In our video series The Breakdown, we visit artists and producers 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.
This month, Sam Smith - better known as Ploy - invited us down to his South London home studio to open up his DAW and show us how he twisted a Bollywood sample into the hook for the B-side to his latest single, the Rayhana E.P. Sam also gave us an insight into the set-up he uses to DJ with, and waxes lyrical on the one D'n'B track he wishes he'd produced.
“Usually I start with a sample I’ve found. I like to use that as a jumping off point, because I’m not strong on melody. It makes a nice basis to build a tune around, which I can refine during the process. Sometimes I’ll keep the original sample and sometimes not.
“Take Dark Lavis, the B-side to my Rayhana EP, as an example. The original sample comes from a Bollywood film soundtrack. I dragged it into Logic, then imported it into iZotope Iris. That’s quite an easy plugin to get ideas going with.
“I’ll use Radius RT mode, which means the original tempo of the sample is kept. That one was pretty easy to work with; I put it at a lower pitch, zoomed in and just looped it up properly.
“The key is finding the right pitch that you want to use it at. Then I’ll edit the start and end points so that it’s nice and refined. You can even put a bit of release on the amplifier envelope and put a bit of decay on it, to make it feel a bit more natural. Once I’m happy I’ll record it down to a new audio file. That’s generally how I resample something, then that becomes the starting point of the track and provides the melody.”
Reworking the sample
“I don’t just want the sample running throughout the whole thing, so I’ll often double it up and apply different processes to manipulate the sound a bit. A good thing for that is Tremolator, from the Soundtoys bundle. You can play around with that and rework the sample into a lot of different patterns.
“Once you’ve manipulated your samples you can start building your track on top. For Dark Lavis, I took the version of the sample with the tremolo on and used that in the intro, with staccato plucky sounds. Then the less effected sample comes in for the main body of the track.
“I then also took the same sample and put reverb on it to turn it into a drone type thing. I like to do that by feeding back reverb – creating big infinite spaces – and then bouncing that down in the same way as before. In the end Dark Lavis has three different sections that have all come out of the same sample. I’ve structured the tune around those.”
“My next step is to start putting some drums on top. I like to layer my kicks up with at least two layers, generally. The low-end part is quite bassy so needs a bit more body in the mids. Then for the higher part I’ll roll off the low frequency so that it’s not clashing with the bass. On Dark Lavis there’s an even lower sub bass.
“The lowest layer has high frequencies rolled off to about 500Hz. Put together you’ve got good low-mids layered with the sub. That gives plenty of body in the kick, so there are no other bass elements.
“That sits under the main sample and is slightly sidechained so that the ducking adds to the rhythm. It adds a bit more groove that way.
“Next I put a snare in. With Dark Lavis that’s sat on the kick drum for more of a dancehall rhythm. Then I’ll layer percussion. Sometimes I add percussive loops on top. Or build other rhythm sections out of percussion hits and bounce them down into the track. I’ll cut and resample them and loop them up.
“So with Dark Lavis a little percussion section sits under the kick and snare – with quite a rolling feel. There are a few rhythmic hats, in little 16th hits, for extra roll too.”
Mixing with space and headroom
“Once the track’s finished I’ll mix down all my own stuff. I also do mixdown work for others. The most basic thing to watch for is gain structure and staging. I’ll bounce down every element to audio, but ensure nothing is in the red or clipping. I’ll add in bits of compression at this stage.
“It’s about layering compression, not using loads in one go. That way you’ve got lots of headroom in the mix. If everything is too hot and you’re having to pull all the faders down, or use heavy compression, it won’t sound as good.
“Also, use the space in the mix creatively. You can get little spread plugins that can move certain frequencies around in the stereo field, which is useful on pads. But just panning is a simple tool for opening the space up, particularly when you automate it.”
Ploy's DJ setup
“My tech rider at the moment is CDJ2000s or 3000s if the club has them. Usually with an Allen & Heath mixer, a Xone:92. I don’t play records these days really, because it’s kind of long-winded taking them out and the setups normally aren’t really good enough.
“Occasionally if it’s a club I know has a good setup I might take some records out, but not often. I find it more creative to mix on CDJs anyway. The way I mix is dependent on what I’m playing, really. If it’s more of a techno set, the transitions and blend might be a bit longer and more in keeping with that kind of style.
“For example though, if I play more global stuff like dancehall or fast tempos then it tends to be a bit choppier in terms of the blends. I try and incorporate all of that stuff when I play though, and try to fit it together and contextualise it. That makes it a bit more interesting.”
Ploy on the track he wishes he'd produced
"The track I wish I produced is Swandive by Sully. I don't really play drum 'n' bass - I grew up listening to it, but it's not a big part of what I do at all. This track, though, it just sounds so inherently jungle and D&B, but it's also a massive breath of fresh air.
"The technical detail of it is second to none, in the drum programming. I don't think you get that level or calibre of production detail in the sort of music that I play, it's quite specific to that genre.
"If I can make something that has close to that level of detail, clarity, simplicity and structure, then I'd be very pleased. It's a very singular idea, executed very precisely."