Studio Talk with KRL (Wolfmusic)

KRL Interview

We have something new for you in this production blog, the start of a new format of production centric interviews. The whole idea is that we are going to grab some of the most exciting new producers, the most revered veteran producers and the more interesting people out there and quiz them about how they do things. We will be going a little more in depth with them, asking not just what they did, but why. Hopefully we can share some great knowledge and tips, and create a resource that will add to our production blogs and become really useful for producers old and new. (never mind damn interesting)

So let me present to you our first interview…

Since I first heard this guys music I have been hooked, his sound is rooted in all my favourite music from the past, but it’s fresh, individualistic, exciting and most of all new. So when I was deciding who I would like to work with on these blogs right up the top of my list was KRL. One of Wolfmusics finest, Kev has been making an impact with his music & is quickly becoming highly sought-after.

As one of Wolfmusic’s hottest prospects, when I first heard your music I was hooked immediately, your sound is so fresh and exciting. To me your music stands as the latest re invention of house taking inspiration from the old but offering something new. Where has your sound come from? How has it developed over the years? How important to you is it to be constantly developing as an artist and where do you see yourself going next? …what is the KRL sound?

Firstly, I’m pleased I have ‘a sound’! I don’t think its something you are aware of until you are a fair few releases down the line. I come from a background of hip hop music – listening, djing, obsessing over it in my teenage years, and the sampling methods in hip hop are the foundation really.

I grew up listening to ATCQ, Gangstarr, Wu Tang, Jay Z, Cypress Hill, Common, Pharcyde, Jay Dee etc etc and still love the music to bits. I travelled around the country (some of!) DJing hip hop, those were great times. It was around 4-5 years ago when I got really fed up of new hip hop. I think it had just run its course in the context that I enjoyed, had become heavily commercialised and the beats were getting weak. I was never really into dance music until around 2007 when the penny finally dropped at a festival. The combination of afternoon sun, a heavy sound system and slo mo, soulful house music blew me away, and there was the link between hip hop and house in the soul sampled used. So I came back from that weekend and thought… I’ll have a go at that and came up with my track recession beat. For me that track is the transition between the hip hop world and the house world, all linked by sampling and soul music.

From then on, I got more and more into house music – for someone who has never really taken notice, getting into house in 2007 means there is a LOT of history opened up. Its incredible, I am still only scratching the surface of all the older house music out there. I used to attempt to produce hip hop – but this was basically ripping off Dilla and trying to sound like his Donuts album. All the tracks were around 2 minutes long and didn’t progress – you were straight in with the beat and sample. It became apparent pretty fast that producing house music needs a very different approach. Longer tracks, progression, builds intro and outro beats for mixing etc, but more importantly sound quality. The tracks have to work on big club sound systems.

So I think the biggest development over the years has been an overall improvement in production techniques and getting a feel for how to make a track work on a big system, and also listening to and embracing house music as a whole. If I look back over the releases on Wolf Music, the first ones are pretty raw in production/mix terms but I think that was/is part of the appeal for people. I don’t like tracks to be too clean, I still like the rawness of the hip hop influence. But it is easy to over produce in the studio!

Developing as an artist is important to keep the interest in production. And it is natural, we all strive to improve in what we do.

I love trying new techniques, the possibilities are endless with software now. But being part of the Wolf Music pack really helps development along – tracks from Greymatter and Medlar get better with every release, Matt and Stu (label bosses) are pushing the label forward every release. The artwork improves, the music improves, the promotion improves. Its really inspiring to be part of a team where everyone believes in one goal and are pushing it forward from their own corner. More importantly, its fun.

The music scene as a whole now is full with new people making music which is exciting and mostly a good thing, although there is a quality issue right now, what checks do you have in place for your own music? Do you rely on the opinions of others? How important to you is it to keep the quality consistent? What are the most important things to keep in mind when producing and releasing your own music?

You have to be open to the opinions of others when making music for dance floors. You can (and I have) spend days in front of the speakers making a track you think is amazing but nobody else likes. Whenever I make a track or remix, it is is always altered after feedback from the label / original producer, and for the Wolf releases, I send the track 5 or so of the core crew who give constructive criticism. I think having another pair(s) of ears is vital for the production process.

Technical quality checks are obviously essential – I always listen on my studio monitors, headphones, macbook speakers, home stereo and test the tracks on club systems before release. This exposes problems with the mix that you may not hear if you only use one sound system. Most tracks have a few months from production to release so there is time to pick up on technical issues with the mix or the sounds used before they are sent for mastering. But the most important quality check is that of my friends & peers. I respect their taste & opinions – if they don’t like it its no good and back to the drawing board. Its more of a vibe check!

I also like to draw a line under tracks and finish them as soon as possible. Too much listening & analysing leads to unnecessary changes & overworked tracks, in my experience.

If I was to give any advice it would be to make friends with other producers, share your work and get advice on any mix/arrangement problems you are struggling with. There will always be a solution. I used to struggle massively with arrangement when working in the traditional (in my case Cubase) time line arrangement window. Past about 2 minutes, I could never finish my arrangements. Then from chatting to mates I was recommended Ableton and it opened up a whole new approach – as I came from DJing, it was the perfect bridge between djing and producing. So talking to people and sharing techniques is important. I don’t like to get too hung up on a track – I make many sketches / ideas in Ableton. Some that are being released now are ideas from over a year ago that have taken a while to finish.

How do you like to work in the studio? Alone? With friends? How do you start to build up a track, and what’s the most important thing for you to get down first and why?

So far I have worked alone, mainly due to time restraints. I work in the day so fit production in on evenings & weekends – this often means snatching time to work on tracks whenever possible, and isn’t conducive to collaborations. I have tried the odd session in the same studio with others but I think it takes time to build working relationships & understand each others work flow. I hope to collaborate with some label mates very soon, probably by way of sending parts & ideas back and forth until it gets to the point where we can sit in the studio and finish tracks off. I’m really excited about collaborations now, it’s the next phase.

So far I have two key approaches to starting a track – the first is from a sample. If I hear a nice track when out and about and think.. that would make a killer sample… I’ll buy it, get it into Ableton and chop it into loads of sections (clips). Once it is mapped onto my Lanchpad, I’ll add a 4/4 kick and play the samples in different orders until I get a loose arrangement. The track is then built around that, usually first by arranging the clips I like into different coloured ‘scenes’. In this case the idea is the most important thing to have down first.

The second, and usually longer approach, is drums bass & keys first. Then I’ll fuck about with samples to find a hook. This is a very hit & miss approach, though these tracks tend to be more original and less reliant on sampling. In this case the beat is the most important thing to have down first.

As you gathered, I am a big Ableton fan. I love the freedom it gives to the creative process. The approach to arrangement & initial detachment from the traditional time line really works for me. I know a lot of people talk about it having inferior sound quality to other DAWs but I have heard no proof so far… as with any software, you need to know its strengths and limitations to use it to its full potential. There are certain processes there which obviously DO degrade sound quality, but you are using the tools beyond their means if so.

As you say, knowing the limitations of your tools is very important, making a great track is less about expecting a good sound from what you use, and more about knowing how to coax a good sound out of it. Can you tell us a little bit about your average working environment, which sequencer, which plug ins are your “go to” tools and why? Do you work with any hardware?

I have a VERY modest set-up. I live in a flat with my girlfriend and have a small set-up in the living room – PC (overclocked Skan PC) with Ableton Live 8, turntables (Technics 1200) and dj mixer (pioneer 909), Small monitor speakers (KRK Rokit 5) a Tapco mix 360 desk and an M-audio Audiophile 2496 soundcard. Also a few microphones (1 x condenser 1 x cardiod) and midi controllers (Novation Launchpad and Maudio Oxygen 8). That is the lot. It fits into one corner.

I would love some hardware & outboard racks but honestly I cant afford it at the moment, so I make music with what I have available. I know people can be quick to slate in the box production, but there would be a lot less quality music about without it. I do have my eye on a Dave Smith Tetra but need a holiday first!

Plugin wise, for synths I use Uh-e – ACE and Zebra2 a lot – they are great. Rich, deep and sound closer to their analogue counterparts. I keep coming back to them for bass sounds mainly. Also Sylenth has a powerful sound once you tweak around the slightly cheesy presets. There are some pretty good free ones out there too that are useful for layers – all from sites like KVR. I also use Soundtoys a lot – echoboy and devastator are really useful and sounds great. I generally start with a preset then tweak it into something different. I often layer up combinations of synths for a fuller sounds – i.e. low pass on a bass track, duplicate the track then add a high pass to the second layer. Delaying & distorting the hi-bass then adds nice stereo width & grit. I do this with a lot of the main synth parts in tracks.

I will use anything if it fits the track – records, synths, samples, field recordings, sample packs, whatever. People shouldn’t be afraid of using sample packs because they ‘haven’t produced it’. Use sample packs in creative ways – take a loop, chop it up, change the pitch, reverse it, whatever. If makes your track better, use it. It is the music that comes out the end that counts. I like to harvest from all sources.

You have a striking sound, clear, concise and musically rich. What music inspires your mixes? Do you have any tracks or cd’s you look up to in terms of the production and sound? any reference music you could recommend to people?

I think recently I have been listening to a lot of Tevo Howard. His production blows me away. Particularly “I Wont Lay Back”. It’s incredibly simple in instrumentation but the arrangement and vibe of it is immense. Just the rhythm change in the hi hats changes the whole mood. Add in the piano & vocal and you have such a simple but stunning track. I am trying to make some stripped down tracks along those lines but haven’t cracked it yet. Its easy to overcomplicate tracks when actually what it needs it parts removed. I am guilty of overloading tracks.

In terms production from peers, I listen carefully to guys like James T Cotton, Mic Newman, Tevo Howard, Greymatter, Medlar, Bicep, Deep Space Orchestra, San Soda, Lone… they all have a great sound and there are unique aspects from each that I love & are an influence. On the wider musical front of production quality though, legends like Steely Dan, Phil Collins, Timberland, Bjork, have been on rotation recently. I really appreciate how difficult it is to get tracks sound that good on ipod headphones and club systems, and appeal to the masses. I am pretty obsessed with Bjork. The Biophillia live show at Manchester MIF blew my mind!

I am a big advocate of maximum sound quality – I only buy and listen to wavs or vinyl (within reason) and certainly only play out wavs/vinyl in clubs. I strive for my tracks to be the highest quality possible within my money, time and skill restraints. So far I have done most mix downs myself – some have been rough around the edges but I have learnt a lot recently. I have had a few things mixed down professionally and have been really happy with the results. I enjoy mixing down and feel its quite a large part of the production process. I like the technical aspect of getting sounds to sit in the right place in the mix, tweaking eqs, panning and widening the stereo image on parts. There is so much to learn but I am getting here gradually.

What are your views on mastering? A lot of youngsters today are jumping head on and mastering there own, partly down to the expense and cost of professional mastering, and party down to a burgeoning group of home producers working on home PCs and not in studios or around other music people. Would you master you own work? How important do you consider mastering in the big picture of creating a record?

If you are releasing music, mastering needs to be done by a professional. Firstly, you need a second pair of ears to listen to the track. They are fresh to it, and can tell what it needs to give it that extra shine, compression, boost, cut, whatever before release. I’ve tried ‘mastering’ in the past by slapping on a default master channel strip, twiddling the knobs and hoping for the best. It doesn’t end well.

If you are cutting vinyl you definitely need it mastered professionally or you run the risk of needles jumping out of grooves and wasting huge amounts of money.

In terms of the release of an EP for example, it is especially important. If you have 4 tracks from four different producers, they will all be very different – compression, volume, tonal quality etc. The mastering engineer is the one who will get all four tracks into his sequencer and make the EP once cohesive release.

Mastering is generally very affordable for any level of producer now. I would never be happy mastering my own tracks.

If there was one bit of advice, that you could give to improve most of the music you hear nowadays, what would that tip be?

Hmmm tough question. I don’t think its a technical issue as I think a lot of the production out there is of a very high standard in engineering terms. I think its more about the ideas & arrangements that would improve a lot of dance music out there. So many people make generic house music that I don’t understand (and never have). I think listening to as wide a variety of music as possible would improve a lot of production.

I tend to look at music the other way – what is amazing about a track, style or genre and how can I use that to influence my next track. There is so much amazing music out there to aspire to. One thing I would say though, as I mentioned earlier… using production tools within their limits. I have heard a lot of tracks recently, particularly in the disco/edit house side of things that use Ableton poorly for sampling. They use the wrong time stretch algorithm, or stretch too much, and you can hear all of the nasty digital distortion in the track. That really winds me up! It is instantly noticeable.

What’s next for you? Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming releases and there production? have you worked with any exciting people?

I have finally finished my own EP for Wolf Music too, which is 3 tracks from plus a remix which we are currently securing. There is a track some people may have heard ‘Nothin You Can Teach Me’ which has been on a few mixes. This was fun to make and more inspired by the Tevo Howard hi-hat rides I mentioned earlier. There is another soul sample heavy track and then a darker, deep 118 bpm track that started life as a techno track a year ago. The Wolf chaps liked it back then but it wasn’t quite right for the label, so I’ve switched it up. It is much better now, so I am really happy with it.

Also a remix for Marcin Czubala for a track called “Love Affair” which is out on his new label ‘Your Mummas Friend’ on Ocober 3rd. Next up I’m going to get collaborating, hopefully with label mates Greymatter and Medlar to start with.

There is also a good run of UK gigs in the autumn, London, Manchester, Leicester and Leeds so I can’t wait for that.

Wolf music is creating quite a stir right now, it must be great to be part of such a talented and close nit group, how do you feel about that? what kind of benefits do you get from working like that?

Essentially Wolf Music is a group of mates with different talents but a shared interest. It has all come together at the right time right place really. Individually We have all been involved in music in one aspect or another (record labels, DJing, producing, collecting records) for a long time but it took the motivation of Matt and Stu to create the label to bring it all together in a coordinated direction. We meet & go out socially, so the music runs along side it. We all bounce off each other with ideas, tracks, general excitement. The artwork is done by friends too – Si & Pete (Research & Development) are each heavily involved in the art/fashion world so they bring that side of it. It is a lot of fun.

What’s inspiring you right now? Any particular artists you are enjoying more than most?

Right now, Mic Newman / Fantastic Man, Tevo H, Bjork, Hunnee, Lone, Huxley, Vakula, Kassem Mosse have been hitting the spot recently.

Any closing words for people working to improve there own music?

I forget who is was that said “the track sounds like the fun you have making it.” I think that may have even been on this website?! For the kind of music we make (i.e. party / dance music) that is so relevant. A track is only good enough if it gets you dancing round the room like a knob.

DJ Mag Podcast 47: KRL by KRL (Wolf Music)

www.soundcloud.com/krlbeats
www.wolfmusicrecords.com

Written By

Co-owner at NoDoughMusic & Mastering Engineer