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Michael Diamond explores fractured identity through electronica on Third Culture

michael diamond
(Image credit: Aaron Hammond-Duncan)

Born in Kerala, India, producer and DJ Michael Diamond emigrated to the UK with his parents when he was a child. “Although I’ve loved and soaked up the culture of the UK growing up, I am still viewed by many as a foreigner", he says. "On the other hand, when I return to India I am seen and treated as a Westerner. Over time, this has left me feeling that whilst I possess aspects of both cultures, I don’t truly belong to either one.”

This experience of dislocation is common among third culture kids (opens in new tab) like Michael, people who were raised in a culture different to that of their parents. It’s these feelings of disconnection that inspired the music that forms his debut LP, Third Culture, and the short story and film that accompanies its release. Channelling the trauma of fractured identity into dense, saturnine dance music, the record shrouds intricate, knotty drum patterns in moody synths and jazz-inflected atmospheres that recall the downcast vibes of classic Deep Medi dubstep as much as Floating Points’ vivid and cinematic electronica.

Collaborator Alex Wilson’s evocative saxophone solos bookend the record, while Áine Kim Kennedy’s words give context to the album’s concept, rendering the third culture experience as a restless insomniac’s fever dream. Arriving at a moment when the UK’s South Asian community is growing increasingly visible within the wider electronic music scene - Diamond references collectives such as No ID (opens in new tab) and Daytimers (opens in new tab) as instrumental in this shift -  Third Culture brings a nuanced perspective to an experience that’s shared by many fans and fellow artists.

“I think that the world is becoming a more open place. People and cultures are becoming more and more intertwined,” Diamond tells us. “I think that through everything that’s been happening this year I have achieved a greater understanding of my own cultural roots and this album project is a big reason why.” It seems that through making a project that represents the struggle to discover a fixed identity, Diamond has arrived at a sound - a musical identity - that’s truly his own. 

Could you tell us a little about the background to the new album and the themes of identity and ‘third culture’ that inspired it?

“I had found myself listening to way more long-players, and wanted to do one myself. It was a new challenge to create something that’s engaging over an extended period of time. I had about a hundred ideas and eventually settled on seven. They ended up being the tracks on the album, and I think they link together nicely. So, first and foremost, the album came purely from my desire to create some nice music. 

“The whole third culture thing kinda happened by accident - or at least it wasn't the aim when I set out with the project. Quite early on, I shared the work-in-progress with one of my best mates Áine Kim Kennedy. Anyone who knows her will tell you she's a literary genius. We had actually collaborated a couple years back on my concept EP Silk Road on Salin - she wrote a poem to go alongside the tracks, inspired solely from listening to the EP. 

I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the process and now the third culture element is intrinsic to the album itself for me

“For this album the process was similar - Áine listened to the album start to finish and from that alone she came up with the short story narrative centring around the topic of third culture - both of us being third culture kids, i.e, we share aspects of multiple different cultures without ever completely belonging to one. As a result it forced me to look back at my own life experiences in a new way, retrospectively identifying how the fact that I’m a third culture kid has influenced my relationships with people and the world in general. I’ve learnt a lot about myself in the process and now the third culture element is intrinsic to the album itself for me.”

Could you talk us through maybe one or two pieces of equipment - anything from synths and instruments to plugins and effects - that were fundamental to the making of the new project?

“There are quite a few that I could mention here but I’ll stick to two. The first is FLEX. It’s a stock plugin in FL Studio, and is a sort of synth/sound-bank with limited parameters. It has some really cool sounds, but it’s not really a true synth because you can’t really control the waveshape, etc. This limitation in functionality is somewhat constraining - it’s quite hard to create a truly evolving sound from one patch as a result. So what I did to circumvent this was load a few instances of it, all playing the same notes and then layer and compress them together, automating their relative volumes over time. It creates something a bit more evolving; sounds that morph into each other continuously - sort of emulating a wavetable synth. 

“The second plugin I should mention here, I used on all the drums on the LP - the Arturia Rev PLATE-140. It gives the drums a nice presence and smooth tail. If you time it right, you can get it for free when Arturia do one of their random plugin giveaways (that’s how I got it).”

Michael diamond

Credit: Aaron Hammond-Duncan (opens in new tab) (Image credit: Aaron Hammond-Duncan)

And could you run us through one or two influences - either musical or non-musical - behind the sound and direction of the new record?

“I’m obliged to mention Floating Points here because I feel there's a very clear influence in this album - if you're a fan of his music you'll definitely be able to hear the similarities in stylistic choices. I guess the other influences are quite varied, because I listen to a lot of different artists - other people and labels to shout out here would be Ishmael Ensemble, Tom VR, Aleksandir, Jon Hassell, Wisdom Teeth, Seb Wildblood and the music he releases through Church, Coastal Haze and all my thoughts, Rhythm Section, Mansur Brown, Yussef Dayes, Alfa Mist, Waldo’s Gift, to name a few.

“Speaking more generally though, this album was a product of a clear shift in my music taste that’s happened in the last few years. Before I was listening to a lot of upbeat jazzier house stuff like my first record on Salin (opens in new tab) back in 2018 - but nowadays I’m into the deeper, more sound-designy introspective stuff - ‘listening music’ if you will. It’s obviously hard to describe a music taste through words - luckily for you guys I made a mix for Ransom Note which answers this question exactly."

Could you pick out an element of a track from the new project that you’re particularly proud of, and give us an insight into the creative process behind how you produced it?

“I like the intro to Emergence. I had loads of fun making that (but it also took me forever!) I wanted the album to flow continuously from one track to the next, so I knew I had to use some elements from the previous track. The bass sound you hear in the intro is the same as in Submerged. I rendered out the bassline from Submerged and then used a lot of automation, pitch-shifting, warping to create a new evolving ‘riser’ sound. Similarly the phone/walkie-talkie/static noises in the intro are taken from the same samples that the hats in the next track, Exodus, are made from. I made it a point to use as many of the same samples as possible across different tracks of the LP - albeit processed entirely differently each time.”

“The explosion was composed of several layers of sounds: dry kick drums, fully wet reverb-ed kick drums, glitches and ambiences - all sent to a single bus and compressed together to make them sound as one. Combining unprocessed kicks on top of reverb-ed ones gives you something that’s both punchy and has depth. I’m not an expert at pulling it off, but the general principle of combining sounds using bus compression is a solid one. I use it a lot.”

Did you experiment with any new studio techniques or processes on this album?

“I guess I did, albeit without actually realising. Any new techniques I learnt were usually a byproduct of me wanting to solve a certain issue or achieve a certain sound rather than the other way round (learning a new technique for the sake of it, followed by applying it). It’s a needs-driven approach to learning production - I personally like it this way, because it means I’m constantly working on actual music as opposed to just learning techniques for the sake of it without any definitive application. 

Combining unprocessed kicks on top of reverb-ed ones gives you something that’s both punchy and has depth

“I don’t think I ever accessed any online tutorials or anything - I just sort of tried as many different things that I could conceive potentially working until one eventually did. I must have employed some new studio techniques and processes as a result of this way of working.”

Looking back a little bit now, how did you first get involved with music production and electronic music-making?

“I took a gap year and had nothing to do,  so got my brother Martin to download a cracked version of FL Studio and absolutely rinsed it all day every day for the whole year. Most people do some travelling, soul-searching, voluntary work or something - but I literally just spent the year inside making shitty beats. It was sick.”

When you first started producing, what kind of set-up were you working with?

“Just a laptop with FL Studio on it and some crappy in-ear JBL headphones that were about 20 quid from PC World. I also had a nifty JBL Charge bluetooth speaker which I used, in my own words at the time, to 'reference my mixes.' [laughs]”

Michael diamond

Credit: Bianca Harvey (opens in new tab) (Image credit: Bianca Harvey)

How does that compare to your current studio space?

“Pretty much the same, to be honest. In terms of physical gear, I now have Adam A7Xs, a couple of turntables, and a guitar. The Adams have seriously unlocked a new way of hearing sound for me - they’ve accelerated my ear training in a way I never thought just some speakers could. I will however confess that I still use my beloved crappy £20 JBLs from time to time ‘cause they just get me in a certain mood.”

The Adams have seriously unlocked a new way of hearing sound for me - they’ve accelerated my ear training in a way I never thought just some speakers could

“I got a ridiculously good deal on a secondhand D'Angelico guitar, which I ended up playing 8+ hours per day and giving myself tendonitis. I'm still at uni and anyone who's seen me in online lectures may have noticed a little guitar strap round my neck. But the main body of the studio has always been, and probably will for the foreseeable be my laptop with my plugins.”

What DAW are you using, and why do you use it?

“FL Studio. It's the first one I used when Martin cracked me a version and I don't see the need to change. I have a paid version now, though, so please don't come at me Image-Line. I guess all DAWs do the same thing just with slightly different workflows, so you tend to make different decisions along the way - my current workflow is a product of the DAW I have used since the beginning. I wonder how different my music would be if Martin cracked me Ableton instead of FL. As I said before, I just wanna make music, not play around learning new software/DAWs, so for me I don't see the point in changing - I've not hit a brick wall with FL yet!

“Having said all that, the good folks at Ableton did just hook me up with a licence so maybe I'll try it out and see what I think. I’ll probably end up learning how to use it so I can get into live stuff…”

Are you more of a software-based producer or do you tend to favour hardware and outboard gear?

“Software, but that's probably a product of my circumstances rather than an actual preference. I'm still at uni, without any income, so can't really afford hardware. I've barely touched the surface on all the software synths and plugins available out there, so getting even more gear seems a waste of money for the stage I'm at currently. Who knows though, I may actually be a hardware man after all - I've just never properly tried. If MusicRadar ever wants to donate any gear for me to play with I would graciously accept. [laughs]”

Could you run us through a couple of plug-ins that are really fundamental to your workflow or your sound?

“For creative workflow I actually just use the stock Rhodes piano and bass in FL to get the notes down. Only once I’m happy with the notes do I start bothering with the sound. Obviously this changes depending on what I’m feeling in the moment, but generally this workflow is what I’ve noticed to be the case. Kinda boring I guess but I don’t feel like I use many plugins for “workflow” purposes. I do however rely on plugins for the “sound” aspect. Here are a couple that I’m really into right now. 

I try to automate every parameter I possibly can (CPU-permitting)

“One is the free compressor TDR Kotelnikov - I find it easier to achieve the sound I’m after with it compared to other compressors out there. Especially good when I want to make drums sound snappier and increase their punch. An attack of 6-12ms with a longish release, not too aggressive a ratio is a good starting point - obviously, exact settings will depend on what the existing sound is like. I also use it on drum busses for that uniform sound. 

“Synth-wise, one of the only plugins I’ve actually bothered to pay for is the Arturia V7 collection - if you didn’t know, it’s a plugin collection of loads of classic synth emulations. Loads of excellent sounds in there that allow me to just flick through and get going immediately and because they’re actual synths (in contrast with FLEX which is more of a sound-bank) they have lots of capacity for automation, and hence interestingness. I try to automate every parameter I possibly can (CPU-permitting).”

How often are you experimenting with new studio gear - are you constantly trying new things out or once you’ve found your groove do you tend to just stick with what you know?

“I haven't really been in the game long enough to know the true answer to this question, but what I can say is that I am nowhere near exploring all the possibilities available with my current knowledge level so I don't necessarily feel the need to be learning anything new right now. Anything new I learn is usually needs-driven - so when I want to overcome a specific problem or create a certain sound, only at that point will I start investigating the relevant techniques to achieve that. It's a functional approach to production, but I like it because it means I’m constantly working on the music itself and not just learning techniques for the sake of it. It’s more fun this way.”

Is there anything that’s on your wishlist studio-wise?

“Yeah, I really want to start doing more live stuff - so an Ableton Push would be nice. Also want some cool FX pedals and sound-warping gear to feed my guitar into - it’s an instrument which already produces some cool sounds so I’d love to push it a bit further in my productions.”

“Above all though, if I could ask for one wish, it would be for the henchest most juiced-up beast computer to have ever existed - CPU issues are my arch nemesis and my life would be pretty much perfect if I didn’t have any.”

When you’re translating your tracks to a live setting, what kind of live set-up are you working with?

“This is something I'm still working out. I had some plans that were halted because of my tendonitis. When I play out, I usually just play records and tracks on CDJs - on occasion I'll do a set with Alex Wilson. I'll be on the decks, Alex improvising sax on top. It's really fun and people go nuts for Alex. Makes me so happy to see. He’s also laid some absolutely sick sax lines on my album, and is just a very talented and lovely guy in general.”

What’s up next following the album’s release?

“Whilst I’m writing this now I am also desperately trying to revise for some Medicine exams that I’m massively underprepared for. In fact, I’ve had to ban myself from all music (even just listening) because it ends up being too much of a distraction. As soon as my exams are done the first thing I do will be firing up the Adams and making some tunes! I have a big folder of tracks that are brewing that I’m really excited to work on.

“I’ll also be playing gigs - still got a residency at Simple and we have some big bookings lined up for later this year. I’ll be working on that live setup I mentioned - got a little band together and writing new material for that. That's more long-term though, so no clue when it's actually gonna happen - need to sort my tendonitis out first!”

Michael Diamond's three tips for creative production

1. Samples aren't boring or limited

“It depends how you use them. I'm only beginning to truly realise just how much stuff you can do from a sample alone. Sometimes using samples as opposed to synths is seen as “cheating”, or somehow “less advanced” than synthesising the sound from scratch - but it really isn't. Yes, a lot of parameters are no longer available for you to manipulate when you render something to a sample - but at the same time you’ve also just unlocked a whole range of tools and effects that you wouldn’t have been able to use otherwise. 

“A good example of this is the intro to Emergence I mentioned earlier - I would have had absolutely no clue how to make that intro bass riser if I had used the original bass synth patch in Submerged - it was only because I rendered it out as a sample that I was able to get it to sound like that!”

2. Use your mixer channel as a ‘pseudo-synth module’

“If you think about how a synth actually works, then you’ll realise that you can do a lot of its functionalities using an insert on a mixer channel and applying automation. You can control ADSR for any parameter, you can adjust the wet/dry levels of effects, you can automate parameters within each plugin you’ve loaded and so on. The possibilities are quite endless! 

“I use this a lot - for example if I want a certain sound to have more attack or bite to it - I could try a compressor or transient-shaper but I could also try loading a volume plugin onto the mixer channel and creating an automation clip, drawing in the exact curve I want the volume to follow. You can use this general principle more creatively too.”

3. If you’re unsure of what you’re hearing, isolate the frequency range

“You often hear mix engineers say “trust your ears”, but that’s just not helpful to a beginner ‘cause your ears are completely untrained. I was chatting to one of my mates Caleb about this recently and I think it's worth discussing here (he DJs as Cable! - go check him out). 

“One good hack we spoke about was isolating the frequency range you’re trying to mix so you eliminate other distracting frequencies. Kick and bass relationship is a good example - you can use a bandpass filter to fine-tune this. I always have one on my master channel that I can engage at any point when I want to listen to a frequency range in isolation. 

“Once you get the kick and bass to sound right with the bandpass on, you can take the bandpass off and then reassess how the upper frequencies are affecting your sound. If it still sounds bad after you’ve taken the bandpass off, you at least know that the low end is good and that the source of the problem must be from the frequencies higher up! You may now go and apply some EQ changes to those higher frequencies to get it to sit right. You can apply this bandpass technique to any frequency range or any combination of instruments, of course.”

Michael Diamond’s Third Culture is out now on Vasuki Sound. (opens in new tab)

Matt Mullen
Matt Mullen

I'm the Tech Features Editor for MusicRadar, working on everything from artist interviews to tech tutorials. I've been writing about (and making) electronic music for over a decade, and when I'm not behind my laptop keyboard, you'll find me behind a MIDI keyboard or a synthesizer. 

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