Deepsky: Computer Controlled

Most electronic-music duos have a yin-yang thing going on. Consider the Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Masters at Work, Basement Jaxx and Thunderpuss,
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Most electronic-music duos have a yin-yang thing going on. Consider the Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Masters at Work, Basement Jaxx and Thunderpuss, and it's apparent that opposites not only attract but also make some damn good music, too.

But Deepsky's Jason Blum and J. Scott G. contradict this norm. From their collective passion for electronic music technology to their identical shaved heads and black attire, Deepsky is probably the closest-matched team in dance music. With the release of their debut album, In Silico (Kinetic, 2002), Deepsky have proven that great minds can think alike and still produce killer tunes.

Blum and Scott G. met more than 10 years ago when both were attending college in Albuquerque, N.M. “We met through a mutual friend,” says Scott G. “Jason was in one band, and I was in another. We started promoting parties together in Albuquerque. I thought I knew how to throw parties, and Jason thought he knew how to do sound and lights.”

Blum, who started playing bass at 15, was in an industrial band and had just made the transition to keyboards. Scott G., a classically trained pianist who started playing when he was 3, had a synth-pop band. “My band was trying to become techno,” says Scott G. “My partner at the time and I had just heard L.A. Style's ‘James Brown Is Dead,’ and we were like, ‘Oh my God! We've got to become a techno band.’” Both Blum and Scott G. were music majors in college, and they shared a love for early acid house and the fledgling rave scene developing in New Mexico. After tiring of the hassles of throwing parties, the two decided to focus on producing tracks.

During their first three years working together, Blum and Scott G. produced tracks for former band members, but in 1995, they put out their first Deepsky release, the In My Mind EP (Rampant Records). British DJ Nick Warren discovered the tune and included it on his Cream Live 2 (Deconstruction, 1996) compilation. A year later, Deepsky put out the single “Tempest,” which became the theme music for MTV's Amp and appeared on Global Underground 003 Nick Warren|Prague (1997).

The word about Deepsky's banging tracks and stellar production skills soon spread through the dance-music scene. John Digweed included the Deepsky single “Stargazer” on his Global Underground Sydney (1998) compilation; Sandra Collins hired the duo to produce the tracks “Red” and “Ode to Our”; and BT, Carl Cox and Energy 52 commissioned remixes from Blum and Scott G. In addition to being staples of top-name DJs around the world, their production and remix work graces more than 30 12-inch singles and appears on dozens of DJ mix CDs, including Dave Ralph's 2001 Kinetic release, Naturalized.

But In Silico is the project that is closest to Deepsky's heart. Featuring a hard-to-categorize combination of progressive house, nu-skool breaks, industrial and electro-techno sounds, mind-boggling effects, powerful tunes and premium-grade production, In Silico offers listeners one hell of a ride through Deepsky's expansive sonic universe. Deepsky even invited some guests to join the fun: Republica vocalist Saffron makes an appearance on “Smile,” and Dave Ralph co-produced “Three Sheets to the Wind.”

The product of more than two years of dedicated work, In Silico was almost entirely created and mixed in 24-bit, 48kHz audio on a computer — hence the title, which is Latin for “in the silicon.” “When we realized that we could do our entire album on the computer, it was a revelation,” says Blum. “The computer is an incredibly powerful musical tool, and it's so much easier to work with than a studio full of gear.”

With the album freshly completed, Blum and Scott G. have shifted their focus to their other love, live performance. Instead of going the typical DJ route, Deepsky prefer the excitement and intensity of performing their music live in front of crowds at raves and clubs; Scott G. plays keyboards and controls effects while Blum pounds out rhythms on his Roland SPD-20. The duo is currently on tour to promote the album, and they plan to perform at major festivals and events worldwide throughout the summer.

Deepsky invited Remix to their Hollywood studio to share details about the production of In Silico and to offer some insight into their unique approach to music.

When did you decide to start producing tracks together?

J. Scott G.: Through the course of throwing parties with Jason, I found out that he owned a Yamaha SY-99, which was like the juggernaut keyboard back then. I had a Kurzweil K2000. We realized that if we put our two keyboards together —

Jason Blum: We could use one in Voice mode. [Laughs.]

Scott G.: That was our goal. We wanted to have enough keyboards one day so we could use our K2000 and SY-99 in Voice mode.

Blum: We were running them in Multi mode with reverb on everything.

Scott G.: Back then, you had one effect for Multi mode —

Blum: Maybe two if you ran them in parallel. We collected a shit load of keyboards over the next six to nine years. And now we use just one.

Scott G.: We said, “Someday we're going to have a huge studio and be surrounded by blinking lights.” But now we do most of our music on a computer.

Do you only use soft synths?

Scott G.: Soft synths still aren't as warm and cool as our core modules, like the [Access] Virus or Nord Rack. The Native Instruments FM-7 is about the only new soft synth that rivals an outboard synthesizer.

Blum: The problem with virtual synths is that everybody is doing analog emulation. How many of those do you need? Nobody is doing additive synthesis or FM except for Reaktor and FM-7.

When did you decide to focus on an album instead of singles?

Scott G.: We've talked about doing an album forever. The first song that we wrote for the album was “View From a Stairway,” which is also the first track on the record. It was done completely in MIDI, back in the day, using a sampler. We converted it over to digital audio about two years ago.

Blum: It was like a fog lifted off of the recording at that point. It was clear, present and sounded tight.

Scott G.: Through the process of switching to audio and soft synths, the whole concept and sound of the album changed.

Blum: I rebelled against it at first because we had amassed such a huge stock of equipment. We busted our asses working day jobs for years to buy all of the stuff in our studio and spent tens of thousands of dollars. I did not believe that I could do the same things for a tenth of the price on a computer. Eventually, I discovered that it's tighter, it's easier to work with, and it's cleaner. You are not adding any noise, and there are fewer transaction steps where you're converting analog to digital and digital to analog. It's so flexible. You can't beat it.

How often do you use your Virus and Nord Rack modules?

Scott G.: We still use them pretty often, but the difference is, we run them through an Apogee PSX-100, which is a kick-ass A-to-D converter. Whenever we record the Nord Rack, it goes through an Avalon U5 preamp to an Avalon VT-747sp into the Apogee, and it prints to audio at 24 bits.

Blum: We built up an outstanding input chain. People may spend $8,000 on a 24-channel mixer, but they're getting only $100 worth of A-to-D conversion on each channel.

Scott G.: We spent 10 grand on our input chain, but we only need two inputs because we record one sound at a time. BT and Q from Überzone offered us gear advice. Q really influenced us to invest in Class-A processors and good A-to-D converters. We decided to switch over in the middle of doing the “Delirium” remix. The production of that song was a step up from everything else we had done. When we realized that it was going to work, we busted our asses to learn a new process of working. Now, we have only four cables plugged into our Yamaha 02R, and we only use it as a volume control.

Blum: Since we're not recording a full band, it made more sense for us to spend our money on the input chain. It makes such a huge difference. Out of everything in our studio, the U5's probably make the most difference in our sound.

Scott G.: When we want to make a virtual synth sound a little warmer, we'll run it through that stuff back into the computer and print it as audio so it gets a little bit of analog fatness. The VT-747sp has tubes in it, which fattens the sound. The best thing about the VT-747sp is the 32kHz band on the graphic EQ. When you boost it, it gives the sound air.

What are your favorite soft synths?

Blum: We use Mercury, Pro 52, Reaktor and FM-7 most often. Most of our bass lines are done with the ES-1.

Scott G.: About 75 percent of the album was done using the EXS-24, which is an amazing sampler, but it doesn't have highpass and bandpass filters.

Blum: Its filter section, quite frankly, sucks.

Scott G.: But the lowpass filter sounds good. The EXS-24's timing is sample-accurate. We used a lot of the choir sounds from the Spectrasonic/Ilio Symphony of Voices sample CD.

What about plug-in effects?

Blum: We used the Waves Renaissance compressor and Renaissance EQ. But for reverb, we used a Lexicon PCM 91 rack unit; there still is no reverb plug-in that compares with the Lexicon. And we used the Universal Audio UAD-1 card and Powered Plug-Ins on “Metro.”

Are you using MIDI, or do you primarily record things to digital audio?

Scott G.: We used to use Cakewalk 3.0, but we realized that there was a lot of time lag with MIDI. Things didn't sync right.

Blum: It was really tight when we were using Cakewalk with DOS on a 386. But when we switched to Windows and Cakewalk 3.0, we would trigger loops and they would be off. Nothing sounded right.

Scott G.: We ended up going to ADATs. We would dedicate the computer's processor to doing one track at a time and sync everything up using SMPTE. When the processor only had to deal with one track at a time, our tracks would come out tight. MIDI is fast enough to do one thing at a time. When we want to construct a part off of one of our keyboards, we'll sequence it in Logic and print it to audio immediately. No one can play our parts tight enough. You still have to use MIDI a little bit.

Blum: It's different to play something on the keyboard than to program it in the computer. It's a distinct thought process, and you have a different creative flow when you're using a keyboard as opposed to a mouse.

What is the biggest benefit of computer-based music production?

Blum: Money is no barrier to entry anymore. I'm sure there are kids in their bedrooms with their computers who are writing better music than we are. Anyone can do it now. You don't have to work for 10 years just to buy a decent keyboard. Hobbyists can do it now and do a good job at it.

Scott G.: But there's a bit of a downfall to that. I remember when Jason and I got involved with this. When we were listening to the music that was coming out then, we didn't know what the sound of the 303 was when we first heard it. We went on a quest to find out what made that sound. We talked to one guy who played keyboards for a long time, and he told us it was an ARP 2600. When we found an ARP 2600, it sounded nothing like that. Finally, we figured it out through trial and tribulation and tracked down our own 303 for $450. I also remember when we discovered the “zipper” hoover sound on the Roland Alpha Juno-2. The joy of finding out what made a certain sound doesn't happen anymore. All of those sounds are available on a groove box, and everybody has them.

Blum: All emulations sound good, but, ultimately, none of them sound as good as what they're trying to emulate. A 303 sounds better than ReBirth. I still have mine and won't ever sell it. It's a bitch to use, hard to sync up and program, and it doesn't do swing, but it's cool. But, then again, I'm not going to junk my JP-8000 for a Jupiter-8.

How did you do the filter sweeps on the intro to “View From a Stairway”?

Scott G.: We sampled a stack of the JP-8000 with a huge sawtooth pad, a Triton pad and a Virus pad playing at once. We played a variety of chord variations, sampled each one into the E-mu E6400; and used the E-mu's bandpass filter.

Blum: The E6400 has the best filters of any sampler ever. And its modulation matrix is really cool. I can play with it all day.

How did you record the vocals?

Blum: Scott did the vocals for “Ride” at home.

Scott G.: “Smile” was cut in our studio with Saffron from Republica. We brought in a friend of ours from D.C., named Kevin 131, to record that for us.

Blum: The thing about working with vocalists is not so much knowing how to record them but knowing how to make them feel like they want to be recorded.

Scott G.: Kevin made Saffron feel comfortable. It's about relating to vocalists so they can perform the best they can.

Blum: Even great vocalists can sound like shit until they get somebody who can help them sound their best. Kevin brought his ADATs, mic preamps and AKG C 12 VR mic here. He knew his gear and how to run it. We sat on the couch, made some suggestions, and they gave us what we wanted.

Scott G.: At the end of the day, we took the ADATs, dumped the recordings to our computer and rearranged it in Logic. We used AutoTune just to clean it up a little, and we added some distortion, but Saffron was totally in key. We just used AutoTune to tighten up the harmonies.

How do you make the transition from the studio to the stage?

Blum: We render a lot of stuff to audio clips and put those on a laptop. We use a WAMI box, which has MIDI and audio on it. It has just one MIDI In and Out and 16 channels, but that's enough for what we need to do. We never have more than 16 parts at once.

Scott G.: We do phrase sequencing on the Triton with the sampler and use it to trigger crucial parts like riffs and loops. We can also run arpeggiators with MIDI Clock.

Blum: We play stuff live over the top of that — keyboard lines, percussion and lead sounds — and make a show out of it. Ultimately, the laptop runs the MIDI time clock and synchronizes us. It's running the backing tracks, MIDI clips, audio clips and timecode. We get a lot done with a small amount of equipment. After the events of September 11, it's been even harder for us to get all of our stuff on the plane. We used to take our Triton and Mackie mixer, but now we have the promoters rent those items for us, along with a Nord Lead. We just take our Prophecy, a rack and our laptop —

Scott G.: And do a Sys Ex dump from the laptop to load up our sounds.

Big-name DJs have been playing your music from the beginning. Any tips for getting your tracks licensed?

Scott G.: We've always had incredible luck getting our songs licensed by big DJs. It's a lot harder now than it used to be, because things are oversaturated.

Blum: When DJs are putting together a mix CD, they will send out an e-mail and ask for submissions. That way, they get all the newest, freshest music on a CD-R. Unless you already know people in the business, you should hire a good manager who has connections.

Scott G.: A lot of DJs will just throw your stuff away if they don't know who you are. You have to be on a priority list just to get into that stack of stuff that they want to go through.

Blum: The labels we were on were really small, but they had dedicated people working there. They always tried to get our stuff out to the right people, and they knew the right people.

When artists are as forthcoming with their production secrets as you are, it helps people learn more quickly.

Blum: I think that many artists now realize that there's room for everyone. Some people are afraid to show what their studio looks like and tell people what gear they use, because they think they are going to reveal some trade secret. A lot of the British guys are bad about that.

Scott G.: Whenever anybody asks us how we did something, we tell them. It's free knowledge. It's music.

Blum: Why would I want to keep somebody from making music? One of the coolest things is when someone walks up to me after a show and says that they got our record and started writing music because of it. I started writing music because I loved certain bands. It doesn't help anybody when you don't let people know how you made your music. If we don't work together, we're just shooting ourselves in the foot.

DEEPSKY GEAR LIST

STUDIO GEAR

Audio-Technica AT4050/CM5 multipattern studio mic
Apogee PSX-100 A/D/A converter
Computers: PIII/933 MHz (2), PIII/800 MHz, PIII/450 MHz
Emagic Unitor 8 MIDI interface
Mackie HR824 studio monitors
Mackie SR24-4 audio mixer
MOTU 2408mkII audio interface
MOTU 2408 audio interface
MOTU 308 digital interface expander
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables (4)
Yamaha 02R digital mixer

OUTBOARD PROCESSORS

Avalon VT-747SP Stereo Opto-Compressor/Program Equalizer
Avalon U5 mic preamps (2)
Behringer Ultra Curve Pro DSP 8024 digital stereo EQ/frequency analyzer
Digitech Studio Quad multi-effects processor
Electrix Mo-FX multi-effects processor
Electrix Filter Factory filter
Electrix Warp Factory vocoder
Lexicon MPX 1 multi-effects processor
Lexicon PCM 91 digital reverb
TC Electronic FireworX multi-effects processor

HARDWARE SYNTHS/SAMPLERS

Access Virus synth module
Clavia Nord Rack 2 synth module
E-mu E6400 Ultra sampler
E-mu E6400 sampler
Korg MS2000R synth module
Korg Prophecy synth
Korg Triton synth
Oberheim Matrix-6 synth
Roland JP-8000 synth
Roland Juno 106 synth
Roland Juno-6 synth
Roland TB-303 Bass Line
Yamaha SY-99 synth

DAWs/EDITING SOFTWARE

Emagic Logic Audio Platinum
Propellerhead ReCycle
Steinberg Wavelab

SOFTWARE SYNTHS/SAMPLERS

Emagic ES-1
Emagic EVP-88
Emagic EXS24
Native Instruments B4
Native Instruments FM-7
Native Instruments Pro-52
Native Instruments Reaktor
Steinberg Halion
TC Works Mercury
Waldorf PPG-Wave

SIGNAL-PROCESSING PLUG-INS

Alien Connections Revalver
Native Instruments Spektral Delay
Ohm Force Ohmboyz
Ohm Force Predatohm
Universal Audio Powered Plug-ins
Waldorf D-Pole
Waves Gold Native Bundle
Waves Restoration Bundle

MISCELLANEOUS

Boss DS-1 distortion pedal
DOD Meatbox distortion pedal
DOD Death Metal distortion pedal
Korg Kaoss Pad effects unit
Matador bongos
Matador djimbe
Roland SPD-20 percussion pad
Tech-21 XXL distortion pedal

KICKIN' IT

Do you create most of your drum sounds yourself?

Blum: They come from a lot of sources: sample CDs, cutting up loops and some we create ourselves. We have a huge stock of sounds, and we always EQ those sounds in different ways.

Scott G.: You can start with a snare sample, and by adjusting the EQ, you can make it sound like a completely different snare.

Blum: Then you can add Reaktor to the mix and make it sound like anything else. We use Stomper for kick drums. It's a cool free program with great drum sounds.

How did create your drum-edit effects?

Scott G.: Everything was sampled to the Emagic EXS24. All the nu-skool stutter edits were done using that. “Until the End of the World” has a section where we did some edits using Reaktor and the TC FireworX, but the rest of it went through plug-ins. All nu-skool edits are 48th, 64th, 96th, 128th and 192nd notes with effects on them in a cool pattern.

Blum: You just put blocks in a cool pattern and move them around.
Chris Gill