Interview: TILT on Gear, DJing, New Album and the Resurgence of Dance Music

TILT have been in the club scene for over 20 years! As well as big releases and DJ performances, TILT are also behind a number of high-profile remixes. Here they talk about their new album and more.  

Ask: Tell us about your background. How did you get started and how did TILT get formed?

Mick: Well, it started back in 92/93 with myself, Mick Wilson and John Graham. We knew Nic through working out of a studio called Bass Room in Stoke-on-Trent where he was working with Kevin Saunderson and Laurent Garnier. They had a lot of ties to the Detroit boys. So they were pushing the early Detroit House scene to the UK via Network Records. 

Nic: Mick and Mick were DJing at the time and doing production in Manchester and Stoke-on-Trent so I was in a smaller pre-production suite there. To start off with, I was the second engineer and, as engineering work goes, you can only work so many hours in a day. So, I ended up picking up a lot of additional work where the chief engineer was either doing others things or was burnt out. I think I was doing a bit of pre-production on the first original TILT tracks.

Mick: It was more about writing and getting ideas together. We had our own studio in Coventry with John Graham, so we did little bits up there to see how it would work. In those days we used to get the tracks cut on acetate. Looking back, it was ridiculous as it cost £50-60 each time just to road test a record! However it made it more exclusive and there was a lot more hype about it. 

Mick: Evetually we began working with Nic more and more, and he became an integral part of what we all did as a unit. We moved from Bass Room to our own studio complex and that’s where we really honed the sound we became well known for. And it just went from there. And it’s 20 years in the making now!

Mick: Time flies eh!

Ask: 20 years young! And another 20 years to go. In terms of your musical backgrounds, did you start by getting into electronic music, or other styles? 

Nic: I was quite young when I started working with the guys. When I was a bit younger than that I was into “proper electro” like Grandmaster Flash and that sort of thing. I was a keyboard player, and electro music in the mid-80s was quite exciting and new. I just enjoyed anything to do with electronic keyboards. I had an early Juno 2 when I was 15-16 and later I got involved with the rave scene where we first met. I was going to Shelley’s in Stoke-on-Trent, as a clubber as well as working on bits of typical rave tracks. For me it was just a real love of anything that had real electronic music influences, be it Donna Summer to the New Romantics to hip hop to the Manchester scene and then, acid house and then american house music really changed things for me.

Nic in the studio in session.

Nic in the studio in session. 

Mick: Mine was similar. I actually started off as a DJ with Mick Wilson and we traveled the UK raves and big club events every weekend and we used to play at a Shelleys in Stoke-on-Trent where Sasha was the resident DJ. That’s how we got to know Nic. The first time we met Nic he was on stage at a place called Entropy playing a keyboard with about 50 ravers around him. We could just about see him and I thought that was quite amusing. The music scene in Stoke-on-Trent was really good at that time too. We were lucky to be part of that scene.

Ask: Did you guys click musically or did you need to work hard to collaborate on ideas?

Nic: It was really a music thing for us. Obviously house music had been around, but the progressive scene hadn’t started in a popular sense. There wasn’t many people who produced the sound at that time, nothing like it is nowadays. 

Mick: I think when you’re in that environment it gets your creative juices flowing, just like in Bristol with Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead, there is that big buzz. It was the same in the north too. It was all about getting in the studio for us and putting ideas down. 

Nic: When we first started, we’d be doing bits and bobs for various other people and we’d have masses of reel-to-reel tape boxes everywhere. Then samplers came along and it became more and more accessible for up-and-coming producers to start writing their own music. 

Ask: What gear did you cut your teeth on?

Nic: 24 Track was still being used into the ’90s for laying vocals down. The big ones were the Atari 1040 ST, Cubase and Notator. We were more on the Cubase side of things. The Akai S1000 was the super popular sampler of the day and we then moved on to the 3000 afterwards. As far as other kit: the 909, 808, 303 and whatever synths we could get our hands on we’d try and utilize for something. The studio was quite good as some people had their own bits of kit there and there was a load of outboard in there: Lexicons, etc. The desk was a large Soundtracs which was a great sounding desk. We used to laugh about how we’d have to do quite a lot of hands-on mutes, so we’d have 3-4 of us there. 

Mick: Basically, we’d be watching the arrangement on the screen and when your part came up you’d have un-mute it just to keep the noise level down on our old analogue desk. It was crazy and you can imagine what it was like at 3 a.m. when someone had forgotten to un-mute a track! 

Nic: The amount of times we’d have to bounce it back down to DAT because someone missed a string section or something like that!!

Mick:

Mick: "We've found ourselves going back to what we were doing before, using a lot of analog synths."

Mick: I think the Akai S1000 was the real workhorse and had a reasonable amount of sample time and for effects units the old Yamaha F5 and F7 were great, the Lexicon PCM 70s too.

Ask: Do you still own any of this gear?

Nic: I’ve got a couple of S6000s. A 3000 too. We still use some hardware, though the majority of mixing tends to be done in the box. For external processing we might fly something out to an SPL or other gear.

Mick: It’s funny as we’ve found ourselves going back to what we were doing before using a lot of analog synths. 

Ask: It seems to be that everyone is craving analog hardware again…

Nic: Yeah, I think a few people are doing it because it’s a trend. But, realistically I don’t think we’ve ever stopped using analog stuff for their sound, but it’s just that you need so many different synths. With analog kit you tend to get a synth that’s good at only one or two things. Look at the 303 it only really does the sound of the 303. So, to be able to make a lot different sounding tracks you either need a hell of a lot of synths or some virtual synths thrown in there.

Mick: It’s nice nowadays to be able to mix and match really. If something sounds better on a virtual instrument then we can utilize that. If the sound lends itself to the warmth and the little nuances you get out of analog hardware kit, then that’s what it needs to be.

Ask: What gear have you been using on your latest album?

Mick: Well, we were working on a few rough ideas that were song-based. The important thing for the whole album was the flow of the entire sonics. We were going to go down the analog synth route and make the bases of it analog. We used to do this a lot before, so we didn’t over complicate things, as it was all about clever hooks and how the track flowed. But now we have used a variety of synths.

Nic: The things that have stayed with us were the Juno-106 and the SH-101, the 303 is timeless. We recently did a collaboration with Robert Lyons and we used his Oberheim SEM, modded 101 an ARP Quadra, a Roland SH-7 and some Korg MS-20, Doepfers and other modular bits. There’s lots of different bits of kit on that track which suits the sound.

Nic with some favorite gear. Can you guess what the pink box is?

Nic with some favorite gear. Can you guess what the pink box is?

Ask: Eclectic range! What about the software side of things? I understand you are big Cubase users?

Mick: We are all long time Cubase users, since the very first version. I’ll use whatever works and suits. We’ll do things in Logic if needs be. 

Nic: I prefer Cubase for the MIDI editing side of things. Sometimes if we’re recording with live instruments like bits of guitar and vocals, I find Pro Tools is nice to work with too. When we’re doing our live performances, which we did a lot of before starting work on this album a couple of years ago, we edited and re-worked a lot of the tracks in Pro Tools, it was just easier to work with.

Ask: What about software synths and effects plug-ins?

Mick: We’re quite experimental when it comes to that. A lot of producers are very comfortable when it comes to creating their sound. We’re forever trying different plug-ins and ideas. 

Nic: In terms of our mainstays, you can’t go wrong with Waves plug-ins as far as mixing tools go. They may be expensive, but they have a great sound. I’m liking the u-he synths right now. u-he Diva is getting closer to making software sound analog. There’s a good few freeware plug-ins available too. There’s a plug-in called Synth One, which is a Nord Lead emulator, but has a good analog feel to it. Then there’s Spectrasonics Omnisphere and Trilian, Stylus RMX not so much though.

Ask: How do you approach making the beat?

Mick: We tend to do a lot of chopping and editing ourselves when it comes to beats. From a writing point of view, I know it’s easier to go with a part from RMX, but we tend to get our own beats out of the way in the beginning. It helps with the groove and the flow of the track rather than take some stock loop. 

Ask: So, you build everything from scratch?

Mick: I’d say 95% of the beats we do build it from scratch. The only time we do use stock beats is when we’re sending something to a vocalist. What’ll happen is Nic will come to my house and we’ll put a very rough groove down and I’ll (very badly) sing the melody with a lot of Auto-Tune and record it! Then we work a rough arrangement of about 3 minutes long and send it to them. We tend to find with singers, that the longer you give them with a vocal line and arrangement the better the results. Once we get the vocals back from them we’ll scrap the stock beats. 

Nic: For instance, on a track with Dominique Atkins, we got the tempo and feel right but the sounds didn’t necessarily stay the same, and maybe even some of the drums were changed. It’s just to give her a rough idea of the key and melody idea. Then we can start doing all the production techniques and then look at it from an arrangement side point of view.


The latest release from TILT's upcoming album.

Ask: What do you feel of the musical direction your new album has taken? Is it an evolution of your previous work?

Mick: I’d say it’s evolved. We were very famous for progressive house from the mid-90s all the way through to early 2000s. And our sound has moved on since then. The actual melodies are still there, though the tempo’s dropped and it’s simpler and more stripped back. We actually listened to most of the album the other day to figure out if we needed it to be a one or two CD album. It was the first time we’d listened to the whole thing in a while and it’s sounding really good. I know it sounds like a cliché… but it is the best thing we’ve done! 

Nic: I think the important thing is having a feel or a sound. It doesn’t always need to be using the same melodies or whatever, but it’s about the feel of the music: having the emotive sections, a certain production style to it that keeps the listener interested. 

Mick: Yes, it’s quite musical. I know a lot of producers focus on their albums being DJ-oriented—using their tracks as a DJ tool, and becomes more about the groove. Obviously we’ve got that element, but we try and keep a flow to all the tracks, from start to finish—almost like a DJ mix. We’ve worked really hard to try and get that feel and it’s been really enjoyable doing it. 

Mick and Nic at the desk.

Mick and Nic at the desk.

Ask: With the explosion of genres within EDM (hope it’s a term you don’t mind?)… what’s your opinion on the state of electronic music at the movement and its direction?

Nic: I don’t like music to be too pigeonholed. For our music, there are elements from a lot of different styles. Obviously, people tend to put things in an overall bracket. You’re right, people are trying to narrow these brackets down into smaller things which doesn’t bother me. In some ways, it shows there’s lots of progress and change. But for us I wouldn’t want to get caught up in the way of making music where every track sounds the same. People will know our sound and know it’s TILT. 

Mick: We’ve always leaned towards the creative side of things. And you do take notice of new music that’s out there. At the end of the day, I’ve got no problem with EDM. If kids want to dance to it, let them dance to it. Back in the early ’90s it was all about Oasis and guitar bands. Now it’s all about dance music, which is dominating America. If it encourages kids to go to a computer and use the tools made available to make dance music. That’s good and I’m all for that. 

Ask: You’ve talked about musical elements in your tracks. A lot of the early electronic music has that. Maybe, without wanting to generalize, much of the current EDM crop doesn’t lean in that direction as much…

Mick: I’d agree with that. Some of it certainly doesn’t and we’re conscious of that. It goes back to what we were saying earlier about some music being very formulaic and producers just emulating their peers. They want to be like Avicci or Deadmau5 for example, and they stick to that because it will bring them quick success. The problem is we already have an Avicci who is very good at that sound!!!

Ask: Do you have any tips for aspiring DJs?

Mick: For DJs, just learn your trade and keep learning. Anyone given a bit of time can put two records together. These days you just have to hit a sync button and it’s done. When we started it was all about vinyl and you had to do a lot of screwdriver work day in, day out mixing and matching your music, that takes a lot of dedication. The best advice is never give up. Yes you’ve heard it a million times, but its true, you’ll always get knock-backs, so never give up and be true to yourself. 

Ask: Were there ever any times when you felt like throwing in the towel during hard times?

Mick: Lots of times. Going to raves and getting ripped off! A club would tell you they’d pay you £50 and you’d drive all the way there. Then they’d say, oh the door money’s been stolen or the guy with the money has had to bank it. I’ve heard every excuse in the book! That was soul destroying because you’d have to go home and pay back the petrol money you’d borrowed for that night. But then you just keep doing it, because it comes down to loving the music and the scene. And it is always amazing playing to 5,000 people in a warehouse. 

Nic: The same goes for making music. Yeah, sure, we all get tired. Especially if we’ve been working on a lot of projects. Staying up until 3 a.m., and then when I was day in, day out in the studio… some weeks I just thought I couldn't physically do it anymore. But, the important thing is the music. In early 2000s I wasn’t enjoying house music as much as I had been. I think the resurgence in the late 2000s and now is really invigorating because you can go to clubs, hear new things, see people enjoying themselves. As a producer that gives you a lot of ideas and creative flow to go out and make your own music. 

TILT: Their new album is out later in 2014... and 'The Hurt' is out now.

TILT: Their new album is out later in 2014... and 'The Hurt' is out now.

Ask: Do you get your creative buzz mainly from clubs and experiencing other people’s music?

Mick: It’s definitely a source of ideas and inspiration. We are making some tracks on this album that you might listen to more at home than played on a dance floor. But, it’s definitely a source for ideas and a creative channel you get from DJing, be it a bassline or vocal sample that just works in a club. Yet maybe in the studio it never really stood out.

Nic: Music is everywhere now. I work in a music department in a college so I’m surrounded by music all the time. It could be something on the radio or YouTube… it doesn’t matter, just anywhere I hear good, fresh music I can find inspiration. It could be any tiny little thing that could spark that creative idea.

Ask: Is it necessary to get into the studio to get those ideas down, or do you find yourselves developing those ideas in your head first?

Nic: I might be driving home and hear something on the radio. If I think I might forget it, I’ll tend to text Mick and just tell him to check out this track.

Mick: He will pull over safely first before texting me first!

Nic: That’s right! It doesn’t have to be house or EDM. You can take ideas from anything, whether it’s indie or hip hop.

Mick: In the early days we used to take a lot of inspiration from film scores, Hans Zimmer, Vangelis and more because we were always into amazing chord progressions. Luckily Nic’s background is in playing keyboards, so he’s always been very in-tune with that kind of sound and that’s why TILT worked so well in the beginning with Mick, John and myself. We were always trying to do something new, which at the time wasn’t being done with house music. Tempo wise we were in 132-134 BPM range and our music was more driving. It was the start of the Trance scene so to speak, and we worked with people like Paul van Dyk because he really liked what we were doing. 

Ask: How close is the album to being completed?

Mick: We’re very close now to finishing the writing side of things, its scheduled for September (2014). We’ve just got two or three more things to finish off and a couple of collaborations at varying stages of progression. 

Ask: Are there any collaborations you’d like to talk about?

Nic: Vocal wise we’ve got Sam Mollison who’s previously worked with Sasha and John Digweed. Dominique Atkins who was Grace on Perfecto Records, she did the ‘Not Over Yet’ track, which the Klaxons subsequently covered and murdered. Producer wise, we’ve worked with Namespace who are two guys called Ben Summers and Ben Shaw. We’ve also worked with Gez Varley from LFO on Warp Records. And finally our old friend Roger Lyons, who has done a variety of things with Ian Brown, Peter Hook, Mani and the Kaiser Chiefs.

Ask: Tell us about your recently released track, ‘The Hurt’ featuring Sam Mollison.

Mick: Well we’ve know Sam Mollison since the mid nineties, Mick Wilson and I were Djing quite a lot in the United States and we had met him through Sasha in Orlando. He has the most incredible vocal range and soulful tone to his voice, and it’s always a pleasure working with him. We also have a great lineup of producers remixing the track for the label. Kastis Torrau & Arnas D are two really talented guys from Lithuania, we collaborated with them both on another project called ‘Kiss Magnetic’ last year, so it was great to have them involved on ‘The Hurt’. They’ve just got a great sound, which works so well in a club. We then have TR20 doing a mix, which is always a great groove and DJ tool, we love their sound! We have known Andre Sobota for quite a while, so we asked him to remix the track a few months ago, which he did. His remix has that great big room sound, which is what he’s so good at. Finally, we have another Pro B Tech Records artist, Daniel Brooks has delivered a cool vibe on his remix, which will definitely suit the more underground DJ. It has a cool darker edge and a heavy bassline, which just sounds great in a club at 4 a.m.!

Follow TILT throughout 2014 and beyond:

https://www.facebook.com/tiltofficialuk

https://www.facebook.com/ProBTechRecords

Rounik is the Executive Editor for Ask.Audio & macProVideo. He's built a crack team of professional musicians and writers to create one of the most visited online resources for news, review, tutorials and interviews for modern musician and producer. As an Apple Certified Trainer for Logic Pro Rounik has taught teachers, professional... Read More

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