The Anatomy Of An Album
Sasha takes precious time out of his hectic schedule to speak with DJ Times
Sasha Wasn’t Interested in Making Another DJ-Mix Comp.
So For His Involver Project, He Broke The Mold And We Were There For The Recording Process
By Emily Tan
Published in DJ Times Magazine
With the myriad of rigors related to Winter Music Conference coinciding with the album’s deadline, Sasha took precious time out of his hectic schedule to speak with DJ Times in three separate phoners, again aboard a private Global Underground cruise in Miami during WMC, and finally during an insightful session at a Miami recording studio. Here’s how it went.
DJ Times: Have you encountered any technical difficulties thus far, working on this album?
Sasha: Actually, it’s been a bit of a dream to work on. Some tracks we timestretched and pitch-shifted into different keys and the first six tracks are already perfectly key-matched into each other. It’s really interesting, what’s happening lately is I’m finding that some of the sounds are starting to migrate into other tracks. Like, maybe the bassline for one track didn’t work, so we ditched it, and we find later on that it fits into another track. That happened a lot on Airdrawndagger.
DJ Times: What’s some of the software that you’re using on Involver?
Sasha: We’re using Ableton Live, and this project wouldn’t be possible without that software. Ableton allows us to audition stuff on the fly really quickly. You can just cut-and-paste so fast, and now it takes us seconds to do what, before, would have taken us several minutes.
DJ Times: How are you using Ableton Live, specifically?
Sasha: We’ve taken something and had it pitch-shifted, stretched, and we can throw mad ideas at a mix and get it to work. Maybe some sounds you made three years ago now you can draw upon, with Ableton. I definitely think that because you can audition stuff on-the-fly, [Ableton Live] allows me to more spontaneously throw a round of things in. Once you spend time on making a sound, you get attached to it and you’re trying to make it fit into a track because you invested so much time into it. Now with Ableton, it allows you to really think creatively.
DJ Times: How do you have Ableton Live wired?
Sasha: We’ve got [Ableton Live] re-wired into Logic [Audio]. Logic is still the writing tool, but that’s basically our set-up now. We’re running everything on a really powerful G5 Mac, like Panther Logic. It’s a pretty slick operation, to be honest. We have another studio set-up, which is basically our mix room, and it’s got speakers and a big, fat Apple monitor and stuff. It’s our really acoustically good-sounding room. Another room I have is with all of my old analog and outboard gear, PCs and a lot of software available for PC and stuff like that.
DJ Times: What other artists are you collaborating with on this album?
Sasha: Felix Da Housecat, U.N.K.L.E. [with James Lavelle] – a track called “In A State” – Youngsters, which is a band from France. The Chemical Brothers and Grand National, which is a British guitar band that’s something like a cross between America, the ’70s band, and Groove Armada.
DJ Times: Ableton Live re-wired into Logic Audio is still your main setup?
Sasha: Yeah, and the thing is, this week, the guys from M-Audio sent me over a load of controllers to test with [Ableton] Live, and I hooked-up the controllers to Live on my laptop and I was DJing with it at home. It’s really amazing.
DJ Times: How are you using this new setup with these new controllers in a live DJ setting?
Sasha: [I use] Live as a third deck to loop and play samples over on top of my DJ set. The way you can sequence tracks within Live, beat-matching isn’t an issue anymore. So, you can be much more [creative] about what’s coming out of the speakers. It’s definitely going to add an exciting element to live DJing. It allows you to think about what you’re playing, rather than how things are sequenced.
DJ Times: Will you be playing rough cuts of any of these tracks in Miami?
Sasha: Absolutely, I’m going to have club mixes for Miami. I’ll definitely be playing lots of the new tracks. In Miami, I might just play a [Ableton] Live setup, so I can play Live sequencing.
DJ Times: Last week you told me that you’ve found that some sounds are “migrating” from one track to another. Is that still happening, and when does this occur?
Sasha: Yeah, things are still moving around at the moment. The thing with Live is that you can audition sounds so quickly. Because you can do that, it actually means that committing to stuff is one of the difficult things. The fact that everything is usable and works, creates a whole other set of problems. It’s hard to move on. You have to be aware of a program like Live, because the way that it functions is it has great flexibility, but because of that, you have to be aware and fight against that, also.
DJ Times: How has your progress been this past week?
Sasha: We’re cool. We’re really rockin’ it in the studio. Definitely making progress. We’re still making arrangements in [Ableton] Live, and then we’re sitting back and letting it sink-in for a couple of days. Then, we’ll go back and re-arrange things, as well as make the tracks sound unique on their own. I’m also aware of how each track fits on the album, but everything seems to be falling into place. I think the reality of having a studio in one’s house and constantly battling other distractions and staying focused can be a challenge. I’m still moving into my [new Miami area] home little by little.
DJ Times: No big problems, in terms of technical issues?
Sasha: The technical side is working beautifully, actually. The amazing thing about Live that just came together in the last couple of days was, basically, it was very nice to form a bridge between the two studios. There’s one crazy analog studio where Simon [Wright] is based – Simon works with PCs and software there, and we’ve been working on a Mac with Live. We’ve found a way to import our Live sessions directly to Simon on his PC, and then he can put those sounds through the analog world. I can work on an arrangement and now Simon’s got arrangements that we’ve been working with, he can put them through wicked analog machines, and it’s really a much more organic process. Before, we’d give him arrangements, then he’d process them and give them back to us. It was almost as if we were using his sounds like samples. Now, he can completely open sessions on his computer, and he can basically add amazing detail and give them life. It’s actually allowing us a much better flow of energy, rather than us trying to explain something to him and having him give it back to us and then trying to make it fit into our arrangements. This bridge set-up is a really big step forward.
DJ Times: Do you envision composing and recording albums with this set-up from now on?
Sasha: Well, every month a new piece of software comes along. Right now, this is a completely different way of working than six months ago. New software or gear comes out that changes things. [Ableton] Live changes everything we do, from forming a bridge between studios, and it just changes in a massive way the way I work. I’ve also been playing around with [Live] from a DJ standpoint.
DJ Times: How do you like it?
Sasha: I’m really excited about the fact that it just gives me so much freedom. You can pull records apart and re-edit a song while you’re in a club and actually mix together out of different tracks. Now that I’ve spent some time with the M-Audio controllers, I realize how amazing Live is, from a DJ’s point-of-view. What I can do in a club using Live is just amazing. It’s formed a bridge between the studio and the DJ world that’s never happened before. I’ll be working in the same [software] environment in both the studio and in the clubs, which will lead me to put both worlds together. I’ll be almost working on ideas in the studio while I’m DJing, and I can transfer tracks that work well from the club setting into the studio. It’s really blown my mind.
DJ Times: You said last week that Ableton Live 3 is having a huge impact on you as a DJ.
Sasha: I’m definitely using Live to re-invent my DJ sets. I really like Final Scratch software, which is revolutionary as a DJ tool. I was going down that route, but then I started playing with Live and it’s taken me into different directions. When I first start using Live, it’ll be like a third turntable, and then I’ll slowly incorporate it more. At the moment, I have parts of different tracks from different people, like Underworld, and I’m mixing records together in the studio. I’m actually talking to the M-Audio people now that I’ve got my head around what I want to accomplish. It’s only been the last couple of weeks that I’m seeing how to DJ with it. The algorithms created with Live are so simple and powerful. I think not many people have gotten onto it yet, but it’s definitely caused a revolution in my [DJ] set. In the studio, we’re running Live through Logic, Native Instruments stuff, and we’ve got Reaktor going.
DJ Times: At what point do you stop taking in new ideas – especially given Ableton Live’s rapid auditioning capabilities – and just say “stop,” and commit to the production of the tracks you already have?
Sasha: We’re getting to the final stop now, but there are always new ideas. Obviously, in the mixing process, something might come out that’s different, but not majorly different. We might get to a point where one track doesn’t mix well energy-wise with the track before it, but mainly we’re concentrating on getting the beats right, because then everything else falls into place.
March 8 – Global Underground Boat Party
Invited guests on Global Underground’s private boat cruise are stamped with Involver in black ink upon boarding the Tikki Beach yacht, which is docked at the Sunset Harbor Marina. With so much faux Hawaii vibe on the boat, we’re waiting to be further greeted by a house mix of Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles.” Instead, word is that Sasha will preview three of the album’s hottest tracks on this sun-drenched spin around Biscayne Bay – followed by a DJ set from Nick Warren.
The excursion also affords Sasha his maiden DJ journey with the combination of Ableton Live, his laptop, and an M-Audio controller.
In a setting that’s pure Miami – warm sun, cold drinks, gorgeous views – we hear the tracks over a booming Opus sound system. Expecting a musical experience more suited for a packed superclub, we’re pleasantly surprised by the rock-n-roll guitars and rock-permeated beats that characterize Sasha’s mix of Grand National’s “Talk Amongst Yourselves.” A rousing 4/4 beat lays the foundation for rollicking guitar riffs, accentuated by a synth countermelody, with the band’s vocodered vocals forming a very catchy hook.
Then, the ethereal strains of Sasha’s mix of Spooky’s “Belong” fill the air like a dreamy fog. An expansive, rumbling bassline follows ghostly synths over a wildly syncopated beat. Beautiful, multi-tracked female vocals and a gorgeous piano solo swoon in harmony as lush synth patterns and airy flute add a supernatural element.
Sasha gradually pulls back on the repeated synth chime from “Belong” and makes way for a thumping beat as he eases into his mix of Ulrich Schnauss’ “On My Own.” Suddenly, the nastiest, acid-tongued breakbeat kicks in at 140 BPM. Twangy synths whine over the blistering kicks as the track builds to a brutal climax. Every head is bobbing, every foot tapping. We’re feeling it, and it’s not just the free vodka.
March 10 – Recording Session
By the time our taxi pulls up to The Hit Factory Criteria Recording Studios in Miami Beach, Sasha has been inside since the early morning meticulously fine-tuning various parts of Involver. Sasha’s team seems on the verge of exhaustion – five straight days of recording will do that to you – but smiles abound as Sasha graciously welcomes us into the inner sanctum of his studio session.
We’re told that the final tracklisting of Involver has gone from 13 to 11, with each track and segue having been painstakingly refined. Then, inside Studio C, which sports a classic Neve 8078 console, Sasha plays three of his full-length remixes and, when heard through the Augsberger monitors, they collectively take on a new life.
[Listening to Grand National’s “Talk Amongst Yourselves” (Sasha Remix)]
Sasha: The version we’ve got at home – which is all split-up and stuff – we’ve done some really cool things with his voice, vocodered his voice quite a bit. You can see that it’s 12 minutes long, and then on the album, it’ll probably be seven minutes.
[Listening to Spooky’s “Belong” (Sasha Remix)]
Sasha: I think this track is, like, 14 minutes long. If I want to play it out right now, it’s fine in the clubs, you know?
DJ Times: It’s amazing, there are such different environments within each track, that it seemed like you were playing eight tracks yesterday on the cruise, instead of just three.
Sasha: Right, there’s a lot of changes and stuff like that…when we do the final mix, we can work it all out. It’s gone down to 11 [tracks], so we’ll be able to get more of [each] song on the album.
DJ Times: This piano riff is gorgeous…
Sasha: These were all within analogs. Not soft synths, but real, analog synths.
DJ Times: Yeah, you can hear the difference.
Sasha: Yeah, there’s definitely something where, when you start processing sounds, you can really hear the difference between analog and soft synths, and you really get in there and start messing around with those sounds and re-processing. There’s so much more inside the sounds with real analog synths. DJing with this program [Ableton Live], though, is so sick, once I’ve got it loaded up and I can really start playing around with it.