Bristol-based producer Lurka has released a string of killer EPs on labels including Timedance, Black Acre and Wisdom Teeth, as well as lending his mixing skills to a number of his contemporaries. And it seems like everyone who’s worked with him wants to rave abut his production skills. Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted Hodge lauding his mixing techniques within these pages two issues ago, and Timedance-boss and regular collaborator Batu is another artist who swears by his production guidance.
You don’t have to take their word for it though; listening to Lurka’s recent Rhythm Hi-Tek EP leaves no doubt that he’s a producer at the top of his game. Rhythmically complex and boasting some imperceptible sound design, the tracks are mixed with a level of clarity and weight that’s often missing in underground dance music.
We caught up with Lurka to quiz him on his mixing techniques, production tips and more.
What are your main tools are when it comes to mixing a track?
“For mixing, the most important thing is saturation and distortion but a lot of the mixdown tends to be done in choosing the elements. When I’m choosing a sound I’m mixing as I’m going. You’ve got it in your head what you want as you’re going along, so a lot of the mix is wrapped up in this sort of sample or synthesis choice and then everything kind of sits in its place. And you just sweeten a little at the end if needed.”
So you err on the side of doing as little processing as possible at the last stage…
“Yes, because it’s hopefully done by then, in the generation of the sound. Then, it’s about getting sounds to interact with each other, whether that’s carving a frequency range or sidechaining sounds in the mix.
“It’s about making sure nothing’s fighting for space, things like keeping an eye out for anything with a lot of low content, like another drum part, that might sit anywhere around the kick. Generally, I tend to have subs sitting lower than the kick. It’s a tricky balance.”
On that subject, let’s talk about the low end. What’s your secret to getting bass and kick elements to sit together?
“Really, really, really trying to refine it! By that I mean, work out what is essential to the track. Because if you’re trying to push things together you’re always compromising. A lot of things I do you don’t even notice once the track’s playing. Like if a 4/4 kick is playing with a bassline, and just one instance of that kick hits at the same time as the bass, I’ll go and turn it down. But you don’t notice it. Lots of little housekeeping things. Or just cutting down a riff to its essentials.”
How do you go about doing that? Is it about rolling off bits that don’t make a difference?
“I’m hesitant to do lots of low/high passing. It tends to sound a bit dodgy and you get lots of phasing when you roll off stuff. I just go and take it out or find somewhere else for it. Not a very sexy answer... mostly housekeeping. [laughs]”
That’s exactly the kind of answer we want!
“But yes, a lot of it is just listening and making sure stuff has its space, once you’ve done the creative bit of throwing everything at it. But you can spend a lot of time trying to make things work when you should have just deleted it. Know when to cut your losses. Get rid of that tendency to be precious. Have a different mindset for mixing and creating. It can be tricky.”
What difference is there, do you think, in mixing something for an underground label like Timedance, compared to a more straightforward big room/festival track?
“I struggle with this question because I genuinely like that kind of super overblown stuff. With the Timedance or more experimental stuff, the track emerges from something you’ve been experimenting with. With the other stuff, it’s more functional – not to demean it. The arrangement is there. A lot of the work in that respect is more done for you so you can spend your time making everything loud and crazy. Your brainpower is freed up. You just use a 909 and know how iit’s meant to sound. There’s less messing around. There are more markers to adhere to quickly.”
Tell us a bit more about how you’re processing sounds as you go along. What would you apply, say, to a percussion sound?
“With sounds I’ve generated myself it’s more about layering in something like Kontakt. If I want it to have that proper thwack and energy, I find each part I want for the drum and layer it together like that. A very underrated tool is checking the phasing for your layers. Milliseconds can make a huge timbral difference.
“As far as plugins and stuff, saturation and distortion goes on everything, pretty much. Even clean elements I’ll put saturation on. Something I’m loving at the moment is Black Box HG2. All that Plugin Alliance stuff is incredible.”
Will you normally have different sessions for making drums, bouncing out and creating sample packs?
“As time has gone on, yes. But in previous years not so much. When I worked on collaborations with other people, they would get very frustrated. I would be all like ‘fresh song, it all has to be new’. But now, as time has gone on, I’ve realised that was a bit stubborn. So now I do do that.
“I still end up doing more with the sounds eventually though. There’s something about using a sample pack and leaving it completely unaltered that kind of irks me. I don’t know what that says about me. It’s not that it’s lazy, but I just feel I have to do something! [laughs] Even if it’s a pack of sounds I made myself!”
Your tracks have a certain sense of space. Tell us a bit about how you create that, how are you working with reverbs?
“It’s not my key focus, but a lot of the time I use insert reverbs in sound design before a compressor or before distortion. I find them more powerful at times as a sound design tool than as a mix tool. It will be varied when it comes to the final tune. Only a few elements are drenched in reverb. That’s more of a practical thing as I’m on an ageing Macbook, so whenever I’m using busses and stuff in Logic it doesn’t like it, so it stresses my computer.”
With some of the incidental sounds and effects, your tracks put a lot of emphasis on weird delayed synths and glitchy bits. Are they easy to place in a mix?
“That’s not too difficult but the main thing will be volume. And making sure that stuff has space to fit, by muting other parts at the end of a phrase, for example. Then listening to it 100 times and just looking at the parts themselves.
“Unfortunately the ‘homework’ parts of music are the key to making it sound great. Just getting rid of any noise – I can’t stand when there’s an imperceptible little click at the end of a drop or something. All these cumulative things add up. It can sound like the minutiae to people but if they wind me up enough I don’t mind doing it.”
What about master bus processing? Do you have anything on your master when mixing?
“Not on my own stuff. On someone else’s maybe. A saturator, say, if things are a bit disparate. But I’m hesitant to use any sort of compression, particularly on my own tracks. You may get a bit of volume, but I always just find it takes something off the openness of it. That might be irrational but I really don’t like putting anything on my master. Especially when I’m going to send it to some super mastering engineer who has an amazing studio. I’ve been to those studios and heard what they do and thought, ‘why would I bother competing?’ [laughs] It’s about spending time trying to get the mix how you like it. It always seemed a bit alien. I have tried working by putting a big chain on the master before you start, but I generally leave things off the master.”
You’ve said the sound design stage plays a big role in mixing your own tracks. How do you deal with getting around that if you’re mixing someone else’s work?
“A lot of subtractive EQing – that’s a godsend. And… just saturation. Gain-staging and experimenting to make stuff sit more correctly. I would use more busses than with my own stuff. I’ll do that trick of having a really over-the-top, smashed, compressed, saturated thing. Then work with the track and blend it in. So yes, I will put stuff on the master for that. That Blackbox plugin does a lot of work.”
Are there any common mix mistakes you see younger producers making?
“Too many elements in the track, all vying for your attention. That’s a big one. And the other one is timing – how the groove sits. Even moving a hi-hat by a few milliseconds changes how it sounds phase-wise. That’s one of the key things. I’ll hear a track and think, ‘Why have they done that? Moving it a little would make the groove so much cleaner.’ But the main thing I’d say is to be ruthless with chopping out elements, deleting stuff.”
So that’s a key thing for you, keeping the minimum you need to get the groove across?
“Yes. Definitely. Because all the time you spent trying to make those elements work could have been used to make the ones you do have sound as pleasing and exciting as possible. Put your energy into making what is there sound as coherent and strong as possible. There are so many options to punch stuff in, I do it myself. Having 80 channels or something. Delete, delete, delete. Put your energy elsewhere.”
Any other tips for new producers?
“Make sure the sounds you use initially are as high quality as possible. Don’t settle. You’ll never get it to be how you hear it in your head if you don’t have it initially. And stop worrying about volume! Thankfully Spotify has made it a thing of the past.”
For your own tracks, where are you mainly sourcing sounds? Samples or hardware?
“It’s a lot of sample packs. And synthesis. That’s the core. And then along with that, I capture a lot of stuff with my Zoom recorder, and I’ve got all these records that I can sample from. And Youtube is a wicked thing now – you can get so much high-quality stuff from there. I just came across something the other day of a guy using bunsen burners and they made some mad noise, so I sampled that and it became an atmosphere in a tune. There’s a lot of material there. But a lot of the time it’s samples and synthesis.”
What are your go-to synthesis tools?
“I still use ES2 in Logic. Such a sick synth. And Sculpture too – that is crazy good. Bit of a CPU drain but amazing. And I’ve also been getting into the new Massive. Really like it. It really helps with things that are melodic. I’ve not used it so much for bass. But it’s good for the ease of modulation and producing complex sounds quickly. It seems to get a lot of flack though! I don’t really understand why, because it seems sick.”
Because people are attached to the original?
“[laughs] Well people can still use that if they want! In hardware terms I’ve got a fair few bits. The DFAM – I use it all the time. It’s amazing for drums and synths. Moogerfoogers, a little Koma delay. MPC2000, which is good for loading drums and then taking them straight out of it. Like if you have a hi-hat that has that digital brightness that you can’t quite tame. I’ll put it into that and it does something to it that makes it so much easier to listen to. I’ve got one of those LXP1 Lexicon ’80s boxes. I use it all the time for saturation. An 1176, I use that a lot for kicks. Or as an EQ – it tends to darken things slightly. Old amps and all that.”
Logic is your main DAW. Any others?
“I started on FL and Ableton when it was v3 or 4. I use them from time to time because you can drive yourself mad when you can’t bear to look at Logic anymore. I love Logic – something about the sound of it, whether or not that’s bogus – but the workflow could do with some tweaks as it’s not as good as Ableton.”
You play around with a lot of different tempos in your track. What’s your interest in that?
“I guess having made music for so long, sticking to one makes you feel... I dunno. Like when you play guitar and piano and use the same shapes all the time. It drives you insane. You keep coming back to the same phrases, motifs, whatever. So it’s like a change of scenery, going to a different tempo. The patterns you always use then don’t sound right, so you’re forced to go somewhere more interesting. If you go back to something you’re working on and change the BPM, it opens it up a bit. If it’s say, busy, just dropping it by 10bpm can change the way the groove sounds.”
To wrap up, let’s talk about some of your collaborations. What do you think the toughest or easiest things about doing them are?
“Getting over that initial fear of embarrassing yourself. Worrying what they’re thinking about. The big thing is to trust and respect the person you’re working with. It’s really important. But also don’t be a pushover if you feel something is crucial and they’re saying, ‘you can’t do that’. Sometimes you’re right – vice versa. A bit of back and forth.”
Did you always do it in the same room?
“When I worked with Commodo, years ago, he was in Sheffield and I was in Bristol, so it was mostly by email, sending parts to each other. Right now I’m doing more collabs over email obviously. I think a mix of the two is the best. Working on your bits at home and then bringing them together. A lot of the time you go down rabbit holes that don’t come to fruition which can be annoying. When you’re sat next to someone and thinking ‘oh God, I hope this turns out good’.”
Like watching someone messing around with a delay for two hours?
“Yeah, it can be infuriating! But yeah, get in a room with someone else if you can. As you’re spending so much time alone making tunes, I think it’s worth doing. Because you have more fun doing it. You should take every chance to do it!”