Mark Smith hears about the studio methods behind this UK producer's distinctive raw sound.
Rather than waiting for inspiration to strike, the London native gets his ideas while messing about with technical processes and forgetting that he's even making music. Toying with hardware is too slow an option; instead, streams of samples are subjected to considerable manipulation and, paradoxically, end up sounding more organic than your average hardware jam. It's a workflow that's seen Walder hit his stride in recent times, and an upcoming string of releases on Clone's Basement Series sublabel and Dekmantel's freshly-minted UFO imprint should see his instantly recognisable sound gracing more sets than ever.
What's the story with Gaunson House?
These industrial buildings have been here for a long time. I grew up here in North London so I've been around these parts for a while. Obviously it's really changed here. I remember coming here for illegal raves but now these same buildings are full of artists and studios. I was working out of various places before this, especially in the kitchen of my own flat. I only made about one track in nine months because it was so shit in there. It sounded terrible and I've got an elderly neighbour who's really nice but I couldn't turn it up that loud without feeling bad.
I'd rented another studio in the past but it was basically a vibe-free zone. There were no windows, no light and the rooms weren't soundproofed so you could hear the drummer practicing next door to you. It wasn't a place you'd like to spend all day, but here there's a nice little cafe and sofas and my friends are around all day. It's kind of like coming to work and because of that I'm more productive than I've been in years.
What was your setup like when you first started making tunes?
I had a PC with a hi-fi and a guitar. I started out playing guitar, actually. I had a mate who was also into music and he played drums, and we used to jam together. He actually ended up making music on Hessle Audio under the name Joe. I think he showed me Fruity Loops. I was into programming when I was younger, trying to make my own games and stuff, but I was never any good at it so I did music instead. Also, growing up in London, you hear jungle and drum & bass on the radio and that was more exciting than anything I'd heard before. I still feel the same way about it, especially the stuff released between about '97 and the early 2000s. I spent years trying to make drum & bass on Fruity Loops.
Where do you start with trying to write a type of music when you have no technical understanding of how to do it?
First off I was learning the drum patterns, which I found quite hard. I remember having this moment when I discovered what ghost notes were. Before that, every snare was at the same velocity and I had no idea why it sounded wrong. Then at some stage I listened to "Centre Of The Storm" by Roni Size and Zack De La Rocha, which has all these ghosted snares, and I was like, "Oh shit, that's how you do it." That was a big deal for me at the time!
The funny thing is that I eventually went back to the guitar because I couldn't make electronic stuff that sounded how I wanted. I was really into jazz guitar between ages 16 and 18, but I'd try and fit it into the electronic realm and make really random, weird stuff. Essentially I'm still messing around now like I was back then. Over the years you refine it and refine it, and now experiments come out alright.
Did your interest in music theory come from learning jazz guitar? Are we talking counterpoint and weird chord inversions?
I would've loved to have learned counterpoint. I did a degree in popular and non-Western music and being 18, I just chose modules that I was already good at, so I missed out on that sort of thing. I'm interested in harmony and stuff like that, but it's tricky trying to fit that sort of knowledge into electronic music. This traditional way of thinking about music sort of clashes with sound design and making music on a computer.
How do you bridge the gap between these different ways of thinking about music?
It's time consuming. It'd take me ages to make an interesting jazz chord progression, or you could just sample Bitches Brew. Even if you recreate the harmonic structure of the chords and put them in a soft synth or something, you lose all the clashing harmonics and studio bleed that gives the sampled chord its character. Maybe some guy in the original session was in the corner of the studio playing some bells which leaked into the key part—it's quirks like that which make those sounds exciting.
Some people would have you laboriously recording your own version of those samples rather than taking the "easy" route, but that doesn't account for how important speed is to creativity.
I'm always fighting with a voice in my head that says I have make everything myself. At the end of the day though, I find I should probably sample more because it's easier for me to make tunes that way. I wouldn't stress so much over what I'm doing. Before you came in, I was messing about with sending a pan flute sound into this guitar pedal. I wrote a decent melody for it in MIDI and put some effects on it, but it didn't really gel until I resampled it into audio. I didn't start doing this until recently—I should've done it years ago.
Organic drum sounds have been fairly central to your sound for years now. Are you recording any of these yourself or are you mainly sampling?
I don't record any drums with me hitting something. My timing is awful. Actually, maybe that would sound good because you could play about with how badly performed it is. But I haven't done that because I'm lazy. I think a lot of things with me come down to laziness. Melodies come out really quickly when I'm playing guitar, way faster than I could ever write on a keyboard, and my guitar has a MIDI pickup installed so I could use it in my productions. But it's over there on the other side of the room, so I never pick it up.
People like to associate laziness with a lack of artistic integrity, especially with the sampling argument. Do you think there's a larger issue whereby what you do to a sound and how you contextualise it is always more important than whether you physically made it from scratch?
In electronic music it's definitely about what you do to the sound. I wouldn't say anyone is lazy for sampling. People forget that a sampler is a granular synthesiser at heart. So when people draw a distinction between sampling and synthesis, I think that's kind of wrong. A synthesiser is synthesising raw waveforms, but when you get to something like wavetabling, where you've got a snapshot of a wave that already exists, you're halfway to sampling already.. Plus, some samplers have FM engines in them, too.
I'm a bit too lazy when it comes to my own writing. I'm not mindful enough of what I'm doing because I've been doing it for so long that I end up doing things without thinking about it, which is annoying. This week I was stuck with something I was writing. It's such a common problem for producers to build an idea that gets them buzzing, say a four-bar loop, but you work on making it sound perfect rather than extending the idea. Then by the time it sounds good, you've missed the opportunity to develop it because you're sick of it.
And recording your own drum sounds rather than sampling will slow you down even more. Is speed an important factor?
Definitely for me, yeah. Speed is one part of it but being able to stay in that state of mind where you don't have to think about what you're doing is just as important. I guess they go hand-in-hand. Most people would agree that that's when they're making their best stuff. I've also been writing a lot of notes to keep me on the ball. I forget to read a lot of them, but when I do they're quite useful.
Having nice samples is all well and good but how do you like to sequence them?
I really enjoy doing the same task in different ways. Sometimes I take a loop and drop the raw audio waveform into Ableton. Ableton's got this "slice to drum rack" feature which is really cool. You slice up a percussion loop and then put different plug-ins on every single slice and then automate them all together. You can do something similar in Kontakt and so all I've been doing this week is making tunes how I would usually but with Kontakt instead of Ableton for slicing. The results are really different. The time-stretching algorithm in Kontakt is amazing and you can shift formants in crazy ways. I'd not heard an effect like that before, and being able to automate it with some sliced-up percussion was great.
So going through a technical process rather than relying on inspiration is important for you?
Anytime I sit down in front of a blank screen thinking, "I'm gonna make a tune," it's usually a failure. But any time I approach it with the idea of trying a new technique with a specific process, I end up writing a tune. Whether it's merely using a plug-in a particular way, or putting something through an effects pedal, it isn't too important. I've only discovered this recently, and now I can avoid banging my head against the wall by forgetting about writing music. So I enjoy doing things like taking a percussion loop and making a bassline out of it. I'll EQ and limit the hell out of it until it's just a wash of sub and because the original source was just various drums being hit, it has this random, unmusical rhythm that sounds nothing like a bassline.
Are you using sample packs? Ripping from vinyl or YouTube?
All of the above. Some of them are from sample CDs, some from YouTube, others from records. It mainly comes down to your decision-making regarding what sounds fit your taste. I don't think the samples I use are unique, they just have certain characteristics that I like. Now if a sound is missing those characteristics, I've become really good at manipulating them to a point where they sound how I want them. There's no specific way of achieving it though. I don't know exactly where I'm going to end up when I'm editing a sound but I have things that I always end up doing—chopping up samples and loops, pitching them in different ways.
Around 2008 and 2010, your music was more in line with a dubstep and drum & bass aesthetic. Were you making those tunes in a different way to how you work now?
I used different software but I don't think that makes any real difference. I still write tunes in the same way, it's just that my personal taste changed. You're only going to write stuff you're interested in. Back then my output was pretty all over the place with lots of different sounds and vibes. I still write lots of different stuff, it's just what gets released is fairly consistent.
Did it take you longer to finish things when you were writing the higher tempo, more intricate tracks a few years back?
At first it took longer because I didn't have the technique, but writing at 170 BPM isn't necessarily more labour-intensive. When I first started writing slower four-to-the-floor material, it took me longer because I wasn't used to the format. I had a whole set of habits for producing in higher tempos which couldn't translate to the slower style. It took a couple months before I was writing stuff that I was happy with. I also jumped from Cubase to Ableton at the same time that I switched tempos, so that contributed to the slow-down.
Was there anything more behind that decision apart from your taste changing?
I'd say it was pretty much just taste. I made a track in 2011 called "Obtuse," which I sent to Untold. As I mentioned, I was mates with Joe, so I kind of knew the Hessle guys after they'd put out his stuff, and then through that I met Untold. There was a loose community of us who would run into each other at FWD>> and share tracks. So I sent "Obtuse" to Untold and it was one of my first attempts at something slower, but it was also fairly weird and a little jazzy. The melody is quite atonal and all over the place. Untold said he was really into the tune but when he played it in the club people didn't get it. So he ended up giving me a good piece of advice that really stuck with me: "You need to make it more stupid." I only learnt to DJ five years ago, so I had no concept of a DJ's perspective, which is pretty damn important if you're making dance music. I was stuck in this realm of writing really crazy, complex beats that seemed danceable to me but I really didn't understand that people wouldn't get it on the floor. Maybe I spent too long listening to Aphex Twin.
Did it feel like good advice at the time or were you deflated?
After he wrote me that email I was like, "Wicked, I'm going to write a VIP version for him and he'll sign it because it'll be exactly what he asked for." Then I started working on it and I was so stuck in my ways that I made it even more complex. I think the advice sunk in eventually. I wanted to make simple bangers that everyone loved, but at the same time I had to fight a part of myself that'd always been in me.
Now it looks like the stupid side is reigning supreme.
I still make a lot of complex tunes but not much of it comes out. I think I found a way to bring the complexity into the simpler tracks that's cool for people on the floor but also satisfying for me. I found a way to be at peace with it. I'd also say my more recent music is less obviously melodic. I like melodies but I'm pretty choosy with them. It's way more likely that I'll be digging a drum sound than a melody.
In an ideal world, the drums would be so good that there's no need for melodic content.
People still need a hook. Maybe that's why I don't use pads! Recently, I was messing about with the guitar trying to write a long melody over a techno rhythm but it just always sounds cheesy to me somehow. Or rather, maybe I haven't figured out how to make them without being cheesy.
"Juju" has an interesting melody.
Yeah, I can't remember what the scale is. I think it's just got minor thirds and a flat second. I wrote the notes in a sequencer in Ableton specifically rather than having them come from the sample itself. One of my aims at the moment is to try and do less studio trickery and use more melodic and harmonic variations. The problem I've found is that, when you're developing a melody in a traditional way, you have to introduce quite a lot of change to keep it interesting. Yet with studio trickery, you can make something relatively basic hold your interest using fairly subtle variations.
Do you tend to isolate a single hit from a sample or do you like to use longer loops?
Sometimes I like to do it the other way around, where I'll take a longer loop and turn it into a one-shot hit, but allow the tail of the sample with the extra hits to bleed through slightly. Then as you pitch the sample to different keys, you end up with cool, random timing. Looping the results can be a cool way to get unexpected grooves. You end up with seven-over-nine cross patterns or five hits where there should be four.
Sampling is an awesome way to explore the correlation between speed and pitch.
Yeah, I love that. And playing different pitched notes at the same time is also great, like loading a bongo loop into an Ableton sampler and playing chords so all the samples play at different speeds.
The sample ladders over itself.
Exactly, it sounds kind of organic. I don't know why.
In recent times your sound has become considerably more saturated. You probably use both approaches but do you like to heat up elements individually or in groups?
Yeah, both. I like to use the Big Muff and the Boss Blues Driver pedals. The template project in my DAW loads with two busses that are connected to these pedals in stereo pairs. So they'll be treating groups or individual sounds, but I've also run entire tracks through external gear. The entire track on my Russian Torrent Versions release, "Crack Lung," was routed through this Fender guitar amp. I bypassed the speaker and took a direct out and it sounding amazing even though the amp is your fairly typical entry-level valve model. The sub made the high frequencies fizzle really nicely. I reminded me of Dillinja. I was always searching for ways to make stuff distorted but in a pleasant way. A lot of the time it can be quite hard working on abrasive sounds because of the ear fatigue. I try find a happy medium between having some elements bussed through the pedals and others treated with software.
The MS20 is one of the only pieces of hardware you have in here. Are you running samples through it, too?
I don't use it much to be honest, but when I have it's been running sounds through it. I've literally only used it once purely as a synthesiser. It's too big of an effort for me—you have to twiddle knobs and you can't just press undo. Funnily enough, people often ask me about what hardware I used on a certain track when usually there's no hardware in it at all.
Most budding producers know saturation is important for presence but they're also told countless times to be sensitive to separation. How do you keep your music warm and gelled while maintaining separation in the mix?
I shy away from keeping things separated. It ends up sounding too clinical. Obviously, I'm still EQing but perhaps not as much as most.
Are there any other common production tips that you've found to be harmful to your music?
Most of the advice I got starting out was from a drum & bass forum called The Grid. There was so much misinformation on there, it makes me laugh to think about it now. There are so, so many ways of getting the result you're looking for, but a lot of people on the forum said, "You have to do it this specific way." So I learnt all this stuff about multi-band compression which I totally didn't need to be bothered with at the time.
Another one is, "When EQing, you should only subtract frequencies rather than adding them." That's unbelievable. How could you say that? I probably add more EQ than I ever subtract. And then there's, "You have to hi-pass every sound that isn't in the bass spectrum." There's often very important content under 200hz in a hi-hat or clap sound. The idea is that the bass will sound louder when there's less frequency-masking, but sometimes there's something in the low-end of a hi-hat which will actually make the bass sound more present. It's obvious to say it, but you need to listen to what you're doing. I remember seeing these charts which would tell you how to EQ your kick drum. Like, "To give it more body, add a peak around 1kHz." I remember trying to follow those charts and not understanding why it wasn't working. No one teaching music technology should use those charts.
You mentioned that it took you quite some time to get to a point where your tracks really hit—that's something most aspiring dance music producers are trying to achieve. Obviously there are many ways of doing it but were there any moments where you felt like you'd turned a corner?
It was literally only since last year that I felt like I could make the sounds that are in my head. Before that it was always an approximation. I knew how to make things hit hard a while ago but I'd always keep discovering another way of doing it. Like I was saying before, the more different ways you know to achieve one goal, the better. But if I was to give someone tips in terms of making something hit: use a limiter.
Well, that's another thing you get told not to do.
I wish that no one ever said that to me. I limit everything. And not even one limiter. Sometimes I make kick drums out of weird sources just for the challenge, like a Roland tambourine. So in these cases, I'll use something like five limiters. A limiter then an EQ, then another limiter and another EQ because the behaviour of the limiter is influenced by the frequency content of the sound.
I think my top tip for making stuff bang is to smash drums with limiters and saturation but separate out the attack. You're completely removing the transients through that processing and you've got to find a way to maintain those spikes. There's a million ways to do that. Parallel compression for instance. I know some super techy drum & bass people who use FM synthesis to replace the transients they've squashed. They'll make their drums and crush the shit out of them so there's no dynamics whatsoever and then they'll go back and insert these super punchy FM clicks over where all the transients used to be.
Do you wish there was more helpful information available for producers back when you were starting out?
There was zero info when I was starting out and it took me ages to figure out relatively simple things, like layering drums. Now it seems like there's more tips than you'll ever need. There's certainly a culture out there of saying, "This is the best way of doing x or y." Thing is, you can get the same end result in a million different ways, especially on the computer.