Millhouse and Diarmaid O’Maera’s Gobsmacked has long been a proponent of rough and ready techno. With its roots in Ireland, the now Berlin-based label has endeared itself to fans of a harder edged sound over the years courtesy of its unrelenting desire to push things forward whilst consistently adhering to a quality-fuelled ethos.
The label’s latest signing is a fitting one in that regard. U.S. / Canadian DJ/producer JGarrett has been involved in the scene for some time now and is chiefly renowned for his work at his own label, Subspec. A native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, the producer is currently living in Vancouver, Canada and this latest release marks his first since a recent appearance on Perc’s inimitable Perc Trax.
With this in mind, we put a few pertinent studio Questions his way recently. Here’s what he had to say…
How did you first get into the technical side of music production and where/how did you learn your craft?
I started getting into the technical side pretty early on when I started making my own tracks. At the time it was about collecting up gear and learning about mixing with a variety sources with a very limited palette… and finding ways to make the tracks compelling. Early on, I picked up techniques and best practices from my peers in the Ann Arbor / Detroit techno community that I was involved with when I started approaching it more seriously. Sometimes, jumping into the deep end is one of the best ways to learn.
I learned the importance of reliable monitors and a high-quality, neutral mixdown when I had the privilege to witness the legendary Ron Murphy cut my first 12”. It was like getting a bucket of cold water dumped on me… I could hear everything wrong with my setup and my monitoring. I went out and bought new monitors the next day. Since then, I’ve worked with a number of people who have strong technical skills and more or less developed my technique by working with them, as well as keeping up with articles and using reference books like ‘Mixing Audio’ by Roey Izhaki. I’m very much a learn by doing type.
What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced when you started making music?
Back when I started, which was in the mid-90s, the challenges were two-prong… the first was assembling a decent set of gear with my limited resources. The second was understanding how to get it all to play together and developing a workflow with it to do what I wanted. I had a few boxes, and limited effects and processing units.
Occasionally, friends would loan me some pieces of kit for a while. That was hard too, because I wanted the flexibility to come back to tracks… so I really wanted to own all my stuff and not rely on other folks giving me access to equipment. I had friends who were great at finding deals on used gear and would sell or trade gear at reasonable prices. I built up my studio over time that way until I transitioned to more software-based production.
Things are different now, and people getting into music production these days have DAWs that come packed with amazing toolkits and the number of instances of compressors, for example, within a setup is only limited by their computer’s resources. When I bought my Aphex 108, I had two channels of compression and had to be very judicious about how I used it, because I recorded live to DAT as opposed to multitracking.
What was your first studio set up?
The studio that my first releases came out of, circa 1995-1997, was based around Opcode Vision running on a Mac 7600/120 in the studio and a PowerBook 5300cs when I’d play live. For monitoring in the studio, I had a pair of Alesis Monitor 2’s, and I recorded to a Sony consumer DAT. I had a pair of Roland Alpha Junos with a PG-300 that I could route to either one or both. My MIDI interface was an Opcode Studio 4, which was a fantastic piece of gear and provided a lot of routing options.
Other items in that rig were: Novation BassStation Rack, Roland R-8 (with Dance card), Roland S-550 sampler, Sequential Circuits DrumTraks, Simmons SDS9, Yamaha DX7, Korg 05r/w, Lexicon LXP5, Lexicon Alex, DigiTech StudioTwin, Roland TR-707, Aphex 104, Aphex 108, Mackie CR1604, and a Radio Shack mix mixer that I used as a really raw distortion unit. Eventually, I would incorporate a Roland JP-8000 and an Akai S3000xl into the mix along with a bunch of different effects units. The Akai is what really opened up sampling for me and taught me that I could love samplers.
What is your current studio set up?
My current studio setup is very streamlined. I use a MacBook Pro with an RME Babyface Pro driving a pair of Dynaudio BM6A Mk2 monitors. I know a lot of people swear by the original BM6A, but I went with the BM6A Mk2 because when I did an A/B test between them, the detail in the mids and lower highs were much clearer in the Mk2. I can see why people would find the originals to be more comfortable, but I really like how the Mk2’s illuminate the part of the mix that so much of the energy comes from and can be difficult to mix correctly… it does mean that I have to sometimes drive that part of the spectrum a little harder in the studio in order to get a more neutral mix that will play nicely across various playback scenarios. These days, my outboard gear is pared down to a couple analog TB-303 emulators. I use a Push 2 and a pair of MIDI Fighter Twisters as controllers in the studio… I’ve become very comfortable playing the Push 2 as a keyboard and find it at least as expressive as a traditional keyboard.
What is your DAW of choice?
I’m an Ableton Live guy. I’m also an Ableton Certified Trainer and I’ve been using it since I picked up version 3 in 2004… it’s become second nature to me now. When I first moved off of Opcode Vision, I went to Steinberg Cubase SL for production and Ableton Live for performing. I gradually shifted to Live as they improved the MIDI features and the rendering engine.
What are your favorite plugins?
One of my go-to synths is Rob Papen’s Predator 2. I used Predator a lot, but moved to the newer version when it came out. It’s a really solid, very useful, all-purpose synth. It’s very easy to program… it can do punchy and deep and can also cut through a mix quite well. It’s got some almost analog character to it. It’s got some really interesting effects and poly settings that give it a lot of character too.
On a less glamorous note, I’ve been really enjoying Waves F6 lately. You can do some really cool stuff with the gain thresholds to create emphasis or keep frequencies under control. I’ve been using it in mastering lately when some aspects of the premaster mixdowns don’t provide the contrast between the body of a kick and a running bass, or taming screaming frequencies in the upper mids. Plus, it’s fun to watch the EQ respond like a rubber band.
Another of my favorite plugins is the D16 Devastor. That’s one that you’re likely to hear at least one instance of in all of my tracks. It’s a good digital distortion unit and is very versatile.
I’ve been checking out a bunch of new ones as well lately. In particular, there’s HoRNet. They provide a bunch of very reasonably priced utility type plugins that often focus on narrow functionality, but performing it really well. My events crew did a show with Claude Young a few weeks back and he clued me into a bunch of plugins I wasn’t aware of before
What is your approach to sound design/sampling?
Sometimes, I’d like to be the kind of producer who spends time developing a palette of cool patches and then works on making tracks out of them later… but that’s just not my workflow. I tend to build my tracks and my patches together. I’m also really into resampling… so I may start with a synth sound or a percussion element, and then take it a sampling plugin, like Live’s Sampler, Simpler, or NI’s Kontakt and play around with filters and envelopes and layering and build sounds up that way.
I don’t spend a lot of time with audio clips until I’m fairly far into the process. MIDI is still central to how I approach my sound design. That can be a challenge, because using a sampler can lead to things sounding cheap — like early 90s happy hardcore rave tracks. It can take extra effort to work nuance into sampler patches and instruments. Often what I do is, I’ll have an idea for a sound I want, and I’ll work it up in a synth, and then record that into an audio track, and then use that clip as a source within a sampling instrument and kind of layer and build from there.
Since I make techno, I also spend a lot of time on effects, which are the secret sauce to this music. They help create the forward momentum and sense of movement you need to produce a compelling track. I’ll use effects heavily when doing resampling. I’ll often use different effects in left and right channels on the same sound source, or pan layers apart to create a much wider soundscape.
What advice would you give to the modern electronic musician?
Try creating limitations for yourself. Do exercises like: “Can I finish an entire track just using one drum rack in Live?” Try to pare things down to focus on a small set of elements and get them to tell the same story… pay more attention to how your track sounds and how it moves than to how you’re making it. I shouldn’t have to know your process in order to know if your track is compelling. It’s about what’s coming out of the speakers, not how you got there.
What is your current live/club set up?
My live setup backline is essentially identical to my studio setup. I perform with Ableton Live, using my Push 2 for clip launching, mixing, some device control, step sequencing drums, etc…. I also use one or two MIDI Fighter Twisters, that are configured identically, so I can use any combination of 2 of the four banks each has. I have brought out my TT-303 for live sets from time to time. My live set is always evolving and incorporating new tracks. I could probably perform live for 6 or more hours without repeating material. I often play 3 hour live sets at Gorg-O-Mish afterhours here in Vancouver. My set mostly consists of short audio loops, except where I need to be able to modulate synths in a way that audio clips won’t allow… for example, tweaking synth with a filter that also has an envelope applied. I’m a sucker for tweaking acid lines and basses and filters, so I try to keep as much of that at my fingertips as I can in order to keep more of the sound spontaneous. I never plan my sets… I generally only know the track I’m going to start with and from there I can mash up and rearrange my tracks on the fly.
What have been your highlights of the past 12 months?
The biggest thing for me this year was releasing a track, ‘Rushing to Singularity,’ on the digital edition of the Perc Trax compilation ‘Forever 1.’ That was amazing. We went through a number of iterations of the track that Perc was road testing for a number of months starting in mid-2017, as we came up to the version that would eventually be released. Ali is known for being very discerning in what he chooses to release; and it’s been a massive honor to appear on such an esteemed label. Dense and Pika played ‘Rushing to Singularity’ in their set at Ultra Europe, which was a bit of a cherry on top.
The Bassment hosted a Subspec (my label) showcase in Detroit during Movement this year. That was a lot of fun. Rustal and Mick Finucan came over from Dublin and JAK from SubSensory played as well. I’ve got huge respect for what Body Mechanic and The Butcher are doing with the Bassment. I also had a remix of Sean Tate’s ‘A Matter of Creation’ 12” on his RWYS label. The track ‘A Matter of Creation (Sunlight Lane Mix)’ is mine. Really nice to have something out on vinyl again and to work with guys who are really doing things from the heart and for the right reasons.
I had several EPs on Irregular Synth’s Dirty Minds label this year that have gotten a bunch of love. A couple tracks from my Recombinant EP on Advanced (Black) have shown up in mixes from DJs I have a great deal of respect for. Overall, it’s been a great year for me in terms of my music. It’s been great to have the support of so many artists who I truly look up to and whose music I’ve admired for some time. Just generally connecting with a wider international community has been great. I’m very excited to be releasing the Proximity EP on Gobsmacked shortly here too.
What are your upcoming releases?
On October 15, my third EP of heavy industrial techno on Dirty Minds comes out, the EP and title track are listed as ‘Sleeping Poison,’ but the cover art shows ‘Seeping Poison.’ The cover got it right, but I’m OK with it. It’s a similar idea anyway.
On November 5th, my debut EP on Berlin’s Gobsmacked, entitled ‘Proximity,’ comes out. I think of this EP as kind of a fusion of industrial techno and jacking techno. It’s got some noise, but it’s got something for the speaker jackers too.
JGarrett’s Proximity EP is out 05/11 on Gobsmacked Records. Listen to the release here
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