Earlier this summer, XLR8R launched the Ask the Experts series as a way of letting our audience directly solicit production advice from established artists. Our first edition featured Modeselektor, while round two is being handled by bass manipulator Om Unit (a.k.a. Jim Coles). A key contributor to the UK's embrace of juke and footwork sounds in recent years, he was also one of the first producers to seriously experiment with combining those distinctly American rhythms with jungle and drum & bass. Coles' willingness to try new things doesn't stop there, as he's also been one of the innovators of the slow/fast sound, which he recently celebrated by putting together the Cosmology compilation for his own Cosmic Bridge label. With all of this low-end-centric knowledge rattling around in Om Unit's brain, we knew that XLR8R readers would jump at the chance to throw questions his way, and while he couldn't respond to all of inquires we received, he's selected a few that caught his attention and provided some very thoughtful answers.
On the Threads album, you made excellent use of the entire stereo field, which resulted in a finished product with a lot of dimension, a sense of depth, and the true creation of a "sonic landscape" that made you feel like you were actually in a place where these sounds were coming from. Any tips on how this was achieved? Was it just careful panning and automation or was there other processing involved?
Firstly, it is very useful to understand what kind of reverb you want to use. I myself use mostly the Lexicon PCM. When it comes to using reverb, it is good to consider your mix of early reflections (the immediate reverb) and the later (larger) space. Secondly, I think it's useful to carefully taylor the frequency range of your space. For example, if you have a lot of mids and highs in the reverb, it can take up a lot of space in the mix, and if you have a lot of low-frequency reverb, you have potentially a lot of low-frequency stereo width, which is actually unnatural to the ear. So it is about balance. I would recommend using mid/side EQ for sculpting your sounds and spaces to create the spatial feeling. Checking in headphones can really help to clean up space this way for other sounds to fit in the mix.
I started to get into electronic music production a few years ago, but only in this past year have I really gotten serious about learning the ins and outs of it. I currently use Ableton and the extent of my equipment is an old Midiman USB MIDI keyboard and an Akai MPC500. I've made a few tracks that I'm happy with, but those are very few and far between. What usually happens is I'll create an idea and absolutely love it at the time, but then I'll return to it the next day and say something like, 'What was I smoking if I thought this was good?' So I've become way too much of a perfectionist when it comes to producing music, to the point where I don't even release anything. Do you have any experience with this? If so, how have you gotten over it?
There is nothing "wrong" with this process as such, but there is a discipline to finishing a piece of work. It is about committing to finishing something. It's important not to be attached to the outcome; there are some traps here, for example, some kind of fear of failure perhaps? The outcome is not as important as the journey, but the discipline of completion is healthy. It's ultimately better to finish what you like and then consider the "product" afterwards. It's best not to let comparison with other people's stuff hinder your progress either. I would also recommend trying some other tools too—cheap drum machines, monosynths, etc.—to allow yourself more spontaneity. Ultimately, you need to let go of the "little hater" that is blocking the way and take a leap! Even if the end result isn't up to scratch, it's all part of the process.
Do you have any specific techniques or methods to approach composing melodies or dealing with the melodic aspect of a track, as opposed to drums/percussion? What is your best advice for someone who is comfortable working with drum patterns and breaks but has trouble creating leads, basslines, etc. that are melodic and don't grate after a few bars?
My advice would be to learn some simple scales to start with, although this isn't as important as jamming out to find a harmony that moves you. I would recommend really listening to a lot of music that is outside your comfort zone too. Find music that connects with you outside of your own creative sphere; we can often be boxed in by what we create and the process can become self-referential, and this can lead to stagnation. I can recommend a shortcut too—there a lot of free MIDI scores of all kinds of music online that can allow you to deconstruct and/or reappropriate melodic structures within your own work. For me, I will sometime work on a simple idea first, then add layers quite quickly and then save the work and come back to it later with fresh ears and perhaps keep some of it. With melody, you are dealing with more of a narrative situation too, so it is good to develop a sense of what kind of emotions different kinds of melodies and harmonies make you feel. It is also good to look at what kind of textures to use to help invoke feelings—this is equally important. Ultimately, you have to get outside your comfort zone and take risks and see what you come back with.
Where do you draw inspiration from and how do you implement it into your work?
I think it is important to be able to compare facets of life to facets of art. From there, you can see how basic forms (whether it be sonic or visual) can impact upon a person's state of mind. There is such a myriad of objects/experiences/ideas to draw inspiration from and I think that I draw inspiration from life experiences as much as other musician's work.
Ultimately, we are all receiving sound and interpreting it in our own way all the time, and a lot of art is actually re-interpretation. So we are transceivers of information; I think once we understand that, then it becomes less about making things with such a fixed perspective and more about adding something reflective to the landscape by using our own techniques to hopefully create something unique and convincing. That is at least my ideal about how I like to work.