Gold Panda: “I’m no Ableton pro. I can get what I want out of it, but I'm probably doing it the wrong way round”

gold panda
(Image credit: Laura Lewis)

Some artists spend their career restlessly experimenting with all kinds of equipment, instruments, and gear, taking stylistic detours into new approaches and techniques with every album released. 

Others discover an affinity for one or two pieces of kit early on, forging an enduring creative partnership with their tools that goes a long way towards defining their sonic fingerprint. Derwin Dicker, better known as Gold Panda, can firmly be placed in the latter category.

Dicker has worked with the Akai MPC and a turntable since his debut EP, Quitter’s Raga, came out over a decade ago, chopping up, arranging, processing and manipulating samples into music that sits somewhere between the fidgety pulse of dance, the sample-based DIY ethos of hip-hop and the glitchy abstraction of minimal electronica. 

Other instruments and machines have rotated in and out of his set-up, but the core of his approach has remained centred around the manipulation of carefully chosen snippets of sound, hidden gems discovered in record stores, sliced beyond recognition and given new life in the MPC’s circuits.

Even when Dicker’s dived into new tools - devising self-built patches in Max, for example - they’ve ultimately served as a way to explore new dimensions of this beloved sampler, a tool that has shaped his music not only through its unique sound, but through the peculiarities and limitations of its workflow. 

The MPC’s gently saturated tones and the crackle of the vinyl he samples with it are present throughout his discography, lending an emotive warmth and a pang of nostalgia to deeply personal electronic music that’s often tinged with an affecting sense of melancholy. 

Dicker’s fourth album, The Work, finds him venturing deeper into emotional territory, exploring the difficult journey towards mental stability he’s undertaken as a father. “The work is something that’s used in my therapy a lot,” he says. “I hear it a lot in self-care and books about mental health - the work on yourself basically.” We caught up with Dicker to find out more about how the record was made.

Could you tell us a little about the background to the new album?

“In 2018 I went travelling with my then girlfriend - now my wife - who did the photography for Good Luck And Do Your Best. I just did stuff on a laptop, basically. I couldn't take my MPC with me, so the laptop became my music notebook. But then I got back into Max/MSP and Pure Data. 

“I love Ableton, but I don't feel very inspired by it as a thing to create music on. I prefer doing it somewhere else. Ableton, I usually use for recording stuff into, basically, from other bits of kit. 

“It was just about getting away from… not the MPC sound, but I just needed a fresh start. I did some other stuff under different names. I wasn't really sure where I was gonna go after the last record, I'd had enough of touring. [laughs] I was starting over.”

What is it you’re drawn to about Max and Pure Data?

“They're very similar programs, because they're both made by the same guy originally. A guy called Miller Pucket. After he’d worked on Max, he made Pure Data as something that he didn't have to monetize, because he couldn't be bothered to do any support or anything. I just like the way you have a blank screen. When I make music on my MPC, I don't have sounds in a folder, I just start blank every time. That's how I've always made music. 

“I like the patching environment in Max, I like how it looks - little wires going everywhere. There’s something nice about it. It feels like real computer music, to me. That's what I always imagined electronic music was. I was very into the glitch of the early 2000s, and late ‘90s even. 

Computer music was always interesting to me. It's quite liberating just having a laptop to make music on

“Computer music was always interesting to me. It's quite liberating just having a laptop to make music on. But I think what always put me off working on a laptop was having to use a digital audio workstation, or whatever you want to call it, something that was laid out in that horizontal way, where you move audio around. I didn't find that very inspiring.”

Was a lot of the new record produced on the road, on the laptop?

“No. [laughs] Basically, I ended up using a patch that I made in Max for the MPC, which does what a lot of modern equipment does now, probability-based stuff where you can allow certain sounds to come through on a sequence a certain amount of times, or whatever. 

“So I made one of those for Max, because the old MPC I use doesn't have that. So the MIDI would go through that Max patch to trigger the drums in something else, and it would have those probability and retrigger-based possibilities from my Max patch. 

“So I didn't use Max to generate sound, but I used it as a help patch. I never liked arranging drum patterns, so I thought that if I had a way that I could do it in real time, I could just go back and hear it again and it'd be done, because my patch would decide whether to mute a kick drum or not, randomly. The MIDI comes out of the MPC, through Ableton, then the drums were all in a Rossum Assimil8or, a modular synth thing. The MIDI went through the Max patch.”

Aside from the randomized drum patch, could you tell us about any other patches you’ve built?

“I did this other project called Softman, which is on Bandcamp. I think there's one record on Spotify. I didn't tell anyone about it, it was just for me to mess around with Max. So I did one that was like, three or four resamplers. 

Sometimes when I want to make new music, a good thing to do is spend a day record shopping

“I would sample something, pitch it around, and then I would resample that and resample it again a few more times. I made some LFOs to retrigger it, and it's just kind of ambient. All the sounds are from records that I have. There's usually just one sound, and they just loop in various phases. It just ended up being quite nice. 

“Another one I did was just sine waves through a filter. Another one was kind of a techno experiment for playing live with Max, and I recorded the results. I've made stuff like Euclidean sequencers, and I've been trying to make a patch that I can improvise with, that grabs notes in a certain scale and pitches them around and then sends them to another one. 

“I don’t think I've made anything else that I've used as Gold Panda. Apart from some drum sounds, I made some drum sounds in there, and I just resampled those into the MPC.”

Did you find there to be any learning curve getting into Max?

“It’s like learning a language. I don’t know any other programming languages. It’s object-based, which is quite nice. Max and Pure Data, they both have help files on every object, which you can unlock and take apart or copy and paste. It's not easy to learn, but you can see how everything works. 

“The Fors plugins that I use, they're all made in Max, so you can just download the Max patch, open it and see what they've done. I like that about Max.”

Sampling has traditionally been fundamental to the way you make music. Was that the case on this record?

“It always has been. I just love the sound of vinyl crackle. It's an excuse to buy random records that I don't know anything about. Sometimes when I want to make new music, a good thing to do is spend a day record shopping and finding records. I see the cover, and then I read a bit about it. I have no idea what this is, so I’ll buy it. Then I’m just finding bits and bobs on there. 

“I don't want to sample other people's music, as in whole phrases. Because I like glitch, and that whole era of electronic music, I really like those small samples. Which I guess is like micro-sampling, which I hadn't heard of before I started doing music.”

Do you often find that a sample will act as a jumping-off point for a whole track?

“Definitely. If I can get a good loop out of something, pitch it up and down and get a nice melody, then what I'll do is, I'll play records over the top of what I've already made to try and find a sound that I can get in tune with that melody. Then I’ll chop that up and pitch that around as well. So yeah, it's just multiple layers of samples, basically, that have been re-pitched and truncated.”

And you’re still using the MPC for that?

“I was using the 2000XL MPC on Good Luck And Do Your Best, but on this record I used the 1000. I tried a new MPC called the Live II, but it’s too much like a computer. I like the little screens, I like numbers - I think that’s why I like Max and Pure Data. I like the feeling that I’m controlling a flow of information. 

When I turned it on, it said something like ‘what genre do you want to make?’ I just turned it off

“I don't want to feel like I'm using an iPad. I think with the new MPC, when I turned it on, it said something like ‘what genre do you want to make?’ I just turned it off. If it's not broke, I'm not gonna try and fix it. 

“The 1000 I think is great. Someone who used to work at Akai released an operating system that made it a million times better. It's just great. I haven't been using it lately, just because there are some limitations with the MPC and when I play live, they get quite frustrating. So I'm not using the MPC for live sets. But I did use it to make the record.”

For the live performances, are you recreating the tracks in Ableton?

“No, I’ve got a modular synth tracker called NerdSEQ. It’s brilliant. I loved making music on a Gameboy program called LSDJ. There's something about the tracker that makes me make interesting melodies. So I'm doing it the wrong way around. I'm using the tracker to sequence all my sounds which are in Ableton. 

“The problem I have is there isn't much equipment, aside from the MPC, that can do my music live. Because it uses so many samples, and because it's made in the MPC, the way the sequences in the MPC work and the way the samples are pitched around, there aren't many options to do it the same way. 

“Also the MPC is quite limited, you can only trigger one MIDI channel at a time. Whatever track you're on, that's the MIDI channel that's been received. I was getting frustrated with that, and there was a limit to the things I could do.  

”I've basically recreated an MPC in Drum Rack. Drum Rack is basically an MPC. Everything's in there, but the sequences are in the NerdSEQ tracker, just because I love the interface of trackers. It's just something to do live, something different.”

Does that give you a bit more of a live feel to the performance?

“I've only just done one show with it, and I spent probably half the show trying to work out where the fuck I put certain sounds. [laughs] Because I'm no Ableton pro. I can get what I want out of it, but I'm probably doing it the wrong way round. I've actually got a meeting with a friend who's great at Ableton. He's gonna help me streamline it a bit more, so I'm not looking at the screen going, where's that sound coming from?

I'm no Ableton pro. I can get what I want out of it, but I'm probably doing it the wrong way round

“It's an interesting learning curve. I can do the tracker stuff in Ableton, and I probably will do it at some point. I just have to record all the MIDI in. The only reason I want to do it that way is because I just don't want to carry loads of gear around. If I go on tour, I want it to be as easy as possible. If I take an old MPC and it breaks, I have to find a new one. If I take modular synth stuff, I've gotta fill in customs forms for certain places. 

“If I just take a laptop for visuals, a laptop for the music, a controller and possibly a synth, then I've made it easy on myself. I don't want to be an artist that's just bringing gear for the sake of it. For my mental health, I don't just want to lug around a big heavy case full of gear if I can do it with a laptop. What I want to do is just play my music live, and as live as it can be, and if that means Ableton is going to be the way I do it, then that’s fine.”

I remember seeing you perform at Bestival, it must have been about a decade ago, and I saw your iPhone plugged into the setup. I’ve always wondered what the phone was doing.

“It was a free app, this noise generator that had white noise, so I could do fills and build ups. And they had some nice like, Balinese gamelan sounds and bells that were pretty random, and I could just fade them in. I don't know what it's called anymore. It was a long time ago. But it was free. I just used it to fill in gaps.”

gold panda

(Image credit: Laura Lewis)

You’ve mentioned before that when you’re writing, you try to build arrangements by playing live on the MPC. What is it you like about that approach?

“I make choices on the spot that I wouldn't do in an arrangement. Also, it feels more real to me. If I tried to program a filter doing something, it sounds quite stale and contrived, it  sounds forced. And if I record stuff live, it's easier. 

”Actually, in this book I’ve been enjoying - it's called Microsound by Curtis Roads - he says something about improvisational music and how the process of writing, arranging, and recording music is very long-winded. Because you're doing all these experiments, working out what the sound is, working out what the song is… whereas musicians who improvise just go into the studio, play, record it and it's done. Then they move on to the next thing. It's a very effective way of working, and it's very time efficient.

The best thing I’ve bought was another audio interface with more inputs. It means I can just capture everything in real time

“The best thing I’ve bought was another audio interface with more inputs. So I've got eight stereo ins basically. Which means I can just capture everything in real time, and then I just go back and chop up the best bits or get rid of things I didn't like. And that's where the Max patch came in useful, because I didn't have to go, ‘oh, should I take the snare out there for those bars?’ It was all done for me. So that came in useful.

“It's something that I picked up from working with Jas from Simian Mobile Disco. We did a record together under the name Selling. I've recorded a few times with him, although we haven't released the other stuff we've done. But what we do is we pick some gear, set it up, and that will be our music, basically. Then we just record until we think the track has enough stuff in it. Then we go back and edit it, so rather than being 11 minutes, we'd get it down to four or five. That worked really well. So I learned that from him, and just applied it to Gold Panda.”

Do you find that imposing limitations stimulates your creativity?

“Yeah, I need them. I definitely need limits. I think that's why Ableton scares me for writing because the possibilities are so vast. I'm better now at knowing what I want to achieve. I only have a few plugins that I use. Ableton has improved so much since I first used it, all the synths in there now are all amazing, the built-in ones. It's just a much nicer program to use. I feel like it's closer to Max, in a way, than it used to be.”

You mentioned that you use a handful of plugins. What are they?

“I’m using a couple for live sets, which are by Fors. They’re really cheap, and really good, and the interface is very simple. I had the Arturia stuff, which I used with Anoushka Shankar when we did a duet together, and they're fine. But the interface for those is replicating a huge synth, with all these dials and a little screen. I feel like there's too much going on. So I changed to the Fors stuff and it's really simple.

I’m not a synth person. I want a digital synth that's super interesting, super easy to use, and can save all my patches

“I use the Toneboosters free stuff. Especially ReelBus. What else do I use? I used to use these effects, I think they were by Destroy FX, but they don't work with the new 64-bit stuff. But I haven't used them for years. There was one called Transverb which was amazing. That's it really. Then I just use what’s in Ableton, like Glue Compressor and stuff.

“I mix my music with other people. Luke Abbott mixed this record, so he did it all in Ableton in his bedroom. But it sounds great. I make a final version in my way, and then he just cleans it up. I've got better at knowing what I want my music to sound like. Before it was all just really badly recorded. 

”By separating the channels I've got a better understanding now of where I should put things in the mix, covering the whole spectrum. I like very clicky sounds so I think before, everything was very muddy. I think that came from not knowing anything about making music. I didn't know anything about dance music, and that's where it came from.”

Do you find you have to strike a balance there? To my ears, a key aspect of your music has always been that raw, gritty, unpolished sound.

“I think so. I always liked ‘90s hip-hop, and it was always a bit rough around the edges, but it was also banging. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to make my stuff banging.”

When we last spoke to you, you had a few hardware synths knocking about. Are you still using those?

“I sold the SH-101 and I sold my 808. I basically hadn't done gigs for ages, and I ran out of money. So I thought, well, I'll just sell this stuff, and maybe if I get some money in the future I’ll buy it back. I ended up using a Nord Rack 3, which is basically just a Nord Lead 3, but the rack version. 

”It's amazing, the interface on it is amazing. It has a little light on each dial basically, and you can when you recall a patch, it just comes up with where your where your knobs are rather than having to find where it was on the last one. It sounds great.”

Real gear for me takes up mental space, as well as physical

“Because I'm not a synth person, I don't really understand what people are talking about when they say, ‘this analogue synth sounds amazing.’ Especially modern stuff now, I just want to be able to save everything. I can't be bothered to have something that I have to maintain. I just want to turn it on and for it to work. 

”The Nord, I thought, really complemented what I was doing with samples. I’m not a synth person. I want a digital synth that's super interesting, super easy to use, and can save all my patches.”

Have you missed the SH-101 or the 808 since you sold them?

“No, I've heard the 808 in music so much. I still love it. But yeah, I don't miss it. I wasn't using it. It was just nice to have. It's a beautiful bit of kit, and it sounds great. I've recorded the sounds off it, and there's better on the internet than I've recorded. I sold it to a mate, so hopefully I'll see it again. 

“But you know, now I've got kids and less space. Real gear for me takes up mental space, as well as physical. Things that take up space in the physical world, also take up space for me in my brain. So I'm trying to be more strict in what I buy. 

“Although I have bought a ton of equipment recently, just to see if it is what I need for live sets. I try it out for a bit and then sell it on. Some things I find that I love and then I keep, like the Rossum Assimil8or and the NerdSEQ. And they all happen to be digital as well. I'd like to get some nice outboard gear at some point. But I'd rather spend the money on something else, and just get into Max and make my own patches in that.”

Gold Panda’s new album, The Work, is out now on City Slang. 

Matt Mullen
Tech Editor

I'm the Tech Editor for MusicRadar, working across everything from artist interviews to product news to tech tutorials. I love electronic music and I'm endlessly fascinated by the tools we use to make it. When I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard, carefully crafting the beginnings of another project that I'll ultimately abandon to the creative graveyard that is my overstuffed hard drive.

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