Ask the Experts: DVS1
Zak Khutoretsky imparts his wisdom on DJing, music production, mastering, and everything in between.
Ask the Experts: DVS1
Zak Khutoretsky imparts his wisdom on DJing, music production, mastering, and everything in between.
In the latter half of 2016, news hit that Zak Khutoretsky (a.k.a. DVS1) was making plans for HUSH’s 20th anniversary celebrations. Through those past two decades, the HUSH umbrella has covered all of his business—raves, label work, and what he described as his “vision of purist techno.” In true hustler style, the fanfare was a grand one, kicking off with The Wall Of Sound event in Rotterdam (a tribute to his early rave years, in which he invited Jeff Mills and Dasha Rush to perform alongside himself through a wall of speakers); since then, he’s rounded off an international tour and also dropped the excellent HUSH 20double EP.
It was the pinnacle of a lifetime of hard work and dedication. The past twenty years have shaped Khutoretsky into one of electronic music’s most distinct figures. Anyone who has seen him DJing will more than likely have been bowled over by his infectious energy—a trait which undoubtedly stems from his open and spirited personality. His trademark agile, precise tweaks of the mixer, seamless transitions, and full-body rock to the beat all come together in a special way: whether he’s spinning house tunes in Panorama Bar, or racing, straight techno to pitch black rooms, the DVS1 experience is unforgettable.
Though we know him for his work over those 20 years, DVS1 and HUSH were a lifetime in the making. The multi-talented musician’s character was being molded from the day his family emigrated from St Petersburg to the midwest, taking a young Khutoretsky to Minneapolis. It was there that he would find his feet in the rave culture, progressing from DIY parties to eventually establish his own club (as well as creating plenty of tall tales along the way). From his local hero status, he’s grafted to become an internationally respected crate-digger, studio hand, and all-round electronic expert.
Last time Khutoretsky contributed to these pages was in Real Talk mode, promoting debate about the changing atmosphere inside clubs, in what has become one of XLR8R’s most popular essays in recent years. We are delighted to now welcome him back, this time to impart wisdom on DJing, music production, and everything in between.
How do you approach music making? It is a daily routine for which you set up a certain amount of time, or is it more easy-going? Do you “jam” randomly until you know there is a track coming or is it focused on a certain idea from the beginning?
As I’ve always been a DJ first, production is something I’ve learned to appreciate and grow with over time. I try and treat it very much like my DJing in the sense that I attempt to capture something in the moment. I’ve never actually sat down with an idea in my head or a set direction that I had to go. What comes out of me, is what’s inside me. I turn things on, jam, and see where it might go. My mood, my surroundings, and experiences leading up to that moment unconsciously influence what comes out.
I start everything as a simple loop, sometimes with the drums first, other times with a synth or pad. I then work on that loop for a period of time and usually try and walk out of the room at some point and just let the loop play in the background. I know I’ve got something there if the loop manages to shift and move on its own just due to the textures repeating and manipulating in my mind. If that single loop stays interesting to me, then I keep going and expand it, adding more pattern variations, or changing up the synth lines a bit. I try and recognize when my process has hit a dead end for any given thought. The hope is that I can push the track or idea out quickly, as I found that my best and most memorable tracks were actually the ones that were written in a matter of 2-3 hours total. Of course, some tracks take longer and I need to go back day after day and keep sculpting it till I get something, but it’s good to recognize when you hit a wall and move on—save the file and either start a new idea or walk away at that point. With using a computer program you can easily and safely take a left turn and try a variation of the idea. And I can always go back to the original idea I was working on and keep going, or vice versa. The beauty of this is that you can’t really “make a mistake.” You always have a good point to go back to at any major change.
The way you conceive techno is very particular and a thing that really catches me about your productions are the soft kick drums, the stripped down elements, combined with different sorts of harmonics making an altogether unique sonic experience. So I’ve been wondering, what is your particular view when producing a track, what kind of emotions, feelings, or moments are you looking to transmit?
Everything is emotion, and writing music is just another form of expression or speech for me when trying to describe a feeling. In terms of sounds or textures, it’s just what my body and ear are attracted to, or in some way even a muscle memory from my dance floor days. A soft or I would call it synth style kick vs. a stiff drum machine kick seems to be what I think “feels” good when I hear things up loud. I think back to my past experiences of dancing in front of walls of speakers and my instinct is to gravitate towards a certain feeling or pressure that I remember. In the studio, I’m unconsciously chasing that feeling in those low kicks. I used to tell people that I remembered sound and its attributes on a sound system as hitting me in different parts. The bass/kick was what moved my body and put me in sync, the high hats, claps etc were what made me jerk my body and snap in different directions, and the synths or stabs were what I felt in my chest and emotionally what I connected to. We make body music, so as much as it’s bad for my ears, I make music loudly, so I can feel it, and at times I even close my eyes and put my head up to the speaker so I can really hear how it sounds as if I was standing in front of a speaker stack and I try and imagine myself on the dance floor.
How do you achieve your sound with so very few elements?
I don’t intentionally do this, but I imagine that my music will be played on large systems and I realize purely from experience that the most simple, effective things have the most impact when they are allowed to stand on their own. The reality is that if you’re always filling up more channels with “stuff” because you’re not confident in what you have, maybe you actually need to re-evaluate the idea in general? A few strong elements are much more effective than a bunch of filler. For instance, I might layer two or three kick drums of various sonic frequencies to achieve one new kick, and the hi-hats might stay simple but have reverb and delay on them to come alive and create multiple sounds from just one note. I usually just start by dropping in a few notes on the pattern and move them around until I find a new rhythm with that element. I do that with all my sounds until I have layers of rhythm. Towards the end of my process, I often find myself subtracting elements to actually find the track. As I peel away all the extras I start to realize the power of the individual sounds again.
feeling in the moment allows for you to just get lost in the rhythms instead of counting out how many bars you need for the next change.
In regards to production, you previously said that you were doing all “in the box” using Reason. Have you stuck to this method? Are you 100% content with it?
Back in the ’90s, I owned a bunch of gear that just sat and collected dust. At that point, I just wasn’t that into production and I hit a few disasters in my life that required me to sell off everything I had. When I found Reason, it was the closest I could get to thinking like I was with gear, just now in computer form. Today, I’m still basically 100% in the box (using multiple midi controllers to stay away from the mouse) with a few exceptions of borrowing a device here and there to sample, or try out and record. I always try and record my take on a loop in real time using the controllers instead of mouse clicking and pre-determining my track sequences. The feeling in the moment allows for you to just get lost in the rhythms instead of counting out how many bars you need for the next change.
The reality is that I’m only using Reason at less than 30% of its capability. There is so much more for me to discover inside of the program that there is no need for me to look elsewhere right now. In my opinion, you are better to become a master at the program or gear you choose than to have hundreds of tools in front of you that you barely know or even power on.
Should producers have their tracks mastered before sending them to labels?
No, because mastering will not change the idea or the basic “magic” we look for when listening to something. If I’m connected to a track, I can hear it even when it’s unpolished or just a few loops and ideas that aren’t even put together yet. I’ve signed people to my label Mistress after hearing just a snippet of an unmastered track because I could hear that it had exactly the vibe I was chasing. The only advice I would say when sending is to make sure you label things correctly. Put your artist name in the title of the track! I can’t tell you how many times I have had no idea who the track is by, or how to make contact with someone as I might have received 10 emails that day alone for demos.
When it comes to mastering, how involved are you getting? Do you pay much attention to it or are you trusting someone in particular? Any pressing plant you prefer?
For all of my own HUSH records, as well as the Mistress releases, I have been working with Tim Xavier at Manmade Mastering in Berlin. I always try and sit in on all the mastering sessions and rarely do I have to interfere with his methods—the MMM studio is professional and they know what they are doing. The goal of mastering is not to alter the track, but to realize its full potential and get it to the next phase. The reality is that the person running the machines is still human and sometimes they might have an off day or too many projects in front of them that might affect how they hear something. But overall, I’ve only had to re-master a few tracks that I thought could have a better final result than our first take.
There are some mastering engineers that are known for their volume, some for their textures, some for just the fact that they are clean and fair to your music. Do some research by looking at records you like sonically and see on the etching of the vinyl who did the mastering. If you keep coming across the same few names, then try and get to them when you reach that point! I personally use Pallas in Germany for my pressings, but really there are so many good pressing plants across Europe that have been doing this for years. The problem right now is that mainstream major label re-issues are eating up vinyl pressing time and slowing down the underground scene. So right now, every plant is backed up and music takes a while to get from production to final stages at the record store.
What does your master bus chain look like in the mixdown process, and how soon do you add these items when mixing? I’ve been typically running a tape machine emulation, some EQ, bass compression, harmonic excitement, and imaging, but wondering how much of this I should just leave for the mastering engineer. Also, do you shoot for a typical RMS level during mixdown (separate from final master level)?
I’ve had this discussion with a few artists about chasing the rules vs. what you actually hear. For instance, I’ve got methods where I fully push certain signals into the red and over compress things in the creation of sound and that by all knowledge is something you should never do. In the analog world, you can get away with more distortion; whereas with digital, you have to be careful with things clipping and pushing them into the red, as digital distortion is much more damaging to the audio. But—and this is a big one—if you close your eyes and don’t look at the technical mistake of being in the red, or pushing something outside of what you’re supposed to push, does it sound good? Did you achieve what you were going after? If yes, then go with it! There are no rules to this. If you can make noise and record it, then you can use it—as long as you don’t carry over negative artifacts or digital clipping.
In terms of the coloring of your sound: use whatever you want as often as you want, because this is what gives you the unique sound or texture that can become “your sound.” A mastering engineer should never have to distort, over compress, or saturate your sound to change it—unless you work closely with someone and this is just part of your end goal and they understand that. Your sound should be delivered to them at a level that is clean enough that they can bump it up and pull out anything that will be overly harsh or affect playback or pressing to vinyl.
What’s your opinion about the importance of simplicity in the arrangement of electronic music?
I think you have to realize what the end goal of your production is. For instance, I make tools for myself as a DJ. I’ve never set out to make music for others, it just happens that people seem to appreciate my tracks—but I make them purely for use in my DJ sets. I also try and remind myself what I’m drawn to when I go record shopping or hear tracks from other producers that I want to play in my sets. I don’t always want breakdowns or every track to be a “stand alone” piece. I actually want things to be arranged and stripped down to the basic elements and flow of a DJ set. If you make DJ music, then pay attention to the intro and outro parts making sure to leave time for us to mix. If you’re writing pop songs that are played individually then you may want to approach this differently and might need to include a start, a break, and an ending.
I chase, sculpt, and extract rhythm and groove when I DJ, it’s something that has become my way of DJing and potentially what sets me apart from others.
I’ve listened to many of your sets offline and attended most of your events in the Netherlands, and in your DJing, you always have this impeccable groove that you follow throughout the tracks and this groove ensures proper mixing between the tracks. My three questions are the following: How do you remember the groove of all your vinyl tracks? Do you have any special tricks/techniques for hearing/feeling the groove of a track in a home environment? Do you have any tips on how to transition from one groove or rhythm into another?
I spoke about and admitted recently in a video interview I gave at Slam Academy in Minneapolis that I actually don’t always 100% know what I’m playing—in the sense that I trust myself to have gravitated towards and selected music of varying moods that I use as tools in my DJ sets. I virtually organize my digital tracks in folders for moods/colors and do the same physically in my record bag. I just trust myself to just take a risk and attempt to paint a cohesive picture through my set. I always describe myself as a beat and rhythm addict and, honestly, maybe only years later did I realize how honest that description is in terms of how I DJ.
I chase, sculpt, and extract rhythm and groove when I DJ, it’s something that has become my way of DJing and potentially what sets me apart from others. I don’t do this on purpose, I am just drawn to certain rhythms or textures. It’s an experiment each night to get from point A to point B in my allotted set time. I choose a mood to start and then it’s unknown how I will get to where I end. In between, I just find and sculpt new rhythms from being in the mix all the time. Because I have at least two levels going at any time and am looking for a third track to add in, I’m always pushed to manipulate or EQ things to make them fit together. Someone recently told me that I “bassline mix,” which I had never heard before but understood exactly what they were saying. Some tracks fit together perfectly, other times I have to push on them and EQ them to work together, and this is where my beat and rhythm addictions come to life in my ability to do this in the moment. It’s not always perfect, but if you are on the dance floor, I think you can hear this happening in real time and that’s what helps create the tension or builds on this permanent groove that I achieve.
Are there any tracks you only play at Berghain?
I will expand this question to not just Berghain, but to any venue I know intimately or if I know what sound system I’ll be on. For instance, certain rooms are so perfectly dialed in, from the sound to the size to even the natural reverb of the space, that I know there are certain tracks that would just come alive in those environments. There are absolutely things that I carry around week after week just looking for the right situation to play them and sometimes it’s very reliant on what I described above. For example, the track “Polyphonic Love” is one of the most stripped back and simple tracks I’ve written. When that Transmat record came out, everyone was drawn to the other track “Pressure,” but for me “Polyphonic Love” was my secret weapon. I really could only play it on a bass-heavy system, as most of the power from that track came from the low-end synth. When played on the right system, that track was so present and warm, but on a weaker setup, it always fell short and made me lose my momentum.
When you make transitions between tracks, do you have EQ technics that you use repeatedly or it’s just how you feel it at the moment?
I was raised on watching DJ’s who worked—meaning they didn’t just let the music play—of course, some tracks need to breathe, but in general the DJ’s I grew up on were always “in the mix” and manipulating things by volume, EQ, fader levels etc.. So, the short answer is: yes, I have technics that I probably use a lot, but each mix is different; sometimes you ride everything and rely on the volume and compression of the room to allow one track to take over, sometimes you use the EQ to do that, and in some instances the monitors in the booth are so in tune with the dance floor sound that you know you can be really precise and it will carry over into the crowd’s perception. Each night is different, and for someone who is always “working” that means that every night brings a new challenge and circumstance, so you have your “tools” or “tricks” but each night makes for a real adventure style of DJ set.
Besides having good technical ability and record selection, do you think there are any other elements, maybe psychologically, spiritually or otherwise that can set a DJ above the rest?
I would clarify and say that beyond ability and selection, time is the next greatest element to make someone good. In a discussion with Jeff Mills, he described to me how he believed it took 10 years to master something. To do the same thing over and over every day so that you become a master is something that people overlook very often. So many DJ’s and producers want instant gratification or instant success. Dedication and patience are the ingredients to mastery.
I also believe that from the emotional side, you have to be empathetic to really understand what people need and not just what they think they want. To be emotionally vulnerable and honest, and to be connected to everyone on a little bit deeper level can transcend your music from just another performance to a spiritual experience for people.
How do you feel about playing in a club (extended set) versus at a festival (2 hours set)?
Personally, I prefer clubs or warehouses or lofts where people are all dancing to the same beat, the same vibe, and sharing in the experience. The DJ sets can be longer and, hopefully, the crowds are with you for the adventure. Festivals are short sets, 1 of 10+ stages, and most people I talk to don’t really even enjoy it in the end from the crowd side as they are always chasing another act who is starting on another stage every 30 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure some people have fun, but musically I think the focus is much better in smaller environments and lends itself to a more diverse selection by the artist.
What do you like to see in DJs who are on opening duty? What are some of your personal do’s and dont’s for opening DJs?
An opener is the most underrated and under-appreciated artist by the crowd in most places, but as a touring DJ, the opener can instantly become my favorite person if they do their job right. As much as you may think I want to hear you play the same techno you think I play…I don’t. I would rather hear your ability to hold back and your ability to set me up and leave me room to start at a level where I can really show people what I do. Any DJ should be aware of their role in the night to a point that they are educating people, to guide them in a direction and vibe that is always building to the next part. This can be tough, especially with the random person standing in front of the booth fist pumping at you to play harder or get the party started. Just remember, that’s only one person, look around the room, past that first row of people, and think what you would want at that moment if you were on the dance floor. Trust your intuition!
The problem these days is that we attend genre-specific events all the time where it’s “techno” or “house” all night. I was raised on parties where it was always built up to the peak of the night, musically speaking, with housier, slower vibes early on, then leading into something heavier, and then deeper again to bring everyone down at the end. I remember anticipating the change in vibe from DJ to DJ, and by the time “techno” came on, people were so ready for it that it had maximum impact. The problem with an opener just banging it out before me is that I can of course play “harder” or “faster,” but then the crowd will never really get the full experience of what I can deliver if I have the room that I need to start from scratch. If events are at peak all the time, people will get tired of this music sooner than later.
In recent times, how has your experience been with playing vinyl in your sets? Has the overall quality/maintenance of the turntables in clubs/venues improved?
A few years back I would have said no for quality, but in general, I think it’s getting a little better with vinyl setups again. What I do now is I start with CDJ’s and then once I know the set up is solid I try a record—if it works, I try the other turntable and then, when I know everything works, I can relax and use all the tools in front of me. I try and not stress anymore if it works or not, as I’m prepared to use any format I need, but in an ideal world, I have all my options working. Clubs in general are more stable, whereas festivals and pop-ups are always a gamble for vinyl. So I plan accordingly based on where I’m playing and if I know it can be trusted.
…you need to do this purely for the love, purely for the self-gratification you get from playing music, with no expectation of anything greater.
Since you bought the Man X record collection, are you still digging? (Maybe Add-on: And why do you think digging is an essential part for (being) a good DJ?)
It took me three years of constant organizing and filtering through this collection to get one pass through over the entire collection of 25,000 records. I’m now at a point that I have kept about half of that and it’s now well organized by label and artist. From that dig, I found about six to seven crates that I’ve pulled out and want to re-visit in some way, whether it be for edits, or purely for DJing. The rest of the collection I will treat as a library that I can look through at any time for inspiration, research, or just to listen to good music! . I think it’s fundamentally important if you want to be a true DJ to dig, and to do this constantly in your daily routine. Whether it be online, or in record stores, or on YouTube, you should always be searching for more music or finding ways to define your sound. There are so many outlets and access points now and you are no longer limited because of your location. If you only look on the current shelves or in one destination you’re limiting yourself to such a small fraction of what’s out there. I find that even after 20+ years of searching I’m always discovering new things and this is what makes me stand out as an individual because I define what my sound is by my taste and dedication to always discovering. I’m in a constant state of organizing, researching, and experimenting.
What do you think about the fact that these days too many DJs are more likely to be booked worldwide thanks to their marketing and having released a couple of records rather than their skills as a DJ and their track-selecting capabilities? How does a DJ/producer break through in a time when social media, promotion, and gimmicks seem to always be at the forefront? How does a DJ specifically get known for their skill in playing music without producing any music vs. being a producer who might release a few records and suddenly become a DJ in order to tour?
There is no formula or full proof answer to this question. The reality will always be that someone can out market you, someone can socialize their way into the scene, and even buy their way in some places. My answer has always been that you need to do this purely for the love, purely for the self-gratification you get from playing music, with no expectation of anything greater. Even if you do that, I can’t promise that anything bigger will come of it. I can only share from my personal experience that true talent, intention, and sacrifice will pay back in some way.
For me, it was a multitude of things that all came together after nearly 15 years of doing parties, taking risks, playing music, and just doing what I loved and sharing that with people. Of course there was some luck, but when the opportunity showed itself I was unknowingly ready for it. I had created my own identity and built a history and wealth of knowledge that prepared me for the first few chances I got. When those doors opened up, I was able to show up and present my vision, my take on this music, and deliver it at a higher level.
Not to sound harsh, but especially to those who haven’t even crossed the 10-year mark that I spoke of earlier: slow down and take a deep breath and just get good at what you do. You may think you are there already, and you very well might be on the verge of something great, but imagine what a few more years will teach you. This scene moves fast and you might only get one or two real chances to make an impact when that door opens. Don’t just rush to the finish line unprepared and untested. If you have the potential to be unique, and in the end timeless in your craft, that talent will rise to the surface and you will achieve success, whatever your definition of that may be.