The dubstep master reflects on his skyrocket to stardom

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 ticket sales.

“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 MonstersandNice 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 effects. 

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 melody. 

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 and crazy. 

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 with. 

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 electronic music.

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 onto yet.

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 Shindo hi-fi.