Nu Tone in the studio with Future Music
Nu:Tone (aka Dan Gresham) is a busy man. When he's not serving up his distinctive D'n'B remixes and reworkings for top artists on the majors, he's jetting the globe as an in-demand DJ with an eye on pushing D'n'B's boundaries.
And when his feet do hit the ground he dutifully marches the 30ft to the end of the garden to work on his artist albums for Hospital Records alongside a host of guest vocalists. We took time out to travel to the chilly Cambridgeshire countryside to discover Nu:Tone's own hotbed of cutting-edge Drum 'n' Bass production.
Nice place. How long have you had this set up?
Nu:Tone: "Since March 2011. Before that the studio was in a converted stable round the back of one of the stately homes around here, so that was nice."
Is this gear that you've had for a long time?
"Yeah, most of it. The Juno was probably the first thing I bought. I've had that for about 20 years. I bought it when it was out of style, in the early 90s and soon after it became quite desirable. I love it."
Is that how you got started making tunes?
"Yeah, with that and an Atari and Notator. And then when I went to university they had Pro Tools there, so I jumped to that. After that I started working with Cubase and samplers. I didn't have the money to buy anything, but I was working as a teacher and had access to studios. Then all of a sudden Reason came out and gave me everything I needed inside one computer. So I worked on that for a long time before realising that if I Rewired I could have all the functionality of Reason with all the potential of Cubase as well. I used Logic a bit along the way but found it incorrectly titled… But that was back with the Environment and all sorts. I've worked with people recently who use it and now it seems to make a lot more sense."
What kind of music were you making then?
"Y'know, I wish I had tapes of the stuff I used to make. It was all with Notator and a Yamaha TG-100 'tone generator' General MIDI thing. It was '93, I guess. Shortly after that I was DJing and got into Drum 'n' Bass and suddenly thought 'that'd be fun to make.' But completely impossible – a million miles away from anything I'd ever done with my TG-100, that's for sure. But I was studying electro-acoustics, so I was making Musique Concrète… found sounds… and everything was running off six reel to reels so I was running around pressing 'play' and 'stop'. I guess that gave me a head for sound design and looking at things in a slightly different way. Then two things happened. One was the Full Cycle album Music Box which caught my ear 'cause I was DJing a lot of Soul and Funk, which the Roni Size stuff sampled massive amounts of. And the other was Goldie's Timeless which sounded like it came from a different planet. So I got a sampler."
"A Roland... S... 760? Still got it somewhere. Has a much warmer sound than an Akai. Then I managed to convince the school that I worked for that they really needed an Emu E4XT [laughs]. But after that I moved into software."And you used that kit to make your ﬁrst Drum 'n' Bass? Deconstructing how they made those tunes? "But it's hard to deconstruct when you haven't any idea as to how it was constructed! Years later you can listen to things and kind of 'know' how they were done but back then I wouldn't know. I'd hear pitched down versions of the Amen break and think it was a completely different break. Early on it was a lot of happy accidents and I was able to learn fast – especially as I was at the same university as John B and he was already established and gave me pointers on how to chop up the breaks."
You once said that there's only four breaks in Drum 'n' Bass...
"And that was a massive exaggeration [laughs]. For me there's four or five classics but I don't use them in every tune at all. But they define the style. There's a couple of shaker breaks I use all over the place – you pitch them up, you pitch them down, you get a slightly different feel out of them – but there's something about those breaks that other breaks don't have. I think that's partly because they're always really strangely recorded."
Why do you think that Reason is so popular with Drum 'n' Bass producers?
"I'm not sure. One of the reasons why I always loved it was because I'd started off in hardware and working in big studios with big patchbays, so the idea that I could connect all these weird combinations of instruments and effects together in software really appealed to me. It's interesting because technically it's not one of the best 'sounding' DAWs out there, but Drum 'n' Bass is technically one of the most demanding genres in terms of the inﬂuence of the the mixdown, so you'd think it would be the last program that everyone would use. But it fits so well. It's so handy to be able to drop a break in and everything is 'there'.
"One thing I've always liked about Drum 'n' Bass is a really gritty element juxtaposed with clean beats and simple, tight bass"
"It's one of the most stable environments you can work in because there's no third-party elements in there. Everything's inside this one box and I do the bulk of the work in there, in terms of beats, basslines. But then I'll layer stuff up, synth parts etc, inside Cubase. There's soft synths that I use regularly and any kind of vocal work will all be done in Cubase. I have a default setting that I call up in Reason that has a hall reverb, a nice drum reverb, two delays that I like to use, simple things like that."Do Reason's effects make it to the ﬁnished tracks?"Yeah, definitely. If I've got something like a vocal or a really upfront element and the reverb or the delay are a really crucial element of that sound then maybe I'll drop it into Cubase for that bit more ﬂexibility, but for the most part I fi nd that I get really nice results from Reason. One thing I've always liked about Drum 'n' Bass is a really gritty element, juxtaposed with clean beats and simple, tight bass. It always makes for a really interesting combination."
What are your favourite effects plugs?
"I've just been getting into the Native Instruments Komplete… Ultimate… Turbo… XR [laughs]. I was really hoping that the hard drive that came with it… You were going to plug that in and 'that's it'! But I've had to install all of it. I've been experimenting with all the new effects – the things that run inside Guitar Rig, the transient designer and so on. They're very solid. Quick and easy to use. And it's nice to be able to chain effects together inside Guitar Rig and save that as a preset you're able to come back to."
What are your go-to synths right now?
"That'd be Subtractor in Reason. I use it loads and it's a really basic synth but for some reason I'm really comfortable with it. Its got some interesting waveforms in the oscillators and I tend to use that for my 'underpinning' bottom end and I'll layer that with something else. I use a lot of Arturia synths and I really like those. The Jupiter [8V] and the CS-80V. They're quite processor intensive, so things get bounced fairly regularly but both have an amazing sound and have made me really want to buy the hardware. And I love Spectrasonics Omnisphere but most of the sounds are too big, too fi nished to use on a track. One of my favourites is the Burning Piano though [a sample of a piano actually on fire]. It's brilliant. You've got two sliders one for 'piano' and one for 'burning'. I've done a track with just the burning all the way through, as an alternative to vinyl crackle. But the whole thing is an amazing idea. The way the frame ﬂexes, warping and bending, as it gets hot. Amazing."
"The buzz you get with two records perfectly locked just doesn't exist on CDs. Pressing the sync button? Any monkey can do that"
You're a busy guy on the DJ circuit. What do you play out with?
"I used vinyl until very recently, playing vinyl and dubplates. But over the past year, the amount of people playing vinyl as opposed to Serato or something else has gone down and down and the [Technics SL-] 1210s have gone lower and lower on the club's priority list. I've been pushed out of it basically. The number of shows I've gone to with a really heavy bag of really expensive dubplates and not been able to use them because the turntables skate, or the feedback's horrible… If they do soundcheck it, they soundcheck it with the levels really low, or when the people turn up everything starts bouncing around. So unfortunately I'm playing with CDs. Which is infi nitely cheaper. Infinitely easier. But nowhere near as much fun.
"Pioneer CDJs are great but I like looking through my record bag. I can find tunes in a ﬂ ash and I hate looking through CD wallets. The process of mixing with turntables feels better and I like human error in these things. The buzz you get with two analogue records perfectly locked on a pair of turntables just doesn't exist on CDs. Pressing the sync button? Any monkey can do that, but each to their own."
Do you have a rehearsed set that you play?
"I'm not a fan of that, but it's become par for the course. For me, the art of the DJ is in selecting the tunes and that's not done at home, that's done at the club, responding to the crowd and looking at what's needed to step it up. The number of times I've seen people play a tune that gets a horrible reaction, but they have to play another three tunes like that before they can mix their way out of it!"
When you make your tunes, do you imagine how they'll sound played out?
"To an extent that's in the back of my mind. One of the nice things about working with Hospital Records is that they're essentially an album-based label so rather than just releasing tunes and then when you've enough, maybe putting them on an album, it's all much more focused on making an album. As a result danceﬂoor appeal is not usually the first thing I'm thinking of. It's like when you're playing on the radio – you can play things that you wouldn't drop on a Friday night, but it's good music and you want to get it out there. That's one of the nice things about D'n'B is that it's essentially an umbrella genre.
"It's a tempo range – from 170 to 175 – and there's a few style conventions. And you get things like Drumstep – which is a name I can't stand – but it's half-time Drum 'n' Bass. So it's faster than Dubstep and that extra 30, 40 bpm down the scale makes a real difference, and that's nice in terms of albums as you can still be D'n'B but introduce a really different feel."
Do you record vocals here?
"I did the whole of the last album before I moved into the new studio and at the last place I was lucky enough to have a separate vocal booth. Any vocals I record now I do I either record here or in the Hospital studio in London. I use an [sE] Reﬂexion filter which helps take a lot of the room out of the recording but a booth's good if you've got a vocalist who's a bit shy and doesn't like you looking at them [laughs]. I've learnt that vocalists like being in little rooms by themselves."
You're known for your creative re-use of samples – replaying and making them your own – do you get musicians in to remake your samples?
"No, I kind of blag it. Because the samples often end up processed, messed around with filters or delay, so to get someone in for one bit of 'chucka-chucking' guitar is a bit unnecessary really. All you need is something that does something similar and you can't tell the difference. It's all about keeping the vibe of a sample so even if you can't get something that sounds the same, you can get something with a similar feel. Sometimes its about copying the sound palette, the combinations of synths and instruments then completely changing the notes but keeping that sound palette."
Have you used Melodyne's DNA ever, for pulling apart tunes?
"Nah, I just use my ears. One of the nice things is that I've got perfect pitch so I can play by ear – listen to something and pretty much play it back note for note soon after."
How do you portion up your time in the studio? Do you come here and say 'I'm going to achieve this.'?
"Yeah but not so much the 'I'm going to achieve this' bit. I'm in here Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. And if I come here and sit looking at the gear, I'll do pre-production work – go through samples, chop things up, recreate samples – you're not always feeling inspired so there's no point in banging your head against the wall to come up with something because that's when it'll be rubbish."
Head to www.nutone.org for the latest on Nu:Tone's gigs, remixes and more. And his album Words And Pictures is out now on Hospital Records. Plus, catch him at Producer Sessions Live giving exclusive advice and masterclasses.