Evolutionary Theory: Sasha Returns to the Remix with Invol2ver

If punk rockers live and die by the 7- inch, DJs are defined by the variety of their continuous mix. The calling card for all forms of electronica, the DJ mix (or mixset, if you prefer) spent its formative period as the byproduct of two Technics 1200s and a simple mixer. For quite a few years, that was fine. But once the sheen wore off the superstar mystique in the early 2000s, DJs knew they had to step up their game, and gear manufacturers waited in the wings with new technologies to serve the quickly evolving craft. New DAWs allowed for increased integration between what historically was kept behind studio doors, and what was spun, scratched, and manipulated in clubs. Newfangled external controllers with expanded features allowed DJs to literally stay in touch with the tactile performance ethos of their past.
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No one capitalized on this convergence of art and technology on a mainstream level in quite the same way as Welsh DJ/producer Sasha did with his breakthrough 2004 hit, Involver. This first foray into the hybrid world of on-the-fly remixing was made possible by Ableton Live. Pro Tools sessions for each handpicked track were flown in from the original artists, sliced and diced by Sasha and his squad, seasoned with additional instrumentation, and thrown into Live to create a DJ mix with fluidity and thematic consistency. With the arrival of Live on the scene, pre-production for Sasha’s sets became less about crate digging, and more about the deconstruction of full songs into clips that could be tweaked and manipulated in the DAW, and then performed live with the aid of a hardware controller.

Soon, however, Sasha found himself increasingly at odds with his equipment. The idea of scratching on a laptop made him physically ill, and the basic controllers at his disposal fell short of his needs. So, he began developing his own controller—the Maven. The current Maven Mark II version is a 100-percent custom-built unit, replete with handpicked knobs, switches, LEDs, and other bells and whistles specific to Sasha’s desires.

“We even designed the fader caps ourselves,” says Sasha, who has pumped an estimated $100,000 into the unit thus far. “I just wanted to have it right. That stuff doesn’t come cheap, but it’s revolutionized what I do.”

Never before has the Maven been more of a critical crutch than now, as Sasha is on the road promoting Invol2ver, the second installment in his groundbreaking mix series.

“We started the album at the beginning of 2007, but nearly 80 percent of what we did never ended up on the album,” explains Barry Jamieson, Sasha’s longtime friend and the lead engineer on Invol2ver. “We were doing loads of experimenting, and, eventually, we thought, ‘Why are we doing this in the box again? We’ve got all this beautiful analog gear!’”

Sasha, Jamieson, Leo Leite, and Spooky’s Charlie May and Duncan Forbes utilized a multi-room setup that allowed for simultaneous mixing and sound design. Once a track was broken down into building blocks by the team in Studio A, clips would be shipped over to the B room and tweaked using U&I’s MetaSynth and Native Instrument’s Reaktor 5 before ultimately being hauled back into Live for Sasha’s remixing. On Ladytron’s “Destroy Everything You Touch,” Leite time-stretched the source vocals to create the otherworldly choruses, using Reaktor 5’s Grain Perception plug-in. Afterwards, he says that he filtered out Helen Marnie and Mira Aroyo’s voices into “glitchy bits” that were then heavily compressed, gated, and used to create the track’s percussion stabs.

For a track like Telefon Tel Aviv’s “You Are The Worst Thing In The World,” the manipulations were a bit subtler. Using a combination of Logic’s built-in vocoder and the Eiosis ELS plug-in, May created between 20 and 30 different vocoder treatments, and then stacked them onto different parts of the original clean vocal to create a spatial, deeply layered effect.

Meanwhile, back in Studio A, vintage synths such as the Roland Jupiter 6 and JD-800, along with circuit-bent TR-707s and Alesis SR-16s, were used to jam out accompanying beats and melodies to the existing source clips. A Soundcraft G2 console provided what Jamieson calls a “sculpting environment” for the outboard sound design before everything was dumped back into Live. Jamieson adds that many of the synths were processed through guitar pedals and outboard filters to achieve a lo-fi effect—oftentimes using a Jomox T-Resonator and Analogue Haven’s Truly Beautiful Disaster before hitting the desk. If a song called for something more “proper,” the synth’s signal would first be sent to a Millennia STT-1 Origin, and then compressed using either a Universal Audio LA-610 or an LA-2A.

“It’s quite a flexible box for the money,” says Jamieson of the Origin. “It’s great if you want to do combinations of solid state and valve preamps, or solid-state compression and, say, valve EQ. Sometimes, we’d put a couple of preamps in-line—like the LA-610 and the STT-1—so it’s going through the valve process a couple of times to get a bit of that grit and noise.”

Though all the mixing and arranging was done in Live—with Logic acting as more of a tape machine for the crew—it wasn’t the group’s secret weapon. For that they turned to FL Studio 8. But rather than use it as a writing tool, they employed it as an automatable patch bay, connecting different modules within the program to one another to create complex sound-design matrixes.

“Let’s say you have a reverb,” explains Jamieson. “You can have one parameter going from a bass line to the wet/dry of the reverb. Then, you can take another controller from another input, and give it a side-chain input to compress it, but just using the volume control within the plug-in itself. It’s almost like you’re using compressors, but you’re not. You’re just using controller information to manipulate parameters. It can get really complex really quickly.”

Though Sasha rarely strays from his tech-house roots on Invol2ver, the album should have appeal outside the club due to a track selection that features, among others, Thom Yorke, M83, and Engineers. Furthermore, the convergence of analog warmth and razor-sharp digital deconstruction makes for a far more textured listening experience than your standard mix fare. Though he hasn’t released a proper artist album since 2002’s Airdrawndagger, the Involver series has proved to be just as labor-intensive.

“The idea of working on an original album is fairly terrifying,” laughs Sasha. “I’d removed myself from the club scene for a good nine months, and that’s a long time to be away from what you do as your main thing. But, that said, we work a lot faster now, and I have such a strong team around me. So maybe we’ll start with a couple of tracks and see where it goes.”