Q Reveals the Science of Uberzone’s Breakbeat Synthesis

You can’t break down the history of West Coast electronic music without calling out Uberzone. The one-man show by someone known only as Q (named after the methodical James Bond gadgeteer) was the lynchpin in a breakbeat genus that included the Crystal Method, Cirrus, Simply Jeff, and John Kelley. Faith In The Future — Uberzone’s debut release in summer 2001 — was a stylish spin on the traditional breakbeat formula that featured collaborations with Afrika Bambaataa, Beenie Man, and Helmet’s Page Hamilton. This time, Q lets his Roland VP-330 do the talking, and returns to the fold with Ideology [Nitrus] — a bass crusher recorded in Q’s new home studio, which is aptly dubbed “The Advanced Institute of Gizmology.”
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How much of Ideology is hardware versus soft synth?

Between the Roland VP-330, the Roland Jupiter-6, the Roland Jupiter-8, and the Sequential Circuits Pro-One, I’d say a good 75 percent of the audio content on the record is analog. I also use soft synths such as M-Audio’s GForce impOSCar and GForce Minimonsta:Melohman. But it’s more about what I do to the sounds when I get them into the computer. I love the purity and programmability of the hardware, but when I get the basic tracks into the computer, I’m able to slice and dice them into micro and macro edits. Timing has always been a huge concern for me, and working with audio gives me the absolute ability to put things within the space and time I’m looking for. Then, of course, there’s Native Instruments Reaktor, and all the other new-school plug-in effects that I can use to modulate parts. I almost always bounce the effects to a separate track so I can leave the original sound as pristine as possible, and also have the ability to further process the effects with EQ and compression as needed.

The VP-330 is such an important part of the record, but I think a lot of people underestimate the art of vocoding.

If you just plug a mic into the back of it and talk, you might not be able to get the sound you want. You definitely have to dress up the signal a bit, and the Shure SM70 is one of my new secret weapons. I’ll run that mic through an Alan Smart C1 [hardware stereo compressor], and compress it a bit to get the tone a little more present before I go into the VP-330. Then, I boost the top end on the vocoder to accentuate the T, P, and S sounds. Once it gets into the computer, I use a high-pass filter to get the rumble off the bottom — the VP tends to add a huge bump in the 300Hz to 600Hz range. I notch 350Hz or 400Hz out because that frequency range can compromise intelligibility. That tweak can make the vocoder tracks sound a bit thin, however, so I run the entire vocoder subgroup — which consists of a dry, mono vocoder track; a stereo ensemble of the same part, using either the ensemble chorus on the VP-330 or the Universal Audio UAD-1’s Roland CE-1 plug-in; and usually a stereo non-linear, or small room reverb — through the UAD-1’s Neve 33609 compressor. The 33609 is more than a compressor — it has its own sound. It adds a little bite, and puts some body back into the vocoder group. It also helps marry everything together while pulling in the reverb and chorus effects to give the subgroup some nice dimension.

A lot of people rely on happy accidents for analog synthesis.

That’s not me. When I was a kid, I’d sit in the bedroom with the Roland Juno-60 or the Pro-One and say, “I want this sound,” and then I’d think of how I was going to get it. “I need a cutoff of about 30 percent, I want an envelope modulating the filter cutoff with a fast attack and a little decay, and then a sawtooth waveform, because it needs to be harmonically rich.” I’d move different things, and then play the note and go, “Oh, that’s pretty close!” I can totally appreciate the experimentation part, and you have to have happy accidents. But that craftsmanship thing, where you have an intent and a focus — that’s what I love. I love the science and procedure that goes into electronic music.

The Jupiter-6 is such an integral part of that classic breakbeat sound — especially in terms of how it generates bass.

One of the really nice things about the Jupiter-6 that other people might say isn’t so nice is that the oscillators start falling apart when you get into the lower registers. Certain oscillators behave completely different down there. For example, the Minimoog sounds immense when played in the lower octaves. The sound is full, fat, and tight. But the Curtis chips used for the oscillators and filter in the Jupiter-6 differ from the discrete circuit paths of the Minimoog. The Jupiter’s oscillators have a sort of nasal quality, and you can really hear the pronounced cycling of the waveform in the lower octaves, and the bottom end is a bit wimpy in an interesting way. It’s very acidy, but it has a nice bite — which allows the Jupiter-6’s lower registers to poke through a dense mix. I think it’s fair to say that part of my sound is that I use this perceived “weakness” to my advantage. I like to play the Jupiter-6 in the very low octaves into the computer, and then apply a 6db or 12db per octave highpass filter — usually around 250Hz–500Hz. Sometimes, I’ll augment that waveform with an identical part played with a sine wave to give the part a stable, booming bottom end while still maintaining the acidic quality of the Jupiter-6’s oscillators.

Given your history with vintage equipment, what signal chain have you found works best for your synths?

I have a pair of Avalon U5 preamps in my studio, and I didn’t realize how amazing my synths could sound until I heard them through a decent direct box. Previously, I was relying on cheap op amps in crappy submixers and IC-based mixing desks for gain. I started bypassing the boards and submixers completely, and tracking directly into the A/D converter, using the U5s for gain and line balancing. It really did breathe new life into the basic tracks. It was an “oh, sh*t” moment — sort of like, “So this is why the big boys sound so good — class A signal paths with no signal loss in the low end, and pleasant non-linear distortion.” Turntables and bass guitar also sound amazing through the U5s. I know the whole lo-fi thing is in vogue right now, but if you start hi-fi, you can always go lo-fi. The opposite isn’t true.

Would you consider yourself “old school”?

Basically, I’m from whatever school that works. I have a little plaque over there that says “Innovate over Imitate.” So I might go back and grab something from the past, or produce something I’ve never heard before. For me, it’s always about trying to have an identity, and integrating my personality into the music.