The London-born DJ-producer Sam Watts (a.k.a. Maxxi Soundsystem) has earned himself quite a reputation since he first broke through with 2011’s “Criticize.” As a DJ, he is traveling more than ever and is set to embark on a tour of the U.S. just this month, while his vocal-laden output on leading labels including Culprit, Ellum Audio, and most recently Futureboogie, exhibit the undeniable talents of a still-maturing producer. Following the release of his stunning new In the Woods EP and his recent move away from Brighton to Bristol, XLR8R made the trip to learn more about Watts’ production techniques by sitting down with him in his analog-heavy cave that he co-inhabits with friend and fellow-producer Daniel Pearce (a.k.a. Eats Everything).
You picked up music production very quickly. Was it as easy as it seems?
Music has been always been a part of my life. I did music lessons as a kid, and and I think my Dad’s jazz influences helped me too, but my actual production work started when I met Thomas Gandey who was working on a project known as Cagedbaby. I pretty much learned to produce just by being in the studio, and then I also started a music-production course in the evenings. This definitely taught me a lot, from miking up drum kits to basic recording techniques, and then it grew from there.
When did you first begin producing your own music?
I first remember actually producing in Cagedbaby in 2007, using basic electronics and Ableton. I was helping to produce the live show—but that wasn’t released. We did some remixes together, including one for Armand Van Helden, which was the first production I was involved in that was actually released. I then did a couple of remixes for Southern Fried under my own name, and then I did a project with a friend under the name Videodrome—which was then followed by the Maxxi Soundsystem stuff at the end of 2010.
"I just don’t really feel in control when I produce digitally—I enjoy the manual process of making music."
Your studio is very hardware-heavy. How long has it taken you to acquire all of this equipment?
This stuff is expensive! I started off with just a PC, Cubase and a MIDI keyboard, and then the first thing I bought was the Nord Lead 3 synth. And then slowly, as I started looking for certain sounds, it became clear to me that analog was the way I wanted to go. The first thing I bought was the Oberheim 1000 for 250 pounds, followed soon thereafter with my Moog for about 300 pounds. I didn’t really buy anything for ages then, except changing my monitors—which made a huge difference. It was only when I started to DJ more regularly that I could then afford what I really wanted: the Jupiter and the SH-101, which isn’t here because it’s broken at the moment. I’ve also got another Nord on its way. All the big stuff came within the last three years.
Your breakthrough track “Criticize” is very sample-laden. Why did you begin moving over to hardware-based production techniques?
At the beginning it was all samples—I was just going through records and looking for samples. My desire to use synths and move into hardware happened because I wanted to learn to construct these samples that I was using. With drums it is a little easier because you can get away with it, and there are only really a few drum machines that are most commonly used in dance music, particularly the Roland 808 and 909. I then got addicted with bass sounds which are very difficult to sample, so then I started to teach myself how to build them better. I’ve reached the point today where I am not really using any samples at all—and I am actually considering going back to using them once again. I feel now that I have left that behind too quickly.
And why is it that you continue to adopt such a hardware-heavy production technique?
I’ve seen people get some amazing things out of software, but hardware still just works for me. I just don’t really feel in control when I produce digitally—I enjoy the manual process of making music.
Do you record the synths by hand, or do you normally use a MIDI?
I play them by hand regularly. I am not a particularly virtuoso musician but sometimes it just works, and MIDI can go wrong quite easily so it is best to just record it.
Does the unpredictability of this equipment often lead to some surprises in your music?
Yes, and that makes it really fun. For example, the “Regrets” bassline was made using software that I was using before I had the controller for the Oberheim. I was just using a mouse to control the filters and that’s why there are so many weird changes in volume throughout the track.
Do you still use Cubase today, or are you using different software?
I am now pretty much solidly using Ableton for the sequencing side of things, along with a few of the Max for Live bits. As far as I am concerned, there is nothing that Logic can do that Ableton can’t, assuming you know what you’re doing.
You’ve just moved from Brighton to Bristol. What do you look for in a studio?
My studio must be a cozy little haven, and there needs to be some vibe. It also has to be dark, without any windows. You see a lot of Berlin studios which are very stark, even though the equipment is amazing. I want there to be stuff in there—even this one is actually quite minimal for me. The only issue is that it’s not open 24 hours, so I can’t do late-night sessions!
How does it compare to the one you had in Brighton?
This is a lot tidier and it doesn’t smell. The one in Brighton was a little grimy, in a way. There are plenty of grimy placed in Bristol I could move to…but I may be over that now. This studio sounds great and it’s a nice size—I don’t like anything too massive. But it doesn’t quite feel like home yet.
Do you have a specific production routine that you follow?
Following the move, my routines are changing a little bit. In Brighton, my routine was always the same that you get when you are DJing: I would work from six in the evening until about four in the morning. Apart from being quite unhealthy because I didn’t see much sunlight, it worked great for me because there would never be any hangover from the weekend. I would just be having those nighttime hours all the time.
How has the move to Bristol affected your production routines?
This studio shuts at 11pm so I can’t produce at night anymore! I am currently in the process of trying to work during the day but it’s proving to be difficult. The summer is a difficult time to work because I am DJing a lot and there are lots of distractions, but we’ll see how it goes when the summer is over.
I imagine the tranquility of working at night also helps too?
Absolutely. The day is full of e-mails and loads of other things going on, but at night there is really nothing else left to disturb me. I need a solid few hours just to get warmed up, but that’s just how it is. I do admire people who can just start working and get focused right from the start, but I have always found that difficult.
Do you think it is important that you have a work space (i.e. a studio) clearly defined from your home space?
It depends on the individual. For me, having a place separate from my home definitely helps me get into the headspace I need to produce music. I need a studio where there is a not much light, where I can just lose myself easily for as long as I can. I started off producing at home and I always found that there are too many distractions. Some people can get really focused very quickly, but I have always needed my own separate space that exists just for producing music, without the distractions of every day live.
"I do admire people who can just start working and get focused right from the start, but I have always found that difficult."
Production block is a well known problem for music artists. How do you try to combat it?
Inspiration is funny because it comes in bursts. I go through patches where I struggle to drag myself away from the studio, and other periods where I just can’t produce anything. I find that going out to nightclubs to watch other artists perform, or spending time with them in their studios, is a really good way to find inspiration.I am very lucky that I am DJing a lot, and that definitely supports the production in this way.
You say that DJing can inspire you, but it can also limit your time in the studio too. Do you use Ableton to produce sketches when you're on the road, or do you only produce in the studio?
I can not produce when I am on the road. As you can see, I like synths, and if I haven’t got all this equipment around me then I find it extremely challenging to come up with ideas, unless they are edits. The best thing for me is to have a really good session in the studio, writing lots of sounds, and then using the time on the road for editing. I will then come back to the studio to mix it. Obviously edits and DJ stuff can be done on the road with some headphones, but I have never written a song on the road. However, I suspect this might have to change as my DJ schedule grows.
While you only actually work on tracks in the studio, do you find yourself always analyzing the sketches of the productions that you’re working on?
Yes. In this sense, the production process is 24-hour. It’s great because when I leave the studio, I can drop an MP3 into Dropbox, and by the time I get back in my car I can listen to it on the way home. When I have got to a certain point with a track, I will listen to it constantly to analyze it. I know that’s probably not a good thing to do, but it is an important part of the process, and I enjoy it if I know I can work on it the following day. I am thinking about it all the time.
You’ve also spoken previously about a need to change your equipment to keep your ideas fresh. How does this work?
New bits of equipment are the best way to keep yourself inspired. For a long period, I was a big advocate of a minimal setup—like I had one synth, and I basically just learned it inside out. I realized just how many different sounds you can get out of just one piece of kit. So when I bought some more stuff it really inspired me, because I had already learned the science behind building my own sounds—and it immediately gave me so many new ideas. Although there have certainly been some bits of equipment that I’ve bought that haven’t really inspired me at all, there have been some—like the Roland Jupiter—that have blown my mind. Right now, I am more into buying the effects units or EQs and raising the production game.
What do you look for in the equipment that you use?
I like synths and plug-ins that do one thing really well. It’s the ones that say they do everything that I struggle with. It’s the same with restaurants that try and say they have French, Mexican and Chinese.
Is there any piece of equipment that you feel like you’re currently missing?
It’s funny, because I have never actually owned a drum machine. I’ve got a friend’s TR8 here and have borrowed 808s and 909s before, but I have pretty much always used samples for drums. I have a pretty set process for how I use them—it’s quite laborious and I think that may be why my stuff sounds like me—but I am still interested in actually getting my own drum machine. I also haven’t bought much outboard rack EQs, effects and compressors, and I think this might be an important step forward for me too.
"It’s the ones that say they do everything that I struggle with. It’s the same with restaurants that try and say they have French, Mexican and Chinese."
Would you say your production process is always changing, or do you have a basic formula?
I used a lot of the same drum sounds for a long time, and I have started most of my recent tracks with the SH-101. I think this helps me a lot because it gives me the foundations. However, generally speaking, the process is always changing, because I am not very good at doing the same thing again and again. Some people are really good at getting that formula down and then having lots of variations, but I pretty much start again every time. That’s why when you do find something good that you’re into, it’s always good to do two or three tracks around that same time because that is when that formula works—but after that short period of writing has finished, I cannot go back to it and do it again.
Would you say that most of your tracks are conceptualized prior to writing and recording, or are a lot of these a result of spontaneous jamming and random ideas?
A lot the time it is just random jamming. Songs like “Regrets” and “Stella’s Way” happen really fast and are just the result of messing around in the studio. “Regrets,” for example, was done with Jack [Name One] literally writing the lyrics while I was jamming around to find the bassline. It was just one of those weird moments where it all just came together—and it was the same with “Stella’s Way.” I was using a MIDI sequencer, and I was getting it to play some analog synths. I stumbled upon that little loop, and took one take of that and then played over the top of it. You cannot try to recreate these moments. I think it’s best not to think about it, because if you do try to make up a plan to get to a certain sound then you won’t get there.
So it really is just sheer randomness in your productions?
Yes, and I know it’s a little weird. Other producers can do commercial productions where they create a specific sound that they have in their head. I find that really difficult. I have tried and found something almost like it or something I like better, but it’s tough for me to get the exact sound. You have to put in lots of hours to find the good stuff so I suppose you could describe that as random.
Your new EP on Futureboogie is very different to what you’ve produced previously. Did the production process differ too?
Musically speaking, there is definitely more depth to it. I think that is probably just more indicative of me being slightly better at layering up sounds.
"You have to put in lots of hours to find the good stuff so I suppose you could describe that as random."
Did it take longer to produce than other EPs?
"In the Woods" certainly took longer than my other tracks. That went through about four or five different versions, which is quite rare. Also, “Near Me," the track with Danielle [Moore], was the first time I have released a track where I have sent someone a track who has then just sung on it. I have done it before with very little success, but she knows what she is doing and it worked great.
On the subject of vocals, you use them a lot. Is there a reason for this?
A lot of it was a reaction to a lot of vocals in house tracks being pointless in terms of lyrical content. I am not saying that I invented the wheel on vocal house records, but I just like it when the words have some meaning. When I started off using samples, it wasn’t really up to me to decide what the vocals were—but I often used different vocals from different records and tried to make them make sense. And then when I started working with singers, I made a point to give the vocals a meaning rather than just adding texture—and that is one reason why working with Name One is so good. He has a background is writing lyrics and this can make the tracks more interesting.
How do you know when a track is ready?
I know it sounds obvious, but the track is only ready when I can listen to it all the way through without wanting to change something. I think it is also important to give yourself a deadline, and stick to it. I need at least a little pressure to finally say something is finished.
"There is a Quincy Jones quote I like: "If you don't get the tingles, how do you expect anyone else to?"— and I try to bear that in mind."
Do you show your tracks to anyone before you release them?
I do have a small number of people that I will show each track to before I send them out. I don’t usually send unfinished music to label people. There are certain attachments that people get to things when they hear them for the first time, and so if that person is going to judge it for a label it can be a bad idea to show it to them before it is ready. It think it is often best to share your work in its earlier stages to more neutral friends and family who don't work in music, as they will give you their opinion without any agenda attached.
When people do have suggestions, do you listen to them or do you know trust yourself enough?
It depends on each case really. The first case I had was when I did a track on Hotwaves called “Open Your Eyes,” where Jamie Jones told me to remove a sample and add real vocals instead. I made all his changes and he totally made it better. That was really great, but it was at the start of my career. Nowadays it happens a little less because I know more about what I am doing.
You must have loops and sketches of track that you’re not happy with. When does it get to the point that you know you have to let the sketch or loop go, instead of continuing to develop it?
It’s hard, and I think you’ve got to just create a rule on this one. It is too easy just to relentlessly go on and on playing with a short loop. Dance music is often an immediate thing. There is a Quincy Jones quote I like: "If you don't get the tingles, how do you expect anyone else to?"— and I try to bear that in mind. For me, if I am a sick of it after three hours then I will bin it. It’s a rule that I have but that I haven’t always stuck with.