Sasha's latest production, Ether, employs mesmeric synth lines, a driving percussive motion and his excellent layered production techniques. Soon after its release, we sat down with Sasha over Skype to chat about the early years, his motivation for getting into DJing and music, how technology has evolved and changed the way we make music, and how his creative process is inspired by change, movement and travel. Oh, he also provides a rundown of what gear he enjoys using in the studio and why.
Ask: Is it true you were forced into taking piano lessons at an early age?
Sasha: Yes, I had a difficult relationship with my stepmom in my early teenage years. I started out loving playing the piano when I was younger. It got harder and I had a teacher who was fairly hardcore and my daily piano practice became a battleground between me and my stepmom. It would be used if I’d done something wrong.
She’d always said to me the moment I hit 16 I could stop. So, when I got to my 16th birthday I thought I’d never touch a piano again. I’d done my grades and done pretty well. Two years later I started DJing and I was invited into a studio where there were keyboards everywhere. I thought, ‘oh, I know how to use these!’ Later on in life I thanked my stepmother very much for pushing me so hard.
Ask: Was the piano the only instrument you were playing back then?
Sasha: I tried a few other things like violins and saxophone, but I didn’t really connect with them.
Listen to Ether:
"The first gig I did I was the proud owner of 25 records! I now have about 50,000 records and god knows how many MP3s."
Ask: When did you feel music was your path?
Sasha: Well, it was discovering house music in Manchester when I was 18 years old and going to the Hacienda and hearing acid house and gospel house. Experiencing all that incredible music for the first time was like seeing the light really. I thought I had to be involved in it somehow. So I started collecting records. The first gig I did I was the proud owner of 25 records! I now have about 50,000 records and god knows how many MP3s.
Ask: Where do you keep the records?
Sasha: They’re all in a storage unit in Florida from when I was living down there. I was going to move them here to New York but the storage here is insane. So, once every two years I go down there and dig stuff up and make a trip out of it. It’s unfortunate. It takes up a lot of space and to store the records in New York or ship it back to London would be very expensive. I’m not sure what to do with it.
Ask: I’ve read somewhere else you went through tough times, money wise, making ends meet in your early music DJing years. What was the driving force that helped you continue along your musical path?
Sasha: Yeah, in the really early days gigs dried up a bit, and I was contemplating having to get a real job. Luckily I started to get booked again. I had a knack of being in the right place at the right time. I ended up moving into a block of flats where one of the DJs from the Hacienda lived, Jon DaSilva. He took me under his wing and I started DJing with him. Then I started to build a name for myself. It all came from there really.
Ask: You started off on an Atari ST? Were you using Notator?
Sasha: Yes, I was. But, my first few years producing I got put in a studio with a great production team and my role was just to turn up with my record boxes, play loads of music, get ideas for sounds and get them to program the sounds and I’d be there arranging it. It was very much like I was in the producers role and not programmers role. So, I was never hands on with the Atari.
It wasn’t until later on around 1995 when sounds started to change and I began working with people like BT and they were programming these insane sounds which I just couldn’t get out of my production team. I’d been making records for 5 or 6 years by then, but I knew it was time for me to really learn how to get the sounds I wanted.
I bought an MPC3000, a computer with Logic, a JD-800, a Mackie mixing desk and a load of outboard gear. A lot of that I’ve let go of, and I’m pissed off I did. Some great little units there. I started producing stuff on my own. The first year my output was very low, but then things started to pick up speed and I started collaborating with Charlie May and then things moved on from there quite quickly.
Ask: When DJing I know in the past you’ve used vinyl, CDJs, Ableton Live with a Maven controller. What are you using now?
Sasha: I go between using rekordbox with USB sticks to using Traktor in HID mode so I can use CDJs. I like to use CDJs as controllers whether I’m using USB or the computer really.
"I haven’t done a vinyl set for close to 10 years now. And I’m not really tempted to be honest."
Ask: Have you ever been tempted to go back to vinyl?
Sasha: No, I haven’t done a vinyl set for close to 10 years now. And I’m not really tempted to be honest. I understand where the purist DJs who use only vinyl are coming from, but I’ve spent 15-17 years playing off vinyl, so I’ve kind of proved I can do it!
Ask: Sure. There’s also the convenience factor too?
Sasha: It’s more about staying organized and on top of music and I’m constantly on the road. I have horror stories about losing records and boxes of records when being transported to sets. So, just getting hold of the music quickly and being able to download music in your hotel room quickly is useful. I don’t know… digital, for me, is the only way at the moment. Using CDJs and controllers still feels like I’m DJing!
"Digital, for me, is the only way at the moment. Using CDJs and controllers still feels like I’m DJing!"
Everyone has his own opinion on it and I don’t think anyone’s wrong to be honest… apart from those DJs who have their whole set recorded and they’re not actually doing anything. That is wrong!
Ask: In terms of your studio production what’s your DAW of choice?
Sasha: I use Ableton Live primarily in the studio. My engineer and producer I work with (Dennis White from ThermalBear) likes to use an old version of Cubase on a PC. He loves the sound of it and he knows it inside out. Whenever we’ve got tracks that are almost there he’ll load them into Cubase and we’ve got a summing mixer and things will definitely add that extra 10% of production that we can’t actually get in Ableton Live.
He just knows the old system inside out. We keep trying to get him to upgrade so we can ReWire into it, but he just won’t do it!
Ask: Are you using outboard gear too?
Sasha: We’ve got quite a bit of Moog stuff. I’ve just got hold of a Sub 37. I did the Moog Fest last year and as part payment for the gig they give you a great deal on gear. So, I bought a couple of racks, Moogerfooger pedals, an old Taurus II which is my absolute favorite. I’ve got one of the first ARP 2600. It’s a blue one. I’ve had it completely restored. It sounds incredible. We’ve got a couple of cases of Euroracks that we wanted to mess around with. Then for processing we use a lot of plug-ins like Soundtoys. I love their sound. We like FabFilter. We’ve got the Eventide Orbit which sounds amazing which we have set up with a controller and make it fun to mess around with sounds.
Ask: Is there anything you reach for first or does it depend on what you’re working on?
Sasha: The way I work is I do a lot of writing when I’m on the road, so I’ll take a different controller with me each week I go traveling. Some weekends it might be Ableton Push or sometimes it’ll be NI Maschine Studio. I love that thing. I love Komplete Kontrol as well. I’ve got the Arturia Analog Lab as well… it depends on what tracks I’m working on and what I decide sound palettes are going to be.
"I do a lot of writing when I’m on the road, so I’ll take a different controller with me each week I go traveling."
This whole integration between software and hardware is so good. It’s just great to have one of these controllers with you on the road. The amount of sounds that come in the software packages like Komplete 10 is insane.
We’ve got a lot of 3rd-party Kontakt libraries we use as I’m doing a lot of writing for film and TV at the moment. The Soniccouture stuff is just so well recorded. Absolutely brilliant. Heavyocity is good too. I also really like the Puremagnetik packs for Ableton Live.
Ask: You mentioned hardware and software integration. What’s your take on the analog vs. digital debate?
Sasha: I think you can combine the two. We often take samples that are digital but then put them back through an analog environment in the studio which gives you completely different results. Oh, the other thing I like to use is the Access Virus. I have it at home but because it’s too heavy I don’t carry it with me. Whenever I’m in a studio session I’m usually in front of it because I know it inside out. It’s kind of been the core sounds of my records for the last 10 years. I always get amazing results from it.
The way you process audio is crucial. You can start of with digital sounds but it’s important you either find a plug-in that can warm things up, or if you have luxury of being able to get guitar pedals out, Moogerfoogers or Eurorack modules, then the sound can go crazy.
Ask: Do you see the rise in popularity of Eurorack synths and processing continuing to grow?
Sasha: Yeah, why not? People can get one module out of a synth that might cost $5000, and you can just get the filter or the VCA out of it for a few hundred dollars. It’s the way that other people have taken modulating the signal path with these crazy CV matrices that allow you to do interesting things.
Ask: You’ve seen a lot of changes in the tools used in the music industry over the years: hardware to software and back again, desktops to laptops to iPads. What’s your take on the democratization of music making tools and do you think it’s had an impact on the quality of music being made today?
Sasha: I don’t think it has an impact at all. I think it’s allowing people to make music on fairly limited budgets which is always a great thing. There’s amazing free software out there too. You don’t have to break the bank to make music. Especially for young people at college, it is important to be able to start making stuff without needing to spend crazy money on a studio. I think it’s great. I’ve got no complaints about the quality of the music.
I had this when I first started buying equipment for my studio: it’s the gear envy. You think, “I’ll be able to make great records if I have that bit of kit.” When I bought all this equipment for my studio back in the day, I spent years scratching my head. It was a really slow learning curve. I decided to take a portable studio with me on holiday. I literally took my MPC3000 and sat in front of it for two weeks. I suddenly learned that instrument inside out. When I got back to the studio I looked at a lot of other instruments and gadgets there and they all started to suddenly make sense to me.
I think limiting your options and learning one piece of kit inside out is key to getting to be able to make records quickly. It’s very easy to spread yourself too thin and I really think you get magical results when you are limited.
Ask: You’ve mentioned learning the MPC when on holiday and taking gear on the road. For you personally, is your creative process connected to movement, travel or being somewhere other than the studio?
Sasha: Yeah, I do like to be inspired by my location, whether I’m in a hotel in Tokyo looking over the city or on a plane with a pair of headphones. There’s something about that “change” thing I really enjoy.
I’m jet lagged quite a lot when I’m on the road, so I’m up at really odd hours and no one else is around. That’s a creative time for writing. When I’m making records I really do like being in a room with people and working with other people. I’m not necessarily the most productive when I’m on my own but I can be quite creative.
Ask: Do you find it the same when you’re scoring for films?
Sasha: Yes, it’s similar. I can come up with some great ideas at 3 a.m., but then when we’re actually mixing stuff down it’s great to be in a room with people.
Ask: Are there any collaborations you’re involved in you’re able to talk about?
Sasha: Um… well, I’ve got a few things on the boil but I don’t really want to talk about it as I find that can jinx stuff sometimes!
Ask: What tips would you share with emerging producers and DJs?
Sasha: Well, the one I said earlier about really learning and mastering one piece of equipment, whether that be Reason or Ableton and not trying to spread yourself too thin is important. Choosing your weapons is important. I went through a stage where I had so many plug-ins on my computer so I opened them up, checked out some presets and then closed them. Last year I went through and cleared loads of them out. Now, I’ve got a stripped back system by keeping the ones I use. It’s helped with the creative process because I’m not overwhelmed. It’s easy to close a plug-in when you’re not getting what you want immediately rather than sitting with it and getting into it.