Phonique and Will Saul Interview
We grill the two producers on their production techniques and studio tips.
Will Saul’s Simple Records holds a residency in The End’s lounge once a month. The label focuses on deep, driving, house and techno aimed at the dancefloor, with signature warm melodies, a nod to the classic Detroit sound, and stripped down, dubby melancholy.
Simple have unveiled their own digital shop, and to launch it are giving away a free download of Phonique’s remix of Will’s ‘Tech Noir’ single. You can download it from www.simplerecords.co.uk. We grabbed both Will and Phonique for an interview about how they approach remixes, and to try and find out a bit about what makes them tick as producers.
Endclub.com: First up, tell us a bit about both of your studios.
Phonique: The studio I work in belongs to Alex Krüger. It’s based in East Berlin and Alex is also the guy I’ve produced with since 2001. Alex is also known for his own projects - Dub Taylor, Tigerskin and Korsakow. When we started back in 2001 it was all analog and we used Cubase as sequencer. Nowadays we mainly work with Cubase and lots of plug-ins. There is still lots of gear to be found in the studio, but if you know how to handle the plug-ins right, then it’s much faster to work with them and also easier to recall your productions.
Will Saul: I work mostly in a studio in Tooting, South London with Tam Cooper. It’s got no windows and gets a little claustrophobic in the summer but it’s a good size and there’s plenty of room for all the kit. We run a really fast Macbook Pro at the core and we’ve got a wide range of old synths – Roland 101 and Juno, Sequential Circuits, Korg Polly 800, a strange old organ that sounds like its going to take off when you switch it on, and more. We’ve got tons of percussion – from cow bells to wood blocks. We will regularly set the mic up and record these, we like getting hands-on. We’ve also got a dusty old 70’s Copicat tape delay that tends to have a mind of its own but is basically the sound of dub in a box. I also often work with Fin Greenall (Fink on Ninja Tune / Sideshow on Aus) in his home studio in Brighton and occasionally with Lee Jones in Berlin.
If money was no object and you could easily find rarities, what piece of kit would you add to your studio?
Will Saul: I’d love to get one of the old Prophet synths. You can buy new versions, but every time I try them out in the shop they always sound a bit crap. I’m sure it’s a case of getting it back to the studio and programming the pre-set sounds but it’s difficult to get your head around spending £1500 on something that initially sounds disappointing. Half the fun of old synths is that they have a mind of their own and you’ll often get them making strange noises that you can never replicate again. Obviously the difficulty here is that most good old synths are hard to find and often require more money spending on them to make them work properly. Lee Jones has got an old Roland Jupitor synth and it’s stunning – full of chunky analogue lead lines that would be really hard to replicate digitally. I wouldn’t mind one of those, and a Memory Moog would also be great, but apparently they break a lot.
Phonique: Who said money is a problem?? Haha. My partner Alex is a real nerd when it comes to synths and he already owns almost every rare synth. Sometimes he even buys them twice to modify one of them. I guess if we could pick some very expensive tools then we’d probably go for a mixing board.
How do you approach writing a new track?
Phonique: There are two ways of approaching a track. Either I’ve already got an idea or not. If I’ve got an idea, we start with some basic beats to fit in the main sounds of that idea. If I don't, we start with the beats and then I try some sounds, and when I find something I like, I start a bassline or a melody depending on the sound. And then the rest is easy. For an instrumental track we usually need four to six hours. If vocals are being added, then recording them and fitting them into the track can take another couple of afternoons.
Will Saul: If it’s something melody driven then Tam and I will often figure out the chords first, then they’ll guide us towards a lead melody. Sometimes we’ll work for days and not get a hook that we like, and then suddenly something will stick. A typical track will take three to five days. The tracks that have had the most impact (Pause, Mbira, 3000AD) are the ones that have taken the longest and have invariably meant us throwing away ideas that we didn’t feel were really timeless. For albums, we’ll often borrow kit for fresh inspiration and try to go that extra mile... stereo mic-ing weird percussion, using old 60’s spring reverb boxes (a giant wooden box full of springs) and other time-consuming processes.
When I work with Fin we take a more sample-based approach. I track down old samples and then we build the hook around them, Fin will play the guitar, I’ll play his Rhodes keyboard, then we’ll manually add the effects on his old analogue desk. Then we’ll bounce the track to DAT (yes kids, these do still exist) and play it back into the computer. Tracks with Fin only take a couple of days as it’s a more live approach to writing music.
Will, tell us a bit about how ‘Tech Noir’ came together?
Tam and I sometimes struggle to write stripped back tracks without much melody as we usually get bored and reach for the chords. ‘Tech Noir’ was our attempt at writing something darker and more bass driven. I think the trick to successful tracks without an obvious hook is to let the bassline and percussion carry interesting melodies and layers, and use lots of innovative percussive details. Guido Schnieder and Konrad Black are both really good at this. Then you need a really heavy and effective groove to lock people in. That was how we tried to approach ‘Tech Noir’.
Tell us about your musical influences as you grew up. Do you feel that these influences dictate the type of music you write now?
Phonique: Sure. I listened to house music in 1988 for the first time, and from then on I was addicted. And this never changed. I think you can hear that my music is very often nothing but house music. Even if some tunes are more minimal or more electro, the main style always stays house.
Will Saul: I grew up listening to a lot of old soul and Motown music (mixed in with the usual pop nasties such as Phil Collins - still have a weakness for ‘Easy Lover’) and then hip-hop and R&B as a young teenager. Whilst I hope that Phil isn’t informing the melodies I write, the Motown and soul is definitely still something that I try to incorporate.
As a producer, how do you choose remixes?
Will Saul: The point of a remix for me is to re-interpret the track in my style. I think it’s important to keep some of the core melodic elements or develop them so people still recognize the original. I only accept remixes where I’m inspired by the original in some way, otherwise you may as well just write a new track. The only exception to this rule might be if I got offered a ridiculous amount of money to remix the latest pop act and the original track was total shit... you gotta pay the bills haha. Needless to say this offer hasn’t happened yet so my moral and artistic resolve hasn’t been tested.
Phonique: It's often a money thing to be honest. Even the worst track can be remixed in a good way. Okay, if someone asks me to make a remix of a very bad track and specifies that I have to use all of the vocals, then we might not be able to agree, but that’s never happened before.
How to you approach a remix once you've received the original track?
Will Saul: Discuss the overall concept, for example “do something with the lead hook and achieve a deeper more trippy feel”. Then we’ll go through all the parts and isolate elements from the original and start working up a groove with some drums. How we develop from here really depends on what we decide to use from the original track.
Phonique: Sometimes I don’t listen to the original track, I just listen to the samples and pick those that I like. The rest is pretty simple, finding the right beats and putting in more elements fitting to those samples.
Phonique, how did you work on the 'Tech Noir' remix?
Like I approach all other remixes, but I listened to the original first haha.
Which of the remixes you've done are you both most proud of?
Phonique: It’s a remix of 'The House of God' by DHS. It’s a classic track from 1989 and had already been remixed many times, but there was never a good verison although the original is so great. So I did a modern remix, mixing the original raw old school vibe with all the modern elements of minimal and house. The result sounds so fresh and pumping, people on the dancefloor always freak out when I play it. I gave it to a few DJs like Steve Bug, Tiefschwarz and Guido Schneider and they all feel the same. Pokerflat are trying to get the rights to release it, and it looks like DHS is up for it because the remix is the first one that he’s ever liked.
Will Saul: Our remix of Phonique’s ‘Bang’. It came together really quickly as the hooks just fell into place. If only all remixes were as easy as this in terms of idea development. I play it out all the time and it always gets a great reaction so people seem to like it.
Who's the ultimate remixer?
Phonique: There are many good ones. Charles Webster, Manuel Tur & Dplay, Carl Craig, Lindström. They all have their own style and sound signature, and I am always surprised how all their remixes get this sound signature no matter how the original sounded before.
Will Saul: I have to say Carl Craig just because he’s turned in some absolute crackers over the last few years. He always seems to come up the strongest hooks and is the master at taking arrangement risks to build tension. Not bringing the bassline in for five minutes, or building the strings to the point that people are crawling up the wall are prime examples – sounds easy but believe me it’s not.