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electronic MUSICIAN

Deadmau5 | Mau5 in the House

By Mike Levine | February 1, 2011

Multicolored lights flash wildly around the stage as Deadmau5 (pronounced “Deadmouse”), wearing his LED mouse-head mask stands atop the “Cube,” the massive platform from which he performs, turning knobs and pushing sliders of the processors in his live-performance rig, as his music pours from the massive array of speakers and subwoofers. The crowd is on its feet, shaking its fists and stomping its feet in rhythm to the pulsing beat. The balcony of the old converted movie theater in northern New Jersey is literally shaking. The combination of human and low-frequency energy stresses the ceiling above the orchestra level to the breaking point, and a section of the plaster breaks free and plunges to the floor. Fortunately, no one is seriously injured.

Although his performances don''t usually result in infrastructure damage, there''s no question that Deadmau5''s hard-driving brand of electronica—progressive house, techno, and electro are all terms that have been used to describe it—and his audiences'' response to it, are very intense. Under the mouse head, Deadmau5 is Joel Zimmerman, a Toronto-based producer who, not only creates, mixes, and masters his music, but maintains control over virtually every aspect of his burgeoning career, down to the graphic design of his album covers and stage set.

His new album, 4x4=12 (Ultra, 2010), was released in early December and offers up 11 songs and close to 70 minutes of music (a deluxe version contains additional tracks). The songs feature fat, distorted basslines (a signature part of his sound), which are often generated by the synths in his modular rig. His mastery of all aspects of the production process is evident throughout, from in-your-face drum sounds to judicious and clever use of ambience to creative synth programming and sound design. You don''t have to be a dance music fan to appreciate Deadmau5''s studio chops.

I spoke with the always colorful Zimmerman a few weeks before the album''s release to find out more about the production of 4x4=12 and about his home studio.

Excellent album. The production on it is awesome. How long did it take you to do the whole project?
I''m so kind of bummed out about it, because it is again, another compilation of s**t I kind of had going on in between tours. A track here, go on tour, I do another track there, and then it just turned into another compilation, and I''ve done this with the last two albums.

So wasn''t like you had a concept and recorded for three months straight.
I''m waiting for the blessed time off to be able to do something like that.

How much are you on the road these days?
Way too much. [But] my booking agent says not enough.

Let''s talk about your studio first. Did you produce the whole thing there?
Yep. I cannot produce outside of my studio. It''s my chair. It''s my home. It''s where I feel comfortable. It''s where I can just shut everything else up and do something. I have a lot of gear now.

Describe your studio. I think I saw a picture online; it''s not that big of a room, right?
No actually, I''m going to be taking care of that this year, but it''s really not that big. It''s about the size of any mastering suite. It''s small, and for the right reasons. I don''t need a big cavern.

What is your main DAW?
It''s the same old usual hodgepodge of everything, because so many things are good at so many things but suck at everything else.

Which ones do you use?
[Steinberg] Cubase, a bit of that. A bit of [Ableton] Live. Some [Image Line] FL Studio, even.

So you''re on a PC?
And Mac. Like I said, it''s just different platforms, different systems; different software does different things.

Is there a typical production process for you, starting from the song writing part?
The composition usually starts with me whittling, noodling away on a MIDI keyboard. I''ll just load up some random-ass patches on some plug-in or on a synth, or wire up the modular and do some goofy sequences. Basically, I try to get the melody and phrase down before I get too heavy into making that duck at just the right amount.

Once you have the melody figured out, do you have a particular method arranging and structuring a song?
All the DAWs, the one thing that they all have in common is that you can see everything. The 4x4=12 thing is kind of a piss take on that because it''s really kind of formulaic. You look at a 4-bar-long clip stacked to another one, and then with an 8-bar or 16-bar loop or breakdown—but never a 6-bar one. I wish I could make some kind of algorithm, if I was a talented coder, to analyze these patterns because it looks like there are so many common elements other than the sounds and melodies. But the structure of more or less every song ever played by a DJ is so damn close.

A look inside Deadmau5''s home studio, where he produces, mixes, and masters all of his projects.

A look inside Deadmau5''s home studio, where he produces, mixes, and masters all of his projects.

It always has a breakdown in the middle, right?
Oh, of course, you have to. It''s just such a DJ-format thing. You can not start a track with a melody. You''ve got to give them a bit of lead-in time to mix.

Do you find that having to work in that structure is constraining?
Of course it is, for that style of music. Luckily for me, I like to explore doing all sorts of different kinds of music, and I don''t necessarily follow the rules of “If I was a DJ, I need to make this track work in such a way.”

Let''s talk about the album. The sounds on it were great. Where do those big, fat nasty bass sounds usually come from?
A lot of it comes from my modular and my Moog stuff.

What kind of modular do you have?
I have a monstrous A100 system, but none of the modules are actually Doepfer, it''s just the case, so it''s all Eurorack. I''m a big fan of Cwejman modules, MacBeth modules. Dude, it''s insane.

So you get your most fat, heavy-duty sounds out your modular?
Well I''m a big fan of the [Thermionic] Culture Vulture [outboard distortion processor]. I have a Weiss DS-1 and all these great compressors. I''m just really finicky about fat. Not to say that you can''t do that with a plug-in, and that''s not why I have it. It''s just that I like tactile feedback.

So you''re not keeping everything in the box, obviously.
No, unfortunately. So a lot of ideas get half-finished, and then once they are half-finished and I take too long of a break I can never get that back.

Can''t get it back because you don''t have the recall?
Yeah, there is no recall on this.

Obviously you can''t save patches on a modular.
No.

Do you ever write down where the knobs are?
No, I never went that far. I don''t bother.

Do you track stuff in MIDI or is mostly audio, or a combination?
We MIDI out to the gear and then we record it, and then throw them into sampler channels or throw them into Battery, and then they become audio.

So you''re dealing with MIDI data before you bounce the parts out to audio.
Yeah. Except for sometimes some modular things you can have trigger themselves. It depends on what it is. Every module in the modular is outputting noise whether it''s plugged in or not. That''s the nature of a modular synth. All the oscillators are always running. It''s not like a computer where this will only happen if you do this.

So you just have to patch in the right sound and go.
Yeah. The beautiful thing about the modular system is that you will never get what you''re trying to get. Try as you might, unless it''s just eight detuned SAWs, then yes, you can do that. If you want this FM-y, tubey, like a DX7 sound, I swear to God, I could sit in front of the thing for a f**king year and never get anything close.

Do you often find that you accidentally set something a certain way and find a great sound?
That is the purpose of this monster of a modular system. It''s the happy-accident machine. If you''re wise enough to know that this is obviously going to do this if I do it this way, I''m not just sitting there arbitrarily plugging cables in backward and then praying that thing outputs a noise. There''s basic fundamental knowledge behind these things. It''s not rocket science at all.

What about your drum parts? Are they mostly samples?
Well, samples that we''ve produced.

Do you throw them into the grid and manipulate them that way?
Yeah, but it''s all one-shots.

So not much in the way of loops?
No. We like to break everything down. If I cannot consolidate anything it''s definitely rhythmic things. Anything that''s got a rhythm, that''s repetitive like a loop would be, like the more parts you can have for it, the better. Then you can take out and reintroduce, or swing certain bits of just a hi-hat without f**king up the whole loop. So I stay away from drag-and-drop and just playing dress-up Barbie with it. That''s what it feels like, like those little cut and paste clothes. “Aw, this is good, aw, this is good.” It''s all going to be f**king good, but it would be even better if you could design it the way you wanted it, kind of taking a look in the mirror with your new outfit on.

Do you do all your own mixing as well?
Yes, and mastering.

I was really impressed with the mix. What I liked so much about this album was nothing was overly wet.
But you could hear it.

You could hear it, but there wasn''t too much reverb. It had enough ambience. It had this dryness, too, that gave it a crisp, present feel that you don''t always hear.
Especially on tracks like “Bad Selection.” Me and [DJ] Aero were really meticulous about the cleanliness of that track. On a lot of tracks, I will throw in dirt vinyl stuff, just to give it a little bit of lift when I come on a release time of a compression. When it comes back up it''s got something to lift up instead of just silence. Things like that I do a lot, especially with noise. But that one, we really wanted to stay away, we wanted to give it a more super-tight, super-clean sound, and with minimal effect as possible between notes.

Describe what you were talking about, as far as throwing in the dirt in between when the compressor is hitting.
What I do a lot, I take two SM57s, go up on my roof and just hit record. I''ve got about a 20-minute long file of this that I''ve been using forever. You bring it down to -18dB, to where I can just start to hear it, and I don''t know if I''m going deaf or if my hearing is getting more f**ked up, but every time I go to listen for it, it gets harder and harder to hear.

It''s just ambience, just air sound, right?
Yes.

And then what do you do with it? Do you lay it underneath the whole song?
I throw it in a bus that''s being heavily compressed or effected, and then that will lift up the quote-unquote noise floor, so it''s almost exactly how you would simulate a room with an IR verb, except you are not doing that and it''s not a room.

But you''re adding a slightly gritty thing that''s very subtle.
Yes, you would never hear it in the end, because it might get EQed out way too much. I might high-pass the hell out of it, even.

Do you do a lot of sidechaining?
Oh, copious amounts. I think that''s just a term that''s gotten thrown around in electronic music production as the thing to do, because I hear it in demos and other people''s work. Well not other people that are doing these amazing things, just the guys that want to learn about it and take something the wrong way.

How do you approach sidechaining?
It''s something that should be looked at and taken care of when you''re doing it, because it is something you can get carried away with, as an effect or as a mixing utility, that''s the difference.

But the idea is to make an EQ or compressor or something react rhythmically.
SSL did not make the G series compressor with the external sidechain under the notion that you should take the threshold, bring it down to, f**king, I don''t know, -15db with a 10-to-nothing ratio and a 0.1 attack time and a 0.1 release and then crank the makeup gain so that this thing just goes “thup, thup, thup.” That''s not it. It''s an interesting effect, and any audible source is cool if you want to use it in your work, but there are just some things that are more meant to be used as adjustments, not effects.

Absolutely.
It''s like Cher f**ked it for everyone for Auto-Tune.

When I talked to you once before, you were talking about wanting to steer clear of any quantizing.
Yes, but again, it''s hard to say that when you''re doing electronic music [laughs].

I was going to say, how do you do it? Everything is smack on.
It has to be. You''re running off other guys'' clocks. You could throw a DJ a turd. Something that sounds great, but maybe dip the tempo down or up a BPM for the entire duration of the track. It''s not going to stop them from buying it, but it''s really going to piss them off. And that''s funny too. Jokes have their place.

Sure, but you''ve got to play to your audience, too.
You''ve got to play to your audience.

You do your own mastering, but you''re now in the position where you could send your stuff to the greatest mastering engineer on earth if you wanted to.
But why?

I''m not saying you should.
I know, but that''s my answer to that. I''ll tell you why. I wouldn''t want to, and I don''t mean it in a negative way and I''m not being greedy about it. I like to keep something as much mine as possible. But that''s my quirk. I do the same thing with my branding. I won''t let my label design a f**king thing.

Really?
I won''t. I don''t care how good it is. I don''t care how awesome it is. I don''t care how cool you think it is or how many copies it will sell or whatever. I want to do it. It would be the same as saying would you let someone else''s parents take your kid out clothes shopping for their first day of school.

How many days a year do you tour?
[Laughs] All of them, except for Mondays.

Seriously?
That''s what it feels like. Like we''re doing five shows a week.

Good luck with it. Ride the wave.
You know, I really hate that saying. Or “enjoy it.” Because it just makes it sound like I''m going to be not doing anything [eventually].

I didn''t mean it that way.
I know you didn''t mean it that way. But I really don''t like hearing that. It''s freaky. It''s a little freaky because it''s like, just buy all the gear, and then I''ll just hang onto it and not sell it, and then hopefully pay my house off, and then my rent will be cheap, and then I''ll be okay, and then everyone can hate me [laughs].


Mike Levine is EM''s editor and senior media producer.

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