If you’re taking the first tentative steps into the world of production, what could be better than having a sneak peak at the set-ups of producers forging their way in the dance music industry? Here Toolroom sits down with Doorly, Adrian Hour, Prince Club’s Max Gendron, and Capa to get the lowdown on their studio set-ups and the equipment they consider essential, as well as some useful advice for anyone starting out in production.
Each of the producers we spoke with started out on roughly the same basic set-ups: a PC, Ableton, and speakers/headphones or, in Gendron’s case, a Macbook with a broken screen handed down to him by his sister. Fast-forward a few years, and have they re-mortgaged their parents’ homes to get the best gear with the highest specs? Far from it. Because of their touring commitments, the producers we spoke to prefer to maintain that “bedroom studio” vibe. Along with his Macbook, Doorly takes a Teenage Engineering OP-1 on the road with him to use as a MIDI keyboard and uses an Apogee Duet soundcard, as well as an Apogee mic for quick vocal and show recordings. Even at home he prefers to thunderbolt his laptop into a big Mac display.
Gendron’s set-up is equally minimal with KRK’s Rokit 6 monitors, an Akai controller, and an M-Audio soundcard. His “Came Back” b/w “The Way I Feel” EP was produced completely on a laptop using his Sennheisers.
Adrian Hour and Capa have similarly modest set-ups: Hour works with his Mac, Ableton Live 9, and KRK VXT8 speakers, and Capa uses an iMac, M-Audio Oxygen MIDI keyboard, Novation Launchpad, Apogee Duet 2, KRK Rokit 5s, and Sennheiser HD25 headphones. But is this really all you need to produce industry-renowned tunes played in clubs worldwide?
The producers’ favorite pieces of kit are do range quite a bit these days. With a nod to old-school styles, Doorly’s latest and most prized purchase is a Roland 303; we’re looking forward to his upcoming productions as he told us to “expect the next few releases to have a lot more acid in them!”
On the other side of the spectrum, Native Instruments’ Maschine is at the top of Gendron’s wish list. Being an experienced drummer, he’s impressed by the program’s authenticity: “If I played you some drum tracks using one of the packs in the acoustic drum banks, it would be difficult for you to tell someone played that on pads. Oh, and speaking of the pads, the response and feel is better than any controller I’ve used to date.”
In contrast, Adrian Hour’s favorite tool is his speakers. He loves the sound and warmth of his KRK VXT8 monitors that give him “an amazing sub low response.” Capa’s favorite combo is Ableton paired with Launchpad, as “you can do so many fun and interesting things with your melodies and drum loops. Also they’re great as a live act addition,” he says.
The producers’ studio choices depend on their history and style, the sounds they want to create, and how they want to use their tracks, but they all agree, there are essentials:
“The dress doesn’t make the monk,” says Gendron, so remember that it’s not the gear that makes the producer. But the consensus is to focus on getting a good computer, speakers, headphones, and the best mic you can afford. As Hour notes, “Nowadays we can achieve almost the same quality sound with software as hardware; in fact, having the software at home is easier, faster, and more convenient.” Both Capa and Gendron state that your own creativity is most important of all because, as Capa says, “You can have every piece of gear in the world, but it still won’t make your music for you.” So once you’ve got the essentials sorted and that spark of inspiration, anything else adds to the texture and depth of your sound.
Now, let’s look at how our producers record sound, listen, and master. “Different types of speakers work for different types of producers,” Gendron notes. “I’ve always liked a good club, subby feel when I produce, so I love the KRKs.”
Doorly goes for versatility with his Pioneer SDJ08s, with their “Mackie Big Knob-esque remote dial that allows you to switch between four different input sources. Plus, you can switch the EQ on or off, which is handy for testing out a track away from the usual flat frequency.”
Capa’s speakers of choice are Genelecs because “they just sound really clean but are still very honest,” where Hour stresses the importance of and difficulty in finding a room with good natural acoustics.
But what about vocals? Gendron studied sound engineering and Hour studied music, mixing, and mastering at electronic music school, so both have some useful insights. Gendron covers the practical points, saying, “A vocal shield is always good, as well as making sure that headphones don’t leak because that can cause light phasing.” He stresses that making the vocalist feel comfortable should be your priority.
Hour’s checklist begins with making sure you “have a good microphone, a room where there is no noise, [and] always a tuner. Melodyne in my opinion is very good,” he adds. “It’s good to use reverbs and delays to generate space and drama. And it’s always good to highlight the cutting frequencies with a good EQ (in my case, Fab Filter EQ); everything below 100 Hz sometimes doesn’t help us. By cutting that area we can avoid the hit of the ‘p’. Compressing with Waves’ API 2500 is a very good tool. And the use of de-esser can also help to eliminate the excesses of ‘shh’ or ‘ehh.’”
Doorly takes a less structured approach. When inspired, he’ll even record “in hotel rooms and at after-parties! Sometimes that magic from those kinds of places is what makes the track and ends up staying in without a re-record.”
For mastering, the producers fall into two camps. While Adrian Hour and Capa master most of their tracks themselves, testing them on different speakers and even, for Capa, driving in a car at high speed, Doorly and Gendron leave it to the experts, using different people depending on the label and style of track.
So, just how important is all this gear to the producers? And what other kind of advice do they have? “Expensive equipment can help us to find the quality or the correct sound we are looking for, but the creative mind is unbeatable,” says Hour.
“Practice doing remixes first and listen to your favourite producers and try to work backwards and learn how they made certain sounds,” says Doorly.
“Finish your tracks: I don’t know any producers who became a success from having 400 unfinished tracks on their laptop!” says Gendron. “Don’t jump bandwagons: stick to what you like because it’s what feels right in your heart.”
Adrian Hour and Capa agree that experimenting with sound is crucial so you can tune your ear and find what is right for you. “Good music takes time to make,” and reaching your goals takes a lot of time, effort, and dedication, says Gendron.