IN the st udio with:
The UK drum & bass king shows us around his central Bath studio
Absorbing an eclectic mix of house, UK garage, R&B and jungle influences, Danny Byrd is an iconic figure on the drum & bass circuit. Danny Turner chats to the DJ/producer about the process behind his signature style
The jewel in Hospital Records’ crown, Bath-based drum & bass pioneer Danny Byrd has forged a reputation for infusing the genre with a cross mix of generic styles. With a notorious flair for mixing and production, Byrd’s discography is defined by hit remixes such as Liquid’s Sweet Harmony and classic dancefloor tracks including Ill Behaviour, which punctured the mainstream top 40 in 2010. Albums such as Supersized, Rave Digger and
Golden Ticket are a celebration of Byrd’s unique take on drum & bass. Earlier this year, he set the club world ablaze once again with the monolithic anthem Devil’s Drop from his latest album release
Atomic Funk. Five years in the making, it’s a 15-track, funk-fuelled compendium of drum & bass floor fillers, paying homage to jungle’s past with sub-shaking rhythms and feel-good vocals.
Take us back to Ill Behaviour in 2010, what was it like having a top 40 hit?
“It was actually mind blowing. It was one of my proudest moments because nobody can take that away from me – even in 100 years’ time. It’s one of those things where a track just takes off. From the moment Annie Mac played it for the first time on a Friday night it went crazy. It was one of the hardest tracks I’d ever made. I think we had the intro and vocal very early on, but trying to match the drop with the vocal and all the different basslines was tough – I remember finally cracking it on Christmas Day [laughs].”
Can you pinpoint what exact factors make a hit and what doesn’t?
“The label chose it, but I said ‘really?’ – I thought it was a club track rather than a radio track. The only thing you can guarantee when it comes to dance music is that if it works really well in the clubs then it will work on radio too, but the moment you think you can predict a hit is the moment you’ll never have a hit again. You end up looking for a big sample or a gimmick without even realising it. Going into the studio with a preconceived notion that you’ve got to do something usually only leads one way.”
On the other hand, as much as trying to make a hit might not work, you can just as easily create a hit by not trying?
“Exactly, and you never know what’s going to take off. This year, we started off with a track called
Devil’sDrop, which was the Hottest Record in the World on Annie Mac. That was a track I wrote on tour in New Zealand the year before. I didn’t hate it, but writing and finishing music on tour is a lot harder than it seems. I was sick of the track, so when the label said they wanted to drop the single there was that whole thing again of me not understanding what’s going to take off.”
Is the drum & bass scene still thriving or has it taken a back seat to other forms of electronic dance music?
“It’s really healthy in the UK. At the end of the ‘80s people said hip-hop was a fad and wouldn’t last, but here we are, and drum & bass has done the same. Bath is not really the epicentre of the genre, that would be Bristol, but if you go down to The Nest on a Friday night, drum & bass is always the music that goes down best. But I went to college in Bristol and have strong links. It’s such a cool city that’s birthed a lot of different musical genres – as long as it’s bass-heavy.”
Have you ever consciously changed your take on the genre over the years – to keep up with the times?
“You pick up on things when you’re DJing week in week out and get to see what’s working. For example, in the last couple of years I’ve noticed that stuff is a little more bass-heavy. Not EDM, but stripped-down stuff with heavy sub bass has been working really well, so I’ve incorporated that into what I’ve been doing. My style is always going to be my style, but the kicks and snares have got cleaner and tighter and the mix downs are a lot cleaner and a little less loud, whereas the whole style of the 2000s was to throw trendy breaks on top of each other. So the frequencies have moved apart a bit. Ten years ago, the snare was a lot lower – a fat, 200Hz – now they’re all pitched up and sharper because that allows you to put more bass in.”
Some drum & bass is dark and club-driven, but yours has always been much more uplifting and emotive? Does that stem from the rave culture you grew up with?
“I just make what I make. Drum & bass music has become very minimal and bassline-driven – in a good way. Some of the bass noises are crazy, but we’ve maybe lost a bit of the emotion. Then you can have tracks that have a lot of emotion, but no dancefloor quality, which doesn’t interest me either. I’m aiming for that perfect match between the two.”
Your tracks seem more song-oriented now than on your debut album Supersized?
“It’s interesting that you say the tracks are more song-like because to me they’re more cut and paste. The RaveDigger album was so successful that I got a lot of writers, session musicians, vocalists and managers circling, and I found that quite stressful because that’s not very dance music to me. So I made the new album at home using samples and had them redone with vocalists. I also used an amazing multi-instrumentalist called Pete Joseph to redo some of the samples for me. There’s a track called Salute that has live horns on it, but they still sound like samples because I didn’t want them to stand out too obviously as a live instrument. We just reduced the bit rate to make them sound more like they were sampled from YouTube.”
So when you’re writing the track you’re reimagining how the samples will sound when played by real instruments?
“At first, I’ll just get the vibe down. If it works perfectly, then I know that once the track is finished
I’ll be able to sketch something around that. The hard bit is getting that initial inspiration. Most samples can be replaced. If not, we’ll just get them cleared. There’s a Patrice Rushen orchestral sample on the album, but there’s no way you could recreate that – so we were better off going for clearance. I’m not going to tell you what the original sample is on the track Devil’sDrop, but the resample actually sounds a lot better. It’s satisfying when no one knows the journey you took to get a sound, but those moments are rare.”
Are the vocals recorded in person or remotely?
“I don’t trust people doing stuff remotely and have to have it done in my own studio where I’ve invested in a nice vocal chain. Part of it’s about the sonics of the recording, but it’s also about the performance, and no-one can go inside my head and work out exactly what I want. For example, there was one vocal on the album that was too hard to do so we referred to a guy called Hal Ritson of Replay Heaven who does a lot of the big sample recreations. He did the vocal for us and the chorus sounded amazing but the verse wasn’t quite right. It was 95% there, so I just got on the train to London because I knew being there would immediately make it perfect. It’s not that I’m some vocal genius; I just know how I want it, plus everybody’s based in London, and to be really honest, nobody really wants to come down to Bath [laughs].”
Talking of vocals, we notice you have a couple of mic pres in your kit list?
“A few years ago, I was looking to update my vocal sound because I was using the Neumann U87s straight into the soundcard, which can be good, but I was more into investigating big American vocal chains at the time. There’s a guy called Niki Melville Rogers who owns a studio shop in London and he suggested the Neve vocal chain. So I’ve got a U87 mic going into a Neve 1073N, and that goes into the Neve 1176 for a bit of compression.”
You also integrate acoustic elements such as piano and guitar. Are these tricky elements to add to a drum & bass track?
“They are, but I get a massive kick out of it when it works. Like you suggest, acoustics in drum & bass make you stand back and think, oh, that’s different. I think drum & bass can always integrate those elements. You only have to look at Roni Size’s New
Forms. It was 20 years ago and he used lots of different session players, but, ultimately, those sounds would always be chopped up in the sampler to bring them back into the dance music fold rather than having loads of crazy live instrumentation. Sometimes you’ve got to be prepared to try different things and throw them at the wall.”
Early on, your beats sounded heavier and more sample-based, now they’re a bit more subtle and integrated into the music?
“Definitely, I’ve always been a fan of Akai MPCs. I bought them with the aim of making hip-hop but always tried to use them in drum & bass too. I was using the MPC 2000XL back in the 2000s, but it was always hard to incorporate that into drum & bass because I’d have to try and MIDI-sync it up to my Atari, which was a nightmare. Then Akai came out with the MPC Renaissance, so you could do it all in the computer. I became obsessed about making drum & bass with the MPC as much as I could, because it’s such a different way of doing things. This new album is a consequence of that, because a lot of the beats come from the MPC and have a hip-hop influence.”
So you build all your beats from scratch now rather than using sampled breaks?
“That’s it. Back in the day I’d use a few breaks and add a kick, snare and hi-hat over the top, but it’s more programmed now. I’m building up the beats from scratch and able to add lots of intricate layers that sound cleaner. I’m not opposed to using breaks and still do, but everything’s tighter-sounding now.”
Presumably, drum & bass is too fast to record in real-time. If so, what techniques do you use to create beats?
“Well that’s the thing about the MPC 2000XL, I’d try to make drum & bass in that but it was too fiddly. To do little intricate rolls, you’d have to slow everything down. Now, with the MPC software, it’s almost like
“The moment you think you can predict a hit is the one you’ll never have a hit again”
a little DAW, so if you mess up a note you can just use the mouse. But I’ll definitely attempt to record a live groove because sometimes you hit an off note that actually makes it better, and as any MPC user knows, it’s constantly looping and quantising, which is brilliant for building up beats.”
Can quantisation make the track too linearsounding, and are there tricks to avoid that?
“I know what you’re saying, but that tight quantisation is also part of the beauty of a break. Obviously, drum & bass is so fast that anything too loose can sound messy. I was working on a track the other day and everything was on the grid and in 4/4 and I was putting ghost notes in off the grid that weren’t quantised. That sounded amazing, but, generally, most things have to be quantised. But it’s an interesting idea; maybe I’ll go back in the studio and try to do something totally not quantised.”
We noticed you have the EMU SP-1200 12-bit drum machine. Do you still use that?
“I bought that in America a few years ago when they were a little bit cheaper. I got mine for about £1,200, which was a good investment because after Kanye West started using one they’re up to three or four grand now. I have used it a little bit, but, again, it’s a little bit too fiddly to use for this genre. I quite like the idea of using it to sample disco loops and getting that 12-bit crunch. What’s really interesting about the SP-1200 is that if you sampled a really fat kick, like a Vengeance kick that’s really over-processed, and put it into the SP-1200, it doesn’t do the business, but if you take a normal acoustic kick, suddenly it becomes mega-fat. For me, it does something to it that you can’t replicate in software.”
On the track Starting it Over, the beat sounds really heavily processed. What was the recording technique on that one?
“That was done using breaks in Logic. My friend had given me some jungle drums he’d sampled from vinyl, so I chopped them up, put a bassline down and put the whole thing through my API 2500 bus compressor. Instantly, the bass got so fat. When I came to mix the album, it was a pain having to take all my hardware down to London, so I bought the plugin version of the UAD 2500. It’s a good plugin, but it didn’t have the same vibe. It’s hard to describe what the hardware does, but it definitely warms and fattens up the bottom end. ”
Can you put your finger on what that difference between digital and analogue effects processors consists of?
“Some people think it’s a myth, until you buy some choice bits of analogue gear and realise, ‘wow’. I bought some SSL strips from Recycled Audio. They chop up bits of the SSL 4000 G and E-series desks and create strips, and you can’t believe the difference in what those do to kicks and snares. You might be able to get that in software with a few chains, so you don’t necessarily need it, but I’m looking for inspiration and it’s more inspiring when something comes alive instantly. Looking at Logic is not very
inspiring, so I need my toys. Okay, it may only be a one or two per cent improvement, but it’s up to you to weigh up whether it’s worth it.”
Where are you heading to create basslines?
“Mainly soft synths like Massive or Serum, which sounds a contradiction, but if you add some analogue processing to boost the bass, let that come back in and do some limiting using FabFilter, it’ll sound much warmer and fatter. So a lot of my bass sounds come from the software domain because hardware is too fiddly to control for me. Other than that, I still have some old-school samples of 808 basses or subs from a Korg MS-20 synth. I’ve always been a sample guy rather than a synth guy, because you can make anything with a sample, but I am quite tempted by the Sequential OB-6. That might be next on the purchase list.”
Do you analyse bass frequencies on-screen and make adjustments or just go by ear?
“I bought another little toy a few years ago by SK Systems – the Jellyfish spectral analyser. It’s a real-time analyser that you can plug into an SSL. Although you’ve got all those things in Logic, having a dedicated hardware box allows you to switch between what you’re playing on any device. My room is very small, so it can be quite hard to judge the bass, so that being the case, the analyser can let me know if I’m going overboard or under – usually under in my case. It does put you in a certain ballpark, but it’s only when you play stuff out in a club that you get a true representation and realise what’s wrong with the sub. Having said that, it’s easy to get caught up in the process rather than the creation, so analysing frequencies is not always as important as it looks.”
What else do you have in your outboard rack?
“The Elysia Karacter 500 is a nice little saturation box. It’s really good for adding a fat bottom end to the sub and crushing snares. It’s relatively inexpensive, although I know they brought out a plugin version. I should mention Plug & Mix’s Clarisonix, which is really good at putting extra weight on a sub note.”
You mention using Logic as your DAW?
“Yes, I’ve downloaded Ableton a few times but I just can’t get with it. I know everyone says it’s amazing and I worked with a producer on the album that used Ableton while I used Logic. When I saw the speed of Ableton I thought it was amazing but, and I know people will slaughter me for saying this, the sound didn’t sound as crisp to me. I’m also used to the Logic workflow. It’s about those third-party instruments, which, although I’m sure people will tell me otherwise, make using it just as quick as Ableton. Also, integrating outboard using Logic’s in/ out utility plugins is so good – it measures the latency and just does what it says on the tin. ”
In terms of workflow, would you say, that it’s extremely important for you to be able to record everything intuitively?
“Well back in 2000, I used Cubase with the Atari ST and thought that was amazing. Everyone told me to get a Mac with Logic, so I bought a Mac but couldn’t get used to the MIDI timing compared to the Atari. Anyway, I persevered, but because the change was such an upheaval I ended up not writing any music for three or four years. I can’t take the risk of doing that again with Ableton.”
You use a Slate RAVEN touch screen, which is quite common in the film soundtrack world. What do you like about that?
“I’ve always loved using control surfaces. I loved the black Mackie Logic Control when it came out, with all the extenders, then I had an SSL Nucleus. When I saw the Raven MKI, which was touchscreen, I just thought it was too good to be true. I bought one from Guitar Center in San Francisco and smuggled it back through customs. It’s such a good screen and I love the way it sits on the desk so you have Logic right in front of you. It might sound ridiculous, but I really recommend it. You can select notes, move the octaves up or down and customise everything, and it’s got batch commands so it’s deep.”
Are any other VSTs integral to your process?
“Well I’m a sample guy, so that’s still really important to me. Logic’s EXS24 is long in the tooth but still works for me, and there’s a new one by Sonic Arts called Nuance where you can basically drag and drop samples and play them musically. With samplers like that, you can speed up your workflow. reFX’s Nexus VST is a little generic but it’s good for bread and butter washes and effects, and I’ll use AIR Music Technology’s XPand! VST. Otherwise, I’m using a lot of UAD plugins, like the George Massenburg MDW parametric EQ, which is the best software EQ you’ll ever hear. If I’m in the box, I won’t even use other EQs and it is quite CPU-friendly, but now I’ve got an Octo expansion card I can use it on everything.”
You have the Genelec 8351As and Avantone Mix Cube speakers?
“The 8351As have been a game changer; I can’t recommend them highly enough. I used to use Mackie 824s, which were definitely good for their time, but because this is a small writing room and I mix elsewhere, I kept on blowing them. At one point, I had eight or nine stacked in the hallway, so I thought it was time to invest in some proper monitoring and saw that the Genelecs had the DSP built into the route correction. I used to have 1030s and was familiar with the sound, so I took a punt on the 8351As without even hearing them. I got Andy Bensley from Source Distribution to re-correct the room using sound technology. Since then, every time I take a mix to another studio it’s nearly spot-on. The Avantones are for when I want to hear what things might sound like on the radio, so it’s good to have that referencing.”