A magazine featuring highly stylized photos of Dieselboy is passed back and forth between two high-profile British drum 'n' bass DJ/producers and their MC. The trio makes derisive comments about his eye-catching image as they flip through its pages. Under the nasty tone, however, is an insecurity that is palpable. These three — as well as their UK contemporaries, and certainly their American counterparts — are very aware of Dieselboy's elevated status within the global drum 'n' bass community, and that is probably why their statements carry a trace of fear.
The 31-year-old Philadelphia-based Dieselboy (born Damian Higgins) has been a fixture in the U.S. electronic-dance-music scene since 1991. Dieselboy established himself by playing any party that would have him and by developing an online following via rave newsgroups long before the Internet had become the ubiquitous entity it is today. Yet it was through his early mixtapes that the Dieselboy name started to get recognized and his fan base began to grow.
Currently on his fantasy-themed eighth compilation, The Dungeonmaster's Guide (2004; a nod to his prominent geek side), released on his own Human imprint, Dieselboy has taken the mix-CD format to another level. After the release of 6ixth Session (Palm Pictures, 2000), which at more than 100,000 units is the highest-selling drum 'n' bass compilation released domestically, Dieselboy began the practice of commissioning exclusive remixes for his mix CDs. This was the impetus behind his 2002 disc, projectHUMAN (Human/System), and is being pushed further with Dungeonmaster, which features American remixes of older British drum 'n' bass material, as well as remixes from drum 'n' bass talent of tracks by artists such as Sasha, BT, Tiësto, Josh Wink and Dumonde.
Dieselboy teamed up with his fellow Philadelphians Kaos and Karl K for the remix of Dom and Kemal's “Moulin Rouge.” Originally a stripped-down, atonal number with haunting strings and drones complemented by quirky blips, the challenge for its remix was not having one main driving riff to play off of.
“We decided to stay true to the vibe of the original, make it more intense, manic and detailed so it's almost a 2.0 version,” explains Dieselboy, who used Emagic Logic Audio 6.3.1 with a Mac G4 dual 1.25GHz into an Allen & Heath WZ16:2DX 16-channel board in his home studio. “Dom sent the sample. [Kaos] and Karl didn't like the sound, and we weren't going to use it. But when we started, we realized that's half the tune. It took a lot of tweaking the bass and putting loads of edits in. We warmed up the signal and compressed it with a Manley Massive Passive EQ. We tracked everything separately through an API 2500 compressor to make the sound punchy. It was mixed to hard disk, then back into the Mac.”
Dieselboy and company retained most of the sounds from the original “Moulin Rouge.” But Kaos chopped up and added parts of 20 different Amen breaks (originating from the drum solo in The Winstons' 1960s track “Amen Brother,” which is often sampled and manipulated by drum 'n' bass producers). Meanwhile, Karl K brought in a fresh bass line, and Dieselboy generated extensive background effects.
“[Dieselboy] has got a really good ear for picking out what sounds will fit into a track,” Kaos says. “It's up to me to make the sounds that he thinks are cool fit. He's definitely an idea guy. I try to be the channel he can get his idea through, make it sound like he hears in his head. He's also really good about quality control. He's always pushing us to make it more mainstream. We can go off on a tangent. He keeps us focused on the purpose of the track: to kill the dancefloor.”
Staying true to the original mood of a track is an essential part of the remixes, no matter what the configuration. It's the same with Dieselboy, Kaos and Karl K's project, Weapon, which has a revolving door of collaborators. For the Weapon remix of Decorum's “Contrax,” much of the parts were used as samples for the remix. “The original had the '98 distorted drum 'n' bass sound, which we liked at the time, but when we listened to the parts, we realized it was dated,” Kaos says. “We took the kick and snare and layered them in the EXS24 until they were updated, making it funky and stompy instead of just hard.”
“Contrax” is driven by a growling, midtone bass sound (sampled from Absolute Zero's “The Code”). For the remix, the guys further diced the sample for a frantic, crazier bass. “The original was real anthem-y,” Dieselboy says. “It didn't leave my bag for a year-and-a-half. It's a big, high-energy tune, but it's hard to remix a tune like that, because how can you make it better? We buried the break under different percussion sounds so the character, the swing of the break, is there, but it's modified a lot. It sounds like a Pacman break [brought to prominence by Ed Rush and Optical's ‘Pacman’], but it's not. This is more robotic, more chugging, with edits, tweaky stuff and sounds to add spice to it.”
Dieselboy and his partners pull sounds from the ever-increasing sample library that they are constantly adding to. Drawing noises from sources such as film trailers, soundtracks, video games and artist albums in all genres of music, the Dieselboy crew refers to vinyl least as a source. These bits are adjusted for each track with filters, EQs, chops, reverses, effects, reverbs and edits whereas the bass and drums (99 percent classic breakbeats from funk and soul records) are dealt with slightly differently.
“It's a matter of it sitting in the sampler, setting all the resonance and filters correctly, then sound-shaping with the EQ, cutting frequencies that you don't need or that are interfering with, say, your drum mix, then getting the bass to sit in a frequency where it's hitting and not fighting with the other sounds to stand out,” Dieselboy says. “With the drums, it's doing proper compression, distortion and tweaking. I came up with a phrase for what we do: ‘polishing the atoms,’ which is doing detailed things to the track that most people won't pick up on in the first 10 listens. For someone who listens to the track a lot on a mix CD, it lends itself to longevity.”
TIMES ARE A-CHANGIN'
Although not featured on The Dungeonmaster's Guide, Dieselboy and Kaos' track “Barrier Break,” released on 12-inch in 2003, is a standout tune that showcases the duo's production process. The unique time signature in the song, which features J-Messinian, has a tempo change that was created using Logic's tempo editor. The alteration is drawn in as a line from 175 to 138 bpm before dropping into the breakbeat portion of the track and then building back up to 175 and landing with a dramatic kick roll.
“The buildup had us stumped because we had a gigantic breakdown,” Dieselboy admits. “The longer and more indulgent your breakdown, you really have to have a strong drop. I had been listening to New Order's Substance, the beat on ‘Blue Monday,’ and I got an idea how to program the kick drum that builds up into the drop. I basically bit the pattern of ‘Blue Monday,’ if you listen carefully. We decided we're going to pitch down an Amen and put it in the drop; that usually helps add that extra level of heaviness or intensity.”
Naturally, dealing with such a huge jump in tempo can be daunting, especially when dealing with already-present vocals. “Most drum 'n' bass DJs pitch up, and we didn't want [J-Messinian] sounding like a chipmunk,” Dieselboy says. “We pitched him down [using Waves Ultra Pitch] and slightly distorted him [with Waldorf D-Pole]. Then, at different parts of the song, we delayed and filtered him with effects, figuring if people pitched it up, it would sound like his normal tone.”
Dieselboy's painstaking efforts in collecting and choosing the freshest music available and his precise mixing abilities are a large part of his appeal. After the 2003 Planet of the Drums tour with himself, Dara, AK1200 and MC J-Messinian — at which one person was DJing and another was mixing into the first person's set — Dieselboy started bringing those attributes into his signature dark and forceful style.
“[We] say we like to play sets that make people want to get drunk,” Dieselboy says of himself and Messinian, whose presence has become an integral part of the Dieselboy experience; the symbiosis developing between them has become apparent to the audience. “I tailor my set more toward the crowd than I used to. Now, I try and feel the crowd out and create a good experience for people while still playing stuff I like and feel is new. I always have it at the back of my head that jungle nerds are in the wings [of clubs], taking notes.”
Translating his skills to the recorded medium, Dieselboy ably mixed Dungeonmaster onto disc using a Pioneer DJM-600 mixer and Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables. And Peter Cullen — the voice for cartoon characters Optimus Prime (Transformers), Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh) and the villain Venger (Dungeons & Dragons) — narrates Dungeonmaster.
“It's always interesting when I sit down to file music, getting it to fit together like a puzzle,” Dieselboy says. “It's not just getting the tracks to flow together, but creating a mood, sustaining a mood, having a direction with the music. I tried to work with people I knew were either rock-solid dependable or were good but open to suggestion and feedback. It isn't about how many remixers I can cram in; it's the quality of the music. When you're listening to [Dungeonmaster] on the headphones or in the car, you're not going to be looking at the tracklist. The most important thing is to make sure it sounds good.”
API 2500 stereo bus compressor
Apogee DA-16X D/A converter
Apogee Trak2 A/D converter
Apple Mac G4 dual 1.25GHz
Apple Cinema displays
Audio-Technica ATH-M40 headphones
Behringer Ultracurve EQ
Bryston 4B SST amp
DDA DMR12 desk
Evolution MK-361c control keyboard
Mackie HR824 monitors
Mackie HRs150 active subwoofer
Manley Massive Passive EQ
MOTU 2408mkII audio interface
MOTU MIDI Express XT powered interface
Roland SVC-350 vocoder
Roland JP-8080 synth module
Yamaha NS10 monitors
A DUNGEONMASTER'S BREAKDOWN
BT's “Knowledge of Self”
Stratus' “You Must Follow”
Key gear: Apple Mac G4 dual 1.25GHz; BIAS Peak software; Clavia Nord Lead synth; DFX Buffer Override plug-in; Emagic Logic Audio 6.3.1 software; Mackie 3282 mixer; MOTU 828mkII digital audio converters; Propellerhead Reason, Recycle software; Roland Juno-106 synth; Sony Sound Forge software
On the BT remix: “The sample set we got from BT was great,” says Gigantor, a Birmingham, Ala., native and member of the Evol Intent trio. “We've been very impressed with the quality, so we've been trying to stick to what's there originally and bring our own flavor to it.”
On the Stratus remix: “The original is very high-energy, a great dancefloor killer,” Gigantor says. “We definitely wanted to keep that; that's why the main meat of the song has a more traditional feel to it, as far as drum 'n' bass goes. It drops into an IDM-sounding breakdown, very glitchy. Then, it launches into drum 'n' bass in about four measures and goes back.”
Kaos, Karl K and Jae Kennedy's “Moonraker”
Usual Suspects' “Doorway”
Josh Wink's “Evil Acid”
Key gear: Allen & Heath System 8 console; Avalon Vt-747sp stereo compressor/EQ; Emagic Logic Audio 6.3.1 software; E-mu E5000 Ultra sampler; Joemeek C2 compressor; Lexicon MPX-1 effects processor; Mackie HR824 monitors; MOTU 896HD audio interface; Native Instruments Kontakt software; TC Electronic Finalizer mastering processor, M-One effects processor
On the Josh Wink remix: “The original is some beats, one synth [and] a cool acid thing,” says Bay Area-based Gridlok. “I did acid-house drum 'n' bass. I tried to come heavier, nastier, keeping the old funk samples, the vibe of the ascending acid and the hectic rave buildup.”
On the Usual Suspects remix (a collaboration with Echo): “[We] took the breaks we were given, dumped them in Kontakt and worked out the same pattern they had with hits and set that onto a channel on the desk and EQ'd it,” Gridlok says. “I have the Allen & Heath set to 120Hz shelf filter, which is fat at 8 dB. Layering that with an Amen processed through the Avalon is how we got the beat going as heavy as it is. I use the Lexicon for drum reverbs. I like to resample to add more channel and crunch on top of the reverb so it's uniformly dirty instead of dirty drums through clean reverb. I ran that whole bit through Avalon again, recycled it through Access Virus.
“We did a lot of outboard bounces to get the sounds the way we wanted them,” Gridlok continues. “We also used Logic plug-ins. I'll take the drums and breaks, send them to the same bus in Logic, compress them together and send those out to their own channel on the desk. That gets the beats more coherent, and you can EQ them with the analog EQ, making sure it all blends together.”
Paul B and Subwave
Tiësto's “Lethal Industry”
Key gear: Emagic ES2 soft synth; Image-Line SimSynth Live FL software; Native Instruments Pro-53 soft synth; Propellerhead Reason software; Steinberg Cubase SX, Hypersonic software
“We couldn't take the original main melody, as it would sound absurd at 176 bpm,” says Paul B, one-half of the Russian duo Paul B and Subwave. “We found the solution by making the arpeggio synth repeat the chords of the melody and using it as the lead.
“We sliced one of the drum loops, but we wanted it to sound heavier, so we mixed additional kick and snare drums, closed hi-hats and cymbals,” Paul B continues. “To make them even more appealing, we took a highpassed Tramen drum loop [essentially a pitched-down Amen break], mixed it down and compressed it to make it tighter. We made the bass line using the ES2 synth. In the mixdown, we split it for highpassed stereo — which has chorus and distortion as effects, making the bass line sound heavier — and compressed lowpassed mono tracks.
“To make the tune more epic, we made choirs in Hypersonic playing over Tiësto's strings, which we used during the breakdown and made another fast arpeggio using [Reason's] Subtractor playing with chords to mark the melody change. Then, we modulated the stabs and lead arpeggio themes to make them sound different and used panned rhythmic delay effects to add more stereo feeling.”
Kaos and Karl K
Key gear: Apple Mac G4 dual 1.25GHz w/Mac OS X Panther, Titanium G4 laptop; Emagic Logic Audio 6.3.1 software, EXS24 soft sampler
“Sasha's sounds are so incredible, you have to give respect,” Karl K says. “Instead of how we normally get the drop of the track and work from there, we started from the beginning. The drum 'n' bass we make is very energetic and powerful, so the trick was to take it from an ambient, trancey vibe and implement that.”
“We expanded on his ideas,” Kaos concurs. “We sequenced it for drum 'n' bass, added a new drum 'n' bass-style bass line, but Sasha's bass line is the parent for it; we made a newer evolution of it, then layered one of Sasha's spacey sounds on top of it. The original is moody; the remix is moody — same vibe.”
“We wouldn't be anywhere without our Waves plug-ins; there are 60 different plug-ins in that bundle,” Karl K says. “The original raw sine wave that we'll use comes from a generated synthesizer. We spend hours changing a sound so it doesn't sound anything like it did originally. We keep trying out different effects on a sound until it sounds good, and then we layer the effects.
“It's a matter of throwing a bunch of things in and getting them in key with each other, which is when I think my piano playing comes in handy,” Karl K continues. “With today's digital audio software, you can tune any sound to be in key with another. When we have a bunch of sounds we want to use, we get them all in key together and roll that over our breaks. Once that's going and it's all sounding good, [Kaos] likes to spend infinite time EQing every sound so it's perfect.”