The Dutch trio have blazed a trail to the forefront of D&B – picking up the Best Producer award from D&BArena in 2010 and Best D&B artist from Bearport in 2009 and 2010 and working artists as disparate as Moby, The Prodigy, Skrillex and Katy Perry, plus a forthcoming collaboration with legendary nu-metal band Korn. Having recently signed a publishing deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation for video game sound design and being in the process of building 3 state-of-the-art studios, we were lucky enough to pin down Thijs de Vlieger for ten questions on the secrets behind their success.
What is the prognosis for the music industry: terminal decline or steady recovery?
The big companies are slimming down, in response to the fact that music sales aren’t bringing the large revenues they used to. I think the big companies will survive if they adapt. Another ‘revolution’ like the Internet is unlikely to happen again on such scale.
Does the industry these days dictate that artists need to be both creative artists and businessmen in equal measure?
If an artist wants to pay the rent from their music revenues then he/she definitely needs someone to take care of the business side of things. Whether that’s the artist themselves or someone else working for them, doesn’t really matter. In an ideal world an artist would focus on their art and it would get picked up by the audience just because of the quality of the work but it generally does not work like that at all.
As an international touring artist who can regularly find themselves on different continents in the same week, how do you strike a balance between your touring schedule and time in the studio?
In 2010/2011 we took the step of trying to focus on studio work and to only do a couple of really irresistible gigs or tours on the side. So far it’s been working out quite nicely. It means we get to spend more time in the studio and with friends and family – and less time in airplanes and hotel rooms.
But I don’t think we could have ever have got to where we are now without touring our asses off for years. That initial imbalance has made the current (more balanced) status quo possible. I think we’d like to try and approach our music the way rock bands have been doing it for decades – take time to make an album, then tour the album. Whether that would work I don’t know because we’re used to being in the studio every week.
Who’s currently rocking your world as a producer and why?
Sadly no one really is totally impressing me anymore. Back in the beginning it was so inspiring to listen to our heroes’ music, it was such a challenge to try to reach their level of production technique and musicality. When you get a lot better yourself technically, you start focusing more and more on negatives (that’s the way to get better at anything – find the weak parts in your music and fix them). As a side effect of your enhanced ability to focus on the weaker parts of your own music, you start noticing weaker parts in other people’s music too. Unfortunately, it’s a lot harder to be impressed when you get older and wiser.
The last time I was really impressed was at Amon Tobin’s live show. I love his music, but with the visual experience there was just no escape anymore and it fully hit me. Also, 16bit have been coming out with some welcome fresh takes on the dubstep sound by not doing the Massive bass sound so much and using dirtier sources rather than just simple synths.
The last few years a few individual tunes have surprised us positively as well: Wolfgang Garner’s Firepower and Madeon’s Raise Your Weapon remix of Deadmau5. These guys came out of nowhere for us with a sound we didn’t know existed.
What one piece of kit or plug-in can you not live without?
Every tool is ultimately replaceable. It gets annoying when you have to adapt to other stuff, but if you have an idea of what you want you can get there. Sometimes the most interesting things happen when you have equipment you don’t understand, and no idea what to do with it, so you just start randomly changing parameters.
When building a track how do you normally work? Do you start with the drums and build from that?
Every track starts differently, but with 90% of our tracks the drums are the backbone of the mix so this is where we usually start. But it could start from anything – a snare, a bass sound, a processed vinyl sample, a melody – as long as it sounds good. Then after a while it becomes apparent whether this basic sketch of an idea contains the certain quality that could develop it into a finished track.
Any advice on monitoring? Quiet? Loud? Do you prefer flat and boring speakers, headphones or big, phat and chunky monitors? Do you reference on multiple systems?
We have been using ADAM speakers for years. They’re good speakers, and good speakers are important. It’s nice to have a secondary system that sounds a lot more boom-y, just to get a nice vibe in the studio, but it’s more important that you can hear exactly what’s going on too. Headphones are nice, but I wouldn’t recommend doing final mixes on them. We usually check tunes on a laptop too, to hear if the main sounds come across without sub.
What are the biggest barriers new producers face?
Dealing with frustrations when stuff doesn’t work out the way you want it to. Whether it’s not getting recognition or not being able to achieve a certian sound you want to make, it’s important to remember why you want to make music in the first place. If you make music for you’re down enjoyment then try and keep it fun. If you’re making music to get respect for it from other people then you’d best buckle up because you’re in for a whole not more frustration!
What pieces of kit / software could you not mix without?
Our speakers and our room. We have a pretty good room but we’re in the process of building even better ones.
We also use spectrum analysis a lot (Voxengo Span) and a spectrogram too. We know our spectrogram inside-out so we can tell whether the bass is loud enough, whether the different notes are at the same volume, whether the fundamental or the 1st harmonic is too loud and so on, just visually alone.
We recently started using Fabfilter’s Pro-Q for mid-side EQing. Pro-Q is our go-to EQ, Pro-C our go-to compressor, and Pro-L our go-to limiter.
What do you find hardest to get right when making a track?
Getting a collection of sounds to sound like they all have a reason to be where they are within the composition and getting it so that you want to listen to the whole thing over and over again. Making nice or impressive sounding sounds isn’t all that hard for us anymore but using them in a context that demands those sounds be there is the hard part.
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