The name Principleasure might be new, but the artist behind it isn’t short on industry experience.
Sharooz Raoofi has been creating, releasing and working around electronic music for the better part of 15 years.In that time he’s put out numerous singles and remixes under his electro-focussed alias Sharooz, co-founded soundware brand Sample Magic, helmed his La Bombe record label and worked in the studio with countless artists across a host of genres.
This new alias is more than just a fresh outlet for Sharooz’s music though. After becoming disillusioned with the electro sound, Raoofi took a hiatus from making music, before eventually moving his studio from London to California and finding fresh inspiration in the often-imposing, warehouse-lined streets of downtown Los Angeles.
The result has been a whole new sound, shaped by his envy-inducing collection of vintage and analogue gear and the influence of both modern club music and Hollywood film scores. It’s this that is showcased on the project’s debut album, I – an accomplished, mature concoction of rich atmospheric synths, punchy drum machine beats and timeless arp lines.
After Sample Magic was sold to Splice last year, he’s also launched a new software company, named Audiaire. The first fruits of that venture, Zone, is a rhythmically-minded wavetable synth plugin, which makes use of a flexible sequencer section to aid the creation of complex, evolving patches and rich, modulated textures. FM caught up with Raoofi in his LA studio to talk Principleasure, Zone and generally geek out.
What was the inspiration behind this new alias?
“I was doing Sharooz for a while but a lot of what I did was just fucking embarrassing. I’m just going to put my hand on my heart and say I’m not proud of a lot of it. There were a couple of bits I can still listen to and say, ‘Yeah that was good,’ but mostly I got so disenchanted with that whole scene and how that original electro thing sort of became EDM. I was kind of frozen out of it and then I just stopped making music for two years. I had this studio in North London that was a tiny shell of a room, I was in there for ten years, then one day I couldn’t go in; I just physically couldn’t go to my studio. That was the start of what ended up being this two year break. I just couldn’t really feel inspired anymore about club music. It felt like it had run its course for me.
“I’ve had this space in LA for a while. I first got it in 2013 and it was just sitting empty. While I was in London I was renting it out on AirBnB and not really thinking of it as a studio, but every time I’d come back I’d just feel the inspiration hit me. The darkness of this area is really inspiring. Most people come to LA for the sunshine and the beaches but I like the darkness of it; I like the fact that you turn the news on here every day and it’s sometimes so fucked up and tragic. I’m not trying to take advantage of that, it’s more that I’m just trying to embrace that dark side of downtown LA and see if I can harness it into something a bit more positive.
“A few years ago I started bringing stuff over here. I started with the bits that I couldn’t live without like my 808 and my 303, then I gradually built it up to what it’s become now. I spent about three or four months just getting everything to work together and finding a way that it just made aesthetic sense, and that’s basically how this music started. It was like, ‘I’m just going to hit play, lay down an 808 kick, hold down some arpeggios and just see if this can become a body of work.’”
The sound of the album was mostly dictated by the gear and the setting then?
“Totally. I’d just turn on something like the OB-8 or the Jupiter-8 and it would feel so warm and gritty to me. It was like, ‘Wow, this is so different to Serum or all the other plugins everybody’s using’. It just inspired me to use these machines, not necessarily in any particular unique way – there’s nothing that groundbreaking about how the sound design is done – it’s just about trying to present them in a way that makes sense as an electronic music record in 2019. That’s how I thought about it really, I wanted it to be processed to a point of not sounding deliberately old school for the sake of it. I hope the record actually sounds as good as any in-the-box dance record.”
How long did the album take in total?
“In all it was about two years from start to finish. I ended up with about 40 tracks, some of which are still sitting there even though I desperately wanted to include them. I recorded a few EPs first, which were quite low-key things I just released myself. That was a good way of having a little outlet to the outside world. It was kind of a bit of a dry run, as I did very little promotion. I’ve had Dixon & Âme playing tracks recently though, and Radio 1 have been playing the opening cut, so it’s good to just have that little bit of outside influence.
“That was very different to how I was approaching my old Sharooz stuff though. Back then there was a lot of pressure to keep releasing and putting out music so I could get DJ gigs. This was just about locking myself away and making music that I believe in without any time constraints. The two years that I had to make this record almost saved my faith in making music. I was very jaded before, but coming back to this world of tangible analogue gear helped me rediscover why I got into this music and sound design in the first place.”
What instruments were key to the process?
“The starting point was always the 808. I was lucky enough to get one 20 years ago and I think I paid about £350 for it. That goes for everything in this room actually, I got most of it at a knockdown price when people weren’t selling synths for ridiculous amounts. The LinnDrum LM-2, which I believe was Mark Ronson’s at one point, was another key thing. Combining the kick from the 808 and the kick on the LM-2 – and their snares and claps too – that was a real foundation. Getting those two in sync and having them playing in tandem, it was like ‘OK, that’s my kick and snare’. Everything was built around that.
“The 101 was probably used on every track too. I’ve had that thing for, like, 20 years. Again, I bought it for something like £100 when I lived in Ireland. It’s used on everything; once you get that 101 going with the 808, that’s your bread-and-butter. It’s like thinking of a traditional rock band producer who might start with a rhythm section – well that’s my rhythm section. Once I had the 808, LM-2 and 101 going, everything else was just built off of that.”
What was the compositional process like once you had that going? Were you recording long jams and chopping bits out?
“I’d usually narrow it down to three or four instruments. I’ve had people in the studio, guys like DJ Tennis who I really look up to, who’ve been quite overwhelmed by the amount of gear. The starting point was always limiting each track to just a handful of instruments, then inevitably I’d always end up with only about seven or eight parts. That actually made the process a lot more fun. I have the ability to record about 25 tracks in the studio here but most of those weren’t being used. Everything is normalled into the patchbay – and I’d have everything ‘on’ in case I did need to add anything – but for the most part I tried to keep things simple.
“I’ve whittled the core setup down to around 16 instruments that are always in and ready to go. I have the Nord Lead 3, the Juno-106, the Jupiter-8, 808, 909, 707, 606, the 101, Analog Four, the Korg Electribe, the Juno-60 and the LinnDrum LM-2. Those things are essentially ‘the band’.”
Are those all things that you’ve owned for quite a while?
“Yeah, although the Jupiter-8 isn’t actually mine. That belongs to Pablo from Snow Patrol. They’re on tour with Ed Sheeran right now and he gave that to me for safekeeping. I couldn’t afford one right now. I saw one going on Craigslist recently for $20,000, which is nuts. [Pablo] gave that to me at the start of last year and told me he wasn’t going to be back in LA properly until the end of 2020, because of the tour. He basically sold all of his stuff other than the Jupiter, which he gave to me to hold on to for three years. I’m stoked to have it, it’s got the Encore mod, it’s in totally mint condition too.
“There’s a lot of stuff like that in here; stuff that’s got an interesting story. The DSX, for example, has never been used before. I got that in South Korea last month and it’s literally never been plugged in before. The guy I bought it from said he hadn’t turned it on in 15 years. It’s from this synth shop in Seoul that I visited when I was out there DJing last month. The guy who runs it is a bit of a hoarder. I was about to leave without buying anything, then I spotted this Oberheim box and realised it was this mint condition DSX. The wood panels are all perfect, even the displays are mint.
“Most of this is stuff I’ve been holding on to for years, although some of it I have picked up since I got to LA. I got the Emulator on Craigslist too. There was a time, around 2016, when myself and my assistant used to just run around LA picking stuff up; we’d comb Craigslist every day and the minute we saw something that looked like a good deal, we’d grab it. There are a lot of guys in this city sitting on collections of gear – old composers who don’t need to keep shit and want rid of it – and we’d just snap things up. We got the MKS-80 off of Paul Oakenfold, of all people. Again, that was really cheap considering how much they go for now. The rest of the stuff I’ve had for at least a decade though.”
Talk us through how you’ve got everything sync’d up in here…
“I’ve got this project template that is basically eight MIDI channels and 16 audio channels with direct monitoring. Every time I start a new project this is what I load up. These are all mono inputs, but I have them going in as stereo tracks so that if I want to put a stereo reverb on something, for example, an 808 snare, I can treat the mono signal and turn it into stereo. Cubase is really good at that actually, you can take a mono signal and turn it stereo using some plugin processing and it just sounds really nice and wide. I do pseudo stereo-widening on a lot of things like pads.
“The eight MIDI channels go through a MIDI patchbay. I’ve got my main synths permanently hooked up, but if I want to pull in something extra I can just patch it in. I send MIDI clock on every channel too, so everything that has an arpeggiator – like the Jupiter-8, the Nord Lead 3, Electribe – all get MIDI clock. Then my final MIDI channel is going to a Roland SyncBox, which I use as a DIN Sync splitter. Things like the 606, 707 and 808 are all getting DIN Sync. I’ve then got triggers driving things like the LM-2. I can also send CV and gate out of the BeatStep Pro, so I can control things with that too.
“The Jupiter-6 and Juno-60 are clocked using the cowbell out from the 808 and the rim shot from the 707, using a long audio cable going all the way around the back of everything – which is pretty nuts. There are probably about 10 devices in here that are audio-only right now too, but mostly things are all synced up. It’s a fucking pain, but when you get it all working it sounds great.
“Ironically, the only thing I have problems with is the modular stuff, which hasn’t been turned on in about a year. It didn’t get used on the record at all. I bought all the modules that everyone was talking about, but I never got that far with it. I know if I had a full modular setup I’d just sit there and not get anything done…”
Does much modern gear get used alongside the classic stuff?
“Mostly grooveboxes, actually. I love the Octatrack MkII. Actually I’m surprisingly in love with the Deepmind 12 too. My one is serial number 2; they brought it to me to see what I thought of it and it’s actually a really powerful synth.
“Elektron stuff is always at the forefront of what I do though. When I eventually take this project live I’m definitely going to base it around Elektron stuff. The Analog Four is a real workhorse for that.”
You are planning to play live shows as Principleasure then?
“Yeah, for sure. I’ve got some of the Roland Boutiques over in London, which I’ve done some patches for. Those are going to be the brain.”
How did you find those, when compared to the original boxes?
“There’s no comparison, to be honest. There’s something so raw and idiosyncratic about using the originals, in that way that you’ll never get the same sound twice. I had some Roland engineers over here a while ago and they told me that apparently no two 101s or 808s will sound the same – which was a surprise to me, although apparently it’s common knowledge. The kicks are tuned differently and there’s quite a lot of variation between all of the original models.
“There’s just something about the kick, on my version at least, that requires very little treatment. Basically all you have to do is normalise it and put a little bit of compression on it and it just sits so well in every track. The biggest problem with using it is making sure it’s not too deep and too subby. You can quickly end up with no space in the mix. The 101 is terrible for that too – it’s such a big sound that building around it is really hard. That’s why I use LinnDrum kicks a lot, because there’s no low end to that kick, it’s just midrange punch. The 101 is so bassy that combined with the LinnDrum it can carry the low end easily.
“I layered up the LM-2 and 808 kicks a lot on the Principleasure album too. Even that was far from an exact science though. I didn’t even sync them by hand, so inevitably they would end up sometimes going out of sync and flamming over each other. There are one or two tracks on the album where things don’t even start on the right transient because of delay in the system. If you pull them up in Ableton it won’t get the tempo right, just because that kick’s landing a few ticks later than it’s meant to. It sounds good though so I didn’t want to change it.”
What’s going on with effects and processing?
“You’ll notice there’s very little outboard in here. That’s kind of deliberate, as I think that would present too many possibilities. I love an Eventide Harmonizer, that was used to death on the record, but I deliberately don’t have one in the studio here. I imagine I’d be sending audio through it, not printing it and spending all day just playing with effects.
“There’s in-the-box processing on some of the parts, but even then there’s very little. We’re talking about a little bit of EQ. These Audient preamps I’ve got aren’t particularly good for that, there’s no EQ on them, so I did that in software. In terms of outboard processing, the dbx 160 was my workhorse compressor for the basses on the way in. The distressor got used a lot on the stems too.
“The mixing itself was actually done in [London’s] Miloco Studios, in the Red Room. I went pretty crazy when I was there. I used the stereo distressor, the EL-8X, I also used a bunch of 1176s, the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, and stemmed a bunch of stuff through their SSL desk too. There are one or two tracks where the 808 is quite clipped, and that was done by just stemming it out through the SSL in Miloco.”
So there’s not really that much going on, plugin-wise?
“Not really, I used a bit of mix bus processing using the Waves L3. That certainly wasn’t there from the outset though, that got added at the very end. When I’d finished all the tracks I pulled them all together in a project and used Magic AB to compare them with a bunch of commercial tracks. I then used a little bit of L3 and Waves R EQ on there, just to tighten it up and get rid of a lot of the unwanted energy below 20Hz. It was really just corrective processing, at that point.
“The reverbs mainly come for the EMT 140 hardware, which is a really nice plate ’verb. Although there’s also a really nasty Cubase reverb that I used on a clap sound on about half the tracks. It’s the stock reverb, and I’ve just got it on an insert, not on an auxiliary. But that was pretty much the sum total of it.”
How much forethought did you put into the sequencing on the album? Was it your deliberate intention to have a balance of ambient and club tracks?
“Yeah, I was particularly intent on the soundtrack-y sound of things. The end goal of this stuff really is to actually do some soundtrack work.”
Have you ever tried your hand at soundtrack work before?
“I have, years ago. I contributed a track to that movie Rust and Bone. There’s a bar scene where Marion Cotillard’s character glasses someone. I did a track for that, but they played Azari & III over the top so you can’t really tell. I did some other stuff back in the early days when I first started making music though. I did some TV commercial work, which I won’t go into; it was some terrible stuff, frankly, but I needed to pay the bills. Some of it actually paid really well.
“With this Principleasure stuff though, I think I want a different focus. I’m really inspired by a lot of people, not just the older guys like Jerry Goldsmith and John Carpenter, but also what people like Trent Reznor’s doing, and some of the Nicolas Winding Refn films. Although the Drive soundtrack has been played to death.
“It’s something I’d love to be involved in. For that reason some of the more ‘orchestral’ moments on the album really needed to be there – the string-like moments, and the quieter pad bits that punctuate all the bangers.”
Let’s talk about Zone. As a hardware synth fan, what was it that inspired you to create a virtual instrument?
“I always had an idea of building my own synthesiser in the back of my mind, kind of as a way to keep my sanity when I was doing all this. I really just wanted to make something that I could run with as a composition tool. One of the things I hate working with on the screen is loads of automation. I was attracted to the idea of keeping all the automation on one display. The idea behind Zone’s sequencing was to give me a way to control many parameters from within the synth’s one window. I particularly wanted it for the ability to sequence things like the synth modes, things like FM, ring mod and amp modulation.
“Beyond that, I wanted to keep the synth section fairly simple. Wavetable wise, I wanted to put a lot of stuff in there that was unique to this room and the way I’ve been making music. It’s all stuff I recorded here. I brought the Prism Orpheus over, which is a really nice A/D converter. I sampled everything through that, in various stages of distress, and sometimes I’d amp things up using the Audient mixer I have, which can be really good for distorting stuff. The modular stuff actually came in really handy for that as well. That was great when it came to building some single-cycle waveforms.”
Principleasure’s debut album, I, is out now. Keep up with news and release info at facebook.com/principlepls