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Noisia's Nik Roos talks software, studios and the business of being a band
Every three or four months, Nik Roos of Dutch drum 'n' bassers Noisia tries to schedule a few days away from the band's studio in Groningen, a couple of hours north-east of Amsterdam.
"I like the idea that I'm supposed to give my brain and my ears a rest," he explains. "Unfortunately, it never works out like that. Things seem to have been crazy-busy for the last ten years! I did manage to get away for a little camping trip in Denmark last month. It rained, so I came back to the studio."
Fortunately, Roos and fellow Noisias Thijs de Vlieger and Martijn van Sonderen get to spend their working days in one of the most impressive studio setups we've ever come across – a former factory turned into three state-of-the-art, purpose-built production rooms, all floating on springs! It's here that the band recently put the finishing touches to the self-titled I Am Legion album, their new hip-hop-meets-distorted-dub-groove collaboration with UK rappers Foreign Beggars.
"We love working with other bands and producers," says Roos. Indeed, the band's huge collaborative and remix CV includes everyone from Pendulum and Bad Company UK to
Skrillex and even Robbie Williams. "If we've got other people in the studio or we're remixing a track, we tend to work a lot faster. If it's just me, Thijs and Martijn doing Noisia stuff in the studio, we spend way too much time faffing around. Sometimes, we definitely need a kick up the ass!"
There are some fantastic pictures on Facebook of your studio being built last year. Is it actually finished?
"Almost. The three production rooms and the management offices are all completed, but we just need to get a bit of furniture in there and tidy up the outside a bit. I guess I've become aware that a studio is about more than just the equipment. The surroundings and decoration and all those small things make a big difference to how you're feeling. The atmosphere affects your mood, and that can affect the music.
"Hey, I'm not complaining here. It's an amazing studio and an amazing place to call our headquarters."
There are three separate studios in there. Is that one for each member of the band?
"That's exactly what we wanted. In the past, I handled most of the producing while Martijn and Thijs were out playing live. And when they came back home, I was still hogging the computer."
"I don't mind what genre people call it. For me, it's just exciting music."
Can you take us through your studio?
"It's actually fairly simple. A PC running the latest version of Cubase, with a selection of decent plugins. I've got a Roland SH-201 for some analogue synth sounds and a Korg SV-1 for some nice strings. I've been using Adam monitors for years, but I've just switched over to ATC SCM110s."
You've been using Cubase for years too, haven't you?
"Yeah, right back to when it first appeared on PC. I actually started on Fruity Loops and Acid when I was about 14. My dad was a teacher at art school and one of the students gave him a CD-R of some music software. On this CD, there was FruityLoops, Acid and an early version of ReBirth. They were all quite visual, so I actually found it relatively easy to start making my own songs on them. It was certainly a lot easier than using tracker software.
"When I say 'songs', what I actually mean is that me and Thijs were goofing around in my bedroom. We had no ambition to be producers or anything like that. We were literally just seeing what all the buttons did. It was only when we got to about 16 that we started to take things a bit more seriously. That was when we discovered drum 'n' bass. We just thought, 'Wow! This is really cool music. We want to make songs that sound like that.'"
Did you buy more gear at that point?
"Everybody said, 'If you're making drum 'n' bass, you need a sampler'. So I saved up and bought a Yamaha A3000 sampler, a Roland MC-505 and a Yamaha CS6R. I had this hardware and I needed something to control it… That's when I first started using Cubase, because it gave you a bit more MIDI controllability compared to Fruity Loops.
"Over the next few years, music production was beginning to move onboard, but most of the name drum 'n' bass producers were still working with expensive mixing desks and samplers. All the best tunes seemed to be coming from hardware. Unfortunately, we couldn't afford to buy top-of-the-range gear and we couldn't get a decent sound from the few bits of hardware that we owned. So, as VSTs became more readily available, it seemed natural that we headed in an onboard direction.
"When Noisia finally became a 'proper' band in 2000, we were a bit of a rarity, because we were totally digital."
Looking back, do you think that made your sound different to a lot of the other drum 'n' bass acts at the time?
"It wasn't intentional, but, yeah, I think it probably did. The main problem back then was that we didn't know about sample packs. We heard all these amazing songs and…"
Who were you listening to?
"The Prodigy, obviously. Fatboy Slim. And all the darker drum 'n' bass stuff like Ed Rush & Optical, Bad Company UK. We heard all the stuff they were making and we were trying to create that kind of sound without sample packs. We thought everyone made their sounds purely by sampling other records or programming synths.
"Because we didn't have the sample packs, we were constantly looking for new sounds and new ways of experimenting with synths, always struggling to match the sounds we heard on our favourite records. VSTs gave us more options and gave us the chance to experiment.
"Ironically, we never did manage to sound like everybody else, but we seemed to find a sound of our own."
There's been an awful lot said and written about the 'Noisia sound', and if we could peep into home studios around the world, I'm sure we'd see thousands of producers attempting to recreate the crunched-up disco of Machine Gun or the squelching sci-fi of Split The Atom. Can you actually put the Noisia sound into words? Does it simply depend on the right distortion and compression plugins?
"In a way, yes. A lot depends on the right distortion, compression and, of course, EQ – but our sound also depends on so many other variables. Just because you use Trash, FabFilter Pro-C and Pro-Q, it doesn't automatically mean you'll get the sound of Noisia.
"No matter what type of music you're making... never try to force yourself to make a certain style of song."
"People think that I compress everything to hell and turn up the distortion to maximum, but generally speaking, I'm quite careful with my use of effects. Trash gives you a lot of different models to choose from, so it's always important to match the distortion to the song and also to look closely at the harmonics. Oh, and don't forget the sidechain filter on the Pro-C!
"And the other important point is that every single sound in every Noisia song is processed differently. I take every sound and I add a very individual combination of distortion, compression and EQ. It's extremely time-consuming, but it allows you to create different characters in your music.
"If you don't take that time and effort, you run the risk of your music sounding like you're just using the latest presets… the latest gimmicks and tricks. Fine, if that's the sort of sound you're looking for, but I think I would always feel a little unsatisfied.
"There are some other great plugins out there, as well. The basic Cubase compressors are always handy; the VC2A and the 160 from Native Instruments; Ozone's Multiband hasn't got huge amounts of character, but it's a very accurate and precise tool."
You mentioned the SH-201 and SV-1 earlier. Presumably, there are a few soft synths in the studio, too?
"Komplete 9 gives me plenty to play with, and FM8 has become something of a Noisia regular. A lot of the bass sounds come from FM8, and I program a lot of drum sounds on it, too. I read that not everyone can get along with FM8 and, yes, I'll admit it is very easy to make a shitty, small, tinny sound if you don't know what you're doing; but it offers such a tremendous amount of control – especially over the harmonics. There isn't anything out there that works in quite the same way.
"I know it's not a synth as such, but Superior Drummer is massively important to our sound. As is the Kontakt sampler. Over the last couple of years, I got into the habit of completely programming my drum sounds and patterns from scratch, without using any loops or samples, but the drums ended up sounding too clean. Throwing different loops and samples together is where you get all the oddities and the accidents that make a really interesting drum pattern. I'll be using a lot more samples in the future."
Talk us through a day in the studio.
"Ah, well, that all depends on the day. Like I said before, if me, Thijs and Martijn are left by ourselves, we waste a lot of time doing not very much. It would probably be a pretty boring day for you. It might be better to come in when we're on deadline, because that's when we work best.
"Some of the I Am Legion recording days were amazing. It was a totally different kind of creative energy to what you'd find on a Noisia day. I think that comes from the meeting of these two worlds. We're fascinated by the vocal-led grime and dubstep world of Foreign Beggars; and they're fascinated by our small-town, nerdy world of EDM. Somewhere in the middle, you'll find I Am Legion."
Do we call it a hip-hop album?
NR: "I guess so, but I don't mind what people call it. For me, it's just exciting music. What they do makes me want to go deeper with the beats and the production, and I hope that what we do makes them want to go deeper with the vocals.
"Working with them felt very direct. Does that make sense? We didn't need an incentive to get a track started because the incentive seemed to already be there."
"Only make the music that you really want to make and make that music to the best of your ability."
You've never been afraid of experimenting with different musical styles and genres. Was it always Noisia's intention to look beyond the confines of what was regarded as drum 'n' bass?
NR: "It was never a conscious move. We didn't sit there thinking, 'OK, we haven't done a house track. We haven't done an electro track.' We didn't just make a track so we could tick a box. We would only make a track if a particular sound tickled our fancy.
"I'm not trying to compare us to the Prodigy or anything like that, but there are many different sides to their sound, and the scene has always seemed to accept that with no problem. Sure, there are some people in drum 'n' bass who don't like everything that we do, but in some ways, that's exactly why I love the drum 'n' bass scene. People say what they think."
The lines between genres have become increasingly blurred over the last three or four years. Is it actually possible to just be a drum 'n' bass producer or a house producer or a dubstep producer in 2013?
NR: "There has always been a blurring of those lines. That's how electronic music has developed. You have a movement and there's a counter-movement. You have the overground and you have the underground. The overground will try to move in one direction and the underground will try to take its own path. The underground will always be there – it won't go away. It will always be looking for the most interesting music.
"But what's different today is the pace of that change. Scenes can develop and disappear incredibly quickly. The problem comes if you're a DJ or a producer that's only associated with a very specific scene and that scene disappears overnight. If you're not careful, you'll disappear with it.
"No matter what type of music you're making, I think the most important thing you have to remember is – how can I put this? – never try to force yourself to make a certain style of song. Don't jump onto a style if it doesn't mean anything to you in your heart. If you're not really interested in the sound that you're making, people will hear that in your music.
"Only make the music that you really want to make and make that music to the best of your ability. It sounds like a cliché, but when it comes to something as important as music, there really is no other way to do it."
The self-titled debut album from I Am Legion is out now on Division Recordings/Par Excellence.