Still, Kinchen never lost his connection with house. When the scene re-embraced to the sort of direct and melodic style he'd helped pioneer, that sound once again started flowing from his studio. More than the musical environment had changed by this point, though: the hardware samplers and synthesizers that had once formed the backbone of Kinchen's production process had largely been replaced by plug-ins and hybrid systems like Native Instruments' Maschine. When we caught up with Kinchen in his LA studio recently, he seemed to have found the balance between all that's changed in production with the approach—and the signature sound—that's always worked so well for him.
I wanted to start by asking about Native Instruments' Maschine, which has become a pretty big part of your workflow. How did you get into it?
Well in the '90s when I was doing a lot of remixes, I'd use an Akai sampler to kind of chop my vocal dubs. I was using the Akai MPC, but I was doing my samples on the Akai S1100. Back then, I would pretty much run around with my eyes closed. You know, my workflow got really, really fast using it, so it was kind of like having to start over. The Maschine was a totally different way of doing things, compared to the way I did it before, so it took me a while to get my head around it. Then, you know, I took a break from house music, and then I got back into it, and the Akai sampler is way out date by this point. I'm like, "how am I gonna chop my vocals now?" Maschine had just came out, and I bought it. I tried to use it, and I'm like, "wow, this is way too confusing," so I let it sit for a while, just didn't use it. Then it got to a point where some remixes were coming, and I was like, "okay, got to work this out now because I don't have any other way to do it," and I started getting into it. The way you can chop samples and do things, I kind of got into it from there—not even for the [included] drums, or for the effects, you know. Just to mess with samples.
So you're basically using it like an updated version of the MPC?
Yeah, but now I do use it for drums, and actually use it for synth stuff, too. And it's funny you should ask about Maschine, because I got home last night and the Maschine Studio was here waiting for me, the new one.
Have you had a chance to play around with a prototype or anything, or are you just going to dive in?
I just got to dive in. I'm installing the software as we talk. It's almost twice the size of Maschine—the other one—with two really big screens. It looks sick, really dope.
Would you say that Maschine is the center of your studio now—your main thing for making music?
It definitely is. I have a Maschine Mikro, too, that I take on the road. It's definitely my favorite piece that I have right now, hands down.
Talking about this long break from making house music, and the evolution of sampling from devices like the MPC to something like Maschine—both of these hint that a lot changed between when you started working on house music in the '90s and when you got back into it more recently. What were some of the other big changes?
I guess the biggest change was having everything integrated in one computer. Just the fact that you don't have to MIDI-chain ten keyboards together with audio and try to figure out why this doesn't work and that doesn't work. It's actually a lot easier now. Some people think it's more confusing, but it's actually a lot easier.
Easier because you don't have to wire everything up, or are there other things that make it more intuitive now?
Dude, in the '90s like I used to have like an inside joke with myself, where I would spend at least three hours of the day just troubleshooting why something didn't work.
You had to be a tech guru as much as a creative person.
It was craziest thing. It became part of my schedule—like, working on a song, a remix, and I'm like, okay, I'm going to have at least three hours of trying to figure out why something doesn't work. And it was literally like that every single time I went into the studio.
It looks like there are still a couple of hardware synths you still work with, plus an electronic drum kit. These days, what role does hardware play, and what role does software play?
I recently started buying more hardware just because there's some cool pieces out now, like the Moog Voyager, it’s sick, and like the Moog Phatty is really good. I bought a Roland Jupiter.
That's one of the real classics here.
The funny thing is, I had a Jupiter 8, and I lost it.
You lost it?
I lost a Jupiter 8.
Well, a Jupiter 6 isn't a bad replacement.
It's a good replacement, definitely a good replacement. Now, I'm not doing a totally analog studio, but I am getting analog pieces, just to go with my digital equipment.
Do you use the analog pieces mainly to take advantage of the sound? Like, do you find you're able to get sounds out of that equipment that you can't get out of software?
They give me some extra options. Yeah, especially with the Jupiter 6, just because it's quirky. I work with Lee Foss a lot, and that's one of his favorite pieces. He comes over and just goes to town with it, just because it's so random, you know? Sometimes you don't even get the same sound twice.
You mentioned Lee Foss, and it seems like collaboration is a big part of your practice in the studio. So much of the work you've done over the years has been with other producers or artists, whether you're remixing them or co-producing or straight-up producing them. Tell me about how you work in the studio in a collaborative sense.
Mostly I think I'm the most hands-on producer out of all of us. So for example, I'll go to Lee's house, and I'll just sort of sit in front of his equipment and start messing around, and Lee will open up his laptop and play me things that he kind of wants to make a song similar to, or just catch that vibe of that song. With the song we did, "Electricity," he played me the Michael Jackson song "Billie Jean," and if you listen to "Electricity" and listen to "Billy Jean," it's like, "oh, okay, it's the same type of groove," as far as the drums. So we started going through drums, and Lee would say, "Get up, get up for a second," and he would sit down, and he would give me some of his drum samples and say, "Use this one, try this one." We were a tag team. I'll play keyboards for a little while, and he would say, "Let me try something." He doesn't play as well as I play, so he would try and show me what he's trying to play, and then I would play it and play it more in the pocket or whatever. But it's really back and forth. You know, sometimes we even do it remotely, over phone or Skype.
I would imagine that's another big change that's come into play since you came back to house music: the ability to work remotely like that.
A lot of times, with other producers, you can send sessions back and forth. I'll start something, I'll send it back. You couldn't do that before—well, not as easily. You could mail multi-track tapes, I guess, but…
Maybe that's a good segue back to the beginning of your production career. You sort of got your start working out Kevin Saunderson's studio, right?
I actually started producing when I was like 14. I started teaching myself. I had always been like an equipment guy, a tech guy. I love music, but I love the things you can do with the equipment, you know? Synthesisers, they started getting big in the '80s, and I was totally infatuated by them.
How did you first make contact with synths?
I was in eighth grade, so I was like 13, and there was this kid who lived around the block from me. He was in a band, and like, back in the '80s in Detroit, Prince was huge, almost like the only thing, at least for kids who had bands and stuff like that. Everyone tried to mimic Prince songs and use synthesizers like Prince. This guy had a Korg Poly-800, and I saw it and I was like, this is incredible. At 13, I had zero dollars, so there was no way I could ever buy one, so I would just read magazines. I'd get keyboard magazines and literally sleep with the magazines. I'd look at them when I woke up, and when I got to bed, to a point where I was teaching myself what I could, with whatever equipment I had. I finally got a Roland Juno-106—my first synthesizer— and a Yamaha QX7 sequencer, and I just did the two up, teaching myself how to sequence and, you know, do a bassline and chords. So I knew a little bit before I got to Kevin. I was just as good as him as far as working around the studio, knowing how to use equipment. And then I was just learning how to make house music, and techno music.
His studio must have been an exponential jump in terms of the amount of equipment you had access to. You must have felt like a kid in a candy store.
He had everything. There would be stuff in the corner, like, collecting dust, and I would be like, "wow, look!"
You mentioned you knew your way around that studio pretty well. Did you feel like he showed you things, and you were also able to show him some things?
No, I didn't feel like that. I mean, I was very shy in the studio, especially around Kevin. I didn't really say much, you know. I wasn't a very vocal producer. I just went in and kind of did my thing. He had some pieces that, he had this Kurzweil piece, and it weighed maybe four pounds, and that's actually a lot for a rack-mount. I just remember it being really heavy, and it was basically just piano, strings, a bass and a vibraphone, that was it. And I'm like, "How come he doesn't use this? This is pretty cool." But you couldn't alter the sounds. It wasn't like a synthesizer; it was more like a preset rack-mount piece of gear, and it had like this vibraphone sound and I'm like "wow, that's sick," and that’s the sound I used for "Burning," actually.
So that was a chance encounter with something that ended up becoming a signature sound.
That's where I got a lot of my organ sounds, too. It wasn't a popular piece at all. It was at the bottom of the list for being popular.
You've had a sound that's recognizably all yours for quite a long time. Do you have a sense of when that sound started to take shape?
Yeah, I think it started really when I did [the remix of Nightcrawlers'] "Push The Feeling On." Then after that, [Robin S's] "Show Me Love" came out, and I remember hearing it and thinking, "Did I make that?" because I was doing a lot of remixes at the time. And then Stonebridge did [the remix], and I was like, "oh, that sounds like me." And that's when I started to notice songs that are beginning to sound similar, or people may think that a sound is pretty popular or whatever.
Do you think part of finding your own sound was developing your own way of working in the studio?
I never really thought about it consciously. I tried to find sounds that I liked—that's all I tried doing. And believe it or not, back then, it was really hard to find sounds that you liked.
Like hard to find a machine that had a sound you liked?
Well like, on the older synths, they weren’t as programmable as you may think. I mean, a lot of the early '80s synths, yes, but when Roland started making the JD 990s and a lot of the more colorful keyboards, they were kind of already set, you know? They had a lot of reverb and were bright sounding. It was hard to find dark, dry sound on those things, and that's what I always looked for: dry sounds, very raw type of sounds. I didn't like wet sounds, and you know, those companies don't want raw, dry sounds in the synthesizers they are trying to sell. They wanted them to sound, you know, big and fat and pretty. So I was always digging for those sounds.
Totally. It's funny, because I spend a little more time looking for sounds, and using them in a lot of different ways from how you normally would. I mean a lot of people use Sylenth—I use Sylenth, also. But I used it on my Lana Del Rey remix of "Blue Jeans." There's a synth sound, but it was really weird, it's off key, and if you try and play it, it doesn't really work right. I was playing these chords, and they were kind of out of key a little bit, but then when I layered it with a bass sound it all kind of gelled together, and I think that if the average quote-unquote "bedroom producer" found that sound they would probably skip over it and not try and use it, because it was so wrong I guess. So I still try and find those weird sounds that most people would skip over.
I think this speaks to your experience as a remixer, which is what you're probably best known for. Your remix discography is incredibly broad, and I’m curious how you decide what to work on and what you don't want to do. Is there something you're looking for in a track where when you hear it, you say, "Okay, I can do an MK dub of this."
Yeah, there's a couple of different things. One, my management takes a big part of that. They usually screen everything first, they go through the label—you know, what label is it, how cool is the group, what benefits me from doing that remix, kind of thing. And then they send it to me, and then I listen to it to see if I can do a good mix. I listen to just the vocals—the rest of the track means nothing, because I'm gonna not use the track anyway, so I only listen to the vocals. Sometimes I do remix those songs where the vocals are kind of weird, and I try and make it into something, but when I get those really good vocals, I'm like, "this is going to be amazing." Like when i first heard [Lana Del Rey's] "Summertime Sadness," I'm like wow, these are really, really, really good vocals.
What makes a vocal for you? In an MK dub, sometimes the vocals end up sounding very, very different from how they did in the original. You're grabbing a syllable here, a consonant sound there…
I listen to the tone of the voice. Some people have really good tones, and some people don't have good tones. For me, a good vocal is the tone of the voice, the singing and skill of the voice and the rhythm, the pocket. Like some singers have a really good pocket, and when they have a really good pocket, a good tone, a good voice, the sky's the limit, because I can do dubs, and recreate new melodies. Just something that gets interesting.
Have there been any vocals you've taken up over the years that have been particularly challenging?
There's a couple of songs this year that they asked me to remix, and the vocals were so bad I can't imagine. You know? I'm like, "have them send me a different song, I can't do it." I could have done it, but sometimes you get those singers who are just way off-key, and just, "How did they get on that record?" That's when I'm like, "okay, maybe I'll pass on this."
You've been doing MK dubs for years now. How do you keep the sound fresh for yourself?
Because it's never, ever, ever the same. You can get bored with a song, but the reason I chop the vocals is to just to get me excited and into what I'm doing. I mean, first I just find the key of the song, I play chords and sequence some chords that are in the same key. I chop vocals and just experiment. I can do it for hours until I'm excited—like, "oh that's dope." I make it till I get myself into it, that's all. I don't try and make it where it sounds like [a particular] DJ would play it. I just make it till I'm like, "oh, this is sick," and then I go from there.
You've got an electric drum kit here, too. Did you ever take lessons?
No, but I always just mess around playing drums. Sometimes it's jamming by myself, but I got them to play during a remix. Like, I'm going to be playing hi-hats all the way down the track just to get a variation.
Is that your way of keeping things from getting too quantized?
Yeah, definitely. It gives it more of a natural energy. You feel like the track gets more energetic, anyway. You're playing live all the way through, so you just automatically do it. I may add that stuff at the very last stage of the mix, though, when the track's pretty much done, like let me just play a hi-hat down until it crashes.
You've got your toes in two camps these days, doing house as well as more mainstream pop work. Do you approach these projects—something for Hot Creations on the one hand, a track for Pitbull on the other—differently in the studio?
100 percent. The funny thing is, I kind of toned down from that other [pop] stuff. I've had so much success doing what I really, really love doing, and thats DJing, remixing and producing dance stuff, where I've literally—like, my phone just went off to go do something with Will Smith's kids, and Pitbull also. But the workflow is 100 percent different. For example, Pitbull, you know, I did the Men In Black 3 theme song: the way that happened is that a guy did that version using that same sample, he liked the sample but didn't like the track. So he called me and said, "Hey, can you take this sample and make a track with it?" I say, "Yeah, let me see what I can do." So I basically just rolled the sample and literally just started working on the music for it, but it's more conscious because I'm thinking, you know, its not just for Pitbull, its for a movie. So I can't just go, "I'm going to make this a club banger," you know what I mean? There’s a lot more to think about. He played me another song that he wanted it similar to, so I kinda put an idea together and sent it to him. It took him a couple of hours, and he was like, "I love it." I'm like, "okay, let me finish it," and he says, "Wait, let me record the vocals first," so he recorded the vocals sent it back, I tweaked it a little more, but I still wasn't done, I still had a lot to go in my opinion. He sent it to Sony, and they loved it, and I'm like, "Pit, its not done yet, why did you send it?" He's like, "Nah, its good, they love it, don't touch it."
Sounds like the creative process can very easily get out of your own hands—you know, too many cooks.
It's weird doing stuff like that. It goes to management, record companies, somebody else, somebody else, and then you're like, "wow, this is way too much work." It's too much work for it to not be your own, if that makes sense.