“What did I let myself in for?” Sasha laments. “Why can't I be like other people and do a normal mix CD?” The internationally renowned British DJ and producer is at his beachfront home studio in western Florida, sweating over the finishing touches on Involver (Global Underground, 2004), a mixed disc of brand-new remixes, all done by Sasha himself.
Involver started as a run-of-the-mill DJ mix CD for which he had put aside six weeks to complete. But after a month of collecting tracks and two weeks of putting them together, Sasha came to a realization: “It was a great mix, but at the end of the day, it was just a mix,” he says. “I don't know if that's enough in this day and age. I've been doing mix CDs for over 10 years, and it just felt like it wasn't a step forward.”
Sasha's legendary UK DJ residencies — from his late-teen years at Shelly's in Stoke-on-Trent and early twenties at Renaissance in Derbyshire — led him in his midtwenties to Twilo in New York City. There, he found eager audiences that established him as a matchless tune selector. His abilities earned him the crowd-coined titles “The Man Like …” (a term used in the UK to express that Sasha was so good that he didn't need a name) and “Son of God.” Meanwhile, his unerring way with a song, his understanding of what works and where, and his skirting of genres have gained him a singular spot not only in dance music but also in music overall. His numerous mix CDs, painstakingly put together, keep the Sasha live experience cemented in time. And after threatening for years to take a significant amount of time off to do an artist album, he finally did so (turning down a one-night $80,000 gig to not break his focus from the album). The result, Airdrawndagger (Kinetic, 2002), went beyond what anyone would expect of a DJ. But Sasha has already accomplished all of that, and as he points out: “It was just not enough to do another mix.”
What eventually turned out to be full-on remixes of tracks from the likes of UNKLE, Felix da Housecat and Junkie XL started out as a simple re-edit of the Ulrich Schauss track “On My Own,” one of many that Sasha pulled as some of his favorites of the past year. “Because I was going to remix everything, the tracklisting wasn't dictated by the fact that somebody else had used the track or that the track might be a little older,” he says. “A lot of the time, DJs fall into the trap with mix CDs that they have to have exclusive material nobody else has got. By remixing every track myself, everything's exclusive anyway.”
When approaching the initial re-edit for “On My Own,” a 140 bpm track with a massive sound but virtually no drums, Sasha reprogrammed the drums, programmed the bass, rebuilt the track and dropped the original on top. With Ableton Live 3.02 ReWired directly into Emagic Logic Platinum 6.3.3 on a dual 2GHz Apple Mac G5, Sasha used Live as the arrangement tool and Logic for processing. A number of the Logic instruments — as well as Native Instruments Reaktor, Absynth and Battery — were also brought into play.
“On Airdrawndagger, we got the drum sounds by layering five or six snares together in Pro Tools, lining them up and compressing them to come up with an original sound, which is quite a painstaking process,” he explains. “[Battery] allows you to drop in 10 kick drums and squashes them together, giving everything a really tight sound. We load the drum sounds made in Battery into Reason because it's got a really fantastic drum machine built into it that is like programming a piece of hardware. It sounds very much like an MPC, but it's fast and can be ReWired into Logic at the same time.”
As for the bass on “On My Own,” it was rerecorded into Logic, sequenced and then bounced into Live as a piece of audio, a method that has only become the norm for Sasha since the start of Involver in fall 2003. Prior to that time, he used Logic at the front end and a Digidesign Pro Tools rig. With the emergence of the Mac G5, the use of Apple Core Audio and the improvement of plug-in sound quality, Sasha compares what he's doing now, soundwise, to Pro Tools TDM.
LAYERS OF SPOOKINESS
Whereas the “On My Own” remix culled several parts from the original track, DJ Spooky's “Belong” was all about reconstructing the original sounds. “[Spooky] uses a lot of real analog synths,” Sasha says. “Those have such depth in sound that once we started processing them and pulling things apart — digging into the sounds to find new things — there was so much in there. He had an ambient mix, and we used the whole stereo mix of it, processed a lot of the sounds through effects and then dropped the vocal on top. [For the vocal,] Logic has this amazing reverb plug-in called Space Designer. It's an impulse reverb, and you can create your own reverb envelope.”
But even after digging through the multiple layers of synths, Sasha discovered that the next step wasn't quite as easy as adding the vocal and processing it with reverb. “The tricky thing about ‘Belong,’ once we got into it, was that we kept the tempo but had to transpose the entire session two semitones, which is quite a big drop,” he says. “We used the Pitch 'n Time plug-in to do that, and as soon as we did it, the vocals were wobbling all over the place. We realized that the session we'd lifted to actually do this pitch-shifting on, he'd already pitch-shifted; it's like a copy of a copy. You can pitch-shift something once, and you won't notice the artifacts; you do it twice, and it starts to break apart. When we got the original vocal session, it all worked fine.”
Sasha has gained a lot of knowledge about producing over a long period of time. But he did get off to a somewhat dubious start: He spent a significant amount of money from a publishing deal to purchase every gadget available to build an extensive studio, and he didn't know how to operate any of the machines. So for a number of years, he could not approach his gear until he focused on one piece, the Akai MPC3000, learned it inside and out and then started incorporating other pieces one by one.
“If you bombard yourself with trying to learn too many pieces of software and equipment, you end up getting stuck in this weird kind of arms race because, every month, a magazine comes out, and it's got a new piece of equipment and a new piece of software, and you're like, ‘The reason my record doesn't sound good is because I don't have that piece of software,’” he says. “And that's a really dangerous game to play; it's definitely something I got caught into.”
At the moment, Sasha's studio is separated into two rooms: one with primarily analog gear powered by a PC and another — where the tracks are actually mixed — kitted with the G5 (loaded with numerous pieces of software), Genelec monitors and the MPC3000. “One of the reasons I split the studios up was, I found that by limiting myself, I was allowed to be a little more creative,” he says. “Even though within the computer we've got a million different options of different ways of doing things, I like to keep that room completely decluttered so we can focus on mixing the record in there. When I had everything in one room, it was very easy halfway through a remix to start noodling off and making sounds. The next thing, three days have gone by, and you've not really gotten anywhere; you've just made loads of mental noises. It's very easy to do that with all those toys around.”
But the divorce of the studio gear has Sasha lamenting for the old days. “Once we're done with this record, I would like to combine those two rooms,” he says. “Being able to combine a lot of that analog gear into what we're doing on the computer would be amazing.”
NO TRAINING WHEELS
The “we” that Sasha inadvertently refers to when speaking about the studio work on Involver is primarily Barry Jamieson of Evolution and himself. Other helpers, Simon Wright (sound designer on Airdrawndagger) and Charlie May, have stepped in, as well. But for the first time, Sasha is hands-on in the studio, not simply the director and idea person. The main item that has allowed him to make the leap has been Live.
“A lot of the time [while] working on music and staring at the computer screen, I've not felt that comfortable,” Sasha admits. “[Live] is a really intuitive piece of software that I feel comfortable with. It's the first time I've found a piece of software I feel I can work on, and it flows instinctively. The biggest thing about this album for me is discovering an interface that allows me to get stuck in.”
Live has also let Sasha join the gap that has always existed between his studio work and his DJing. But after incorporating some hardware — such as the M-Audio BX5 monitors and the Evolution X-Session controller, which acts as a crossfader — into his setup and experimenting with mixing the tracks live from the computer, things have taken a turn for him. “It basically means that every time you play a record, you're going to be editing it on the fly,” Sasha says. “When you want the bass line to drop, it drops. Realizing I could DJ with this and what I could actually do to records, it's the most mind-blowing thing I've ever discovered as a DJ. It's a new way of looking at playing music to people. It changes everything as far as I'm concerned. I'm totally seeing the way forward.”
BRIDGE THE GAP
Crowd-tested at the 2004 Winter Music Conference in Miami, this progressive setup will accompany Sasha during his summer DJ dates while touring in support of Involver. “If I'm going to start DJing with this piece of software, as well as use it in the studio,” he says, “suddenly, everything is tied together, and I'm always going to be looking at the same piece of software and in the same head space, doing the same thing, whether it be DJing or working in the studio, and that's what excites me the most. I found something that's a bridge between the two [sides] of my careers.
“It's been 15 years of DJ culture, and the magical mystery of a DJ playing two pieces of vinyl, that ‘wow factor,’ has disappeared somewhat,” he continues. “People accept that DJs fill clubs. People expect DJs to be able to mix records. Everyone understands what's going on now, and it's time for a change. Something like this actually allows the DJ to make it much more of a live performance. We've talked about this from the beginning: Even though DJs are playing other people's records, it's the way you play it, the records you chose, the way you drop records, the way you program it and your style. That's what it's about. This piece of software is allowing me to evolve that whole thing, push it forward into directions that I never thought would be possible.”
Although Involver is a remix CD, it's also a mix CD, and Sasha used Live to do the final recorded set of his remixes. The tracks are rearranged constantly, and where they turn up in the mix dictates the arrangements. The outro of one number determines the intro of the next, and during the mix phase, they are simply layered together with their structures set by dummy mixes done prior to the last step.
“It definitely created a lot of work,” Sasha says. “When I thought a track would go between track 7 and track 9, we would actually get the session up, and we might have to change the tempo or the pitch or the original sound before we could start working on it. We would start to work on it and realize it perhaps doesn't fit there. Then we'd realize it's going to fit between track 3 and track 5, so we'd then have to go back to the original session, rechange the pitch, rechange the tempo and start the mix again.
“Using Live, it's amazing how quick you can test ideas out. You can drop samples in from one track to another, pitch them, and they play in time. Straight away, you can tell if something is going to work or not. Even now, I'm grabbing noises out of different tracks, perhaps things that didn't get used or were hidden, and realizing they work in another track. Sounds are migrating from track to track all the time.”
INTERNET UPS AND DOWNS
By remixing in real time with Live, Sasha is able to make his DJ sets more exclusive — a rarity in the age of the download-crazed Internet. Until a few years ago, Sasha was able to keep certain pieces of music for his sets only, to the point that they became earmarked as “Sasha tunes.” Nowadays, this is bordering on impossible.
“Once they're out, they're out, and everyone's got them,” Sasha says ruefully of records. “There's this massive turnover of music. People seem to get bored of things really quickly. As a DJ, whenever you've got something exclusive that you know is exclusive to your DJ set, you usually end up playing it for as long as you like the record. Because everyone's getting hold of this stuff, you might get something that you think is exclusive, and two weeks later, the warm-up DJ drops it. I know some great records from last year that got killed in three weeks — this is three weeks from the Internet release; the actual record wasn't getting released for another four months. That's the state of affairs. Involver is providing me with a load of exclusive stuff.”
Turning the Internet around to his benefit, Sasha uses the medium for collaborations with producers in other parts of the world. Earlier in the year, he was co-writing material with Junkie XL's Tom Holkenborg by uploading parts onto a server. Although that method is time-saving and convenient, Sasha still insists on being in the same studio for the finishing portion of the track, preferring to use the Internet system as a sketch pad for ideas, one that only works if an understanding already exists between the people involved on either side.
“The Internet is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to the music industry,” he states. “If it's used in the right way, it really puts a lot of the control back into the artists' hands. The business side has taken a massive beating through downloading. It's impossible to sell records these days in the traditional way it's been done before, so a lot of new avenues are opening up. For little artists like me, it's definitely a good thing.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware:
Apple Mac dual 2GHz G5; Emagic Logic Audio Platinum 6.3.3; Lacie D2 120GB, 7,200 rpm FireWire drives (2)
“Three Titanium PowerBooks float around as utility computers for editing, additional recording and live/DJing use,” says Barry Jamieson, Sasha's Involver collaborator. “A newer 1.25GHz with Logic and Live is Sasha's main computer away from home. In addition, there is an 800MHz and an older 500MHz. To move data around on the various computers, there are a variety of 80 to 120GB, 7,200 rpm Lacie D2 FireWire drives.
“In addition to the main studio, there's another room that houses mostly hardware and a Digidesign Pro Tools|Mixplus rig running on an older G4 dual 450MHz (Mac OS 9.2.2). Most of the initial sound design and mad science experiments take place here. Pro Tools 5.1.1 TDM is the heart of the system, which also includes a heathen PC to run non-Apple applications.
“Eventually, all of the data has to go somewhere,” Jamieson continues. “Older material was archived to a Sony AIT-3 8mm tape drive, but as the capacity of FireWire drives radically outgrew the capacity of the tape backup, another solution was needed. After purchase of the G5, the previous dual 1.25GHz G4 was relegated to server duty. The G4 was jammed with a pair of 300GB Maxtor 5,400 rpm drives set up as a mirrored RAID array [a linked system of separate drives that creates one large indexed storage medium]. An additional 120GB Western Digital 7,200 rpm drive was put in for additional overflow. The G4 server is on the studio network and is available to grab older archived audio from another computer. If Sasha's out of town and needs to download a new track or parts for a new project, he can just log in via FTP into the server and get what he needs. For those who might just want to listen to music, the server is also an iTunes server, so anyone connected via Ethernet or AirPort can listen to 100-plus GB of iTunes audio.”
Console, mixers, interfaces:
Mackie Control controller, 1604-VLZ mixer; MOTU 896HD audio interface
“Eight channels of analog input and output are hard-wired into a patch bay for convenient interfacing of external gear,” Jamieson says. “For MIDI, an Emagic Unitor 8 interface connects an Access Virus Indigo and a Roland JD-800 synthesizer for additional sounds and for use as keyboard controllers. A Future Retro Mobius analog-style MIDI step sequencer can control both the hardware and virtual synthesizers.
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer:
Emagic EXS24 software sampler; Native Instruments Battery (“For combining, tweaking and creating drum sounds,” Jamieson says.)
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments:
Ableton Live 3.02 (“Live is used via ReWire to integrate into Logic's mixer channels,” Jamieson says); ARP 2600 Blue Meanie synth; Cycling '74 Pluggo plug-ins; Emagic Logic plug-ins; G Media ImpOSCar (“Virtual version of the classic Oscar analog synthesizer,” Jamieson says.); M-Audio X-Session controller; Moog Memorymoog synth; Native Instruments Reaktor soft synth; Ohmforce filter, distortion and delay plug-ins; Propellerhead Reason software; Rogue Amoeba Audio Hijack software (“Quick and easy recording from any audio app, runs in background,” Jamieson says.); Roland TB-303 Bass Line synth; Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 synth; Waldorf Wave synth
Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects, mics:
Analogue Solutions Phobos Filtered Coffee analog filter; dbx 160A compressors (2); Empirical Labs Distressor compressor; Eventide 7000 FX, H3000 FX, Orville FX processors; Focusrite Compounder compressors (2); Lexicon PCM 41, PCM 80 digital delays; Mutator stereo analog filter; Sherman Filterbank analog filter
“Genelec 1037A and 1031 studio monitors, with subwoofer, are used for the main speakers,” Jamieson says. “And a pair of Genelec 1029 and Alesis M-1 speakers are used for alternate monitoring.”