Welcome to the first In The Mixdown, a brand new series that takes a deep look into some of the best tracks from the best producers in the dance music scene. Here we talk to Liam Jones – more commonly known as Cera Alba – about the dark dubby infector that is ‘Transition’. The track found its home on the Crooks & Cads compilation from Save You Records released on Monday 20th May 2013.You will be hard pushed to find anyone more dedicated to developing such a rich blend of house and techno as Cera Alba. With an in-depth knowledge of music theory and production, alongside rich inspirations taken from the nation’s best clubbing institutes and the obligatory pilgrimage to Ibiza he crafts a progressive sound firmly planted in the underground. Gearing up for a mass of releases across some of electronic music’s most influential imprints in 2014, Cera Alba takes the time to reflect on ‘Transition’ one his most impressive productions to date – and it wasn’t even meant to be released!
Hear the Track Transitons - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBvVJ1Fit1s
‘Transition’ became part of the of the Crook & Cads compilation from Save You Records. How did the track end up in this selection?
I made ‘Transition’ and it was a track that I didn’t initially plan to release. It wasn’t something I had thought about as something I wanted to put out there. Just because it was something that I wanted to make, it wasn’t specifically for a label or anyone specific. I had just been messing around with bass sounds and vocals and it eventually just came together. The track was originally sent to Rob [Bradley] at Save You Records, just because I had just finished it and I thought they might like it. The initial track I sent them wasn’t really a finished version; it was more of just a sample. They liked it so I thought I would spend a bit more time on it, and progress it to where it is a finished track that was ready to play out.
Why do you think it suited Save You Records?
I think it is exactly the kind of stuff they release, it is very dubby and dark, it’s raw, the percussion is really distorted and it’s the kind of track that Save You really focus on with their techno. It’s not necessarily for the peak time of a set, you wouldn’t use it at the key moments but it’s definitely something that can build a set and a lot of DJs look for tracks like that. I certainly look for tracks like that because they are essential for building a good set, Save You are perfect for putting out tracks like that.
What was your initial mind-set going in to ‘Transition’ and what did you want from it?
The whole inspiration originally came from a bass sound that I found on Rob Papin’s Predator, I thought it sounded similar to the bass pattern used in the Jaws films because it had an intense repetitiveness to it. I played with the cut-off and the resonance until I was happy with output as my theory is always if it works in a simple loop then it will work on a full track. Another inspiration for the track came from a track I played when I was in Middlesbrough at a night called *riffraff. I was warming up for Margaret Dygas, it was a vinyl rip of a really rare track from DBX – Daniel Bell - called ‘Baby Judy’ on Accelerate. I think the vinyl is £100 on Discogs and there is only like one available. I played this vinyl ripthat someone had given me, the reaction it got was amazing and was better than anything else I had played that night. The best thing about that was that about 99% of the people there had never heard that track before because it is so rare, so to get that reaction was impressive. I was inspired to do something along those lines.
‘Transition’ is laced with vocals, where did you take the sample from?
It was a bit cheeky to be honest, it was from a really famous track by Eddie Amador called ‘House Music’. It’s a great vocal but it has been used about a million times over the last 10 years. I wanted to use it, but it had to be distorted and I did the classic thing of pitching it down. I chose to use a very small two lines of the vocal rather than using the key parts, because it was just the tone of the voice that I liked. I thought that would be enough with some effects and alterations to create an atmosphere in it. I don’t think it needs anything more than that because the tracks not about a vocal. It’s an ode to the DBX track which has a vocal in it of a similar ilk, which I think works really well. A vocal is a key part of a house or techno track, despite the instrumental that people think when they listen to it. The vocals for me are key, even if they are just a very small part of the track.
What tech did you use when you were making ‘Transition’?
The DAW I use is Logic 9, other instruments I regularly use are Trillian and Omnisphere which are both from Spectrasonics which are really good. They are both sample based but the effects they come with are really powerful. To create the bass sounds for ‘Transition’ I used Predator with some careful compression, limiting and distortion. I also added a second sine sub bass line about 3 minutes in the track to give it a low end boost. I often use the Waves package for this, mainly using L2, MaxxBass & CLA-3A. I also like the PSP warmers and D16 distortion tools. The idea for the sine stab came from the DBX track and I used the Microkorg for that. Through the development of the track the original production didn’t have the acid lead towards the end, I had something else in there but it wasn’t quite right. After speaking to Rob I bought this cheap Roland TAL-BassLine TR 303 emulator for £12, after playing around with some extra effects it’s a really good emulator. So I looped the acid bass and recorded the parameters live using an Akai MIDI controller. This gave it a much more natural feel, a little bit like you would with a real 303, instead of automating it. That was pretty much it really, then I just focused on just careful drum programming and polishing touches here and there.
You said your thoughts on the track changed throughout its development, what provoked that?
When I write a track I identify the key elements of it and utilise them as best as possible. You utilise the track parts in specific areas to make them as useful as you can. You might write a fantastic melody on the piano, and you might write a great bass groove or it might just be a really good vocal snippet that you like which can catch somebody’s ear. In ‘Transition’ it is stripped back so the bass and the vocal were definitely the key parts of the track, but when you are looking to get to around two or three minutes you can run out of steam with that. I didn’t just want the track to just stop and then carry on the same as the beginning like a lot of music does. This track needed to develop a lead, which didn’t take away from the main idea, focused around the vocal and lead bass, that’s where this 303 sound came in. Originally it didn’t have that acid sound to it, I think it adds something to the track without it necessarily changing the whole direction.
Who have you had supporting the track and playing it out?
I remember Tom Craven from Illusion Recordings played it out. I emailed it to Lee Foss and he emailed me back saying that he had already bought - which was quite a nice compliment to receive. It’s nice that he took the time to check it out. I got a lot of feedback from the up-and-coming producers which was nice - from people I was chatting to on Facebook or Soundcloud - and people were saying it was a cool track that was a little bit different, which was really nice to hear considering I started with no plans to actually put it out.
How has it influenced your productions today?
One of the things I spent a lot of time on with ‘Transition’ was my drum programming, and careful effects on my drums. I wanted to have an almost live feel to the drums, so the hats and the snare drums are very chunky and they are slightly out of time as well which gives it more of a natural feel. I have definitely taken that on board with releases I have done since, especially on my new EP which is coming out on Gruuv Records (Audiojack’s label) – giving a nod to Todd Terry’s 909 hat patterns, giving them loads of shuffle and swing. In ‘Transition’ they were programmed in a slower way, so there were really tiny adjustments between the hats and having them spread slightly differently so it would hopefully sound closer to how a drummer would sound in a studio.
You are progressing into live sets, is this reflection of that?
Yeah definitely and I think it is reflecting on my knowledge of drum production and how a lot of people brush over it a little bit. Obviously people can use loops, they can programme a very simple drum loop and it can sound good in a club but the way to distinguish yourself is to try and create a little bit of difference in your drums. I think it’s nice if your drums have got a little bit of depth to them, rather than taking the easy way out and just sticking a loop in there or just putting hits on midi line. It is definitely something I focus on right at the start of a track.
What has made you want to start performing live?
It is something that I have always wanted to do and it is something that I have had at the back of my mind for a while. As much as I appreciate a DJ set, it’s nice to have an alternative way of playing. I think there are so many DJs now that turn up with a USB stick and play, which is absolutely fine and I do that as well but I think if I have got the option to say “If you would like to see me play live, this is also a possibility.” I have more music out now, it is an ideal way to show and play people some of the music I have made but maybe change it a little bit so it is more interesting. I haven’t decided exactly how I am going to play live yet, I have been creating loops, mastering parts and getting things ready. It is just a decision whether I use Ableton Live 9 alongside maybe Ableton’s Push, another midi controller and drum machine/synth or if I go along with the idea of using Native Instruments and use the remix decks which those guys have got an F1 controller set up with which is also a very powerful tool. I need to find out which is the best way to go for me, and that is going to take a lot of time and testing. It’s in the future, but it is definitely going to take some time.
What else will you be putting out this year?
I have got quite a bit coming out, I was working fairly hard last year. The next thing I have got coming out is a remix on Alive Recordings of Monday Club ‘Way U Do’. After that I have an EP out on Electronique, that’s got a wicked Jordan Peak remix on it. After that, around May time the Gruuv Records EP will be drop just before summer. After that in June I have an EP on Made Fresh Daily with a Sasse remix. Towards September time I have an EP on a new label called Abstract Culture, which includes a Trikk remix.
What upcoming gigs have you got booked?
On Saturday 1st March I will be playing at Building Six O2 for the Amine Edge CUFF records party and the on Friday 14th March I will be playing at Warehouse London and I have just actually been booked for Found festival in June.
‘Transition’ proves that even the most self-indulged productions can have a massive effect within the wider world. From what started as a bedroom plaything has become a staple in building and maneuvering sets that feels perfectly planted at Save You Records. Taking the plunge into live performance is a big move for Cera Alba, and is sure to make his new productions on Electonique and Groove Records even greater standouts in clubland. With his unprecedented knowledge of tech, you can expect nothing less that wizardry when that comes into materialisation.
Karol XVII (Karol Samocki) & MB Valence (Marek Bigajski) have spent over 10 years dedicated to crafting molten house, so hot it makes the Baltic Sea boil. Throughout their commendable career, the Polish duo have been dominating dance throughout Europe and beyond.
Working not only as DJs the pair work as composers, song writers, sound engineers, producers and also run their own label - Loco Records. With such an impressive arsenal of skills at hand, it’s no surprise that Karol XVII & MB Valence have clocked up numerous awards for their work within the scene including recognition from Beatport and DJ Mag.
With their fingers covered in fillings from multiple selections of electronic pies, Karol XVII & MB Valence share their experiences with Become A DJ. From their very first DJ music establishments, to their incoming imprints throughout this year Karol XVII & MB Valence offer up their opinion on what they think it takes to become a DJ.
What was it that initially got you into dance music and made you want to become DJs?
Karol - Well, it's a different story for both of us. I decided to be a DJ, because the principal of the junior high school I went to asked me to take care of the sound during a musical event at my school. And so it happened. Later, I got to a club where a DJ was playing a track with a strong bass that went through me totally. Then, there was no way back. It turned out later that the bass was taken from the cult synth Roland Juno 106.
Marek - As for me, I got fascinated by mixing techniques after I'd been raised in a spirit of dancing, because my mum worked for a dance school. There were DJs working there as well who would initially lend my mum audiotapes with music for social dances, but later with disco dances, too. My first contact with DJing was at the age of 13 when I went to a school party at my elementary school where a DJ played some crazy music I'd never heard before, because my mum's DJs hadn't given her such audiotapes. Nowadays, I often laugh at those moments, but then it was an important time to get to know music and to guide my interest in it. A few years later I met Karol who showed me how to play vinyls. He aroused my desire to deal with all that and it was then that I realised that my former trials to mix music at home by means of tape decks without any pitch control sliders were just a joke. All of a sudden, I got enchanted with gramophone records running from belt-drive turntables using slipmats made of foil and it was something that made me fall in love with DJing.
When DJing, what is the set up you request and why?
Marek - So far, we've been into the traditional way of mixing, the manual one, so it's not enough for us to have a just a “sync" and play buttons on the device. But similarly to most DJs, we're used to working on Pioneer's equipment and always request to have that set up. It's also cool to have USB ports for flash drives on the device, because we totally damaged our spinal cords carrying heavy cases full of vinyl records, so now we think that the less the better. We also need one line input for connecting an iPad docking station which allows us to make use of iPad's endless possibilities including synths sounding professional, effectors or samplers that all make our performance better. We had a little adventure with Ableton Live as well, but currently we're back to the roots of DJing, that is traditional mixing. The suspension of performing ‘live’ was caused by the necessity to convert tracks that were produced in Cubase into tracks compatible with Ableton Live which took us lots of time. It would have been different if we'd been working with Ableton at the studio, but we've been faithful to the Steinberg Company since the beginning and we're not going to change that.
How did the pairing of Karol XVII & MB Valence come together?
Karol - I used to hold a residency at one of the clubs in our city and at one time I had an idea to run a DJ workshop in order to improve the level of mixing at that time. Marek showed up at the workshop and after some time we came to the conclusion that we had similar dreams. Those were hard times with plenty of sacrifice, huge problems, but most of all our continuing struggle with the equipment, hiring a professional studio, searching for musicians for recording sessions, holding auditions for vocalists, and absolutely no access to any information. We didn't have any access to the Internet either. We focused on magazines and pieces of advice a friend of ours gave us. These days you can do it all way faster, but then there was more work than effect.
You both run Loco Records, what initially made you want to set up the label?
Karol - Initially, we decided to set up the label to license our tracks to other labels, DJ organisations etc., but then to put out our own tracks on it. We never believed we'd be able to attract such big names as Maya Jane Coles, Robert Owens as well as other top and talented artists. We also had the policy not to release our productions on labels other than ours, but we've recently changed our thinking.
As well as being label owners, DJs and producers you are composers, lyric writers and sound engineers. Do you feel a DJ needs to be multi-skilled to make it within today’s industry?
Karol - No, absolutely not. At the moment a DJ doesn't need to have any skills at all. Obviously, it's not that apparent whether they'll turn out to be successful or not. In our country there's been a change lately that you have to produce music and release tracks to be recognisable and to be able to perform as a DJ. Until recently, it was enough to become a famous DJ if you had contacts, connections and lived in the capital city of Poland. On the other hand, there was no technology that allowed laymen to mix beats, so it was a kind of verification, but you could still see a famous DJ who wasn't aware how to mix two tracks properly.
Nowadays, everyone can be a DJ. Similarly, anyone can make a track and release it without a problem. Luckily, there are some filters on the way and not all tracks produced by means of a ‘smartphone’ are sold at digital music stores. It's hard to say if it's good or bad, because on the one hand, we'll never hear potentially brilliant ideas, but on the other hand we won't have to suffer from listening to mixture of sounds that you can't stand. However, we have to face the truth, there's loads of music and lots of people making it with no effort at all and putting it out on minor labels around the world. In terms of quality, music loses a lot through all these procedures taking into account both technical and practical aspects of the matter, because one has to know that it's extremely difficult to mix down a track at the studio.
Marek - If you begin creating a tune from scratch, each track varies and you have to put in a great deal of effort to make a coherent whole. Another thing is that it's not a problem today to buy sample packs and combine them like Lego bricks. We don't disapprove of that, provided the track is really unique afterwards. All in all, we can't forget that house originated from using ready-made sounds. On the other hand, we have to remember that those were different times. These days, making music based on ready-made loops and samples won't let you go far, because life will quickly verify the skills of such a producer. Now, it all depends on what he or she chooses. When it comes to us, we're simply happy after having created something that sounds original knowing that we did it ourselves from the very beginning, something that is well mixed down at the studio and then mastered professionally. A DJ artist doesn't have to establish a label, because it's not an obligatory stage of life for a DJ artist.
Do you find it difficult to juggle all of these professional pastimes?
Karol - This job is nothing but an enjoyable pastime. There's nothing that can bring you greater joy than the happiness of finishing up a track successfully, regardless of what kind of success this is. Whether it's commercial success, or personal success of finishing your own track. This is something that will remain for long as your creation, and if you're happy with this, it's a great pride and joy.
What parts of the production process do you find most pleasurable and most challenging?
Karol - We actually find the whole process of making music the most enjoyable of all. The fact that you can listen to the sound while making it. It doesn't matter if it's about the mastering process or looking for the perfect sound. Music is what counts and as long as you can hear it playing, it's awesome. However, when there's a cable that doesn't work or the equipment conks out for some reason that won't let us work efficiently, we simply go bonkers.
Because of that, it might be easier to tell what the worst thing about making a tune is. It's the moment that has nothing to do with music, the one when something goes wrong with the equipment like when you have to press a mouse button twenty times to make something work. Then you feel as if you were wasting your time. When it comes to the challenge, sometimes it so happens that an idea for a track in its overall sound becomes unworkable while mixing it down at the studio. There are several reasons for that. Sometimes, blending the technical aspects with what you wish to achieve is quite difficult to merge. Unfortunately, we know that we must finish this and the final result has to be exactly as planned. Sometimes, it takes us two long weeks to deal with mixing down a track. Then it can be really challenging indeed.
What can expect to see from Karol XVII & MB Valence and Loco Records in 2014?
Karol - 2014 is going to be arduous to us again, because we took a little break from work in 2013 after four years of intense activity. This year starts with an EP on our Loco Records label. Besides that there are a couple of other releases scheduled to come out on Toolroom and Suara Records among others. In former years, we made a lot of remixes. Practically, we did them once a fortnight. We're planning to remix less, but do what we do with quality. Also, we want to do something similar with releases on Loco Records - fewer but better. Moreover, we intend to stop releasing the series of samplers entitled ‘A Four Track Sampler’ - which series appeared on Loco for a number of years and was composed of four previously unreleased tracks. We'll return to cyclic mixtapes we once did and those appeared as Deep Loco, now they're called Mixture. We're considering a possibility of releasing an album, but it's too early to decide. We'll see.
And finally the big question… What does it take to become a successful DJ/producer?
Karol - Unfortunately, we don't know the answer to this question and probably nobody will give you an objective answer here. It's as if you were told to make a hit. You can never be certain that what you've done will be of someone else's interest. This also applies to us. We have no idea why we've drawn people's attention whereas 10,000 more talented producers have been left unnoticed. This business sometimes requires you to be in the right place at the right time and simply have a bit of luck. Obviously, we receive words of recognition all the time, but that doesn't let us formulate a straight answer why someone likes our music of all available in the world.
Marek - You have to work extremely hard with no sleeping at times, but I guess everyone knows that. Sitting up all night is part of what we do. After all, the brain is in the alpha state then so you become more creative. Anyway, after all these years we can say that if you want to be successful you must work hard, you can't give up if you fail and you should be a little lucky. If you're patient and have some ideas and simultaneously you're focused on your work, you'll surely have your fifteen minutes of fame in the future.
Hard work, dedication and a whole heap of body destroying sleepless nights have been key to Karol XVII & MB Valence’s success throughout their domineering take on house. 2014 will see the duo continue their obsessive production into the decadent genre throughout their Loco Records imprint. However we also see them stepping into the hands of Toolroom and Suara Records which further guarantees dance floor delights when crafted by the hands of these iconic labels. Keep an ear out for the Subway Station 1 EP due out later this year which is sure to make your first train home listening that much sweeter.
You can check out Karol XVII & MB Valance more online at: