|Machine Love: Ikonika
RA's Ryan Keeling heads out to West London to talk production with the key Hyperdub artist.
Sara Abdel-Hamid, AKA Ikonika, emerged during a period of rampant creativity in the UK. It was 2008, and dubstep was still largely in one piece, some time before the disintegration that marked the decade's later stages. Kode9's Hyperdub was enjoying one of its many purple patches, and Ikonika's mélange of 8-bit synthesis, playful melodies and 140 BPM crunch could not have felt more at home on the imprint. Alongside half-a-dozen singles, she released a full-length, Contact, Love, Want, Have, through the label, while also contributing to Planet Mu and setting up her own imprint, Hum + Buzz.
It was a prolific couple of years by anyone's standards, but then, suddenly, the music stopped. Ikonika has since given a number of explanations for the period of inactivity that saw her release nothing during 2011 and just a single EP in 2012, but, put simply, there was a shift in her music tastes and production process. Like many of her peers in the London scene, Ikonika learned the music production ropes on Fruity Loops. The programme has become a byword for quick-fire creativity, but she became motivated to involve herself more deeply in Logic, looking to achieve a more "polished sound." (Her album was written using a combination of the two.) House and techno have been increasingly on her radar recently, but when I visited her West London studio late last year, it seemed as though she was in a transitional period, enjoying pure experimentation as she worked towards shaping her sophomore album.
After your album and all the activity of 2010 you've only recently returned. What was the reason for the break?
It was mostly to just DJ and... I dunno, I was just trying to make stuff and it wasn't coming out how I wanted it. I was getting kinda bored of dubstep and UK funky, and I think I just wanted to not be a part of that anymore. Just like the rhythms were boring, the melodies were boring, and I was getting kinda bored of my own bleeps as well—like, I didn't wanna be known for being an 8-bit, chiptune kind of producer. The way I see it, I'm still learning; I shouldn't be labelled as one thing, [I'm] still exploring more hardware stuff and trying not to use too much software. Starting again, I suppose.
So did you actually take a decision to stop releasing music?
I started Hum & Buzz around that time as well, so put a bit of time into that. Put some time into going out to clubs more and trying to rave again and try and enjoy dancing and just listening to more drum tracks. I started getting into classic house and a little bit of techno and a lot of old ghetto tunes. It's kind of Night Slugs' fault, I suppose, because I was always hanging around with those guys and watching them DJ and being really like, "Wow, I've never heard any kind of tunes like this."
The chiptune synth lines you were talking about: were these just naturally coming out of you?
Half of [my album, Contact, Love, Want, Have] was made on Logic and half of it was made on Fruity Loops. I was pretty much using the same samples and stuff, and I'd only been producing since 2007, so everything kind of hit me hard. The stuff I was using was kind of limited, I was using like a really rubbish laptop and those bleep samples and just trying to exhaust them I suppose.
Do you think there are particular limitations to using something like Fruity Loops?
Fruity Loops is fun. I love the sequencer and I love the arpeggiator in the sampler. For me, I just wanted to learn more and Logic seemed like a way of doing that and exploring, and trying to get my mix-downs better. I thought Logic might help me with that as it seemed like it could give me like a general polished sound.
So you've had this period of time away, are there key things that have changed in your approach?
Yeah I think when I got the Maschine it had the sequencer, the step sequencer, and that kind of reminded me of Fruity Loops... I just got [Maschine] because I wanted to improve my drums and make new rhythms because I think that was the problem after UK funky: there wasn't any kind of new groove that everyone got really excited about.
So what do you principally think you're pulling in from at the moment, groove-wise?
Like I said, I've just been listening to some classic house, a lot of stuff from like Legowelt, Omar-S and Levon Vincent. I kind of like the way their beats are just simple but quite hypnotising. I think some of my earlier stuff was a bit cluttered and all over the place and a bit manic. I just kind of want to strip it down a little bit.
I guess you're producing stuff quite a bit faster than a Levon Vincent would do.
Yeah, I started off at 140 in the early stuff and [have been] slowly going down and down. I quite like anything from 120 to 135. [But] that's not really like a conscious decision when I start a new project.
How do you make that decision?
Sometimes I'll shift [the tempo] up and down and then realise that I was kind of right at the beginning, because you're just so used to the metronome. Usually I do stick with it, and it's just a random kind of decision, really.
On I Make Lists there seems to be a theme throughout with the lead synth lines you used. Is that the case?
It's a soft synth, it's just from Logic. It's an ES2 and it's just a trancey synth. I was listening to a lot of the Dipset Trance Party compilations and mixtapes. I dunno, I just kind of thought it was hilarious and I love having that humour in my tunes. It's just a fun synth to play and to me all that matters with my leads is that it's fun and playful.
Do you have much of a traditional music background?
[It's] mostly by feel, I only took drum lessons when I was younger... When I was in a band I used to write the rhythms or the beatdowns and bridges and stuff like that, but no, I've never had piano lessons but it is something I do want to do in the future.
Would you say that rhythm forms the basis of your ideas?
Yes and no. Sometimes I'll just muck around on the synths and then find a nice 8-bar melody and work round it. Actually... I don't usually start with the drums that much, and actually on my second album there is a lot of beatless stuff because I haven't put the drums on, but everything has been arranged with the melodies and stuff like that.
My favourite part of producing is just mucking around, really, and not taking it seriously and not feeling like I have to make a song, but just recording little bits of whatever and vibing off that. I think for I Make Lists I started off with the bassline and then it just progressed from there. It kind of depends—generally the melody first, arrangements, and then chuck in some drums of top.
Picking up on the EP's title, you've mentioned before that you're a compulsive list maker. Is this something you do for production also, like in terms of rules?
Yeah and I think that's kinda why I've been away for a long time because I just had too many rules. Like if I had a mid-bass then I had to have a sub-bass underneath, I couldn't just have a sub-bass from the kick, stupid things like that. Or I had to write like a 16-bar lead or I had to have some kind of chorus or hook. I think I was just making fun of myself by naming the EP that. I do generally like to be organised with things in my personal life.
Do you think you were applying rules or were they actually habits?
[It was things like] forgetting that you're a producer, and like an experimental producer. So like things have to be done this way, and like every 16 bars I have to change something, and just general kind of crap like that. I think now I'm kind of slowly realising that I can just do what I want.
Where do you think you're at with that at the moment?
Yeah, it's kinda hard with the second album as well because everyone is remembering Contact and [they] want me to carry on from that. A lot of the tunes [on the new album].... there are some weird sounds on there, but a lot of it is straighter than the [older] cluttered stuff.
Have you found yourself gradually using less sequencer tracks?
Yeah totally. It's like this song [points to the screen] is practically done and there's not many tracks/channels in there.
How many are there roughly?
There's 19 there.
And how many would you have had previously?
Before I knew about automation? 25 or something like that. It doesn't sound like that much but it helps with the workload.
Has automation been a new thing for you?
Yeah, with Fruity Loops it was all kind of fun: you could assign anything to MIDI and work with it. Logic 8, I think it's pretty rubbish for MIDI stuff like that; hands on MIDI stuff. I usually just draw everything in [checks for automation in current track]. There's one little bit. Just to try and find new ways of not making anything sound too fatiguing, and usually it's just something like changing the kick drum somewhere... I love automating reverb and pitch and it just makes nice drops and things like that, and builds atmosphere. I like Logic's built in plug-ins, I love their compressors and effects and I don't use any external effects.
Why did you go for Logic over the others?
Mostly for me trying to step up a little bit. A lot of people still use Fruity Loops but for me, back then, it was like, "Oh I need to have a professional sound."
Did you notice a step up in sound quality?
Sometimes I still think, generally, Fruity Loops has better drum sounds; the drums sound a lot thicker. With Logic I have to put some stuff on there, sometimes layer some stuff. I'm pretty happy with Logic now and knowing how to compress. A lot of this stuff sounds stupid and simple, but Fruity Loops, when I was on it, I wasn't EQing anything, I wasn't compressing anything. It was all just volumes and with Logic I guess I've just been experimenting with more of it, and trying to understand it more. Not so much in like a technical way: I wouldn't know my thresholds from my ratios and stuff like that, but I know how things should look and should sound, and to me that's fine. Kind of using it as effects and as instruments rather than an engineering tool.
Do you feel as though that's helped you in a weird sort of way?
Experimenting is the one thing that I love, just because it's fun. The whole process to me should be fun and when it stops being fun it's not cool. I think having just a little bit of ignorance makes it even more exciting, I suppose. And like what I said with rules and stuff, it'll just be like another rule I guess and I'm trying not to be a part of that.
Have you had someone to help with mixdowns?
Malcom, he's Optimum, who helps me run Hum & Buzz. He got Logic first so he kind of gave me a crash course in Logic when I was making Contact and helped with the transition and he watched all the Youtube videos for me and then showed me. I hate reading manuals. I'm kind of hands-on practical and I don't really care too much for theory, I just care about how things sound and feel.
Which gear do you enjoy messing around with?
Recently these two things [points: the [Roland] 707 and the fake 303 [x0xb0x]. I got the 707 maybe a year ago, because I always loved the 707 sounds, I love the kick and I love the clap. I think the clap is the same as a 909. I also got it because it's cheap and cheerful and you can't mess around with the sounds and they're all just stock, just volumes again. I was kind of attracted to that, the simplicity of it, and the groove of it, and the colour and size of it.
Do you do additional processing on it?
Yeah the kick sounds really good when I chuck it in Logic and add some compression. When I'm just mucking around I have these two [the 707 and the x0xb0x] synced together and I just play it through my hi-fi just to get ideas. I mean, the best thing about them is you just [enter] in the stuff and it stops me thinking about melodies and leads. It gets me excited about the groove and seeing how long I can go with just the loop going until I get bored... and if I don't get bored I'll record it into Logic.
What would typically be the gestation period on one of these loops?
What I kind of love about them is just that it's kind of instant and it just sounds good. To me, I feel like I'm cheating almost because I'm chucking stuff in, I don't know what notes are playing, and I don't know how fast it's going. It's just a lot different than staring at a screen and it being blank and not knowing what to do.
What's the story with the Yamaha [PSS-680]?
Malcolm bought it because he remembered having one as a kid, and he randomly looked it up on Google and found out that it actually has MIDI and it's a pretty cool thing. It sounds like [it has] a lot of dust, a lot of distortion, and it sounds really shit, but the portamento is kinda funny. It's got percussion here [points], four banks, and it's really rubbish, it's not sensitive at all and you really have to smash it. And it comes out of one side of the speaker (it's got a built in speaker). But he got it for £20. I think that Legowelt recently got one, and he posts stuff on his website, and he was like, "yeah I got this rubbish Yamaha and everyone is being really snobby about it but to me it's kind of fun and kind of stupid."
Have you managed to get it on a track?
We did a cover of Madonna's "Dress You Up" but nobody can hear that [laughs].
When did you get the [Moog] Little Phatty?
That was with my first advance from Hyperdub and I thought I had to try and make an investment so I got that. I think Kode9 had just bought his Voyager as well so he made me kinda Moog jealous. So yeah, I got it, used it a bit for Contact. Moog and the [Alesis] Micron were the only two things I used. I love it for the leads and for the bass. I love monophonic synths because you just hit them and something weird comes out.
How confident are you with synthesis?
I mean, I'm pretty lucky that [the Little Phatty] has only got two oscillators so it's pretty easy to deal with and the face of it is pretty easy to use and the filter is pretty nice. I don't know how these things are built, really. I don't take the time to be too geeky on it. I really love the keys on this because they're nice and big and the weight of them is pretty nice, and for ages I was just using it as a MIDI controller.
You've mentioned before that video games inform your music in some ways. Were you a massive gamer?
I wouldn't say I was massive, but it was more like a normal thing, like playing the Megadrive practically every day. When I was making the first album I was remembering all that stuff and remembering when I first got into garage and I was playing Megadrive at the same time.
Did those sounds consciously find...
No, I think when I was mucking around with Fruity Loops and I found a bleep sample in one of my sample packs I automatically felt quite warm to it. Then afterwards I thought it could be because I played video games all the time and subconsciously having those sounds in you. It's nice to have something like music producing to open that stuff up and make you remember that kind of stuff and how much of an influence it had on you growing up.
Do you remember having any favourite games, music-wise?
Yeah course, like Streets of Rage, and realising afterwards how techno that was and how ravey that was.
I can't bring it to mind. Did it have beats and stuff?
It was proper like 4/4 and really Roland but converted to 16-bit. I had the soundtrack somewhere, like all three of them. Pretty good stuff.
Published / Thursday, 17 January 2013
Photo credits / Paul Clement