Tell us about your background pre-Phats & Small and the Freemasons.
I was trained up in Manchester at one of the first courses that focused on audio systems. It was very basic and was in Salford University in Manchester. Coming from Hampshire, that was a great place to go in 1992. Everything was kicking off there, it was an amazing place to be. We were fortunate enough to cheaply rent studios where 808 State and others had been recording in.
After that I came down to London and ended up working for DMC which was the center point for remix culture. They used to put out monthly albums and had deals with the major record companies which allowed any of their remixers to have the original multi-tracks from pretty much anything current. That was the beginning of remixing as an actual industry to a degree.
For me it was fascinating because one week I was pulling apart Seal multi-tracks for someone who just wanted the bits, the next minute I was remixing by myself there: taking apart multitracks. It was an incredible learning experience to be hear how stuff was put together, as well as being around people like Brothers in Rhythm, Dave Seaman, Chad Jackson, Anthony Pappa, etc.
What were their studios like?
They were pretty simple really. There was even carpet on the walls, it certainly wasn’t acoustically set up. That was almost part of the punk ethic of dance music at that time. It was completely DIY, and music made on crap equipment to a certain degree. I must admit I’d had enough of it after a certain amount of time and I really wanted to go into London Studios because I loved recording studios. I knew they weren’t going to last as I could see what was happening with the computer starting to take over. Even at DMC, we were demonstrating that you could make releasable records from within a small setup.
Then I went into London to work for a Japanese drummer called Gota Yashiki at an SSL studio in Acton, which is now Stuart Price’s studio. It was an incredible facility: they’d done really well and Gota was one of the fore-fathers of adding live drums to sampled beats. He did a lot of the Soul II Soul drum programming and around that time in the mid-90s he was the first cool session guy in London for that kind of thing.
After that I moved to Sydney and when I returned I just had to live by the sea again, so came to Brighton. I knew Jason from Phats & Small, we made a couple of albums. Jason went off to do other things and Russell and I started doing stuff and it just happened from there completely naturally.
The first thing I really got my teeth into was a Korg M1 which was a great way to learn because it had a built-in sequencer. I used that sequencer so much the start/stop button fell off.
James Wiltshire playing @Pride
Tell us about the gear you started using back when you began?
A 4-track and little home keyboards. The idea of overdubbing, adding extra bits of harmony and melody was happening. When I’d been growing up during the 80s it was all about one note on the bass, another synth note doing the melody and that was pretty much it for 80s electronic music. It wasn’t so much chordal, it was all about the counter harmony between bass and top instruments.
The first thing I really got my teeth into was a Korg M1 which was a great way to learn because it had a built-in sequencer. I used that sequencer so much the start/stop button fell off. So I used to have to connect a little jack socket with two bare wires, and I’d use the foot switch to trigger the start and stop.
It sounds like hot-wiring a car!
Yes, it was to a certain degree, but it was the only way I could do it because I used it so, so much. So because of the Korg M1 I learned about sequencing. On summer, which was beautiful and hot, I spent 4 weeks inside with that, two other keyboards and a Roland sequencer, to the point that my mom was really worried I was going to have vitamin D deficiency.
And what hardware are you using most now?
A couple of things: the Apogee Symphony box. As soon as we got them it changed our lives, because we had multiple interfaces, running on Firewire, that would start to go out of sync. Firewire is a terrible spec in my opinion for chucking live audio out of. The moment we got the Apogee all of those sync issues disappeared. We don’t take audio out as much as we used to, but it’s great to know the Symphony will sit there and be absolutely sample accurate and rock solid is a god send. Even though it’s a simple piece of hardware it just means you don’t have to worry about it.
The other thing... The Event Opal speakers we have. There’s a bass problem in this room and they are the only things that’ll get around that with a bit of help from IK Multimedia Arc as well. I love these speakers because if the sound is terrible it’ll sound terrible. If it sounds good then it really does start to shine.
Some monitors, like NS10s, will make everything sound terrible so you really have to work, but that’s half the joy. But these Opal’s I love. When they start to shine they really sound beautiful. But when you put something that may sound good on the Genelecs next to them, because the Genelecs are a little bit sweeter, you think everything’s alright, but the Event Opals may show up something that’s not right in the balance.
Certainly the SSL and 3-series Neve and 1057 Neve which has Germanium transistors in it. The other thing at the back of the studio which you can’t see is the Jupiter-8. In front of me I have a Manley Massive Passive and the best dynamic range controller, the GML 8900. It’s directly in front of me because it’s the most used piece of hardware.
The concept of parallel channels has been implemented so beautifully in Reason 7. It’s always been an incredibly creative tool. From a creative point of view being able to slam loops and drum patches and then go to old school techniques, like parallel channels, is wonderful.
*Russell and James from The FreeMasons looking suitably moody.
What instruments do you put through the GML 8900?
It just sorts out pianos - all those bits that just jump out too much. It really grabs them. It also brings out the humanness out of even badly played strings and boxy string samples. On vocals it’s second to none. Also, putting breaks and drum loops through it is an incredible experience. It just brings every single sound out without squishing it.
I think you used to use Logic, but I believe Reason 7 has become something you use a lot now?
Yes! Especially since the concept of parallel channels has been implemented so beautifully in Reason 7. It’s always been an incredibly creative tool. It may not be what we finish stuff off in as our stuff is very complex. But, from a creative point of view, being able to slam loops and drum patches and then go to old school techniques, like parallel channels, is wonderful.
The other thing we use an awful lot now is we’ve moved over from Logic to Ableton Live. To be honest Logic just crashes a lot for us and I’m sick of it.
As a Logic Pro trainer I’m saying nothing...
[Laughs] Opening up Ableton takes me a maximum of 2 minutes including opening a complex project. I opened Logic the other day, it took 10 minutes and then it crashed.
Sounds like it could be a 3rd party plug-in issue?
It was rescanning the UAD card because it had just been updated, then it booted up a very large session in 64-bit. Then it looked like it was ready to load up, but re-loaded all the plug-ins again... I hit play, it played two notes and crashed. I know the change is coming and I suspect it’s the same kind of legacy as things that happened with Final Cut Pro X...
I pulled up Logic for something else the other day and I’d really missed the layout, because I work so quickly in Logic and I can do stuff very quickly. But, we’re doing a lot of parallel stuff - which you have to do to keep up with the depth of most modern music - and outside of Reason, the best tool for this is Ableton Live.
So, you’ve had a slew of chart hits with remixes for AAA artists like Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Faith Evans and of course you were grammy nominated for your remix of a Beyonce song back in 2006.
We did three remixes for Beyonce in fact. We had two #1s where radio dumped the originals and played ours. The first was “Déjà-vu”, the second was the duet with Shakira, “Beautiful Liar” which wasn’t big in the States because the original production was a bit flat to be honest. We made an upbeat version which was #1 in 15 countries from here Eastwards.
We did three remixes for Beyonce in fact. We had two #1s where radio dumped the originals and played ours. The first was “Déjà-vu”, the second was the duet with Shakira, “Beautiful Liar”
How did the aftermath of remixing Beyonce affect you and Russell?
It was an incredible time because suddenly the world was open for DJing as well. We’ve been to so many different countries and have played so many different places and yet what we play is not what you might find to be international music. Often you’ll find harder electro guys who get to play in those parts of the world. And yet, we were everywhere really, from Russia to the Far East to Asia. And there’s still relationships we’ve got today as a result of that.
The lovely and talented Sophie Ellis-Bextor with The FreeMasons.
Has it opened more doors for you to focus on projects you really want to follow, or does it ot have an impact in that way?
It depends. If we wanted to record originals with some artists it’s a different ball game now. We could probably have stepped on it a bit earlier. Though perhaps we weren’t 100% ready. Just as we were doing our thing electro came in massively. We just weren’t up for electro at that time, it wasn’t our thing and wouldn’t have been right for us to do that. We laid some ground rules for RnB artists to step into, but then Kelly Rowland and David Guetta came about and they were off. But, we just didn’t want to do that kind of music and I’m glad we didn’t.
OK. So, I’d probably have a studio three times the size of this... But it wasn’t what we were all about. Now that scene is all about to come to an end because of the resurgence of House and we can sneak back in exactly where we want to be!
How do approach remixing?
Well, we get the individual stems in. It’s important to know what you’re working with. You know, we’re still not sure how we do it because each time can be slightly different. But, the first thing we’ll do is work out which tempo we’re going to put stuff at and then time stretch everything. That could be a mixture of iZotope’s time-stretching systems or Serato Pitch 'n Time. A lot of the time we’ve done it in Reason because the real-time stretching is great for vocals.
Which DAW will you work with the stems in initially?
It depends where we’re doing the stretch to be honest. I will even do this in pro Tools if they’ve come in a Pro Tools multi-track format. It’s so much easier to whack Serato on all the tracks in one place. From there we build drums around the vocals and then we find the thing. The bit that makes it work. That can take a day, an hour, or sometimes 10 minutes. But sometimes it can take up to a week to get that thing that makes it work right. That’s normally the chord structure... Though we try not to keep to the formula which seems to be happening at the moment, like all the important bits in the drop, then big noisy bit and then a drop. I’m kind of bored of that. But the reason people do that is because it’s very complicated to get vocals working over drums.
In terms of the creative process, do you feel you need to be in the studio working on the track to get your ideas?
Normally in the studio... But actually, sometimes I listen to the original track... And the best example of this is the recent Depeche Mode remix we did of “Heaven”. The moment I heard it I knew exactly how the remix was going to sound, and then it becomes a fight from day one to to get it to where it is in your head.
Back to gear. You seem to treat software as tools to use rather than being married to one particular brand or another.
Yes. Actually, I’m about to shoot some video over at Russell’s. We’ve discovered the same culture from audio plug-ins exists within video. It seems to have come with the launch of Final Cut Pro X and the ability for people to create their own effects within Motion and then sell them commercially. For me it’s important to be aware of all the tools that are available to you and use them all. It’s kind of lazy to stick with one set only. The reason we’ve moved over to Ableton is it is the sound of modern dance music. Also out mastering guys do stem mastering from Ableton sessions. I think you do need to be aware of everything that’s going on otherwise someone else will come up and nip at your heels and get better than you very quickly.
It’s interesting you mix in Live 9, as some people prefer more traditional level meters.
To me in Logic Pro you need metering... In fact, most digital metering is pointless as it all heads towards 0 dB. If you think about it, zero’s the last place you want to be on a digital system. Yet all the meters go towards that and the red bit is at the top. Whereas there should’ve been a standard set at the beginning of digital metering and there kind of was. When you go to external gear you have to realize that your outboard are expecting -18 dB on your digital faders. Digital full-scale - where everything goes up to 0 dB - if you send that out to hardware, especially something in a 500 series rack, it’s going to distort and sound terrible when it comes back in. The power rails in a 500 series can’t handle anything more than +12 to +14 dB... So you can imagine the problem when we’re sending +18 from an interface.
So the metering has never been a problem. I do find in Ableton you can abuse the levels going in to faders and channels a lot more than you can in Logic where everything tends to get a bit mucky and murky very quickly and things lose definition. My classic example is how the kick drums can disappear when you’re mixing in Logic when you start getting a hot balance going. In Live it tends not to do that. So, for me Live takes the abuse a lot more for electronic music.
I won’t do drums on anything else other than the MPC Renaissance now. It sounds incredible. It sounds like an MPC. It just sounds right.
What about soft synths?
I’ve got obsessed with plug-ins, so I’ve got just about everything there is. But then you end up with a ridiculous amount of choice. I’ve discovered that, when you’re starting something and you’re in the creative mode, to be restricted to what you have is far better than to have too many options. Lots of options actually creates a level of stress in what you’re doing and trying to make a decision of what you’d like to use. So, what we’ve done is pulled everything out and put selected ones in to start a project and then later on dump them all back in.
With all that choice do you have a couple you reach for almost automatically?
I probably do... From a sonics point of view, the UAD stuff I’ll always go through. Some of their new plug-ins are incredible. They have a brilliant way of warming things up. Native Instruments’ Kontakt is something I use all the time. It sounds fantastic. I won’t do drums on anything else other than the MPC Renaissance now, unless I have to work incredibly quickly. It sounds incredible. It sounds like an MPC. It just sounds right.
The one I haven’t stopped using since it just came up is the new Monark synth. To be honest I’m looking at my Moog’s and thinking what do I do... Do I get rid of them? It’s phenomenal and it’s in-tune. If you’re using a hardware Moog and trying to layer it with other sounds for bass then it’s so hard to use because it’ll drop out of tune. So to have something as well engineered is great.
I’m also a big fan of the Tone2 synths.
So, as you’re using Ableton Live 9 more and more have you been tempted by Push?
No, not at all. I’ve got a Launchpad which I use all the time when I DJ and I don’t think Push is my way of creating. I think if you’re not a player then it’s going to be fantastic. But, I’m a player whose inspiration always comes from the keys.
With their new record label setup we can expect to hear more from The FreeMasons in 2013 and beyond.
What do you have planned as the Freemasons?
We finally got our new label started at the end of 2012. The future as we see it is you have to keep control of your copyright. Everyone thinks you’ve got to have a record deal. That’s fine but you’re on 20% and that doesn’t sustain you in any shape or form, and might not make sales worth it unless you’re having top 10 records. The problem is our age. Being based in UK we have a media completed oriented around youth. Radio 1 have money from taxes to play to a certain age group. If they feel you fall outside of that it’s going to be incredibly difficult to get on. We are now considered outside of that. We might be able to sneak a few records past but we cannot rely on it anymore because we’re 40 years old. It’s one of the only countries where we have this situation.
The future as we see it is you have to keep control of your copyright. Everyone thinks you’ve got to have a record deal. That’s fine but you’re on 20% and that doesn’t sustain you in any shape or form
We want to be in control of our music so we can sell it internationally, and we’re building that up and it’s great fun! It’s quite humbling too as we’ve had to start from scratch and go through all the social mediums that we’ve kind of ignored because we were outside of that and we were able to run in standard media like TV and radio. So, it’s been a great learning curve to actually get your head round and to build a community customer by customer.
We have a new project called Pegasus and the releases will come thick and fast this year!
Cool. Do you have any tips to offer remixers/producers coming through?
Keep hold of your material. Do not sign over ownership unless you have to. The best way to do it is to lend it to people with licensing. So, if you’re the biggest new thing on SoundCloud and you’ve got 100k listeners and plays per day, everybody is going to want you. By that point you can strike off some interesting deals, so instead of signing over everything in perpetuity - meaning you give it to a record label forever - keep hold of it yourself, start your own label and license it to these people who want it. You will probably get 1/3 less money, but in 10 years time you’ll own your catalogue. So when it becomes fashionable again, which we’re always seeing, you’ll do very well.
Also, find a live element for your work. That’s really where the money is. At the end of the day in England we’re like a nation of Jazz musicians; we like to complain about the fact we never earn any money out of anything. In US it’s completely the opposite. Everyone is into success and into making money and treats it like a business. If anyone wants to do it full-time and for a length of time you must keep your eye on the numbers too.