[Q&A] In The Lab with Phace
[Q&A] In The Lab with Phace

Having secured his position as a veritable legend in the drum & bass scene, the Hamburg-based visionary known as Phace continues blaze a path all his own as he prepares to drop some synapse-frying floor-killers on Blackout Music. Centered on a healthy dose of twisted robo-funk, Phace’s four-track Plastic Acid EP is a proper head-fuck from top to bottom as the crispy percussion, techno stabs, and strychnine-laced hooks pummel and pound in all the right places.

Dropping on January 27 (lock in your pre-order here), the EP is testament to his technical prowess in the studio, and since we knew bassheads would be drooling over the untouchable mixdowns that Phace once again delivers, we thought we’d sit down with the man and educate all the Bassrush faithful out there hoping to realize their own production dreams.

Whether you’re just starting out or coming off a two-day binge of working your way through your favorite DAW, Phace is sure to inspire and make traveling down that path a little less intimidating, so check the technique below and welcome to ‘In The Lab’ with Phace.

What does your current production rig look like?
I have a PC desktop with 64 GB RAM and an 8-core CPU running Windows 10. I also have a MacBook Air laptop with 16 GB RAM and an i7 CPU, which I use for writing ideas and sketches while I’m on the road.

Which DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] are you using?
Ableton Live. To me it is the perfect playground to be creative in and I can get great results in a fast and intuitive way. I also use Cubase, mainly for mixdowns or when I collaborate with another artist who works exclusively in Cubase. I originally started with Cubase but then switched to Ableton as it is much easier for writing.

Any favorite plugins?
All the FabFilter plugins as well as the native Ableton plugins and instruments.

Hardware of choice?
My two favorite pieces of kit are the Moog Voyager and Prophet 6.

Now that we have the specs out of the way, take us back to the beginning. When did production enter your world? How old were you and what kind of music were you creating at the time?
I started producing music when I was 18 and first worked in a program called ACID before eventually switching to Cubase. I produced drum & bass from the very start. I’d been playing it out for a couple of years as a DJ and wanted to start making my own stuff.

What did your rig look like then?
It was pretty lo-fi—just an old Pentium desktop PC, HiFi Canton speakers, and a small no-name MIDI keyboard—but this worked perfectly for me to start with and allowed me to be creative. My studio grew naturally from there and over the course of many years I took it all step-by-step and gradually advanced. I have always been a digital kid and love to work in-the-box, mainly.

How did you “learn” to make music on the computer?
I am pretty much an autodidactic and taught myself by working endless hours, trying new things, and reading as much I could about digital music production. Remember, when I started to produce music there wasn’t YouTube or any online tutorials available.

Writing a sketch or a musical layout is never really that hard, but finishing a track—let’s just say it’s usually never a smooth journey.

What was your writing process like then and how have you refined it over the years?
When I started I pretty much worked in a digital and audio/loop based environment, creating sounds digitally from various sources such as Reaktor and other digital instruments. Later I made myself familiar with analogue and MIDI and got my first synthesizers. I then started to sequence MIDI in real-time, too. It is important that you progress steadily. I am still trying to learn new things as much I can so I can have new tools and methods available to be creative with. To me, music production is a never-ending process and progression.

Let’s imagine we’re going to design a self-driven curriculum for an experienced DJ who wants to turn producer. Where do we begin and what steps follow?

  1. Build or buy yourself a PC or Mac system that is stable. Remember: handle the machine, don’t let the machine handle you.
  2. Try out some demos of DAWs and find out which one makes most sense to you and is most fun for you to work with.
  3. Get to know the DAW inside and out so you have more options to be creative, but don’t just limit yourself to tutorials. You can learn the DAWs tools and possibilities while writing tracks as well. At this stage, it’s important that you have an understanding of what you would like to do musically and how music works.
  4. Sit down and work-work-work, try-try-try for endless hours.
  5. Compare your results with music you like and if you think your results are missing something sonically, start over and keep fine-tuning your productions until they begin to approach the sound of your reference tracks.
  6. It’s good to be able to keep control over your mixdowns, but be careful not to over-engineer your music. A good idea is a good idea, even if the snare sounds a little wrong.

This is brilliant advice! In your imagined role as a mentor, what kind of general guidance would you give to our budding producer?
Writing music always should be fun. Of course, it can be hard work to get things right, but as long you enjoy it you are on the right track. Never be afraid of mistakes, as sometimes rules have to be broken. Try to push your limits but also try to evolve naturally and advance step by step. Don’t rush things.

Thinking back to your own early years—what were the breakthrough moments for you?
When I had my first couple of releases and I realized I could make a living out of music. I suddenly took it more seriously and my hobby became my profession and real passion.

What were the most difficult parts of the process that took time to work through?
Writing a sketch or a musical layout is never really that hard, but finishing a track—let’s just say it’s usually never a smooth journey. On the other hand, there are those moments when you know it’s a good track and the tracks seem to write themselves. That usually means you had everything set up right from the very start and you don’t have to clean up a mess later.

Take a tune like “Beyond Number” from your forthcoming Plastic Acid EP—give us one trick or technique you used on there that we can try and emulate on our own DAW at home.
The opening synth line simply is an arpeggiated FM synth. In regards to the kick and snare, at first try to understand what a kick and snare are: both have a clear transient, which should stick through clearly in the mix. Both should have a nice bottom in key with the track. You can simply synthesize that. Then add a characteristic tail and ambience to it, for example, from an acoustic recorded kick or snare. Most important throughout this process is to avoid phasing.

If you could go back in time and chat with your younger self about production but you only had one minute to drop some knowledge what would you say?
Never give up.