A reddit AMA will last, at most, five hours. In January of 2014, Optical hosted one on “music production techniques, electronic music design/programming and songwriting” that lasted for 24 hours. During this stretch, the legendary drum & bass producer gave each query a carefully detailed response, one that paid respect to the question and the person asking it. Both from the preface to the questions and from the comments to Optical’s replies, the participants’ appreciation is tangible.
Not that reddit existed back then, but this sort of thing would have never happened in 1994 or even 2004. No one was trying to share their production secrets. In fact, great pains were taken to keep everything relatively ambiguous. If you had the deep pockets to invest about $15,000 in a studio set-up, other than reading the gear manuals, there was nowhere to turn to for help. Now, not only does it cost next-to-nothing (free, if you’re using cracked software) to have a working, in-the-box studio, but a quick search on Google will turn up oodles of information including countless video tutorials that walk you through how to use any piece of music software.
“I could have done with someone helping me out back in the day, but no one was prepared to say anything” says Optical, who is getting ready to release No Cure, his excellent sixth album with Ed Rush this month. “It’s good there’s a few people around now who don’t mind. Getting into that subreddit, the people asking the questions really care about trying to get into music production. They’re at the point where they’ve obviously put a lot of time and effort into it already, which is what we need in our genre of music, but also music in general. We always need the influx of new people. There’s not so much money in it these days so it’s encouraging to see people still taking it seriously.”
It’s better to go down your own road. Even if it’s wrong, it’s going to be right in the long run because it’s what you wanted to do.
Longstanding drum & bass figure TC is another one for sharing. On his site you can regularly find production-related posts. These range from tips, such as a good solution for a high-pass filter (which he created and made available for free), to obscure plugins that he loves, and most recently, a multi fx macro he himself put together which he put up as a free download—and that’s just in the last month. These posts are accompanied with an easy-to-understand explanation that is geared toward fostering other producers.
“I always try and help out anyone making music, it’s my way of spreading peace, kindness, and compassion,” says TC. “Information is not going to make clones. I have given the parts away to my tunes and I don’t get carbon copies. Everyone becomes better than you. There is no fighting that. You spend more time thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m not good enough,’ when everyone is good enough—you just have to do it for 10,000 hours.”
“It’s about man-hours,” concurs Ed Rush. “It’s similar to two chefs. You give them the same ingredients and each comes out with something completely different. It’s about who’s pressing the buttons or whose cooking the food. One will make you a burnt bit of crappy toast, the other one will come out with an amazing gourmet meal. It’s all about the brain behind the fingers that are pushing the button.”
“All music comes out from your thought process and the way you approach it rather than the equipment,” says Optical. “Equipment is standard across the board. Everyone’s got the pretty much the same so there really isn’t a secret. Trying to copy someone’s thought process isn’t going to get you anywhere. It’s better to go down your own road. Even if it’s wrong, it’s going to be right in the long run because it’s what you wanted to do.”
Six months after his reddit AMA, Optical taught a masterclass for Digital Labz, a music technology school based in Bristol, England. The reddit AMA session served as a primer, helping Optical develop his 90-minute, in-person seminar held at a movie theatre in Bristol attended by approximately 100 people. Digital Labz’s unique feature is its instructors, all of who are recognized and respected producers within their styles of dance music. As well as Optical, Digital Labz has hosted Break, Krust, Mefjus, Mind Vortex, Octane and DLR, just to name a few. These tutorials are not repeats of each other. Rather, each focuses on a specific area(s) that the producer excels in.
There was a time when magicians never shared their tricks. Knowledge is better shared, makes for a better hive.
“The idea formed around learning from someone who really has the credentials, and is established not just technically, but creatively too,” says James Manning, the course director and seminars coordinator for Digital Labz. “The underground scene is very tightknit. We love creating a setting where the artists and producers can all be together, focusing on the craft. Everyone we have had has a keen passion to help others. What people like Krust and Optical have done has blown us away in terms of how much they care about the new generation. There was a time when magicians never shared their tricks. Knowledge is better shared, makes for a better hive.”
“A lot of kids make tunes that sound like all the other tunes do, there’s nothing different about them,” says Optical, who has been producing professionally for 28 years. “No Cure is completely not like anyone else’s record. Rather than attempting something modern, we decided to go more our original way of production, using newer gear but trying to treat it in the same way. Maybe it’s not as loud or as this or as that, but it sounds like me and Ed Rush. The emotion gets created by what’s going on with your life. I’m in a period where I’m trying to create some calm in the storm.”
TC is “like a giddy schoolgirl” when No Cure lands in his inbox. And like Optical, he’s after original sounds, not falling back on software synth presets and writing by numbers. He says, “There is this synth—I can’t remember the name—that’s like all the big sounds in one synth, I don’t use it, but once I heard it, it was like, ‘Oh okay, that’s how they all sound like that.’
“I want to hear the pain in the producer’s struggle, the sweaty, naked, 3AM session that nailed that one sound. I’m going through folders from 2005 just to find a sound. I can understand that as you come through you want to sound like your idols, but at some point it’s about breaking that mold and finding your sound. We have to push things forward too. I want to make tunes to fuck up the dance floor really but I am very conscious of trying to sound original—unless the tune is in tribute to the older sound of things.”
Ed Rush and Optical went, and continue to go, into uncharted territory with their music. In the ‘90s when they were experimenting with detuning things to make them sound horrible, going for a sci-fi feel by taking normal instruments and making them out of tune with each other to create a cringing, spine-tingling feeling that was simply not right, they accidentally invented a chord they call “The Claw.”
“It’s basically what every music teacher would tell you not to do,” says Optical. “Putting black notes and white notes next to each other in a chord never is a good idea, so we were like, ‘Let’s do it.’ It turns out if you have chord progressions with that chord that’s out of tune, then you can actually get something that is tuneful. If you mess with it in a way that’s intelligent so you don’t push it too far, even though it’s discordant, it still has a melody. It might be a bit weird, but it does count as being music. Once we figured out one way of doing it, then we figured out 10 different ways of doing it. A lot of our strings sound different from other people because of that one thing.”
He continues, “To be honest, I’m not the cutting edge of music now, but I also don’t have anything to prove. If someone makes the best drum & bass—ever—tomorrow, then good for them. Having children gives you a new perspective on what’s important in life. All of a sudden you’re not like, ‘DJing is everything in the world and I will protect it with my life.’ I don’t mind giving away a few tricks. Maybe I’ve got a few things people still don’t know about.”