The latest release on Scotland’s Bulletdodge Records features a host of legendary dance pioneers and an equally pioneering live set. Label owner Gareth Whitehead speaks to MT about the album and taking techno out live with Live…
Gareth Whitehead is the label owner and one of the artists on Bulletdodge Records, founded in 2008 and focused on producing innovative house and techno music. The label’s latest release is a compilation celebrating the history of those genres and includes a seminal line-up of artists, including Kevin Saunderson, DJ Pierre and Marshall Jefferson.
Gareth has been promoting the album with some unique and innovative live performances at venues across the UK, including the Brighton Music Conference, and featuring a tech-heavy set-up with Live at its core. MusicTech caught up with Gareth to talk techno, tech, Live and live…
MusicTech: Tell us about your own music production background…
Gareth Whitehead: “I was into music at a very early age. My dad was a keen musician, and that led me to learn how to play the guitar. I played in bands throughout my teenage years, and didn’t get into electronic music until I was about 18. When I eventually discovered it, I was hooked, and after leaving school I pursued a degree in music technology, which then after graduating led me to work in several studios before finding my feet and setting up Bulletdodge in 2008.”
An overview of the live set-up with Live and Aira at its core
MT: Tell us about your music-making approach…
GW: ”My philosophy is to make music that ultimately I’m happy with. It’s important to create your own sound, and try not to mould your music to fit someone else’s agenda. I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past, but one of the reasons I set up Bulletdodge was so that I could have a musical platform and complete control over my creative output.
People are very quick to judge and comment, but at the end of the day if you put your heart and soul into something – whether it’s EDM, techno, blues or pop, then that’s what’s important.”
MT: Tell us about how the album was put together…
GW: “Each track involves collaboration, with me working alongside one of the originators of techno: Kevin Saunderson; the godfather of house, Marshall Jefferson; the legendary house vocalist Robert Owens; and Brooklyn innovators Lenny Dee and Frankie Bones.
“The album also includes appearances from long-term Bulletdodge collaborators Carl Cox, X-Press 2, Darren Emerson, Adamski, Inxec, Detroit Grand Pubahs, Space DJz, Tom Taylor and Werner Niedermeier, plus many more. The album was created predominantly on Ableton Live 9, and once the tracks were finished the projects were taken down to SSR London (www.s-s-r.com) to be mixed by Michael Greig and me.
“This was a significant part in how the album was characterised; with Michael’s attention to detail and technical wizardry, the album exudes
a definitive sound. “My studio is pretty modest, using a Windows-based computer that runs Ableton Live 9 Suite and a host of plugins and additional software.
I currently use a PreSonus AudioBox 22VSL audio interface and monitor with a set of Tannoy Active Reveal speakers. The set-up I have now hasn’t really changed in the last few years, other than changing audio interfaces, which I have a habit of doing, and the odd bit of kit.
Gareth at his smaller home set-up
“I’ve worked in several studios over the years, but always retained a small home studio set-up for my own productions. When I’m not producing and running the label, I lecture music business and sound production at New College Lanarkshire, so I’m always keeping myself at the forefront of new studio technologies.
“At SSR, we used the Neve studio to mix the album, which boasts a Neve VR60 console, Mac Pro computer and Yamaha NS10, Adam S3X and Dynaudio monitors. Michael mixed in Ableton Live 9 Suite, but applied the Pro Tools HDX converters.
His method was to buss stems from the projects back onto the board and use the Neve as a summing mixer. We really enjoyed the sound of the board as the project was developing, so consequently integrated it more – in particular its EQs and compressors.
There was an abundance of outboard effects used in the process, too, in particular the Yamaha SPX990, Roland SDE-330 Dimensional Space Delay, the Roland DEP-5 Reverb and Lexicon PCM 70 and 224 Reverbs. The latter was used on shorter percussive sounds, like the snares and claps. Similarly, a Drawmer 1960 was used for parallel compression on some of the drum tracks, notably The Villain.
“Pultec EQ Clones were used, alongside Cartec EQs to attenuate some low-range frequencies on the kick. Thermionic Culture’s The Phoenix was used over the master buss, as it gave a nice side chain bass cut. “Ableton Live’s own effects were used extensively, namely the Simple Delays and Ping Pong Delay.”
MT: How would a track on the album take shape?
GW: “I always like to start by throwing ideas into Ableton, and initiating a groove. I’m a stickler for forging a vibe quickly, otherwise I move onto another idea.
Once I establish the hook, I advance it until I feel I have all the main components. It might only be 8 to 16 bars in length, but that’s enough to determine whether or not I have the essence of a good track.
Then I start to strip it down and structure the track in that formation. If I know I have the body of the track, it’s easier to strip things back to the intro. Once I’ve then arranged the track, I can then start to get more intricate with the editing.
“I consistently use Ableton’s own effects, like ping pong delays and its Glue compressor for side chaining. I use the Audio Filter for high-pass filtering in breakdowns, drums and basslines.”
Tech Tip: Side Chaining
MT: Talk us through at least one of your production tricks…
GW: “In the context of mixing the album, side chaining was paramount, but not always just used to duck tracks from the triggered kick. Moreover, it was commonly used in such a way as to permit percussion patterns to duck one another to give clarity to the tracks.
For example, there might be a percussion pattern coming in as a loop, which would be compressed, then another loop would come in to augment the previous loop – hence using it to dip the level and side chain it. So Michael was using less volume control and more side chain compression to make the tracks breathe.”
MT: What else would you typically use, aside from Ableton Live’s plug-ins?
GW: “The Korg microKorg is one of my favourites, and is one of the few pieces of hardware I consistently use. The bass tones are exquisite and have been inherent in so many of my productions for several years.
It’s been such an intrinsic part of my creative process that Tony Scott, a former collaborative partner of mine, named our label and production name after its Edit Select function, due to my extensive usage of it. I also have a Boss OS-2 overdrive/distortion pedal that I like to send a signal to and then back to the computer to add that edge to certain sounds.
“With regards to soft synths, I regularly use the U-he ACE; Rob Papen’s Predator and Albino; the Korg Legacy Collection; Native Instruments’ Massive and FM8; and the Arturia Mini Moog, Jupiter and Prophet. For pads, I can’t see past the Albino and Prophets. The ACE is great for house chords and stabs. For basslines, I like the Predator and Korg’s MS-10 or PolySix.
“For additional overdubs on some of the tracks at SSR, the Virus TI2 and Roland TB-303 were used to add increased character and dynamics to the tracks.
“I used the Waves Platinum bundle, principally the True Verb for vocals and Ultramaximiser and GTR3 Stomps to strengthen bass or lead lines; and UAD Plugins were integral to preparing the live set. During the mixing process, the live set parts weren’t created, so the projects had to be revisited and UAD effects applied to certain tracks.”
Gareth enjoying his work in the studio
MT: Talking of the live set, tell us a little about what you want to achieve with it…
GW: The main focus is on the Ableton Live and Roland Aira element, which consists of Mike and myself stripping all the elements from the album down and rebuilding it to create a 45-minute to one-hour set. It transforms the sound of the album from the recording studio sound into a more club/live sound.
“Michael and I want to be able to alternate between different sections of each track – so, the percussion of one track over the bass of another – in many respects remixing the album live. To do this, the individual channels of each track have to be bussed down into eight stems and eight scenes in Live.
Over time, the intention is to replace the audio stems with hardware improvisation. Most of the live set is currently audio files from the studio, chopped up, but we’ll be augmenting the drum sounds with the TR-8 and the synth and bass with the Roland Aira stuff.
We use the following equipment: Ableton Live 9, with the Push controller and Akai APC40, Roland TR-8, the Roland TB-3, the Roland MX-1 Mix performer, Roland System-1, Doepfer Dark Energy 2 and a Strymon TimeLine delay pedal.”
Gareth and Mike mixing the album at SSR
MT: What do you make of the live scene at the moment? Are enough people stretching themselves, and do you think it is essential to get noticed?
GW: “The live scene is changing considerably; there’s certainly a lot of new and exciting equipment appearing on the market, but whether it’s getting utilised in a live environment is yet to be seen.
Technology has made live performances easier, which has been a determining factor for many people, especially DJs, but there are always people out there who want to prove otherwise and be challenged. I think being different and delivering an all-encompassing live set will certainly make you stand out, but whether it’s essential to get noticed, I’m not sure. I think getting noticed is determined by so many other factors.”
MT: What advice have you picked up from playing live?
GW: “Before integrating any hardware, make sure you can perform your set with minimum moves. The Novation Launchpad or Ableton’s Push are both great controllers that allow you flexibilty and versatility.
Once you’ve practised, start to incorporate more effects, and then start substituting the pre-programmed audio with hardware.”
MT: And from working in the studio?
GW: “Learn your craft as best you can, listen to other producers and what they are doing. Compare arrangements, etc – this will help you understand the production process and help you evolve your own sound quicker.”
The album was mixed in the Neve studio at SSR
MT: And from the music industry as a whole?
GW: “It’s important to take chances and opportunities whenever they arise. You never know where it could lead to. The quintessential key being to network and build your base of contacts.”
MT: Is there any gear you are after for your studio?
GW: “Modular gear. I’m looking at the new Roland System 500 Series and other bespoke modulars that are appearing on the market, and more from the Doepfer range.”
The Korg microKorg is a hardware favourite
MT: Is there anything that you would like to see developed in terms of studio technology?
GW: “Having something along the lines of a hardware sequencer that allowed you to load in
an Ableton Live project. This, potentially, could eliminate the need for a computer whilst you’re performing live.”
MT: What have you got planned for the near future?
GW: “After the album is released, I’ll be concentrating on developing the live set and showcasing it globally. While embarking on the live shows, I’ll simultaneously be putting together the remix album, which will follow on from the album, having more hand-picked producers that have influenced the scene to rework the originals.”
MT: And, finally, what is the future of music production?
GW: “It will continue to flourish, I think. Expect to see more and more non-conventional methods to make music