The hardcore Abletoneer produces thunderous bass music at the speed of lightning, educates the youth about music production, and finds time to develop live shows as a one-man crusade against DJing
Many have said that dubstep is the heavy metal of Millenials. However, you can only go so far by trying to paint an entire generation of Westernized young adults with a single brush. For 28-year-old Australian Bill James Day, better known as Mr. Bill, his heavy metal was… heavy metal. Before turning to electronic music in his late teens, he wrote rock music on keyboards as a boy and picked up a guitar to play in metal bands as a teenager. But after an exposure to a psytrance beach party, he decided that working with other musicians in bands was holding him back, and he turned toward DJing and producing electronic music. Soon he was opening for other acts and studying audio engineering at Sydney’s SAE Institute.
By 2008, the young Mr. Bill released his first album, Cell Abrasions, which revealed his knack for stylistic complexity, blending the genres of IDM—”intelligent” dance music—and psytrance, which snobs refer to as, well, dumb dance music. The ever-prolific producer dropped two more albums in a short time, and they started to form what would become his signature sound, which can move fluidly between tempos and styles like glitch-hop, electro, drum ‘n’ bass, dubstep, and other sub-genres of bass music, but which always display a keen talent for layering expertly designed sounds and employing addictive, bouncy rhythms that work an off-kilter, jilted angle while staying just in the pocket.
Mr. Bill’s output suggests a simple motto: Make music—often and quickly. His work ethic echoes an old-school attitude but with a decidedly nonchalant shrug toward the old-school music industry release schedule. Whether it’s his many solo productions or frequent remixes and collaborations—often done remotely over the Internet—with names like Circuit Bent, Tom Cosm, ill.Gates, and Electrocado (his duo with producer Ryanosaurus), his music flies out as singles, EPs, or albums, perhaps on a label like Gravitas or perhaps straight to the streaming delta of Spotify, Bandcamp, YouTube and that whole growing list of online options.
He’s also gone down another formerly nontraditional path that has become more and more commonplace—that of the entrepreneurial music producer using the “freemium” model. Besides mixing his paid music releases with free and “pay-what-you-want” downloads, he’s become one of the preeminent music production YouTubers, doling out his expertise for designing crackling, distorted percussion; thick, filthy basses; and punchy lead sounds, as well as his methods for Ableton Live software, which he has used for most of his career. At his website, Mrbillstunes.com, he maintains a paid “Hardcore Abletoneer” subscription, where for $15/month or $120/year, members get access to tutorials not available on his free channels and tons of Ableton Live project files, stems, production footage, exclusive music, and more.
Mr. Bill still thinks the sky is the limit for teaching, exploring, and producing electronic music, and that even though the market can seem saturated with an eternity of EDM releases, it’s still in its infancy. “Electronic music is still such a primitive thing,” he says. “It’s sort of like asking Django Reinhardt playing acoustic guitar in the ’30s or ’40s, ‘do you think we are gonna figure out much more with the guitar?’ I think there is so much further to go with electronic music at this point.”
ONE MAN + INFLATABLE BAND
Despite having this little side-hustle going as a music educator, Mr. Bill always focuses primarily on his music. He doesn’t chase YouTube views by, for example, making sure he always has the latest software updates in order to create the newest click-worthy tutorials. “For this tour I haven’t updated to [Ableton Live] 9.7 yet,” he says. “I stayed on 9.6 because I know it’s stable and I know that it runs my set fine. I am not trying to write too much music anyway on the road. When I get back to the studio I’ll start writing more music, which is when I will start looking into new tools.”
Mr. Bill’s live performance used to be mostly him playing WAV files off his computer, but that began boring him about a year-and-a-half ago. “I am kind of excited for DJing to stop,” he says. “We have been doing it for 20 years now and people are still treating it as this important thing. I love that people can go out and listen to the same music together and have this experience, but I think it could be way more exciting than that, and I am really excited to see the change into more eloquent, electronic-based performances.”
For the latest Mr. Bill tour, he brought his friend “Hutch” from Australia to play a drum kit live alongside him. The other two members of the tour, Pickles and Saucemonster, handled the lighting, visuals, and live projections that were cast within and on an oversized inflatable rendition of the Mr. Bill logo character. The audio and visual elements were synced up in a way that facilitated both tight integration and improvisation from Bill and his partners.
“We have this cityscape stage and do all sorts of crazy projection mapping on it and custom content,” he explains. “We’re not just using standard videos; we have pretty much customized the visual performance. I think A/V is another thing that is just starting and not really reaching its potential yet.”
Bill references inspiration from Amon Tobin’s “Isam” live spectacle that mixed cinema and live performance with projection art as a way to “animate” static objects, as well as deadmau5’s amazing Nokia Lumia 800 launch performance in London, during which the side of an entire sky scraper came to life through projection mapping. And there’s also the freaky-deaky Anklepants, who uses a technically intricate mixture of prosthetics, robotics and controllers woven into costumes to create a kind of electronic music performace art. “He wears like a leotard with accelerometers through it, and as he moves it’s effecting things in Ableton,” Mr. Bill says. “I think this stuff is gonna get super exciting in the next 10 years.”
He has been performing with Roland SPD-X drum pads, a Livid Instruments DS1 MIDI mixing control surface, and a portable MOTU soundcard to re-create his productions with spontaneity without massively departing from the originals.
“It is still very much a Mr. Bill show, but we are playing a lot of the parts live,” he said. “The way I would describe it to people, it’s sort of like a DJ has the ability to change tracks on-the-fly. With my performance, I have to play the tracks in a linear way, but I have a lot of flexibility with the way I play the part live. I put a lot of live improvisation over the top, as well. With the live drummer and video, it’s this whole interactive thing to see. For me, a show like this is kind of like producing an album except I am producing a thing you can’t take home.”
A LIVE LAYOUT
I recently watched Mr. Bill expound on his live performance tools at San Francisco’s Pyramind music production school and creative studios, where instead he presented master class to a packed room of appreciative students and other curious producers.
He showed the group how he prepared his recorded music to be performed in Ableton Live: To play parts on the SPD-X really fast, he needed to run the Live session at a very tight 64 samples of latency, so he needed to simplify the Live session significantly so it would run smoothly. There he created sets of four stems: drums, bass, music, and vocals. He rendered all the stems through limiters as a “stupid” way to make them sound like the mastered material.
He then created “chunks” of material that he has the ability to trigger from the drum pads by re-editing the stems and sometimes mixing them up between tracks. Huge Mr. Bill fans may have noticed that each chunk might have drums, bass, music, and vocals from six or so individual songs.
Mr. Bill shared a trick he does with the Ableton Pitch MIDI effect plug-in, which he uses to jump quickly to different samples while hitting the same drum pad. With several Pitch devices set to a certain number of semitone increments in front of the Drum Rack holding the samples, he can map the On/Off buttons to a control and hit them to jump to a different set of samples in the Drum Rack. “So I bet you all are looking at me like, ‘you big liar!’” he said to the class. “I am lying, but not as much as DJs.”
In the Drum Racks’ Input/Output sections, he also sets them all to Choke from MIDI channel 1 so that the Drum Rack won’t play more than one sample at a time, and he uses a gating plug-in on the Drum Rack’s audio so that it won’t go through with bad timing.
As an example of the audio syncing to the projections on the Mr. Bill inflatable, he showed how he drew MIDI info into the piano roll of a track, which was then turned into OSC messages and assigned to a PNG image of different mouth shapes for the character. Sending that channel to a Network output, those PNGs then projected onto the inflatable, which made the character look like its mouth was singing the synced “aah” and “ooh” vocal sounds.
Bill said that his next live show may use Ableton Live’s Simpler devices to cut up audio into different triggerable slices, but he wasn’t ready to upgrade to Live 9.7 in time to use that feature. “I’m still not that good at making a live set,” he modestly claimed. “I think no one is really good at it yet. But it’s still better than DJing! I’m kind of doing this whole tour just to get that message out.”
How Mr. Bill Makes Glitch and Bass Sounds
During an in-person demonstration at the music/audio-production school Pyramind in San Francisco, Mr. Bill shared tips for creating great sounds on the spot, starting with “Foley stuff” (any recordings) and then combining those sounds with synthesis.
For his live demo, he started with a Foley sound of a branch breaking and then recording a repeating loop of it with some experimental distortion presets from iZotope Trash 2 ($99) first and GlitchMachines Fracture (free). “Just keep reprocessing stuff,” he said, “but you have to arrange the sounds well for it to sound good, like Amon Tobin. You can make the craziest sounds, but if they don’t do anything musically, you might as well just listen to noise music.”
In a matter of a couple of minutes he had a cool, four-bar glitched-out sequence all starting with that single branch sound. Then he started playing around with pitching bits of it up and down. He also ran it through a granulator plug-in and emphasized the importance of that step. He used the new glitchy audio to enhance a drum loop by fading the glitchy bits in and out on top of the drums.
“The plug-ins used are totally arbitrary,” he said. “The point is to overly process them and some type of granulizer is the most important part.” He recommended Ableton’s Granulator if you have Live Suite with Max for Live, or otherwise the $50 Melda Production MMultiBandGranular plug-in. “Glitchy sounds have so much to do with artifacts, that it’s often good to put a bunch of saturators and limiters on them to bring out the artifacts,” he added. “Do shit that’s not normal.”
For basses, Mr. Bill usually starts with some fairly simple synthesized bass and then bounces it to audio to tweak it around with plug-ins like Trash 2. He said basses in electronic music often start just with a sine wave or a saw wave run through a really good filter for aggressive basses. His common bass synths include an analog Moog Mother-32 semi-modular synth ($599) for sub-basses or plug-ins like Xfer Serum ($189) and U-he Zebra 2 ($199).
He recommended keeping sub-bass parts simple because the sounds are slow and need time to develop, and to give them space by EQing the low frequencies out of your midrange bass. Finally, he said that once you have the drums and bass working together in a mix, you’re most of the way there, so he ducks most everything out of the way of the kick to keep it super loud and punchy, which he does most often with automation curves rather than sidechain compression.