If you have followed House music in any shape or form over the last 15 years or so, you would have found it hard not to have heard a Freemasons track.
Their Albums “Shakedown 1, 2 ,3 and Unmixed” were massive!
Even a fleeting glance over their wikipedia page makes your head spin when you see the calibre of artists they’ve worked with.
James Wiltshire , one half of the the Grammy nominated duo, has recently started a company calledF9Audio which specialises in high quality sample packs, and multitrack Audio concepts not to mention a stunning Massive Presets package.
I have been a huge fan of these guys over the years, and their quality of production has always blown me away, so it was a bit of a “fanboy” moment for me to get to pick Mr Wiltshire’s brain!
Rather than cover the same old territory of plugins and vintage gear, and the like,
I wanted to tap into a little of what makes a truly successful producer tick.
A lot of what James says is completely relevant to any style of music you produce, and there are some great insights and advice in here.
So a massive thanks to James for taking the time to do this.
I hope you guys enjoy it?
What made you become an electronic musician instead of, let’s say, joining a band or being a producer of bands?
I think I was 14 the first time I realised just how closely Technology and Music were becoming interlinked . There were a couple of programmes on the BBC about modern music production linked to the science TV at the time and somewhere within that they had Vince clark showing a very early (BBC micro) sequencer connected to his midi setup. I was blown away .
Later on they stuck the cameras into Sarm West studio one where Trevor Horn’s co-conspirator Steve Lipson was using a Fairlight and an early Synclavier on some Frankie Goes to Hollywood recordings . My head literally exploded with possibilities of what you could achieve with these tools and that was it – I was in Hook, Line and enormous sinker.
I have done nothing but try to explore those possibilities ever since. Now My iPad has more processing power than the Fairlight ( and actually runs a near perfect emulation of it ).
As the 80’s became the 90s I heard Voodoo Ray , Future sound of London Orbital’s Belfast and MK’s Burning in the Hacienda / Various Manchester student bedsits and suddenly realised that for the first time absolutely anyone could do this and do it well . I am lucky enough to have never had a proper job since i was 18 , The only downside I didn’t have the same life as most as I learnt everything I could from producers and studios
What are some of the questions you ask yourself when writing a track?
There is only one question you should be asking whilst composing in my opinion and it comes from a master – Nile Rogers : ‘How does this make you feel ‘ ? .. If you making club music does this make you wanna dance ? – If you’re working on a film soundtrack does it represent the emotions on screen ? . If you’re making balls-out bass music does this give you that gut-kicking energy ? .. That is the most important issue to get right at all times and is a mixture these days of musical elements, sonic layering and production . Once you have that in mind it’s easy to move forward into the technical areas
What are some of the things you do to inject emotion into your tracks?
I’m lucky in that I can play and have made a career out of the musical movements I was able to inject . I always managed to distill the Freemasons sound to once sentence : ‘it’s all about the moment when the chords change perfectly across the melody or vocal and it puts a smile on your face” . That however is just that style . These ideas of moving people are totally transferable to more beat and production led music .
Think of production as adding punctuation to a sentence and making it stand out .. Why do breakdowns and drops work ? – Contrast and adrenaline ! . Everyone wants to stir something in their audience + lets not forget this all comes under the banner of art ( and entertainment ! ) .The idea is to have an effect on those listening not just other producers . Once any recording artist finds their way to do this within their music they are off an running and can start to express themselves successfully .
My one piece of advice is always listen to yourself – Don’t just follow the herd and emulate – If you can create something that gets you excited as a listener to music chances are you will effect others too and I honestly believe that passion gets recorded along with the 1s and zeros.
Obviously your passion for electronic music is still evident. Do you still enjoy going out to listen to DJ’s ? Is hearing music in a club environment still important to you?
It’s vital to hear what music sounds like on club systems full stop and also to understand why certain protocols are there for DJ’s . I’ve worked with a few very young producers who have not been out there experiencing a club environment and without fail they all haven’t yet worked out that 16bars in a room with a Club system and lights and crowd going mental feels like 4 bars of actual time – Learning that is vital even in today’s modern approach to Djing
As an example – So many non clubbing teenage producers don’t add mixing intros or outros which knocks out a whole chunk of DJ’s not using laptops – you have to make DJ’s lives easy as it’s simple enough to loop up a track in a laptop in your bedroom , but try it when the smoke machine’s just pumped out, you’ve done half the rider before you went on the decks and the lighting guy has just dumped everything on the crowd including the neuron-star of a a strobe machine right in front of you and the promoter is chewing your ear off – You’ll always reach for the track of least mixing resistance, not something you’ve got to carve up before you can even play it
Also – none can really hear real subtonics in their studio unless they’ve built the kind of awesome studio that Armin van Buurin has to work in. So getting to hear what works in the bottom octave can really give you a great set of reference points from you recent Beatport download collection.
Just one quick aside : Armin – couldn’t happen to a nicer chap ! – If you want to know how to stay famous once you’ve made it check out his general manner with fans and industry – Same can always be said for Carl Cox – People stay at the top because they are liked not because they kick off and have a Diva-Meltdown when they find the wrong brand of premium Vodka backstage or the car picking them up has 4 doors instead of 5 ( these are real top level DJ stories )
On last thing DJs – BACKUP YOUR SET – it takes 45 mins to load up a set of backup USB sticks from record box, granted a bit more to burn some CD’s but for F’s sake – if you’ve made it and getting flown 1st / Business class to eastern Europe you are getting paid more in 1 hour than the average Joe out there does the whole year. They are waiting for you + most have paid hard earned cash to be there. Refusing to go on because the CDJs are 1 generation back and you cant fit your media into them is frankly ridiculous.
Studio peeps have to backup every single day so spend some time preparing for all eventualities – The promoters will remember the ones who were professional and easy to deal with will bend with the night’s issues and will be continue to book you even when you are on the back foot of any natural career curve – They wont re-book the idiots when the shine of current success has gone.
End of rant.
Do you think it’s possible to write great dance tracks without being in the club all the time?
Almost – The politics of dancing are still the same as they’ve always been . What I mean by that is that the same things will always work with a clubbing audience . Even future facing bass producers are still using arrangement and bar line pickup techniques that came from the very first disco 12” re-edits of the late 70s and thats simply because they work every single time so once you have something cooking it is perfectly possible with decent experience to put a fantastic club mix together if you know the rules ..
Only the DJs’, Labels, Media, chin strokers (in and around the booth) and other Producers really care if you took a poll of people’s thoughts – It just so happens that the aforementioned are in total control of the night’s music / that weeks hot toons / charts / Forum chat . This needs to happen for music to always move forward but it does have an effect not always talked about that is now dramatic thanks to the internet:
What is desperately fashionable one minute can disappear in a few weeks in a puff of social media hubris .. Also what was desperately unfashionable even a few years or even 6 months back is suddenly the worlds hottest new sound ( or retro sound ) .
I remember being in a clothes shop in Brighton and after what felt like an entire decade of literally everyone using the same EDM riff I heard a wicked 120 BPM bass-line arranged and produced using exactly the same techniques and sounds as used to whilst working at DMC in my 20s . I Asked the 19 years old behind the desk who it was. They reply cracked me up : “ Oh It’s this new style of music that everyone’s into down here – you probably wont have heard of it – It’s called House music” .. Then suddenly MK was getting 7 G’s a gig in South London with as many people being turned away as let in ( again – Well deserved – go find MK ‘Burning’ and check the original release date )
Fashions and sounds change but certain things never will for club – learn the tricks of arrangement that work cross-genre and prepare to be flexible in your sound and try new shit .. if you don’t your competition will and suddenly you’ll be left behind.
I constantly get asked about “the mix” do you think there’s too much of an obsession with mixing at the moment? Is the art of composition being lost? Or do you think that the “chin stroking” element is an integral part of the process?
I think given that fact that an average DJ will now just not play your track if it doesn’t sound as big as the one before ( no one want a drop in energy ) I think it’s incredibly important that producers get their material sounding as huge as they can BUT….
What does worry me is that producers seem to spend every waking moment trying to find a technique, plugin or other Holy Grail that will make their output suddenly grow limbs and leg it up the club charts and onto top DJ’s memory sticks . The amount of time spent trying to perfect perfect sonics is now completely disproportionate to the creative aspect of most productions and here problems are developing
Let me make this incredibly clear – no amount of multiple bussing, parallel over flanged drive, wave shaping , selective bit crushing or ultra-band ambience is ever going to make a crap track sound anything other than a crap track. You may have spent a week on your hi hats / tops but none is going to leave the club humming them and no one other than the aforementioned chin strokers or producers are really going to appreciate them. I’ve seen people spend a week mixing a track without really working out wether the main parts are even in tune or not ( they weren’t ). I’ve seen people spend $$$ on plugins and hardware without a f**ing clue how to use them instead of spending that money with a decent mix and mastering engineer
There are people out there who know exactly how to get things mixed and my honest advice if you are not one of the natural people who just seem to be able to look at an EQ and it make the perfect curve is find one of start a working relationship with them and then concentrate on making the very best possible track you can .
Look back at the best music in the Golden ages of recording – how many names on the record sleeves ? – The very best music comes from collaboration and currently we have a very dangerous state of affairs where every other young producer I speak to is getting bullied by their peers into believing that they must do every single little thing on their track or cannot be considered a serious producer. This is driving an obsession with technique . Don’t listen to the empty vessels banging on about their skill level – a quick check on You-Tube and Soundcloud will normally highlight that those who shout the loudest about this normally have below average output . Find those that are like-minded , kind or experienced and work with them.
Tech “nerdism” is major part of music production obviously, So what parts of that aspect give you the most fun? And what parts do you dread?
I still get incredibly excited about new gear. Recently I had the roland Boutique synths in for a day reviewing and decided to make a track in as little time as possible . Dan from GAK audio came back to get them at 6pm and I apparently resembled Doc from Back to the Future when I answered the door . They had to be prized out of my grubby hands.
Now I’m fully into Sound development with F9 Audio I’m literally obsessed with external sound processing and getting the biggest source sounds possible and it’s meant everything in the Studio is getting used 10 times more frequently. For me this is exactly what this is all about – the mixture of Music, computer technology and the Equipment ! … By the way ( tip of the month ) Throw out all of your tape emulators and get an old reel to reel like a Revox 77 or 99 – Pass just one track worth onto it and straight off the Repro head then line it back up and you’ll wonder why you spent a single penny on anything emulating it – tutorial coming !
The only thing I now dread is that monument when your 75 % into a full production .. The Last 25% of any track is as hard if not harder than the initial creative moment that spawned it and sometimes that knowledge that you’ve got literally hours of number crunching in front of you to make it to the finishing line !
I’ve used many sample libraries and for the most part thought they were OK. That was until I used yours. The production values are outstanding! Was this a conscious effort on your part to stand out from the pack? Or is this just how high the bar is set over at F9?
Yes it absolutely is a very conscious effort – I noticed a lot of sample packs were light versions of sounds in real productions and I wanted to deliver exactly the same quality i would in a sample pack as i would in a remix or production. You get the heart and soul of a producer or musician in every F9 release which is why everyone involved in the content is an industry professional .
Let me just tell you the reasons for F9 .. As Freemasons Russell and I hit it right off. Wether you like our music or not you have to agree that we had a great deal of success commercial and Club-wise . It also took us to every single continent around the world ( Antarctica excluded) Dj-ing .
Now it’s time to hand that mantle onto the next generation. I want to do that by passing as much knowledge on as I can in tutorials and supplying the very best sound-ware we can muster. I see incredible talent out there but I worry for them in terms of making a living and developing their talents the right way. If I can help in terms of technical knowledge and audio content I will be very happy.
And finally, what does the next 12 months hold for you, And F9 ?
I am bang in the middle of some serious product developments with F9. The studio is currently filled with every single keyboard imaginable and the idea is to start getting all this multi-sampled at a reasonable price so the sounds can be enjoyed by everyone .
I will also develop a whole series of Top end Packs in 2016 using all the new techniques we’ve developed with the studio’s extensive hardware . We have the ability here to generate material that no one else can and we’re literally only at the beginning of what we hope to achieve .. For example – Classic house coming early 2016 – But these drums are via a real SP1200 recorded into a Neve 1081 then through an entire SSL G series channel before hitting the audio interface. Guy Pratt and I are also scheming about a serious Future Disco set of recordings
F9 Will also start a bespoke service in 2016 – We already have some very serious Top level clients including Multi platinum selling artists and producers and world renown club labels but I’d like to open it up in part to everyone . As I said before – I take great joy in helping other people achieve their dreams these day. In my opinion all new producers need someone experienced else to hold a mirror up to them so they can see their own talents and if I can do that regularly and help others feel that joy that only comes from people appreciating your artistic endeavours then I truly have the best job in the world !