Bristol’s electronic music veteran, Jody Wisternoff, has been on the scene since the late 80s as part of Tru Funk, before finding success as Way Out West with Nick Warren. Since then, he’s become a household name for followers of UK record label, Anjunadeep, with residencies at Lakota and DJ sets far-flung around the globe. Wisternoff made massive progress in the 2010s with Anjunadeep and his latest album Nightwhisper shows he’s ready to get heads bopping in the 2020s, too. Nightwhisper is Wisternoff’s reflection on life, from the playfulness of youth through to our last moments. We catch up with the dance music legend to find out how he crafts his deep, ethereal productions and which of his tools help him achieve the vision.
The inspiration for Nightwhisper is quite touching. What did you intentionally do to represent youthfulness and the journey of life in the album?
Being a DJ keeps you in the youthful zone, in touch with the younger generation and defends you from submitting to middle age! Having kids and doing all that stuff takes it back even further. Witnessing the decline and death of your dad in a short space of time definitely opens your eyes to the journey – and final destination – we are all on, so any music I made during this time naturally represented how I interpreted and processed these feelings.
Eight years have passed since Trails We Blaze. Is there anything different in the way you approach music now compared to the early 2010s?
Recently I’ve been writing music on the fly with Ableton Live and an APC40 mkII, with the screen turned off and in a standing up position – as if I was playing live. I’ve set up a live jamming rig on the other side of the studio, sequencing with the Toraiz Squid, the SH-101 onboard sequencer, a Yamaha CS5 controlled by CV/gate, an Electribe ER-1, some Roland Aira gear and a TR-808 with all the separate outs going into an old Soundcraft Ghost desk – all being fed into the Roland MX-1. This is a really fun way to get mad ideas down without thinking about the computer, and the projects are saved straight to dropbox so that I can re-open anything decent on the main studio Mac and continue from there in the usual way.
Another major development is how I approach mixing – this is mainly due to the massive improvement in plug-ins over the last 10 years. I also do everything on MacBooks now, as opposed to having the studio Mac Pro and laptop for travelling. It’s way easier having everything all in one place. Also, I switched DAW from Pro Tools to Studio One 4, which I absolutely adore! Ableton is still the main writing tool, although I’m starting to enjoy Bitwig too. That reminds me, I need to download Renoise again…
You have an impressive collection of synths, both old and new. Which ones got the most use on Nightwhisper?
I’ve generally found that certain synths excel at specific sounds, even though they all obviously have an extremely wide range of possibilities. I enjoy treating each synth as a traditional instrument/band member and trying to make sure they occupy their own sonic areas as much as possible.
For example, I rarely do rhythmic stuff with the Prophet 5, as I find the envelopes gentle and better for Rhodes-type sounds. The Jupiter 8 has super snappy envelopes and feels like it has more of a rhythm guitar vibe. The Octave Kitten is an absolute monster in the low end, so usually takes the wide stance bass guitar duties. The Macbeth is probably my overall favourite, used with the Doepfer sequencer which has three CV outs. It’s amazing for percussive stuff – but it’s equally dope for techno style stabs, leads and low-end manoeuvres. It pretty much satisfies my modular urge and saves me from going down the rabbit hole!
Your outboard gear includes Warm Audio WA273’s, among Thermionic Culture gear and more. How do these get used in the production process?
I’ve only used hardware outboard for mixing purposes over the last couple of years, and very sparingly at that. The Culture Vulture is undoubtedly amazing at subtle saturation, but I tend to use it more creatively during the writing process than during mixdowns. Strapped over the master bus I generally have the Zahl EQ1 usually just adding air and maybe a touch of low-end boost, and the Bettermaker C502V compressor in parallel to give the mix some analogue bounce.
The WA273 is a great mic preamp and I’ll sometimes chuck synths through it for some extra warmth as the EQs sound really sweet. The Bettermakers are dope, not only because they sound lovely but they can also be integrated into the DAW as plug-ins. I like the practice of using analogue gear for additive EQ and plug-ins for surgical removal of frequencies and dynamic processing.
What gear do you have on your wishlist right now?
I’ve got a hankering for a modern analogue drum machine; there seem to be loads on the market right now – the MFB Tanzbar 2 looks pretty tempting. It’s a great time for gear at the moment across the board. The modular urge is always tinkering along in the background, but I manage to keep a level head and resist!
As a multi-DAW user (Studio One/Live/Pro Tools), what does your in-the-box workflow look like?
I generally believe that the writing and mixing process should be kept separate. I feel they engage different parts of the creative mind.
Composition takes place in Ableton, starting with a blank template. When I start out, I don’t worry about grouping anything, but as things progress and begin to properly take shape, the logical mind catches up to organise the project a bit. I’ll do a certain amount of mixing along the way, just enough to get a decent test bounce done when I’m happy enough with the arrangement. At this stage, I’ll bounce all individual tracks and remove all plug-ins unless they are just doing basic low-end removal or crucial creative processing.
The mix begins in Studio One, where I import each track one by one and have a good listen. It can get very complicated, as I work with multiple sets of busses. The first batch of busses will have four for the drums, one for bass and eight other various instrument busses. I’ll then send these on to a further set of busses which use the Channel Editor’s Frequency Splitter mode for multiband processing.
The ‘Kick’ or ‘Kick+Snare’ buss will be sent to two busses, split into two frequency ranges – ‘KickSnare Low’, ‘KickSnare Hi’. The other three drum busses will all be sent to one ‘Drums Comp’, with no frequency split. ‘Bass’ is sent to three frequency split busses and I’ll forward on the ‘Bass low’ and ‘Kick-Snare low’ onto a new buss just for the low end. I find doing things this way on separate channels gives me more control and is visually easier to deal with than just using multiband dynamics or the splitter device in channel editor. I’ll send all the instrument busses to two frequency split busses (‘Music Low/Mid’ and ‘Music Hi’), which allows me to be precise and is great for mid/side processing.
Finally, after all this, I’ll send it all to a further couple of busses (‘Drums+Bass’, ‘Music’) to get a visual balance, then into a premaster buss which has a mastering chain that I mix straight into. I think its important to make mix decisions based on what will happen during mastering.
My favourite processing plug-ins are Unfiltered Audio Byome, Fabfilter Pro-L 2, Pro-C 2 and Pro-Q 3, Xfer’s LFO Tool, Cableguys Shaperbox, Wavesfactory TrackSpacer, Valhalla reverbs, and assorted UAD bits. This really is a golden age for computer music and the kids now don’t know how lucky they are compared to what we used to make do with – besides the option paralysis issue!
Generally, your music is emotive, deep and often uplifting, which is in part thanks to rich pads and thoughtful use of space sitting nicely in the mix. How do you achieve this?
It’s all down to imagination and a certain amount of theoretical knowledge. Patience plays a big part too. Creating music that connects on an emotional level as opposed to just rocking the dancefloor – although ideally doing both at the same time – can sometimes take bloody ages to get right. A major contributing factor to hitting the sweet spot is layering. It’s important to pay attention to which frequencies certain sounds occupy and to not double up too much, but also not to dwell on this kind of thing whilst writing. We never used to consider these technical factors back in the day when we were making music with samplers and mixing desks before DAWs and in some ways, the results had more of a vibe.
When implementing strings, are you recording live musicians or using a VST? What’s the advantages and disadvantages of both?
A combination of both really. I’ve been working with this amazing classically trained cellist, Michael Spleit, from Montreal who I met at the Anjunadeep party in Albania last year. He plays on three of the Nightwhisper tracks. I love to blend live parts with layered VSTs, achieving the best of both worlds. The alternative is hiring an orchestra, which isn’t really practical and probably illegal right now due to social distancing laws <laughs>!
Do you believe that music theory knowledge is an asset to you? Is it ever a hindrance?
Hugely advantageous, even at my relatively basic level. Although, I do suffer from muscle memory and usually end up playing the same chord progressions time and time again. That’s where piano roll editing is super convenient, just shift a few notes round here and there and see what happens.
As a longtime Anjunadeep artist and collaborator, do you ever feel it incumbent upon you to create a specific style of music for the label? Do you think artists can get “trapped” in a genre?
In some ways, yeah, but this is out of choice really as its the style of dance music that I absolutely love right now! I do think you need to build up a certain level of brand identity to your name, and if you fancy going off on a curveball then just create an alias. Or, change the vibe and hope that people follow your creative journey. If an artist has a huge amount of success in a certain genre but isn’t feeling it anymore and forced to continue for financial reasons, then it would be a bit constrictive.
You’ve been participating in live stream events during the pandemic; do you think these will continue when venues reopen?
I was initially against them, thinking they ultimately just made people feel more depressed. However, I’ve definitely changed my tune after accepting how unique this whole situation is, how appreciative people are, and how lovely the online interaction is with everyone. It’s also a lot of fun, especially the vinyl crate-digging sessions I’ve been doing; I’d like to continue once touring kicks off again. As long as you’re putting thought into the streams – doing something slightly different and connecting with people – I definitely see them as having value.
With major Bristol club Lakota closing down, how do you think the nightlife industry will change in respect of the pandemic?
It’s hard to tell right now. Hopefully, when things kick back off there is gonna be such a demand for the good times that it’ll be like the Summer Of Love 1988 all over again! However, certain clubs are suffering at the hands of property development plans – Bristol’s Motion is also in the same situation which is a big concern! Let’s hope the spirit of acid house prevails and the party goes on!
Jody Wisternoff’s latest album, Nightwhisper, is available to purchase and stream now. Find out more at anjunadeep.com
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