Continuing the Sunday Spotlight feature, DV Magazine talks to self-confessed synth-geek and Dubstep producer Jason Leite about his studio set-up and fascination with weird keyboards, tape echos and toys.
DV: How did you get into music?
JL: I was exposed to an awful lot of music in my household as a kid, my dad was continuously playing Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, Grateful Dead and the Pink Floyd throughout my childhood (apparently I went to a Black Sabbath gig in the womb which explains a lot, thanks mum and dad!) It had a major influence on me. I was randomly given a late 80’s Hip-Hop/Electro mixtape by a family friend when I was 10 or 11 years old, and it completely blew me away. For me it was the drums! I could not get enough of them. The first time that I heard Public Enemy’s ‘Rebel without a Pause’ was a pivotal moment, I instantly became hooked on Hip-Hop music. My love of Breakbeats drove me into the Hardcore/Jungle scene that emerged in the early 90s. I started DJ’ing at the age of 16, and it really gave me the hunger to produce my own music, I wanted people to dance to one of my tracks (as I’m sure all DJ’s do). So, after much wasted dole money on half-hearted studio sessions and inefficient engineers, I saved my pennies and bought myself an Atari STE (as you did back then), and an Akai S3000XL sampler, which I later upgraded to an S5000. I eventually moved onto my first PC in 2001, and the rest, as they say, is history.
DV: Do you play an instrument?
JL: Yes, I predominantly play the keys/synth and I am slowly learning how to play the drums. Having been programming drums and breaks for many years now, I can play them pretty well in my head. My limbs just need a lot of practice and cohesion, but I am slowly getting there. I also play the talkbox. A while back I fell in love with the ‘Roger Troutman’ and ‘Zapp’ sound, and a year or so ago I decided I had to learn how to play it. I use a Rocktron Banshee – probably the best talkbox available on the market – as there’s no need for an external amp because it has one built in, cutting down the need for the extra equipment and space. I run a Korg Microkorg through the Banshee, although many people favour Moog’s ‘Little Phatty’ or the ‘Voyager’ to feed sound into the talkbox. These are technically the closest instruments capable of creating that classic old talkbox sound Roger Troutman is so renowned for, however, I find the Korg Microkorg does the job very well indeed.
DV: How extensive is your studio?
JL: I have a couple of set-ups that I switch between. My main studio consists of a PC-based DAW, and well…. lots of synths, instruments and random pieces of outboard equipment. I generally hook up whatever is needed for a project and set it up for that particular track, so either setup is pretty much in a constant state of flux, depending on what I am working on a the time. I mostly use software based instruments, although I do have several analogue synths at hand, the Dave Smith Mopho, a Korg Microkorg, an old Roland JX-8P, a Korg EMX-1 Groovebox, a Waldorf Micro Q synth module, many old 80’s Casio electronic keyboards and an ancient Yamaha DX-100, all of which I use to create riffs/sounds on, which are then recorded into Cubase/Ableton Live, then edited and processed even further. I am a massive fan of obscure outboard equipment and 80’s/90’s synths and sound modules.
I have Dynaudio BM6A monitors although I also use a pair of Sennheiser HD-25 headphones and some very cheap PC speakers, just to give me a different reference and angle on the mix. Everything is running out of a RME Fireface 400 Audio Interface as I love the converters on the RME soundcards, they are very detailed and have very crisp mids and tops. I use my old synths as midi controllers (love the action on the old 80’s synths) and a Korg Nano Kontrol and Akai LPD8 for recording automation, filter-sweeps and send levels etc. I have little space, so these mini-controllers fit neatly beside my keyboard. I also have another minimal set-up I use mostly for pre-production and sound design, which comprises a PC DAW, a basic M-Audio Soundcard, a Korg Nano Kontrol midi controller, Ableton Live 8 and Native Instruments Komplete.
DV: Do you prefer to work alone or do you do collaborate?
JL: I am currently working on a solo album under the pseudonym ‘Scarecrow’. It’s very experimental electronic music, so it requires an awful lot of processing and editing. It’s quite an unsociable work ethic so yes, I have been mainly working alone of late, although I do produce Dubstep Music with a good friend of mine under the name ‘Search and Destroy’. When working with other artists, I find the best way to collaborate, if you’re working on electronic music, is to have a main system/sequencer running and a separate laptop, allowing you to both jam and get ideas down much quicker. I can be building a drum track while someone else can get down a synth/bass riff etc. It just speeds up the work-flow; otherwise it can be a case of one person twiddling their thumbs waiting for the other to finish EQ’ing a kick drum. I also collaborate with several other artists and vocalists via the Internet, it’s not always viable to get into the studio at the same time, so I usually upload and share files and folders via the internet using Dropbox or Sendspace.com. For instance, I will get the basic skeleton of a track done, bounce down the individual parts or stems, then upload to my account, where the other artist can download, edit and work on it further.
DV: Which DAW do you favour?
JL: I have been using Cubase since Version 2.0 on the Atari ST back in the late 80s, so it has pretty much been my main sequencer of choice over the last 10 years. It’s very easy to use and navigate. I love the quality of the audio engine, particularly in the latest version Cubase 6, although over the last few years, Ableton Live has become an integral part of my production. An old friend and fellow Dubstep producer showed me a live set he was performing at a gig, I then gatecrashed a studio session of his, and realised its potential. I now generally use Ableton Live as my sketch book; its abilities allow you to easily knock an idea together within minutes. It’s a very open-ended program, depending on what you want to achieve, but is capable of doing pretty much whatever you want it to.
DV: What genre of music are you currently working in?
JL: I have been making Dubstep/Breakstep music for around six or seven years now. When I first heard its early incarnation at the fabled ‘Forward’ club night in Plastic People (Curtain Road, London), I was intrigued at the creative possibilities it offered. I currently veer towards the more experimental side of electronic music at the moment (some people call it IDM, but I’m not a fan of that particular tag).
DV: How do you start a track?
JL: I usually start with some drums – a simple beat or a weird loop of audio – and build upon it from there. Most of my recent projects have been initially created in Ableton Live 8. I also record a lot of foley sounds and effects using a portable recorder, then load them either into a sampler patch (most often a Granular Sampler within Reaktor), or create loops and ideas using Ableton’s warp function. There is no hard and fast rule though, sometimes a mere sample/loop from a record or a simple synth hook can inspire an entire track.
DV: How long do you take over a song?
JL: I am never happy with my music, so I do tend to take some time to finish a track. I think the quickest I’ve ever finished a track was in a couple of days although the longest time was probably a year. I usually bounce down the stems and separate parts for each tune I am working on, and then sometimes return to them months later, using components from different songs in new projects.
DV: What’s your favourite piece of hardware?
JL: My old Wem Copicat tape delay. You can mic up a melodica through it for instant Augustus Pablo style dub sounds. I like running a particular element from a track through it to use as fills etc. You can’t beat an old, authentic tape delay. Next on my list is a Roland Space Echo, although I may have to make do with the pedal version.
DV: Do you have any unusual instruments?
JL: Well, that’s an interesting one, I am slowly building up a collection of strange ethnic/world percussion and wind instruments. I also have a vast collection of Circuit Bent, old 80’s Casio and Yamaha electronic keyboards and many assorted kids toys, which spit out some interesting and absolutely devilish sounds. It’s a hobby I got into about four years ago, rewiring and modifying old electronic keyboards and toys, mostly from the 80s. You’d be surprised some of the sounds these harmless looking little toys are capable of generating. The most unusual Instrument – if you could call it that – is my little Circuit Bent Mini-Me. It’s a talking figure from the Austin Powers movies that has been extensively modified, all mounted on an old 80’s computer game controller. A few taps of a button and it starts generating random eight bit loops and effects, which I then sample and whack into Ableton Live.
DV: Do you prefer software or hardware instruments?
JL: That is the age old question isn’t it? To be honest, I love both, and I find each have their own charm depending on your intended application. For instance, you wouldn’t really be able to create an experimental/contemporary electronic piece of music just using hardware synths, and if you wanted to create an authentic sounding 80’s track, software instruments don’t really cut it, although the Arturia range of virtual instruments are very good replications. I say why not use both? I usually record loops and sounds from analogue synths and process them using software effects. To be honest, I am a bit of an audio whore and if it sounds good – no matter the source – I will use it.
DV: What piece of gear couldn’t you be without?
JL: I don’t think I could actually go on another day without Native-Instruments Reaktor 5. It’s basically my ‘go to’ synth/instrument and is capable of producing sounds that I have not heard anywhere else. I use it for sound design, drums, loops, as a synthesizer/sound generator and effects. Some of the distortion presets/ensembles are amazing and the various reverb presets are top notch too. I also use it to generally mangle and warp audio. For me personally, it is the most versatile piece of software on the market at the moment as you can also build your own instruments and effects units within it, but that’s a whole different level of geekery!