Aquasky In The Studio

Aquasky have been around since the mid 90s making everything from drum & bass, breaks, dubstep and lately they’ve been pushing a new sound they’re calling warehouse via their Black Noise alias. They’ve also made a few samples CDs / packs as well in that time and 2011 sees them launch their own sample label with Loopmasters, Monster Sounds. We caught up with them to find out more about it and how they approach making music too…

How do approach starting a new tune? Do you have a standard workflow of building beats/bass first, or focus on another part to begin with?
You need a ‘spark’ to get a tune going but you don’t need to know exactly what that spark is straight away. You might have an initial idea for a new track and you might say ‘right, here is a little riff / sample I want to use’ but then when you start to build around that initial idea other ideas happen and some of those go off at tangents which might end up being used as the main bit.

Before we start to arrange a track we have to be dead sure that all the elements we have got work well together and are ‘top notch’ i.e. there is nothing worse than having to reverse engineer a track and work backwards and start from the beginning again.

Do you usually wait till you’re in the right state of mind before starting a track or do you just sit down and see what comes out?
We have a lot going on so we need to plan our studio time and we will just get in the studio and crack on. Before the studio session all three of us will have a dug up a few samples and / or put a few ideas down.

Does your approach differ depending on which genre you are making?
On a whole not really but with the recent 140 bpm Aquasky tunes and mixes we have been making we are very conscious of getting the production level up to the very best 140 tune out there that we like and know sound awesome in the club.

I think the cutting edge of audio production is definitely the tip of the dubstep guys and we won’t finish a tune until we know ours will cut the mustard sonically with the best out there. This is less of an issue with our Black Noise tracks as we have already got our ‘4/4’ sound very much sorted.

Out of the tracks you do start, how many get finished? How many get released?
We have a high ‘hit rate’ with our tunes as we have a high internal quality control – i.e. we won’t let below par stuff get out there. The biggest factor in tunes not getting released is politics!! Say no more!!

Where is your studio set up and what does is consist of? Do you use any hardware or are you software only?
We are based at a secret location in sunny Bournemouth where we can make as much noise as we want 24 hours a day 365 days a year. We have a main studio which is based around a PC / Cubase set up and a live room which is also a second studio which can be used for ideas / studio mixes, etc and we have an office for the business side of things.

What’s your most used plugin?
It would be boring to say we use lots of compressors (which we do – the standard Cubase compressor with side chain button) and we also use a lot of reverb but I still like to cane (much to the hate of our processor) the classic Cubase multiband compressor, which used on individual synths can really fatten them up. You have to watch the sub levels, but for enhancing mid and top it does a very nice job.

Are you the sort that likes to use old vinyl to get snippets of atmos, FX, melodies, etc or do you use synths mainly for your sounds?
Bit of both really. Between the three of us we have a huge vinyl collection (ooer) with some very obscure and rare records.

How much of your sounds come from random samples, i.e. stuff you’ve recorded yourself etc, rather than sample packs?
If by random sample you mean sampling of other people’s records then yes we do sample a lot but we don’t just rip off something (unless that is the idea), we will sample (here comes the cliché) ‘creatively’.

What’s the coolest bit of kit you’ve got and do you actually use it much?
It must be our vintage (70s) Neumann U87 valve microphone we use for all vocals. It’s just got such a good sound. Don’t ask how we got it!

Which sequencer do you use and why?
Cubase because we always have used Cubase! The first version we got was version one for Windows which just about run on our 386. We also use Ableton for arranging mainly vocals and bits of music that need to be timed / stretched. And we use Ableton for our studio mixes. It doesn’t matter what you use – we are working with a couple of top producers at the moment and one uses Fruity Loops and the other uses Reason.

Any new studio technology or gear you’re liking at the moment?
Haven’t checked out what’s out there for a while but we are taking delivery of a new PC soon so we’ll have a look and see how we can tax the processor some more!

What’s your monitoring situation like? What speakers and / or headphones do you use?
We use a pair of Dynaudio and we never master using headphones.

Any advice you can give us regarding mixdowns?
The key to a good mixdown is starting off with the good sounds – i.e. is your kick drum actually doing what you want and is the sub level on the bass giving you the right rumble? Then, when it comes to the mixdown, we arrange our tracks with heavy limiting on the master bus just so we know exactly how the track will sound at the end and not get something different back from the mastering house (big ups Shane at Finyl Tweek). Although we give the mastering house an additional ‘un maxxed’ version which they often use to master.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started out?
Do what you want (within reason) and don’t let other people put you off. We used to get a bit of stick in the 90s as we weren’t 100% hardcore junglists because we made lots of other styles of music. Now, ten years later, d&b guys make more dubstep now than d&b… we musta been ahead of our time! So stick to ya guns… and make the music you want to make.

Tell us more about why you’ve set up your new sample label Monster Sounds and what we can expect…
We kicked off Loopmasters’ artist series back in 2007 and it went very well. We have always stayed in contact with Matt at Loopmasters and in 2010 we had done so many remixes and tunes as Black Noise that we wanted to do something different.

We chatted to Matt and the suggestion was made that we use our organisational skills and contacts in the industry to put together a sample pack series. And we are so glad to have made that decision. It’s a new challenge after running a record label for 14 years, but the principles are the same. Deadlines, artwork, artist liaison, PR… we are old hands at all of that now!

The idea is to run a series of artist packs under Monster Sounds and also a Monster Sounds Pro series which will be more directed to the working studio environment and highlighting key areas of musicianship i.e.: funk bass, percussion, rap vocals, synths, etc… interesting sub-sections that are invaluable to a professional studio. And, of course, all royalty free.

We also wish to include as many guest vocalists as we can, so hopefully each pack will have a guest vocalist. Being producers ourselves we know royalty-free vocals are invaluable. Luckily we have been blessed with lots of good friends who are vocalists but there are many who are unable to have that available to them, so this is where we step in.

What can you tell us about your first release?
The first release is by ourselves under our Black Noise alias and is titled Warehouse as this filled a gap in the main Loopmasters catalogue and we are trying to ensure that we keep as broad as possible with our featured artists and that we don’t double up on what Loopmasters and fellow sub labels are up to.

We have also made so many tracks and remixes as Black Noise over the past three years that we felt that we should share some of what we had created. We are very proud of this pack, it sort of sums up the essence of our sound.

What else have you been working on recently?
We are working on a new Aquasky album to be released after the summer. We are going back to our jungle roots on this one. It will kinda be a Stayfresh part two (the original Stayfresh was released on Moving Shadow back in 2003), very breaksy… very tuff and taking no prisoners.

We are also recording three new Black Noise EPs and possibly focusing on an album later in the year, depending if we have time with all these sample packs to organise! And lots of touring and running our Passenger record label and our publishing company Skyhigh Music Ltd that’s administered by our good mates Bucks Music Group.

What do you have coming out soon?
We have a remix of Hold On, by a new signing to our label, Bill Posters. This will be followed by a new Aquasky single featuring Diane Charlemagne and Lady Roller from EZ Rollers. This will be followed by the album as mentioned earlier.

As Black Noise we have just remixed the new Engine Earz track, we are working on a remix for Champion Records this week, we have done two collabs with Lee Mortimer for his label and a couple of collabs with Kelevra for our label. We also have two EPs coming up on WearHouse which we are very excited about. On top of that we are helping our friends The Cut Up Boys source vocals for their new Mash Up album on Ministry.