The techno artist talks about sampling in this feature, produced in partnership with Splice.
Building Blocks is a series of features developed in partnership with Splice commissioning dance music artists to make a sample pack. Each artist develops a pack that reflects their voice as a producer—a suite of sounds they'd use in their own tracks and live sets. Apart from the sample pack itself, each feature includes video and text where the artists talk all things samples and sampling, the process of making the pack, and their own creative evolution from beginner to the present day. The packs will be available to purchase via Splice.
The second instalment comes from the Russian artist, producer and DJ, Dasha Rush. While she's been a leading light in techno over the last two decades, interdisciplinary projects comprising choreography, digital art and sound are just as significant in her career, reflecting a vision extending beyond the club. For her Splice sample pack, she applies her sound design skills to dance floor techno, sharing her signature complex atmospheres, snaking acid lines and drum sounds from off the beaten track. She talked to RA late last year about how the learning process for young producers is changing, the role of samples in her live sets and the process of developing the pack.
Do you remember a point where you realised you'd become confident in your abilities, or is it an ongoing process where you're still not quite sure of yourself all the time?
I don't think there was a turning point where I said, "I'm a producer now." I actually never asked that question: "Am I ready?" It was just an inner feeling. You keep on working at it, and then at some point you realise, "I'm excited by what I've been able to make, so I want to share it." So first, of course, you show it to some friends, and you get feedback. Then some more distant people hear it, maybe at small events where you play for free or something. Once you can publicly perform somewhere and you have good feedback, it nourishes you so that you can continue developing yourself.
Today I am sure of what I'm doing and what I want because I accumulated knowledge through experience. But even then, you always question in the back of your head, how far can you go, what are your best talents, and so on. So there was no turning point, it was a long evolving progress.
A lot of people starting out see this giant mountain in front of them, and they're not sure whether they're going to be able to get up there. But for anyone who sticks with it, it never feels like you've reached the summit.
Yeah. It needs a huge amount of time. To be honest, I have friends today who are really young producers, and they want to be at the summit right now. But it depends on what you actually consider success. Is it your personal success, your name, getting known for what you do? Or is it your name getting known for not having done anything? So it depends on your personal values regarding what you want to achieve.
It's only after a certain amount of time that you can look back and realise, "Oh yeah, there was a progress." You can't say, "I'll be this good and have achieved this much in five years." I mean, you can try to predict it and have goals. But I think it's false because you can't see objectively how you are developing, you don't know how your brain works, what's your talent, what's your capacity to learn.
Again, it depends whether you focus on the internal process of evolving as a producer or developing a public appearance. I can't relate to how things are now, where the model of building up a profile without actual content, or with very little content, or with very little experience, is seen as normal.
I developed really slowly. It took me an enormous amount of time to learn things. And I wouldn't say I'm on top of the mountain, I'd like to go further and learn more. Music is vast.
Given the explosion of tutorial content online, you might assume it'd be easier to start learning in 2020 than 1990.
Yeah, in terms of the learning process, I think it's easier to learn now because there is so much information available. I think it's great actually, because nowadays you can go on YouTube and just watch the tutorials, and then people show you how it's done. Some people learn quicker visually rather than reading a book or a manual.
Now it's a paradise in terms of information, but the problem, I think, is there's so much available, and when you don't know where to start, it's easy to get lost. I was talking to a friend recently, she's a young producer who's like, "Oh, I don't know what to do. There's so much out there, and I don't know where to start." But just choose one thing, learn it, and then move on to another thing. Well, that maybe sounds too simple, but always move step by step. You can't learn everything anyway, and definitely not all at once.
So on the other hand, a large amount of information can actually scare you more than a little book might. I had no choice in this. I had a few resources and learned from those because that's what was available. If you really want to learn something, if it's something that you're really, really interested in, it's not difficult because you have an urge to learn. You want it. If you want to do something because it looks popular, you might not have the motivation you need. If you're really aching to know how it works, you will get it, but it just takes time. Patience is the key.
Did you ever have a bias against samples? A certain type of elitism tends to consider synthesis as a more "serious" form of sound design.
I don't have that perspective of "You can't use samples." In terms of samples versus complex synthesis, or samples versus drum machines, it's a choice. A sample is a sound. Of course it is a different approach, and using a sample as an initial source takes you to a different place than synthesis. I used samples when I was young because I didn't have the equipment.
At the end of the day, a bass drum is a bass drum. Whether you play it from a drum machine or if it's a sample, you still shape it with your personal structures, the structures of the composition, the patterns. If you sample something and then you use it without treating it, without putting your own personality into it—I mean, there's nothing wrong with it, but for me it's not so interesting because it's not developed.
Say someone downloaded your sample pack, what are some of the ways they could change the sound to put their own spin on it?
In terms of modifying the samples, you can chop them into slices and use just a part of it, like a grain of sound. Some samples I made are sequences, so the notes and rhythms have already been chosen. Like the acid lines, they have a particular structure. But you can simply chop out, for example, the lower note and the upper note, restructure them or repitch them, stretch them out, run them through effects. There are so many ways. You can put them in a granular synth. There are a lot of granular apps in the iPad that I love.
You can also use the samples dry without changing them. If you take, say, a bassline and build a track around it, all the new elements you added will bring the music to your own place.
What about when you're using samples yourself today?
For the past, let's say, decade, I haven't really used external sample packs. I make my own samples because now I have the possibility and experience to do it. But then if we talk about general public, your music might not be about making every little piece yourself, so for whatever reason you prefer other people doing the sounds—that's fine. As I've been saying, any source is good, it's how you work with it. Everybody can make pasta, but everybody makes it differently.
Good analogy! But even though you don't use other people's samples, you create your own "sample packs" for practical reasons right?
The process in the studio is one thing, but when you perform, you can't bring your studio with you, it's just impossible. For one track, let's say I need to use the Vermona and then for another I need the Acid Lab and the 909. When you're working in the studio, you can record and play these instruments as you like, but it's good to keep the library of sounds you made because you can work with them afterwards for performances. Sometimes I sit here recording one little sound modulation for an hour, but you can't do this while performing, so I'd sample part of it for live sets. So I would have everything from one-shot drum sounds to long ambient textures loaded into my Octatrack for live shows.
It's also nice for the history. You revisit a sound sometimes 10 years after you made it, and you're like, "I made this great thing and totally forgot about it," and it gives you a new idea.
Of course in a live show, you can skip the samples and just use two synthesisers and a drum machine, a purely puristic approach. But I think, especially on old school machines, they have limitations, they might do just one thing. Another reason why samples can be important here is that the raw sound from these machines often requires extra processing or layering. Even if you have a 909 with the classic bass drum, I'd use samples in the Octatrack to layer the sound, to add punch or texture depending on the situation.
You can also process the raw drum sounds through effects and distortion, but it might still retain that classic character we recognise. With samples taken from modern synthesisers or especially granular tools, it can give you more possibilities for changing the overall character, to have a personal vision of the sound.
If we're talking abstract techno, this kind of moody style with strange and crazy sounds—classic synthesisers can of course make these types of sounds but often you have to treat them with a big chain of effects. To do this live, you'd need to bring 20 effects pedal just to treat your bass drum, then you another 20 effects for the hats or whatever. Or you can make this chain at home and bounce it into a single audio sample.
If someone loaded your sample pack into an Octatrack or whatever sample player they have, they could basically play a live set with no other instruments.
I think so, yeah. Well, that's what I'm going to show you! You don't have to have millions of samples. I'd have several folders, a few rhythmical patterns, your noisy textures and effects, drums and percussion, some basslines—my pack has quite a few acid lines. But you could do the whole set with just, let's say, 50 samples. Well, maybe 60… it depends how long you're playing. If you go for five hours, then you'd need more.
On the other hand, if we're talking about a more slow-moving, experimental set, you can focus on, say, 10 sounds for two hours. It depends how you play and modulate them.
Do you ever spend days only recording sounds, not thinking about where they go in a track, so you have a folder of pre-made sounds for making tracks more quickly later on?
Usually when I get a new synthesiser, I sit there all day recording sounds from it while I'm learning. Like the Moog Mother32—that's the most recent one—I still have to figure out how it works to feel comfortable. So I sit there and play around with different sequences, with different effects, and I record it all. Sometimes I erase it after but often I keep it. Sometimes I go back to the recording and chop out a segment, or treat it, or even take the whole recording and add something to else it and build a track around it.
Say if someone was enjoying DJing and they were interested in production or performing, could they load the loops from your pack into four decks in DJ software and jam with them to learn about structure and arrangement for instance?
We're talking about this kind of fine line between DJing and producing, or the beginner producing process where you're come from the DJing side. I think the art of DJing now, to be honest, isn't far away from producing. Mixing three vinyl records is difficult and the tracks themselves are mostly completely full productions with many elements. So you can't really add sounds without filling up the mix too much.
But nowadays, with more tool-like, stripped-down tracks and digital DJing, you could mix these all together with the samples. It's a great thing to learn because you can train your ear for tonalities, or more generally, what does and doesn't work when it comes to combining different musical parts together.
If you have four CDJs or digital decks and you play loops from the sample pack, you could loop a bass drum and put an acid line on top, then you add some textural effects or whatever else you choose. It's also somehow an introduction to composing.
I think nowadays DJing permits you to do more than playing two tracks together in the right tempo. Okay, the right key might be important if you're into more melodic music. When I DJ now, I play two tracks and then loop something else in on another deck and add my own sound. I have four USB sticks, and on one USB there are unreleased tracks, loops, sequences or some samples that I made for myself.
As you mentioned, acid basslines are well-represented in the pack.
When I started the pack, my mind was oriented towards classic dancefloor techno. But as I was saying earlier, if you chop the loops and take little parts out of it, you can use it in any context. But in terms of basslines in general, they're metaphorically like a comfortable mattress for your bed, and then you add other elements like blankets or cushions on top. A certain type of techno needs to have that low-mid to low frequency energy to create a foundation for the mix.
Let's talk about the modified AKAI drum machine you sampled. Why did you choose to use this strange thing, and what's special about it?
The drum machine is from the early '90s, and, to be honest, it's not something I use often. I don't even own this, actually! But there are so many samples from classic drum machines already and this one is something different. It has an EPROM memory card that stores the sound, but this one has been modified by connecting a circuit breaker to the chip. This can add a little downsampled dirt or it can break the sound into unusual structures and characters.
Another odd piece you used is the Yamaha ED10.
I choose it for the same reason as the AKAI—to add something slightly different, something slightly less classic. It's a proper drum synthesiser in that it's based around oscillators, noise and envelopes, and it's triggered manually with drum sticks. Every hit is slightly different because of your own physical movements and how the velocity changes the sound.
Did you have an overall goal for the sample pack?
It's something that I prepared for other people to use, so they have to find their own way, or their own goal. It's like making a nice present for a friend or something. I hope people are savouring the sounds and then transforming them into something else. It's nice to know, even if you can't recognise it, that someone used your sound to do something completely beautiful. I think that's the goal, to share a little bit of yourself, or a little bit of yourself through sound, and then you give it to someone who takes it on a journey.