In the Studio: Tzusing - XLR8R

In the Studio: Tzusing

Technical conversations with one of contemporary techno's most exciting names.
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There's a lot of interest in Tzusing's album debut, 東方不敗. The seven-track release, landing in the early months of 2017, followed a string of well-received EPs via Public Possession, Born Free Records, and Ron Morelli's L.I.E.S, which also housed the long-player. Few would deny that it justified the hype—satisfying those who had been monitoring the young producer's progress since 2014's A Name Out Of Place Pt.I breakthrough.

Tzusing was born in Malaysia before relocating to Singapore, Taiwan, Shanghai, and then San Diego, where he stayed before moving again to Chicago—where his interest in music blossomed. He's since returned to Shanghai, dividing his time between there and Taipei, all the while running a bicycle parts company that allows him to retain artistic freedom. He has two studios, one in each city.

In terms of production, Tzusing began experimenting in high school, around 1998/9, after buying a Roland MC-505. His goal, he explains, was to make "Mowax, Portishead-type music," a far cry from the gut-churning industrial grooves and twisted melodies he shares today. A cracked copy of Sonic Foundry’s Acid software then progressed his work, allowing him to draw samples from his environment, a skill very much evidenced in his more recent material. Then, after a six-year hiatus during which he focused on business, he began to replicate the four-to-the-floor beats of his DJ sets, with a particular focus on the house works of JTC. Techno, by and large, arrived by accident. "I wrote "ISMS (TNXILS)" on a whim," he explains. "It was a departure from me trying to copy JTC style house music."

Fast forward four years and Tzusing has become one of the most exciting producers in contemporary techno. His style, with its industrial basslines, intelligent sample manipulation, and subtle references to his East Asian upbringing, is one he's made his own—and also one that's seeing his profile rise considerably over the last 12 months. To learn more about the processes and principles behind it, we dialled in with Tzusing one day at his Taipei studio.

Firstly, congratulations on the debut album. Are you surprised at how well it was received?

Thank you, and yes, I had no expectations about this album. It’s unlike the more industrial/EBM-techno dance tracks I was doing before. I thought it was going to alienate people because I was trying out some ideas and some of these ideas don’t fit neatly into well-defined genres.

Did you mean for it to be “less industrial” and out of the mold? How clear was the aesthetic before you went into the studio?

The aesthetic was pretty clear to me before going into the studio. I didn’t want it to be “less industrial,” I just wanted it to be more “me.” I wanted to make tracks that would leave me feeling insecure about how people would judge it. Once a type of music becomes codified it’s easier to know what’s a hit and what isn’t a hit. When you make something “new,” it takes longer to process and it’s more likely that listeners won’t know how to judge it at first.

What do you think made it stand out from other techno albums?

Precisely because it doesn’t fit into the traditional moulds of techno. I have always felt that there are a lot of sounds you could experiment with. And I find it puzzling that people don’t exploit these avenues.

The album is named after Dongfang Bubai, a character from a Jin Yong novel. Was it always the intention to draw more direct references to your Chinese roots or did you just want to add some texture?

I wanted to use DongFang Bubai because the character could match the grandness and also the nuanced emotions in the album. The fight scenes in the movie adaptation of DongFang Bubai are also inspirational for the kind of feeling I’m expressing. It feels restrictive to only use western naming and western references. The Chinese language can express many things that English cannot and vice versa.

To be honest, I find it very challenging talking about anything outside of general western influences. I don’t want to wear this whole "Chinese-ness" on me like I’m some spokesman. I’m wary of this because “otherness” (non-whiteness) has often been used in gimmicky ways. My western friends keep bringing up this point, but to my Chinese friends that grew up with DongFang Bubai from their childhood, they wouldn’t even conceive of this being a problem. My western friends that are familiar with western cultural media would second guess my intentions and even presume I’m using Chinese references to pander to current trends.

With the different tuning systems and textures, do you think Asian musical elements can express emotions and feelings that western music can’t?

Yes, this is true. Even in a different Chinese dialect, there are words that you can’t express in Mandarin Chinese. Or even an accent; British English feels so different than American English.

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Where and when was the album produced? How long did it take?

Mostly in a year. It was mainly produced in my Shanghai studio, some bits in Taipei. I have a studio in Shanghai and a slightly more stripped down one in Taipei.

Which came first—Taipei or Shanghai?

Shanghai, because I didn’t move to Taipei until two years ago. As a teen growing up in Taichung, I always had this fantasy of moving to the big city of Taipei. It seems bizarre as Shanghai is a much bigger city but nostalgia is a pretty powerful thing. I really enjoy Taiwanese people, food, and the city so I decided to move there—so I needed to set up a studio there.

What are the studios like?

My Shanghai studio is in such a weird space so I can’t hear the sub frequencies because of the annoying room positioning. The studio is in my living space so I can’t really use the speakers at night because of the neighbours, but that’s pretty standard. My Taipei studio is pretty cramped. It’s located in the centre of the city which gives me a lot of energy but also means I’m out drinking with friends a lot instead of working on music! On the other hand, I love my Shanghai studio for the view; I like looking at the top of the trees outside of my apartment. The biggest difference between the two is the space. The larger studio in Shanghai does make me feel different, less stressed, out and more able to focus on writing.

That’s two very different environments. Does this influence the type of music that you make when you’re in them?

I’m not sure if it influences the style of my music but being away from the city centre in my Shanghai studio helps me concentrate—which is important because I have very serious attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). That does make a huge difference in my workflow. Also, having a sub in my Taipei studio obviously helps with producing music with the low end so you will notice significantly more bass in my newer productions because of this acquisition.

"I usually buy gear that offers a solution to the sound I’m looking for. I hear a sound I like in a record and I research what that sound is made from."

Barring the sub in Taipei, are the setups similar in each studio, or is the equipment very different?

They are similar in that most of the hardware gear that I buy is either a harsh mono synth or a distortion/saturation unit. I usually buy gear that offers a solution to the sound I’m looking for. I hear a sound I like in a record and I research what that sound is made from. My purchases are usually driven like this.

What was the last bit of gear you bought, and what specific sound were you looking for?

The last big purchase was Soundtoys 5 because I’m looking for saturation/distortion without using hardware. The overdrive on their EQ is subtle and excellent. A more recent small purchase is FFS Rhythmic Convolutions that my friend Jon got me into. It adds these interesting textures to your sound source. The effect varies greatly depending on what you feed it. They are impulse responses for whatever convolution reverb you are using.

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Let’s go back a little Do you remember when you first began to gravitate towards techno music?

The first time I heard a proper “techno” track was in middle school from my brother’s friend. He came from the US. It was Josh Wink’s “Higher State of Consciousness” and it blew my mind. I knew at that exact moment that rock and guitar music was over for me. As for production, it’s always been about producing the record I wish existed; the record I would love to hear. I don’t think I focus on it, I think one listens to a lot of different kinds of music and through that they find what’s appealing and what resonates. A subconscious mood board is happening without any awareness of it.

When did you first begin experimenting with production?

It was my junior year in high school 1998-1999 when I first got a Roland MC-505. I bought it while on vacation in the US, but it failed to do what I wanted it to do. I wanted to make Mowax, Portishead type music. I had no idea what tools I actually needed to make this music. 2000 is when I got a cracked copy of Sonic Foundry’s Acid. Although it’s rudimentary, it was helpful in achieving this sound I wanted. Acid does almost nothing compared to today's DAWs but just the simple fact that it could sample music and I could use WAV files means that I was able to achieve the more organic sounds you hear in trip-hop, just by sampling the actual records themselves.

What did your early experiments sound like?

In a way, it’s not unlike what you hear from me now. I was using samples from my environment that inspired me. I was sampling a lot of Wong Kar Wai films and using them in a trip-hop context.

Does sampling still make up a large part of your production process?

Yes, I still sample, not to that large a degree anymore because there are many good pre-made drum samples and sound effects already. I’m not sampling but I’m using samples.

When did these experiments begin to morph into what you make today?

While I was making trip-hop I was also Djing house/techno. I always wanted to make dancefloor music. It was only at the end of my college years that I finally started making four-to-the-floor music. It wasn’t anything conscious.

How did you learn?

Everything is pretty much trial and error. The internet and forums are helpful. My friend Hamacide was living in Shanghai at the time when I started producing again (I took six years off after college) and I got lots of tips from him.

What sort of things did he teach you?

It’s just an overall awareness of your mix. That simple tools like EQing and the volume knob can do so much.

Can you tell me some of the most important standout lessons you’ve learned?

Carving out space for each sound with either frequency or with placement. Try spreading, centring, or panning a sound. Giving each sound its own space. I also write music with the awareness of the mix. From the start, in the compositional process; I tend to not use sounds that fight each other for the same frequency spectrum. In a way, I am already mixing just based on my sound selection.

"A key realisation is that the frequency spectrum is limited, and carving out space for each sound means that you will have to sacrifice certain parts of a sound to make room for the others."

Can you be more precise as to how you do this?

Say you have a kick drum you are using, and your bass line’s frequency conflicts with the kick drum—I would change the bass line patch with something that is less weighty, and less likely to conflict with the kick drum. A key realisation is that the frequency spectrum is limited, and carving out space for each sound means that you will have to sacrifice certain parts of a sound to make room for the others.

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When you started producing again, after college, did you have a clear sound in mind?

Yes, I was trying to copy my favourite producer Tadd Mullinix’s JTC (2 AM/FM, TNT) house production. It was frustrating because none of my tracks were coming out like the JTC sound I wanted. At one point I gave up because I realized I’m not him and as much as his music resonates with me, I found that I couldn’t produce music like that. What’s odd is that producing music became much easier once that stress had left me. People say it’s hard to have your own sound, but what I found is that it is much easier to have your own sound than trying to copy someone else’s—in my case JTC’s. But the ideas were pretty clear before I started.

"The artist’s ability to process these different inputs and then output something unlike the input is what we are referring to when we use the term originality."

You say it’s easier to make your own sound than copy someone else’s, but do you think it’s important to always have clear reference points?

I don’t think it’s possible to have no reference point. We are just combinations and reinterpretations of our influences. Producers that are considered original still have reference points. Usually when someone makes something original one can see the artist having created something greater than the sum of its parts. The influences come together and the output is something we have never heard before. The artist’s ability to process these different inputs and then output something unlike the input is what we are referring to when we use the term originality.

Do you think you need to stop focusing on replicating other styles in order for your style to develop?

I’m not sure, but I have found that this was true for me. I have read an interview with JTC where he has said he enjoys working within very defined frames and yet he has so much personal flavour. I think it’s different for everyone.

What was your first setup—all in the box, I assume?

That MC505, which I guess is all in a box, and yeah Sonic Foundry Acid. It was all in the box during my college years. I started buying hardware after my hiatus around late 2011 when I started producing again.

What were the first pieces of gear that you bought? Do you still use any of them today?

In 2011 I bought the Korg MS20, Metasonix S1000, and a Doepfer Dark Time. And yes, I still use them. I’m really happy with these purchases.

Your first release was “Teeth” on Clan Destine RecordsDark Acid III 2013 compilation. How did this release come about?

I had made some tracks and was sending it out to the smaller labels I enjoyed. Clan Destine had put out Dark Acid I and it had some pretty cool guys so it made sense. I was pretty much cold calling labels. I picked ones that didn’t have too many likes on Facebook. This is important because at least they might have time to check out your demos!

The track has a clear techno aesthetic. Can you remember a distinct moment when this particular aesthetic began to develop?

I do, actually. I wrote “ISMs” (on my first L.I.E.S. EP) on a whim. It was very late at night and it just felt like a track I needed to write. It was a departure from me trying to copy JTC-style house music. I remember sending it to my friend ILLSEE and she said she loved it. That encouragement really meant a lot. It felt like a step that I had been looking to make for a while.

Is it fair to say that this was the first moment you felt happy with your sound and style?

It was the easiest music for me to make; it felt natural, unforced, and, sometimes, effortless. I was totally ecstatic.

So did you quickly move forward to produce many more tracks with a similar aesthetic?

Not exactly “quickly,” because I don't work quickly but yes, with some encouragement the confidence did help me move forward with this type of sound.

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Interestingly, you also run a bicycle parts company. Does having a job on the side of your music help or hinder your work in the studio?

Besides taking up time that I could otherwise spend in the studio, I can’t see it really helping or hindering my work.

How much time do you spend in the studio? Do you allocate a certain number of hours a day/week or is it just the case of going to the studio when you have inspiration?

I pretty much only work when I feel excited about making music. I don’t want it to feel like work, ever. I think too much music sounds like work. It literally sounds like someone sitting in a freaking cubicle hating their life. But I do know some people that force themselves to work, and the work that comes is still pretty amazing, so yeah…

"We are over saturated with superfluous music as it is. I don’t want to add to that pile, I don’t want to be in the dollar bin. It would be so heartbreaking."

It’s not easy to stick by this idea when there are labels and release deadlines. Do you try not to put yourself under pressure?

I don’t have so much output and I try not to put myself in that situation. I did just do a remix for someone under time pressure and it turned out fine. I don’t take on more than I can handle, though. I’d rather have less output (fewer mixes; fewer tracks) than putting out sub-par stuff. We are over saturated with superfluous music as it is. I don’t want to add to that pile, I don’t want to be in the dollar bin. It would be so heartbreaking.

Given that you’ve just produced an album now, are you taking some time away from the studio?

Just to absolutely contradict everything I just said, my Chinese familial upbringing makes me feel guilty for not working harder, serving some purpose for society. I constantly feel like I need to spend more time making music.

So how do you maintain this excitement?

I find it really helps to not listen to the same genre of music all the time. I explore new genres, which keeps digging interesting. I think we can enjoy most genres of music if we push ourselves to understand the aesthetic that makes up the genre. I equate it to drinking alcohol: as a child the first time you have a drink, it didn’t taste particularly good, over time you begin to understand the beauty of it. The same is true with different genres.

Roughly speaking, how many days do you spend producing each month?

Sometimes I could spend two weeks straight obsessed; sometimes I don’t open Ableton for a month.

And what dictates this: just whether you want to be in the studio?

Yes exactly, if I feel like I’m excited about making music.

I suppose this is why you continue the bike company job: it means you aren’t relying on music for money. 

Absolutely. Some people are able to juggle this really well but I have also seen instances of it hindering people. With the company I have the ultimate luxury of not compromising or watering down what I want to do. I don’t have to do 26 mixes for cash.

Speaking more generally, do you have a specific production routine that you follow?

No, not at all. I rebuild kits each time—meaning I spend ages sorting out layers to form a kick again, or I’ll build up a snare from different sounds, or go through what could be used for hi-hats. It’s ridiculous. It’s really time-consuming and not efficient. I will rarely use a prebuilt drum kit and I almost never reuse drum sounds from another track. But all this isn’t what’s important. The key is that you are able to identify a good idea. To be able to identify what is feeling good and expanding on it.

You say it’s “time-consuming” but you produced your album in a year while working another job. How do you manage it?

The bike parts business is one that I run and manage myself so the hours are very flexible. The businesses would undoubtedly be more successful if I didn’t start taking music so seriously!

On the subject of these “good ideas,” do they often come to you when you’re outside the studio?

Yes absolutely. The feeling or idea never comes from inside the studio. For me, I go to the studio to express these feelings or ideas. They come to me in the shower, when I’m talking to friends, walking around, skating, about to go to bed; ideas are plentiful, the laziness to execute them is also overwhelming. If there was an app at some point in time that can translate my feeling/ideas into music, there wouldn’t really be a need for me to have a studio.

What exactly do you mean by a “good idea?” Do they come in melodies?

Not always. It’s the feeling a track leaves you with. It’s sometimes how a sample could be used in a track. Or how a drum sound programed in a certain way will make you feel. I think about the feeling first.

Can you give me an example one of these ideas and how it developed?

"Face of Electric," for example, is inspired by the sample which is Balinese Ketjak. I felt that I could re-contextualize the track to the club music that I work within. The type of synth sounds and drums sounds I use to express is a similar feeling that they do with their music. I was borrowing their ideas (very directly) and expressing it in a modern tongue. In this case, the idea is hearing the correlation between my “sound” and their music and being able to see how their sample can sit in this context.

How do you record these "good ideas?" Do you have a process?

I do take very rough notes in my notes app on the iPhone. Since I’m only writing it for myself to understand a sentence like “mosquito bites in a subway in Taipei rattling spray can sounds with reverb pitched up” will make perfect sense to me. Sometimes I forget what I’m noting down, which is fine. Like tears in the rain, it’s fine.

How do you generate these “good ideas?” Do you have processes, like walking, reading, or listening to other music?

The ideas just come to me. I do spend a lot of time by myself skating through the city and listening to music so maybe this explains why I don’t need to generate ideas. I wouldn’t know what it’s like without this extra time, say if I was tied to a 9-5 with a wife and kid.

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How do tracks come together? Generally, how long does this take?

“1979” took about four-five hours. “Face of Electric” took about one year, but I wasn’t working on it every day for a year or anything. I generally don’t give up on tracks. Even if the track isn’t working out I’ll take it apart and use some parts of it. So “Face of Electric” was like this, I came back to the track and saw what was salvageable.

Which part, in particular, did you salvage?

The initial drone sound and the synth line that sounds like a swarm of bees at 1:05 are both from an old track that was cannibalized.

Is it easy to identify the specific parts of old sketches that you like?

Yes, this is an essential part of music making. It’s what it means to have your own voice, to have something to say.

How much of this creative process is based on instinct and how much on conscious analysis?

96% instinct; 4% conscious. It’s about tapping into that side of you similar to when you are listening to music. Just this type of listening helps you write the music. Does this make sense?

Can you describe this headspace to me, in more detail?

This is pretty difficult. When you listen to music and you are really engaged with it, it becomes fluid (God, I sound like a fucking hippie!) and encompasses you. You need to be there. If you have never been there you probably haven’t really experienced music in a very intense way and probably shouldn’t be making music. But yes, making music is about writing something that can get you into that space, and it helps to be in that space to make it.

Where you’re completely engaged and immersed in the music, you mean?

Entranced? Hypnotized? When for some reason you feel completely empowered and if a guy double your size steps up to you, you would for a moment be an idiot and think you could take him on.

How easy is it to get into this headspace? Do you have any processes or rituals?

No rituals or processes. Closing my eyes and nodding my head is the only thing really. I hear some people do drugs?

Does alcohol help?

Yes, it totally does but I never make music drunk.

What do you look for in a studio setup?

Speakers and an external monitor screen. I cannot work on a laptop screen.

Is there one piece of equipment that sits at the centre of your operation?

MacBook Pro Retina running Ableton Live. Hardware would be TL Audio Ivory 5013, Culture Rooster/Vulture, and Korg MS20. Other key VSTs are Soundtoys’ plugins and Native Instruments’ Kontakt.

What’s your main DAW?

Ableton LIVE

What monitors do you use in the studio?

Neumann KH 120 in Taipei and KH 310 in Shanghai.

What were the key pieces of gear for the album? Do you like machines with versatility?

None of my hardware pieces have much versatility except for Ableton Push. I like simple, do-one-thing pieces of hardware.

Ableton
Wave Alchemy drum samples
Korg MS 20
Overstayer Saturator
SoundToys plugins
U-He Diva
Culture Vulture
Culture Rooster
Metasonix s1000
TL Audio Ivory 5013
Sherman Filter Bank
Roland SH101
Shure SM58

Could you talk me through the production of one track?

“Post-Soviet Models” was made with the synth sound first. That synth that sounds kinda random with a convolution reverb on top. It’s a very simple preset in Ableton Operator that I ran out to an EQ unit that I overdrove. I was also listening to a lot of Nguzunguzu at the time and wanted to copy their drum patterns. It’s pretty standard kick drum and clap. The “hook” synth is U-he Diva that I also ran to outboard saturation and processed with Soundtoys plugins—I use a lot of Echoboy. The vocal percussion is a sample pack. The animal sounds are from an old Sony animal sounds CD I downloaded off Kazaa in the early 2000’s.

What’s the secret to your heavy industrial bass lines?

A lot of people write music to sublimate emotions they cannot deal with. It’s a healthy way to deal with what might manifest into antisocial tendencies. You can feel like you’ve broken someone’s face without actually breaking someone’s face. Isn’t that swell?

So these basslines are a direct expression of your emotion. What is this emotion in you? Where does it come from?

It feels awkward putting it so bluntly. It’s a mixture of trauma and dissatisfaction at the current state of things.

Looking forward, what’s on the horizon? Can we expect some new material soon?

I am still working on some new music so I don’t know how long that will take, and as you know vinyl takes forever. I have just completed a remix for Gaika and one for Fever Ray. A new track just came out on the second Allergy Season X Discwoman compilation and there will be a vinyl thing on L.I.E.S. coming soon maybe June?..sorta? Not new music tho..hmm.

All photos: Sean Marc Lee