Given his adept mastery of progressive and tech house, Andre Sobota has been able to carve out his own sonic lane, where he reigns free of any other copy-cat producer, as his synth sounds and drum hits remain one of the most distinctive I’ve heard. When he’s not releasing music on multiple labels under his real name, he’s churning out Drum and Bass tunes, using his Bungle moniker. Take this a chance to learn directly from the man himself about how he makes his music, what synths he uses and how achieves his mix-downs.
One of the most defining things about your music is that your synth and drum sounds sound very distinct and unique. Let’s start with drums. A lot of your tracks from 2010 onwards have very punchy, rubbery kick drums and crisp claps. Do you make your own samples? If not, what’s been your main source of samples for drums?
I synthesize my own and try to use these as much as possible. I’ve done some kits with synths like bazzism, ARP2600, Jupiter, Cypher, and Massive. I’ve even done my very own 909-sounding clap with just white noise. But of course, I also use samples from many different sources. There is a great free pack out there with kits of all classic drum machines, and I use that a lot.
Another aspect is how you mix everything down. It’s not easy at all to have a loud, yet clean snare on the final mix, especially once it hits together with the kick drum. What started working well for me was combining compression with saturation for the kick and snare.
Do you ever place any ambience on your drums when mixing, like reverb or delays? If so, how do you work that into your mix?
I use 5 different auxiliary reverbs, with two of them being very short. I try to not use too much reverb on the beats though. What I do is layer different samples, until I get a certain color. Also, the organic feel is more about the way you sequence them.
I always try to make beats sound as close to a drummer playing as possible. So any drum roll or fill should sound like an extension of the beat.
What do you typically do for hi-hats? Loops, one-shots, etc?
Hi-hats are trouble. It’s what keeps me doing dozens of different mixes of each track for weeks. I’ve been trying to solve the problem by using a less-is-more approach, and by placing some hats very upfront in the mix, with strong attacks, and others are a bit distorted in the background. I use EQ and saturation for that.
I’m only using one shot samples for house and techno, but I use tons of loops for drum & bass.
You’re also known for using big, reverb-heavy tom hits on tracks like “Technicolor” and “Saudade”, every 8th bar or so. How do you get those?
It’s funny because I never liked those toms until I used them. For some reason they worked really well on “Technicolour“, which comes from the 80’s drum machine free sample pack. But I still have the feeling that they’re not the ultimate toms. I’m still looking for the most original thing. I’ve also synthesized my very own 80’s toms this year, but haven’t used them yet.
What are some tips and tricks you can offer for getting a good, punchy drum mix?
It’s confusing sometimes. You want the snare to have presence, but the more emphasis you give it, the longer the group and master compressors will take to release. Plus, when you slow the attack on a group compressor to let the drums punch, it will actually let through more peaks, rather than reduce the dynamics. So I’ve really worked hard on trying to understand how to make things punchy, loud but clear. I started to combine compression with saturation a lot.
Compressing with a slow attack will generate peaks, but when you use saturation, it will distort these peaks. So you can have a very natural sound with a strong attack, but with a very controlled amplitude.
One thing that solved all my problems recently is the use of an oscilloscope to see what compressors and EQ’s are actually doing to the signal. I’ve started to look at some mixes and found out that there were massive peaks generated by compressors.
Let’s talk synth sounds. It’s not hard to figure out when people are turning to NI Massive for their Modern Talking or Scrap Yard basslines. Or using Sylenth for big saw-synth sounds. I haven’t had the same success in identifying where your synth sounds come from. The synth sounds on a lot of your tracks, like “Beginnings” and “Found” sound very smooth and dreamy, and even the simplest of notes seem to ring out with a long decay. How do you go about achieving that?
That’s another thing I took years to find, because synths can easily sound cheap, and I always wanted to get a more organic flavor like the old Yes, ELP’s, Boards Of Canada, etc.
The first time I got a certain vintage color was on the track “September”, in 2010. Then I started to develop that sound through 2011 and 2012. Certain synths helped me to get there, especially the DCAM Synth Squad and Arturia stuff, but I can get the same organic sound with plugins like V-station or Massive. It’s how you program them and how you play the notes.
This year I started to get more color from the sequence of notes rather than the sound source itself. The thing with “Found” which is hard to replicate is the chords, the notes and the screaming sample on the background. Sometimes it’s even the other sounds around the synth that make it sound like that.
How much sampling do you use for non-drum sounds?
Very little. I used so many samples with Drum & Bass that I got a bit tired of it. It’s so easy to get a certain feeling by sampling an old record done by great musicians, and then just put your name on it. I started to feel bad about it after sometime, so I challenged myself to create my own samples. If I want something like a band in the background, I’ll record it.
What I do a lot these days is put a wall of dirty and harmonic sustained samples in the background just to give some organic feel.
A lot of new producers confuse “bigness” with “loudness”. They spend a lot of time trying to make their synth sounds as “loud” as possible, when the real solution might be to make the sounds as “massive” or “big” as possible. Instead of working on things like reverb, panning and delay, they stack 5 synths playing the same thing, add a Sausage Fattener, use a ton of compression, and boost the output gain. You seem to be very good at creating big spaces, and massive synth sounds. What would you recommend for making synth sounds as “big” as possible?
I actually layer tons of instruments playing the same notes together, but each one doing a different thing. I don’t have a problem with loudness at all, the problem in my opinion is when everything sounds over-processed. I believe there is always a way to make things very loud but clear and natural. That’s what mixing is all about these days. I would recommend using the oscilloscope because you will see peaks and over-compression mistakes that you would never notice by ear or see on the meter.
Any favorite synths, apart from the V-station and ARP2600, which I know you use a lot? What do you use them for?
I love the DCAM Synth Squad from Fxpansion. It’s easy to get something organic and dirty with them. Works well for leads and pads. Also I use the Oddity plugin a lot, like when I want a bassline to have an extra note, like a third. I automate the tune for notes I want. It’s so easy to get a dirty sound with it as well. Apart from that it’s all about the Arturia synths and V-station really.
In our previous interview, you revealed that you use a lot of acoustic instruments, like guitars, in your music, particularly your Bungle stuff. Do you ever run into any problems when combining acoustic and electric sounds?
Yes, that’s because I was a guitarist for about ten years before getting into electronic music. It’s not easy for an electric or acoustic guitar to work well in electronic music. I always play tons of guitars and piano, maybe for hours, but never keep them. It’s odd sometimes.
How do you work your guitars into a mix-down? Do you record them first, and mix other things around that, or the opposite?
I always end up keeping the guitars as a supportive element, so it’s never loud. I record them distorted, so the mixing is pretty simple. Maybe send them to a reverb or two and that’s it.
Have you ever recorded acoustic drums into your Bungle tracks? Tracks like “Numbers” seem to have real drums on them. If that’s correct, can you tell us anything interesting about the recording process, and how you made it work in the mix-down?
Yes, the idea was to bring a certain jazz feel. Not the clichés of jazz, but a sense of improvisation and dynamics to the instruments, whilst keeping it drum & bass. I regret the mixdown of that track a bit. But anyway, the drums were programmed via MIDI, note by note, so it sounds like a real drummer playing. It took me months but it was totally worth it. I need to try something like that again.
Keeping with “Numbers”, which seems to be very acoustic-heavy, you have a lot of piano sounds in there as well. When you use real pianos, as opposed to Vsts, do you treat them differently?
I‘ve probably over compressed that piano, but these days I’m convinced that it’s all about the take, rather than how you process it. You can control the dynamics of the piano with the way you play it. A good take demands very little processing. Also I’ve recorded that piano with a VST, and I wouldn’t process that differently from a real piano.
There’s some great piano plugins out there. It’s all about doing a good take, and not quantizing too much.
Any favorite plugins when it comes to your different acoustic instrument’s?
For drums, I end up using all sorts: Fxpansion BFD, Native Instruments libraries, Toontrack, etc. I think everything in the Komplete bundle is great, although I would love to try the Ivory piano. I love Mellotron too. But again it all depends on how you play it, and leave without quantizing too much.
SOFTWARE/PLUGINS VS HARDWARE
How important do you think it is to have the right synth plugins? A lot of people get lost in finding the right type of plugin. If your computer suddenly crashed, and you had no more of your favorite plugins, would you still be able to make music that you’re happy with using freeware, and could send to a label?
I think I would. It’s even a good idea to limit your setup sometimes, and try to get the best out of very simple stuff. I have the feeling that the sound doesn’t really change from synth to synth, it’s much more about the structure and how easy you can get here and there. I may be wrong, but most of my analog sounds come from simple plugins.
What would you say the main difference is between analog and digital synths? Do you turn to each one, depending one what you’re looking for, or does it not matter? Do you have to treat them differently during the mixdown?
I have never used any analogue synths so I may change my mind one day, but right now it’s all coming from plugins, and I am 100% happy with it. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. All hot sounding synths from my recent remixes come from the V-station, which is apparently not that organic. So again it’s all about how you program and play.
What are your thoughts on synth presets? Do you find yourself using presets a lot from any synths in particular?
It’s a start point. Sometimes I go for presets just to get something unexpected and fresh, but I always change a lot until I get somewhere. The problem is when you don’t know what to do with a preset, which is when it tends to sound random in your mix, or not specific to the sound of the track. That’s the thing with synths, knowing how to make them very specific for what you’re working on.
Awesome! Well, thanks for giving us our most thorough Producer’s Corner yet Andre. I’m pretty sure our readers learnt a lot. If you’ve been moved by Andre’s advice and tips, then check out more of his music on his Soundcloud and Facebook pages. If you find yourself equally interested in his Bungle music, then check out those Facebook and Soundcloud pages also!