Produce Like... Model Man: "Ableton was just the thing I needed to connect the dots between classical piano and production"

model man
(Image credit: Arthur Coppens)

In our Produce Like series, we visit artists in the studio to break down how they make their music, getting a deeper insight into the gear, techniques and creative process that's behind their best tracks to help you learn how to produce like them. 

Essex-based producer Mark Brandon, better known as Model Man, channels the utopian spirit of the UK’s ‘90s rave culture into vivid and uplifting dance music. Growing up in a strict Christian household, Brandon was classically trained as a pianist before shrugging off the inflexible boundaries of his upbringing to embrace the liberated ethos of electronica. 

The producer’s self-titled debut album, released in 2021, found Brandon bringing these two worlds together, tempering the raw energy of the dancefloor with a shrewd and sophisticated musicality. On his forthcoming full-length project, I Feel You Feel, he lifts this concept to new heights, imbuing a diaristic collage of synths and samples with unfiltered emotion. 

We visited Model Man in his home studio in Essex to find out more about how the album was made. Watch the four videos below to see Brandon talk us through his studio workflow, show us how he made the bassline from recent single Heaven, and explain why he loves his Boss SP-303 sampler. 

How did you first get involved with electronic music-making?

“Going way back, I worked in a music shop called Sound World. It was work experience, I was only 15. It was one of these old-school music shops, where the guy that ran the place was smoking and there was jazz music playing… that sort of thing. The owner had a little tape machine, one of those Tascam cassette recorders. He basically said, you can borrow this. He could see that I was interested in it. That was the start, just learning about multitracking and stuff like that. 

“With this project, I started using Ableton about five or six years ago when I started Model Man. That was quite a game-changer for me, and being able to manipulate audio in that way just opened up the door for me creatively. It was just the thing I needed to connect the dots between playing classical piano and production.”

Has that classical training informed your approach to production?

“100%. I grew up in a household where my mum was teaching piano, so the piano has always been there. Even as a little kid, before studying piano, I was gravitating towards it and messing around with it, learning to play by ear. 

Some people might think learning classical music early on could be a problem for producers, but it's been the opposite for me

“Some people might think learning classical music early on could be a problem for producers because then you're too formal with your thinking. But it's been the opposite for me, it's been really helpful. Because if I hear something that really turns me on musically, you're able to figure out what it is about that thing, why is it that it’s making you feel the way you feel. You can actually dissect something and then recreate it in your own unique way.”

We’re told that you drew inspiration from the local rave scene for your latest project?

“I've always been interested in that scene because it's so inclusive. I sat down with Liam from The Prodigy, and he said the thing that was a game-changer at the time in the early ‘90s was that you had so many different kinds of people coming together at these events. There were no hierarchies: everyone was on an even playing field and there was no judgement. 

“That was quite interesting to me, because coming from a background in classical music, where you’re doing grades and performances and being heavily judged, it’s so different to that. That was my world when I was a kid, to the point where I was rejected from college and things like that because I didn’t meet certain requirements. So to then have music become something that’s not formal that doesn’t require a formal education, that was quite liberating. 

Can you pinpoint any musical influences behind the new album?

“I wanted to do something that was like a musical collage, taking lots of little pieces from all over the place. Where I probably got the idea for that was someone like Gerry Read. He’s incredible at piecing together lots of information and making it feel it’s one thing. 

Sometimes I would finish a song and then completely take it apart again, put it through samplers and degrade things and manipulate things so that the textures are different

“Sometimes I would finish a song and then completely take it apart again, put it through samplers and degrade things and manipulate things so that the textures are different. Just to try and give it a different sort of energy and flow, to make it feel more alive. But music-wise, I always come back to some of the same artists as well: Burial, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada… just because they’re so good, aren’t they?”

The collage approach you mentioned, that’s very Burial: the idea of piecing together samples, vocals and field recordings from all over the place.

“The thing about electronic music which is so wonderful and liberating is that you don’t have to think about doing something in a ‘pop’ format, with a verse, chorus, bridge and so on. To be able to have the freedom to do anything, and not to have to think so much about form, is really interesting. To be able to not have things be so binary and take their own course instead.”

That’s certainly true of the Burial’s newer music, especially - isn’t Come Down To Us about 20 minutes long?

“There’s nothing like it. It’s unbelievable to listen to. When you've been doing electronic music for a little while, you dissect a lot of things to try and figure out what's happening. But Burial’s one of those artists that’s just mystifying. It's so idiosyncratic, in terms of timings, the BPM, the key, everything's just moving in such a strange way. I don’t think there’s many people that can do that.”

Have you ever tried programming beats without a rhythmic grid, Burial-style?

“I've done a lot of stuff where I’ve played live drums without a metronome and then worked around the drums. Also I do a lot of ambient stuff that has no grid. So I'll just play, I’ve got a Korg M1 that I’ll just play and record for an hour and take things from that. I think there's definitely something to be said for ignoring the grid from time to time. 

“I try to play most things live. Even if it’s just a VST, I'll still try to play it live and manipulate it in real time and get that live feeling throughout. I rarely program stuff and I don't use MIDI too much either. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But unless I'm sending information out I don’t sit down and move squares around - I just get bored.”

A lot of people lose the vibe when they start using a keyboard and mouse.

“Yeah. My main workstation is at the piano with synths, samplers and things I can play all at the same time, record it all, see what happens and then start to think about what I can make using those sounds.”

Is that how your tracks usually begin, through improvisation?

“In the morning, I'll go in and probably do a little bit of reading music: Chopin, or whatever. Then I'll just start improvising for a couple of hours until I get bored and then store all of those things. They basically become like samples that are just sitting on my hard drive. I usually come back to them at a later stage: I’ll forget about them and then come back to them and think, that’s interesting, maybe I could do something with that.

“I did an EP called 2005 NYE, the last track on there is completely improvised. I’m playing an organ and a piano at the same time. That’s just as it is: that was one of those improvisations where it all worked together as its own thing. But that’s quite rare - normally they’re a mess. [laughs]”

How do you know when a track’s finished? Do you ever struggle to know when to call time on a project?

“I've got better as my mixing skills have got better. When I started out, I didn't really know what I was doing. I didn't have a studio, I was mixing in my car and on headphones. It was a bit all over the place and I didn't really have an end in sight. Back then, it was hard to finalize stuff. But I never asked anyone else to mix my music, because I enjoyed it and I wanted to invest in myself and try to learn. I feel like I’m only just at the point now where I know what I’m doing - it takes a while, doesn’t it?

The technical aspect is one thing, but the most important thing for me is that the music is telling the story that I want it to tell

“Now, I’m much better at finishing things. I normally finish a track when I’m bored of it, like: I’m done now, I’m not interested in picking it apart any more, I’ve exhausted all the possibilities. I am a bit of a sucker for going down lots of different roads and exhausting all those possibilities, and I don’t know if that’s always a good thing. But what it does mean is that no stone is left unturned. I’ve gotten quite good at being able to say, okay, that’s finished, that’s doing what it needs to do emotionally. The technical aspect is one thing, but the most important thing for me is that the music is telling the story that I want it to tell.”

Did you experiment with any new gear on this album?

“I started using a couple of different samplers. The Boss SP-303 Dr. Sample is the one that I've been using the most. It’s from the early 2000s. I was using that because when I was putting stuff through it, it just had a different sound. I can’t get that sound out of anything else. Also, the built in effects are just incredible - I'm always running stuff through it. The reverb doesn’t sound like anything else, I can’t even get close to it with any plugin. It just sounds so big and well-rounded and smooth, but also gnarly at the same time. 

“They’re also really simple effects, as well, every effect has just three parameters. Whereas if you were in Ableton there’d be so many parameters that you can spend so much more time tweaking, and I don’t know if that’s always the right thing. Sometimes you want to just get in there and get it to sound good immediately. It’s just so fun to use. 

If I think I’ve finished a song, I’ll bounce out stems and run each element through the SP-303 and see what happens

“The way that I’m using it, I’m not running MIDI through it or anything, so it’s just chaos. If I think I’ve finished a song, I’ll bounce out stems - drums, bass, vocals or whatever - and run each element through the SP-303 and see what happens. It’s complete experimentation. In a way it’s like playing with another musician: this person, or this device, is throwing things at you and you’re reacting to that.

“I’ve also been using the FMR Audio Really Nice Compressor on vocals, it’s an outboard compressor. It’s got this setting on it, called Super Nice - probably what it does is add a high shelf or something, but it definitely makes things really smooth and sparkly in the top end. I wanted something that I could play live with and just put on the master bus, so I used that, but it sounded so good that I ended up using it in the studio more than on the road.”

Vocal samples are central to your sound. Where do you usually source vocals from? 

“The answer to that is anywhere and everywhere. My partner Sophie is a really good vocalist, she sings on one of my tracks called Clarity. Sessions that I've been on, singers that have just been there in the moment. Sometimes my own vocals as well. I tend to use my own vocals if I'm trying to fill in the gaps for something; if I’m bending something around and manipulating something, but actually I want it to go here or want it to say this, I’ll end up singing on it. But yeah, wherever I can get it. I got a couple things from Splice, I’m not sure if I ended up using them for anything. I stopped using it. Sometimes you’ll find a little nugget on there, but not very often.”

It’s mentioned in the press release that there are some hidden samples in the new single Heaven. Could you shed some light on any of those?

“There's about four or five different spoken samples on there that have come from different places. One of those came from a conversation that I had with someone at a club that I was recording on my phone backstage at one of my shows. There’s a little vocal thing that comes in a middle section, a breakdown. The Teenage Engineering OP-1 has got a built-in microphone, and that was someone in LA called Lyrah, who I did a track with. That was just her singing into the OP-1, then I turned her vocal into a sample instrument.

It's like a musical journal: things that were meaningful to me, experiences that I've had and people that I've met over the past six months

“Aside from that, there’s loads of things that I’ve collected. I wanted to put them all into one project, a collage of things that’s almost like a musical journal. All the stuff that I've picked up over the last six months, things that were meaningful to me and experiences that I've had and people that I've met that have resonated with me and that I wanted to remember. Now when I listen to it, each sound takes me to a different place.”

Do you use the OP-1 a lot?

“So much. I don't know why I use it so much, I think partly it’s because it's convenient. I wanted something that I could take out live, that was why I got it originally. Because I knew that you could use it as a sampler and I could put vocal samples on it. With my live show, I'm looping stuff and triggering clips in Ableton, but I wanted something that I could loop as well as the piano, so I could have three things that I could loop: the piano, the SP-303 and the OP-1. 

“I was travelling to America on my own, so I’m not going to take a Korg MS-10 on the plane, but I wanted something to play: I don't want to just be playing a soft synth, I want to actually have a piece of hardware that I can play and manipulate and have fun with. 

“Someone said I should check out the OP-1. I thought, it’s a lot of money isn’t it? But I played it in a shop, and thought there’s some really good sounds on there. The sub bass patch on there is amazing, I use that so much. That’s the basis of probably 60% of the bass sounds on the new album. It’s a really smooth, sine sub bass sound with just the right amount of overtones. Most importantly, the OP-1 just feels fun.”

Model Man’s new single Thru U feat. Bklava is out now on Helix Records. His new album I Feel You Feel is scheduled for release in September. 

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