Editorial: My first EP, the journey of an aspiring DJ/producer
Much of the dance music magic that fans enjoy in surging crowds is actually conjured up late at night in empty rooms. Production can be a lonely endeavor — lacking the dynamism and social banter of a live band rehearsal. Most of the tracks you love were crafted by a handful of people who spent an inordinate amount of time in front of computer screens, burning the workflow of their favorite software sequencers into their retinas.
The democratization of digital technology has simultaneously evened the playing field and eliminated excuses. No longer does one need expensive hardware synthesizers and mixing boards to make a mark, as advanced software can place any learned hand on an industry standard trigger. Skrillex won his first three Grammys using a simpler setup than most bedroom producers, prompting all to ask, “Why can’t I?”
My name is Sicarii and I count myself among them. My journey to dance music production may appear unlikely. Unlike much of the digital generation from which the current flock of prodigies propagates, I grew up idolizing the Doors rather than Daft Punk, and disrupting my parents’ sleep with basement rock bands rather than four-to-the-floor beats. Coming from a rock frontman’s mindset, creating music has always been a paramount priority. After I traded in patch cables for turntables and began playing club gigs, I came to view DJing as a means to the eventual end of sharing my music with the world.
This is easier said than done. Many fans don’t realize how much the skill sets required for DJing and producing differ. While being good at one can have residual benefits for the other, knowing how to mix records does not prepare one for making them. That’s exactly why ghost production is so rife in dance music. Most touring artists who originally made it as DJs require track releases to remain relevant in today’s climate. Many lack the time to invest in learning the nuances of multiband compression and composing elegant chord sequences. Meanwhile, many talented audio engineers lack the skills and stage presence required to wow a crowd. While producers are more empowered now than ever, it’s still how the industry works.
As I developed my skills as a DJ, I began delving deeper into dance music production. Production is an ocean, and each dive into its enthralling and time-consuming embrace reveals new depths originally unforeseen. When I was asked by Dancing Astronaut to pen this editorial describing the process of producing an EP, I realized that the story could not simply focus on successes. Skipping over those early nights spent struggling to learn Ableton Live‘s interface would unfairly airbrush the process. Production’s learning curve is treacherously steep. An artist now signed to Steve Angello’s Size Records once admitted to me that he had given up learning Ableton on three separate occasions before it finally clicked for him. “Good thing I didn’t give up a fourth time,” he said with a grin.
There’s an amazing Ira Glass quote on writing that is all too applicable to this torturous process.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this… It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” – Ira Glass
It does take awhile. Even once you’ve finally gotten the software interface down, you’ll still need to tackle melodies, harmonies, rhythms, sound design, effects processing, arrangement and song structure. And that’s not even addressing the meticulous mixing and mastering stages that are just as vital to any track’s success. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. It often takes a couple years of tutorials and trial and error before fledgling producers feel like they have a real grasp of what they’re doing. I taught myself music production while juggling schoolwork and abroad internships, often forgoing fun in the name of making music. It’s important to remember that the real deals in this industry did not make it by gallivanting around emulating the rock star lifestyles they now lead, but by logging the superlative studio hours it took to get there. But with so many fronts to forge forward on, it can be difficult to actualize progress into results.
A formative moment came upon meeting Steve Duda at Mau5trap in Miami last year. I was struggling with finishing songs because of the rapid pace with which I was learning new techniques. I felt like I needed to sit on my material until I had learned enough to make it the best it could be. Steve wisely told me that I’d just be sitting forever. He told me that the learning never stops, and that you have to set your babies free by releasing them to define your sound before moving on to the next project. You may cringe when you listen to the early releases in your discography, but that’s the only way to have a discography in the first place.
This lesson hit home while working on my first EP with my co-producer Pepe Rivera. Over the course of three months, we continually rewrote our two original mixes as we discovered new influences and learned new techniques. In the sonic forge of sleepless sessions, “We Rise” and “Stick People” evolved through countless iterations that sounded nothing like their final mixes. It was also a valuable lesson in compromise, as we at times had different visions for the songs and cooperated to keep each other’s excesses in check. At a certain point, I realized that we were scrapping good ideas simply because we had rendered them stale in our ears through countless hours of critical listening. We adapted by taking time away from the tracks to recharge our brains and setting deadlines, which enabled us to finally bring the tracks across the finish line.
Signing my first record deal with Black & Purple Recordings was undoubtably an exciting experience and a career milestone. Watching the EP crack Beatport’s top 25 tech house releases and garner support from the likes of M.A.N.D.Y. and Paul Strive was amazing. But by the time it landed on Beatport, our focus had already shifted to producing its follow-up and implementing new techniques to improve our output. Steve was right. While there are certainly improvements we’d make to We Rise with our present knowledge, the release opened up innumerable doors that would have remained closed if it had never left our hard drives. Further, the arduous learning process of finishing a first release makes it significantly easier and quicker to finish future ones; we’ve already got a stronger second EP waiting in the wings.
I cannot overstate the importance of collaboration. Varying strengths can combine to create undeniable harmony in the studio. Working with Pepe helped me understand how to transform cool loops into fully conceived tracks. Pepe has a natural feel for rhythm and arrangement, while I like to wade into the atmospheric deep end on effects and engineering. Over the course of producing our first EP, we focused on our own strengths while learning from each other’s, and we both became better rounded producers in the process.
Paco Osuna once told me that he was working with ten different producers at once. When I asked why, he told me he learned something new from everyone with whom he worked. Truer words were never spoken; each artist brings different strengths to the table. My long-time collaborator Micah is so skilled in synthesizer sound design that he can create imagined sound waves from scratch. My latest co-producer GLock has an excellent ear for melodies and the mastering process. His dubstep background combined with my techno techniques to create…big room house? We’ve just finished an EP that neither of us could have conceived on our own. Such is the unpredictable and exciting beauty of creative cross-pollination in dance music. By focusing on your strengths and working with others who complement them, you can achieve art that is greater than the sum of each of your parts.
To those interested in producing, I urge you to jump in the water. This ocean is vast and deep enough for all who are eager to enter and emerge with a realized artistic vision. To my fellow DJ/producers on their grind, keep soldiering on. I know I will. Being able to constructively channel my emotions through music has helped me temper tough times, and I am continually drawn to the allure of creation’s spark. Besides, dance music needs the creative renaissance that an influx of new and hungry talent can provide. To that aim, I’ll be launching a new weekend feature in the coming weeks called Dancing Astronaut Auditions, focused on providing an outlet for fresh and original material to earn the audience it deserves. Stay tuned!