Elephante on ditching corporate life for Ableton Live

"I was just a kid in his bedroom, learning how to make weird noises that sounded OK."
"I was just a kid in his bedroom, learning how to make weird noises that sounded OK."

Michigan-born Tim Wu's parents were understandably proud when he landed a place at the prestigious Harvard University - famous alumni include John F Kennedy, Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg and Leonard Bernstein. And they were understandably "super-pissed" when, having majored in economics and landed a well-paid corporate job, he gave it all up for progressive house and Ableton Live.

"It was a fantastic job," explains 26-year-old Wu, "but I knew it wasn't what I wanted out of life. Outside of the office, I was spending 30 or 40 hours a week working on music, putting together bootleg remixes and digging deep into Ableton. That's where I was at my happiest, and eventually I just said to myself, 'Tim, why spend your life doing something you don't want to do?' You gotta follow your heart, right?"

In these economically uncertain times, it might have seemed like a risky decision, but it's one that has seriously paid off - Wu's remix CV includes everybody from Calvin Harris and Katy Perry to Lorde and Grammy-nominated Galantis.

"You could argue that my life would have been a lot easier if I'd stayed in the corporate world," adds Wu, "because things are definitely getting tougher in this industry. But that first day I switched on my computer and said 'this is my job' made me so happy. Music is part of me - music feels like home."

Did the idea of a career change come out of the blue?

"Not exactly. I've been studying piano since I was a little kid, and I taught myself how to play guitar. Music has just been… there. My mom likes to tell this story about when I was about four or five: if I was naughty and wouldn't do as I was told, she would put on Walt Disney's Fantasia and I would immediately calm down."

From what we remember about Fantasia, it's quite… trippy. Dancing horses and brooms that work on their own. No wonder you ended up making dance music!

"[Laughs] Man, you could be right. I used to have weird dreams about those brooms. And Mickey Mouse. As I got older, I did start to drift away from classical; that's why I picked up the guitar. Classical music seemed like a chore, and I was getting more and more interested in pop music. I would listen to a song on the radio and then pick it apart, work out the chords. I wanted to know how it worked. Why did this chord follow that chord? How come that harmony sounded so beautiful?

"Yes, I've been classically trained, but some of my favourite musical moments have been when I'm banging around on the keyboard or the guitar and just grabbing a handful of notes. You have no idea what you're playing, but something will suddenly jump out at you. It's as if you know inside when something works.

"No matter how many lessons you have and how many tutorials you download from YouTube, there still has to be that natural thing that goes on in your brain. Music isn't just technique; it's also instinct."

Before you headed into electronic music, you were all set to be a traditional, acoustic-strummin' singer/songwriter?

"That was the plan. After college, I moved to LA, thinking that I'd do a few gigs, get my demo to a record company and make millions. Unfortunately, after I got to LA, I realised that everybody was a singer/songwriter, and everybody was going to get their demo to a record company and make millions.

"The one advantage I had was that I'd given my singer/songwriter act a technological twist: I was working with a laptop, complex delay pedal setups and an MPC, layering various noises and melodies into a sort of folktronica groove. Yes, I used GarageBand, but I'd also experimented with FruityLoops and I knew my way around sequencing and MIDI.

"At first, I started looking around on YouTube, downloading 50 million videos that claimed to know how Skrillex worked, but then I started messing around with my own sounds and sequences."

"That corporate job I told you about involved a lot of travelling, so I had the chance to spend some serious time on my laptop, and I think that's when I started investigating music that could be made entirely with a computer and software. The move was probably inspired by early Skrillex tracks like Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites. The first time I heard it, it blew my mind. I immediately wanted to know how he'd made something so beautiful out of so much… chaos. At first, I started looking around on YouTube, downloading 50 million videos that claimed to know how Skrillex worked, but then I started messing around with my own sounds and sequences.

"Once I'd realised that the computer could be my entire studio, I immediately headed down that road. Switching to Ableton was the final piece in the puzzle. It was super-liberating."

You're not the first person to say that!

"I tried FruityLoops, I tried Pro Tools, but as soon as I loaded up Ableton, I discovered a direct link between the ideas in my head and what was happening in the computer. Ableton made everything else seem kinda clunky and slow. I don't mean they made the computer run slow; they made my ideas run slow. With Ableton, you get an idea and you can get it down in seconds. User-friendly, intuitive… call it what you want, but Ableton never gets in the way of the music.

"And it's a pretty forgiving platform; one that allows you to learn how to produce. The effects, the synths, the drum rack and all the stock production tools are more than adequate and will immediately give you a decent-sounding finished product. I was never really taught about EQ or compression, so I had to work it all out for myself. 'The track doesn't feel right; OK, maybe it needs compression. No, that makes it sound worse. Maybe it needs EQ. Yeah, that sounds better. Does the compression work now?'.

"When you're not quite sure what you're doing, there's always a temptation to start looking for a new plugin that's going to solve your problems. 'Everyone says the 1176 compressor is great. I'll buy that and all my songs will sound great'. Sadly, it doesn't work like that. All that happens is that you buy some expensive plugin, you're not quite sure how to get the best from it, and you give up because it's not providing that instant satisfaction.

"Before I invested in any third-party plugins, I made sure I knew what I was doing on Ableton. That was my training ground. I was just a kid in his bedroom, learning how to make weird noises that sounded OK."

Sequencing capabilities aside, does Ableton still provide the nuts and bolts of an Elephante production?

"There are third-party plugins, but a lot of the basic stuff is still done in Ableton. The drums are put together on the Drum Rack - I've set up a few basic templates that can get a song started - and I usually get a rough idea of the mix using the onboard tools. It's like an audio canvas; you can sketch out a song.

"Of course, there is a point where you think, 'Yeah, I know where this one is taking me'. That's when you start pulling up some of the Waves toys or FabFilter, fine-tuning and working out how you want that song to sound."

What's the first synth that usually gets pulled up?

"Massive. Not 100% of the time, but it's definitely the one that I feel most comfortable with. It was also the first third-party synth I ever bought, because I'd heard so many great things about it. What I can't understand is that some people have started giving Massive some flak… as if it's been overused. Sorry, but Massive is still my benchmark. If I'm testing out a new synth, I'm always asking myself, 'Is this giving me something that I couldn't get in Massive?'. All my other synths - things like Sylenth and Spire - are there precisely because they do things that Massive can't do."

Are software synth designers missing a trick? Anything you think we need from the soft-synth world?

"There are so many synths out there… so many claims that a synth can do this and that. Personally, I'm not really interested in the technical spec at all. The only question I ask is, 'Will this make my life easier? Will it help me make music?'.

"There's a great VST called Exhale… a vocal engine. Vocal chops and effects are something that I spend hours and hours on in the studio, and Exhale has made that whole process so much easier.

"And mastering is something that I've sometimes struggled with. Yeah, that'd be a fantastic bit of software… the perfect master plugin."

Just one simple switch: 'Master my track'. Guaranteed results every time!

"Every book I've ever read on production says that you should never work on a song with anything on the master buss. You finish your song, then you add the master. At first, that's how I used to work, but I always found that my subs and my reverbs suddenly went all haywire when I started mastering. Things were so out of place that it was actually quite difficult to dive back into the song and fix it. You tweak the subs, something else sounds wrong; then you tweak the reverbs and you lose something else. I ended up mixing everything twice, so I decided to add a light master as I'm putting the song together. Nothing serious… just something to give me an idea of how it will sound.

"Some of my producer friends also tell me I should bounce out to stems, too, but again… I guess I'm just comfortable with the way I work. If I'm getting results that are working for me, I don't really see why I should change. Sure, there are accepted ways of working in the studio, but those 'accepted ways' aren't going to give the same results to every producer. It's taken a long time for my ears to get tuned into the sound that I want. And that's probably one of the best pieces of advice I could give to anyone who's looking to make their own music: give your ears the time to get used to 'your' sound.

"I'm sure there are producers out there who can sit in front of a mixing desk and immediately get a song to sound great, but because I'm not a trained producer, I find it's more like a process of elimination. You think the bass needs to be this loud, but you do a rough mix and it doesn't work. Try again… then try again. You're constantly retuning your ears to work out how you can get the best from a song. It's a two-way process; the song will sometimes tell you what it wants. You have to be flexible and you have to be prepared to head down a rabbit hole that you didn't even know was there."

It was your remix skills that first brought you to the public's attention. Do you apply that same flexible approach to a Katy Perry tune as a Calvin Harris tune?

"In the early days - before record companies started getting in touch with me - I would remix in the fairly traditional way; by chopping up bits of what was out there. Yeah, there are websites that will give you access to good-quality stems and acappellas, but they aren't from established artists.

"If I wanted to rework something that was in the charts, I would dig out as many different versions as possible. Hopefully, there'd be an instrumental version which you could throw against the original to isolate the vocal. Sometimes, I'd end up with some pretty trashy-sounding audio, but I tried to incorporate that into my remix. [Laughs] I suppose that's a very long-winded way of saying, 'Yeah, I try to be flexible with my remixes'.

"Now that I'm lucky enough to get asked to do official remixes, I try and get away from the computer as much as possible. I work out the chords and shift the song over to piano or guitar; I actually sit and play it like a song - like a singer/songwriter."

"Now that I'm lucky enough to get asked to do official remixes, I try and get away from the computer as much as possible. I work out the chords and shift the song over to piano or guitar; I actually sit and play it like a song - like a singer/songwriter song. To me, that's a great way to ease your way into a piece of music and find out how it works, kind of like how I used to when I first taught myself guitar. If I've got an acappella vocal, I'll play along to that or sing the words myself, adding all sorts of strange synthy noises with my mouth. All I'm trying to do is imagine the bits that are going to make up the song.

"Usually, the last thing I work on is the drums. I guess there are two schools of thought: either you put the kick drum front and centre right from the start, or you build up a song and then fit the drums around that. I always go for the latter because I hate choosing drum samples - it's probably my least favourite part of the songwriting process. If I build up the song before I start working on the drums, it will at least give me something to aim for.

"The kick drum will always go in as audio. That gives me maximum scope for fine-tuning, and the rest of the kit will be samples.

"Can I tell you a quick story about the Katy Perry remix? When I started messing around with remixes, the business didn't seem to be as heavily policed as it is today, so you could get away with a lot more. I put together a remix of Dark Horse and it started getting quite a bit of attention. One day, my manager rang up and said, 'Katy Perry's record company have just been on the phone. They want to talk to you'.

"My immediate reaction was: 'Whaddya mean they want to talk? They want to talk about suing me for appropriating her music? Do I need to talk to my lawyer?'. After I calmed down, my manager said, 'No, they told me that Katy has heard the song, she likes it and they'd like to put it out as an official remix. They want to give you some money'."

Ever been overawed by a remix?

"I'm a huge Miike Snow fan, so getting asked to remix Galantis was a real honour. That was one where you think, 'C'mon Tim, don't fuck this up!'."

Tim's single Age Of Innocence is out now.

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