McAuley first pricked the ears of the dubstep sympathetic back in 2007 with the tenebrous Coiled EP on Hessle Audio, the imprint he runs alongside Ramadanman and Ben UFO. The release uncoiled along traditional dubstep tropes, although its masterful follow-up, You & I / Router, showed McAuley to be one of the earliest exponents of the mutated garage sound currently so in vogue.
The Pangaea discography today feels short; but refreshingly so. Appearances on the equally trailblazing Hotflush and Hemlock have agreeably supplemented work on his own label, while the assorted facets of McAuley's sound came box-wrapped at the beginning 2010 on the Pangaea EP—to these ears his strongest material to date. As I spoke to McAuley over e-mail these past few weeks he revealed himself to be humble and unassuming, but displayed a welcomed curtness when pushed to offer advice to young producers: "For me production is all about doing your own thing in whichever way you want to do it... I have zero technical advice to give."
only programs I've ever used."
Let's start at the beginning. Where did you grow up? What sort of music did you listen to as teenager?
I grew up in a pretty isolated village in the south east of the UK. I moved to Leeds for university when I was 19. I think where I grew up had quite a bearing on what I listened to in my early teens. My music of preference was always dance music from the age of seven or eight, and I saved up all my gift and pocket money for two years to buy a set of overpriced shitty decks and a mixer when I was 14. Unfortunately I had no friends or siblings that had similar or more "developed" musical tastes, so I latched onto the commercial house and trance I was hearing on the radio, which was available to buy on vinyl in HMV (my only local record shop).
When I was 16 things changed a bit, as I left school to do my A levels at a college in a different town. This is where I had my first experience of parties with drum & bass playing on sound systems. I started buying some drum & bass records but at the same time I was encountering more "experimental" music. It was still painstakingly slow to stream or download music on the net at this point, so I was hiring CDs from local libraries while using the net to read up on music. I came across Bjork's Vespertine and then Homogenic which I fell in love with, and then started to encounter music on labels like Warp and Planet Mu.
Would you consider both drum & bass and experimental music to be key pillars that still inform the music you make now?
Yeah, I mean I don't listen to much drum & bass at all, but I do take influence from its functionality and purpose... it's dance music which (should) make people want to dance and quicken the heartbeat a bit. And I'm still very much drawn towards experimental music of whatever kind. It's why I hold stuff like hardcore and that early dubstep period in such high regard: They trod the line between the two so well.
I read that you were making music as early as your school days with, "A two-track mixer, a keyboard and a tape deck." Tell me about this. How old were you?
Yeah, well, I started to compose some simple chord structures and melodies from when my parents first bought me a basic keyboard, aged eight. But when I was 11 or so, a family friend gave me an old mixer designed for dubbing audio onto camcorder footage. This meant I could record a track over a beat that I had extended by using one of those dual cassette decks on a MIDI system—I would play a four or eight bar beat nicked from a tune on the left deck, and cue up a cassette to record it on the other, trying to be as accurate as possible on the pause button! Then I'd repeat the process over and over on the same cassette so I had several minutes recorded of that one loop.
I would hit record on my dad's tape deck, start the extended loop playing on the other cassette player and play over the top of it on the keyboard. Then I'd take what I'd just recorded, put it in the first deck and play another part over that, etc. etc. Really primitive stuff and the quality was terrible after all those bounces, but it was all I had at the time.
What kind of music were you attempting to produce?
Just dance music of some kind. I was unaware of genres. I wish I still had tapes from back then, but when I hit my teens I stupidly recorded over them or threw them away because I was embarrassed about hearing them again.
So I guess we should establish when you had your dubstep "epiphany" before we go on...
[It was] seeing Mala play his first show in Leeds in the back room of the West Indian centre, late 2005. I'd listened to some records before that, but hearing those tunes on a sound system made the world of difference
Can you explain looking back on it what is was about Mala sound's that resonated with you so deeply?
I hadn't heard anything like it. Meditative yet hype, organic-sounding but programmed at the same time. And also a sense that it was music made without restrictions.
And was that gig a turning point in your production efforts?
In the few months following that, yeah. I finally had a focus and motivation that I didn't have before.
Did you manage to get yourself anything that resembled a proper set-up before you headed to university?
No, not at all, it was just Fruity Loops, Acid Pro and VSTs loaded onto my parents' PC. I could only afford my own laptop just before I went to Leeds, and even when I was there it took me a good couple of years before I bought a pair of monitors.
So was your initial decision to use Fruity Loops down to financial constraints? The program still represents the centerpiece of what you do now, correct?
I can't remember exactly how I came across it initially but that and Sony Acid are the only programs I've ever used. I'll be honest and say that the financial aspect was never an issue initially as I used cracked versions. (All paid for now I must add!) And yeah, I've stuck with both all this time because I like their workflow and generally know what I'm doing with them.
How exactly do you use FL and Acid in tandem? Which tasks are usually assigned to which program?
I've got no set process. Sometimes I'll make an entire track in FL, sometimes something will be made completely in Acid. A lot of the time, though, I bounce between the two, as I mainly work using audio and not MIDI. So I'll bounce out tracks or loops made in one and transfer over to the other...usually over to Acid if I want to chop things up and re-loop. To be honest it's usually a really messy and longwinded process, and I'd like to work on becoming more methodical in making tracks before I'd consider using something different like Logic.
Do you feel like your way of working has ever impeded your creative flow?
Yeah, for sure. I'll often get a lot of the main ideas and vibe banged out quickly. But then for whatever reason I'll hit a dead end and abandon tracks completely, or I'll juggle between sequencers in an attempt to get things moving again. It's hard to explain. Maybe I need to become more impulsive and not over analyse what I'm doing. Although saying that, some of my better ideas have come from thinking twice about what I was working on.
I read an interview with Hudson Mohawke in which he talked about the problems he experiences on a daily basis with Fruity Loops: crashing and such like. Is this something you've experienced yourself?
I've had some big problems with both programs: complete crashes, project files refusing to load, projects refusing to render. I've lost week's worth of work in the past. So I've become very cautious and save multiple versions of files, bounce out audio regularly and so on.
This might be a sweeping generalization, but I feel like Fruity Loops is the prevalent program among producers of UK bass music styles. Do you feel like there is some truth behind that?
A lot of people seem to use it, yeah. Reason as well. It's nice to use and affordable, with some decent built-in plug-ins. The default BPM is 140: Maybe that's significant! I mean at the end of the day it triggers samples, applies effects and utilises VSTs just like any other program. So why shouldn't people be able to make decent music with it?
I mess around with synths a bit, but it doesn't get very deep, and I don't start from scratch with them. I keep meaning to set aside time to learn synthesis some more, but I like using samples and haven't really got round to it yet.
Do you feel that a lot of the time—especially among the electronic music production community—people can be more process- than results-driven? I mean, you sounded almost hesitant to say that you mainly used samples, but does that matter if you are getting the desired results?
Well I guess being process-driven can happen. I can imagine producers building up their studios and buying a load of outboard gear... only to make a bunch of dry tunes. But I don't really see that in the circles I'm in right now. People are basically using a computer and a set of monitors in order to make the best tracks they can. I actually think being too results-driven is more relevant to the DAW crew; there are a lot of tunes which to my ears sound so cold and programmed, you know? It's mainly the stuff that tries to be as loud and hard-hitting as possible. But anyway, yeah, I really like using samples but I admit there is a certain something about being able to create sounds from scratch using synths.
I just wanted to go back to what you were saying about maintaining an experimental edge in your productions. Is this something you always keep in mind when making a track?
I don't know, it's not like the [idea at the] forefront of my mind is to make something "experimental"... the tracks I come out with I just consider to be my music. If anything, I've been trying to make tracks lately which are a bit more compatible with other records for the purposes of mixing. I get the feeling that I could end up going off on one if I'm not rooted down to the idea of making dance music for sound systems. Saying that, I do try and avoid some of the more obvious cliches if possible, or if I catch myself sounding obviously like another producer I'll try and change that.
Touching on what you said about "my music": Do you think the often reflective, melancholic tone of your material is representative of you as a person?
To some extent, it is reflective of me. But it's not the full picture. I don't just vibe off reflective and melancholic music. But I guess that's the vibe that I give off when I make tunes.
Let's talk a little bit about mixing: Do you do this yourself in Acid? Have you been satisfied with the results up until now?
Well either Acid or FL, though I lean towards Acid. And I do it myself, yeah. To be honest I haven't been satisfied with the results so far. Nothing to do with the programs, I just feel I've got a long way to go with mix-downs. And although people have said not to worry about it too much, the quality of mix-down can make a crucial difference to whether the tune gets played out or not.
Is it a case of handling EQing better? Have you received any advice from anyone?
Yeah, better handling of EQ and compression. I can't think of any advice I've received or sought out. I need to spend some time focusing on it.
What do you find inspires you most to get into the studio?
Definitely when I've been listening to music that moves me in some way, or when I've heard things I haven't heard before.
And how long does it usually take you to lay down a track?
Fucking ages! I can usually knock out the main vibe of a track fairly quickly, but finishing things is normally a long and drawn-out affair. It's something that I need to work on really; I'd like to become more methodical and productive in making and finishing tunes. Saying that, if I've left loops/ideas/samples sitting in a project for a while and I come back to it, I usually find things in it that I'm no longer keen on. So leaving things to mature for a while can work to some extent. But I'd certainly like to be less "perfectionist" and make things quicker...while, of course, making sure the quality of the music is as high as I can make it.
Is there any gear that you're currently eying up? Could you imagine moving away from software at this point?
I've just bought a new pair of monitors, which has been my biggest "studio" investment to date, and I'm hoping they'll last me for a few years at least. Other than that, I can't realistically see myself investing too much in hardware right now. I'd like to buy a synth or two, perhaps some outboard gear to play about with which would get me away from the computer screen, but it's a question of money and space... I don't have a lot of either at the moment!
Many people would assert that the UK, and, of course, by extension Hessle Audio, is flying the flag for innovative forms of dance music right now. Do you think there's a reason this current wave of UK producers have been able to express themselves with such freedom?
I think a lot of the people who are making interesting dance floor tunes right now have a strong link to the early days of dubstep, when people like Shackleton or Toasty were as much a part of the scene as Skream or Rusko. Everybody had their own sound and wasn't afraid to experiment. I'd like to think that these producers are continuing this way of thinking. The BPM range also has a lot to do with it I think...a one-hour DJ set can easily incorporate tunes between 130 and 140 BPM, and the range of music and styles this incorporates is enormous. Tunes from 1992, 1999, 2004...anything from the last 20 years of dance music is an influence.