From Time-Consuming Workflow to a Faster Means of Making Beats, for !llmind, the Sensibility Has Always Remained the Same
|By !LLMIND, as told to AMIR SAID (SA'ID)|
Every week or so, I get together with !llmind, acclaimed beatmaker/producer and BeatTips.com Senior Contributor, for our regular “check-in” discussions. We talk about a lot of things, but of course, the conversations invariably shift to beatmaking. From the nuts and bolts of the craft; to theoretical concepts; to gear and equipment; to the business of beatmaking; to the beatmaking tradition's history, we talk shop about it all.
For this BeatTips Shop Talk, I thought it would be a good idea for !llmind to give a detailed account of the evolution of his production setup. For one thing, there's been some misinformation (and much speculation) about what !llmind actually uses and has used. Also, I believe other beatmakers/producers can always learn from the gear paths and choices of fellow beatmakers/producers. Therefore, what follows is a meticulous portrait of the setup changes !llmind has made throughout the last decade or so. Keep in mind, every piece of gear and software program and subsequent change helped !llmind cultivate his beatmaking skills and his overall style and sound. Finally, although this BeatTips Shop Talk is, on the surface, about !llmind's production setup evolution, it also reveals a lot about his process and willingness to always conduct research (as well as his consistent focus on extending his learning).
BeatTips: List all of the gear and equipment currently in your production studio, along with its significance, and why you have it, and how you use it.
!llmind: OK…So my main piece, I pretty much incorporate everyday when I’m in the studio…well, first the brain of the entire setup is a MacBook Pro, which I carry around with me wherever I go. And basically, I have a MacBook Pro with Pro Tools 8, which I use to sequence, sample, chop, edit; everything is in Pro Tools. All of my sounds are from VSTs and RTAS plug-ins, a lot of that stuff is from Native Instruments-based; you know, Komplete 7, Kontakt 4. Then I have XLN Audio’s Addictive Drums and a basic Oxygen 49 MIDI keyboard (semi-weighted) that I use. A pair of Sure SRH940 monitor headphones that I use a lot, especially when I’m on the road. And my home monitors are KRK Rokit 5’s, and I have a JBL sub-bass, 12” sub-bass. These are the tools that I use everyday. All of my sounds are literally on a hard drive. So I have just hundreds of gigabytes of sound files and patches and instruments. But then I also play a little bit of guitar and bass. Also, I have an Ensoniq ASR-10, which has been my main piece for the past, I’d say, 12 years now.
The ASR-10 is kind of where it all started. It was there in the beginning when I first kind of started to make beats. I learned a lot from using it. And it’s just one of those things, you know, that I just thought about a few times…I thought about possibly selling it, you know, or putting it into storage. But it just has this nostalgia to it. I have this J-Dilla sticker on my ASR-10. It’s been there for a while. It’s just one of things that I don’t want to get rid of, ever. So it’s sitting there [in plain site, actually a level below the Oxygen, easily accessible] collecting dust. But at the same time, it’s there. Just looking at it pushes me forward.
BeatTips: So what was your very first production setup?
!llmind: That’s funny. My first, first production setup, if you go back to when I was 13, the first keyboard that I actually learned how to make beats on was a Roland KR4500. Now, this is a keyboard, if you go to Google and look it up, it’s one of those “home”, MIDI electronic keyboards. And back then, I remember my pops said he bought for like $7,000.00, something crazy. And it’s just this big thing, it’s really heavy. And that’s how much those keyboards used to cost back then. So that was the first piece that I used where I actually learned how to use MIDI. And I didn’t know that I was doing it. You know, it was just kind of this keyboard that had a sequencer and a bunch of sounds; and I remember I just used to program beats for fun. I was 13. So I was playing video games and making beats. That’s what I did with my free time.
BeatTips: So at 13, you were already into hip hop?
!llmind: I was already into it; well, I was into music. I wouldn’t necessarily say hip hop. I was just into music, you know. My father was a musician, so he introduced me to music when I was real young. He played guitar, he had keyboards and drums and stuff. That particular keyboard was one of the instruments that I started on. So fast forward to around high school, freshman/sophomore in high school, that’s when I really, really, really started getting into hip hop. I remember early days, I was into…that’s when Tribe Called Quest was out. That was early Roots. Rakim. Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Black Sheep. Arrested Development. Those was my golden years. So getting into hip hop in that way, the first piece of equipment that I actually bought with my own money was a sampler by Akai, an Akai S20, which I still have. The Akai S20 is kind of like a toned-down MPC. It came out before the MP; it’s got 12 pads on it, real dingy plastic pads. But the sampling on it was really great, ‘cuz back then I was into sampling with lower bit rates and things like that. I started to do my research on what Pete Rock and DJ Premier were using and things like that, and back then I couldn’t afford an MPC. So I got an Akai S20…I got it on eBay for like $200. So I got the S20, and I had a PC at that time, and I downloaded Cubase.
So my first official setup was Cubase, on a PC, MIDI output triggering the S20. And I figured it all out myself. I was like, ‘How can I trigger this stuff?’ So I went online and I did a little bit of research on how to trigger this thing and how MIDI worked. So I was doing research on different software music programs out there. Back then it was Cakewalk, Cubase, infant stages. So I found out about Cubase, got my hands on it, downloaded it, installed it, and somehow I figured out how to trigger this S20 with Cubase. That was actually like my first real setup. And then from there, I got a Korg Triton.
BeatTips: What made you switch?
!llmind: Um, I think I just wanted more sounds. Back then I was really into the J-Dilla/Pete Rock sound. Like those guys were the ones who really inspired me, they still inspire me. I wanted to expand my setup. Like I always knew, ‘Oh, I need sounds.’ I used to go diggin’ all the time, and I would sample drums and chop drums, and that was one big, huge part of my beatmaking. And I was just always fascinated with sounds, too, like, ‘I want sounds; I want keyboard sounds.’ So I went out and got a Triton.
BeatTips: Do you look at the Triton as a setup switch or as an add-on?
!llmind: Um…I kind of actually looked at it as an upgrade, because on the Triton you can sample and you have sounds, and it’s all in one keyboard. It’s got the floppy disk drive. So it was an upgrade for me.
BeatTips: So was it a long time before you completely stopped using the S20, or did you use it for a while together?
!llmind: I used it for a while. I kept the S20 because I loved the way the drums sound on it. So I would always run my drums into the S20 first, and then run them into the Triton.
BeatTips: When you ran them into the Triton, you sampled them in?
!llmind: I sampled them in. I would have my turntable output routed into my S20 first. And then I would sample a bunch of drums. And then I would bit crunch in the S20; I think it was like 16bit crunched down to like 12bit. And then from there, I would take those drums and sample them into the Triton. Because in the Triton, supposedly that Triton had a digital sampler, so it would pretty much just duplicate the sound, but I still wanted that grit, so I would run everything, especially my drums, through the S20 first.
BeatTips: Then how did you get it into the Triton exactly? Would you just press playback on the S20?
!llmind: Yes, press playback, then sample it into the Triton. So I used the Triton for a while, then in 2001 (I believe, maybe 2000) I copped the ASR-10.
BeatTips: And what lead you to that [the ASR-10]
!llmind: I went to Guitar Center to buy a Motif Rack, which I bought that day, and I was messing around, I was looking in the keyboard section and I saw an ASR-10 there for $500. So I scrounded up my last dollars, whatever dollars I had, to buy it. And I bought it, because I had just heard so many storeis about the ASR-10. A few of these others producers that I knew told me how great it was. Then I found out that the RZA used it, so I was really interested in it. So I looked at it like an advanced S20. Like this is a sampler that samples at a lower bit rate, which I liked. It had a really analog, warm sound to it. And it was a keyboard. AND you could sample a lot longer than the S20.
BeatTips: So what sort of effect did it the ASR-10 have on you?
!llmind: I think the ASR-10 brought me back to the gritty approach of making tracks. When I had the Triton, it was a lot of keyboard stuff. Not as much sampling, more keyboard. But the few years that I used the Triton really taught me how to…it kind of polished me a little bit more, as far as making beats from scratch. So I got the ASR-10; the Triton got dusty—eventually I got rid of it. So now I got this ASR-10 and I’m back to doing the sampling, sample chopping, sampling piano sounds into it and playing them out on the ASR-10.
BeatTips: Because the ASR-10 has no sounds in it. A lot of people didn’t realize that it didn’t come with sounds, and they got a rude awakening when they got it.
!llmind: No, it didn’t. To me it was the best of both worlds, because I could sample my own sounds and then play them out on the keyboard, which I wasn’t able to do on the S20. So I was on the ASR-10 for a while. Eventually, I upgraded to a Mac; it was like a G4. And I think around ’03 was when I got Pro Tools. And I started to learn how to use Pro Tools. So the ASR-10 and Pro Tools was like my setup. So I would I sample and create beats on the ASR-10, then I would dump [track/record] them in Pro Tools. So I’ve been sequencing and arranging and dumping my beats into Pro Tools since around ’03. So late last year I decided that I needed to upgrade again. And it wasn’t one of those things where like, ‘Aw, man, I feel like I have to.’ It sort of kind of happen. I got a G5 last year, and I was using Reason and Pro Tools, and still the ASR-10.
BeatTips: What were you using Reason for?
!llmind: Sounds! What I would do is play stuff out on a MIDI keyboard, on Reason, but then audio out from the computer into the ASR-10. So I would still sample into the ASR-10, but the sounds were coming from Reason. So that was like kind of…my setup was pretty much hardware and software together.
BeatTips: Right, the hybrid.
!llmind: Yes. I was sequencing in hardware but my sounds were in software, which is kind of a weird setup, but that was my setup for a long time. So then kind of keeping up with technology, I just decided to go and look for more sounds and see what else is out there. So I knew that I needed to get a better computer. I knew that I needed to try and figure out a way to be more…I wanted my setup to be more effective, as far as cutting time to what I’m doing, you know. When you work with the ASR-10, you have to create the beat on it, and then you have to dump each track one by one and mix. I wanted to cut my time.
BeatTips: Stay right there for a moment. Contrast the workflow of the ASR-10 to the Triton to where you are now.
!llmind: OK. With the ASR-10/Pro Tools setup, everything was done on the ASR-10. I would start with sampling drums, you know, from a record or a CD; I had CDs where I compiled a lot of drums. So I would make the beat in the ASR-10—sample, chop, do the normal stuff. If I needed keys, I would load up Reason on Pro Tools and I would play certain riffs and then sample those riffs into the ASR-10 and treat those like samples. So in a way, I was playing keyboards, you know, keyboard sounds and things, but I would treat them like samples still. Let’s say I had a piano riff of like 2 bars. I would play it and then I’d sample it into a single key.
BeatTips: And what were you using to play Reason?
!llmind: A basic MIDI keyboard. So I would sample my own playing into the ASR-10. After the beat would be done—meanwhile, I’m doing all of this in mono, everything was in mono because it doubled my sample time in the ASR-10. So after the beat’s completely done, I would track each instrument, individually, in 8 bars, into Pro Tools. So that alone took me an additional half hour. If I had 18 different instruments, I would have to record each instrument, one by one, into Pro Tools. Then after all the tracks are in Pro Tools, I’d have to go into Pro Tools and line it all up. So I would line them all up into the grid. Then another kicker is, a lot of people don’t know that the ASR-10 grid is slightly different than the Pro Tools grid. So if my BPM on the ASR-10 is set for 90, and then I set Pro Tools for 90, they won’t match. It’s slightly off. So I couldn’t work in the grid in Pro Tools. Which is a huge inconvenience. So I what I would do is record a click track into Pro Tools for, let’s say, 8 bars. And then I would use the clicks as my visual points to where I would have to line everything up. So it’s kind of like I make the beat, then I deconstruct it, and then put it back together again. And that took me an extra 30 to 45 minutes.
And I’ve always been one of those producers where I always love to mix my tracks, too. Some producers 2-track and call it a day. But I think mixing is another art form. Mixing is a part of the creative process. So I would spend even more time, after dumping into Pro Tools, I would spend even more time mixing the beat. And after it was all said and done, it was [just] one beat made. And I remember I used to just keep banging them out all day, early morning to late night. So that was my workflow. It sounds…when you think about it, it sounds like it’s so much, but I’ve been doing it that way for so long, and I’ve been so comfortable doing it that way. That was my workflow. And so with just that, and then also the fact that I wanted to kind of just broaden my sound and explore. I wanted to continue my full heights of expression. I knew that were some limitations having that kind of setup. So working with certain artists, that really kind of opened my mind. Working with artists like Jared Evan—Jared Evan is an artists signed to Interscope, who’s a rapper, a singer, a producer, and a musician. Approaching things as a true musician really led me to want to expand my setup, get a more effective setup. And also my band, Smokey Robotic, meeting those guys really opened up my mind, too.