JOEL ZIMMERMAN spends the better part of his year with a huge smile plastered across his face. Performing as his alter ego Deadmau5, Zimmerman commands arenas with his meticulously produced waves of progressive, electro, and tech house while wearing a bobbing, LED-encrusted 3D helmet that grins maniacally at the EDM crowds. It’s a playful image, but underneath that mau5head is a serious gear head, and not always a sunny one. Whether on Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, or in conversation, Zimmerman proves himself to be bracingly honest, somewhat cagey, as willing to infuriate as educate, but openly enthusiastic about the importance of experimentation and working with an appreciation for efficiency and sonic transparency. Despite being a guy who plays uplifting music for the masses, Zimmerman is not afraid to stand behind an unpopular point, especially one that reinforces his refusal to be just another follower. Over the past five years, Zimmerman has released a steady stream of material, including 2012’s >album title goes here<, which compiles new productions with reworked singles. The year 2012, however, might be most memorable among Deadmau5 followers for the attention Zimmerman garnered from publishing a confession about/critique of live electronic performance under the title “We All Push Play.” What got lost in all the static about whether Ableton Live or an arms-in-the-air headliner does all the work at concerts, however, was the point that there wouldn’t even be something to play back if an enormous effort wasn’t being put in to the studio, where Zimmerman would say the best advice is don’t follow any advice too closely.
Though prickly at times, the man behind the mask is genuinely passionate about being gear obsessed yet refuses to be a slave to any one means of, or platform for, production. Championing a tactile approach that places dynamic response at the forefront, Zimmerman directs his scorn proactively at those (this interviewer included) whom he thinks just don’t get how to just get to it.
So you’re in Los Angeles right now; how’s that treating you?
It’s sunny and warm, not like Canada. Can’t complain.
Looking back at your upbringing in the Niagara Falls, Ontario, region, what part did that play in your music?
Well, where I grew up, there were no electronic musicians, really. There was no one else leading the pack in that department, so it was a really cool place to start out.
So, where did you find your first exposure to electronic composition? I understand you were in the Scream Tracker scene [home to users of an integrated multitrack step sequencer and sampler popular among DOS users in the early 1990s].
Yeah, my exposure kind of began on the Internet, joining various communities, hearing what all these chiptune dudes in like Norway were doing, and I got plugged into that for a little while, making mod[ule] files. But I got a little more localized when I hooked up with the dance music radio station and worked in a record shop. That’s where I got exposed to more produced stuff as opposed to the hobbyist stuff.
Zimmerman’s studio in progress. What would you say were the first codified genres that caught your interest?
Well, there weren’t really that many genres; it was just straight-up house. The Porn Kings and Armand Van Helden were killing it. There was “Bombscare” and all that kind of stuff, but it was all in the house vein, at least in my world. There was no techno, no minimal, no f**king progressive-neo-dubstep-tech.
Was there ever one defining recording that caught your ear and inspired your direction?
Um, f**k, I don’t know, sh*t, [Ritchie Hawtin’s] Decks, EFX & 909, I guess. Dude, I f**king hate this sh*t, this interview f**king sucks. I’m sorry, but “how do you feel,” “what’s your opinion”—this doesn’t help anyone; this isn’t informative. Who gives a f**k if I listen to black metal or f**king country music?
Okay, let’s turn the conversation to building a better mousetrap, then. What was the first recording gear you picked up?
The first thing I bought was a Roland MC-303 [Groovebox] because Roland decided to make some really cheap sh*t, which was good for kids who don’t even have a job. That was fun, and I really got into that; I remember being in high school and I would just be reading that gear manual during geography or whatever. That got my head around oscillators, filters, your meatand- potatoes-of-dance-music kind of stuff.
How did you first attempt to both use and abuse that box?
You always found these little tricks, like how you could run it into a computer and record .wav files of just the samples of the thing and mess with them, or you’d buy a cheapo distortion pedal and record samples running it through that. I was still very tracker oriented, so I would go and make drum sounds and then affect them with the DSP processors in the computer and throw those into a tracking program. And then suddenly my mod files sounded a little more up to date, as opposed to using all these old crazy samples that everyone was using. It was more interesting to make my own thing for a change.
What was your first computer?
It was an Atari ST running C-Lab Notator, and I had the dongle on it so I could send MIDI to the 303 or an old [Roland] Juno-60 that I had, and that was interesting because it was getting me out of tracker world and into MIDI. But I did end up upgrading to an Intel 80486DX2 with some SRAM in it, and I think I had a very early version of Cubase in it. The old way of doing things was to MIDI out all this stuff and then record what it was, and that’s the end of it. But then VSTs came out and I really tried to stay ahead on that curve. That opened a lot more creative possibilities.
What’s your current workstation?
I’ve been working with a company in Texas called BOXX Technologies that’s been specially tailoring PCs for me. They’ve built some of the most reliable performance PCs I’ve seen. I used to build them myself, but I’ve been supplied with machines by BOXX for the past six years now and they’re amazing. And it’s funny, because I went into Hans Zimmer’s studio the other day and he’s got racks of PCs from the same company for his sample libraries. So I feel even more like I did the right thing.
What’s your current ratio of hardware to software in a production?
Probably about 70/20 on the hardware side, a lot of that being my mastering stuff. My compressors and limiters are all outboard, just because I like the way the physical ones behave. And I have all these modular synths; I’m loving this gnarly-ass Modcan [a collection of rack modules for complex, evolving monophonic voices and external signal processing] I commissioned [Modcan founder Bruce Duncan] to do, and that was a f**king eightmonth build. But it was all worth it; there are lots of oscillators and options, just a big happyaccident machine, really.
I’ve seen pictures; it’s an impressive stack. Cherry-pick some of your favorite components
Definitely the analog delays are great, and the frequency shift is all analog, too. Frequency shifts are a real horror to program, and even then, to have it sound really great you have to invoke some oversampling algorithms on rendering and stuff like that. There are things like that that you just can’t get a computer to even get close to doing, at least in near real time. And I’ve seen a lot of great filter VSTs try, but when you can get an analog filter like this, why try and replicate it? And even if the filter does sound better as a VST versus an analog one, it’s good to stay away from drawing those automation envelopes, those perfectly linear timed sweeps and things like that. When you’re doing it by hand, you’re adding a kind of subliminal nuance.
Do you compensate for or incorporate subtle analog grit?
There’s always going to be noise, and when it comes to modular synths, there’s no going back to do another take of something just the way it was before, so I’ll just patch in some ideas for drums or big, nasty bass or whatever and work with what’s recorded. It’s not the end of the world if there’s dirt in a filter or you’re driving it just a little too hard . . . distortion and clipping are two different things, you know; computers are prone to clipping, but analog just puts in distortion.
Tell me other ways you work with what we’ll call “positive distortion.” Do you add frequencies that will intentionally unsettle or refocus the attention of a mix?
I think I’ve been producing my music a lot differently than some of my peers. I tend to do the mastering process almost about halfway through the production of a track. I want to work on it as I hear it, while other guys just work away on these melodies and arrangements and all that, and after they are all done they have to go back and mix and master their tracks. With my workflow, I’ll know whether to keep something at a reasonable level or if the compression is just not right. I really like to avoid printing audio whenever possible just in case I want to go back and change something, or come off a compressor a little less or something.
Do you approach compression more as subtle adjustments rather than an overt effect?
A lot of people are busing everything to one spot and then just sidechaining the hell out of the thing, and then when the kick comes in, everything disappears. But the problem you’re going to run into is, when you mute the kick, the whole dynamic of the song is going to change. A lot of people tend to overdo that, and what they do instead is they mute the kick but still send the kick signal into the rest of the stuff. So you’re not hearing the kick, but you are hearing the sidechain result and it’s god-f**king awful, but it’s the only way you’re going to escape not changing the dynamic of the track throughout. In terms of compression, I so rarely go over 1:4 just for that reason. I want it to sound just as good with no sidechain.
A lot of people do what they do for volume reasons, but the thing is, dude, if you really want your track to be loud, turn the f**king volume up, don’t limit the sh*t out of everything. As soon as you start taking away that one element that’s sidechaining it or limiting it, your track is going to blow out all to hell and you’ll be wondering, why is it so much louder than this other part when I wasn’t limiting it? So it’s good to A/B when you’re sidechaining or doing any of those other f**king A-to-Z house music moves where you can just totally ruin a track. I tend to keep it very subtle and then gradually ramp it to a point where I can hear the difference as to whether all of these buses combine or not, and then I’ll just start knocking back levels as opposed to sidechain amounts or ratios on each of the buses. At the end of the day, they are all running into my master chain, which is going to be probably a Neve EQ and a Weiss DS1 [compressor /limiter/de-esser] as the last thing anything sees for maximization.
Do you lean toward that choice to apply coloration or control?
The thing with the Weiss is, it is so f**king transparent that you’re getting the loudness but you are keeping the dynamics. Another thing, too, is poor Waves designed this L1 [Ultramaximizer] for a reason, and a lot of people are just taking the threshold of that and bringing it half down to -30dB and just sausaging out their tracks. So, great, sounds really loud good for you, buddy, but here’s the problem: When that gets played in a nightclub, the amps are going to limit that again. And if you play something with more dynamic range, the amps are going to have more headroom to go up louder, so I’m very happy it sounds great on your f**king monitors, but it’s going to sound like ass in a club.
It’s one thing to lift up a tuned noise floor in between compressor hits and make a deliberate rhythmic effect, but you feel that a lot of producers don’t see a difference between super tight and plain constricted mixing?
I’m not a f**king crusader . . . if you think something sounds great, then great, use that. But it’s just such a shame because you have to realize that when you’re producing electronic music that’s going to be played in environments that have copious amounts of amplification, you have to think outside the monitors in your house, you have to think about the nightclub system or the arena system. Imagine setting your L1, and then what you should do is copy that L1 and paste that again after it and see how terrible it sounds, because that’s what the amps are going to do to it. Maybe I’m the only guy who is sitting out in the crowd thinking, ‘Man, this is just so limited,’ but it’s just a constant noise, a car horn in your f**king ear where you want to hear music. Yeah, when it was loud for that one second, it had that punch, but when it lulled out, the volume still stayed . . . Thinking about this is something that is just blatantly thrown out the window in electronic music just because of some guy’s f**king dumbsh*t pro tip in Keyboard magazine or wherever the f**k
Well, we did collect reader questions, and a lot of them did request some pro tips from you, like finding out what your technique for tightening a particular kick might be, or whether you tune your kicks to the song’s key, etc.
Oh f**k, yeah . . . I don’t do it all the time, but you should always make note of the fundamental frequency in a kick drum . . . and that can be found by using any free spectral imaging plugin or EQ that’s going to show the peaks and all that stuff. It’s not hard to find, it’s the swell in the middle of the EQ that’s peaking the highest. So what I do like to do with kicks is just use a sine wave and tune that sine wave . . . go up a few octaves if your monitors suck, and then bring it back down because you don’t have to necessarily hear it when you can see it. And then obviously you’re going to do a little bit of envelope shaping on that sine wave, but that’s not the kick, that’s basically an 808 with no attack on it, no punch.
For that punch, you can go through all these millions of sample libraries and start to find the top and mid of that kick, to add the transient, the punch of it. The way that I do it is, I split three tracks for a kick sound, sometimes even four or five, and I’ll start layering the sounds but splitting them up in frequencies so you have your fundamental sine wave, a mid one, which might be some old ’60s cut that might be only 1,000 samples long—a little, tiny thing—and then a couple more that are in and out of time. And as you move those and mess with the phase a bit, you can get it a little more slappy or not slappy, and then you’ve got that kick. So render that out.
It sounds like the rhythmic elements are what take you the most time to consolidate. Why produce and grid out all these one shots?
A lot of times, the more parts you can have, the better, because you can re-introduce or swing different parts without f**king up entire loops. It’s got a lot to do with the placement and timing of that kick. Even though it’s dance music and it’s not f**king rocket science to place one on every quarter note, it doesn’t hurt to nudge it backward a millisecond because that’s going to trigger a key sooner and give a little bit of time for the plug-in to process after the transient or during the transient. Because if you do everything from zero onward, you’re going to run into latency problems. And I’m talking changes in the microsecond range, not so much making a loop that’s way off. You’d be surprised what you can do by making micro adjustments to the placement of a kick, especially when it’s being used as a key for a compressor. If you bring it back just a little bit early, then you can hear a transient much better before the compressor just destroys it, squashes it down by 1:8 or 1:10.
So far, a lot of our conversation has centered on percussion; is that where you start a lot of your production?
Yeah, because I can usually tell where the track is going to go from there. Agreeing on a fundamental frequency for a bass drum is going to pretty much determine where the root is going to go, up a fifth, seventh, an octave, whatever. I tend to do that unless I’ve done this kind of kick that has so much going on for the fundamental frequency that you can go any way with it. I think of it as an elaborate click track, basically, in that I am going from there and start drawing in notes and melodies, pads and all this stuff, coming up with phrases . . . making 8, 16, 32 bars to keep on with that club-music formula.
Over time, have you found that your tools have fit the music or your music has fit the tools? Has any piece of gear or production technique resulted in a large body of work?
It’s all experimentation. I just go out and get the thing I don’t have and play around with it and see if I can shape some kind of sound out of it. Melody is never a problem; as long as I have a sound font of a piano, I could write melodies the rest of my life. Beethoven didn’t have too hard of a f**king time, you know what I mean?
I saw on your Twitter feed that you just upgraded your monitors to the PMC IB2S.
Those are actually really great, f**king amazing for the price. I’m in a weird room right now, and I’m doing some modifications to it and putting paneling up, though with this room I’m been pretty damn lucky because the bass goes right through it and doesn’t bounce back and cause bullsh*t pockets. But I’m still having a little bit of trouble with the mids and the highs because of a rounded ceiling above me. The PMC speakers are really tight, and I can hear like 40Hz at really low volume, which is really important because I don’t like really piercing-loud sh*t. I like clarity and transparency and comfortable listening levels; I don’t want to walk away from the studio at my ears ringing. But it’s true what they say: The speakers are only as good as the room they are in. The room is 70 percent of the sound when it comes to engineering, so I’m retrofitting this guest room in this house to disperse some reflections.
Is there a magic piece of gear or plug-in in this new studio that can glue a track together more effectively?
Oh yeah, maketrack.exe is that app—you know, the one where you just push the button and all the music comes out . . . I bet you we’re not far off from that, but thankfully, the spirit of producing prevails and most programmers are less interested in doing something like that than making more powerful task-specific tools to achieve one thing rather than all of it at once. The DJ dance studio fad came and went when the world realized that people actually want to work at making their music.
I’m going to throw out a hypothetical situation: Your studio is on fire, you’ve collected the cats, is there a single piece of gear you’d grab to start your studio over?
It’s got to be the box, it all starts with the BOXX now, but if I lose it, I lose it. If you fear that losing the equipment would cost you your creativity, you weren’t that talented to begin with and you should start considering a second career. So, if you feel that you’ll never write anything amazing ever again, you’d better have a lot of backup drives.
Looking back, your past year has been a busy one for productions, touring, and sparking discussions throughout dance music forums. Is there anything you would do differently, going forward?
I’m less concerned with the ongoing question of what’s going to happen and how to change to benefit from that somehow. As long as you remain creative and keep moving forward with your own ideas, doing different things your own way as opposed to designing in a way that you know is going to be popular with everyone else, then you will always be not another sheep, you’ll always be looked at as a starter rather than a guy who jumps on a thing. And that’s really important to me, to challenge myself before sounding like everyone else.
Is there a particular direction you see yourself heading as a challenge in the near future?
Yeah, I’m heading toward Norwegian black metal run through a Sherman Filterbank and calling it a remix. But really, I am building a 52-foot mobile production studio that I’m taking on tour that will be more or less a replica of my room in Toronto, just inside a massive truck so we can do all kinds of cool sh*t with it. We’re going to do live broadcasts from the road, inviting fans and friends and people in our little electronic world to come in and collaborate and do a thing in there called mau5hax [a Livestream session featuring Deadmau5 and others working with start-up producers and discussing production topics]. The new live show we’re working on is so involved, we’re looking at two-day stage build times, so we might as well just park a studio out there where I can work instead of just sitting around picking my nose in a f**king hotel room wishing I was at home making music.
And what’s at the core of that workstation?
Ableton is working out, but I’m looking at Cubase these days just for better mix control in terms of the way their busing system works, their EQs, and the way their layout is a little more engineerfriendly. As an arrangement tool, Ableton f**king rocks, but as an engineering tool it sucks and Cubase rocks. But you can combine the two with a ReWire client, and I’ve found that to be very useful. I don’t want to give away too much, but on stage there’s a lot of f**king sh*t going on up there, in terms of both Mac and PC. The MIDI in Cubase has always been bang on, where you do global adjustments on timing, like moving a latency slider over a bit, whereas in Ableton, you start f**king with that plug-in delay compensation sh*t, you’re entering into a world of f**king disappointment. Cubase has been a lot more reliable when it comes to timing-specific things.
If you could invent the perfect DAW, you’d be doing a lot of people and some companies a favor.
I don’t think it will ever come to a solution that’s perfect for everyone; everyone will always have some obscure, weighted thing. I’ve never seen a “live electronic music” setup that didn’t have some weird f**king workaround or some weird ingenious way of combining different things. It’s always been that way and it always be that way, or we’ll all just end up using [High End Systems’] Road Hog [consoles] and Ableton, and show technology won’t advance. Any developer that sees someone is using this-and-this for a task can come up with something new to deal with those chores specifically, but of course you’re going to have a new problem, and then a new solution, and then another problem.
Tony Ware is a Northern Virginia-based writer, editor, and friend to felines. When he’s not busy playing a game of cat and mouse with producers, he enjoys chasing down high-resolution audio, delicious coffee, and iOS synths.