Sep 02

Hip-Hop Production 101: Hip-Hop & R&B Super Producer Tony Dofat Takes Us To School

by in Interviews

Tony Dofat is a world-renowned, Grammy-nominated producer, global DJ, audio engineer, music professor and author of four books about the business of music. He was one of the original hitmen, from the legendary squad of producers inside Bad Boy Records, working alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs and artists like Mary J. Blige.

Also known as the godfather of the remix, Tony is best known for his work on Mary’s “You Remind Me” and the insanely popular rework of that track. He was also nominated for a Grammy for his work with his longtime friend and collaborator Heavy D, on his reggae album, Vibes. He’s also worked with a range of artists including Will Smith, Tina Turner and the Notorious BIG. We caught up with Tony to learn the art of the game and the difference between making music back-in-the-day and now.

This is an edited version of the interview, for the full interview, listen to our podcast below.

Melodics Magazine: So how do you compare your background of learning to read and write music with today’s producers who are just laying everything down on computers?

Tony Dofat: Reading and writing music is definitely helpful because it helps you understand and speak the language and speak to fellow musicians or someone else who’s musically inclined. It’s great to have the terminology and understand how to count measures and what an E or A scale is.

Now I’m teaching students the essentials and why it’s important to learn and understand theory. You don’t have to become an educator or have a Master’s in music to make records, but you have to learn the fundamentals.

tony-dofat-masterclass
From the personal collection of Tony Dofat.

MM: If I walked into your classroom today what would be one of the first things I’d learn?

TD: Before you start making songs you have to understand what genre you’re working in, so I teach music genre and what makes genres different. Like the differences in why this is called funk and why this is called disco and why this is jazz. This knowledge will help you determine the type of artist you want to be.

Then I explain how one genre led to another—how funk birthed hip-hop and then how that turned into the remix. Then we talk about the timing of each genre.

Some students think theory is boring, but I try to keep it interesting and choose songs that are relevant—that everyone is listening to—and I point out different beats and rhythms of structure. I teach them the difference between a beat and a rhythm. A lot of people don’t know the difference. These are the essential things that a producer really needs to understand and that will help your career drastically.

MM: At the time you came up, early hip-hop music production used live studio bands, right?

TD: From my era, growing up, everything was live. Everything was acoustic. There were no drum machines. There were no computers. We didn’t even have internet. So it was all acoustic and analog music— the most they had was maybe a four-track and an eight-track and you would have to get the performance just right.

So, there were a lot of mistakes but those mistakes are what make the songs what they are and what made people like the songs. That’s one of the things that I really love about older music—you had one shot to get it right. That’s the same method I applied to my records when I first started. When you listen to all of Mary’s early records there were mistakes in every song and even vocally and we just let it go out and people loved it.

MM: What kind of tools did you use back then?

TD: Just one keyboard and one drum machine. The Korg M1 was a standard, the Triton, the Roland D 550 or the D 50 and the Akai MPC 60 or the MPC62. And then there’s an MPC3000, or the MPC2000 or MPC2000XL and the E-MU SP1200. I’ve owned all of those machines, but right now I just own two MPC2000XLs. I don’t use them, but If a client asks for that particular sound, I still have my sound cards built on those ready to go.

MM: What’s the importance of samples in hip-hop production?

TD: A lot of people used to get on us about sampling, but hip-hop is based on sampling. Hip-hop is based on the DJ playing someone else’s records. If we didn’t play it then it would just be funk. We make it hip hop because we take the best parts of the song—the break—to make people act the fool. We take that and we loop it.

MM: What are you looking for in a sample when you remix a song like Mary J. Blige’s, “You Remind Me?”

TD: Great musicians who made funk only had a little break that was maybe a minute-and-a-half. With the creativity of hip-hop, we turned that one little break into another full song. Our little secret back in the 90s for finding the right songs was to look at people’s reactions when you play music. If they’re not acting crazy then you’re not doing a good job.

It’s all based on two-and-four bar loops and just keep looping it back. Once you have that skeleton it’s gonna be hot and everyone will love it. If you just keep adding elements that don’t fit, you’re gonna mess it up and end up overproducing. That’s why the biggest hit records are the ones that are simple and contain the least amount of instrumentation.

From the personal collection of Tony Dofat
From the personal collection of Tony Dofat

MM: Has your sound changed over the years?

TD: My ear is the same. I can use today’s technology, but I won’t let it hurt my sound. It’s hard for people starting out today because they have no knowledge of the past. They haven’t developed a sound yet-they have a sound that’s given to them. In my era, we had to make our sound. In my masterclasses, I teach students how to develop their own sound kits and not rely on downloaded sound kits.

As a producer, your sound is your identity. If you have the same sound kit as everyone in the room then you’re not differentiating yourself. I sculpted my own sounds. Yeah, I sampled but that process is different. A lot of new producers are talented, but they can reach higher if they just stop being lazy.

MM: Overall, how has production changed over the years, like triplets are big now?

TD: I think music has been the same for the past 10 years. The only thing that changed are songs and artists. I think if a producer today played a track from 10 years ago it would still sell. The tracks are pretty similar and the sound has been recycled from 10 years ago. Possibly the only things that change are a pattern, but the triplet high hats have been going on for six or seven years.

We didn’t really use a lot of 808s or low frequencies like 50 or 60 Hz, but today a lot more of that is being used. They use a different layering, but it’s still pretty much the same style.

MM: You’re also a sound engineer. Is that an important skill for a producer to learn?

TD: It’s very beneficial for a producer to learn frequencies, learn dynamic processing, and learn everything about the tonality of a sound because it’ll make your job a lot easier when you’re sculpting and creating sounds. I learned just from working with some of the greatest engineers, but they couldn’t give me the sound that I was still looking for.

I was looking for a specific sound, so I had to learn software from all of the consoles and I had to learn every button on the console to operate it myself.

MM: I want you to solve a debate for us—MPC vs. MIDI keyboard with drum pads.

TD: There are some differences because with MIDI there is a delay, it’s minimal but there is latency. The feel of the pad is also different and having everything self-contained in the MPC is a lot easier. You can just click on a pad and develop a tune in just a matter of seconds and you don’t have to learn all of these VST plugins. You can edit it, and truncate the beginning and the decay at the end. You can do all of that instantly and add filters and just program your beat right in the machine as opposed to using your controller and your software.

Essentially it does the same thing and software like Ableton does make it easier because you can automatically cut your loops and sounds. But would you rather rely on a computer to do it or would you want to do it by ear? That’s the difference because every producer has their own style of truncating sounds.

Aug 27

K.Flay Has the Solution For Making Music That Lasts

by in Interviews

K.Flay (née Khristine Meredith Flaherty) is a singer, songwriter, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, and producer who got her start making music in her dorm room at Stanford University. Fed up with the misogyny in rap, she grabbed a mic, laid down some tracks on her computer and dropped the (now extremely hard to get your hands on) mixtape Suburban Rap Queen. Four mixtapes, two EPS, two full-length albums, and two Grammy noms later, she’s back with her third full-length release, Solutions, fusing pop, rock, hip-hop and electronic sounds.

“I’ve mostly created in my parents’ basement,” says the 33-year-old K.Flay about her preference of making music in unpretentious environments, like the modest subterranean floor of her parents’ Brooklyn and then Bay Area homes—also her obvious comfort zone. “It’s definitely not a professional environment in any way, (but), I wrote, recorded and produced everything down there.”

It’s no coincidence that, when working on her latest effort, Solutions, released by Night Street/Interscope Records on July 12, K.Flay made sure her recording spaces, albeit not her beloved basement, were appropriately comfy. She recorded part of it in Nashville, at a studio a friend built on his countryside property and the rest in Los Angeles, at producer Tommy English’s back house/studio. 

“These studios are embedded in home environments, where there is a lack of pretentiousness,” says the Illinois native. “Everyone is different and everyone wants different things out of their creative environment. For me, what I aim to do is figure out how I can approximate the safety of my parents’ basement but add the creativeness and expertise of talented producers.”

From the sounds of Solutions, and the accolades it has received from music critics, it appears K.Flay’s modus operandi has worked. She “starts her third studio CD with the wonderfully autobiographical statement song “I Like Myself (Most of the Time)” and ends with a wistful tune about her father, “DNA,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “In between, we get to celebrate all the gloriously different sides of an artist who resists getting boxed up in one genre,” writes The Guardian. The first single off her latest release, “Bad Vibes,” backed by a pop-rock, hip-hop sound, is a song about learning to let go of the negative things in your life.

Melodics Magazine caught up with K. Flay, right before she headed off on her “The Solutions Tour,” to learn about her journey to making her newest album. We dug into her artistic process, how necessity drove her to make her own beats and why she values collaboration. She also talks about what fans can expect from her soon-to-be-released microcast.

Melodics Magazine: You kind of stumbled upon music. For our readers that don’t know, how did you begin your career?

K. Flay: Initially, it was sort of, goofing off. By the time I got to college, I was listening to stuff like the Beach Boys, the Talking Heads, the Beatles, that kind of stuff. And then, whatever was on the radio. But, I hadn’t consumed independent music, and then I was confronted with all of that. I was like, this is f**** up. I’m 18, 19-years-old, and I think I know everything. I got into an argument with someone at my dorm and was like, “Why is this on the radio? I could write something like this.” And his response was: you’ve never even written a song.

MM: How’d that first songwriting session turn out?

KF: I’ve always enjoyed crossword puzzles. Songwriting, in many ways, is kind of like word puzzles–there was something about that process that clicked with me right away.

MM: At what point did you become emotionally invested in music?

KF: I think it was my junior year of college. The agenda started to become, “Oh, this isn’t just a song, there is an element of self-discovery that I am getting in touch with.” And, that felt very exciting for me.

MM: You are a singer and a songwriter, but you are also a producer. How did you learn to make beats?

KF: At the beginning, I was self-contained. I produced, made my beats, sang, all out of necessity. I didn’t know people who could do it for me and, necessity is always a great instigator. All of my production stuff was self-taught, from watching YouTube tutorials and then meeting people on campus, where there was a very small recording studio for the engineering program there. 

A good friend in college was in that program and he was the first person to show me Pro Tools. I learned what I know through trial and error. Sometimes, I watch sessions by trained engineers and they absolutely shred it. I’m not quite as good, but, I have a pretty good system.

MM: Three albums later, has your process for creating music changed at all?

KF: For me, the shift was really in the last two records, and it was finding producers that I could really become creative partners with. When I was producing my own stuff… there were elements of that process that I enjoyed. But it wasn’t the primary thing I enjoyed about making music.

MM: How does the collaborative process usually work for you?

KF: In the last record, every song was recorded in an apartment or a house. I think there is something to that. Everyone is different, everyone wants different things out of their creative environment. For me, what I aim to do is figure out how I can approximate the safety of my parents’ basement but add the creativeness and expertise of talented producers. I was initially hesitant to collaborate in a certain way. My thought was, I do my own stuff, I am a one-woman entity. But, I think, collaboration is incredibly powerful and, good things can happen.

MM: Would you collaborate behind-the-scenes with other artists?

KF: I’m starting to see in my creative life, that I can do more writing with other artists on their records. I’m starting to understand my role, not just as an artist, but how I can be part of the support staff. And, I love it, honestly. I’ve been enjoying it so much. When it’s done, and when you do it well, it is really just about making space for somebody to be unabashedly honest and creative.

Photo Credit: Koury Angelo
Photo Credit: Koury Angelo

MM: There aren’t many female producers, especially not in hip-hop. Do you consider yourself a role model?

KF: What’s interesting is I haven’t worked with many female producers. I do understand there is an element of my experience and what I do that, for young women, especially young women starting in music, that can be slightly role-model-ish. I do see the importance in that as far as looking out into the world and looking for representation. 

MM: How did you find your sound for Solutions?

KF: The initial inspiration point was LCD Soundsystem’s record This is Happening. It felt like very excellent lyricism along with those kind of drum machine sounds. That felt compelling to me. I certainly do not think Solutions is anything like that record. But spiritually, that was the first thing – the first song on the record, the synthesizer, that was an LCD-inspired synth. And, there is more synthesizer presence on this album.

MM: What else inspired you on this album?

KF: The other kind of inspiration was tempo in a lot of ways. Most of the songs have a fluid tempo to them. There is one ballad on the record, but I wanted the songs to feel like uptempo, I guess. On the last record, there were lots of moments of intentional darkness. That is not the place I am at and not what I wanted to put out into the world right now. [Editor’s Note: K. Flay dates musician Miya Folick and has been open about being in a dark place before their relationship.]

MM: Let’s break down two of your tracks on Solutions—”Sister” and “This Baby Don’t Cry.” On “Sister” you worked with Joel Little, who worked with Taylor Swift and Lorde and on “This Baby Don’t Cry,” you worked with Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons and Tommy English, who worked with you on your last Grammy-nominated album. When you made those songs, were you guys working all in digital or was it analog? 

KF: On “Sister,” the guitar is analog, and some of the synthesizers are as well—we used a live prophet on that track. 

On “This Baby Don’t Cry,” I’m pretty sure the whole song is analog instruments. I played bass, Tommy played guitar, the claps and the drums are live samples. Honestly, at first, I found the rhythm of the clapping pattern to be slightly brain-melting. It took me like a full five minutes to get it fully implanted in my brain  

MM: What’s your preference—drum pads or real drums? 

KF: On “Sister,” the drums were programmed. On “This Baby Don’t Cry,” we used live drum samples and Tommy and I sampled the hand-clapping for that song as well.

MM: What were Dan Reynolds’ contributions to “This Baby Don’t Cry?”

KF: Dan had the initial idea to make it a punky, riff-driven song. I was almost at the end of the album writing process, and that felt like a spirit and a vibe I was missing. He played that riff on bass and right away I started writing lyrics.

MM: Overall the track has a very 80s feel to it, what was the inspiration behind that?

KF: The inspiration for the track was really just to keep it as basic but as impactful as possible. How do we use the fewest number of instruments but still make the song feel huge? We went through a few different versions of the song—all of which contained more sonic and melodic elements than the version you hear today. But we ended up feeling like the best version was the simplest. That felt like the brave move. To strip layers away.

MM: Just as your tour approaches, you launched your own microcast, “What Am I Doing Here,” which is a shorter form podcast. Tell us more.

There are millions of Alexa and Google Homes in the world right now, and no one is creating content for that medium. For me, what’s exciting about making anything is when there are no rules. This is a similar situation. I love produced content like podcasts and radio. This is kind of the new frontier in that world because no one has really explored it. What I want to do and the premise of the show is, I’m often not home, so, how can I bring that experience of where I am and what I am doing here into someone’s home space? That is really exciting for me and really the inspiration for it.

Apr 29

What finger-drummer Robert Mathijs has learned on his quest for groove

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Amsterdam producer, guitarist and singer Robert Mathijs is the man behind The Quest For Groove, a website and YouTube channel devoted to helping users become expert finger drummers. Over a series of courses and videos, Rob combines his experience with live performance, studio production, finger drumming, web design and teaching into approachable steps and processes for understanding his three stages of musical mastery. Stage one: What to play (what pads to hit). Stage two: How to play it (loud, soft, laid-back, energetic etc.) Stage three: Why do I play this and not something else?

For Rob, his engagement with finger drumming grew out of a desire to record his own groovy rhythm parts in studio sessions without hiring a session drummer. From there, he began exploring the creative possibilities of pad controllers and other new ways of bridging that musical gap between humans and computers. Given this, he was a natural lesson partner for Melodics. Below, Rob walks us through some of the challenges he sees new finger drummers facing, and his thoughts around the art of practice.   

 

What are some of the common challenges you see new finger drummers coming up against?

I noticed a lot of beginning finger drummers struggle with picking the right gear, the right software and setting everything up. There are a lot of options available on the hardware and software front, and unfortunately, a lot of those options don’t work if you want to play the way I play. Either the pads aren’t sensitive enough, or the sensitivity varies too much between pads, or the software that comes with the pads doesn’t provide you with the right sounds.

My preferred setup currently involves putting a Maschine MK3 in midi mode, completely ditching the Maschine software and then triggering Addictive Drums 2 with it. That’s not a very straightforward thing to do and takes a lot of messing around with midi learn and stuff, but it’s necessary for me to get both that great pad sensitivity and that hyper-realistic drum sound.

 

What are your thoughts around the roles finger-drumming can play within modern music paradigms?

I think now that digital has basically absorbed analog (I believe we’re at a point were digital can ’emulate’ most analog behaviour) it’s time to start developing ways to get the same amount of precise and subtle control over our digital environments as ‘traditional’ musicians have over their instruments. The computer is the studio now, or the instrument, or the orchestra for that matter.

As humans, we want to make it truly understand what’s in our hearts and one of the ways to do this is finger drumming. It’s one of the most direct ways to communicate the grooves we feel to the computer instead of playing by the rules of the computer and going out of our way to speak the computer’s language (which is how I feel when I have to program a beat).

 

Do you have any advice for users on how to create a regular practice routine and keep at it?

The most important thing is to have your music setup ready to go whenever you are. It’s a bit silly, but one of the main reasons I’ve been playing more guitar lately is because I put it in a stand next to the couch instead of keeping it in its suitcase. All it takes is the reach of an arm to start playing.

For finger drumming or anything electronic it’ll usually take booting up your computer and firing up the software, but you can at least make sure all your music making stuff is hooked up to one USB hub so you can plug it into your laptop and everything works right away. Have shortcuts to all your favourite music making programs ready on your desktop and preferably create standard templates for those programs, so they boot up with your favourite drum kit loaded and your favourite songs ready to go in a Spotify playlist or something.

Another trick is to attach practicing to something that’s already part of your daily routine. Breakfast? Brushing your teeth? Watching The Late Show? Attach your practice sessions to one of those things.

 

Now that you’ve been involved in creating Melodics lessons, what sort of initial suggestions would you have for Melodics users around finger drumming?

I think the most important thing when doing a melodics lesson is to realise that it’ll help you learn what pads to hit when. Once you know what to do, maybe close your eyes, don’t look at your hands, don’t look at a screen but just listen to what you’re playing and how that feels. In the end that’s what it’s all about.

 

Do you have any other thoughts on Melodics, and how it can mesh in with users personal interests in playing and creating music?

One of the first things I was extremely jealous of was how easy it was to start playing. Melodics app makes it so easy to set up your pad controller. No explanation video could ever beat that! Secondly, something I also noticed with some of my guitar students who played ‘Rocksmith’ (basically the guitar version of melodics on a PlayStation) is that this gamification of practice is so incredibly helpful in nudging people towards practicing the right way. Like slowing it down, focusing your attention on certain weaknesses and stuff like that. It also creates this nice crossover between reading sheet music and doing everything by ear.

Try a lesson from The Quest For Groove here.

Find out more at:
questforgroove.com
youtube.com/thequestforgroove

Mar 06

The Seoul beat scene and the importance of community – with Lionclad

by in Interviews

Growing up amongst the futuristic skyscrapers, rammed subways, serene temples, palaces and bustling street markets of Seoul, South Korean beatmaker, finger-drummer and DJ Lionclad always felt out of place. Things slid into place for her when she discovered trip-hop, abstract hip-hop, experimental music, and the worlds that surround them. With headphones wrapped around her ears, the psychedelic, late-night sounds of Björk, Portishead, Massive Attack, Cypress Hill, Morcheeba and Zero 7 let her reimagine life as a black and white film noir. Everyone else in the metropolis was at hyperspeed, but Lionclad was moving in slow motion.

“The music told me it was okay to explore the emotions inside me deeply, and made me realise that if I wanted to, I could focus on myself rather than everyone around me,” she explains.

“Growing up in an Asian country, you are always forced to be part of the community. That always made me feel more isolated from everyone around me, and the music gave me comfort and helped me realise my feelings were valid.”

These qualities come through in her moody beat production work and dexterous live finger-drumming performances, many of which you can watch or listen to through youtube and Instagram. They’ve won her a cult reputation around South Korea and set her up to take things further.   

Lionclad was also equally fascinated by media art as a teenager and considered working in video before music. She loved vintage horror movies (“Creature from The Black Lagoon, Godzilla, The Blob, etc.”), anime, and quirky cartoons; genres often associated with music by way of sampling or direct references. In that era, the downbeat sounds of the UK and the bass of blunted west coast rap came packaged with fittingly trippy music videos, and it only took a few steps sideways for her to come across 90s IDM artists such as Amon Tobin, and South Korean trip-hop group Mot. Music made sense. Making and playing it would be her thing.

With some childhood experience playing keyboard and trumpet behind her, early cassette tape recordings led to beat making and production. Initially, Lionclad’s tools of choice were the Roland SP-404 sampling workstation, the Akai MPC2500 Music Production Center, FL Studio, and Cubase.

“I began arranging tracks in FL Studio and Cubase first, then I started taking samples from vinyl records with my MPC and creating loops,” she says. “From there, I started using the MPC as a performance tool to share my music. DJing came, later on, followed by Ableton Live.”


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Looking for vinyl records to sample from took her to music stores around Seoul’s Myong Dong, Hong Dae, Itaewon and Gangnam districts, where she connected with, and learned from, DJ Son and DJ Soulscape, two pioneering local DJs with open-ears and similar musical interests to hers. They’d invite her to their studios for jams and listening sessions, and when they saw her fast-developing finger drumming skill level, helped her get gigs around the same districts. “Community was crucial for me,” she says. “I’d meet people, and they’d introduce me to other people I could play with. It’s also fun because you get to learn their stories in music and how they did what they did. It gives me a lot of inspiration around what I do now.”

Outside of the DJ scene, Lionclad also cites experimental artists like Kim Oki, Akimbo, 4kapas and Cifika as part of her community, and a reminder of what she prizes the most, the power of live performance and the moment. “The DJs and musicians gave me a lot of influence, but I wanted to give people inspiration by showing them how music can be made live, and how the beat is felt by tapping it with the fingers,” she reflects. “There are very few MPC players in Seoul, but I think it’s good because people think it’s a very special kind of thing that they can’t see easily.”

In 2016, Lionclad released her self-titled debut album. Since then, her work has been celebrated by GQ Korea and Playboy, and she’s found herself collaborating with an array of rising K-pop and K-rap vocalists including Muddychild, Danny Roots, Taedo, SSamdark, Yumdda, Jvcki Wai, Justhis, Sogumm, Kimximya and more, bringing her moody production sound into those melodramatic realms. She also took part in the Red Bull Bass Camp Seoul in 2017, began creating lessons for us at Melodics in 2018 (see her lessons here), and is working towards a second album. Although trip-hop, beats, and abstract hip-hop still don’t have a large audience in South Korea, more recently, Lionclad has been sensing a cultural sea change, one she’s very excited about, and hopes will take her overseas sooner rather than later. “These genres are still not that common here,” she admits. “But it looks like people these days are finally ready to accept uncommon things.”

 

Dec 20

How Fabian Mazur found his sound

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Fabian Mazur first became an emergent figure within the Danish club music scene in 2010. Since then, the Copenhagen-based music producer and DJ’s buoyant tracks have caught the ears of international EDM frontrunners like Martin Garrix, Tiesto, and Afrojack, in the process helping him build a growing profile. Ostensibly hybrid trap EDM with glossy synth-overtones, his music ripples with touches drawn from traditional east coast hip-hop and R&B, and when he hypes it up on the microphone over the top, lifts the whole club up. In 2013, Fabian received a platinum-certification for his remix of ‘Chuck Norris’ by Kongsted, and in 2014 he began touring around the world. When he isn’t programming his own music, producing for other artists, or DJing, Fabian creates producer sample kits for Splice. It’s one of the ways he likes to give back and help the next generation of producers. This week, in partnership with Splice, we present Fabian’s first Melodics lesson for the track ‘Settle’. Read our interview with him below and try his lesson here.      

 

Could you tell us a bit about how you got your start as a musician?

Growing up, my mum and dad were both jazz musicians. I used to tour with them a lot as a kid. I’d see them perform, play, and rehearse, so I was always rooted in jazz and world music. Even though I didn’t really like the music myself, it provided me with a lot of knowledge about rhythm and melody. My mother is from New York. She was born and raised there, but she came to Europe as a teenager. We stayed connected with her family there. I think this influenced me a little bit. Back in the day, I used to listen to a lot of east coast hip-hop, DJ Premier, Nas, Jay-Z, so when I started making music as a teenager, I was into 90s hip-hop and R&B. After a few years, I had a friend who got me into DJing and got me into EDM acts like Swedish House Mafia.

 

How did you take these influences and shape them into the sound you’re now known for?

It definitely took me a lot of years. I guess I think it took almost ten years to get to the sound I wanted. I took some courses, and I studied a little bit. I did all types of stuff, but the main thing that got me there was putting in a lot of work, and making a lot of terrible music before I made good music.

 

The terrible music clears the way for the good music, right?

Exactly. After a few years of making pretty terrible music, I figured out I was actually getting pretty good. My music wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but it was almost there. I feel like people talk about the whole 10,000 hours of putting work into a specific task. I think that is true with playing, writing, and producing music. When I was coming up, I didn’t have Splice or all the features of the modern DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). I feel like I put in way more than 10,000 hours to get good at music production. As a creative and a music artist, it actually took me a really long time to find a genre or soundscape that I liked for my own music, and wanted to be affiliated with. I spent years making tons of different music, hip-hop beats, R&B beats, deep house, EDM, dubstep, whatever, and that experimenting really got me to where I am today.

 

Would you tell young producers to listen to and make a range of music until they find out what they really click with? Or in the case of Melodics users, try out a range of lessons from different genres?

Yes. That is one of the main pieces of advice I give people when they ask me how I got to where I am. I tell them to listen to a lot of different music and try to create a lot of different music. Don’t try to keep your eye on a specific genre or sound at first. A lot of people make that mistake at the start; they decide they want to be a dubstep producer only and only produce dubstep from the get-go. I think that is a very big mistake to make when you’re starting out.

 

You can hear the influence of listening to, and producing different types of music in your work.

It’s kinda natural. Genres have always had the tendency to merge at some point. Maybe it’s all just a natural part of the process, especially with the digital age of music production we’re in right now. With things like Melodics and Splice, it’s never been easier for people to merge genres the way they want to.

 

 

 

Dec 03

My 300-day streak – Gretchen King

by in Interviews

Gretchen King has been singing and writing songs since she was a child. Along her musical journey, she’s spent time in church choirs and musical theatre groups, sang with Jerome Dillon (of Nine Inch Nails) as Nearly, and fronted Ohio rock band Phantods. These days, she divides her music time between several projects: writing electropop songs with her close collaborator Chris as Kabiria, jingles and voiceover work, and writing, recording, producing and mixing her debut solo album.

Gretchen keeps herself match fit by practicing with Melodics, and recently achieved a landmark 300-day streak. She was introduced to our software by Chris, who suggested it might help her sharpen her skills. Once she started using it daily, Gretchen realised she’d found an easy and enjoyable way to practice and improve her skills. As she puts it, “Five minutes a day is completely manageable.” Below, Gretchen discusses the journey to hitting the 300-day mark and going beyond.

 

Congratulations on your 300-day streak! Tell us about it?

Thanks! I was able to lock into a daily routine right away because Chris was using Melodics as well [and] we had a slight competitive edge going. We would remind each other… and check in to see how our progress was going. Initially, I had a great streak going. One night at midnight, I realised that I had forgotten to practice that day. I was so bummed that I didn’t practice for a month! Then I realized that while a streak is amazing, it’s more about putting in the work and enjoying the process. I quickly got back on track again.

 

Do you have any advice for users looking to lock in like this?

My advice to someone looking to practice regularly is to set reminders in your phone and try to practice at a time that can be consistent. If the hour you get home in the evenings always varies, then practice first thing in the morning. Record your practices and take some notes on how you feel about it. Ask yourself questions about the process of learning and mastering the lessons. There is always a pattern there. Recognizing your learning style and the patterns with it helps to relieve the pressure that comes with learning something new. Occasionally revisit those videos and even go back to try previous lessons. You’ll find that the lessons you struggled with early on will eventually be a piece of cake.

 

At what point did you realize that this streak was going to keep going for a while, and how did you feel?

By the time I reached 100, I had started cheering myself on every couple of days… It became a habit, like brushing your teeth. It’s something I do in my daily routine. Since it’s only five minutes a day, there really is no excuse. I’ve done Melodics in hotels, airports, even recently while riding in a moving truck! To be on a streak that is nearing an entire year feels really good. I’ve prioritized something that is important to me: improving my music skills so that I can express myself better creatively.


Once you were in a daily pattern, what sort of benefits did you start seeing?

The biggest benefit I’ve seen is the realization that small steps taken every day will get you to where you want to go. I’ve never actually seen something like this in a way that I was able to recognize it as it’s happening. I used to try to take giant leaps, and I’d get frustrated and worn out, eventually giving up. Recognizing that there is a different approach to learning that is actually easier and more enjoyable has changed my overall mood. I feel more relaxed and put less pressure on myself while feeling more certain that I will reach my end goal.


How has your use of Melodics changed over the course of this run?

Melodics has really helped me understand the process of learning. Now I have a clearer understanding of how I learn. It’s always the same no matter what level I am on. When I start to get it, I will do great, and then after a few minutes, it’s like my hands don’t remember how to work! It’s as though I’ve fatigued myself. That’s when I know to move on to another lesson or call it quits for the day. I used to get frustrated, but then I’d notice that the very next day it was as though something happened overnight. The next day, I understood the lesson and could do it with ease. You’ve got to get past those moments of frustration to move into the moments where it clicks.

I always go a little over the 5 min mark. When I’m really enjoying myself, I allow myself to keep going for as long as I want. On days I’m not into it, I get only the daily goal completed, and I don’t beat myself up over how badly the practice went. I know I will feel different again soon enough. There’s no need to build any sort of negative association with it.

 

Nov 23

Step1 On Turntablism And The Power Of Practice

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Step1 (Stefanie Anderson) is a music producer, turntablist, live electronic music performer, music educator, and entrepreneur based in San Francisco’s Bay Area.

Stefanie’s musical practice is built around the trifecta of beat-making, finger drumming, and turntablism, skills which are all on full display in the impressive new ‘Scratch, Sample and Push’ live performance video routine she recently created for Ableton. Find out more about Stefanie’s live performance and finger drumming here, this time we talked to her about her background in turntablism, songwriting and production, and the power of practice.

How were you introduced to turntablism, and how did you develop your skills there?

My introduction to turntablism came in 1995. A friend came over to my house, and he had a copy of the DMC World Finals on VHS tape! That was the year that Roc Raida was representing the USA in the battle. My mind was totally blown by scratching and beat juggling. I thought to myself, “One day I’m going to learn how to do that.”

Flash forward to 2004. I moved to LA, and my roommate was a DJ. He had a setup in the house, and he knew that I’d been a dancer all my life—tap, jazz, break dancing, etc. He was like, “You have good rhythm, I bet you’d pick up DJing really quickly.” He taught me the basics, and I was hooked. Scratching was my favorite element of DJing. I bought Q-Bert’s DIY Skratching Vol. 1 DVD, and I spent countless hours learning how to cut.

I think what I loved about scratching is that it’s so percussive. As a dancer, my favorite style was tap. And obviously, tap is also very percussive. You create intricate rhythms with the taps on your shoes. Basically, it’s foot drumming. So that’s one reason I was really drawn to scratching. I really enjoyed tapping out percussive rhythms with my right hand on the crossfader and using my left hand to manipulate the record.

After honing your craft as a turntablist, you developed your skills as a songwriter and a producer, which led you to finger drumming. Could you talk about this journey?

I’m a nerd at heart, and I love learning. When I get interested in something, I naturally gravitate toward classes. So when I decided to learn music production, I started taking private lessons with a producer in San Francisco. But I also wanted to improve my songwriting skills, so I worked with a piano teacher for a little while to learn music theory. As a bass player, I never had to play chords, so harmony was new to me. I also took a few music production courses online. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for experimentation. It’s an important part of any creative endeavor, but I also think the right teacher or the right course can really accelerate the learning process.

In our last interview, we talked about your new performance video for Ableton. How much practice do you put into your live performance routines?

It’s a pretty ridiculous amount of practice. After I come up with a routine, I have to memorize all the parts and get them up to tempo. If the drum pattern is fast or complicated, it could take a few days before I’m finger drumming at the target BPM. After I’ve got the whole thing memorized, I have to practice it over and over until I can perform the routine without making any mistakes.

Obviously, the more complicated the performance, the longer the process takes. With the “Keep It Real” routine for Ableton, it took three weeks of practice – maybe a couple of hours a day – to get to the point where I could execute it perfectly every time. But that was on top of the hours it took to create the song, figure out how to adapt it to a live context and memorize the parts. All in all, I probably worked on that routine for five weeks. And it was only a 2-minute performance!

Do you have any advice for people who’d like to create their own performance routines?

For people who are looking to explore hybrid performances of any kind, I guess my advice would be to start small. My first routine was “Cutthroat,” where I used Push to finger drum a beat on-the-fly, and then I scratched vocals on top of the beat. The Ableton project only had two tracks: a MIDI track for the drum rack and an audio track for the scratching.

That was the first phase of my exploration, and gradually I learned how to incorporate other elements. My Ableton project for the “Keep It Real” routine has eight tracks, and I use all of them in 2 minutes. I also added a MIDI foot controller for that performance, so it was way more complicated than “Cutthroat.” But starting with a simple setup helped me wrap my head around all the possibilities offered by a hybrid performance.

Sep 28

How finger drumming made Step1 a better music producer

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

Step1 (Stefanie Anderson) is a music producer, turntablist, live electronic music performer, music educator, and entrepreneur based in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Since 2016, she’s run the Sequence One music production school with her business partner Lenny Kiser. As a music maker and performer, Stefanie’s personal practice is built around the trifecta of beat-making, finger drumming, and turntablism, skills which are all on full display in the impressive new ‘Scratch, Sample and Push’ live performance video routine she recently created for Ableton. Below, Stefanie talks about putting together the routine, and how Melodics helped her developed her finger drumming skills. She also explains her thoughts on turntables in the digital production era.

 

Let’s talk about your new performance video. In it, you combine Ableton Push and a turntable to create a blend of real-time sampling, beat-making, finger drumming, and scratching. What was it like putting them together?


It was a learning experience. Everyone’s workflow is different, but for me, the song idea comes first. Then I figure out how I’ll adapt it for a live performance. Which parts will I play on the controller? Which parts will I play on the turntable? How will I transition between them? You’re going to run into limitations in terms of what’s possible to play live, so the original song idea inevitably evolves as it gets adapted for the stage. It’s a fun problem-solving exercise. I always learn new tricks in Ableton every time I work on a routine.

Your video included some excellent finger drumming. How did you develop your skill set from DJing to include beat production and live electronic music performance?

For me, production and finger drumming evolved simultaneously. As soon as I started making beats, I ran across YouTube videos from artists like Jeremy Ellis and AraabMusik. I knew that I wanted to learn finger drumming right away. It reminded me of turntablism: it’s tactile, fun, rhythmic, and it requires skill and technical mastery.

At that time, though, there really weren’t any good resources for learning finger drumming. I found a couple of YouTube tutorials and learned how to play very rudimentary hip-hop beats, but it was hard to progress any further. Then in late 2015, the Ableton newsletter landed in my inbox, and it had an announcement about Melodics. I signed up immediately!

How did using Melodics change things for you?

Melodics was a game changer for me. After a couple of weeks of daily practice, I was able to play the ‘Amen Brother’ breakbeat. I was so excited. As a crate digger who loves all the classic breaks, it was satisfying and motivating to learn that drum pattern. I just kept going from there, unlocking as many levels as I could. Last year, I made it to Level 18, but I’m stuck there because I’ve been working on other things. I wouldn’t have advanced to my current skill level without Melodics, so it’s still so crazy to me that my ‘Keep It Real’ lessons are available in the Melodics app.

I also think that finger drumming made me a better producer, which is why I said the skills evolved simultaneously. With practice, my drum vocabulary expanded, and eventually, my patterns became more complex and interesting.

 

Before this interview, you told me that you view the turntable as a controller and as a tool in your production arsenal. Could you expand on your thinking here?

The traditional view of a turntable is that it’s a record player. You don’t create anything with it; you use it to play someone else’s music. But for the turntablist, the turntable has always been an instrument.  Here’s what I mean: With scratching, essentially you’re isolating and manipulating certain sounds. Most people associate scratching with vocals, but turntablists can scratch any musical material – drums, horns, strings, pads, chords, you name it. You can even use the turntable’s pitch control to transpose a sound while you’re scratching it.

What other piece of hardware lets you isolate, manipulate, and transpose audio content? A sampler. That’s why I think of the turntable as a controller or instrument. It’s just another way to work with audio in a music production environment. For me, the real benefit of using a turntable is that it adds a unique element to my live performances, and it lets me combine my love of beat-making with my love of scratching.

 

Sep 19

Q&A With The 2018 Finger Drumming Champion

by in Interviews

When he was growing up in Tours, France, French-English hip-hop/electronic beatmaker, producer and finger drummer extraordinaire Beat Matazz dreamed of, much like his heroes AIR, being surrounded by analog synthesisers, sequencers, and drum machines. With time, as he fell in love with the music of Flying Lotus, Samiyam, Prefuse 73, James Blake, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Amon Tobin, caught their vibes, and began to build his own collection of customised studio gear and software. Electronic music production led him towards his current area of expertise: finger drumming.


Beat Matazz has been presenting his furiously funky finger drumming routines to live audiences since 2015, but earlier this year, he took things to a new level when he ousted all challengers to win the Sample Music Festival 2018 Finger Drumming Competition in Berlin with a ridiculous routine. Since then, he’s been building relationships with Herrmutt Lobby’s Playground App, Akai, and us here at Melodics. With an upcoming Melodics lesson based on his winning performance in the works, we spoke with him about finger drumming and his time at the competition. Check out his winning performance here (scroll to 2:33)

 

Could you talk a bit about your musical experiences before you started finger drumming?

I started out at age six as a classical percussionist, xylophone, marimba, and timbales. When I was a teenager, my teacher agreed to teach me drums as I wasn’t to keen on classical music. These experiences gave me the rhythmic skills to drum in many bands for many genres. I played pop, hip-hop, electro-funk, experimental, world music and even in a marching band.

 

How did you end up adding finger drumming to your skill set?

In parallel with drumming, I started using music software like Reason and Ableton to make music for fun. After years of composing, I became frustrated and bought my first Akai MPC500 [sampling workstation] off Leboncoin (the French version of Craiglist). Hardware-based beatmaking made sense to me, and a gigantic world opened up. It allowed me to link the unlimited creative paths afforded by software to a tactile instrument. I remember sampling George Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and thinking, “Oh my god this sounds like a perfect hip-hop instrumental!” At the time, I was attending an art school in Nantes. I was very focused on sound art and music. They kicked me out, which gave me the perfect opportunity to fully devote myself to music.


You discovered finger drumming by using the Akai MPC500. What was it about the process that inspired you to devote so much time to developing your skill-level?

I love the portability of pad controllers and the musical genres that rely on them. The research process you go through to create these very personal textures and sounds are very important to me. You can tune samples far more than you can tune a real snare drum. I can also put more of myself into the rhythms of the music by playing them. I love the trance state I enter when I’m in my home studio. Thanks to my previous drumming experience, and having created tracks with software, I already had the core skill sets. I just needed to combine them. I tweaked my finger positioning and started to work and play hard.

 

What sort of approach did you take when you started practicing your finger drumming?

I didn’t know what I was doing when I started. I’m very spontaneous when I create and have no habits. My approach is always the pursuit of pleasure, and feeling the desire to create. Since I started playing and making music, that hasn’t changed. My first sample mine was old vinyl I found in flea markets. Even the most shitty records sometimes have two chords that make my day. Fat basses are what I need to feel, so I got an old analog synth: the Korg MS-10 (plugged into the Korg SQ-10 sequencer). The people who designed that marvelous device where thirty years ahead of their time. It’s become a spine to my beats.

 

How did you transition into taking part in events like the SMF 2018 Finger Drumming Competition?

After spending years developing my techniques, I knew I had to make the world know what I’ve worked for. Last year, I won a battle in Paris at the Bataclan, a legendary 90s hip-hop venue. Being acknowledged by the hip-hop network changed how I looked at myself and my music. It also made me be more specific in my thinking around who would be hearing my music. Battle audiences know exactly why they’re at the end. Battling is so raw; you find out what the crowd thinks of you instantaneously.

 

What were your thoughts on the SMF 2018 Finger Drumming Competition in Berlin?

The skill level was very high in Berlin. The team was so nice and devoted, and so were the participants. When I was there, I understood that I had found my place. Geeks were able to scratch and jam for hours, with or without spectators. It was a space where musicians were speaking a common language, all with the feel of a real community, and the codes and sounds that quote the subculture. It was real and vibrant, and it felt so good to be part of that experience. The experience was great. We need to gather together and feel those vibes more often.

 

Stay tuned for a new Melodics lesson from Beats Matazz. Find out more about him here on YouTube or Facebook.

 

Sep 04

Sherry St. Germain on the importance of daily practice, improvisation and simplicity

by in Interviews, Pro Tips

 

Whether you’re talking about theatrical live performance, EDM studio sessions, film and television soundtrack/sound design work, musical education programs, or her Akylla duo project with Saratonin, Sherry St. Germain is an accomplished and assured achiever. Based in Las Vegas, Nevada, she’s a classically trained multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer/songwriter who has – among other accomplishments – collaborated with Steve Aoki, Excision, Stafford Bros, Revolvr, and Genesis, performed on a flying piano for Cirque Du Soleil, and written music for male stripper comedy Magic Mike.

In conversation with Melodics, Sherry expands on her thoughts around the power of daily practice,  improvisation, musical simplicity, and taking the time to share what you’ve learned with others.

You can also play the Sherry St. Germain and Akylla Melodics lessons by following the links below.

Keys lessons
Pads Lesson


How much time do you spend playing music?


If I’m not playing, I’m producing, or teaching, or performing, so I’m kind of always in a music mode. I’m the type of person who leaves the studio and then goes home to the studio. I was raised in music. There are a lot of people that I teach on the side; I don’t even charge them, I teach them cause it helps me. I had a lot of teachers, who helped me on the side. When you teach something, you become a master at it. That’s the last stage, like in martial arts.

I think that whole statement “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is bullshit. When you do teach you explain things, you break them down in layman’s terms, which is a different type of thinking. When I teach something, I learn as well, which is really really nice.


What would you suggest to someone who wants to make music part of their daily life?

Start out playing for five minutes a day. If you can do five minutes a day then eventually five will turn into ten mins, and ten mins will turn into fifteen minutes. You can use it as a way to learn and share. Often, I’ll decode a song and its chord changes, because I want to learn it. Afterward, I’ll show it to my friends, and I’ll try to perform alchemy with it. The majority of the people I work with on production in the DJ world, don’t know a lot of theory, so they will ask me if things are in key, and I’ll advise them on works and doesn’t. Sometimes just making sense of a song musically is a good way to practice and stay inspired.

When I’m doing production work for Film and TV, they send me songs to learn, but they don’t want you to rip them off, they want you to make something with the same energy. You have to think about what makes a song appealing by dissecting it. This has been really good practice for me as well, learning which chord changes resonate with people. That’s been a good way to practice as well.


Any other tips?

Sometimes I practice by playing along to mixes online. I’ll pick a different mix, chill hip-hop, house music, whatever, and play along. That way, every day you are gonna be stimulated with something new. When you learn something new every day, you get happier. Happiness releases endorphins which you associate with learning, and you want to do it more. Why I like playing along to mixes is it’s a way to find cool things you can learn. If you love house music, practice to house music, if you love trap music, practice to trap music. Do the things you love, and you will only get better.


How important is improvisation to what you do?


I’m doing it all the time. I think every day is kind of an improvisation. You always end up having to wing it. I prepare as much as I can, but a lot of it is improvised, which stems from being excited when you hear stuff. Something inspires me, I want to do something like it, and you end up off in a completely different direction. Music makes you use both sides of your brain.


Speaking of using both sides of your brain, what’s your take on finger drumming?

I think it’s dope. I love finger drumming. It’s so good for technique cause it helps with piano. It helps with everything. It’s so great for hand-eye coordination, and it makes you better at rhythm in general. I think finger drumming and piano go hand in hand. Melodics has finger drums, keys, and v-drums, and all of those are going to help you in whatever you do. They all rely on elements of rhythm, and keys even though they aren’t rhythm, they have a rhythmic sense to them.

When you’re in a band, even if you’re the best drummer in the world and you do all the fanciest shit, nine times out of ten no one will want to play with you. They want someone who can groove and keep time. People don’t even care about the fancy stuff half the time; they just want the meat and potatoes. John Bonham [from Led Zeppelin] wasn’t a crazy drummer as far as soloing goes, but when you listen to his groove, it’s everything. You can’t help but move to it.