You get a sense of Zabiela's retro/futurist personality in the brick-walled basement of his home in Southampton. The latest array of Pioneer DJ gear sits atop shelves of dog-eared records. There's a Roland TR-8, a recent update of the classic 808 drum machine, and an old MPC. Star Wars and Doctor Who toys are strewn across the room's surfaces (Zabiela keeps his pièce de résistance, a full size replica of a Dalek, upstairs). Whenever he gets the time, Zabiela comes down to this room to sharpen the DJ technique he's built a global reputation on.
Zabiela's style feels particularly unique when you consider the time and place he came from. Back in the early 2000s, when progressive house was a dominant dance music genre, he was known as a protégé of Sasha, one of the sound's leading DJs. Across the previous decade, artists like Sasha and John Digweed developed a mixing style that prized long, harmonic blends. This captured Zabiela's imagination, but before long he was cultivating a technique of his own, one that widened the scope of progressive house to include breakbeats and electro, and was delivered with jaw-dropping technical flair. Audiences around the world grew to love him for it, but when I visited Zabiela in Southampton recently, he reflected on his longstanding approach and its effect on dance floors. Between pushing his DJ technique forwards and letting the music breath, the challenge for him these days is to find a perfect balance.
Did you start on turntables and a mixer?
Yeah, I had some belt-driven DLP Soundlab turntables, I think they were the DL-P1Rs. They're impossible to mix on. If you touched the platter or the label—you had to just use the spindle in the middle to slow it down and speed it up. I remember the first time I went from one of those to a Technics I felt like I was wrestling a bear. So I had those and I had a Made 2 Fade KAM mixer from Argos. I still have it, it's in the attic.
Do you remember the features on the KAM mixer?
Two faders and a crossfader. That was literally it. No EQs, nothing like that. I learned to scratch doing the—I forget the name of the move. I learned to do it with the line input. On the mixer all of the paint is worn around that line input. I used that instead of the crossfader.
Were you also interested in beat-matching?
I was just interested in scratching. I used to watch Yo! MTV Raps with Doctor Dré, and I used to see the guy in the background doing all of the scratching. I wished that Dré would be quiet for a second so I could hear what the DJ was up to. Some of the DJs they had on there were amazing.
I had a friend who lived around the corner, who was an amazing scratch DJ. I used to go around there with my sandwiches at lunchtime when I was at school, and I just used to sit and watch him scratch. He had the direct-drive DLP Soundlab turntables, so they were better than the ones I had. And he had transformer buttons on his mixer, like big round punch buttons. I was so envious.
What does it take to get to a high level of scratch DJing?
I think mostly it's practice. Like with a lot of things, you just have to repeat and repeat until you get it right. I did it for a little while and then got more into the technical aspect of mixing. I discovered Sasha and harmonic mixing. Like, how he would mix wonky acetates for three minutes without dropping a beat. So I went in that direction. But I still obviously have the scratching side to my DJing.
Do you remember when and why you decided that you wanted to go beyond the standard DJ setup?
I think it just excited me. I probably got really into it when I went to Australia for the first time and I met an Australian DJ called Phil K. He showed me the Pioneer EFX-500. He was like, "Dude, this thing is a sampler, man, it's a sampler." And I was, "How!?" He didn't actually show me, but he was just like, "Here, figure it out." You can use the echo function on it almost like a guitar-pedal looper. I think there was around a bar of music that you could record into it, but you could shuffle around the different beat-bar buttons while the loop was playing and just create these bonkers edits.
Actually that's something I've wrestled to keep on the effects units—so the RMX-1000, you can use the settings software that comes with it, which hardly anyone actually messes around with, but you can change it and change the echo to a feedback, and it's actually got two bars' worth. And although you don't have the buttons to jump around and make the rhythms, you can still do it if you've practised enough with the knob, which is set into quadrants. Then you can go between the user settings and the settings that come with the unit.
So I always liked scratching and I think my style also comes from computer games. I used to be all about the combos on Street Fighter II. There was even the triple whammy: you'd go in with a deep high punch, an uppercut and then a fireball—and you had to time it just right. Once you got the first deep cut in there was no way they could block the other two moves [laughs].
Obviously I'm keen to get into the technicalities of DJing with you, but I wanted to start with the basics: faders and crossfaders. Do you have a mixing or blending style?
Yeah I do, it's probably quite a weird style. I was thinking about this. I kinda don't mix with the faders so much, and I only use a little bit of the EQs. I do a lot of filter mixing. Actually one of the things I love about the Allen & Heath mixers, which I don't use, is that you can do these lovely blends with just the filters. You can turn the resonance down, and then you can also filter out to complete silence. You don't have to touch the fader or any of the EQs.
So one of the things I do, pretty much on every mix now, is I have the RMX running and the outgoing record I have running through that. I change the settings on the filter so I can filter out to silence. But I can also add a delay so I can delay out of the track. And it's got an LFO there as well, which I use a little bit of.
So it's like a version of using a rotary mixer? You like the feeling of doing it that way?
Yes, and also because you're taking out the low-end and then you're killing it completely, you don't have to think about anything else really. Sometimes I pull the bass back slightly, it depends on the source material, but if there's too much resonance I pull the bass back slightly. I usually mix the incoming track with a filter as well—take the high-end off before I put the fader up and then just bring the high-end in when appropriate. So this is my workaround, in a way.
Have you ever used harmonic mixing?
That's something I always used to do by mistake. I would sit there and try and find records that would go together harmonically but I never got into the Camelot Wheel thing.
For me it was this whole thing of making mash-ups which I really loved, and I still do that. It's actually the way I approached making my Balance mix. At one point I remember looking at all of these tracks and I just had a shit-ton of mashups but not a mix CD. The problem then became: how am I going to put all of these mashups together so it flows?
I think when DJs are handling so much music, things like key could become a possible way of navigating.
When I play out I try not to be determined by key, but when you play on the CDJs if a track's harmonically in key, on the list it shows up as green, and it does sway you. Say you've got two tracks you think, "Right, do I want to play this one or this one?" And one of them is lit up in green. You do think, "Well, this one is probably going to sound better." But I have to ask myself, "Is this the one that's going to work right now?"
Sometimes with harmonic mixes, you add one track to another and it sounds beautiful, and it can completely change the vibe—it makes something new. Sometimes tracks really gel together. Then there's also those tracks which are out of key, like those strange loopy techno records, where discord can work. Sometimes you'll bring the fader up and it'll be like, "Hmm I'm not sure about that." And then about ten seconds later your ears or something in your brain changes, and it works somehow.
When I was pulling this piece together I was conscious that it might end up sounding like an ad for Pioneer, but the fact is that you've been using their gear for years and years, and you've been an ambassador...?
And you've also consulted on design.
Yes, I've worked on some pieces of equipment on product development. I would give them my ideas and stuff. I would do a lot of testing. So for the CDJ-2000, the very first one that took the USB, I went on tour with the European product planner and we had them in flight cases. This was before they were released—probably like six months before they were out. I was doing these huge gigs, which was irresponsible really [laughs], because they would crash quite a lot. So we'd do the gig, I'd make all of the notes, and then email Tokyo and they'd send us a new firmware for the next gig. They were up against a deadline so we were trying to get them ready.
How did you originally link up with Pioneer?
For the first-ever mix CD I did, I wanted to get an EFX-500 to use on it. The mix was for Hooj Choons. We were sort of on the blag, and someone from Hooj Choons was trying to get Pioneer to sponsor the CD so we could get one of these EFX units as well. I got hold of one and what they wanted in return was for me to go and DJ at their little booth in PLASA, the technology exhibition that they used to do at Earl's Court. I went there and I'd had this EFX thing for a few weeks. I'd been playing around with this feedback loop and I'd worked a few other things out, having not even looked at the manual of course. I went and did a little DJ set there.
There weren't people dancing or anything so I thought, "I'm just going to mess around with the EFX unit." The Pioneer guys were like, "What are you doing there? We've never seen anyone do that." They started asking me questions, and then after that I got involved in the product development. I'd get an email saying, "What do you think of this?" I still try to get involved with the products that I'm interested in, when I can.
How does it work now? Do they just send you a prototype?
Well, Rik just emailed me now, he's the European product planner or head of product development. He's trying to get me to use the DJS-1000. I don't know if it would be something that I'd use. I'd use it in the studio but I think if I was more of a producer who made a lot of tracks and I had all of my trademark sounds and loops, then it would probably be something that would excite me. So I think I'm going to hold out for whatever is next.
With the more performative aspects of your DJing, is there a risk that you get too carried away?
Is the skill knowing when to let things breath?
Exactly. I was so absolutely guilty of that for a while. I think it was the new toy thing: "Ah I've got a new toy so I need to play with it." This is great fun but what you don't realise is that you're annoying the shit out of a lot of people sometimes. That's something that I learned over time. Now I'm less about the performing monkey side of things and more interested in how I can use the technology and the effects to subtly and smoothly get tracks to work together. Sometimes it can be really useful to, I don't know, use the high-pass filter, putting an LFO on if I've got a track that's so out of key but I really need to play that track next, I can help it out, get it in there with a soft crowbar.
You learn this from going on the RA comments section and forums and stuff, and if everyone is saying the same thing then you should probably listen.
Do you think the style of DJing you've adopted influences the tracks you put in your crate?
I don't know really. I play a pretty broad cross-section of stuff. I think it works the other way. I think that when I choose tracks, if I've got a really loopy percussive techno thing I think, "Ah that's a really good record to play around with." Because it doesn't do much but there's room to mess about with it. There's only a few elements. So I think of it in that way. Or if I've got a beautiful melodic track and another one that works with it, rekordbox has this thing now, related tracks, and you can set up all different parameters. So if I've got a nice melodic track with no obvious mix point I can find tracks that go around that. Or like a badass electro record and it's got a few sections where it breaks down just into the drums, I think, "Ah that would be a good place to do some cutting or whatever."
Has the core of your sound changed much over the last decade?
I think it's probably gone back to where I was when I started almost. I guess that's just the way music trends go as well. I definitely had a few regretful years of electro house, I think. You do get pulled a little bit into genres that are trendy. Actually I was listening to your interview with Lee Burridge and he was talking about the whole minimal thing, and Ibiza thing, and trying to fit in with that. So yeah, it's easy for that to happen, but you find your way back eventually.
I was thinking about a time, maybe ten years ago, when the prediction was that bespoke, customisable DJ setups would become the norm.
Yeah, I said that loads of times.
Yet in the CDJ we've ended up with an industry-wide standard. Do you have any theories on why this happened, or what it is about the CDJ's design that's made it such an enduring bit of kit?
I think because it's pretty simple and there's just enough on it for you to be creative, but not too much to baffle you. I think a lot of people—myself included—like to go to a club and don't want to rely on a laptop. I know that I can just plug in my USB—that sounds so lame, but I know that's all I have to do and it's going to work. For me, everything working at the gig is the most important thing.
There have been other options for DJs and consumers that possibly have been better in some ways. More features, can do more, but I think when you get bamboozled by things in a nightclub...
I guess the irony is that they're an industry standard but not many people actually own them, you're talking about a four-grand outlay.
The good thing now is there are a lot of Pioneer controllers and stuff, and a lot of the features are almost the same as the -2000s. That's something I think they should have done a long time ago.
So you get to a gig, and you're doing your pre-set preparation—how do you prep a CDJ before playing?
I have all of the settings loaded onto a USB.
What are some of the key things you have saved?
When you load your USB now it'll ask if you want to load your settings by pushing the menu button. So when I do that the screen will go really bright because I have it set that way. And the jog wheel illumination will be really bright and obnoxious. Master tempo is on. When I play out I have the pitch on plus and minus 10. But when I mess around in my basement and I don't have to think about what the next record is I have it on plus and minus 6 because it won't drift then. But if you're playing in a club you've often got like a couple of minutes or less left sometimes to mix in the next track and it's just easier to quickly get it in with plus and minus 10. Even though the tracks won't stay in time, you can mix with the pitch controller quite easily and overcompensate so you don't touch the platter so much.
Do you set up Hot Cues before gigs?
I set up Hot Cues and I also set up little reminders of things. You can name all of the cues now. On the new players if there's a thing in a track you always forget about you can actually put a Hot Cue in there—"vocal comes in here," and it'll be on the screen. It'll count down to the next cue point and have the name in the top-left.
I probably use more Hot Loops than Hot Cues. You'll have a track that's got its mixing part where the drums are, then the next part is the drop, you can load a track, hit the Hot Loop button and start mixing straight away and then exit the loop on the transition.
Auto Loops are really handy, especially if you need to go to the loo. You can put an Auto Loop at the end of every track. That's something that I really wanted to implement for a while, because I was doing it with Ableton. In Ableton it's natural to put little loop breaks at the end of each clip, or somewhere in the clip. Any track that I've put through rekordbox and I've sat down and gone through it I'll put an Auto Loop somewhere. Sometimes it's handy to have an Auto Loop in the middle of a track where I want to do a performance or a mash-up thing.
Are you using rekordbox for music organisation?
Everything goes through iTunes because it's the best way of managing music on your computer in terms of where everything is filed. If you ever need to import it to somewhere else or whatever it's handy for that. I have a folder in iTunes called New Tracks and then I import that into rekordbox. Everything gets put into playlists. I actually have quite an elaborate, OCD, crazy person tagging system... which I wasn't going to show you [laughs reaching for laptop].
This is kinda handy. So you know the smart playlists in iTunes? You can do that with rekordbox as well. So I've got all of these intelligent playlists with silly names that only mean things to me. Each track I tag up it'll automatically get put into these playlists, so if I tag something as "boshika," which is like banging stuff that Boddika might play, each one I tag as that will automatically get added to this folder. I don't have to file it away into a playlist. If I go back into my library [searches through rekordbox], with this track I've tagged it with that, that and that—"dancey bollocks," "cheeky," "old house." Then if I go into those intelligent playlists that track will be in all of those folders.
Do you think there are any areas of DJ technology that are outdated? Are there improvements you'd like to see?
You know Pioneer are trying to get me to use this sampler? I keep thinking they're going to get rid of the platter. It's like a fear that I've got. I come from the old-school turntables DJing time. But a lot of kids now they might think, "Well, why do you need a wheel?" A lot of Traktor DJs don't use platters anyway. Dubfire's setup is all buttons. Platters could be thought of as an outdated way of playing, but it goes back to that performance thing. When you go and see a DJ and you can see them working the tracks, spinning it in time, pushing it and pulling it and getting it to work, and not just pressing buttons. I don't know, I think there's something to that, even if it sounds worse.
I guess the platter is one of the remaining connections to the original style of DJing.
I remember when I went to Junk just down the road and saw some DJs playing off Traktor and it was so linear and perfect it was almost boring. Nowadays when I go to a club and I hear someone do a wonky mix I'm like, "Yes!" They're actually working for it. It's nice. Like I said, I think people respond to it as well. When you push or pull the track in the wrong direction, a slip of concentration and it's suddenly double beats—they correct it almost instantly and there's a sort of triumph over technology for a second there.
Does the ongoing arc of technological improvement help you stay excited and engaged as a DJ?
Yeah, definitely. I think that's one of the things that keeps it exciting outside of the music. I've had a few weeks off and I had some time off last year and instead of after relentlessly being on tour DJing for god knows how many years, instead of just sitting at home and watching TV or playing PlayStation, I'd still find myself in the basement messing around. It's nice to play with toys, I think.