The trio of Edward Holmes (aka Optiv), Mark Clements (aka CZA), and Stuart Perkins has been a steady presence in the drum & bass game for quite some time now. Known collectively as Cause4Concern, these guys have been known over the years for their expert production, gaining massive respect and a loyal following in the process. With hundreds of tracks to their credit and their newest collaborative release, the Alchemist EP just out on their own C4C Recordings, we thought it was the perfect time to get them to share a bit of the production wisdom they’ve gleaned over the years.
How did you guys come together as a production group?
We all used to live in Guildford, UK in the mid ’90s. CZA and Stu were working for at Vinyl Distribution while Optiv was working at Dance2 Records buying the drum & bass for the shop. Having met at the various club events, we soon became friends and decided to get in the studio together to make some tracks of our own.
What were the earliest influences that made each of you decide to take to producing?
We all came from slightly different backgrounds: CZA was very much influenced by the early Detroit scene (Underground Resistance, Jeff Mills, Drexciya, Juan Atkins, etc.), Optiv was inspired by the electronica sounds of F.S.O.L and Orbital, whilst Stu was mainly into old-school hip-hop, electro, and turntablism.
What were your first tools of production?
We started off with all outboard gear. Our studio consisted of a Mackie 32/8 mixing console, an Akai S5000, an E-mu ESI sampler, a TL Audio Ivory tube compressor, an Alesis Quadraverb, a Roland JV-1080 sound module, a Nord Lead synth, a Korg Prophecy synth, and a Novation Supernova synth—all of which ran off an old PC with Cakewalk software.
What hardware and software components currently make up your studio?
Currently our studio consists of Mackie HR824 studio monitors, a Mackie Onyx mixing console, a Mackie Big Knob command unit, a Sherman Filter Bank 2, a Yamaha MR816 X soundcard (with additional Focusrite ADAT inputs and outputs), and an Akai MPK49 MIDI keyboard. We still use our old faithful Korg Prophecy and Novation Supernova synths that have, between them, 15 years’ of our own programmed sounds. We like to use the Lemur on the iPad, and at the heart of our studio is a monster PC running Cubase 6.5. On the software front, our favorite plug-ins to use are everything from Native Instruments’ Komplete 8 and everything by FabFilter, Camel Audio, Ohm Force, and Audio Damage.
What is the most utilized piece of gear or software in your collection?
We have a few favorites. On the hardware front, we are really big fans of the Sherman Filter Bank; it’s a great tool for mangling sounds up. Also we have written a device map in Cubase for the Novation Supernova so that every parameter can be automated. It really is a lot of fun to use (especially with Lemur on the iPad). Software-wise, we totally abuse Camel Audio CamelPhat alongside Native Instrument’s Massive synth.
What would you credit in making the leap from being local producers to industry recognized artists?
Actually, we were very lucky in that respect with CZA and Stu working at Vinyl Distribution (which was the biggest drum & bass supplier at the time). We used to take the music we’d made to work and play them to the A&R guys, which led to us to being offered a label of our own. It was really a matter of knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time.
What strengths are lent from each member?
Everyone brings something different to the table. Optiv is more at the helm of the studio, pushing the buttons, and CZA is very involved in the sound design, structure, and the arrangement of the tracks, while Stu helps us see the tunes from a DJ’s point of view.
What do you think sets your sound apart from everything else? Is it a conscious effort to design something different or a natural occurrence in your work together?
We would say it’s more of a natural occurrence, but of course we always strive to be on top of our game and original. It is important for us to experiment with our sounds and grooves, but at the same time making sure our music is strictly dancefloor-oriented. That’s not to say we’re always after a dancefloor anthem—sometimes we like to take people on a deeper journey. That’s something that can clearly be heard on our EPs like Alchemist.
What elements would you consider the bare essentials for someone just starting on their production journey?
It’s fantastic in this day and age in the sense that you can walk into a shop, buy a computer off the shelf, and you’re ready to make music. However, I think it’s critical to invest in a good pair of studio monitors, limit yourself to a few plugins, and learn how to master them. You can also learn a lot by referencing music from producers that you admire. That is a great way to master the art of mixing down.
What advice would you give to newer producers trying to master sound design?
I think the greatest advice we can give would be not to rush it. Get yourself familiar with a particular instrument, whether it be a sampler, synthesizer, or an effect plugin, and spend time working out what each function does. Mess around and make sure you record everything. We often spend a couple of days on sound design and we save everything as we go. Often only a small percentage is useable, but in the end, these are the gems that give you your unique sound.
What elements of production are the hardest to master and understand?
Probably the hardest thing to master is mixing down, that’s why it’s crucial to reference your work against your favorite producers. We can’t stress enough how much you can learn from doing this. Not only will you become accustomed to your monitors and your room, but you’ll also learn about how loud or quiet certain elements should be in a track, such as kicks, snares, bass, percussion, and all that.
What are the first steps you take in building a track?
We usually gather together all of our sound-design results and begin to categorize them. This way we can be sure we will use the best and most current sounds we’ve made so far. The first thing we do in our DAW is work on the beats and percussion. Setting the groove at this stage has a huge impact on which direction we eventually decide to go in. From there it’s all about placing the bass to compliment the drums. Things get really interesting once you start piecing and layering all the other sounds together.
What is the key to making strong drum arrangements?
What makes a strong drum arrangement can depend on what sort of track you are writing. If it’s a track with a lot of funk-bass grooves, then we usually keep the drums very simple with the occasional edit here and there. If, on the other hand, we’re going for a more complex drum workout, then it’s essential that our time is spent focusing on grooves, percussion, edits, and different break layers. It’s important to us to make sure everything works and sounds natural together. It can often help when you’re working with lots of drums to group and process them in a similar manner.
Once you begin to start shaping the first bits of your track, how do you begin to conceptualize the rest of its arrangement?
At the very beginning of writing, we tend to just play about until we feel happy with what we are hearing. Once the general idea of the track has taken shape, we already have a rough idea of how it will progress. As we form our ideas, we’re always trying out new combinations of the elements and layers that make up the tune.
Do you have any formulas that you stick to when writing a track?
Not really. We just make sure that we spend a good amount of time designing sounds and then we just go wherever the mood takes us. There are certain formulas that are abided to when writing dance music to be played in clubs, but we try to bend the rules as far as we can.
What’s the key to constructing an intro/outro?
It’s important that the intro incites the listener. We are quite big fans of cinematic intros, but it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that this music is made for mixing. It’s no good to have an epic-sounding intro with no rhythmic clues for the DJ to mix to. For outros, we tend to strip the track down to its bare essentials so that it’s easier for a DJ to mix the next track into it.
What sort of regiment do you have in place for working on music together? Is it a challenge to find time to get together? Do you work on music seven days a week?
CZA and Stu live in England whereas Optiv lives in Switzerland, so it can be hard. The main studio, where we do the majority of the work together, is in Switzerland, but for the times we are apart, we work and prepare ideas in our own individual studios.
Do you tour together? Do you have any upcoming show dates planned?
We try to play together as much as we can, but living in different countries can make this difficult, so we often play separately as Cause4Concern. Having said that, we have had some recent shows together.
What plans does Cause4Concern have for releases for the rest or 2012?
Our Alchemist EP is out now and is also available on the Mashbox app for the iPad. Beyond that, we have singles from Task Horizon, Maldini, and some new material from us on the way for the label, and we are currently planning a compilation album for later in the year too.