At the end of June, Thijs de Vlieger, Nik Roos and Martijn van Sonderen - aka Noisia - dropped their, until then, closely-guarded secret announcement of masterful new album, Outer Edges.
From album opener, The Approach, through Into Dust and the sublime adrenaline-rush of Mantra, Outer Edges showcases three producers/sound designers pushing the envelope of bass music and sound design to the next level… and beyond! It really is that good. Suffice to say, Noisia's large, loyal following are going to love it.
Visiting Noisia in their new multi-unit Groningen studios around the time of the album announcement, we took each member into their individual production space to talk to them individually about their gear, side projects and more.
Thijs de Vlieger
Was this new studio all just an elaborate plan to get space for your modular setup?
Thijs: "[Laughs] Not at all, no. The modular thing started after I had the room. It started as I wanted to get something more physical, so I got a Prophet-8, which I had for a couple of weeks but gave away to someone as, sound-wise, it's really for someone who plays keyboard and wants a synth - not for someone who designs synth sounds. It's got two oscillators per voice so it wasn't really doing it for me."
Yours certainly appears to be the 'synth' room out of the three studio units…
"Yeah… and also just the 'stuff' room, as I have guitars and other bits and pieces. I'm more enthusiastic about bringing in stuff. Our storage space has a ton of quirky percussion things and cheap keyboards, which are pretty much all mine!"
How did you decide what went in the modular system, or has it just evolved?
"Definitely… in little spurts of just trying to explore options. Usually I get excited by new stuff, which can be a bit stupid, as that's stuff you didn't know you needed and you don't really need. Sometimes you run into something when you're making sounds on the modular, where you think, 'I really need a module that does this', which is cool, as that's the better approach. At least then, when you buy the module, you know that you needed it, whereas with a lot of the new stuff you buy, it's more the novelty.
"It tends to be more about functions for me; there are really cool things you can do with just a switch, like a relay switch that basically allows two wires to be connected with one, and you just select which one that is. It does audio rate and modulation so you can go between two different waveforms at audio rate. All the craziness in oscillators has pretty much been done so I find with elaborate patching, there's way more exciting results to be had."
Was it a pretty steep learning curve getting into the modular mindset?
"I didn't have that because way back in the beginning, when we were still in my mum's house, we were doing stuff with Generator, which was Reaktor before it became Reaktor. We would just build synths and I learned the basic blocks of connecting oscillators and just learning that the oscillator is always on; it doesn't just go on when you press the key. What's making the volume go in and out is the VCA… I knew all that stuff from working with Generator. I had always thought that modular wasn't for me, as a friend of mine had one and it was just some super-quirky results that didn't sound all that interesting. But when I got the Prophet, I realised I didn't actually want playability - I wanted the quirkier sound design stuff."
Do you still have time for Reaktor now you've got the full modular rig?
"Yeah… I've been using it while I'm out on the road, putting Spotify through it and putting three or four comb filters with high resonance on each of the left and right channels, and then putting that through a Max-for-Live granular sampler. You get some really weird results… a lot of them are all over the new album. There were a couple of sessions on trains making sounds that have become really useful.
"The last update with Reaktor 6, where they've introduced Blocks, made it a lot easier to use. I have a fair bit of experience with Reaktor but I always seem to run into really simple language problems. I remember when we wrote in Generator, there were some weird things you needed to do to allow it to be polyphonic. We didn't understand that, so we looked at different synths and what was in their chain, and wrote that into ours, so it became capable of polyphony. So, it's that kind of thing, stuff that I don't fully understand, that I seem to run into with Reaktor. The Blocks are just really easy to use… especially if you know Eurorack. The sound quality is a lot better in the new version, too."
Does the community side of Reaktor and the ever-expanding user library interest you?
"Definitely… I love that. We didn't use Reaktor a lot until they updated it as, I believe, it was basically still the same sound engine they'd been using since Reaktor 1, or at least an early version. The Monark sounds really good and, as I say, when they introduced the Blocks it just became really exciting again and introduced some new energy."
You have an Access Virus TI on your studio kit list - a synth a lot of people would kill for…
"That's been out of use for a while; it's just sitting somewhere in storage now. When they did their update, there was a lot of cool new stuff. Sylenth, I believe, is modelled on a Virus, and we use that a lot. I don't know what it was about the Virus. The interface wasn't quite as good as some others."
The last time we spoke, you guys had a huge communal sample pool where you all could grab things to use. Are you still using that?
"Yeah, we still use that. There's a lot of recordings that have the tag 'modular' on them now, and I also put a few Reaktor things in, too, as I wanted them to turn up when I search for modular. We stopped naming things with sounds and started naming them with descriptions, so they're easier to search in Cubase. If you type 'Scary' you get a lot of scary sounds [laughs].
"I had a long session of making breathy pad sounds. We've kind of stopped making so much stuff for the sample pool recently and we've been making way more stuff on spec for a song. We used to do a lot more dragging in drums or dragging in basses and re-arranging them, but now we're more writing stuff and doing the synth patches live in Cubase, so we can all still change them or change the key of the song."
Has the new studio set-up revolutionised the Noisia process, or is it just a nicer place for you to make your music?
"Both. There's way more opportunity for us all to work on different side projects, and it's so much easier to work on them when we're not in the way of each other. So, if I'm working on something crazy then it doesn't mean that Martijn can't work on a hip-hop beat for a rapper, or Nik can't do drums or whatever he's working on. That's completely different from the last studio."
We recall you were all fighting to take your turn of the solitary computer at the old place…
Talking of side projects, you've been working with a real orchestra on something..?
"Yeah. They asked me in a period where I was listening to classical music quite a lot and I immediately said yes, not knowing what I'd got myself into!
"So, the first show, I kind of negotiated that the setup would be me doing some electronic remixes but also writing just for the instruments with no electronics whatsoever. So, I wrote a ten-minute, three-piece suite for a wind quintet, which is bassoon, oboe, clarinet, horn and flute. It was a weird ten-minute piece that was inspired by 20th century modern classical. For the second show, they wanted me to play electronics live along with the orchestra, so I wrote a sort of Hollywood adventure/sci-fi score that was about 20 minutes long."
We assume the modular was involved in proceedings at some point.
"Well, it was not necessary… but it was necessary at the same time! I needed a filter, a delay and a reverb, and I could've easily done it with a computer, but then I would've been stuck behind the computer, which doesn't look great, really. So, I took the modular and I had nice controllers for everything - a delay pedal and filters on the modular."
Are the guitars in your studio indicative that we should expect some riffing on the new Noisia album?
"We did have one session where we tried to get something for a specific track, but it didn't really work. On the Purpose EP, there's a song, Oh Oh, where the whole intro is based around a guitar theme. We do sometimes use the guitars on pop productions that we do for people.
"Did you see our Platinum records? We've got two Platinum records and I'm playing guitar on one of them! We work under an alter-ego with a rapper called Kraantje Pappie."
How did it feel getting presented with a Platinum record?
"We got it sent to us and it felt funny but not entirely a huge surprise, as those tracks were listened to a lot."
Is that one of the secrets of Noisia - that you all diversify and work with other people/projects?
"Absolutely! I think we could have broken up if we weren't all doing other projects where we can all do different things. When we did the Devil May Cry soundtrack, I was just doing a lot of soundscape stuff, so they'd talk to me about that or talk to Nik about the more bassy stuff. Having different roles, I think, keeps it open. If we were only doing drum 'n' bass, I don't know if we would have necessarily stuck together.
"Also, now having the three separate studio rooms lets us all do our own thing."
Martijn van Sonderen
Have you adapted to your lovely new studios?
Martijn: "It's something you get used to… not very quickly, but we've been here for a couple of years now. I understand that, for people who haven't been here every day for the past two years, it's quite impressive, but it's something you do get used to. Although I do really appreciate it."
Last time we came, you'd just finished the Devil May Cry game soundtrack. Is there any more of that sort of work in the pipeline?
"I would love to but right now there aren't any games projects coming up. We've tried to get on some more games projects but I think it's really hard to land serious projects in that world without being extremely dedicated. Most of the developers would prefer you to live in LA and work closely with them. So, we're not that dedicated… yet!"
The idea behind this interview is that we ask you all individually about what informed your choice of gear in your studios…
"[Laughs] I don't really have a lot of gear in here! I really like working inside Cubase. I did recently get a sub-woofer because it's so clean in this room that I did begin to sometimes miss the vibe of having stuff vibrate. So I got a sub just for reference and playing back stuff. I don't necessarily work with the sub turned on, but I really like this one as it has a footswitch, so I can bypass it and everything runs through it nice and clean. I generally have it bypassed until once every now and again when I want to hear how something translates to a situation where you do have a lot of sub."
You guys are fairly well known for your abilities with a sub bassline after all…
"Yeah, but we don't just do bass. There's also a lot of music out there that's way more minimal, and what we try to do is to keep the right balance. If we wanted more bass, then we'd have to lose some other elements."
You mentioned running Cubase. What other software is in your setup?
"We recently upgraded to Cubase 8 - 8.5 in my case - and we have a bunch of plugins that we've always worked with over the past years, but some new ones have recently sparked our interest. We've been big fans of the Native Instruments stuff - Komplete and a lot of what they have to offer. As we've said before, we've used FM8 and Kontakt a lot. Also, stuff like Guitar Rig, which is not so prominent in our music but is a really cool tool. For processing, we use some of the iZotope plugins, like Trash 2. Depending on what type of track we're making, we sometimes also use the Ozone Maximiser as a limiter on the master.
"We use FabFilter plugins a lot; they're Dutch plugins. Actually, the guy who co-developed the FabFilter plugins, Floris (Kinkert) - I used to listen to his music when I was a kid. It was before there was any music available on the internet, so when I tried to find his stuff later on, I couldn't, as it was just released under his first name. So, I was happily surprised to find out his involvement with FabFilter, and also that he was still involved in electronic music.
"They're really cool plugins, especially the Pro-C 2 compressor; and we also use the Pro-Q 2 EQ on almost every channel, literally."
What is it you like about Cubase?
"There's a really cool new feature in Cubase where you can render in place. There are probably [other] sequencers that have that feature, but in Cubase it's so cool that, with one shortcut, you can now bounce some audio, a synth or something, and you can choose whether you bounce it dry or with the effects or the channel routing. The best thing is that you can set it to automatically mute or delete the original track, and we generally have it set to bounce the audio with the effects but keep the routing. If I don't have a certain plugin, before loading the project here, I can ask Thijs to render a synth and I can still open a project and use the same routing without having to run that specific synth, which is really handy."
What about go-to soft synths?
"Xfer's Serum is one. I think it's really cool that Steve Duda has stepped up - NI's Massive was a big, big thing that changed a lot of the musical landscape in bass music, mainly. I hadn't really got into the whole wavetable thing prior to that. Duda really took it to the next level with Serum. Being able to import your own sounds so easily and all the possible routings and modulations make it really cool."
Any of Xfer's other software in your armoury?
"[Laughs] I secretly use the OTT [Xfer's freeware compressor] but Nik and Thijs don't really approve of the way I use it! Sometimes it's just an easy way to blow up a sound. It's a bit of a shortcut, I guess."
We imagine creative compression figures quite high in that visceral Noisia sound.
"It can do. For creative compression, we mostly use plugins like Melda's MCompressor, which is really cool because you can draw the curve yourself. That way, it's very hands-on in terms of how you shape your sound. The FabFilter compressor is more a control thing, or for sidechaining."
Melda Production plugins are great but don't seem to have a high profile, do they?
"No, they don't. I don't know if they're particularly popular… they should be. Maybe it's because people don't understand how there's such a big bundle but it's not super-expensive. There's all kinds of cool stuff in their bundle. They also have MultiBand versions of everything they do, which is really sick because some of the plugins are effects that you normally wouldn't be able to use in a multiband way."
What criteria do you use when deciding which software you need or want?
"I'm not really someone who goes out and looks for new stuff. I guess I'm a bit more of a lame follower. Thijs is more the guy who is always looking for cool new gadgets… Nik as well. I might bump into something every now and then, but we have plenty of stuff here. For example, there are the guys at KiloHearts who've been making some on-spec plugins for us.
"People will sometimes ask us what we'd like to see or change in a certain plugin and I tend to be more interested in looking for practical solutions for stuff that doesn't work or isn't hands-on enough. Thijs can maybe ask for something a bit more 'out there' that I hadn't thought of [laughs], although I might be very happy to use it once it was there."
What's the average life expectancy of a Noisia studio monitor?
"Well, we haven't replaced these ones yet! I've been told that you should replace your monitors every few years, but I don't know if we have to. We're just going to stay in touch with Thomas Jouanjean [Northward Acoustics owner and chief engineer], who designed the rooms specifically for these speakers to be where they are. Whenever he comes in and says, 'Guys it's time to change the actual speakers', then I guess we'll get new ones."
Is the solitary Roland HP505 keyboard in your room testament to your aim of keeping everything as minimal as possible?
"I would consider having something like the Access Virus in here - which I have had previously - mainly because it can run as a VST. I don't really like recording stuff into my projects, which is why I'm not really on the lookout for outboard gear. I mainly got the Roland piano to record MIDI that feels natural. To get a real piano wouldn't really work in this room."
You're working on a quite successful house side project, Zonderling, at the moment, too…
"Yeah. I used to do a lot of techno but nothing ever really serious. Noisia is obviously very much about impact and sound design, but I also always liked doing melodic and harmonically interesting feel-
good music, which Noisia generally doesn't cater for.
"I was doing techno but after a few tunes I wasn't all that interested in doing more deep underground, credible stuff, so I tried to do something a bit more commercial to see how far we could take my approach to production, but in a progressive house way. Our label manager started doing the DJ shows for that and so far it's been going really well, and a lot of the big DJs have been picking up the music. It's just something I really like doing on the side, and it balances out well with the Noisia stuff."
It seems quite a healthy way to experiment in different musical disciplines while staying centred in Noisia.
"What it also does is that you pick up different influences and techniques, which you can then apply to what we do together. After Thijs worked with the orchestra, he came back with a lot more knowledge of that side of the musical spectrum. You sometimes maybe pick up a little bit of mindset or a different way of arranging."
Given your vast sample archive, could you ever envisage releasing a Noisia sample library?
"We have always declined that because the stuff we want to use we want to use. The stuff we don't want to use is not used as we're not happy enough with it, so we wouldn't be keen to release it. I'm not saying it will never happen, but not for now."
Can you tell us about the weekly Noisia Radio podcast that you've been doing?
"A little over a year ago, we decided that it would be a cool idea to have a way of playing music to people that we felt we couldn't play to them in a club environment. Also, we wanted to be able to reach out to the people that listen to our music with more than just the occasional shout out or 'buy this record' type post on Facebook. We would average maybe one show in a city every two years, so that would be the only time people would be able to see us.
"So, we thought a podcast would be good; then we had to decide how often we wanted to do it. My preference was to do a weekly show, as if you do a monthly thing you'll have a lot of new music and end up having to be very selective about it. For the weekly thing, it's very hands-on and we get a lot of new music; and we have a lot of old music so we can just play some stuff. Whenever we think something's cool enough to play, we just play it."
How did you choose what gear to have in your room?
Nik: "Well, we work mostly in the box, so there were only a few things I thought I would need in my studio. One very important thing was to have good monitor control. In a space like this you need good, transparent monitor control, and I wanted to be able to listen to different sources, listen to the mid, the side, and listen with different speakers. So, I got that set up with four outs from the soundcard. One is the normal digital one, then I have three analogue outs that are low-pass, band-pass and high-pass, so I can select them and listen to the mid or the side of that band then put it to another speaker. That's why the Crane Song Avocet is really important to me."
With the way you make music (ie, very sound design-based), the monitors must be pretty vital?
"Yeah. We went to Amsterdam Mastering to master some stuff and we got in touch with Thomas Jouanjean, who designed the room there. In the process, he showed us these speakers, and the rooms were all built around them [ATC 110s] because we liked the sound of them so much.
"It just sounds like a much bigger picture. With smaller speakers, you can hear the speaker or the limits of the speaker much quicker. You can hear it distorting or you maybe get overtones in your room. You don't get any of that in these rooms. Nothing vibrating, no overtones. The low of the kick that you normally get from turning things up and listening is actually gone, because everything is just really transparent and large sounding. So, you have to simulate it. Thijs has got a sub-pack attached to his desk and an extra sub just to get things rattling when you want them to. I've been thinking of doing that too, but I haven't done it so far. It's just all so clear that it all comes down to what the music is actually saying… you really hear what the music is doing. That basically sums up the whole space. There's really no excuses when you're in this room."
Would you struggle to go back to nearfields?
"[Laughs] Absolutely. I'm so dependent on this room now, and the faith I have in it and the speakers is absolute! It's taken me more than a year to really get to know what this room means, what the sound means. I have the Audeze LCD-X headphones, too, that are really, really nice. I actually A/B with them and the speakers quite regularly, and sometimes I'll literally sit with them on and think I'm listening to the in-wall monitors, because, to me, the sound is very similar. The monitoring is a really important part of everything. I've got the Avontone Active MixCube speakers, too, for referencing."
What informed your choice of keyboards?
"I've always wanted to have an analogue synth and when I heard about the Moog Sub 37 - it's got really nice modulation options and it does a bit more than you might think from a synth this size. I really like the sound and that the oscillators are already saturating past 12 o'clock. If you have everything on, there's just loads of colouring. It is one kind of colour for the most part, so you get a very typical Moog sound; but that's fine, as I'm not going to use it for everything. I love being in a project and knowing I can do a little something with it. There are lots of Noisia songs that have little bits of Moog in there. For one, I used the headphone out of the Sub 37, into the PC then back again with some strange, phase-smearing plugins on the out. High-resonance cutoff sweeps would give this kind of bendy bass sound that we used on the
"The Korg SV-1 is just a very nice keyboard with great key action. I really like the sounds that are in there. The pianos - mostly the electric pianos - are great. I love the strings that are in there, too. I read a review of it at the time it came out and they said they didn't know why Korg put the strings in there, but I think it's a really good string sound.
"The Roland FA-06 is great to have all those standard sounds available quickly. Kontakt is quick but this is faster, so if I'm working on pop stuff, I can get the sounds straight away. Sometimes, when you've done something super sound-designy - made all the drums, the little hits and all the little sounds - it can lose its direction a little bit, so you think, 'Fuck it, I'm just going to put a really silly organ preset in there, create some tension and see what happens'. So this is useful for that, to sometimes create a contrast in a song by just using a really flat kind of preset."
Using the outboard synths must save a bit of demand on your CPU too.
"Yeah but that totally depends. Recently, I've been hitting the limit, whereas I hadn't before that. There's this one project where almost all the drums are from Serum; the snare is six instances of Serum, the kick is four, and they're all velocity sensitive, so that was little bit too much for the CPU!"
"We got these PCs installed back when we got these spaces, so I think it's a 12-core and there's 16GB of RAM. That should handle most stuff, but, for example, with Superior Drummer, if you install it with all the sounds and bleeds and everything else, then one library is something like 25GB! If you have a song that's just two audio tracks of drums then, sure, you can load a whole load of orchestra software; but if you're running all your drums live as well, then it's going to kill it.
"I do think limits are important for creative flow, but I also wish I could just stack plugin on plugin! I always fight with the eight plugins thing with Cubase… If there's an important sound in the song, the chances are I'll have to buss it to a group to be able to put more plugins on it!"
Other than Cubase, what's your go-to software?
"Most of it happens inside Cubase. Outside of that, there isn't that much, other than Audacity to grab some stuff or PaulStretch for time-stretching things. I use Guitar Rig a bit and I've used FM8 for ages, as well as Kontakt. If I want to do a piano, unless I want to be able to edit the MIDI, most times I'll just play it off the keyboards and record the audio. Your set of tools and the things you gravitate to always meander a
bit - in a few months maybe I'll be using Reaktor loads again."
What is it about Superior Drummer that you like so much?
"Well, if you've ever wanted to mic up a kit and really get into recording your own drums, then it's a great starting point if you're coming from making music in the box and not being a recording engineer. The flexibility and the possibilities are just really cool. When we started out, drum 'n' bass and jungle were all sampled breaks. The ability to create your own breaks opens up huge possibilities."
Do you program your beats via the keyboards?
"I'll play a little bit sometimes, just to get a feel for the kit; but if it's for drum 'n' bass stuff, I tend to program it in. Sometimes I'll program it at a funk tempo and make it sound really human-sounding, then take it and pitch it up to whatever tempo."
You don't fancy following Thijs down the modular path?
"I think, to be honest, it's not so much about making music, it's more about making sound and getting lost in the creation of it. It doesn't really make songs. I do really like it and if I sit behind Thijs's modular, I'll find an hour has passed and I hadn't even noticed. When I do sound design stuff, I still feel I can get to points in the box with more possibilities than if I was on a modular. It's cool, though, and I'm really happy that Thijs has got one."
Is Noisia a democracy when you arrive at the mixing process?
"[Laughs] Um… a little bit. I mean, we'll all vote and all comment, but I think I'm probably most precious about these things, so I tend to end up being the last filter, so to speak. With our music, especially the overloud and angry tracks, to make sure those tracks don't sound like some angry drunk guy shouting with no direction, that's the real difficulty. I find myself wondering, 'Am I just complicating things because I can?'. [I'm] using ten different drum breaks because I can, but what is that actually doing or saying? There's also the other side of that and being able to sometimes just let go and chase something in the music."
How long from beginning to mixing did Outer Edges take?
"The oldest song on there is from 2009, but we've been working on the album itself for about nine months, I think. That's us getting focused on it, putting things together from older demos; tracing back the time is very difficult. Now, at the end of the process I don't really know left from right any more!"
Any gear out there you'd like to try?
"I would like to investigate outboard more, but the key word there is 'investigate'. There's a lot of talk and a lot of bullshit, but there's also a lot of good things. To really find the gear that's the best and worth all the money takes so much time.
"In here, I can just load another plugin. For example, I have a bunch of tape plugins. I have u-he's Satin and recently got iZotope's Ozone Vintage Tape. Just taking those two as the example, they're very different. I use them for very different things: one for distortion, the other for smoothing things out. If I'd only seen Satin, which I had first, and Satin had been a £2,500 compressor, I would've probably bought it and put it in the rack. Then, when Ozone Tape turned up, I'd have said, 'Shit!'.
"I used to have the Thermionic Culture Phoenix and the Fat Bustard in here at one point. The Phoenix sounded really nice on lots of things, but it's not fast enough for drum 'n' bass or actual mastering. Everything sounded nice through it, so I would like to have some nice outboard EQ, saturation and compression; but it's like a hole you dive into where there's more and more nuance, whereas in the box you could load a stupid, buggy bitcrusher plugin on something and it would change the sound infinitely more than the differences you achieve from some outboard that costs shitloads of money!"
Outer Edges is out on September 16, on Vision Recordings.