The dubstep master reflects on his skyrocket to stardom—and
shares some surprising music production secrets
“I might be the biggest things in dance music,
but I don’t have radio-friendly songs,” proclaims
Sonny Moore, a.k.a. Skrillex. “I don’t
have three-and-a-half-minute songs with a
verse/chorus, verse/chorus, outro, whatever.
I don’t follow that sort of format, and I never
will, for anybody. I’m making music for me.”
The 23-year-old dance and dubstep
producer garnered a whopping five 2012
Grammy nominations, indicating the kind of
game-changing moment that only happens
rarely in popular culture. Nominated for Best
New Artist—the first time ever for a DJ—as
well as for Best Dance Recording and Best
Dance/Electronica Album (both titled “Scary
Monsters and Nice Sprites”); Best Non-Classical
Remixed Recording (Benny Benassi’s
“Cinema”); and Best Short-Form Music Video
(“Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” again),
Skrillex represents the new face of dance music.
Though the seeds for the movement were
set in motion in the ’90s with such acts as the Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, and Aphex
Twin, the underground scene has finally
evolved to where it’s easy challenging the
rock status quo for mass popularity and
“It’s interesting how far [the scene] went
without having to fit into a particular protocol
to make it on the radio,” Skrillex says. “We
had no marketing for anything. Not one thing.
The coolest thing about the whole scene is that
we can sell over 100,000 tickets at the Electric
Daisy Carnival [actually, 230,000, according
to most estimates]. That’s bigger than Coachella—
and it’s all dance music. Ninety percent of
the acts, none of them are household names.”
An extremely busy producer (including
work on Korn’s The Path of Totality) and performance
artist, Skrillex also runs his own
label, OWSLA, home to fellow dance artists
Porter Robinson, Zedd, Koan Sound, Kill
The Noise, and The M Machine. But get this
punked-out and pierced DJ talking and he’s
more likely to get agro over his valuable collection
of rare Aphex Twin vinyl (on Warp, natch)
than what constitutes dubstep label success.
Skrillex’s three EPs—My Name Is Skrillex,
Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites, and More
Monsters and Sprites—are like watching 20
years of dance-music history flashing before
your eyes. “First of the Year (Equinox),” from
his last recording, is a particularly stunning
amalgam of magic editing, mad vocal cut-up,
and unique production techniques. Creating
bass riffs that sound like fire-breathing
dragons, vocal melodies that closely resemble
Central African Mbenga-Mbuti Pygmy music,
and deftly placed vocal samples that typically
propel huge rave crowds into a frenzy, Skrillex
defies his diminutive presence with the kind of
awe-inducing techniques that light up message boards and nerdy production forums. And he
achieves this with a minimal recording rig that
doubles as a performance platform.
Mirroring his sensitive, artistic soul, Skrillex
models his message after Watership Down,
the 1972 fantasy novel about a band of renegade
rabbits battling the world’s ills to live in peace.
Your music is incredibly emotional. Is emotion
something you can conceptualize or
quantify as a production esthetic?
I never work off concepts. My songs are natural;
that’s how my mind works. I’m just making
music and it’s natural and it doesn’t feel too
special, really; it just makes me happy.
The tonal dips and cut-up syllables of your
vocals sound like Central African Mbenga-
Mbuti Pygmy vocal music. It’s uncanny.
Deep Forest sampled it for a hit in the 1990s. I’ve never heard that. Whoa! That’s crazy. That
part of my production: the vocal treatments,
and the melodies I make with vocal sounds. . . .
You have a rather minimal setup: Apple
MacBook Pro, Ableton Live, and a few plugins.
Is that current? I have that same rig; it’s even smaller now. I
am on the road 322 days a year. So everything
is composed and recorded in that same rig.
I don’t use a MIDI controller. I draw all the
MIDI in—a lot of drawing, a lot of clicking and
copying and pasting.
In general, how does your music evolve
from the original idea through the various
phases of production? Can we break down
“First of the Year (Equinox)”? Whether I’m writing with pen and paper or on
the laptop, it evolves as it’s moving. “Equinox”
began when I was making some new drum samples;
I’d made a new snare. Then I put that into
this triplet-grid swing beat [he sings the song’s
reggae groove], then I added violin using Native
Instruments Kontakt samples. I started cutting
up a vocal loop that was actually my voice. I
use my vocals for most of my tracks, resampled.
By the time it got to the drop in the song, I had
opened some older passages that I’d made before
and tweaked them to make new sounds on
the fly, just started drawing in MIDI. I made the
track in four days.
How do you record vocals and cut them up?
Generally, how do you effect your vocals to
create those unusual dips and bends? It’s a combination of things. When I’m recording
in, sometimes I pre-record [vocals] with
an SM58 into whatever soundcard is in my
computer. When I’m tracking, I’m using different
vocal compressors: [PSP] VintageWarmer
with multi-band compressor/limiter, [iZotope]
Ozone; I do most everything in Ozone. There
is so much shit you can do with it: multi-band,
compression, everything. I’ll take [Celemony]
Melodyne and detune it for vocals. From there, I render it to audio, and start manually
chopping it up in Ableton Live,
using the pitch envelopes and
the transpose wheel right in Live
and doing manual pitching of the
melody for all that crazy editing. I
even use that Chris Lord-Alge [CLA
Vocals] plug-in from Waves for vocal
You use some very twinkling
piano sounds in “Equinox.” That is the stock Ableton piano on
everything; then I just compress
the crap out of it in Ozone. It really
squashes the sound, almost
like resampling. Sometimes I will
render it to audio so I can get that
sampled [sound]. Piano emulators
are all built from recording pianos
in different rooms; they have different
decays and different attributes.
There is so much happening
around the emulation.
The drums almost sound live.
Are these stock Ableton sounds as well?
No, I take the most pride in my drums. I build
them from scratch and layer them, mostly from
Roland 909s and different acoustic elements
layered over the top. A lot of compression
chains and rendering them repeatedly.
At one point in “Equinox,” the synth, vocal
melody, and bass riff start madly cutting-up
across the bar. The bass riff in particular
sounds like a fire-breathing dragon. A lot of the bass is, of course, [NI] Massive,
which is [produced from] wavetable sounds
and different form oscillators—wavetable oscillators.
Probably the best vocally-sounding
bass is all from [NI] FM8. It’s an FM synth,
a different approach to synthesis ’cause it’s
fundamental. It’s not like granular, which
is basically resampling. FM synthesis is a
fundamental idea in that you’re taking a sine
wave and twisting it and modulating it and
turning it into something else.
What produces that very prog-rock sounding
synth in the song? It mirrors the little
demon girl’s hands in the song’s video. That’s a few different synths; one is a [NI]
[Sequential Circuits] Prophet 5 emulator, the
Pro-53. It has some cool, vintage-sounding
hard-sync oscillators, and then I mixed it with
FM8 and Massive, and just layering to give it
its own depth and flavor.
Are you improvising and creating with these
tools as you’re composing, or do you have
design elements configured beforehand? Maybe one or two beforehand, but really, the
song changes so many times before completion.
“Equinox” had so many different riffs and
drops and sounds before it became what it was.
Even if I do go in with an idea, chances are, I
will end up doing something that I like better.
Are your vocal melodies also generally a
work in progress? Actually, the vocal usually stays the same. I get
that the first time. Often I start with the vocal
Your vocal melodies are so strong. Why do
you go for that syllabic, non-literal lyric
approach? I like vocals; they are fun to resample and
they sound cool—the same as how you like a
piano in a sampler. Vocals sound really fun
and playful and they make me feel nostalgic
in some way when they are chopped up like
that. Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker” is a perfect
example of that. That is one of the first things
I heard as a kid that I really loved. Or even,
“To Cure Weakling Child” from the Richard D.
James album. It had all these really sick vocal
chops; I thought that was genius.
You often create this drilling sound that is
reminiscent of Squarepusher or Aphex Twin.
Is that made with iZotope Stutter Edit? No, I do all my edits 100% manually in audio. It
just depends on what I’m doing. All my drums
are audio as well, in groups, using Ableton
track grouping so I can collapse and fold them
so they become like my own little MIDI template
in the sense that they are grouped together.
It’s fun to take bits of pieces on the grid and
move them around on the timeline and just
pitch them right there with the pitch envelope,
the vocals, or drums.
The section in “Equinox” where all the fast
cutting happens between the synth, vocal,
and that stalker bass riff; can you describe
that process? That took a lot of time in editing. I did that
song relatively quick, three or four days including
mixing and mastering. But it’s still work—I
am in it. It’s hard to pull me off. I work pretty
steadily. And all that editing took a long time.
Where did you find the “Call 911 now!”
sample? That is a sample from YouTube. It was random.
These kids were skating at this spot that was illegal to skate at, and this lady just comes
out of nowhere. She screams “Call 911 now!
I’m calling the police!” If you hear the original
sample, you’ll hear that I had to time-stretch
it to fit into the rhythm. It’s originally a
lot longer. The vocal sample was originally
more drawn out. It has a different vibe.
Time-stretching makes it sound so urgent
As production tools have evolved, how has
your approach to making music changed? Every day, you can get a new plug-in. But that
question can be applied more probably to
someone who started on ADAT. Now computers
dominate. But I have always been in the
box. I used to use 4-track recorders when I
was young. You’d actually have one input, an
XLR in to tape. So now I get new plugs and I
always like to try them out. Even if it’s a new
synth, it can get you to the same place, but having
a different layout will inspire you to do different
things than you would normally.
So the art and the tools all become the same
thing, eventually. It’s like comparing wavetable to FM synthesis.
It’s all gets you to the same place. You can virtually
create the same thing. But it just takes
you on a different route. You sometimes come
up with a result that you normally wouldn’t
have with a process you were more comfortable
Your tracks cover so much ground; they’re dynamic
both in the material and in the production.
Even down to the fine details, such as the
string machine pad at the end of “Equinox.” Kontakt, baby! I am like a Native Instruments
commercial. Their samples are great. Those
strings are one-shot audio samples. Just little
bits in an extended line you can bring in as
sample players or in audio and crossfade and
do different things to extend them longer if
you want to build pads.
What recent plug-ins are you fond of? There is so much that I need to get. I’m using
what I am used to, ’cause I have to do shit
quick on deadline. Over Christmas, I am buying
so many new plug-ins and learning. Everyone
tells me [Sinevibes] Strobe is really badass.
Rob Papen Albino Red is another I like; it’s an
old drum-and-bass synth that everybody likes
to use. He’s got some cool presets in there.
Why are you fond of Watership Down? It was my favorite story growing up. I like the
idea of having an elite band of rabbits called
the OWSLA, they are the army. Then this skiddish
young rabbit has this vision of the whole
world being restored. He is the one who has
to take on everyone. It’s a really beautiful story.
That is the way I feel sometimes in this whole
crazy race in this world, running around following
our dreams and creating this crew of,
not soldiers in a militant sense, but they’re my
friends at the label, they love music. It’s like a
family; we’re all here to draw on each other’s
vibe and cover each other’s back at all times.
Why did you start your own label, and what
does an artist need now from a record label? In the old days, you needed a record budget, you
needed a producer. Studios were expensive. You
needed money for that. But now you don’t need
studios, you don’t need to spend money on another
producer. All an artist needs these days is a platform and a voice. As a label fan, you fall in love with a
label because you have trust in them. Their catalog
has continuity, also spontaneity; you can’t
wait for what’s next. We’ve done that really well
with OWSLA. We have an awesome following
and [the fans] are waiting for every release. They
trust what we’re doing. With electronic music,
you don’t need to spend money on things like
production, producers, or videos. It’s all about
the timing, being at the right place so people
can get the music.
Your five Grammy nominations are a real
game changer. A DJ has never been nominated
in the new artist category before. Is
this about mass acceptance of the DJ as an
artist and producer? That’s a good question. I don’t really care
about winning or anything like that. I do know
we deserve a nomination for just how hard we
worked this year alone on just making great
shows. We did 322 shows this year. I hope they
consider the fact that we’re artists, there’s an
art in making records and traditional DJing,
absolutely, but it’s merging. Like with Aphex
Twin: When he puts a show on, his live show is
amazing, the lasers and his visuals, and just the
emotion he puts into it; it’s a real performance.
That’s become more valid. Aphex and Daft
Punk have really raised the bar and helped
establish putting on a live experience with
Many contemporary hit singles sound like
’90s rave music with a more conventional
vocal. Dance music has infiltrated modern
production on myriad levels. For sure. Any trait that you see in a popular
art form always has its roots in a strong
underground movement. Everything I have
created and everything people in this scene
have created, it’s completely organic. When
I was making music in my bedroom, there
wasn’t a dubstep wave to ride. It wasn’t
cool when I started doing it. We could play
dubstep on the smoking patio at [L.A. club]
Cinespace, at low volume. It wasn’t cool.
People accuse me of jumping on the dubstep
wave. No, I didn’t do this overnight. I
didn’t learn my production and synthesis
overnight. It takes time—a lot of trial and
error. The coolest part about the Grammy
nominations is that it proves something real
is happening culturally. And even though
the mainstream is trying to latch onto it,
they don’t even know what to really latch
What’s next for you and OWSLA? I have a new EP, Bangarang. I’m always producing
music; I want to do stuff that’s fun and
new and challenging. That’s how the whole
OWSLA team is—we think of ideas and we get
them done. Next year, we’re doing five-night
runs in L.A. and New York, going from the
smallest underground venue to the biggest
venue I can play. For 2012, look out for more
releases, more collaborations, more OWSLA
releases, and completely next-level on the
touring side. That’s our focus.
Ken Micallef covers various genres of music
for domestic and global publications. He lives
in Greenwich Village with his cat Monty and his