We’ve all heard that it takes 10 years to become an overnight sensation. Sometimes it takes 20. You’d never guess that rule applies to ilan Bluestone, though. The boyish-looking Londoner turned 30 this year, but he’d better not forget his ID on the way to the pub. His age-defying secret? Blowing off school and work for years on end to perfect his progressive-trance production techniques in front of a computer screen.
Bluestone first picked up a guitar to jam with his brother at age 9, and he felt an immediate attraction to music. But when his schoolmates started throwing parties with psychedelic trance music (aka psy-trance or Goa trance) at age 10, Bluestone had already caught the obsession that would direct his entire life. Before long he was spending his available time on early copies of Cakewalk Pro Audio. At 16, Bluestone made a remix of Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” that he admits was cheesy, but opened some doors for him in the music industry.
By the time he was 20, he’d landed a release on big-time trance label Enhanced Music, home of heavy hitters like Tritonal and Gareth Emery. More material followed on imprints like L8- Night Records and F! Records. However, while Bluestone was blossoming into a master technician of densely layered trance production, strong stage fright prevented him from pursuing any live performances or DJing, crucial components in building a career in electronic music.
Finally, a collaboration track Bluestone made landed him a deal around the beginning of 2013 with Anjunabeats, the label founded by some of Bluestone’s musical heroes, Above & Beyond—a trio who have transcended the progressive-trance genre by writing beautiful songs that stand on their own as acoustic performances. With some of their gentle nudging, Bluestone was cajoled to begin DJing. That decision, along with his growing musical prowess and support from some of the biggest stars in electronic music, combined to create the escape velocity for Bluestone’s career to take off.
Now in just the past couple of years, Bluestone has collaborated with and/or remixed his idols like Armin van Buuren, Paul van Dyk, Jerome Isma- Ae, and BT; toured the world as a DJ; and scored eight Number Ones on the Beatport trance charts. He had the pleasure of debuting one of those hits, the huge, pulsating banger “43,” at Above & Beyond’s live Group Therapy Radio Ep.100 show at Madison Square Garden last October.
Now ilan is celebrating the recent release of his mix album Anjunabeats Worldwide 05 by jetting around to gigs in Ibiza, North America and back to the UK. He wrote the opening track for the mix, the appropriately titled “Take Off,” which hints at a new cinematic stage in his evolution as a producer. Besides more EPs for Anjunabeats, Bluestone is working on an ambitious album with more vocal tracks, more ecstatic atmospheres, and new heights of inspiration for his fans.
Bluestone at one of his mobile rigs, based around SONAR Platinum, Novation Launchkey Mini, Tascam US-366, Native Instruments Massive, LennarDigital Sylenth, and Cakewalk Z3TA+ 2, running on a Surface Pro 3 with Intel Core i7 processing.Going from not DJing at all to, in two years, doing an Anjunabeats compilation and playing Ibiza regularly is pretty quick progress.
My biggest achievement so far was playing at Madison Square Garden. When they asked six months in advance to open there for Above & Beyond and Mat Zo, I was beyond stoked. Honestly, I felt sick for about six months. When it came down to going onstage to DJ for 21,000 people, it was mindblowing to the point where I nearly passed out. Obviously I’ve had stage fright, and it was a bit surreal. I had to slap myself in the face and say, “just go do it. People are here to see me, and I’ve got to show them what it’s about.” Also, I knew I was playing off a laptop with my [Native Instruments] Traktor S2 controller. I’d never had a pair of decks in my life, and it got to the point where six months ago, Above & Beyond said, “You have to get rid of the laptop and go on the decks.” I picked it up, and I feel very confident now at a gig because I just walk up with one USB key to go in the decks, and one USB key as a backup. On a laptop, having a backup is very complicated. Don’t get me wrong; I love laptop DJs and laptop controllers, but when it comes down to professionalism and hearing the difference in the quality of sound, you have to play off of Pioneer [CDJs]. The quality of sound and reliability is unmatched.
So besides the equipment, what has been the antidote to your stage fright, preparation?
There’s been quite a few times where I haven’t been ready for a gig because I’ve been so nervous I couldn’t focus on organizing anything. I need to get my head around what kind of crowd it is. Do they want to hear my classics, new stuff, records by other artists? Madison Square Garden was different. I knew it was one hour, and I had to specifically finish on a certain second because the jingle comes in for the live radio show. If you watch the video, I finish at the end of a breakdown of a track and it worked perfectly. I was meant to play longer, but because I cut out there, people wanted more, and it was a perfect sort of a flukey ending. Then I went to play for Armin Van Buuren at a State of Trance in the Netherlands. I played for 39,000 people, and that was absolutely mindboggling, because you look into the audience and you just see dots, dots, dots. It’s endless.
And you’ve stuck with Cakewalk software the whole way?
The whole way, since 1996 or ‘97. I had a demo version, and with like six samples in it, and I used those six samples to make the same song over and over and over again. I never really learned the piano, I just bought myself a MIDI keyboard when I was 13: a shitty Casio-style Yamaha PSR330. I used to record myself onto tape, and my brother got on guitar and played and sang. We were kids, but that’s how I always knew I had a music passion. And my parents were very much behind me the whole way. So I sat at home for a few years just making music until I found my own sound. It took me a while.
You wrote the opener to Anjunabeats Worldwide 05, “Take Off” specifically for that mix. Is that the kind of ambient, chilled-out stuff you’ve talked about spending a lot of time on?
That is the vibe I’m talking about. I’ve got a lot of chilled stuff that I’m going to be bringing into my album—slow, downtempo, orchestrated, Hans Zimmer movie-style music combined with twisted electronic sounds. I’m just trying to be very experimental. I’m working on it as we speak. The problem is I’m touring so much. I’m very thankful I have a laptop with the new Cakewalk Sonar Platinum on it to put me to work on the go. But I just find it’s very difficult without crazy speakers next to me to produce that fat kick drum.
Is that the main challenge in trying to produce music on a laptop?
I’ve got KRK headphones as well, but I just need to be in a comfortable, big, fat chair with a nice desk and my hands spread out on a MIDI keyboard and a big screen. I don’t like working on little screens. 17" even for me is pretty small.
Well, you’ve also talked about how big your sessions can get by layering sounds.
Oh, I layer more than 100 to 120 layers of music: loads of MIDI tracks, lots of audio, lots of freezing tracks. With Sonar, you can freeze stuff so that all the effects I have going in the background, rather than burn memory buffering it, I just freeze them so it renders them as audio. I might make a baseline with four layers of different synths all doing the same bass riff and then careful, precision EQ.
Do you set up templates to save some time with all that layering?
With Sonar, you can save effects chains you’ve created as a template, and that’s amazing. I push a template and bang, it loads in effects and all my same synths going but with different sounds. It’s pretty fast. Sometimes I love doing it manually, because creating layers within the software is easy. You just type what synth you want, push enter, and it loads within seconds. There’s no buffering. Kontakt takes a bit of time, but that’s just normal. With Sylenth and soft synth stuff, it’s quick.
Is the precision EQ you mentioned a specific Sonar tool?
I’m not a pro sound engineer; I like to do stuff by ear, so what’s amazing about the EQ in Sonar is it shows you what audio is playing and how many frequencies it’s taking off and shows a preview of the waveform. That EQ can take lots of low end off, and it just sounds good—not too digital. It has kind of a warm sound. You also can change the curve; it’s very similar to Fab Filter, but it’s built-in, so it’s just easier to use. You’ve got different types of EQs and filters, analog-style compressors, and tube amps for vocals. I find the onboard Sonar tools very good for guitar and vocals. It’s got built-in Melodyne, so it auto-tunes the vocal for you automatically. You can also quantize audio, so if someone sang a bit too slow, it will stretch them into time.
Have you tried other DAW software?
I’ve experimented with Ableton. I like it a lot for what it can do for playing live. The thing that baffles me about it is the look of the interface. When it comes to MIDI tracking, Sonar is just on another level. Drawing in MIDI with Sonar is my favorite thing. Maybe it’s just because I’m used to it, but for MIDI, Sonar is very fun. It’s like drawing. I like Fruity Loops as well for doing MIDI. But Sonar has this Smart Tool that knows that if you put the mouse at a certain point of the MIDI note, you can stretch it longer or make it smaller, or if you right-click on it, it just deletes it. To copy, you hold the control button.
I’m using a simple M-Audio interface with KRK speakers and KRK Ergo. Nothing too fancy, and I’m managing to get some really high-end, crisp sound out of Sonar. In the last six months I’ve mastered the software.
You’ve mentioned vocals a few times. On your new album, will you have more vocal tracks?
Yeah, big time. I know that’s the next step for me. Everyone seems to be loving my instrumentals, and I’m thankful for everyone who’s supported me. At the moment, I’m writing a lot of lyrics and my own top lines. I can’t sing to save my life, but I know where my voice needs to be to do a rough demo. The thing is, with the technology now and the fact that you’ve even got computers singing songs, I think, I’m able to get myself to sing on my future records, and that’s my aim: do my own lyrics.
With the Z3ta + 2 synth, do you ever use the default presets?
I find I design my own sounds by creating layers of other sounds. I’ll create one preset sound that I like, and then I’ll add another bass synth behind it and then make my own bass sound or find a preset that sounds good with the others. Then I tweak those and add another sound to it, and put EQ on the top end and a bit of compression on the low end and loads of different experiments.
I know you emphasize drum selection, too.
Kick drum is key. Kick drum makes your track. If you love the kick, base your track around it. Or do the other way around: Do the melody and breakdown first.
Do you practice the same sort of layering of sounds for your drums?
I’m always different, but I never put anything on my kick. A bit of EQ and I never have it clipping. That’s it. I don’t even put any compression on it. [Note: ilan uses the popular sidechain simulator plug-in Nicky Romero Kickstart to make room for the kick in his mixes.]
There are so many techniques. It doesn’t really matter what software you use, it’s how you draw the picture. The software’s just your pen and paper. It’s all just what your ear and brain portray. I’m a bit of a perfectionist with my own sound. It has to be really special.
To read more of Bluestone’s thoughts on DJing, production, and the music business, read our extended interview at emusician.com.