Ask the Experts: J-E-T-S
Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar step up ahead of their debut album, 'Zoospa.'
Ask the Experts: J-E-T-S
Machinedrum and Jimmy Edgar step up ahead of their debut album, 'Zoospa.'
J-E-T-S should be familiar with all XLR8R readers by now, having submitted a podcast back in 2015—and with both members having featured prominently on our pages. Machinedrum, real name Travis Stewart, has completed a studio feature and written some highly informative Artist Tips, while Jimmy Edgar completed a Hi-Five in 2015.
This feature comes before the release of the duo’s debut album, Zoospa, out May 24 via Innovative Leisure following a series of EPs released on the their own Ultramajic label dating back to 2012. We’re told to expect a fiercely cohesive but wildly varied long-player.
Machinedrum and Edgar first met as teenagers on a pivotal trip to Miami, one of their first ever gigs outside of the places they were raised (Edgar originally hails from Detroit, Machinedrum from rural North Carolina.) They bonded over a mutual love of Warp, Schematic Records, and Chocolate Industries. A tight friendship was forged when both lived in New York but their first self-titled EP didn’t drop until 2012, by the time both had independently decamped to Berlin.
Eventually, they relocated to Los Angeles where their second EP was recorded in 2015. The idea has always been to record something bigger and more expansive, but it didn’t become a reality until Edgar headed up the coast, eventually settling and building a home studio in Portland. That’s where Machinedrum headed in the late summer of 2017 to cook up the tracks that eventually became Zoospa.
Zoospa will land on May 24, but ahead of the release you can read their answers to your questions about production, DJing, and just about everything else.
How do you handle dynamic and evolving careers? Does your art tend to lead career decisions, and do you ever worry about alienating fans with new material?—Kaelin B
One big thing we’ve learned after having long careers in music is that it’s important to enjoy the process and be as present in the creative moment as you can be. It can be easy to fall into the habit of planning for the future too much. For example, you might find yourself trying to decide where a track will go in the middle of creating it, what label it fits on, if it’s an album cut or better for an EP, if you should pitch it for someone else’s project, etc. There’s also the potential to focus on how people might perceive your work or potentially criticize it. Doing these type of things can take you out of the moment and will cause you to make decisions that usually end up affecting the music negatively. The more present you are in the creative process, the more the excitement and joy of that moment becomes clear in the music.
This same presence should be applied even after the creative process is finished. Every moment leading up to the release of your work should be treated with the same respect, presence, and love as with your music. This includes press- and promo-related things, building a live set, creating the artwork and music videos, or anything else related to the rollout of a release. That way when the day finally arrives and you’re able to share your music with the world, it feels much more like an exciting journey rather than like you’re “going through the motions.”
In regards to alienating fans, we apply the same principles that we do for our everyday lives. When you become too focused on the external world for validation you will find yourself feeling lost and confused. Yes, it is important to engage with fans and hear where they are coming from but it is impossible to know what leads every individual person to listen to your music. It’s impossible to know their overall taste in music, what aspects of your music drew them in originally, or what their lives are like in general.
Typically when someone complains or says something negative about your work it is coming from a place of insecurity and shouldn’t be given much attention. However, there are cases where someone genuinely misses a certain sound that you have provided in the past and there’s nothing you can really do about that. There’s been many times when people who aren’t in to our latest work eventually come around and find themselves loving it. We can think of many albums that “grew” on us in this same way and eventually became favorites. It’s our nature as creators to constantly evolve and try new things. Anyone who understands this usually doesn’t take issue with a musician taking a different direction with their sound.
How many of your tracks are MIDI vs recorded audio/samples or loops ?—Andrew Ford
The only time we use MIDI is for external gear like rack mount synths and modular. After we are happy with the sound we made or preset we chose on the gear and whatever chord progression, sequence, or melody we have come up with, we then record the audio into Ableton Live using rack mount EQs and compressors. All of our drum programming is done in Ableton in audio tracks using samples we have processed through the MPC 60. Most of the drums, modular, and some FX samples used on the album come from a library we created at the very start of the album writing process.
Are there any particular synthesizers or features of your DAW that are integral to your workflow? —Andrew Ford
Not really. Often we would go out of our way to try something new. We experimented with vintage samplers, synths, and effects along with newer digital technology. We feel that we could make the same aesthetic with any synth, sampler, or musical program.
Do you guys collaborate mostly in person or remotely, and are there particular roles you each stick to?—Andrew Ford
We prefer to collaborate in person initially, so that the song starts off feeling like we’ve contributed equally of the idea. We try to get a basic arrangement done together as well before we start swapping the session back and forth online. When we start working remotely it’s mostly for mixing purposes, and occasionally if we feel there’s a production element missing. For mixing, it’s nice having different studios with different treatments and monitors so that we make sure the mixes sound great in both of our environments. Once we’ve signed off on the first stage of mixing, we run the individual tracks through outboard EQs and compressors to give it a final mix-down.
As far as roles go, we tend to both share a lot of the same ones. However, we have noticed that both of our ears catch things like rhythmic timing, pitch, key, and tuning issues differently. We both end up noticing things that are off that the other might not catch as quickly.
What aspects of the tools you use are the most inspiring?—Andrew Ford
We choose the aspect we want to explore and the inspiration comes before that! We are generally already on a vibe before we get into the studio since we both know something incredible is going to happen when we get together. The tool is secondary, but we always put a lot of love into whatever we are using. The fun we have with each other is kind of like showing each other how we get into the zone, utilizing different techniques.
How the heck do you guys make those super lush sounding chord and pad sounds? I’ve been learning inversions and jazz scales, and also widening using tricks like really small track delays (so you get extra sub harmonics and unexpected things.) They still don’t sound as good as yours.—Philthy
The elements of a good chord recording are many really fun steps. It starts with a good voicing of the sound. A good voicing can make a timbre sound good or bad too. This is why the same chord played on an organ sounds different than it does on a piano. The chord harmonics work together with the timbre to create a spectrum of sound. Sometimes it’s a matter of changing the sound you’re using so that the chord progression is more defined. We recorded mostly digital hardware for the chords, with a lovely analog channel strip. This part adds harmonic distortion and noise to the recording.
Another trick is the spatial placement of each note in your chord. If all the notes of your chord are spread out within the stereo spectrum it can help to bring out some of the notes that might have been buried before. Some soft synths have stereo randomization options which you can use to your advantage. These kind of steps make it feel more alive and we believe this is where thoughts and feelings get encoded. After that, we consider sculpting the sound with devices such as EQ. We often take a considerable amount of time creating the chords!
As a duo, are y’all better song starters or song finishers? —Theo Kepler
It’s important to be both! Balance.
Would you guys consider doing an AmA over at r/electronicmusic? —Erik Hernandez
Of course! We love sharing our processes and things we have learned with everyone. There are no secrets. We believe in giving back in this way because it fuels more creativity which can in turn inspire us in the future. It also helps us to identify our own process in a way; when verbalized, it becomes more defined and we are able to apply it more efficiently in our own work.
Hi chaps, I’m just wondering how everything sounds so shiny and clean in your recordings. Is it that majestical 432Hz master I keep hearing about? —James Bernardo
Clean up is an understated exercise in music. It’s a risk to record vintage music equipment since it’s so noisy, but it gives us an opportunity to cut out what we don’t want and shape the transients by hand instead of relying on compression. We rarely use compression in J-E-T-S and in the mix process we made every transient bump.
Hi Jimmy and Travis. One of my favourite parts about the two new singles are the chord progressions. Some of the chords are pretty jarring together yet they still sound so fluent in that classic ’90s R’n’B way. How do you build your chord progressions? Also, what are the chords for “Potions”? —Jordan Russell-Hall
Even though we are pretty confident keyboard players, we tend to have a much more careful approach to writing progressions. We find that when we improvise on the keys we often end up playing a lot of the same kind of progressions or chords that we have in the past. There are a few ways we come up with progressions; one of the more interesting and new ways of writing we have discovered is to go back and forth writing each chord in the progression individually. For example, one of us will add a chord to start, then the next person will come up with the response to this chord, and we keep adding more chords in response to each other’s, etc. This makes the progression feel more like a back and forth conversation rather than a linear statement. You can hear this technique on “Potions.” The results are usually quite strange but it somehow works!
Why have you decided to work on the album now? What’s the motivation behind it?
We’ve usually found the time to collaborate for creation’s sake instead of collaborating for a specific purpose like making an album. When we got in the studio in Portland in summer of 2017, it was just to make music for fun, but we realized that we were on to something pretty special compared to our previous work. It felt like all of our experience from the past had accumulated into those new moments. The music was just pouring out of us. After one week we had made almost 10 songs and it was obvious to us that we were making an album, even if we hadn’t intended to!
You guys seem to be on a gratitude/universe tip right now and I applaud you for this. Was there an event or person or book that nudged you in this direction?—Jason Walker
There have been many events that have led both of us to our respective places of newfound spirituality. We have been guides for each other, lending our advice and recommendations when the moments present themselves. We both get excited when we talk about new things we have learned and how we have applied them to our lives. We have found that we must align our vibrations so that we can access unlimited possibilities together, which has been imperative to the growth and success of our collaboration. In order to do that, we have been focusing on becoming more of our ideal selves independently so that we become even stronger when we come together. We both enjoy the works of Dr. Joe Dispenza, Wallace Wattles, Esther and Jerry Hicks, and Eckhart Tolle, to name a few.
When you sit down to make music or come up with new ideas, as solo artists, what are your goals? —Anthony James
Our main goal is to be present and to be conduits for ideas to flow through. Our best ideas come from when we are experiencing the joy of creation for creation’s sake. As soon as we try to intentionally make a beat in a certain style or genre it tends to not be as rewarding of an experience. It’s best to be open and try new things, challenge each other and to make sure we are having fun. The energy we put in to a track can be felt by those who listen to it. If we struggle and labor over a track for too long, people can feel that. On the other hand, if a song just pours out of us and we find ourselves laughing and smiling uncontrollably, people can feel that as well.