Henry Greenleaf: "Kick drums can take minutes to get good enough, and months to get exactly right"

(Image credit: Henry Greenleaf)

It’s funny how inspiration works. Sometimes applying our skills as musicians and producers to unfamiliar ends can influence our creative pursuits in ways we never imagined. In Henry Greenleaf’s case, it was an opportunity to work as a sound designer for children’s cartoons that opened the door to new techniques, repurposed for use in his bass-heavy, experimental club music. 

Inspired by the concept of hyper-reality - wherein sound designers produce radically over-exaggerated versions of real-world sounds that can end up sounding more ‘real’ than reality - Greenleaf applied this very same philosophy to crafting his drum sounds, resulting in the kind of mind-bending percussive constructions found on his latest EP, Kirkstone Pass. 

Since his 2018 debut, Henry Greenleaf’s intricate and immersive club tracks have found a home across ARTS, Version and the label he runs alongside Agrippa, Par Avion. Released this month through Glasgow-based Redstone Press, Kirkstone Pass redeploys the hyper-detailed approach required of commercial sound design to more hedonistic ends, resulting in four meticulously produced, unruly shellers that careen through techno, dubstep, garage and IDM with reckless abandon.

When did you start making music, and how did you first get started? 

“I started making music at 11. My family got a new computer in 2006 that had Garageband pre-installed. I made a track from the stock loops with my Dad and sister the day we got it, then again on my own the next day, and the day after that - and I never stopped. My parents are really into music, and would take my sister and I to The Big Chill every year. 

“We saw all sorts there, but I got especially into dubstep after seeing Benga and Joker play in 2006 and 2007. I had no idea what their names were, what the music was called or where to find it outside of those club tents at the festival. Still, I spent all my time trying to copy what I’d heard from memory.”

I’ve got really into stacking Logic’s stock effects in a way that creates gnarly bugs in the audio - an example would be 8 pitch shifters in a row

My dad was slowly uploading all of his CDs to iTunes at the time, and I realised I could sample the moments where instruments and vocals were playing on their own. I got really into programming my own beats in MIDI quite quickly, rearranging the Apple stock loops, then later making my own sample kits and programming MIDI with them. I felt really proud to not be using any of the Apple stock sounds anymore. 

“Other than my parents CDs, I would sample from YouTube - but didn’t know anything about mp3 converters so I would just play the videos very loudly out of the iMac’s speakers, and record that into GarageBand using the built-in mic - pretty rough beats back then! Luckily someone at school showed me how to download files off YouTube soon after…!”  

Tell us about your studio/set-up. 

“I moved from Bristol back to London in October to work with a studio called Coda to Coda as a sound designer on a CBeebies show. Total dream job, working with lovely cool nerds who constantly recommend weird and wonderful music, films, equipment and processes - huge shout to Sam, Will and Tanya! Sampling their equipment - dreamy modular and analog synths, varied percussion and strange wind and string instruments - is a very lucky opportunity, and I sometimes use their studio rooms before and after work too, though that’s just to check my mixdowns.”

“My set-up is a MacBook Pro, some HS8s and that’s it. I haven’t had decks since leaving Bristol, but have just bought some Technics 1210s, and I’m looking to get a Roland DJ2000 mixer for its weird effects, both for DJing and producing. I mostly sample drums off of my records like Bruce told me to, and then layer, layer and layer them in Logic. I make everything at home on my laptop with no fancy VSTs or outboard gear other than the turntables once they arrive - I’d love some fancy outboard gear, though.” 

What DAW (or DAWs) do you use, and why did you choose it?

“I use Logic X as it’s just a bigger Garageband. The only other software I use is VCV Rack, which I love!

What one piece of gear in your studio could you not do without, and why?

“My laptop - as that’s the only equipment I have. I also rely on notebooks, which I write beat-grids into. If I don’t have a notebook on me I’ll draw them in an Instagram story, and copy that into a notebook later. I can’t stress how helpful this is for me when I’m making or sampling new sounds, and I have no clue what to do with them stylistically or rhythmically.

What's the latest addition to your studio?

“It’s not a piece of gear or a plugin but a process. I’ve got really into stacking Logic’s older stock effects in a way that cancels out their intended effect and leaves gnarly bugs in the audio. An example of this would be 8 pitch shifters in a row; the first set to +2 tones, the second to -2 tones, and repeat. This can leave you with really tight unique snares, claps and percs, huge dated-sounding synths or rumbles and can even be used for intense EDM-style risers if that’s your thing. Then bounce the audio, distort, EQ and chop to tighten up.

What dream bit of gear would you love to have in your studio?  

“The big dream is to have my own hardware mastering chain in the studio running straight onto tape and/or a lathe. I want Blawan’s studio, essentially, but with the focus of my production still very much in the computer, twisting samples. Anything that gives me more fidelity to manipulate, such as extended frequency mics or reel-to-reel tape is very desired.

“I do want to slowly create the dream modular rig out (who doesn’t?) but for now I’m still far too keen on the microscopic control you have in computer DAWs. There’s no limit to how far you can edit a sample or what you can create from software. I think it’ll be really hard to ever move away from this level of control.”

When approaching a new track or project, where do you start?

“Making the beat, I start with the samples. I’ve huge playlists and folders of recordings saved to sample, and I write down what I plan to do with them in those notebook beat-grids. Once I’ve got the sample recorded I extensively chop it into the EXS24 sample instrument. This sounds really dull but it’s vital as spending ages arranging the samples into the MIDI instrument makes me forget the style and order of the clip the sounds were originally in.

A good kick drum can take minutes to get good enough, and months to get really right

“Ideas for tracks come from everywhere; an Indian Rhythm Workout breakdown I saw on Instagram, the soundtrack or sound design from a film, or even just a pan in the house that sounded particularly good when I accidentally dropped it. Anything that makes a sound or rhythm you weren’t quite expecting, that makes you want to sample, explore and develop.”

Bass seems to be a massive part of your sound. What are your go-to tools for producing these weighty sub bass sounds?

“It’s nothing crazy; distort, EQ, limit and balance - it’s layers really. Usually they’re layers of the same sample at different pitches and processed to accentuate different parts of the sound. These layers are side-chained to various degrees against the main low-end kick to create an intense and pressurised sound. The kicks themselves are also made from several layers, but usually from very varied samples. This can take minutes to get good enough and sometimes months to get really right.

What other artists do you look up to for inspiration?     

“Blawan. I’m inspired by everyone but endlessly excited by Blawan. His seamless transition from very computer-sounding 2-step Hessle Audio shuffles into wooden pitched-down sample techno, through to his latest two records of fast evil metallic drums. I was so excited to see him at Waterworks with Pariah playing a Karenn DJ set.” 

If you had to pick one track that’s been most influential on your work, what would it be?     

“There’s no one track that I could say has been completely influential. I’ve always listened to a real mixed bag and take ideas from everything. If I really had to name one track, it’d have to be Benga and Coki’s “Night”, as hearing that at The Big Chill is what made me want to make electronic club music. SGT Pokes was MCing and the track went off! I think it was still a dubplate at the time.

What do you think makes you unique as a producer and musician?

“Yikes, that’s a tough one to answer. I think everyone’s unique as a producer really - even if that’s just by a very small margin. Tracks are made up (consciously or unconsciously) from what you’ve heard, and been inspired by, or even what you’ve heard and hated. I’m very aware of most of my influences. 

“My love of simple staccato catchy leads and hooks comes from playing funk on the guitar since I was seven, my sound design keen-ness comes from a love of science fiction (and films in general), and I’m really into harsh sampled digital drums from being obsessed with MTV growing up - namely the Scott Storch, Pharrell, Neptunes and Timbaland beats.”

How does your work as a sound designer inform your approach to music production?

“Since I’ve become more interested in cinematic sound design I found out about hyper-reality. This is a term from a Marshall McGee tutorial. It’s about how to make something seem very real and visceral, where each element of the real-world sequence of sounds has to be exaggerated. 

“The example in his video is of someone getting punched in the face, which in reality sounds really dull: just “bam... thud... umph”. But in a video game or film, this is super-stylized and excited into swishes, whooshes, clothes moving, skin squelching, bones breaking, teeth individually hitting the floor, etc. All of the lead up to the punch makes the punch seem harder. I took this idea and thought - that’s what I should do with my kicks.”

I want excitement in the tracks I play when I DJ. I want people to go “wow, that’s a bit much”

“Working on sound design at Coda has made me want to have lots of drama in my productions. I love crudely flipping between maximalist full-frequency intense breakdowns and sound design, to super-minimal, huge kicks and subs with really high-frequency harsh textures, and very little to nothing in the middle. I want excitement in the track I play when I DJ. I want people to go “wow, that’s a bit much” and “oooh everything’s underwater that’s weird” - I want tracks to really twist and turn.”

Tell us a little bit about your Noods radio show - what kind of music are you aiming to showcase?

“I think I’ll have had the show for five years come May - big love to Leon and Jack! I got in when the station was in a small bedroom above the Surrey Vaults. I was pretty nervous when I started, as some of my favourite DJs in Bristol, who I really look up to, would often come and sit behind me to catch up with friends while I was on air. Their knees would be touching the back of my knees, the room was so small! 

“Now I’ve had the show long enough for it to really feel like my own. I feel completely free to play whatever I like, and bring on whomever I like. That tends to be producers/DJs who do things weirdly, quirkily and/or wrongly but sound like they’re having fun - and so far they’ve all been great fun!”

What are you currently working on? 

“I’ve just finished a six-track double 12” EP for the wonderful YUKU. My first official remix is also coming later this year. That’s a remix of a friend’s track, which I had so much fun sampling and mashing up. I can’t wait to twist out more peoples tracks in the future. I’ve also got some tracks appearing on some V/A records with a few lovely labels which I hope will mostly be out before the year’s over too, but who knows with these crazy pressing delays.

“We also have Par Avion back with a wicked EP from a great guy in New Zealand, with several EPs from new and old faces to the label to quickly follow up - including myself!”

Henry Greenleaf's three tips for creative production

1. Shape your tracks around moments

Batu advised me to do this. To have a huge unique part of the track that inverts what’s happened until that point, or starts afresh, or even just builds and builds. If something strange/unique happens inside the track people will remember that clubbing moment, DJs will be more likely to let your song play for longer and hopefully you’ll get a great reaction from the listener and/or crowd.” 

2. Sample drums from your own vinyl collection

“Tip two is from Bruce, who I bumped into a few years ago. I asked him what he thought of the last few beats I had sent him. He said I desperately needed to start sampling my drums off of records, so I did - and started with his. 
With records you can pitch, reverse and scratch them while recording. Being able to manipulate the sound before you’ve even recorded it is a huge benefit fidelity wise and also leads to far more unique samples.”

3. Don't download tons of sample packs and VSTs

“If you do, they’ll just waste a lot of time and space. Start off with some unique sounds (either from a record or a synth), sample what you need when you need it and really get to know the sound. Really twist and develop it to make it your own. Be honest and really see all you can with the sound. Find what’s best about the sound and form the track around showcasing your discoveries.”

Henry Greenleaf’s Kirkstone Pass EP is out now on Redstone Press.

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.

Get over 70 FREE plugin instruments and effects… image
Get over 70 FREE plugin instruments and effects…
…with the latest issue of Computer Music magazine