Bassnectar: “I tour full-time.”
Photo by Caesar Sebastian
DJ/Producer Lorin Ashton, better known by his marquee moniker Bassnectar, has spent more than a decade producing independent albums and EPs, such as the recent Vava Voom, that juxtapose panicked and blissed-out time signatures, submerging audiences in a sonic bath of dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass, ragga jungle, glitch-hop, and digital hardcore; basically, anything with a breakbeat and a pulse is structurally valid. Here he takes a moment to discuss the value of ergonomic MIDI controllers and online collaborations, the best way to achieve overdrive without burnout, and how making complex sounds can be a simple process.
Over the past couple of years, the media has trumpeted the emergence of a new rave generation. Where do you see yourself in the contemporary bass-music arena?
You know, I’ve been at this for a long time . . . I don’t follow a lot of rules, and the ends justify the means for me. I’m self-taught in a lot of my musical knowledge, and I’m shamelessly into collaboration. I started to take guitar lessons when I was 12 or 13 and learned [Nirvana’s] “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” [Metallica’s] “Enter Sandman,” and [Black Sabbath’s] “Iron Man.” I stopped taking lessons after that.
I basically learned how to play “Iron Man” and then started playing it backward, and learned how to play different parts of it half as fast, double-time, and then tried to put the Nirvana riff over it. Everything I’ve done since has been some kind of mutation or remix of what I hear around me.
I allow myself to be fearless with my choices because sometimes I might choose something that isn’t impressive to geeks at all. It might be called dumb, but to me it’s just powerful or groovy. Maybe it’s just that F-note sub, but turned upside down.
What would you say is your typical workflow from concept to completion?
I truly have no format. I tour full-time; I’m probably home no more than a month out of the year. When I am at home, I usually have several computers open with several projects . . . going back into ten-year-old Reason programs, scouring through DATs that I recorded in the mid-’90s at University of California, Santa Cruz when I was there for an electronic music minor and working with full-sized E-mu synthesizers, looking for samples for remixes and my DJ sets, going through my record collection to put out an a cappella from a song and mess with it, playing with a new glitcherama plug-in someone sent me.
Tell me about the technology that has been key during your musical development.
Honestly, I wish I had immediately followed the advice of my teacher, who said once you find out a good way to make music, you should cancel your subscription to the music magazines, find what you know and don’t ever update anything, just let yourself get creative. I’ve worked with a lot of different tools over the years. I’m friends with Josh [Hinden] from Twisted Tools . . . I have a good relationship with Native Instruments . . . and I’m sure I could make amazing noises with a lot of new soft synths, but I’ve got so many noises already. I could never synthesize another song and still have albums of ideas just from the samples I’ve collected over the years . . . you could take away all the synths and I could have fun making remixes of existing material all my life.
I used Opcode [Systems] Studio Vision, and then moved into Cubase really early on, working with a Kurzweil Synthesizer and a Yamaha mixer. Then I would use the studio up at UCSC for the most insane f**king synthesizers, all patchbay galore. I don’t even remember the models, but I would record them to tape and physically cut the tape up myself, then transfer it all that to ADAT. And every record that I would buy, because I was a pretty avid record collector for ten years, I would digitize so I could sample every kick, every snare, every little breakdown, every synth stab . . . collecting sample libraries like baseball cards. Then I switched to ReWiring Reason into Cubase, and that was really the breaking point for me, being able to have everything in one piece of software. That’s where I first simplified and felt a lot of liberation by confining myself to that one program. My friends using Logic would always tease me that my stuff was too low-fi, but I just had fun doing it. I loved hitting the tab button all day, looking at the wires shake; it was just inspiring to me, being able to make things quickly manifest. Dylan [Lane, who records as ill.Gates] was the one that gave me a reason to get into Ableton Live, because he worked with me for about a month to simplify in another way, building a template based on ideas that I had for creating and DJing with clip packs.
Is this before Max for Live and other customizable environments?
They were trying to teach [Cycling ’74’s] Max to me at UCSC and I was kind of at the point of my university career where I was so sick of being in class and I just wanted to make gangster noises. I really wanted to make psytrance, and my professor wouldn’t let us make that kind of music. He wanted us to explore musique concrète and old-school electronic composition. I appreciate that now; it was the Mister Miyagi technique. Max for Live, though, it was just a reflex for me to avoid it. The nerdier it is, the more options, I just get scared. I just want to really reduce all those options if it’s possible. Even DJing, I just worked with Sixty Works Controllers to develop a simple controller for easily busting out customized live remix DJ sets [paired with ill.Gate’s modified DeeJayus Ex Machina template for Trigger Finger].
Photo by Avery Cunliffe
Currently, your primary workstation is Ableton Live and a custom MIDI controller?
The MIDI controller is strictly for live performance . . . and, since I’m not a pianist, I’ve been mousing in my MIDI notes since Cubase in the ’90s. I move really quickly like that. I just need a laptop and headphones, really. I’ve got so many of my songs and albums into Ableton that I’m able to remix and sample myself a lot, which is a massive time saver. Every year I update the Vengeance Sound kicks and snares I’m using and then use them all, the same ones, for every song. Around 2004, I started calling things “muscle beats,” and I would use their stock kicks and snares and hats and create a beat that had all the power of the frequencies I wanted. I’d cover it up with bright, sharp, high-passed tops, a bashing snare, just giving a different personality to the drum sounds but basically using the same sub with Reason and in Ableton, just a massive synth sine wave. That speeds things up immensely.
As your methods have changed how has your relationship with subbass changed?
My relationship with subbass has been transformed by several things. I don’t actually think of music competitively, but I really need tracks that can at least stand up to the previous few tracks’ drops in a DJ set, so the bass note has to be an E, an F, an #F, maybe a G. And I toured with my own sound system, which meant I get to play E notes, because few club systems could really reproduce an E. With this record, I started using D, and went down to C for the Pennywise remix just because the systems that I’m on are finally reliably able to reproduce that kind of signal.
In the past I was more worried about whether I could perform sounds, not so much how they all went together. I would just f**k around, hitting my mouse on the synth to find a note that I liked and just play it. Now I think about what I want to combine melodically into a range if I want it to be a heavy drop track. I’ll mirror my sub with a synth pop to make a cohesive bass sound where the sub is isolated just by itself in a pure sine. I’ll use 808 subs and boom kick samples when I need an atonal bass line and I’m trying to figure out the tuning of the song and how it can stay thick.
One major thing for me was learning how to use sidechain compression and properly duck my sub out by my kick, and making sure that the kick is sitting on the right frequency for the track to deliver the power that it needs without competing with the sub . . . I remember seeing Datsik, and he used to physically cut out the sub by hand everywhere the kick was. It’s funny seeing different people’s techniques for trying to get rid of the competition there. Also, duck from the snare . . . do a layered snare with kicks and midrange synths and all kinds of stuff that goes away for a perfectly tuned crunch. Having a dive on your [hit] that sits out and allows for the split-second before you drop a heavy, steady F-note covered with high-frequency and midrange synths while your beat plays, I don’t think you can really get a heavier sound than that.
But the way I work with subbass has also been transformed by mastering. I have a full-time mastering engineer for [personal label] Amorphous Music who was at first brought on just to master all my music. Lately, however, I’ve been having him remaster my old record collection because even two-year-old tracks couldn’t compete anymore. Now that I’m going back I’ve been able to re-incorporate some real gems from all genres, like Nu Skool breaks is just a goldmine. He’ll remaster a track, then I’ll highpass it and put in my own sine wave, my own kick, my own big muscle snare, and basically crash hats or something, fill in some high frequencies, and just use the original record as a midrange, almost like a lead. It’s allowed me to revitalize my own record collection and make it contemporary.
At one point, you were doing a lot of your own “remastering” of tracks for your DJ sets, just applying compressors and limiters. What would you consider your indispensable techniques?
If I’m going to drop a track in three hours, I’ll use PSP Vintage Warmer or a Waves L2 Ultramaximizer, but I’d always prefer to send it off to my mastering guy. If you have the luxury, I would always recommend that you learn your synths and dial in your samples and all of your techniques, but when it comes time to sit it all at a certain level, send it to a mastering engineer. I mix on Mackie HR824s, first mixing the kick and snares, focusing around 110 to 120Hz and making them as loud as I can stand, then working with the hat, keeping it bright, then putting in the sub before I mix everything else up as quiet as I can keep them. Then I offer it to the mastering engineer with a kind of limited sound mix: kick, sub, snare, and the rest of the track.
The techniques that I would say have been crucial in the last record are more in the earlier stages, when I think about what I’m putting on top of the sine wave in each song. Like, in “Butterfly,” there’s a churning reese [bass synth sound] and it’s the same I used in the [Ellie Goulding] “Lights” remix but there’s three of them. On one of them, I’m holding down a slow-motion wobble, and it’s got the highpass cut at probably 400Hz, and it’s basically like a ghost. You mute the sub and it sounds like this thin, frail synth track. Then there’s this thing I call “the dog,” because it makes a “woof” sound. It’s what would have been a wobble bass in [Native Instruments] Massive but with the resonance turned up so high it’s basically just the sound of resonance on the filter. Talk about positive distortion; the sound has been so overly processed by Ableton’s compressor that it gives the 200Hz frequency to the “bass line.” And then there is a key-tuned saw wave with a little bit of motion; you can do it in the Voicing tab in Massive, where you can control the stereo presence. I love turning on the Pan Position and f**king with the spectrum fader, going into the Unisono Spread and taking it up. I’ll have that be the third component in the top notches on the sub, to give it a prickly little feeling to the ears even though what listeners are probably hearing most is that low-pass, high-pass, midrange chunk and then that woof, which pops through all of the different speakers even when the sub isn’t there; it’s kind of the “ghost” sub. [Techniques] like that are how I make a strong reinforcement rhythm section. On that track, there’s like six drum groups and an insane bass group with so many stacks to get that sound.
But then using that same exact kick, that same exact snare, I can make a song like “What,” which is a totally different song, with its own balls-out, laser-y, dubstep drop. The rhythm section is identical to “Butterfly,” but what’s happening on top is totally different. Something like “Vava Voom,” that dubstep drop at the end there is the same exact sine patch, using one of these three kicks, and one of three snares, but then just masked by a whole different texture on top.
Letting myself dial in the rhythm section and then keep the same rhythm “guitarist” for every song as I play different leads on top of it is what allows my mastering to go so quickly. There’s no real mystery; there’s always that same perfectly tuned and thick gelled-together rhythm section. And there’s a parameter in the compressor in Ableton when you activate the sidechain called the Model FF1, FF2, or FB, and it opens up to FF2 by default. But I think it just sounds better on FF1 when you’re doing sidechaining. There’s a lot less rubbing, so I use that and a hella-fast attack, a hella-fast release, a pretty aggressive threshold and ratio. I set up two different devices to duck the sub from the kick and a little less from the snare.
What would be your number one pointer for developing a custom sound?
I really advocate simplicity. Pick your five kicks, pick your five snares, pick whatever your subbass signal is gonna be. Pick a couple of atonal dives. Create them in Massive or pull them out of a sample kit, put ’em in a drum rack, save that drum rack. Save a channel strip. Pick one synth. Then just try to make a couple songs, whether it’s Massive, [Tone 2’s] Gladiator, [Rob Papen’s] SubBoomBass, or Albino, just pick one sampler. Pick just one folder of samples. Then box yourself in with one sequencer and just work for a while. You don’t need to worry about constantly updating, constantly upgrading, constantly getting the newest, latest thing, because if you do that, it’s blindingly possible that you may never get a single song written because you’re so busy trying to keep everything updated. That may fly in the face of your magazine, but I believe it to be true.
Tony Ware is a frequent contributor to Electronic Musician.