Break In The Studio

Break is one of the most revered names in drum & bass, famed for the quality and consistency of his music over the past 15 years. Now the Symmetry Recordings boss is giving other producers the chance to add a bit of Break magic to their tracks by releasing his first ever sample pack, Symmetry Drum & Bass. We spoke to the man himself to find out more about it and how he works in the studio.

At what age did you get into producing and how did you learn?
I got some decks when I was 15, and started with Cubase and a couple of sound modules. When I got an Emu sampler the manual that came with it taught me a lot, each section explained Compression, EQ, Drive, etc. really simply which you don’t often get these days.

When I started working with Silent Witness he showed me Logic 5 and taught me how to use it. I preferred it to Cubase so switched over and felt more creative.

A lot of it was trial and error and teaching yourself a lot, there were no internet tutorials back then.

How did you get your music noticed in the beginning?
My lucky break was when MC Zoobee heard a bootleg remix of Planet Dust I was playing off a minidisc at a record stall in Camden market.

He knew DJ A-Sides and thought my tracks would be up his street. I went up to see A-Sides and he released my first few tracks on Eastside Records and hooked me up with some good people in the scene. I’m eternally grateful.

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?
It’s about fifty fifty, if I’m making a musical tune I usually get the melodic elements in first, get the chord structure and leave the bassline till later.

With the more tech / dancefloor tunes, the drums usually are first – getting the right groove is really important, that will also often influence the groove and pattern of the bassline.

Does your approach differ depending on which genre you are making?
Sort of answered it above, but if it’s a vocal tune when mixing I’ll try and make that the focus of the mix. With a lot of tracks in dnb the vocal is lost in the background, which I find really annoying.

When making house or pop stuff I often listen through small cheap computer speakers to get the main elements correctly balanced without being able to hear much bass.

Sub isn’t as that important in those genres, so I try and make the mix sound full on small speakers with the vocal and kick being the focus more.

How do you come up with melodies or chord progressions?
I just sit at the piano and play stuff really. If it’s a vocal track or remix I mainly try and find a progression that works around the lead melody that harmonises and complements the vocalist. That’s probably my favourite part of making a track, it’s actually writing music than just engineering, which often ends up as 90% of the job.

Out of the tracks you do start, how many get finished? How many get released?
Probably about 50-60% of dnb tracks get released. It kind of changes depending on the year. Recently I’ve been trying to get that percentage up by starting tunes less half arsed and committing to dead certs more.

Where is your studio set up and what does it consist of? Do you use any hardware or are you software only?
My studio at the moment is in Motion Club in Bristol. We had some custom rooms built last year, so it’s been great to finally get into a professional space and give the ears some certainty.

I do use some hardware but mainly for vocal and instrument recordings such as 1176 Compressor and Api Pre-amps. I still love my Dbx compressors but mainly it’s software for production these days.

The UAD plugs really enabled me to switch over from analogue to digital mixing because they do sound realistic, and the real outboard is all way out of my price range.

What are the best tools for beginners?
I think synths with good presets and simple interfaces such as Absynth or Diva are great for beginners as you can get good sounds out of it without having to program for two hours. Most people want instant gratification.

I’ve got no problem using a preset if you play something good with it. The Waves One Knobs are quite crude but easy if you want it brighter or fatter etc. I thought it was a good idea for getting something into the ballpark quickly, things can always be refined later.

What are your favourite plugins and synths?
I love the UAD plugs for their real analogue sound, Softube are fantastic on the same front. I’d recommend a real synth any day over soft synths, it’s kinda the difference between cotton or nylon. I also love Airwindows and Waves plugs.

Most of it for me is finding the right plug for the job, I’ve got about 40 compressor plugins, which one to use is more the problem, getting about favourite plugins you know and like is probably the best bet for consistent results.

What’s the coolest bit of kit you own?
My new 12” Eve sub woofer. I’ve waited my whole life to sit in my studio with proper heavy bass, always had neighbours etc so that gives me a smile every day.

What’s the best piece of equipment you’ve ever used?
I’ve used some expensive stuff, but I always maintain that the Dbx 266 XL is the best unit for the price I’ve seen. I was also blessed with some Audeze headphones a while back, they are incredible.

Which sequencer do you use and why?
I still use Logic 9. It’s a total love hate relationship, but it makes sense to me. Terrible shame it’s owned by Apple now and all the original staff left to got to other companies. I never feel I have time to learn another program, after half a day I get fed up and go back to Logic. I use Protools when working with DJ Die, I think it’s great, but still don’t know my way around it fully.

What audio interface do you use?
I normally use an Allen & Heath ZedR 16 Firware interface/ desk. I’ve had a few problems with it so have been using a small Edirol USB soundcard, which has never gone wrong, so I like that.

Any new studio technology or gear you like at the moment?
I’d love to get a high-end sound card, it just seems like such a boring spend of 2-3 grand, there’s not even any knobs to twiddle.

I do like the look of the Softube Consol 1. The Harrison mix bus is great, but the routing can be an issue for me… I have no idea why Logic and Protools don’t give you the option of analogue desk modelling, it’s the obvious way out of horrible digital mixer sounds.

What’s your monitoring situation like?
I use EveAudio SC208’s with and Eve TS112 sub woofer. I have some Adam AX3’s as an NS10 equivalent, also some Maplin £10 computer speakers. I have the Audeze LCD2 and LCD3 for headphone monitoring.

How do you go about compression, do you compress each track individually?
It all varies to be honest, usually each drum track will have individual compression but a lot of the heavy lifting is often done on the drum buss to glue the drums together.

I sometimes parallel compress elements nearer the end of the mix if more fullness is still needed, or to get a blend of compression without ruining the original signal.

Any advice you can give us regarding mixdowns and mastering?
My main gripe from doing mastering and going to many of my own mastering sessions is tambourines and hi-hats that are too loud and bright compared to the rest of the mix.

It doesn’t really matter if your tune is too bright or dull, it’s more the balance of the sounds within that will result in a good finished master. You can’t mix the tune down again in mastering, that’s what I always try to remember.

What production technique do you think is really overused / annoying?
Has to be loud over the top build-ups that go on for two minutes and then have a really lame drop…. half of all dance music basically.

What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started out?
That after specialising for 15 years your product will get valued at about 30p on the internet. I’d probably have done a sample pack sooner.

What’s key to creating your own sound?
Using the influences you love to define your sound, then it’ll be true and you might actually like your own music.

Tell us about your Symmetry Drum & Bass sample pack…
It has been quite a long time coming, it’s something I’ve waited a while to do. But, after seeing many of the quality dnb sample packs in the last few years, I was impressed by the material artists have been providing.

DLR, who has done work with Loopmasters, changed my opinion of the matter by explaining his satisfaction when someone tells them they’ve used his sounds in a track.

I wanted to provide some useful tools that people would actually use in production, basically the stuff I would want in a pack if I’d bought it. A lot of beats can be disappointing in dnb packs, so I wanted to put some heavy breaks in that I’d use and have used.

Got any releases in the pipeline you can tell us about?
I’ve got singles on Playaz, Warm Communications, Life Recordings and Horizons coming now or soon and remixes coming on Ram, V- Recordings and Dispatch. I’m working on a new solo album for Symmetry.

Anything else you’d like to tell us about?
I have a reggae track called Children of the Sun with singer Kyo coming on Gutterfunk this summer from our band Degrees of Freedom. This multi genre project will be the main focus for a lot of the other music I make.