The visionary club producer tells Mark Smith about his studio techniques.
A Made Up Sound is generally spoken of as hybridising sounds and histories, from dubstep to techno, or Detroit to The Hague. This is true, but it looks past Huismans' greatest strength: the durability of his voice, which is hard to pin down and prone to drastic changes in form, yet you know it when you hear it. There are the rhythms that lurch and shudder or roll forward with a Shed-like degree of swinging momentum. There are the daring structures and bizarre sounds that should clear dance floors yet end up filling them. And there's the fact he can simultaneously touch on electro, dubstep, techno and IDM in a single track.
From a technical perspective, A Made Up Sound tracks make other records sound meek. But perhaps the greatest thing I learnt while talking to Huismans in his home studio in Utrecht is that following your intuition is more powerful than technical knowledge. He claims that his biggest-sounding records were made in his early years of production, and says he still struggles with technical details. The joy of bringing unlikely sounds into relation with one another and exploring the possibilities they suggest is most important to him.
To be honest, I was a little surprised that you were happy to do this format of interview, given you've been a little cagey about it in the past. What's changed?
There's no single explanation. I've just loosened up about it. Maybe I've embraced my inner nerd a bit more as I've learnt that I actually enjoy studio talk a lot more than I used to. In the past, like many other musicians, I would think, "Oh, it's not the gear that makes the music." I've never been a gear freak. In fact, that's almost what held me back from making music in the first place. I considered gear and the knowledge required to use it to be intimidating and too complicated for me to learn about. I'm not a technical person, which put me off even trying to understand it. In the early days especially, I wouldn't have been able to afford the equipment anyway. But when computers made production more affordable, I was able to have a go. This wasn't until I was 23, which is fairly late.
What DAW did you learn on?
There was a cultural centre in my university where you could take courses in anything from figure drawing to ballet, and one of those courses was in MIDI. I thought doing this course would help me overcome this barrier I felt toward making music. I had ideas in my head for quite a while before then. They were running Cubase VST 5.1, and since I knew nothing about music production, that automatically became the standard for me. They had a Moog Prodigy for explaining analogue synthesis—that's probably why you see one in here. I wanted to get that same synth after the course because I'd seen how it worked.
I ended up using that same version of Cubase for almost ten years. I only changed to other platforms a couple of years ago. Once I know how to get what I want out of a program or an instrument I tend to stick with it. I've always been a real dinosaur when it comes to gear and software, so things in the studio tend to change very slowly. Too slowly, maybe. Getting up-to-date with Logic and Ableton made life so much easier after using my out-of-date version of Cubase.
Given that you made tunes completely in the box for years, how are things split between hardware and software these days?
Now I make music both in and out of the box. I'm running audio from hardware through this desk so I can use effects sends with outboard equipment like the Space Echo and the Eventide. I usually record part after part, recording live takes of each individual sound so I can affect each part in different ways. So initially the laptop is functioning as a multitrack recorder, then I do all the editing and mixdown inside it. That way I have the hands-on fun and lively, dynamic quality of playing around with hardware combined with the flexibility and more advanced arranging and mixing options that Logic offers.
At other times, I'll make something only with Ableton. So there's many different ways of working. Sometimes it's overwhelming and I miss the simple days where I just had a PC with Cubase and a software sampler and didn't have to think about what to use. Back in the day, I made everything that way, and maybe with one or two soft synths. Now I have a lot of choices, which can also be a good thing because you can switch it up once in a while. In hindsight, it's odd that I managed to draw blocks in Cubase for ten years without going crazy. But I guess the drive to make music was strong.
When did you start incorporating hardware into your setup?
The first thing I bought was the Moog Prodigy, which was probably around 2005. But for years, and even though this one had been MIDI-fied by the previous owner, I'd use it more as a sample source and transfer the audio into my sampler. My attention shifted towards hardware over the last five years or so.
It's interesting that you downplay your knack for technology, because your earlier work clearly sounds like you. The quality of production certainly doesn't sound like someone learning the ropes.
Thanks. It was a long time ago and I find it quite difficult to psychologise my music-making in hindsight. But maybe what happened was that I'd been waiting so long to be able to make music and was so keen to do it that once I had the opportunity I was immediately very dedicated and spent a lot of time on it. Maybe I subconsciously used those years before to think about what I wanted to do. So even though it took me a long time to get going, I don't regret the wait.
Did you have any idea how your work would sound on a big system?
Not at all. I probably never even expected my music to be played in a club. I don't know if I was thinking that way at the time. First, I just wanted to make music, and second, put a record out. When you're young, you're excited at the prospect of just having your music etched in grooves. It's only after you've been doing it for a while that you realise the music itself was the main reward all along, rather than actually releasing it.
It's telling that someone with little expertise can make great-sounding records while those with more technical knowledge can be almost traumatised by what they know.
Sometimes not knowing is better than knowing too much, in the sense that you work on intuition. And maybe you subconsciously select elements that work well together and sound good already on their own, so the finished track ends up sounding better. Some of my heaviest records are the ones from the early days when I hardly paid attention to technical stuff. I did make an effort to make them sound as good as they could, but I have far more knowledge now. Sometime it's the luck of the draw, I guess.
That runs contrary to accepted wisdom. Electronic producers in particular spend a disproportionate amount of time on technique, yet the evidence seems to say there are larger factors at play.
What you said about being traumatised by the details, particularly in the mixdown, sweating every decibel, getting everything sitting right—I have this all the time. Once you know what it takes to make something sound good and all the things that can go wrong, it can become a hindrance and often takes the fun out of it. Yet because you have this knowledge you can get trapped into thinking, "I need to do it," because otherwise you'll be kicking yourself later when the record comes out and you hear everything that's wrong with it. Then you never want to hear it again. The best thing you can do is listen to a finished track in as many places as possible, including a music venue you know well, if you get the chance.
Using both speakers and headphones is important, too. It might seem like an open door, but I only learnt the importance of using headphones very late. Sometimes things can sound dry and out of place if they don't have, say, a little bit of reverb on them. You might not hear that degree of detail without headphones. Where things are placed in the stereo field is another important point that headphones help you discern.
So you were almost immediately making a lot of music. How often were you in the studio, and has that rate changed over time?
It's always going through peaks and troughs. I'm making a lot of music but it takes me quite a long time to finish tracks. I had a day job up until 2010, but I was working faster back then. Looking back, it baffles me how much music I managed to make next to a near-fulltime job and travelling for DJ gigs almost every weekend. These days, I'm in here maybe four days a week. But I don't just make music in here. I'm doing my label management and whatnot.
Do you tend to generate a lot of ideas and finish only some of them? Or are your ideas generally good and you finish the majority of them?
I used to finish almost everything I started. I've had to learn that sometimes it's better not to. Sometimes you fail to realise early on that a track isn't going to be great no matter how much work is put into it. So I probably persevered too much in the past. Nowadays, I tend to start a lot of ideas and will only finish the ones that really hit me. On the other hand, the perseverance can be worth it because sometimes a few minor changes can make a seemingly mediocre idea into a great track. Maybe it takes experience to identify what ideas to keep and what to scrap.
On that note, I was once asked, "When do you know when a track is finished?" in a production workshop. I think it's when you can listen from start to finish without your mind or attention switching off. There has to be nothing in there that annoys you, obviously. But I would almost say that you shouldn't want to stop the track. It has to hurt a little bit to stop it halfway, you have to want to listen from start to finish.
That can be hard when you've been slaving away at a single track for a long time.
I don't find it hard. It becomes hard when a track is beyond the point where you can do anything about it. After a track has been sent to mastering, I really don't want to hear it anymore because I know that I'll only start questioning everything about it. And that's just a pain. It takes maybe six months to a year after its release for me to listen to one of my tracks. By then you've forgotten all the things that you weren't sure were right and you can finally enjoy your own music. But the silly thing is, it's all in the mind. Because I don't have this problem with finished tracks that I haven't released yet. Knowing I can still change things puts me at ease.
You might ask, "Well, why keep releasing music then?" One reason is that I'm still excited to share my work with the world. Another is more mundane—being a musician and DJ is my livelihood. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, every new record is a new chance to get it right. I guess I'm constantly chasing the one release I'm perfectly happy with, knowing full well I'll probably never achieve it because it's an illusion in the first place. But somehow, there's a deeper level of satisfaction to it all that makes it worthwhile anyway.
Do you ever make compromises in instrumentation in order to benefit the mixdown? Some of your productions have so much going on yet they don't sound cluttered. But generally the idea is that taking elements out of a track is better than adding more. There are moments on the last Delsin 12-inch that are super busy.
I agree, and the mastering engineer said the same thing, that the sound is pretty complicated. Not in a musical sense but in terms of how much is happening in a single track. Usually that means it would sound better if you take stuff out but sometimes you don't want to for musical reasons, so you try to make it work anyway. Other times, taking stuff out is not only better for the ears but musically, too. It depends on the track.
Do you tend to draw from a bank of samples that you use repeatedly? Or are you starting from scratch?
I am usually starting from a blank canvas with new sounds. I mean, there are certain sounds that you use more often, but by and large it's a new adventure every time. It's like a puzzle, grabbing some sounds, bringing them together, seeing which ones fit together, where the combination is taking you. Working with pre-chosen samples every time would take the fun out of making music for me.
Is part of that fun making a sample have a use-value in a production that otherwise wasn't apparent?
In a way, yes. I like to give sounds a function they didn't have in the sample source. When you sample something like percussion from an old record and pitch it way down into a rumbling sub-bass type of sound, it's going to be pretty dirty. And it certainly won't be the most punchy bass you can have on a soundsystem. But it's got character. And no other bass is going to sound like it purely because it was never meant to be bass in the first place. And this works with every type of sound. If you use a sampled sound in a way that wasn't intended, it might lead to interesting results.
One of the things I love most about sampling older music is finding things in the spaces between the notes or drums that were actually played. A dissonant tail end of a reverb, background noises from the recording studio or the people in it, unintended quiet bits of percussion, the plucking sound of a string instrument—just isolating those spaces from their original contexts alone can completely change their feel and meaning. And by zooming in and processing them, you can really create something out of nothing, making sounds nothing else in the world can make.
In that sense I find that sampling, even when you're reusing other people's recordings, can in fact lead to more original sounds than something you recorded yourself on a synthesiser. Because a lot of people have that same synth and its amount of settings are more or less finite. Whereas the unexpected sample you found and shaped is yours and yours alone. Not that unique sounds are the be-all and end-all of music. Sometimes a preset on a synth or a 909 hi-hat will be just what you needed for a specific purpose, and that's totally fine. It's something I find inspiring and rewarding.
You're saying that this approach sometimes negatively affects fidelity, yet your music really jumps out in a mix.
That's good to hear but I don't always feel like that. I struggle with it as much as anyone. We're talking a lot about mixdowns and technical stuff now but I honestly still feel like an amateur, an experienced amateur at best. So when people say nice things about my mixdowns, I appreciate it but at the same time—and I don't mean this in a rude way—it makes me a bit uncomfortable because I hope it's not the defining aspect of my work.
Could you give me an example of how you like to process your samples? You mentioned down-pitching earlier.
Pitching is an important aspect because you change the character of a sound immensely. And then there's so much you can do with equalising, compressing, looping and so on. It sounds paradoxical but I find it important with sampling that you don't lose sight of the thing that made you interested in the sound in the first place. I generally wouldn't use very advanced effects that do way too much. So while the way I process samples does have the effect of making them unrecognisable, they're also kind of hiding in plain sight. I should add that I'm only realising this as I say it. This isn't something I'd usually analyse consciously, but I think it does more or less come down to that.
And you're editing your samples on the Korg Electribe, E-mu SP1200 and the computer?
I haven't used the SP1200 in a while. It looks like the centrepiece of the studio but it isn't really. I'm going to get deeper into it once I'm done with the work on the label compilation. I find myself drawing for the Electribes more often. They might look like toys, and they kind of are, but that's what's great about them. They're super intuitive and you can do a lot with them. Maybe snobbier gear freaks would frown when they see these, but they are pretty powerful samplers, especially for the money. And they're easy to come by. I like that they have a step-sequencer. They're versatile and you can make a whole track on it if you'd like, although I tend to do the arranging and mixing in the box, as I mentioned earlier. So these are more for sketching and having fun. No difficult programming, no scrolling through menus on a tiny screen—in short, there's nothing to put you off of just making music on these things.
Workflow is an underrated aspect of making music. At least for me. It's so much more important than having the warmest, fattest, most expensive analogue synth or the most impressive modular system or whatever.
Have you got your whole back catalogue stored in these Electribes?
Only some tracks. I think "Stumbler" is in here. [Plays parts of "Stumbler".] See, you can hear that the sounds are somewhat different in here to what was ultimately released. As great as these things are to play with, the overall sound can sometimes leave something to be desired. Often it'll need some post production or I'll run them through hardware effects. The Eventide is great for that. I wouldn't say it warms it up but it can give sounds a certain depth and makes them come alive.
Speaking of the H3000—was this what created those swooping, comb-filter sounds on the snare in "I Repeat"?
It's funny, you're the second person this week who's asked me about that specific sound.
You don't have to tell me if you'd prefer to keep it to yourself.
No, it's fine, I'm happy to share it. I'm laughing because, yes, I did use the Eventide there but by far the most characteristic aspect of the sound is the internal flange effect on the Electribe. You go online and the consensus on the Electribe seems to be, "Yes, they're fun to use but the effects are really crappy." Sometimes they're not. It depends how you use them and on what sounds. I'm not saying I found some more interesting way to use them but on this specific snare it seemed to work quite well.
There's also a nice 16th-note bell tone that enters around 1:30 in the same track.
That's the Doepfer Dark Energy. The bell-like sound is made with a certain type of filter and resonance setting. But the thing is a beast and hard to tame because a fraction of a millimetre change in setting can alter the sound from super quiet to so loud and harsh that it blows your speakers and ears. So it's not the type of thing that I'd use in a live set. But it has a lot of character, and that's why I like it. It sounds quite unusual for a monosynth.
For me, one of the most distinctive aspects of your work is the shuffle and unquantised rhythms. Your tracks often have a galloping gait where the downbeat seems slightly off-grid, which makes it feel like the loops are lunging forward. Are you pushing around blocks of audio or MIDI on a screen, or is this done via hardware?
My older work was all hand-programmed, so to speak, in that if something sounds off-grid it's because I put it there. I remember deliberately moving sounds around to see how it'd affect the groove, pushing things back and forward to get the feel I'm after. In hindsight, it's crazy that I did that for so long, endlessly moving blocks around on a screen to get a human groove. It's completely paradoxical.
But it ended up being one of your signatures.
I appreciate that, and I must admit that I enjoyed that pain-staking process in a certain way. But now that I've changed to a more hands-on approach, I could never go back to doing that. So that's partially why you see more hardware in here. I'm now enjoying making rhythms on a hardware sampler, drum computer or, when working in the box, by shaping looped samples in Ableton until the feel is right. As long as I can decide when a sound happens rather than having a machine or computer do that for me.
What's the second computer for?
That's my old studio PC. It's now my sampling work station. So if I sample records in my living room or from the internet or field recordings, synths or whatever, I always take them to the PC to process them further in this sample editor. It's a very old version of Steinberg WaveLab. So here I might change the pitch, reverse the sound, loop it and rerecord it and whatnot.
Another reason I still have the PC is that most of my hardware is quite old and people made software editors for some of them back in the day which don't work on newer computers. Like someone made an Electribe editor that made it much easier to load samples into the machine. Also, it's nice having all your old projects directly accessible. For example, I was lucky to still have the old project files for "Waybackmachine."
Did you rework it on the Mac before mastering?
Yes I did because I must admit that the production wasn't that great. I took all the stems from the old Cubase and brought them into Logic to mix it down. Sometimes it's a hassle jumping back and forth between PC and Mac like that, but I keep doing it because I like using each system for its strengths.
Do you ever take elements from your other tracks and use them in a new production?
Rarely. As I said, I prefer to start from scratch because it's more fun. Sometimes I'll reuse the same sounds in Ableton but, for example, in a different octave range or cut and looped in a different way. I don't have a rule of only using sounds once or anything, it's just the way things pan out.
Were "Bygones" and "Peace Offering" made recently? They have a psychedelic, dreamy feeling that made me think of SVN and Dynamo Dreesen.
Yes, they were written recently but they're both sample-based and don't use much hardware. In that sense, although I agree with your description, it's almost the opposite of what we do when I make music with Dreesen and Sven, which is pretty much 100% hardware jams that are edited down later. Our collaborations definitely inspire me a lot, we have fun doing them and there's always something coming out of it that none of us would have made individually.
I had wanted to make a record like Bygones / Peace Offering for a very long time, and those tracks appeared at just the right time. They almost remind me of some of the earliest stuff I made as A Made Up Sound, before I even had a release out. Or rather, they sound like what I wanted to make at the time but wasn't yet entirely able to do so. To some extent this release takes it all the way back to where I started.