[Q&A] In the Lab with Sustance
[Q&A] In the Lab with Sustance

Hailing from East London and having worked for over a decade as an in-house engineer and producer in “commercial and grime studios,” it wasn’t until the past few years that Oscar Harding stepped out from behind the mixing desk and decided to put his own creative flex to work under the name Sustance. With Prolix immediately snatching up two singles for his Trendkill Records imprint, followed by a signing to Noisia’s Invisible Recordings, the tech-driven cuts he’s capable of crafting continue to impress as heads ranging from Alix Perez to Icicle and Rockwell have pledged their allegiance to the Sustance sound.

His most recent four-track, The Allow (It) EP for the always essential Dispatch LTD imprint, features the engineer-turned-producer in top form as each of the four tracks drop jaws with their crisp production and sonic prowess. Centered on stripped down grooves and straight-up sick basslines throughout, we thought we’d geek out a little with the man in the studio and have him hit us with an in-depth guide and discussion and of how he crafted the bassline breakdown on one of ours (and Noisia’s) favorite tunes off the EP. Check the beats, lock in your own copy here, then check Sustance breaking it all down in his own words after the jump in an eye-opening and exclusive insight into his production process.

“After years of never being very happy with the low end in the tunes that I’d been making using software digital synths, I decided to try and experiment with creating the fundamental using a purely analog source. My studio partner had bought a Moog Little Phatty mono synth, which he’d recommend I experiment with. One day I was skipping through presets and found a bass patch that really resonated in our studio. It was a super subtle, phasey reese. I know from past experience that our studio sounds particularly weighty in [the key of] D, so I started experimenting, playing with the filter cutoff, rolling it off so the ‘bite’ of the sound was barely audible. The overall tone and feel of the patch sounded really fat and warm the less of the midrange I left in, so I just went for a ‘less is more’ vibe. I then used the Overdrive feature to add more depth of harmonics to the sound before rolling back the cutoff even more.

“Having created the initial sound in the Moog, I started to experiment playing over a break I had rolling. The initial preset had a very short/fast portamento setting. I played a super simple line, just gliding up and down an octave, from a low D, up an octave and back again. I really liked the vibe I caught so I tracked this audio live on to a mono channel in Cubase.

“After recording a bunch of ideas, my process is to go through the audio files and find the tightest sections and then edit them so they are rolling with the beat in a loose, head-nod sort of way. Just in a way that makes you want to move. I arranged the main basic 16-bar loop with the bass and drums in this manner.

“Now that I had a solid backbone of a track, it was time to experiment with splitting the bass’s frequencies. I always create two channels in Cubase and label them ‘Bass Low’ and ‘Bass High.’ I then send both of these to a group channel as ‘Bass Final.’ On the initial mono audio channel that I record too I turn the stereo output off then create two sends for the new bass split channels. On ‘Bass Low’ I use a Fab Filter Pro Q2 [equalizer plugin] and roll off using a low pass filter to around 100hz. I then copy this to ‘Bass High’ and change the setting to a high pass filter. This gives you a basic split which I can then adjust accordingly. In this instance, I rolled off the ‘Bass Low’ channel even more so it was a super smooth sub, keeping more of the frequency spectrum in the ‘Bass High’ channel.

“Next I always set up a compressor on the ‘Bass Low’ channel. This is used to side-chain duck the kick frequencies with. I always have an exact copy of my kick drum track playing with no audio outputs. This can be used to trigger anything I choose using side-chain. I set up a send on the ‘ghost’ kick channel to trigger the side-chain input of the compressor on the sub bass channel. Depending on how big your kick is you always have to adjust the compressors settings accordingly. Usually a fairly fast attack and a bit slower release, but it’s totally dependent on the kick pattern, how much pump you want, etc. I find just playing with the threshold until you’re happy with the vibe is best.

The whole ethos behind the entire EP was to make a simple and stripped back collection of tunes that worked well on big systems.

“Once I have the ‘house-keeping’ parts of the process feeling tight I usually move on to the ‘Bass High’ channel. I knew that I wanted to keep the feel and tone of the Moog without altering the harmonics too drastically. In this instance, I used the Slate Digital VBC rack as a first point of call on the bus. I find if you put it on a flat setting, just running sounds through it seems to liven them up. In this case I pulled the wet/dry mix knob of the third compressor in the rack back even more so the effect was really subtle.

“Next in the chain I used a Fab Filter Saturn on a gentle saturation preset. I like using this plug in mid/side mode and experimenting with positioning the higher frequencies in different places in the stereo field.

“After this I was happy with the overall vibe of the b-line but it sounded a little disjointed so on the ‘Bass Final’ bus I put first a Fab Filter ProQ2 and set it to mid side mode. I then mono’d up all the frequencies below 150hz. I always do this to preserve the weight in the bottom end; club systems love a mono fundamental. Next I used compressor by Cytomic called The Glue. This is a copy of a SSL compressor but has a nice wet/dry feature that allows you to run it in parallel. After tweaking this, it always feels like it holds the two bass channels together well. Finally, on the group channel I used the Slate Digital Virtual Tape Machines plug. I normally just let this run with next to no processing being applied to the signal. It’s a very subtle effect but if you A/B you can hear it adds a slight thickness to the sound, which I really like.

“With those very sparse and simple steps I was super happy with the weight of the sub and how it sat in the mix. The only other real tonal changes I made was to automate a Fab Filter Volcano on the ‘Bass Final’ channel through the tracks arrangement, basically just to have some sections with more midrange frequencies and others with less.

“The whole ethos behind the entire Allow (It) EP on Dispatch LTD was to make a simple and stripped back collection of tunes that worked well on big systems. I haven’t had a chance to play them out yet but a few of my mates have told me they have caused some damage so that makes me pretty happy.”