After a fascinating and intimate talk at the Novation & Elevator Sound, "My Machines" event in Bristol on March 28, 2015, we caught up with probably the most prominent figure on the drum and bass scene, Roni Size. Having already spoken to a crowd that were hanging on his every word, we chatted about his approach to producing, playing live (without sequencing), the tech he uses and the new album from Reprazent.
Roni Size at the Novation & Elevator Sound, "My Machines" event in Bristol on 28th March 2015. (Photo: Anna)
Ask: Tell us about the beginnings of Reprazent and how it has evolved.
Roni: Being surrounded by a tight know group of friends, all on the same page: myself, Krust, Dynamite and Onallee, Suv and Clive Deamer, we all had this idea of trying to translate what we do in the studio and trying to put that on stage. That was a real challenge for us. Once we recorded the album, New Forms, and it was there on the table, our A&R man turned to me and said, 'now we need to make this into a live show'. At the time we didn't know how we were going to do this. It was quite a challenge.
In the beginning it was taking all my studio out of the studio onto the stage. We had ADAT machines, SyQuest drives, four Roland S760s, all the samples loaded up. It was a case of going through the process of starting with the backing track. Eventually we started to take little bits away slowly until it became 100% live. Through the process of elimination, we learned how to make it sound like it could be done by a backing track, but it's not. It's all played live through modern day technology.
"A lot of people would assume we're running a sequencer, but we're not. We're using Native Instruments Kontakt 5."
Ask: What do you use now? I've seen you on stage with a MacBook Pro, so I'm guessing Ableton Live?
Roni: No, not at all. I think a lot of people would assume we're running a sequencer, but we're not. We're using Native Instruments Kontakt 5. We spend a lot of time in the studio taking all the sounds, getting all the layers of the sounds and making them sound big, organic and stereo. Then we put across the keyboard and then trigger them all live. I do all the basslines and main high-end riffs. For instance, you may have a lot of sub basses which maybe the live basses can't cover. Then I've got mid-range sounds which play at the same time as the bass sounds. So, you can layer them up so when you play the keys you get the impact of them all.
Dave will use all the sound effects of all the strings, samples and the keys to fill the gaps. Then we have a keyboard player who mimics everything that Dave and I do. Dave has one layer of sound, I have one layer of sound and Jay, straight down the middle, gels it all together. Then we have live drums. We use an SP-DX a TDM Roland drum kit and then we have the standard bass and an upright bass. We use Focusrite sound cards too.
Roni Size being interviewed by Rounik Sethi. (Photo: Anna)
Ask: Despite being so richly layered, the sound is so tight.
Roni: The way you have to imagine it is we're actually programming live without programming. Normally when programming in the studio, you do it once and then quantize it. Now, imagine doing that live but without quantizing. We don't like backing tracks because we like to have the crowd in the palm of our hands and play with the anticipation. So, if we want to stop and hold a chord for two minutes, then we can build it up. As soon as we get the drummer to give us a signal we can go again. We're not restricted by a click or use any sequencer.
Ask: When you mentioned Native Instruments earlier, I was expecting you to mention Traktor or Maschine. Have you been tempted by Maschine?
Roni: Oh always been tempted. You listen to 99% of dance music bands and they're all using backing tracks and they sound great. Sometimes if we don't have the right kind of soundcheck we come on after one of these bands and we don't sound as good. Or if we play first and someone comes on after and just presses a play button and they sound amazing. But come on. I could fucking do that and come off stage and no one would give a shit.
We thought about it. The one thing we can take to our grave is that we are a live band and that's what we do.
Roni Size / Reprazent, Brown Paper Bag, from 1997:
Ask: What controllers do you like to use?
Roni: We use Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol, but any MIDI controller is good. Something with a good pitch bend is quite attractive. What we like with our keyboards is we can map out all of our sounds so that every song is mapped out. Then we can see, 'oh, that's my basses, that's my sounds for this track'. Then we don't need to worry about it and we can use it blindfolded. I enjoy that.
I use a foot pedal which is really important for me as it makes sure all my sounds are legato and there's no gaps in between and they've all got cutoff notes so everything's got its full length.
Ask: And in the studio, what DAW do you use?
Roni: I'm using Pro Tools 11 which I really like. I've been using it for a long time. You have to know your shit to use Pro Tools. It's not something you can pick up and just go, '˜yeah I'm going to use that.' You have to know your numbers, your frequencies, your do's and your don'ts. A lot of DAWs have limiters on the back end that you don't really know about. If you're struggling with a mix all you do is turn things all the way up to the top and it just gels together. But, you lose some of those dynamics.
Roni Size explaining 'the truth' involved in mixing with Pro Tools. (Photo: Anna)
Ask: So you find Pro Tools reflects a truth in your mixing process?
Roni: Yeah, you have to know your stuff. It's as simple as that. Don't go there if you don't know what you're doing. But, it's horses for courses. People's individual workflow is important. My workflow is best when I'm working in Pro Tools.
Ask: Have you always been a Pro Tools guy?
Roni: I started off with Notator back in the day, then I went on to Cubase for a long time. I still like Cubase. But, I can use any DAW you put in front of me. Once you learn one, you can pretty much learn them all.
"I'm a massive fan of UAD. Not a lot of people can afford them. They are the top of the range plug-ins and are true to most of the analog machines they're modelled on."
Ask: Are there any other plug-ins you use and enjoy?
Roni: I love to use all my Universal Audio plug-ins. I'm a massive fan of UAD. Not a lot of people can afford them. They are the top of the range plug-ins and are true to most of the analog machines they're modelled on. I also like Native Instruments stuff and use a lot of Rob Papen plug-ins. I'm fortunate to have friends at Time&Space. My friend Joel who gives me iZotope software. They're tricky things to use. There's a lot of information and if you don't know how to dial it in you can break a mix very quickly. I love iZotope Alloy which is a secret weapon for me. I like my Brainworx stuff, some is really exceptional which helps you to carve your sound in a way that not much else can do that.
Roni Size: "UAD are the top of the range plug-ins and are true to most of the analog machines they're modelled on." (photo: Anna)
For soft synths there's Serum which I really like. All my go-to plug-ins are in Expand! in Pro Tools. You know whatever it takes really. My latest craze for effect plug-ins is FabFilter. The new FabFilter 2 EQ where you can actually draw the peaks out on freeze mode is a revelation. Normally you have to identify the peak, scope through it. Now it shows you the peak, it freezes it and you can just drag the peaks down!
Ask: I haven't personally tried that one yet.
Roni: You gotta try it. It comes up, you just hover over it. It shows you the peaks and you just pull them down and it's just perfect. The thing about FabFilter is they're so ahead of the game. There's not many plug-ins that have oversampling functions to make sure the transient doesn't get too squashed. It keeps the transients intact. Does that make sense?
Ask: Yes, so it maintains the integrity of the transient so it's not being over-processed?
Roni: Exactly. It's a great function to have especially when you're doing a pre-master. You need that oversampling because you just don't want those snares to lose their snap.
Ask: So Reprazent is back. You're going to be touring, you'll be at Glastonbury. And you've got a new album in the works'¦
Roni: It's called Do it for the Masses.
Ask: I know you can't give a release date for it yet, but what stage are you at with the album?
Roni: We're at a great stage. Some of the people you've just met here: Thomas who runs this room here funds what we do. I'm the record label, so Thomas subsidizes all the shows. The other guys who've met are our new Management team: Rag and Ross. I was based in Metropolis in London. It wasn't quite right for me. They had a lot of good ideas but they didn't really know how to implement them. Great building, great studio, but didn't really work adjacent to where I'm at. Whereas I think the new people here, we have a great ethos and we're all on the same page and I'm working forward to having a great relationship. After this week I reckon we'll have a release date.
"I can record in Bristol, in Metropolis. I'll record in your front room if you let me!"
Ask: Where are you recording now then?
Roni: I can record in Bristol, in Metropolis. On Monday I'm recording at a studio called Sensible Music. I'll record in your front room if you let me!
Ask: OK! We can try it. We've got a pet rabbit if you don't mind who'll want to be on the record.
Roni: I'm sure we can get something out of the rabbit!
Roni Size: "I'd prefer if anything to be more of a pioneer. Not just in the sense I make music ... in the sense that I have something to say and it's valid." (photo: Anna)
Ask: Any tips you'd like to share with kids coming onto the scene now?
Roni: Yeah, stop trying so hard cos' you're making me look bad!
Ask: Ahh. That's not possible'¦
Roni: Ha. You'd be surprised. These young cats today man, they can do'¦
Ask: They're scary good, aren't they?
Roni: Yeah, scary good. And they keep me on my toes. I just want to remain current. Everyone says, '˜Roni Size, the legend.' It's cool. I'd never knock it, but I'd prefer if anything to be more of a pioneer. Not just a pioneer in the fact I make music, in the sense that I have something to say and it's valid. If you want to listen then I'll speak, and if not, then you just got to do what you got to do.
Ask: I was listening to 'Brown Paper Bag' last night and it's just timeless. It feels current now. which is really interesting.
Roni: And every time I play it I get the same response. I'm very proud of the record, you know what I mean'¦ I can't remember fucking doing it, but I'm very proud of it!
"You can build a bridge across rivers, but when things become oceans that's when relationships are hard to bridge. You can't build a bridge across an ocean."
Ask: Back to the advice'¦
Roni: Yeah, the thing about music and friends is that you meet a lot of friends along the way but you lose a lot of friends along the way. I think sometimes people should understand that you can always build a bridge across rivers, but when things become oceans that's when relationships are hard to bridge, because you can't build a bridge across an ocean.
Follow Roni Size on Facebook
Visit Roni Size's website