photo by Caesar Sebastian
Finding simplicity in re-imagining, remixing, and remastering music
by Tony Ware
Read our extended interview with Bassnectar.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Nirvana and Metallica lately, watching Netflix documentaries and shit. I’ve started to meet some of my heroes, like hanging out with Dave Grohl in Brazil, and Les Claypool [from Primus] asking me to remix a track … and there’s just this joy I’m feeling from getting to engage people I listened to and supported when I was wearing a flannel around my waist 20 years ago. That feeling is what I consider the real spirit of music; it’s not geeky and it’s not technical, and that is the role of the artist: to channel emotional and inspiring whether you’re John Lennon or Mozart or Jimi Hendrix or Ice Cube or Dr. Dre or a DJ. Like, it’s so easy to tease a DJ because for all you know they’re just standing up there with a click track playing, but in reality having the musical taste to select songs that can bring 10,000 people on a journey, seamlessly weave together songs that were created other people into a cohesive blend, that is an art. It’s one of many arts that to me are really fun to explore even though there’s a lot of people doing it. I think what I would encourage people to do today is to get personal, to get creative and not so much focus on perfectly replicating the techniques you need to make yet another laserstep, dubstep or trance track, or whatever. As an individual, I am really responsive to shit that I hear that feels like there’s heart and vision behind it even if it’s not as well produced.
I recommend working with other people for a lot of reasons, including being able to save your ears from unnecessary destruction. For example, I have someone else master tracks because I’m already spending two-and-a-half hours a night on these stages with concert-level systems where the bass is rattling my eyeballs and I’m doing it 16 nights in 19 days straight. It’s very dangerous to my ears. So any time I can not spend doing the technical side of final mastering, the better. Especially taking into account that I want to master basically every record in my collection and every record that comes in and that I’m on airplanes and at hotels, having someone at home who can just say “Yep, bass has been checked,” it’s been the most liberating shortcut. Normally I can do it myself, but at the cost of my ears and having enough time to do it. I would recommend that artists allow themselves to be as creative as they want, but when they have their song totally finished, mix it down without the kick and without the sub and send it off as those separate parts … and you can only do this if you know the mastering engineer and you have a serious relationship with this person, because you don’t want them making any mix changes or any creative interference. This is the full technical surgery. Having those separate components allows the proper ducking system to be controlled and properly tested at all the right levels of volume to compete on a laptop, headphones, on a club system, on a concert system.
The whole trick is you’re trying to maximize your weight, your volume, your evenness of volume, and looking for anywhere that you can carve away once you get into that final limiting. Every one of the songs that you hear on my final releases it’s the 49th or 50th go, because you’ll go through several dozen options at the very end just trying to get rid of that final bit of burnt overdrive on certain frequencies without losing any power. It changed my life when I decided to bring in someone full-time who could provide another head and ears so I could be more productive creatively. If someone’s trying to do it all themselves, it’s like when are you going to stop? Are you going to market it, distribute it, drive the truck? At some point you have to say, “Here it is, here’s what I’m going to do, here’s my art,” and then know when and to who to turn it over.
If you want to be doing everything and you don’t want to collaborate with someone, even if you want to be mastering it yourself, you need to approach it like playing the different roles as a different human. Play the role of the rhythm section as the drummer, and then put on your rhythm guitarist hat and then your lead guitarist hat.
Sometimes I miss being in bands, I miss the personal and interpersonal resonance of crafting with someone else. Collaborating with someone like ill.Gates is like working with yourself but there’s two of you, because we’re really similar, stylistically, similar skill sets. Shit gets done really quickly, literally in one day a lot of the time. I can just take my files over we can quickly get a song fucked up and retuned. Collaborating with Mimi Page, though, she’s doing things that I simply can’t do. She sings and plays the piano. She’s a musical genius and her theory is incredible. I sent her old material of mine, and asked what her thoughts were, to just send me back something. And she did, and then I took the piano part and transposed it into MIDI and played it kind of differently and sent it back to her and had her do a version of it. So, we got that, made a bassline to it, filled the beat around it, sent it her back to her as a song that’s basically this crude bass beat with her piano, she sang over it, then we retuned her vocals and had three bars, four bars of her vocal and cut the third bar. I used some plug-ins on her vocal to give her an idea of where I wanted the melody to go; it didn’t sound good in quality, but got the idea across because I couldn’t sing over the phone to her. We worked on that song for two months, back and forth like that, and made like four different songs. I kept changing my mind, she kept getting new ideas. And in the end we made this one song and it was just such a sexy make-out song. I almost thought it was R&B, and there was no place on my current record for it, but it was a natural flow. So from that we opened up all kinds of potential areas to explore later, which I love.
When I first started I had to prove I could do everything in a song and make everything. I even mastered some of the songs like “Blow.” If you hear it you can tell that I mastered it myself because it sucks. I don’t know what year that was, maybe 2003 or 2004. It was important for me to prove to myself I could do everything. Now that it’s proven, I’m over it. I don’t care what part I play in song creation, I just want to see the music created. I think more in terms of filmmaking. If this is a film, I wanna be the director more than the actor. I wanna be the Dr. Dre more than I want to be the studio engineer who’s recording a band. I’ve done it, I’ve had patch cables flung over my shoulder and producing the electric signal of the most insane rip-off of R2D2 or whatever alien sound direction you wanna go. At this point – partly because so many of the sounds have already be created and you can buy This Is Dubstep Vol. 3 sample and patch collection to make and emulate any sound you want – I’m more interested in reworking my old ideas or inventing new takes on the idea of other people by collaborating with them or having someone remix me or remixing someone else. I feel like that’s where a lot of the future of music’s gonna go because so many of us are control freaks that we wind up all by ourselves in this lonely universe where we get to make every decision and control the song from beginning to end. While that’s cool, that’s probably why I’m not hearing the same energy in music that I did in 1992. There’s less cooperation, there’s less cohesion in the process of multiple individuals excelling at what they do, what they’re most excited to do. Still, I admit pretty much every collaboration I’ve done over the past year has been over the Internet, almost half of them without meeting the other person in person, because the timing is just so tough with my touring schedule.
My advice to anyone who’s producing music who cares what I think is really simple advice: have fun, get creative, take chances, try things. When I was working on “Ugly” with Amp Live, we made an agreement that every single moment we reached a crossroads, going left or right, we’d ask ourselves “what are we more likely to do” and then we’d go the other way. With a track I’m making right now with ill.Gates … we always started off, since the beginning, with the drum beat. These days, as a rule, I force myself to make the song first before I add drums or bass, then go back and play the bassline along to it, and then go back and play the drums along to it. It’s just a new approach and makes a more melodic personality, not just a videogame composition of explosion and laser. For me that’s important because it’s something I never did. If that’s been your approach all along, try starting off making a drumbeat. In some way, get creative. Play outside the box. Collaborate with other people because they’re always gonna have weird ideas and help keep you in check if you get stuck in some random loop. I feel like, go back to the mentality of slapping a guitar over and over and standing there awkwardly in a room while your friend is just starting to learn drums and you’re in your parents’ garage and just 1, 2, 3, 4. Play music. Don’t just reproduce the same thing that you’re hearing. I mean, I think it’s healthy to learn from what you’re hearing, just don’t stop at the first level. I remember reading an interview with James Hetfield and he’s talking about his influences. At that time I expected him to say Slayer and Megadeath and Pantera. Other than Black Sabbath all the bands he listed were bands I had never heard of or bands that, off the cuff, I didn’t care about or didn’t like. I didn’t understand for a long time that that is the meaning of influences. It’s something that influences you to make something new. I can tell these days when a producer has been influenced by dubstep, I can hear that. Whereas when I was making dubstep I was influenced by doom metal and black metal and ’90s electronica and the downtempo room and acid jazz and drum ‘n’ bass and ragga jungle and Aphex Twin and Squarepusher and on and on and on; all these influences that I don’t necessarily sound like, but that influenced me. I’m not making dubstep because I’m listening to someone like Excision, because I was making dubstep before I even met or heard Excision, before Excision was making dubstep. His dubstep, I assume, was heavily influenced by drum ‘n’ bass, videogames, and whatever else was influencing him. He has a very distinct noise and made it before anyone else made it. It’s not a replication, it’s an influence. Creativity can be really choked if you emulate and don’t push the emulation part of it into some kind of mutant form. Which is why I don’t want to say, “Here’s how to make a standard dubstep track.” I’d rather encourage creativity.
I don’t want dubstep to becomes too strict on itself. There was a point where it defined itself too specifically and rejected anything that didn’t follow or adhere to the direct rules. The only things that were celebrated and accepted were the same things and same rules by a few select producers. One way you can talk about drum ‘n’ bass is BPM, that range of 170 BPM give or take. If it’s 130 BPM it’s not drum ‘n’ bass; it’s specific to tempo. I remember before I even heard the word dubstep, not its 2002 incarnation but the second wave in 2005, Dubstep 2.0, well before that I was trying to contact drum ‘n’ bass producers to request that they either move their snare off the 2 and the 4 and put it right on the 3 or let me do that. Can I remix your track but just move the snare? I want one snare in a bar, not two, I don’t want to be on a fucking treadmill. And overcompress your rise and your hat so it starts rushing [makes noise] and send it back to me so I can play it. Of course, not a single one wrote back. I wanted to hear the drum ‘n’ bass that I loved so much but in an alternate way. Same tempo, same force, double-time bassline, half-time drums, full power. That was before I heard the word dubstep and well before drumstep. It was a creative idea. Do your thing but tweak this rule. I felt the same thing when I heard dubstep. All the drum ‘n’ bass producers made dubstep. Why don’t you guys just make this music at half time, 87 or 88 BPM. It was like pulling teeth. Years would pass before they considered it. By the time they were onto drumstep I was sick of that as an idea and already made “Bass Head” and “Teleport Massive” and all this shit. The reason that all this happened is a lack of interest in pushing the boundaries and thinking outside the box and being open to new ideas. I don’t think dubstep is going to have that problem, however. People compare dubstep to drum ‘n’ bass because of the intensity, but it’s too wide-spectrum now. There’s the gentlest and the most creative and the most stock and standard and the most robotic … I think that we’ve overcome the tempo hurdle and we’ve overcome all the hurdles that at the time drum ‘n’ bass couldn’t overcome. Now, drum ‘n’ bass is still one of my favorite genres. I make it and play it. Producers that I used to love their drum ‘n’ bass are now making all different kinds of genres. I don’t think that dubstep or music in general is at that risk. Collaborations and thinking outside the box and prioritizing creativity are going to ensure that continues.