Machinedrum talks producing in the box, the plugin universe and 156 BPM guitar arpeggios.
He embodies the effortless meld of acoustic, electronic and sampled instrumentation. The web of labels that he’s released with accounts for significant influence across dance music: Merck, LuckyMe, Hotflush, Planet Mu and Ninja Tune most notably.
His musical resume includes collaborations with Praveen Sharma (a.k.a. Braille) as Sepalcure, Jimmy Edgar as JETS and Jim Coles (a.k.a. Om Unit, 2Tall, Nyquist) as Dream Continuum. Human Energy—his new LP—is rife with live vocals, replacing the usual samples. Almost every track features genre-bending collaborations with vocalists and guitarists alike.
Born in North Carolina, Stewart has bounced between New York and Berlin, eventually settling in sunny Los Angeles, California. When we visited his house in Echo Park, it was clear that he’s found a new source of spirituality and human energy. His home studio—overlooking a lush garden—blends sage and incense aromas with sound creating a synaesthetic and organic space.
The centerpiece of his home-studio is an 88-key fully-weighted MIDI keyboard. For an artist of his stature, you might expect walls of synths and gear. What you find instead is a refreshing, sleek and pared-down setup where the magic happens mostly in the box—an increasingly prevalent approach to modern music production.
Dig into the journey behind Human Energy, and the generous conversations we had with Machinedrum about translating a concept into a finished album, collaboration and the process behind his studio wizardry.
What are the ideas and influences at work on your latest LP Human Energy, and how did you translate those into finished tracks?
There are certain esoteric ideas and inspirations that influenced the writing of Human Energy, but those were more literally interpreted in the visual world created by the art directors over at Ultramajic. Music-wise I wanted to just do something differently and challenge myself to write music in a different way. I had become very uninspired by attempting to continue to write the same style of music I had been for the past five or six years.
A big change has been my reliance on samples. I wanted to become less dependent on using samples as the driving force in my tracks. I decided the way to do this was to make an Ableton Live template that limits me to using only synthesis when writing a track. While there are obvious moments when an 808 sound gets layered in with the percussion, the rest of the track elements were made using either a VST-I, built in Live plugins, my guitar or one of my friends vocals. I wanted to use my friends vocals and treat them as samples like I would have in older tunes where I was using some overused 90’s R&B acapella.
I also wanted to step away from the transposed minor chord style writing that has dominated my work for a while now. Additionally I wanted to challenge myself by writing in major keys rather than minor. It’s so hard to write in major without it seeming a bit cheesy. As a result the album sonically may come off as a shock to most people who are used to the muted and dusty sounds of my previous albums. I wanted to make something that takes you out of your comfort zone as much as it did to my own comfort zone when I wrote it. It is in that place that true discovery can happen.
I wanted to make something that takes you out of your comfort zone as much as it did to my own comfort zone when I wrote it. It is in that place that true discovery can happen.
I’m very curious about your collaboration with Tosin Abasi. “White Crown” is an incredible track, your lush production and his virtuosic guitar style make for a rich, high energy set of rhythms and timbres. What was it like to make that track and to work with him?
I originally started the track without him and wrote this crazy arpeggio progression. The track started to give me heavy metal vibes and a lightbulb went off in my head. “I should get Tosin on the track!”. I had tried to collaborate online with Tosin years back while living in Berlin. We didn’t have the luxury of getting in the studio together so he was sending me some guitar ideas and I would try to write some beats around it. We never really finished any of the ideas unfortunately.
Now that I live in LA I decided it was time for us to link up in person. I went over to his studio and brought a rough version of the track. I asked him “how about copying the arpeggio verbatim on guitar?”. If I had asked anyone else this I would have sounded crazy. I knew he would be able to smash it! So I started playing the different sections of the synth arpeggio—two measures or so—at slow speeds so that Tosin could learn the parts. Then I slowly would increase the tempo as Tosin would try to keep up. Once we reached the tracks tempo of 156 bpm we would start recording. It was pretty mind blowing to witness.
I hear various club influences in your style: Baltimore club, footwork, juke, bass, etc. What have you learned from the club as a cultural and artistic space?
I think club music brings people together regardless of their race, gender and culture. It also unites people no matter what their background or knowledge of music is. Good club music brings out a tribal nature that I believe is engrained in all of us. The challenge is to make good club music that also works in a home environment. Most of my favorite music tends to straddle the line between those two worlds.
The challenge is to make good club music that also works in a home environment. Most of my favorite music tends to straddle the line between those two worlds.
Most club music stems from a specific urban area and eventually becomes globally accepted. I grew up in North Carolina and wasn’t raised in club culture, so I’ve gotten used to seeking out club music from different places in the world and letting it influence me. If I stayed true to my roots I’d probably be making terrible sounding country music or something!
How has your studio setup evolved over time to get where it is right now? Could you break down some of the core components and how they fit into your process?
I’ve got used to doing everything in the box from an early age. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I could even afford anything more than a laptop, speakers and a MIDI controller. When I was able to finally build a studio, I didn’t really get that much apart from a better sound card, better computer, better controller and better monitors.
A big change was getting an 88 key fully-weighted piano MIDI controller. I grew up playing my mom’s piano so I wanted to bring that style of writing back into my life. It completely changes the way you write melody and chord progressions when you’re simultaneously playing the lower bass registers.
In the DAW world, it’s very easy to get lost in the plugin universe and constantly try new things. While it’s important to do this to learn about what’s out there and to find what works for you, it can be very distracting and also become increasingly difficult to find your “sound”.
In the DAW world, it’s very easy to get lost in the plugin universe and constantly try new things. While it’s important to do this to learn about what’s out there and to find what works for you, it can be very distracting and also become increasingly difficult to find your “sound”. This is why I created a template in Ableton Live to force me to use the same instruments on every track. It’s sort of like buying a few pieces of gear and writing an album with only those tools, except it takes up way less space in your studio and saves you a lot of money.
You’ve been releasing music for over 15 years across a whole variety of genres and approaches. During that time, what’s the aspect of your production process that has stayed the same? What has changed the most?
The fact that I still do most of my work in a DAW is the main thing that has stayed the same. The DAW has only changed once really, from Impulse Tracker to Ableton Live. However, my approach to writing is constantly changing within those DAWs. Whether that’s limiting myself to certain BPMs, samples or style. Nothing has changed that much really.
You’ve spoken in the past about making a conscious choice to take time off from touring to go back into the studio. Lots of producers these days—especially ones that tour a lot—seem to create on the road, in hotel rooms, or wherever possible. Why is it important for your process to actually make significant studio time for a project?
I was writing in hotels, on planes, on trains and nearly anywhere I could out of necessity. I used to have to stay touring to be able to pay the bills. I still have to do quite a bit of touring now—so I’ve had to consciously take time off to focus on writing. It’s fine to write some tracks to play in the club or whatever while on the road. When it comes to writing a cohesive album I find it’s more difficult getting in the right headspace when on tour. Don’t get me wrong, I still write a lot while on the road. It’s just different writing. I usually work on remixes, edits and one off singles while on tour.
How did you discover LANDR?
I think I saw it on one of those annoying facebook ads over and over and over—[laughs]!
You mentioned that you use LANDR as a tool for quickly getting tracks club-ready in advance of a gig. Could you tell us a little bit more in depth about how that works for you?
I’ve tried using mastering VSTs on my tracks before and got varied results. LANDR makes it pretty painless and brainless to have something ready to play in the club the same day you make it. Especially when I’m on the road and don’t have a chance to check a track I’m working on on proper monitors.
As long as I have a good amount of headroom, LANDR makes something instantly playable when I get to the club that night. I don’t have to be worried about it being too quiet, distorted or squashed sounding. It also gives you a good idea of what it might sound like once you send it off to be mastered by a human.
A lot of times if you have something that’s standing out too much in your mix, it will stick out like a sore thumb when you get the master back. When you have crazy short deadlines like I sometimes do, you don’t have the luxury of waiting to hear the master to make those changes.