Mathew Jonson: Analog Love

Canadian producer Mathew Johnson now resides and works in Berlin, and his music remains as diverse as ever. We caught up with him to find out what makes him tick.

Typerope, Decompression, Love Letter To The Enemy, Marionette – the list could go on. Few producers can boast such an instantly-recognizable sound, let alone a tangible influence on club music for nearly two decades. Between live performances at some of the biggest festivals and clubs around the world, we caught up with the boisterous Canadian in his impressive Berlin studio to get some insight to his process and find out what makes his unique sound so distinctive.

AA: You grew up in a somewhat remote region of coastal British Columbia, on the West Coast of Canada. How did you first discover and fall in love with electronic music?

When I was a kid I was really obsessed with the breakdance scene happening in the states – movies like Breakin’, Wild Style, and dance competitions on TV exposed me to my first electronic music. 

So besides early breakdance stuff, what were your early musical influences?

I really liked Herbie Hancock’s Rockit and, yeah, that early electro kind of sound. If you check the Breakin’ soundtrack it was pretty much that type of music, as well as hip hop and rap in the mid ‘80’s – and of course Michael Jackson. 

Nice, yeah – the classic electro explains a lot. So what was your first piece of gear? Do you remember what drew you to it?

The first piece of gear I bought on my own dime was an MC-303. I got it because I wanted the analog sounds I heard in the music I liked. But it didn’t really do a good job. So after that I was lucky to find an SH-101, TR-909, and JX-3P from a guy who collected guitar pedals and happened to have some synths as well. This was back before all the gear jumped in price so I could afford it on my lifeguard salary. Before that I used my parents' computer. I also had an MT-32 synth and PR-100 sequencer in the very beginning. 

Credit: David Terranova

Credit: David Terranova

That’s funny – I briefly had an MC303 early on myself. It sort of left me wanting too. So I guess you didn’t get it from there, but your tracks always seem to feature iconic melodic hooks, often on the 101. What sort of different sequencing approaches do you use?

It really depends on the style of the instrument as to what sequencer I choose. Or maybe the sequencer and interface actually dictates the style itself. If I’m writing with drum triggers for the rhythm of the 101 sequencer for example it can be difficult to do a lot of changes and fills so the style tends to be more repetitive. So for writing techno it’s great to choose this direction. I think simplicity is very powerful to achieve the feeling of momentum, and it’s great when the synths are sequenced from the drum machines as the synchronization is really tight and the shuffle rates are the same.

If it’s an instrument that requires more of a live feeling, then using MIDI is easier and I would probably use the computer to sequence that. Ableton works well for this. The Cirklon offers a nice mix of both worlds. I use this mostly for the modular equipment these days, and also the Minimoog.

Mathew Jonson’s seminal Typerope on Canadian label Itiswhatitis

I haven’t really released much of the music I’ve made in the past years so maybe I’ll speak for a minute more about the 101 since that’s what most of my older music surrounded itself with. I love this sequencer. It’s probably the simplest sequencer ever built really. Just play the notes you want to have looping and put in some triggers and it just goes. But there are ways of getting into it a bit more.

For me, I have two methods. One is that I count how many notes and rests I’m playing and then put the triggers in for the rhythm. I’ll repeat this sequence with small variations so it plays 4 bars let’s say just so it’s a bit more interesting than a short loop. The other is that I hear the melody already in my head so I play the triggers in tap mode and then play the notes so that the loop is correct. It can be tricky sometimes and especially live on stage. But it’s very fast and it dictates a feeling that’s great for techno and house.

When I play with Cobblestone Jazz I use two 101s and bounce bass lines between the two while Danuel Tate fills out the melodies on the Rhodes and Vocoder. So while one bass line is playing I’ll go into the headphones and write the next one on the fly. It’s a lot of pressure but the results can be really magic. It is actually truly live in the sense that we have literally no material prepared and we just write on the spot. It’s really fun. It took us many years though to get to the point we feel comfortable doing that in front of thousands of people. Some shows are better than others for sure.  

Mathew works it live (Credit: David Terranova)

Ha – wow. Danuel’s an incredible keyboardist, it must be fun to play with him. So in addition to the 101 and the Rhodes, you’ve got an impressive collection of instruments. What’s your most underrated piece of equipment? Maybe something you love that’s generally overlooked by the gear heads of the world?

Probably the Yamaha CS-60 as it is always sitting in the shadow of the CS-80. The fact is that it has a very different feeling due to its keyboard and monophonic aftertouch. It’s so expressive and has such a soft touch. It’s a shame this type of synthesizer isn’t available anymore. 

Yeah, I’ve always loved the CS series – they’ve got such a distinctive sound, and parameter set. So what's your overall favorite instrument in the studio these days?

Well since I already named the CS-60 then I guess the next would be the Fender Rhodes or the PPG Wave. But those certainly aren’t getting used in every track. It seems like the Pro-1 is the most used synth at the moment, and the TR-808 and TR-909 are still used regularly for drums. 

And so what DAW are you mostly using? And what do you like most about it?

I don’t really have a favorite. But for recording audio I really love the Mio software that runs my Metric Halo Leo-8. I haven’t heard anything better in terms of converters and audio quality. It would be great if having nice equipment automatically meant writing good music.

Ha, yeah – it would be a different world. Any particular plug-ins you find yourself using often?

I use the (Eventide) Spacestation for automated delays on my wife’s voice. I’m using outboard gear for most of my production though. I guess I use Ableton’s Auto Filter quite a lot for my live sets. That’s pretty much it right now. I want to get my hands on the Sound Toys plug-ins though, and also the Universal Audio stuff – a lot of my friends are using them and the results are amazing. I just don’t multi-track very often though so I don’t get much use out of gear in the box. Maybe when latency improves that will change. 

Mathew Jonson - Marionette 

Interesting you mention latency as the stumbling block there, because your material tends to have a such a real-time, kinetic feeling. Can you walk us through your general production process? Where do you start? When do you hit record? How do you edit and mix?

Ha, thanks – I like that description! Kinetic especially. I like music that gives you the feeling like you’re falling. Like it could almost be speeding up and slowing down but the tempo actually stays the same – and easy to mix.

So yeah, production. One thing I always do is hit record on the Mio so it runs in the background all the time recording the master buss of my desk. That way if some magic happens I’ve got it documented. I find it hard to go back in time and recreate things. So even in the writing process, what comes out of the speakers is evolving naturally. I might end up with a final result of a mixed and engineered track, but then go back into the recording log and find some other tracks that were just part of the evolution to making something more conceptual from those.

I find it really hard to keep melodies in my head without them naturally evolving. So let’s say a bass line pops into my head and I really want to translate that onto a synth, but I’m not in the studio at the time. I might record it into my phone and then keep listening to it play, and record it by singing into my phone as the parts evolve. Almost as if a band was playing in my brain and I’m taking samples of it with my voice to capture the evolution of a melody in real-time. 

Other times I might just start writing a beat. I do this more often if I’m not really inspired with something specific. Once I get a good beat going usually an idea for a melody or bass line will come naturally. I like to wait for the parts to arrive on their own. So I take a lot of breaks and give the music time. Reading books is great to trigger the music. Sometimes it only takes a few pages and then the next part for the song jumps out and distracts me from the book. So I stop reading and get back to the music. It may seem weird to some people like I’m not focused on my work (reading, napping, even cleaning my studio to distract myself) but actually if I try and focus too much the music usually kind of sucks and sounds really contrived. If I have other people around things usually come faster as we all share the evolution of the music together and it’s more like a conversation. 

Mathew in the studio with Electronic Beats

Maybe I’m getting a bit off topic. In terms of editing. I do all my mixes live on the desk, so if I edit, it’s only to the stereo WAV file after it’s been recorded. I might take out a chunk if it went on too long or something. Or maybe I was just jamming so I cut a beginning and end of a segment and call that a track. With techno I’m usually not arranging much. Just muting and un-muting parts. Fading things and dubbing effects. Playing with the synths and maybe writing new parts or drums on the fly. With something more arranged I spend time in the linear sequencer and make fills and changes. But since it’s all just MIDI for the most part – maybe with some multi-tracked vocals – and all the parts are coming directly off the synths and drum machines, I still have to dub a lot during the mix.

I usually make lots of mistakes so to get to the end result means mixing over and over again until I’m satisfied with one take. I’m careful to keep the master fader at unity all the time so then I can sometimes edit two takes together if need be for an edit – but that’s pretty rare. Usually the tracks are live takes off the desk. It’s time consuming. But the difference for me is that all the things that are modulating are doing it together. If you multi-track then you have phasers and flangers all moving in different directions. I like it when there is just one and it moves everything running through it at once.

I also really like to have the synths modulating consistently with a never changing flow so that from beginning to end they are moving the same way and you get all the nice variations of sound and frequency smoothly. I also really like what happens when you sum audio into an effects send and into a processor as there are always dominant instruments and sounds that cut others out. You can make some really nice melodies and all kinds of things just because of the nature of what happens in the input stage of the device naturally. I guess in the digital world this would mean setting up a bunch of effects sends and using the same effects on all the sounds rather than having them separate for each instrument on each channel. 

In terms of treatment in the box. It’s pretty much just vocals that have that done. Lots of timing correction to line up layers and takes. The odd quantization of pitch or some automation of volume. Nothing too fancy, mainly I’m very new to treating vocals. So I don’t really know what I’m doing yet. Complicated stuff at times.  

Mathew in his happy place

Wow, that’s a lot to take in, and some fascinating insight – so much is recorded live, straight to stereo. So after fifteen years, your live sets remain in high demand. How do you put all those studio practices together into a live set? Which elements are improvised? Which parts are pre-programmed? Do you change directions in the moment often, or rarely?

I don’t really have any structure at this point. I might be playing just drum machines in write mode with the 101 rocking along with some bass or something. And then be doing something more like DJ’ing the next. Some of my songs I don’t have separate parts for, since because I record my tracks in stereo off the desk, the only way to play them is just as I made them. I’m not really a purist. I can also only do so much playing on my own. For the most part though it’s a mix of stems coming from Ableton Live into the desk with me writing the drum machines live and improvising synths on top.

I change direction constantly. I don’t have any set per se. I look out at the crowd to see if people have smiles on their faces and are dancing, or even if their heads are looking down and just feeling the music I’m happy. It’s really about playing good music and taking everyone in the room on a journey. It really depends on the mood I guess, too. Playing outside at sunset will probably have me doing something very different then at 7am in a dark club. I check what the people’s response is a lot. Some places like Fabric for example I get to play lots of breaks and bass music whereas if I did that somewhere else it might kill the floor. This is probably because I seem to get booked primarily on the merit of the techno I’ve made – but really, I like all styles of music so there’s a pretty broad spectrum of what I can play. I try not to play to the majority of the room all the time but I think it’s good to be sensitive to your environment while still playing the music that you love. 

Mathew Jonson live at Boiler Room London

It’s definitely a tricky balance, but you seem to manage it well. Both live and in the studio, you’re notorious for your 101 work, and you’ve developed a close connection with Roland over the years. Can you talk about your relationship with the company, and your influence on their recent SH-01 boutique unit?

I met the people at Roland in Japan a few years back and we found a mutual respect between us and decided to start working together. I love what I do at work. It’s a real learning curve as I’m working with people who are professional engineers, programmers, interface designers, etc. They’re all musicians too so we have lots in common but also many differences. I guess you would call me a consultant. I share my knowledge about the equipment I’ve used in the past and try to apply that knowledge to take their new ideas to a place that becomes functional but also musical and creative. 

It seems the challenge much of the time is to make something that’s inspiring and allows the best creative flow for the musician. It’s good to offer new possibilities, but not so many that the flow is interrupted. An example would be a synthesizer with so many functions that you spend all your time programming and flipping through sub menus rather than actually playing the instrument. You mentioned the boutique SH-01A. With this one the trick was similar. Adding some new functions but retaining the amazing interface of the original while fitting it into the size format of the boutique line. I think Roland did a great job with it and I’m happy I could play a small part in that. I think the original is close to perfection already, so it’s a good place to start. 

Mathew and his boutiques

Nice – I look forward to seeing what you do with them in the future! So in addition to your numerous solo records, you’ve also released collaborations – most famously with fellow Victorians Cobblestone Jazz and Modern Left Deep Quartet – but also with your brother Nathan as Midnight Operator, and most recently with Units & Measurements. Can you talk about the difference between producing on your own and collaborating? Do you have a preference between the two? How do you approach them differently?

Music is more meditational when I’m alone, and more of a conversation when it’s with others. Making music on my own is something very different than with a group. It’s almost like meditation and my way of grounding myself. It also allows me to travel mentally to places I would never experience in normal day to day life. I treat it like creating an environment to submerge yourself in and the result is actually quite a physical change in the room for some reason I can’t explain. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a time machine when I am in the studio alone. 

Making music with others is more about the conversation between everyone in the room. And it happens not only inside the music. It is a very intimate thing and sometimes works great and other times can be a real fight. Different combinations of people have a massive affect on what can happen. Or sometime what can’t. I feel quite lucky though, as I have some very talented friends and we have some pretty crazy times in the studio. The music we make together I would never imagine to make alone. 

Midnight Operator live with his brother, Nathan

So where do you see music technology heading? Where would you like to see it go? Are there any gaps in the studio or on stage that you’d like to see addressed?

MIDI is too old and can’t support the high resolution required to be on the same level as CV. We need more controller numbers than 127. Lots of companies are implementing higher ratios of internal control for things like their digital faders or filters these days which is great. Some examples would be Dave Smith using something like 250 steps of resolution on his filters and Roland using encoders with 20,000 steps in their digital modular stuff.

It’s fantastic this is happening but unless the language between the instruments changes it’s impossible to really utilize this stuff from a sequencer that uses the standard CC controller messages from 0-127. ROLI has some great ideas. The guys that did Synton have some great ideas too. But other than that I haven’t seen much on the market that’s going in the right direction controller-wise, and if there is no way to properly record digitally then what’s the point? So I think the whole industry needs to find a new protocol to change over to in the future. 

Mathew explains his live rig for Red Bull Music Academy

Yeah, I wonder if OSC will finally become a more accepted control protocol sometime soon. So after running the successful Wagon Repair imprint, you recently launched a new label for your own exploits called Freedom Engine. What can you tell us about the new project? What are your plans for it?

Freedom Engine has three more Decompression remix EP’s coming. Then it’ll be some crazy stuff of my own after that. 

Nice. So what do you get excited about outside the studio? How do you stay inspired? Any tips on that front?

Well, my wife is my biggest inspiration. And our little chihuahua Rambo. I find myself writing lyrics all the time about the two of them. Mostly just fun stuff about home awesome they are and how much I love them. Aside from them, my friends and family inspire me. And I love reading and looking at art. 

Any last projects, links or upcoming releases to share?

I did a remix for Goldie a few months ago. I’m excited that will come out in the future, although I don’t know when. I have a release coming out with my wife as Mr. and Mrs. Jonson. It’s a cover called Betrayal and will be out on Shaddock. I just released the new Visionquest with Ryan Crosson, also featuring Isis and Caesar Melville. Other than that I’m trying to finish a solo album that seems to be dragging on forever. Wish me luck.

More information at: https://www.facebook.com/MathewJonson 

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"Noah Pred is a Canadian techno and house producer, DJ and Certified Ableton Trainer living in Berlin, Germany - where he runs his label, Thoughtless Music. His Juno-nominated full-length album Third Culture, is out now: http://www.thoughtlessmusic.com/releases/tlm086-noah-pred-third-culture/ - and you can check out his new project with..." Read More

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