Artist Tips: Iron Curtis
Wide-reaching studio advice from an exceptionally versatile producer.
Since debuting in 2008 on Hamburg’s Mirau imprint, Berlin-based artist Johannes Paluka has amassed an impressive catalog of music that ranges from moody deep house to pensive acid, soulful techno, and broken-beat synth excursions. Paluka is most known as Iron Curtis, an alias that has seen him release on Uncanny Valley, Morris / Audio, Mule Electronic, Hudd Traxx, and Midnight Shift Recordings. Outside of his solo work, Paluka releases inspired takes on acid techno as Achterbahn D’Amour alongside Jool (a.k.a. Edit Piafra), moody electro and beat-driven synth outings as Moon with Johannes Albert, and classic deep house as SMPL, his collaboration with Liam Schewski (a.k.a. Leaves). Although his projects differ stylistically, there is a soulful melancholic thread embedded throughout Paluka’s work.
Paluka’s aversion to genre boundaries spills over into his live sets and DJing, too, which seamlessly connect the dots across the electronic spectrum with alluring appeal. His gig resumé includes performances at Panorama Bar, Tresor, Robert Johnson, Dance Tunnel, MusicBox, Corsica Studios, Bassani, Output, and Croatia’s Lighthouse Festival, among many others—a testament to his wide-reaching appeal.
For our latest Artist Tips, we invited Paluka to impart his studio knowledge, from escaping creative roadblocks to sound processing, organization, and much more.
Organize Your Studio—OCD, Yeah, You Know Me!
It may sound a bit dull but one thing I like to find out when hanging with fellow producers is how they organize their studio and software. I’m with those who find it tiresome and a hurdle for the creative process when you can’t find things—even though chaos and the resulting coincidences can undoubtedly be inspiring, too. Yet, I attended quite some sessions where the lust for jamming was drained by the wait for the right cable or file to be found. I like to make music and get into a flow and for me, this is only possible if I know where things are or at least where to look for them.
My studio is not too big and the amount of hardware instruments and outboard effects is manageable, but I spent a good amount of time neatly arranging all the gear and organizing all MIDI and audio connections of the devices. This allows me to quickly trigger instruments from soft or hardware sequencers, route the hardware instruments and effects into my sound card, or send to other input or output sources. It took me a while to understand that money is also well spent on tools like audio patch bays, as well as MIDI distributors even though these tools do not create the sounds for the next hit record. Now that my hardware instruments and effects are properly connected, I keep track of the details of the setup in an easy-to-access document on my computer desktop—and maintaining the doc certainly satisfies my OCD.
Structure Your Files
I use Ableton Live 10 as my main DAW and its User Library became the go-to tool for organizing my software gear. I make such extensive use of it that I would rarely use other folders in the Live browser. I store nearly everything I need in it besides samples or my project file archive. It took me a while to understand that one can alter the ready-made folder structure that comes with the Live installation. I added folders for the stuff that I would use frequently and deleted the rest. I do not distinguish between Live’s built-in device presets, Max for Live stuff, or third-party plug-ins. I save and store them into the corresponding folder structure that I came up with. I also use the User Library for templates and group tracks, as well as for External Audio Effects or External Instrument presets which I need for easy routing of my hardware devices:
In the User Library, I also store ideas or sketches (e.g. in the Temp Notes folder) or templates for entire tracks, groups, or subgroups. My template Live Set, for instance, is based on such subgroups (e.g. a Mixer Group that contains audio tracks routed to my audio interface’s input channels; Reason Audio and Reason MIDI Groups that contain tracks for easy routing of MIDI and audio signals from and to Reason). Also, I have all kinds of Live Set templates stored in the User Library (e.g. for Recording, Mixing, Performance etc.):
I have linked folders to external sample libraries in the browser under Places. If I install a new sample pack or Live Pack, I make the effort to grind through the pack’s content and take out the stuff that I know I would definitely use. I would carefully sort the selected content into the existing folders in my User Library (if it is device presets or other tools) or into the sample library folders under Places. Afterward, I delete the pack. It is definitely a time-consuming process to manage content this way, however, I highly benefit from finding things quickly when I need to.
Keep an Archive and Keep it Neat
It is in the nature of music making that not everything one writes turns into gold. But I can recommend to not delete such project files. If you feel embarrassed about the music you just made or you struggle to finish a tune, not a problem. Put it into the archive—no one will ever know about it but yourself. Since storage space and hard drives are relatively cheap, you can keep an archive of nearly everything you wrote.
If I have no inspiration or am fighting writer’s block, I like to go back in time and open projects from several years ago. I might still find that particular track not good, but I might listen to it in a different mind state than when I made it. And so I might find parts of this track likable and they might inspire me to start a new track.
Also, an archive is where you should store and backup your sample files, your projects, released tracks, DJ mixes, or recordings or your live performances. The loss of samples or previous recordings is not a joyful experience and so I can highly recommend taking good care of the file structure of the archive and your project folders. This will make it easier for you to travel back in time and regular backups will make you feel more relaxed.
Make Yourself at Home
When making music, you should feel comfortable and safe—and be distracted as little as possible. I decided against internet access/WIFI in the studio and when I’m in there, I like to switch off my phone and take off my shoes. It may sound simple but make yourself at home as much as possible—whether it is in your bedroom or in an external studio space.
Surround yourself with things that you like to look at when listening to loops and mixes—it can’t always be your phone or a blank wall. Luckily, my studio has a big window at the front and so I get sunlight and can let my mind wander while looking out and listening to music. Don’t forget that you are a living creature that is depending on daylight—take breaks and make the effort to go outside every now and then. Your music will always reflect the state you are in and day to day life can be stressful enough. Try to leave that behind as much as possible when you enter the studio.
Remember that your studio is nothing but your own place to make music in. It doesn’t have to be representative, but cozy and a place you like to go to. Another simple trick to make yourself appreciate the room you are working in is to name it. My studio is called “Passagen” and I’m proud that it made it onto Discogs.
Photos: Kai von Kotze
Sampling has always played a major role in my music making. I not only use samples as main elements in my tracks but as a source of inspiration. I would sample from all kinds of sources: records (obviously), radio, podcasts, TV shows, and field recordings, among other sources. 99 out of a 100 times I would start a track with a sample, and even though the sample itself might not make it into the final track, its “spirit” or the initial atmosphere it created will remain. For sampling, I use all kind of tools and devices, yet I found one workflow the most efficient these days
Nearly all of my music is centered around harmonies and melodic elements, and so I would start a track with a drone, ambiance, or pad-like sample. I record the sample into Ableton Live and drop it into an instance of Simpler. I then use Push 2 to control and playback the sample. The displayed waveform on Push makes it easy to cut and edit the sample and I can access the necessary Simpler parameters with it.
In Simpler, I enable loop mode. I playback the sample and change the filter settings or the start position of the sample on the fly—while I do so, I record the audio output of the Simpler to a new audio track. I then jam along for a while (often even without a fixed grid or beat for orientation). Once I’m done, I drag and drop this new recording into another instance of Simpler. I would then jam along to a drum beat and record another audio file. This way, the sampled file begins to become alive and would contain unexpected nuances—it also makes it a bit edgier.
I sampled so much jazz and soul and I surely will continue to do so, however, I also like to sample from outside my comfort zone, like twiddling and fiddling around with a trance or EDM-style sample, or a pop tune (which I would not like at all). This triggers my creativity to such an extent that some of my most successful tracks are actually based on this method.
I also sample from jams that I recorded with soft or hardware instruments. Sometimes parts of these recordings make brilliant samples even though I would not consider the entire recording to be good at all. Also, another recommendation is to switch from MIDI to audio at quite an early stage of the track’s production. Whether it’s Live’s own instruments like Wavetable, a third-party plug-in, or my hardware synth, I record the instruments audio output as soon as possible and try not to get stuck in interminable MIDI editing.
Remember Where You Come From and Work With What You Have
When I was 15, my setup included a Casio CT670 keyboard, a Technics tape deck, and my turntables. I spent so much time with this particular set up and tried to get everything out of it. This limitation continued with the use of my first computer, on which only a version of Rebirth and Samplitude was installed for music making. Obviously, I love my studio and I surely don’t want to miss a piece of my equipment; however, I learned that my goal is to make music and that getting lost in endless possibilities does not help with this. So, get to know your gear and try to get everything out of it, whether it’s soft or hardware. And remember that you do not have to have it all to write good music.
Process Your Sounds
Using effects on sounds is obviously not a recent discovery. I for one like the degradation of sounds a lot since it helps me to humanize them—in particular when I work “in the box” and with plug-ins. At times, they can sound sterile or stiff, and imperfection can help to change this. There are various methods that I use to achieve character in my music. Since a tape deck was part of my first setup, I never stopped using them and these days it’s a TASCAM Portastudio 246. I use the tape to make original compositions sound like sample-based material and overdubbing helps me to merge multiple sounds together. Tape compression adds a certain crunch to the recording that is hard to put in words. However, there are a couple of software devices that I use these days to degrade sounds or to add the aforementioned “crunch.”
Drum Buss is an analog style drum processor which got introduced with Live 10. It makes it easy to add body and character to drums, but I also use it on sounds other than drums. I like to use the device with a medium drive setting and additional amounts of crunch (which adds distortion to the mid-range frequency of the signal) and of course boom for low-end enhancement.
I add it to nearly all of my drum groups (in a moderate setting) in the production of a track, as well as in my Live Sets for performance. For the latter, it helped me to adjust the punchiness of the drums in my live set to compete with the loudness of a DJ set that I would have to follow.
Pedal is another audio effect device that got introduced with Live 10. It simulates classic stompboxes and offers three pedal types: OverDriver, Distortion, and Fuzz. Similar to Drum Buss, Pedal became an essential tool in my workflow. I use it with moderate settings to add character to synths or drums. It is lightweight and a relatively easy to use device and makes other distortion and overdrive plug-ins more or less obsolete for me—however, I also use hardware effects (e.g. DS-1 or OD-1 from Roland) for recordings, too.
There are other Max for Live based devices that I can also recommend, such as Max for Cat’s Color or the free Crap Cassette.
Be Creative When Fighting Writer’s Block
Writer’s block can be paralyzing. Like every artist, I experience it occasionally, and so I have compiled a list of tricks and methods that I can rely on to fight it. There might be times where a certain method would not work so I collected as many as possible to have choices. I keep a doc with this list in the same folder as I keep my patchbay and MIDI routing documentation—I know where it is and I like to maintain and update it at times. You may know most of these tricks already and you may have other techniques that would work better for you., but these are the things that work for me:
- Change your workflow. If you use software synthesizers, try to avoid third-party plug-ins and only use the built-in devices of your DAW. If you are a hardware freak, use only software plug-ins for a day or two.
- Record audio instead of editing MIDI or automation.
- Use a recording device other than the computer such as a tape deck, a field recorder, or your phone.
- Choose random samples. Drag and drop them somewhere into the arrangement of the track your stuck on. Use all your skills to make them fit at that very position.
- Turn off your speakers. Cut samples or twist settings of a plug-in or hardware synthesizer and use these settings for a new track or song.
- Use the old laptop that you still might have. Or pretend that your computer can only handle a maximum of eight tracks in your DAW but no more.
- Use only software for an entire week, do the same with hardware the next week.
- Use an audio editor (e.g. Audacity) instead of your DAW and try to make a track with it.
- Listen to a track of your favorite artist and try to rebuild it from scratch.
- Use samples or presets you dislike and try to make something with it.
- Go out and exercise.
- Go to your studio and read a book. Do not switch on the computer or an instrument. Do the same the next day. And the day after.
- Do anything creative except making music. Write a poem, draw a picture, sing out loud, use Photoshop instead of your DAW.
- Change the position of your chair, your desk, your computer.
- Use a stopwatch. Give yourself only a certain amount of time to complete a task (e.g. “drums need to be ready in 10…”).
- Switch on the radio. For the first track that you hear, imagine how you would approach a remix of this track. Write down your ideas.
- If you are used to working late at night, start writing music early in the morning.
- Write the main theme of a film score with, for example, a 303.
- Can you not stand country music? Try to write a country song with the presets of one synthesizer.
- Go way back in time (use your archive) and take at least two elements from this old track/sketch and use it in a new one.
All photos: Kai von Kotze