Making music is not easy. Even the cheesiest most formulaic song takes a long time to put together. In the world of drum & bass—due to the complex nature of its sounds and time signatures—the amount of time spent honing studio skills is even more lengthy and detail-oriented. But today’s EDM world, where production output is a prerequisite for gigs, has served the genre well. Other than a handful of top echelon spinmasters, the D&B way has always been: produce a banging tune that all the heavy hitters want to play, then the DJ gigs will follow. But what if you want to segue into another style or another industry? Will the blood, sweat and tears you put into perfecting these production skills come in handy?
Not a lot of drum & bass producers venture out of its very defined and limited space. Those that have, however, have benefited from their unique education. Whether sound designing for film, television, trailers or video games, writing crossover chart hits, or moving away from music into another tech-oriented industry, the work ethic of junglists has paid off. Photek, for example, is composing the music for ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder, adding miles of dimension to the hit show’s tension-filled storylines.
Noisia have created the entire score for the video game DmC: Devil May Cry, reimagined the score for Motorstorm: Apocalypse, and created in-game replacement music for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Additionally, the Dutch bass powerhouse has produced and mixed music for artists in pop, hip-hop, and rock, and collaborated on a classical music project. They fall back on their drum & bass know-how no matter what the product.
“Drum & bass is a scene with people that really love the music and are willing to put in the hours to make it,” says Nik Roos of Noisia. “There isn’t that much money in it, and there’s certainly no guarantees of making any. To make drum & bass, you need a decent amount of production experience. If you’ve put in those hours, it’s a big help when you’re doing production work for other companies like video games and movies.”
“Being a drum & bass producer forces you to take your engineering skills to the highest level possible. If you don’t, you don’t make it,” says Mike Bell (aka Hive) who has channeled his formidable drum & bass skills into a thriving mastering career with his Darkart Mastering. “You can get away with having a vibe and things being under-produced in other styles of music, but not in drum & bass.” Darkart lists Mad Decent, Fool’s Gold, OWSLA, Atlantic Records, Sony Music, Def Jam Recordings, to name a few, amongst its regular clients, and is the place the most streamed song on Spotify, Major Lazer’s billion+ YouTube views, “Lean On,” was mastered.
“It’s all playing with computers, geeking out in one form or another, trying to make art,” says Jasper Byrne (aka Sonic), who, since his prolific time as one-half of Sonic and Silver and Accidental Heroes, has exploded in the video game world. Byrne has his own Superflat Games and Space Recordings through which he releases his creations. In addition to his extremely popular game, Lone Survivor, Byrne has also published Soul Brother via Adult Swim, the award-winning Soundless Mountain II, Rockabilly Head, This Is How Bees Work, and American Dream.
”I use the same philosophy for all the things I do,” he continues. “When I was eight or nine with my first home computer, I was typing codes in from magazines and editing little games. I started programming music—making little songs—the same way. When I was in bands doing multi-track recordings to tape, it was still being nerdy, fiddling with machines.”
Once these skills are perfected, there is the chance you might want to experiment with them elsewhere. DJ Fresh, who first came to the public’s attention with his drum & bass outfit, )EIB(—a force in the genre that has never left it despite its disbandment over a decade ago—has had seven top 10 hits in the official UK charts.
When I was eight or nine with my first home computer, I was typing codes in from magazines and editing little games. I started programming music—making little songs—the same way.
“I was really fascinated when drum & bass seemed new and exciting,” says Fresh. “I tried a bunch of ideas and gave everything to it that I could, then gradually found myself wanting to explore new territory. The more I messed around with different sounds, the more I realized it was exciting trying things that were new to me. It gave me a rush to try and apply my thing to them.
He continues, “I have a loads of techniques, experience, and ideas in anything breakbeat-based, sample drum-based, or live drum-based because I spent years with them in drum & bass. When I work with Diplo, I can pull up the cool breaks [and] know what they will sound like in different pitches and compression because I’ve used them so many times. It’s equally important learning about things you’re unfamiliar with and bringing them back to the equation. Anything to do with music is about inspiration and drum & bass, more than any type of music, is really diverse. It’s important for me as a musician to explore and constantly be influenced by new things, get new ideas and apply old ones to new situations.”
Not dissimilarly, Piers Baron, who made an indelible mark on drum & bass with his releases on the top labels of their time, also shifted away to be able to explore different elements within his music without drum & bass restrictions. He has won multiple awards for his original scores and soundtracks to various skateboarding and snowboarding films. He has scored Nike Snowboarding’s Winter Olympics 2014 film Never Not Part 2, the viral Jetman Young Feathers video, and the trailer for Gran Turismo Sport. He has collaborated with and produced artists in numerous genres, and is involved with his own, unique from each other projects, Maize and Bleitch, the former of which has its first single out end of March.
“Drum & bass is a very rich thing at an early age in your production career,” says Baron. “Production-wise, everything is one step away from the edge back into safety. It’s sonically such an onslaught; every single frequency has to be rammed forward. That translates quite well to the film world. With drum & bass you’re trying to make people dance and with film you’re trying to make the footage dance. It also translates quite well to the way pop music is now. Bass music is such an integral part of what is on the radio; those sensibilities have become part of pop artists’ direction.”
Adam F changed the face of drum & bass with his singular tracks “Circles” and “Brand New Funk,” along with his MOBO Awarding-winning album, Colours, then went on to create the groundbreaking Kaos—The Anti-Acoustic Warfare album featuring top hip-hop names. He segued into creating the 100-piece orchestral score for the feature film, Ali G Indahouse, and has lent his skills to providing the music for trailers and commercials. He has a similar open-minded outlook.
“I’m less of a production-led producer and more of an idea and vibe person,” he says. “There are the wizards and geniuses of drum & bass, like Noisia who are awesome with the way they think and with the way they technically use their equipment and always push the boundaries. Then there’s my organic approach. When I was still in school, it was the hip-hop era where all my sampling influences came from.”
While having a reputation for technical precision in drum & bass no doubt helps bring awareness to what you can do in other industries, it also helps if you’ve already exhibited that you can work in a multitude of genres. Much of what Bell is mastering at Darkart is not drum & bass. Besides coming from the era of drum & bass where DATs were cut to dubplate and had to sound as loud and clear as possible, Bell also has a varied musical background. He’s a rare groove DJ and the former member of a hardcore band, and his record collection reflects that. This has Bell’s ears tuned to a wide array of styles and gives him a familiarity with how songs from various genres should sound and translate to other mediums.
For Noisia, this has been most evident in their ability to write music for visual-based genres like film and video games. “Because dance music has to come across on a sound system with conviction,” Roos explains, “you get a lot of experience in designing sounds and mixing them in a way that hit the mark they need to hit, in the time they have. Maximizing that effect is something we do a lot in dance music, which also works in a video game, where you’re mixing orchestra elements with percussion and making them cut through.”
The downside to this, as it were, is sometimes your finely tuned production skills are too exact. You end up overproducing, find it difficult to break away from the drum & bass’ dancefloor template, and have a hard time deprogramming yourself from its quantized nature. As Adam F says, “I’m not just influenced by how I make music, but by how it’s received when I play it out—from a hard, grimy venue in London to a big festival in L.A. There’s always so much fierce, but good, healthy competition. You’re after Andy C but before DJ Hype, trying to stand out, trying to be different.”
While developing video games, Byrne has always had his hand in music production, including his smashes for “Hotline Miami” and the entire soundtrack for his own games. In recent years he has been reminded of drum & bass’ technical requirements and become aware of its increasingly competitive character. Says Byrne, “People in the drum & bass producer community used to be called scientists, going to these great lengths to make sounds, tweak them to make the most elaborate design. It’s constantly evolving and getting louder and more precise. Silver is doing one hundred mixes of his North Base tunes to get them out on [Futurebound’s] Viper Recordings, but the science of it is the appeal.”
He continues, “Letting go of minuscule fluctuations in pitch and time, unlearning all that stuff has been the hardest thing for me. When you use drum & bass technique at another tempo, that’s hard to adapt—to understand what different tempos mean.”
The downside is sometimes your finely tuned production skills are too exact. You end up overproducing, find it difficult to break away from the drum & bass’ dancefloor template, and have a hard time deprogramming yourself from its quantized nature.
This is something Noisia had to teach themselves when they were handed the orchestra parts for Motorstorm, as they were used to being high energy and in your face and had to step back from that mentality. On the other hand, their background in sampling and their constant endeavors to make their initially dry and dead, self-generated sounds have similar characterful sonics to those samples, worked in their favor.
“The sonic palette of drum & bass is quite specific,” says Roos. “There’s musicality, but not continuous chord changes and scales. The benefit of coming from the dancefloor is really knowing the power of repetitive patterns and how you can use them to get the point across, which is also a form of minimalism: a few well-designed sounds to create a mood as opposed to writing 100 notes. At 172bpm, there’s not much space between the drum hits and sounds.”
When ultimately pressed to define the ways in which the two mediums differ, Roos not only points to the ability to more fully develop atmospheres on Devil May Cry, but to engage with the storytelling aspect of the process, crafting moods, and creating worlds. As Roos tells it, “You can make the mix much wider, the drums don’t have to be that loud and you can create a whole world.” A world that no doubt feels intimately familiar to fans of the genre as the skills that continue to shape and evolve the underground rise up into the glittering world of film, television, and video games.