Mag will be there :)