In our new video series The Breakdown, we shoot artists and producers in the studio showing us the gear and techniques behind some of their best tracks.
For the latest edition, LA-based, Italian-born techno producer David Castellani showed us around his studio space, which is packed with incredible modular gear - some of which he designed himself. When we asked what his favourite bit of kit was, though, his answer came as a bit of a surprise. His most prized piece of tech wasn't a rare or expensive module, but the beloved sampler and drum machine from Elektron, the Digitakt.
“[Digitakt] has so much packed in that little box. It’s become one of the tools I really don’t think I could live without." David said. "For drums, I find it very valuable. With analogue stuff, I find myself spending too much time tuning to get the drums to sound right. With this, I can just load in the samples that I want and then, boom – I’m running off to the races!
“On top of that you have a lot of control over the samples. You can really make everything come to life in so many different ways. That, plus the control you get with the conditional triggers and parameter locking, makes this thing a powerhouse.
“I like to use it both in the studio and live. In the studio I use it for the sequencer. Elektron sequencers are so magical and even if it didn’t have the sampling side, it’d be a valuable piece of gear at the price it’s at. When I want to use a synth that doesn’t have its own sequencer built in, it’s so easy to grab this, plug it into the back of it and get all sorts of great melodies and ideas.
“It’s just really a beautiful piece of gear.”
David Castellani on turning modular jams into club-ready techno
“I tend to begin with a kick drum and then jump to a lead sound rightaway. This is mainly because I find that the lead sound is the most important and should have the freedom to not be restricted by the other sounds. If other sounds are already there when I get to the lead, then it becomes limited in how far it can go.
“When it comes to specific modules, I try not to be predictable and reach for something different every time. This is actually at the core of my process because it keeps me excited and guessing for what will come next.”
Building a track
“My music generally focuses on a main lead part, which will develop throughout the track and this usually makes the arranging more intuitive. If your main ideas are not developed enough or don’t have the movement to keep them interesting, you tend to have to make up for it by adding more sounds and dramatic arrangement.
“I recommend really pushing the limits of your sounds and always having the control to mould and change them as the track progresses. This will give life to the music and make it much easier to keep things interesting.”
Hardware vs. software
“I love all the U-he software and think they are some of the highest quality plugins and they offer a ton of creative energy to my process. Though I use a lot of hardware, I strongly believe in using every tool at my disposal to get creativity flowing and results that I’m happy with. This means hardware, software, acoustic instruments, analogue, digital and anything else that I find to be valuable.
“Not only do these tools bring sonic value to my process, but also creative satisfaction in how they are used and how I interact with them when creating music. I’d say a very notable difference between a plugin and its hardware counterpart, aside from the actual sound, is the way my brain is stimulated when using them. A plugin offers immediacy and sometimes I want results quickly.
“Other times I’m stimulated by the endless options of Eurorack and I’m inspired to dive into long sessions exploring my rig. Both are different experiences but equally valuable in my path to creativity.”
“I love analogue drum machines but I’ve found that using sample-based drums helps me shave time and get the results I want quickly. Drums generally have more of a structural purpose, over their need to be overly creative and malleable. Their frequency and rhythmic purpose within the mix is very important, and the ability to fill that purpose is what I am looking for first and foremost.
“If I have too much range within my drums, I’ll waste time and precious creative energy, which I need to save for later in the process. On a proper club system you need to make sure you have the right balance in the bottom and top of the frequency spectrum otherwise things can get messy. This means making sure to not only fill the range completely but also that the interaction between the sounds is healthy and not impairing one another.
“I try not to over-process sounds by selecting the ones that already have the correct frequencies for their purpose. This allows for cleaner mixes, faster results and the fullness that I am looking for. Of course, there is always a need for further adjustments and EQ and compression finds its way to where it needs to be.”
“I use my console for mixing live levels coming into the computer. Once tracked, I do most mixing in the DAW. I mainly use FabFilter and Waves plugins and definitely have some go-to plugins I consider to be ‘unicorn’ tools. The FabFilter Saturn is one that’s used a lot in my music. It can be used as a saturator, filter and an EQ, and has the magical ability to bring bite to any sound that needs a push.
“Another really useful tool is Trackspacer by Waves Factory. It’s a frequency-specific ducking plugin that can really help getting rid of conflicting frequencies. Though I depend on my plugins to help me get my mixes right, the most powerful tool I find is to choose the correct sounds from the start. This is always the best mixing choice that will make the backend mixing much easier.”
David Castellani on the track he wishes he'd produced
“There’s a lot of older, more classic tracks that have been part of my musical journey, but this one came out in 2017. It’s not super old, but not brand new. What it does, it has this really special vibe that I’m really drawn to. It’s the thought of delivering an expectation, giving you something familiar and natural that you want to hear, but doing it in a way that’s unexpected and completely different.
"This is a fundamental part of making interesting music. We all have expectations when we’re listening to music, there’s so many things that we’re used to hearing, so when you hear something that sounds like you’ve heard it a million times before, but in fact is completely new to you, that’s when the best music happens.
"Etapp does this in a lot of ways in his music. There’s a really beautiful pad starting off, and then an arpeggiator comes in, but it’s in 3/4 - which is pretty different to what you often hear in dance music. When the kick drum comes in, it catches you off guard, because, with the track being in 3/4, it’s odd how it fits in so well.
"The hi-hats don’t come in until about 3 minutes into the track, which is also a really unexpected choice, but really adds a lot to the structure. The track’s quite simple, there’s the percussion sounds, a couple effects, the pads and the arps. It’s very broken down, very minimal and simple, but still offers so much.