|Machine love: D-Bridge
RA journeys to the revered drum & bass producer's studio to talk synths, samples and sensimilla.
Darren White is what you might call a "thinking man." This isn't in the academic sense of the term—but track White's career back from the early '90s and you can almost signpost his many moments of re-evaluation. There were the anthems of Future Forces Inc he produced alongside Jason Maldini for Renegade Hardware. Then came the bangers of Bad Company, the drum & bass super-group the pair formed with Michael Wojcicki and Dan Stein. And now? Well, now we have Autonomic.
These distinct chapters are also reflected in his studio set-up. Learning the ropes when he did, White was schooled in the ways of hardware synths and samplers, but enthusiastically joined the digital revolution of the late '90s, to the point at which by 2006 he was writing on little more than a laptop. The latest incarnation of dBridge—in the studio and on record—is thanks in no uncertain terms to the reciprocal relationship he subsequently formed with Al and Damon of Instra:mental. They held White up as one of the few drum & bass artists they could still identify with, while in turn their racks of outboard gear and improvised approach to composition completely revitalized White. From the melting pot of sparse yet melodically rich arrangements came a podcast, a mix album, a record label, a club night and the sense that Autonomic had indelibly altered the drum & bass landscape.
So you were just telling me about when you stopped smoking weed—that was a big turning point for you, right?
Yeah, massive. Massive.
Yeah, because it's that thing of, you know, you get into the zone with weed, which is creative in a lot of ways, definitely. You kind of get in a bubble and you're just vibing out, but I just started to think when I...I think it was after I stopped, I actually listened back to some of the things I'd done whilst under the influence, and they weren't as good as I'd remembered them being. You're definitely enjoying the moment, but it's...nah—wasn't feeling it. I just think, motivation-wise...I didn't have the motivation to get it done. Get the album [The Gemini Principle] done, work on it, finish it.
When did you stop smoking?
That would have been around the time of the album, so that was about 2007.
OK because I wanted to ask you about an interview you did with RBMA in 2006. At that time you were almost exclusively producing off a laptop. And now I understand you're producing using almost exclusively hardware. What changed?
Just going back to what I used to do. When I was with Future Forces and Renegade Hardware it was all outboard; even Bad Company. I think whilst in Bad Company the transition to the whole digital realm was really starting to take over. So it was, actually more than anything, working with Instra:mental that really helped. I was going round there—they've got the same thing—they've got exclusively outboard, and it was just nice to have that hands-on feel again, of being able to tweak some knobs.
And the way they had their studio set up as well, which I liked, we could all play at the same time. Whereas in a traditional [setup] with a laptop, it's just one chair, one computer, one screen. If you're working with people they're just looking over your shoulder. I dunno, it's restricted and it doesn't really lend itself to collaborations.
Do you think that when you first become enamoured by software it was simply because it was new?
Nah, it wasn't really new, as such. I suppose with the digital stuff, yeah I liked the idea of "Oh god, I can save all my presets now, I can recall everything." Whereas now if I do a track I have to take a picture of the EQ settings and things like that.
Does sampling still form the basis of what you're doing these days?
Yeah definitely cus I've always been sample-based. And I've really got into outboard synths; only in the last sort of five, six years getting back into synths. Getting into that was realising all I was doing was sampling what other people were doing on synths. So it's like, well, rather than do that, why don't I try and make the sample myself?
Did you have synthesis skills which you carried over from the early days, or did you have to pick up new skills when you went back to the hardware?
Oh yeah, definitely had to pick up new skills. I'm still learning.
Do you usually start from scratch when you're programming?
More often than not. I generally start with a beat and I try and sculpt something that would work around that.
What are you favouring synth-wise at the moment then?
The [Korg] Mono/Poly is one, definitely one of my favourites. [It's] just quite sleazy-sounding. And it's got a really good—amazing—arp section on it as well, which is something I'm still learning about. And as well now this guy I've been working with on my label—Consequence—he's coming over, bringing more bits to the studio, so there's actually going be a lot more stuff in here, more keyboards and stuff.
So you're combining studios, almost?
Yeah, he's brought over these two Moogerfoogers. He's got some other synths coming in as well. Just gonna see what happens, but I think...That's what I liked about working with Instra:mental. Even though we're not accomplished musicians, there's that kind of band-like element, and there's this whole sort of...messy noise going on, but for a brief moment, sometimes you get it right, altogether at the same time.
How do those sessions work? Would you just go over there and jam for the day?
Yeah, it was. I think when you've got a bigger space you can, people can, concentrate on what you're good at. Al—Boddika—he's basically the beats and mixing, on the mixing desk, that's what he's really good at. So we can all be sitting around while he's getting the beats together and just be jamming and making sounds on these things; literally just jamming for a whole day. I remember one of the last sessions we had Skream up there as well—it must have been about a good eight, nine hours of just noise, and not much going on. And you think you're trying to get a track together and it's like "No, it's not working" and then suddenly within the last hour, something just comes together. I just really love that kind of thing.
What do you personally take away from those sessions?
Gear lust. [laughs] They've got the joint studio and they've got separate stuff and we all talk to each other about bits of kit that we want. Right now I've got quite a good selection of synths—about 15-odd synths. You're kind of like, "OK, let's move on now." I want to get into outboard dynamics, like compressors, limiters and EQs, and that's a whole other area of addiction.
So I think what I really got out of those sessions was just the falling back in love with the outboard and I suppose the subtleties of it, and that individuality that it gives you. I was discussing with someone else before—maybe even an interview—but back in the early days of drum & bass and jungle you had crews, and you had camps, and they all had their own sounds. You know, Virus had their sound, Full Cycle, but what was really a part of that sound was also their choice of equipment, those little things: what sampler they used, what desk they used, what compressors was all part of their sound. As well as their choice of samples. And I think you can hear that with Instra:mental. I can hear, they've got their sound, and it's through their choice of equipment. I kind of want to go back to that.
Is there specific gear that defines the "Autonomic sound"?
The [Mini] Moog was a big part of it, if I had to pin it down to one machine. But I think it is an amalgamation of a few things, like say Al—either what he would do on the mixing desk and some of the outboard compressors, just our choice of sounds that we'd make via these synths, I think is what defines it.
Would you say that a melody is the main starting point for a new track?
Personally, it's always drums, always has been drums; the rhythm. That drives what it is I'm doing. And then from there it's literally what kind of mood I'm in.
When you say you're establishing a rhythm, would you get the full drum section sorted out before moving on to other things?
Not totally, no, just the basic foot and snare rhythm: foot, snare, hi-hat. And then you sort of embellish as you're going along, as you're adding layers and chords. There may be other bits of percussion you feel could fit within what it is you're doing. Yeah, for me it's always been the break or the percussion pattern first.
And what are you programming those on at the moment?
More recently, I've been using Native Instruments' Maschine. I bought it about a year ago when it first came out.
Are you someone who tends to experiment or goes into the studio with set ideas?
A bit of both cus I've also been using Ableton as well. I bought that not too long ago, and I quite like what that does as well, just in terms of its MIDI effects and the control over my outboard that it gives me. And also rhythmically as well, you can get some quite good things out of it.
What do you mean by that?
I don't know…I like things that make me look at samples in a different way and the MIDI on there isn't the greatest but I can fuck around with the placement of things and then you can easily affect the drums and get these quite interesting drum patterns out of it. And also cus I got this whole Max for Live in there.
Have you been using that much?
Yeah, I've been trying to get my head round of it. It's bloody complicated, but I'm really just scratching the surface with it. You know I'd love to be able to work out how to build my own patches, but at the same time…
It's just a can of worms, isn't it?
Yeah, I'm not sure I want to get into it. [laughs]
Have you done any modular software-style stuff before?
No, I know a few people who do, and I had ideas for patches and I asked people to make me patches. Me and Drama (Damon) were thinking about going to a Max MSP course at Goldsmith's. So we were both like, "Should we go on it? Should we?" [laughs] It is another can of worms.
"I fucking hate mixing."
What would you hope to get out of it?
I suppose just be able to build patches that are specific to you. Whether it's sort of rhythm patches, or something that affects your music in a way that only you can, which is unique to you.
Is this something you continually have in the back of your mind: am I sounding like someone else?
Yeah, I think you do, but I think there's enough things that I do that makes things sound hopefully unique to me. I think it used to be my choice of samples; that was a big part of what defined my sound, and how I'd put them together. The tracks that I do and I give to people, they still say, "Yeah, it sounds like a dBridge track," but I don't know what that actually is, personally. But I think with me singing, that's given me that extra thing of standing out from everyone else, cus the simple fact is, no one else can sound like me when they sing. But little bits of equipment can add to what it is that makes you, you. The Moog has got its own sound.
But as one of the very first mass-market synths is it still possible to sound unique with it?
[I don't know] Whether it's a myth or not but everyone sounds slightly different from the other, no two are the same. I could be wrong on that—but it's just a fucking beast. Once you start putting it through outboard effects and just adding that extra dimension to it…
What do you use it for specifically?
Basses. I've been multi-sampling it, actually. Me and Instra:mental are doing that. Cus obviously it's a mono synth, we started multi-sampling so we could make the sounds poly as well, getting that was another aspect of it which was really cool. Making pads and strings that you wouldn't normally think that you could get out of it, but you can. I think there're some tracks that we've done which have what would be considered lead lines, turned into strings. So it has still, even to this day, got its uses—the bass is ridiculously low, the resonance and the mids will blow any eardrum given half a chance. [laughs]
What are some of the effects you put it through?
I use the Eventide Ultra-Harmoniser. Even just going through the presets, I haven't even gone through all of them. What I like to do, once you've found a sound, is record it in and so you've then still got the option of being able to use the digital—you can add digital effects on top of it, as well. So at the moment I've just got two outboard effects units, but that's something I want to rectify.
Are you doing all your mix-downs "in the box"?
At the moment there are certain kinds of things I have to do within there, just because I haven't actually got the equipment that I want. So I'm still building; I want more compressors, EQs, just limiters and whatnot. I want ideally to get to the stage Damon is at now: he's pretty much just using the computer as a multi-tracker. You know, and even then, it'd be nice to get away from not having to use that, if there was some other option.
Do you feel pretty competent on the mixing side of things?
I hate mixing.
I fucking hate it, always have.
Cus I don't think I'm very good at it. Yeah, it's not my strong point, which is why hopefully—he doesn't even know it yet—when Consequence is coming in here, he's going to be mixing down all my tracks. [laughs] Cus I like his mix-downs, and I think there's a mistake that a lot of people make, that they think that they're something that they're not, and a lot of it is mastering or engineers. That's why it always weirded me out that people sort of, cussed producers who didn't know how to use a sampler or didn't know...you know like Goldie, who doesn't know how to use this equipment, but that doesn't matter, why should he need to know how to do it?
Let the person who does know how to do it, do it and do it well, so that you can concentrate [on other things]. The same way you look at bands, is like, a band will go in, record, they'll have an engineer and the engineer will tell the band to fuck off and let him mix it. Working with Instra:mental—Al—what was the point of me trying to get involved on the mix-down, when that's what he's bloody good at? So I do it out of necessity but I don't like doing it.
What is it specifically that turns you off so much about it?
Because I'm not sure that I'm doing it right. In my head and in my ears I've got this vision of how I want things to sound and I can't get it. And I think the problem is because I haven't got a million pound studio, with all this great outboard and a 72-track SSL desk. I listen to albums like Depeche Mode's Violator and I just listen in my headphones and it's like, "Oh god, why can't my stuff sound like this?" And it bugs the hell out of me, and I know Instra:mental have the same thing as well. He'd always be, especially Al, writing his stuff and he'd be like [groans], so frustrated.
What happens, you get caught up in it, you're kind of like, "It doesn't sound right, doesn't sound right. Fuck that, OK, get another piece of equipment. Right, all those tracks that I've built then are shit, because they don't sound right, because I didn't have this now. All those tracks are dead to me." [laughs] In a way, you're kind of moving yourself forward, but at the expense of some of your music.
Logic is your main DAW currently?
Yeah, Logic's my front-end, my DAW.
How do you split the work between Ableton and Logic?
There are tracks—ideas—that I've got together in Ableton, but I don't feel comfortable completing them in Ableton. I don't feel comfortable arranging them, or just doing those little tweaks and cuts that I can do in Logic, just because I've had years of experience with it.
"Why's it always the bloody ones
I put no real effort into are
the ones that everyone likes?"
So you'd complete your arrangements in Logic. How do you approach this?
I think at the moment, because a lot of my stuff's song-based, I'm generally working out verse sections and chorus sections. So once I feel comfortable that I've got those two sections built, I can expand from there on; it's like "How am I going to get to those sections?"
And when you say section, would that be...
Like a 16-bar loop of sorts, of each thing. And in my head as well I may even—before I even arrange it out—have melodies sung over it or vocal ideas over each section, so I can kind of hear and play it out before I actually arrange it out. So yeah, it is mainly two vocal/chorus sections at the minute, that's how I seem to work.
Is there a typical length of time it would take you to get to the arrangement stage?
Not really. Every track's different. I started a thing not too long ago where I wanted to write a track a day, from start to finish, that was it. And I did, I managed—I think I got about eight, nine tracks done, one track every day, not overthinking it, not overanalysing it too much, just trying to catch a vibe. Cus there was a point where I started to sit down and look at some of the tunes, the tunes that people liked of mine, and invariably it was always the ones that took me the least amount of time to do.
Probably one of my biggest tracks, "True Romance," I think I came back from a club and I'd written that track and mixed it down the next day...It always annoyed me in some ways—"Why's it always the bloody ones I put no real effort into are the ones that everyone likes?" But the ones I personally like are the ones I spent fucking days or months on. Even to one point, there's a track on my album that took seven years to finally finish...I've just been picking at it every now and then, going back to it, going back to it.
Do you tend to do that a lot?
Yeah, I've got old tracks that I'll load it up and be like, "Yeah, it's still good" then I'll add another sound and then I'll come back to it in six months, see where it's at.
Do you think you've always felt most comfortable at 170 BPM?
Yeah, 170 or half-time—85 hip-hop—that's where I feel comfortable. I can do what I want to do, but more so—just because I think I've grown up with that, and I know those tempos and I'm comfortable with knowing the music. More recently, since getting into a wider variety of electronica and listening to it, I'm starting to think, "OK, maybe I can do what it is that I do at a different tempo." I've been giving it a go, and yeah, some of it's alright. I suppose I get worried; I don't want to be a jack of all trades and a master of none.
I've still got a lot to explore within the confines of drum & bass, but now that I'm singing and now that I'm writing songs, tempo in a weird kind of way becomes irrelevant. It's what fits the mood of the track—or mood of the song—that you want to sing. And I'm almost finding that if I'm writing drum & bass, this actual song that I want to write doesn't really work at a 170 tempo.
Are you feeling more confident with your voice these days? I know you had reservations when you were starting out.
A little bit more. [laughs] I still shit myself. I don't want to use Autotune and all those kind of things. I'm not an accomplished singer, as such, so the way I kind of work is looping because within Logic it records your tracks, comps the tracks. So you can just "take that bit, that bit, that bit, and that all works." So there's a lot of cut and paste, kind of piecing it all together. You might deliver a line slightly differently each time around, so, "OK, actually I liked the way I did it on there," and you create a verse out of this thing. I'm not having to use Melodyne, Autotune or kind of robotise—over robotise—my voice to get it perfectly in key. I don't want that, because then I just wouldn't feel like it was me.
Published / Monday, 09 May 2011
Photo credits / Sam Donnison