Sonikmatter Interviews Steve Duda
Interview by Larry Porres
Sonikmatter recently caught up with Steve Duda, most widely known for programming / remixing for Nine Inch Nails, Methods of Mayhem, Rob Zombie, and most recently a single remix for the movie Zoolander.
Finding some time between multiple musical projects, Steve enlightens us with his views on the use of the latest hardware and software gadgets, the future of music, the importance of finding the right sounds, and even shares a tip or two on Beatcreator, one of his favorite studio software.
SONIK : There is a huge debate these days on "software versus hardware"; what are your thoughts on the matter, and how do you see things in the future?
STEVE : "Hardware vs. software" is an interesting controversy. I think the first thing many people don't realize is that many pieces of newer hardware are, at their core, software with dedicated DSP.
For instance, most new synths that are hardware contain software as their key element. For instance, the guts of a Waldorf Microwave II or Access Access Virus is a DSP chip and a bunch of code in flash RAM that determines what instructions are fed to the DSP. In fact, these two units use the same Motorola DSP chip, so in a general sense the two units are identical, short of their "software" (and of course the knobs/user interface). I've heard a story directly from a reputable person who, with some serious hacking, flashed the Access Virus OS onto a Microwave II, and "presto" the Microwave II box became a Virus!
I think the main advantage of hardware are going fast. The main advantage to me is a slightly ironic one - hardware's greatest asset is the limitations that it imposes. For instance, on a LA2A comp/limiter, you have essentially two controls - "gain" and "peak reduction". No ratios, no release time, nothing. This makes it pretty simple to operate. Turn the "big knob on the right", and listen. Of course, the LA2A has a unique sound based on its slew rate and arguably the components inside the device, whether or not all the specific qualities are desirable is debatable!
I think there is a psychological edge that hardware will have among the masses for a long time, recently a fellow who works at a recording studio was convinced he could hear a difference between audio played on his internal hard drive, and audio played off a Jaz drive. He is clearly missing the concept of digital audio, but this goes to show how people allow themselves to be "blinded" by hardware!
In my experience, the most talented producers and mix engineers are treating most devices like black boxes- they have only a vague comprehension of what is going on inside the instrument, but they know how it affects the sound.
Overall, they are using their ears more than their knowledge of what 3 kHz is, for instance. Using ears, what a concept!
The future is moving rapidly towards all-software, but of course, software needs hardware to run. So obviously there will always both, and there will always be someone with more! Regardless, you can make amazing music with a laptop and a couple pieces of hundred-dollar shareware. At this point, the bottleneck of any relatively new computer is usually the operator! (most computers in the world at this moment are sitting 99% idle, just waiting for user input).
As for the "virtual studio", it is getting close. The technology is there, although the average desktop or laptop machine is not capable of a 64-track mixdown with dedicated compression/EQ/effects for each channel. I have mixed a number of projects inside ProTools. The advantages of total recall and parameter automation are a blessing. Unfortunately, for the projects I work on, I need the expensive ProTools hardware because I need 64 tracks and tons of inserts in order to get a good mix.
I've been editing and mixing with ProTools for many years; I call dedicated tactile controllers like Digidesign ProControl a "glorified mouse and screen". For me it’s easier to ride volumes, automate parameters, etc. much faster with the mouse and keyboard.
Nonetheless, traditional engineers find these control surfaces to be a nice crutch. Unfortunately, it impresses clients as well, they feel more comfortable in a room with a bunch of motorized faders and blinking lights. They don't understand that this thing that looks like a mixing console doesn't actually make a sound. It still boils down to your ears, paying attention, and listening.
SONIK : How did you get involved in the music industry?
STEVE : It’s probably fairly boring of a story, really. I grew up in a musical household with professional musicians on both sides of my family tree each generation. In fact, I've been told that my last name, "Duda" means "bagpipe player" in Czech! I studied violin, cello, and piano as a child. I remember one day when I was 13 I closed my eyes and tried to picture what would be the best possible thing to do. I decided wanted to make music, and at the time I was getting interested in synthesizers.
As a typical teenager, I was not looking forward to a life of 9-5 work, being stuck in a job I didn't like. In fact, it made me hate school, as I saw public school as a "tool from above" to manipulate me into a mindless submission of 40-plus years of remedial work (and taxes). I remember I was student "501362" in my high school, on the roster where they indicate how often you missed class. I was on that list a lot! I ended up dropping out of school, getting into drugs, basically making bad choices, and being a delinquent.
Things turned around thankfully- my savior was music. I got a job at a local music store, Draper's Music in Palo Alto, CA. Looking back, that was the best decision I have ever made. I started selling synths and keyboards. I had to learn all the technical specs and terminology of each synth. I'd borrow MIDI gear on the weekends and take it home to my bedroom studio, which was a MAC SE running Opcode Vision 1.1. I spent all my paychecks on gear, and that hasn't changed since! I had to tune walls of acoustic guitars, and from doing so I developed perfect pitch. I can still hear a folk E chord from playing one to checking tuning after each guitar.
To this day, I gauge all other notes from the interval relative to that "E" I can always hear!
SONIK : Which companies have you worked for, and what have you worked on?
STEVE : After going to college and getting a degree in music composition (with a focus in electronic music - I was the first person ever to submit an audiotape and screen captures as my music portfolio) I knew I had to try to find a way "in" to the industry. By this point, I had spent my life savings on a Digidesign SoundTools II system (I remember spending $2200.00 on a 1-gigabyte hard drive!), and I was convinced that computers were going to be the centerpiece of every recording studio. I knew I'd have a good career if I could become known as an "expert" at ProTools. I got a job at a pro audio dealership in San Francisco called Cutting Edge Audio Group. It was a newly formed partnership with the music store manager I had worked at in High School, Sig Knapstad. I sent him an interactive resume I made in Director (pre-flash!).
They joked that they no longer would accept paper resumes, and hired me. I was responsible mostly for sales, installation, and training of ProTools systems. It was a great team to work for but SF didn't have a huge music scene, the majority of our clients were post-production and multimedia houses. I did get to operate ProTools for (Grateful Dead drummer) Mickey Hart on his Mystery Box album, which was my first hands-on experience in the studio! It was a revelation of sorts.
Soon after, I took a job in Technical Support at Digidesign. I figured if I could handle all the problems that came to me there, I'd be ready for any problem in the studio. I didn't realize how much troubleshooting it would involve, but the troubleshooting was fun (if the customer wasn't yelling). I watched some techs try random guesses regarding a customer's problem (delete this, reinstall this, call me back), while I would usually have them perform quick tests to narrow down on the problem without wasting a lot of time for me and the user. Unfortunately, my rebellious mindset did not work well with the corporate mentality, despite all the nice folk and friends at the company. I had a supervisor ask me to "take less phone calls because it makes the other techs look bad on the weekly charts". I didn't want to make anyone look bad, but I didn't want to get paid for being a slacker.
So after a year and a half, I got asked to move to New Orleans, to work on the Nine Inch Nails record (The Fragile). I really liked what Trent was doing musically, especially his acceptance/experimentation with utilizing the computer as an instrument/processor. The Downward Spiral was one of the few CDs that survived repeated listenings for me, I was excited to get to work on the follow-up to one of my favorite albums.
It was a unique experience that turned into a long 2 years, I went in excited to learn a bunch of tricks- although I did learn and grow a lot talking and working with everyone there, I was put in many situations where I had to create my own solutions. The best way to learn anything is hands-on!
After the record was completed, I decided to move to Los Angeles. My first project was Methods of Mayhem. I was doing the synths and some of the beats, I felt uncomfortable at first making beats for one of the best rock drummers, but Tommy (Lee) is one of the most warm and thoughtful people in the music industry I've met. I've worked for him a number of times since then (including recording programming on the road on his tour bus on the Ozzfest tour). Mixmaster Mike was p\ably the most eye-opening musician of the Methods project, he can play the turntables like they're a clavinet... he can get rhythms/melodies from a piece of vinyl that I didn't think was physically possible.
I did a remix for Rob Zombie on his remix album "American Made Music to Strip By", and I've worked ProTools / Programming on several records (Pitchshifter, Innercorse, Big Wreck, Hotwire) for producer Dave Jerden (Alice in Chains, Offspring, etc). I did the programming/keyboards on the new Econoline Crush album. I've also done some remixes (under the name Razorface), which is a guitar player, Patrick Anding, and I.
Besides that, I've produced some demos for some up-and-coming artists, and currently, I'm working with the band Powerman 5000. We did a single for the Ben Stiller movie "Zoolander", a cover of the song "relax" by the group Frankie Goes to Hollywood. We took a dark-electronic approach to covering the song, which meant getting rid of the "best" bits of the song (the keyboards!). Danny Boy from the band House of Pain did a rap on the track and it turned out quite interesting! Everything but the vocals and guitars were done with BeatCreator, assembled in Fruityloops, then bounced over to ProTools one element at a time... Once Fruityloops gets multiple outputs to support my life will be a breeze!
For supplementary income, I tune vocals for other major-label records. Of course, I wouldn't mention any names.. =) but I must say that AutoTune (although genius in concept) ruins vocals. It doesn't tune in a natural fashion. WaveMechanics' PitchDoctor works decent on some singers but leaves a couple of different kinds of artifacts as well.
I have resorted to tuning by hand. I get a sine-tone up on the k2500 and I cut every note or syllable into a region, and pitch-shift manually. This way there is no autocorrecting taking place - the notes don't get slammed to an exact pitch. It's amazing how much better the result is than trying to use autocorrection. Even with tons of automation on the autocorrection-type plug-ins, the result of manual tuning is much more natural. You'd never know it had been "tuned" (unless you know how bad the singer is!)
SONIK : What instruments do you have in your own studio?
STEVE : My PC has become my centerpiece- its favorite piece of gear. I was a Mac fanatic for years, mostly because of ProTools and the worry-free UI, but so many cool products for the PC have made my Mac the "tape deck" so to speak.
I have a ProTools Mix-plus system on the Mac, and I use ProTools (and/or Logic depending on the project) as front-ends to the hardware. I link my Mac to my PC with 16 channels of ADAT optical, which allows for flying a lot of sound back-and-forth in real-time. I use a Creamware Pulsar II as my main soundcard on the PC, which is a great product. The Modular v2 is my favorite Pulsar device at the moment!
I use a ton of different PC programs for different tasks. I mentally separate things into three different groups - Beats, Synths, and Textures- of course, there is plenty of overlap between these three elements.
For beats, I've tried a lot of different things out, but my favorite "host" is Fruityloops and my favorite software tool is BeatCreator. I've been beta-testing and making suggestions for BeatCreator for about 2 years. It has really transformed into an indispensable tool. I will use BeatCreator to autoslice folders of loops, in about 3 seconds I will have the result of what used to take days with ReCycle. There's a myriad of uses for BeatCreator, and I discover new ways to use it every week. I can't really talk about all of the power of BeatCreator as some of it is not publicly available yet, but it is a great product!
Fruityloops is an amazing software tool as well. Some people seem to dismiss it as a toy (mostly because of the name and the absurdly affordable price), but it has really transformed into a pro product (with an affordable price tag). Fruityloops is amazing; Gol (the main programmer) is a complete genius (and a great musician too!). I enjoy being able to partake in the development of both BeatCreator and Fruityloops, to watch my suggestions get implemented is amazing. The fact that BeatCreator and Fruityloops can work together makes for some serious power that takes a lot of pilot-hours to comprehend.
For anyone without these two programs, do yourself a favor and purchase BeatCreator and Fruityloops (no I don't get royalties!). Trust me, you'll be glad you did.
The last program I would not go without is Native-Instruments' REAKTOR. It's a great product, there's so much power to be had. I've developed a ton of custom instruments and snapshots for it, usually starting by tearing instruments apart and re-combining / layering elements.
Next would be my Genelec 1031AP monitors and 1092A subwoofer. I know the way they sound, and I'd never be comfortable with any mix or master destined for a club-type environment without checking it on the Genelecs.
My main controller is a Kurzweil Kurzweil K2500 (with ROM expansions and KDFX). I've had it for years and I've gotten pretty quick at making sounds on it. The live mode is the best thing ever. I love feeding drone-type sounds into it from REAKTOR or a hardware synth and re-stretching them on the fly. It's great fun; I didn't turn the thing off for days when I first got the LiveMode update and KDFX.
I have a lot of odds-and-ends (Clavia Nordlead2, Clavia NordModular, Elektron
SidStation, TC Fireworx, Roland JD-990 with vintage synths Expansion) but I can replicate almost all of these in software, at least for getting ideas down. I've sampled the hell out of the synths. The Nordlead2 probably gets the most use of any of those, as I said earlier sometimes limitations are nice, and the Nordlead2 has such a simple architecture it's easy to get vanilla synth sounds out without too much fuss, and once in a while, I actually don't mind dedicated knobs for each function!
SONIK : Do you program your own instruments?
STEVE : It really depends. I have 14 gigabytes of drum samples alone, and these are typically the source of the beats. It’s a struggle just to know them all. My recent hobby has been sampling live drums, where I'll get single-samples out of different drum kits in big rooms, and the full range of velocities. Then I'll bounce them down from multitrack to stereo interleaved files. I made a kit recently that has 127 different samples for each drum, hi-hat, etc). It's amazing, it's the first time I've had something that *really* sounds like a real drummer. In my opinion, you need at least 15 different kick samples, 30 snare samples, etc. to really convince (confuse) the listener into thinking that they are hearing a real drummer.
As for synth sounds, I won't always make original stuff. I probably haven't even got through all the presets in REAKTOR or PULSAR, and what’s the point, after you listen to 1000 presets you aren’t going to remember what "drone12" sounded like. I'll scroll through a list quickly on each new VSTi / Module etc, and try to get a more general sense of the device's capabilities rather than any one specific patch or sound.
I think there's too much focus on "is it original" when it comes to synth patches. If it is an "analog" type sound, well nothing is *that* original, no matter where you set the cutoff or envelope, you still have a damn sawtooth wave. It’s more a question of whether or not you try to find the right sound. If you have 500 presets on a NordLead, chances are one of them is probably pretty close to what you are looking for. Nonetheless, if I hear a Korg M1 factory preset I want to puke! I guess that’s more a sense of being dated and overused, but sometimes it’s hard to forget that if you own a synth you start hearing it differently than someone who knows nothing about synthesizers. I try to get other people's opinions and perspectives whenever possible. Collaborating is the best part of making music, and I think everyone should have a less ego-driven attitude, there are many benefits from sharing your sounds and ideas!
SONIK : With the appearance of KDFX effects for the K2500 and K2600 is there anything in particular from these algorithms that has "swept you off your feet"?
STEVE : KDFX has not come close to sweeping me off my feet. Live mode however was a pretty pleasant shock when I first fed a drone into it. I like it; I don't use it enough come to think of it. It’s just there are so many options in software these days.
SONIK : Based on your experience and academic background: Electronic music, or Electronica? Where is it going from here?
STEVE : I think stylistic barriers are breaking down and there is going to be a lot of hybrid electronic music. Synths and loops are going to be more prominently featured in many "rock" bands in the next decade.
SONIK : Best electronic music group?
STEVE : Is Kraftwerk a given or not? Ok, Kraftwerk.
SONIK : At the rate computer processing power is increasing, what do you envision will be the biggest breakthrough musically speaking in the next five to ten years?
STEVE : The increased computer speeds and the improving price-performance ratio for RAM and storage is tremendous. Recently at a friend’s house, I was thumbing through a "Guinness book of world records" from 1979. It stated that "the world’s most powerful supercomputer, the Cray I, has a whopping 8 MEGABYTES of RAM". It's amazing that millions of people have handheld devices that are more powerful than computers which used to be the size of warehouses.
There are going to continue to be breakthroughs on many levels.
Five years ago when Steinberg announced VST, I was excited. I knew that it was an indicator of the future, in the sense that I knew at the time a 300 Mhz processor was not going to be enough to handle my needs, and I was a Pro Tools TDM owner. But here we are five years later, with faster computers and bus speeds. I think its safe to say that an impressive amount of mixing and processing can take place in a host-based environment, even at 32-bit and 96k!
User-interface is going to be redefined in the next few years; I expect every major sequencer and audio editor will have a significant visual overhaul. Many musicians care about user interface and ease-of-use, which is why the Macintosh was the dominant music-making platform in the USA, and it continues to be in terms of the top-end of the market.
With the power of GeForce cards and the like, it’s a matter of time before someone actually makes use of it in the audio community for more than visualization. I could imagine constructing a song in a 3d environment, seeing the other musicians as 3d models, and they might live across the world!
SONIK : Who would you say has been the person who has inspired you in your musical style?
STEVE : My first major influence in anything electronic at all was when I was 12. I traveled through Europe with a walkman and only a couple of tapes, one being Art of Noise. There’s a certain mood I associate with it, and it’s a feeling I never got from classical music, which was all I heard growing up. It invokes a futuristic/dreamy kind of feeling on me. I like making music that makes me think of the future. I'm being vague since hard to describe but music can "take you to a place" and there's this "cold, familiar, place" that some music takes me and I try to recreate it in new contexts. The most common technique for this to me is having a counterpoint created across instruments, where one element changes and another stays the same.
Also at one point in college, I was in a Prince cover band. I became very familiar with all of Prince's songs and synth sounds, trying to recreate all these sounds, and it ended up having a big influence on me, in terms of both playing keyboards and patch programming.
Really I have fairly eclectic tastes, so much that I don't like to talk about them. I'd be worried about someone who put things as eclectic as "Skinny Puppy" and "Bartok" in the same list of influences. I like elements of a lot of different bands/musicians; when listening to appreciate I simply try to hear what I like and ignore what I don't which enables me to listen to almost anything but opera.
SONIK : Name for us a few titles from the stack of LPs that you are holding onto in that "box in the attic".
STEVE : It might come as a surprise but I don't listen to music much these days. My girlfriend is a professional DJ so I am getting exposed to a ton of house / D'n'B and commercial stuff too. I rarely find the time to put on music. Often I'll spend 6-10 hours at a studio, and come home, and to unwind I'll make music! It's strange but making music is both a career and a hobby at this point. There's obviously something wrong with me.
SONIK : What makes you tick outside of the music world, Steve?
STEVE : Well the scary thing is I can work all day, say noon to 8 PM engineering/programming all day for someone else's record, then come home and relax, I turn on my studio and make music! It's a sickness I have really.
SONIK : What are your favorite types of sounds?
STEVE : That’s a very difficult question!! I love everything from symphonic textures to small single sample white noise bursts really. I tend to prefer music that has some sort of unique element; I don't like music that sounds too completely retro unless it is.
I try to use a variety of synth and sample sources and trigger/process them. I've always liked to see the capabilities of programs well beyond what is provided or even intended. This has created a problem as I've spent way to long inside some programs like Reaktor, MetaSynth, and the Nord Modular.
But generally, I try to find what I like from each program, synth, softsynth, plug-in, etc and use it when it seems like it might be an interesting direction to take.
SONIK : What has been your worst experience in the studio?
STEVE : I haven't had any major nightmares with any artists I've worked with. I've had some bad experiences outside of studios! Seriously, probably hard-disk problems or crashes are the biggest enemies; learning the system well and keeping it clean is the best way to go.
SONIK : Even though you don't listen to much music these days I'm sure you have a group of all-time favorites. Which are your top ten favorite albums?
STEVE : That's tough! I can do top 5 in terms of having an impact on me.
Nirvana - Nevermind
Art of Noise - In Visible Silence
Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral
Squarepusher - Feed Me Weird Things
Michael Jackson - Thriller
SONIK : What have you been working on these last few months with Beatcreator and Fruityloops?
STEVE : I have been working with a number of bands placing sounds and loops with Fruityloops.
I did the beats/synths/protools for Powerman 5000's "relax" for the Zoolander movie. We're working on some new material right now. I'm also working with an artist name Ashley Hamilton, which is a more rock/pop approach. I use Fruityloops/FXPansion DR-008 to lay down guide beats. I've made custom samples of drumkits in studios and mapped them out to 30-60 velocity layers per drum/cymbal in DR-008. It's the closest thing to a real drummer I've ever heard. It�s amazing I can load 100 megs of samples in a couple of seconds. I tend to print things into ProTools.
SONIK : Could you share with us a tip that has helped you in the use of BeatCreator that cannot be found elsewhere?
STEVE : BeatCreator is an amazing Swiss-army knife for getting loops in various forms and formats to other programs.
One great trick is to take a multi-bar loop and slice it at quarter-notes instead of events mode. Then export slices (or SoundFont etc) and reprogram the beat in another program. Using 16th-note instead of events mode, you can retrigger the loop slices from step sequencers or arpeggiators!
Another way I often use BeatCreator is to pre-slice loops for export to K2500 or Reaktor. One technique is to set quantize to 16th note. Then I'll move to nudge the slice positions to the start of each transient. This way you have separate slices for every 16th, and also have any "feel" or swing from the loop removed.
It's also fun for loop rearrangement is to use quarter or dotted quarter values. Doing this limits rearrangement options which is sometimes a good thing!
Of course with Fruityloops, the new FruitySlicer uses the "BeatCreator Slicing Engine" (Peter Segerdahls' code in a .dll) and provides autoslicing on the fly! This is amazing because if you can live with the shortcomings of Fruityloops as a host (which are disappearing quickly) you no longer have the interim process of tuning and slicing loops, exporting MIDI files, etc. Once you factor in VSTs, the power is scary. I have done countless sessions where people are laughing at "fruityloops" and griping about PCs in general. A couple of hours later they are always asking what kind of PC they should purchase, and how they had no idea so much cool stuff existed for PC!
SONIK : Do you think that with the availability of all these new software samplers, virtual studios, and file-sharing "a-la" cubase.net there will be an increase in opportunities for "bedroom musicians" or will the music industry still be in control of what is to be heard and published? Do you think the sudden appearance of a new breed of musicians will saturate this seemingly budding market?
STEVE : The amount of power in say Fruityloops, not to mention with Reaktor on a powerful computer with an ASIO is astonishing. I was just thinking about the amount of power I had when I started years ago, the entire studio then is now inside the computer maybe minus the Fender Rhodes! I'm scared of what 15-year-old kids can potentially do out there with their mouse and jealous that the technology wasn't there for me 15 years ago! I'm just happy to have it now.
I don't think that the music "industry" *is* in control of what is being heard and published. It's really a free market, but most people don't approach the marketplace with marketable merchandise. They are the ones who complain about the industry. But it's really the public's taste that is the biggest issue and ultimately they are the ones who disgruntled musicians should despise! Sometimes an artist will step along like MasterP, with a marketable product and will go directly to distribution, and make millions. There are no roadblocks if you have the "talent", whatever that might be at that moment.
I hope people will be able to come together online and make cool music. It's a lot easier to be in the same room with people though!
Real studios will be around forever; it's just that they will be mostly about the room, speakers, and the operator. ProTools has really changed a lot of the studio operations. Producers can comp vocals and edit drums on their laptops at the beach or on a plane. Artists can record their ideas on tour and have material for their next record before they are done with touring. I work on parts of records; people will send me drums to fix to a click, or vocals to tune on CD-ROMS, and I give them one back.
SONIK : Last question: in your experience, what insight would you share with these future musicians?
STEVE : Work at it! Don't be afraid to make things that aren't perfect. Don't overdo it. They'll get better.
I would probably say take what you like from whatever you like and ignore "styles" because they only classify what has existed in music and not what is going to happen. Make music that pleases you, ignore what other people might think.