IN THE STUDIO:
Tom Demac the Welsh producer serves up his latest genredefying oeuvre; FM investigates…
Born and raised in North Wales, Tom Demac had to travel far and wide for his love of dance music. Navigating an assault course of muddy raves he settled on his first love – gabber, the punishing sub-genre of hardcore techno. However, by 2004 Demac had become transfixed by the more sustainable and meticulous craft of electronic pioneers Roni Size and Jeff Mills. Initiating tracks on his own Electronique Audio imprint, the Welshman later honed his artistry on labels such as Murmur, liebe*detail and Hypercolour, capturing the imagination of his peers.
As Demac’s sound matured with the addition of rich, analogue textures and crafted sound design, he found himself increasingly in demand as a producer, ghost writer and studio engineer. Today, Demac has never been more comfortable in his own skin, as he continues to reel off a steady flow of guttural techno floor fillers.
Was techno on your radar growing up?
“It was. I started out in a heavy metal band called Nocturnal Drive: face paint - the works. I used to play bass and growl down the mic badly. There was a record shop in Llandudno and I used to hang around there. It was really bad of me, but I was taking my mum’s CDs – the ones I didn’t think she’d listen to, like Michael Bolton – to a second hand bookshop to get more money to buy records.”
When did you start clubbing?
“When I was about 18 years old, I’d go to Helter Skelter raves, Bowlers in Manchester and The Void in Stoke-on-Trent in my mate’s little Fiat Panda. We got into the really hard side of techno – gabber and hardcore, and we’d all go en masse to legendary techno clubs like The Orbit in Leeds and Atomic Jam in Birmingham. From there, I got hugely into Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance, but Roni Size’s Reprazent made me chill out a bit.”
Was this before you studied music tech?
“I went to Salford University because I knew some guys that were living up there. I was doing a sound and technology course, but wasn’t really that interested because while they were teaching us about acoustics, I was going home, smoking weed and learning Acid Pro. In hindsight, I’d be more fascinated in the theory, but all my pals were going out on the pull. My mate had a double-decker garage in his garden, completely disconnected from the house, and we’d plug his whole studio in via one plug from the outside. He had a massive, horrible sound system and a Kitten synth. It’s been an unhealthy obsession since then.”
Is it true your parents pinned you down and told you to get on with making music?
“That’s exactly what happened. After university, I lived in Manchester for a couple more years. Then I went to Barcelona for a bit because I had a mate who’s a mastering engineer. I drove my studio and records out there, rinsed my credit card and had to bail out back to Wales. After a year or two of me constantly going at the music, mum and dad told me to sack my job off and move into their hotel, which was on its last legs really. It was like Phoenix
Nights, a seaside town in Wales with turkey and tinsel nights. There was a flat downstairs that no one had been in for years and my parents told me to give it six months making music in there. All the grannies would be going to the loo and hearing boom, boom, boom in the basement. It was the start of what I became I suppose.”
How did you end up in London?
“I met this girl, fell in love and thought, fuck it. She got me down here, thankfully. I was doing quite well touring, although the difference in rent was quite extreme, but as soon as I moved to London I started doing production work with the Hot Creations crew. I’d go to studios as a runner and cycle DAT tapes around the city, working up to becoming a studio engineer and ghost writing for people. London got me into that, and to this day I still do a lot of production work alongside my music as Tom Demac. It gives me a bit of structure and takes me out of my own insular little world.”
There are dark, jagged sounds running through your tracks. Where does that come from?
“I don’t know. It’s weird because I grew up leathering techno, and most of the records I bought were all Detroit techno. The year before last, I took a back seat from making bangers and was trying to write an album and change from being a dance producer into something more poppy. At one point, I was on the cusp of signing for Ninja Tune but got disheartened so I binned the album in the end.”
Did you want to stretch your music’s appeal beyond the dancefloor into home listening?
“I got wrapped up in wanting to be on Ninja Tune and bought into this whole idea of going beyond being a dance guy and wanting to produce bands. There are only so many bangers you can make, but now I seem to have this darker identity by adding things that you wouldn’t think would necessarily go into a dance track. I’m always trying to process some crazy vocal or dark, lairy, jolting synth sound that will dominate the track.”
A track like Bark Or Bite starts off ‘techno’ then gets quite dark, filmic and melodic before returning to source. What’s your inspiration for a track like that?
“Are you aware of Matthew Johnson? He’s a big influence on my melodies and the modular synths are quite good for producing a lot of the twinkling melodies in that track. Years ago, I released a track called CriticalDistance, which had the sound of a big mono poly synth bassline on it. Since 2012, that’s been a signature sound for me.”
“When you’ve done this a long time, you hear every room your music was made in”
You seem to be able to fill the sound spectrum using quite a limited sound palette. What’s the technique to that?
“I use a lot of pedals when I’m recording the synths to make sure each sound gets processed slightly differently when I record them in. My Focal speakers also pick out the mid-range quite acutely, so I can really hone in on those awkward, weird-sounding 200-400 Hz mid-frequencies. I’ll always get rid of those, and then it’s just down to balancing the sounds. If I put a lot of pad sounds together, it’s mostly about finding the dominant frequencies of each one so they’re singing at different parts of the frequency spectrum. I find Ableton’s EQ is great for tuning and finding the right spots.”
Presumably, you can detect unwanted frequencies by ear with the right speakers and an adequately soundproofed room?
“If you’re using hardware and working with analogue waveforms, whether it’s a high frequency sound, lead or a bass sound, you’re always going to get frequencies that you don’t want. You can obviously see those on a spectrum analyser, but if your ears are trained and you room’s properly soundproofed, then you’ll be able to isolate those frequencies. It’s funny, but when you’ve been working in this game for a long time, you can hear every room that your music’s been made in. In my old place, the nose of my kicks was never coming through. It was quite an open room, heavily treated, but it wasn’t a tight-sounding room. Now I’ve got this smaller room, which is a bit more pokey and there’s a bit of bleed coming through the wall from all the other studios, but it sounds fucking great and is probably the most honest room I’ve had. So yes, speakers are important, but if your room is treated correctly, that’s just as important.”
What gear do you most frequently turn towards to get the creative juices flowing?
“If I’m in the mood to just jam and I’ve got no ideas or reference points, I’ll go straight to the modular gear just to see what happens. I’ll see what riffs I can come up with or crazy sounds I can get working just as a base. Sometimes, it’s quite good to get an old record and start sampling something. Even if you don’t use the sample, it still gives you a tone, a key or a scale to build around. I also use the Korg Mono/ Poly quite a bit.”
For basslines presumably?
“Yeah, it’s great for tweaking them. It’s always here by my side and plugged in, and I know it inside out so I’ll just try and work out a melody on the Korg or a bassline. I’m quite old school in that way; because I’ve had so many bits of kit that didn’t have MIDI, I’ve always committed stuff to audio. From that point, I can go in the computer, recreate it and replace the sound with something else if I want to.”
Do you use the Korg Minilogue just as much?
“I just love Korg. A lot of people love Roland and are Roland stalwarts. It’s pretty controversial, and obviously the 303, 808 and 909 are fundamental pieces of gear, but I never really got into them. I prefer the sound of Korg – it just sounds a bit more aggressive and a bit dirtier, whereas Roland sounds are a bit too clean and considered, and you can tell them a mile off. The MS-20 has a really nice character to it for basslines and leads, and although the Minilogue is an analogue polysynth, you can save all your presets.”
Talking of Roland, you have the TR-8. How does it compare to the original?
“I got invited along with a number of other producers to try it out, along with the TB-3. They were doing a video saying it was a nod to the 909 and the 808, but I wasn’t impressed with it and I was a bit brutal in my appraisal. I said that everyone wants analogue, so why have you made it digital? But of course they sold like hot cakes and I ended up buying one, although I mainly use it live because it’s so easy to use. It is a bit clean-sounding and it doesn’t have that unique timbre that the original 808 has when you turn it on, but if I chuck it through my Elektron Analog Heat or a UAD Apollo, it will give it some grit and make it sound a bit warmer and more characterful.”
Do you plug most of your hardware through the outboard before going into the DAW?
“It depends on the source. When you’re printing to audio, which is kind of how I work, it’s often a double-edged sword. I like to make sure I get a good long recording, which makes the editing process a bit more difficult, but sometimes when you’ve recorded some amazing jam through a bunch of pedals there’s far too much delay and reverb.
Sometimes it’s better to record things dry, add effects in the box or send them out of the box via the patch bay and into something else so at least you’ve got the dry version. It’s funny because when you have a hardware version of a compressor you always want to overdo it, but you’re more subtle with the software because you know there’s always the opportunity to do it again.”
What software are you using these days?
“I started off with Acid Pro, then Ableton was the logical move and I’ve never looked back. I work most of the time in Session View and hate arranging music, so unless someone’s paying me to do it I’ll stay as long as possible recording stuff in Session View and soloing different sounds. I know it’s really counter-productive, because I can dick around in there for a day when I could have made an arrangement in another DAW much quicker, but Ableton’s really nice for jamming sounds and very easy to record outboard equipment into. Pluginwise, UAD plugins are pretty fundamental to what I do and I love Valhalla reverbs and Native Instruments’ Kontakt for when I want to get that differentiation between the warmth of analogue and the clean, pristine sound of digital.”
You have quite a few guitar pedals too, set up in chains?
“Yeah, I’ll use them in chains, with groups of them going into the patch bay. I just like having them set up in certain configurations, so if I want to do jams I can put everything through two or three different effects chains that will have reverbs and a filter on them. You’ll often find me driving stuff through the Analogue Heat, the Moogerfooger or the Acidbox, which is a clone of the Russian Polivoks synth filter.”
When did you start getting into modular, and specifically Eurorack?
“About 18 months ago. It was a battle with myself really because I was refusing to play ball and didn’t want to take the plunge, but I’ve got a really old friend based in Wales called Steevio who’s on YouTube and is a bit of a modular pioneer. He was always saying, ‘What you doing? Get into bloody modular man’, and he’s got walls and walls of the stuff. The old wives tale is that it’s a bit of a rabbit hole and once you go down it you’ll never come back, but I’ve kept it quite controlled. I started off with a small Doepfer system, which is quite a cheap and generic starting point, and gradually built it up over time. A lot of people get into it, sell everything they own, build a ten grand system, and eight months later haven’t made a single piece of music.”
Do you have to be self-disciplined, not just in terms of buying modules, but how you think about integrating them into your workflow?
“I’ve slowly eased myself into it. I was late in the game because there was a lot of hype about it and I’d always seen these videos online and thought a lot of it sounded like fucking nonsense. I thought that I wouldn’t know what to do with it and would just sit there making silly sounds. Now, having built it up and bought something every couple of months, I’m over that fear of not knowing if I’m going to get something out of modular. So much so, that it’s become a signature of my sound.”
Do you think you need some form of selfeducation before jumping into that world, rather than just going with the ‘hype’?
“A lot of people want to experience modular straight away, and you can obviously watch tutorials online and learn about it first, but from a user perspective it’s better if you have something that teaches you how a synthesiser works so you can get to learn about waveforms, envelopes and the rest of it. For example, if you buy an old Roland SH-101 or a Korg MS-20, it’s clear as day because it’s all very easily laid out on the facia where the envelopes are, the filter section and each of your oscillators. To me, that makes perfect sense and I think those machines are a great gateway into modular. Even if you look at quite a simple modular rack, it’s confusing to anybody that’s inexperienced.”
Can you pinpoint what you most get from the system you’ve designed?
“Well now I know exactly what I want to get out of it, whether it’s a lead, a melody, some crazy snare drum or a white noise sound. I want sounds that are going to evolve, not in a random way, but an interesting way, as I’ve always liked evolving synth sounds. For example, I’ve got this little input module here that means I can bring in external sounds, whether it’s a sample or other synth sounds from my hardware, and run them through all the effects, envelopes and filters. Now modular has become a fundamental part of my studio because I can affect audio with it, which makes it a useful effects unit.”
What key modular pieces do you recommend?
“Make Noise MATHS module, which you tend to see in everybody’s modular setups. Again, it was something that I didn’t have a clue about at first and every video I watched baffled the shit out of me, but once you start using it, it makes perfect sense. It can be used as a sound source as well as being a very strong utility for unlocking the functionality of your other noise-generating modules. The Intellijel Metropolis is a very useful pitch and gate sequencer and the Mutable Instruments’ Clouds module is great for creating reverb-textured synthesisers where you can take fragments of sound and make these crazy ambient pads.”
You have a few vintage-looking synths. Tell us about The Kitten, which you mentioned earlier?
“Octave made The Kitten and The Cat, which is the bigger one. In the early days above my mate’s garage, we had The Kitten in the studio but couldn’t make it work properly. All we could get was these insane, random noises. It was the first synth I played on and we’d record stuff from it onto a four track. Funnily enough, this same guy now works in London and sometimes we share the studio. He brought it back, so here it is again 10-15 years later. Some days it works, some days it
doesn’t, but when it does work it sounds really unique and has a mind of its own.”
You have a few other vintage synths too?
“I’ll use the Yamaha CS-5 for stringy portamento sounds – it’s a bit thin for bass, but still has its uses. The Arp Odyssey, which is actually the modern refaced version, has a very gnarly, aggressive sound. It’s really good if you want to create a crazy lead or some unsettling sound that really pokes out in a record. It’s a real beast, but it was hard to get my head around the interface at first because it has quite a different architecture.”
We understand you use the Marantz tape recorder in rather a novel way?
“Yes, my Marantz tape machine is basically a cassette tape machine that’s great for field recordings and arguably one of the best ever made. You always used to see them wheeled into the room during those ’80s TV courtroom dramas. If I’m using shakers or hi-hats, I’ll run them through the Marantz and they sound incredible. Sometimes I’ll even run vocals through it to make them wider, because it’s got a great tape compressor on it and its own little limiter. My reel-to-reel machine has taken a back seat since I got this, but it was quite expensive. You can really hear the difference between something that’s been played out of a computer and something that’s been committed to reel-to-reel or cassette tape.”
You have a couple of spring reverbs too. Do they bring something unique to sound shaping?
“They produce a very specific sound, quite different to plate reverbs, which are a lot more expensive. Big synth sounds with a touch of spring reverb sound like nothing else. There’s a beautiful tone to the reverb and it adds warmth and a bit of noise. If you clatter the springs they make quite an amazing sound, especially if you can get them amped to the right level or cabled up to a Eurorack module.”
…and finally, are you quite proud of your Focal Twin speakers?
“I actually have quite a love/hate relationship with them. They normally cost three grand, but one of them fell off a stand so I ended up getting them for £1,000. They had a rattling left speaker for about three years and I thought I’d have to send them back to Focal in France, but a distributor outside of London replaced the whole case for me. They’re fully functioning now and sound great in here. They’re a bit too big for a small space but are brutal in revealing problems in your mid-range, especially the weird hums you get in the low mids when you’re using analogue gear.”