For the twelfth edition of Studiotalk we introduce Leftback Records co boss man and Play Mastering owner Dudley Strangeways.
Dudley has built on the string of residencies across the Midlands and London after consolidating his reputation as a resident of the notorious Back To The Future parties. Skills honed warming up for the likes of Terry Francis, Phil Weeks, Eddie Richards and Brett Johnson have now opened the door to the international circuit with gigs in Mexico for Comunite festival appearing on Boiler Room and clubs such as the Space Ibizan, Weekend club, Golden Gate & Griessmuehle in Berlin.
As much at home in the studio as in front of a pair of turntables, Dudley has released a steady string of music both individually and collaboratively with Leftback label partner Michael McLardy, with appearances on Leftback, Ovum, Little Helpers, Kina music, Vekton Black, Stardub & Made of Concrete. 2018 has been big year for Dudley, with releases on Pleasure Zone, New Berlin based label “Chord Records” remixes for Jay Shepheard and Dragosh and more output on his own Leftback label.
1. Talk me around your studio set up; what are your go to pieces of Hardware & Software?
I use Ableton as my main DAW so everything’s been centred around that for the last few years. But over that time i’ve slowly built up a few bits of hardware, and have recently got myself a decent Midi clock so everything works in harmony. I had loads of latency and jitter issues prior, but the E-RM Multiclock has made all the difference and now I can work without having to warp and change the start times of the audio recorded, which can get massively frustrating.
For drums I only really use the MFB Tanbzbar and the Korg Electribe to layer over some percussion and then use the Nord Lead or the Blofeld for leads, bass and pads.
The main software I use is Reaktor, I think I must have used this in every track for the last few years as it’s an endless source of sound. I find it great that people must spend countless hours modifying and creating new instruments and then upload them to the community for everyone to use for free. I should really contribute and make some myself as I’ve got tons of the modded ones but I’m a big fan of getting on with things. It’s definitely something I’d want to get into more in the future it’s just having the time at the moment.
I use a lot of UAD plugins, there are loads of good companies out there Waves, Fab Filter, Sound Toys but for me with the UAD units you get a great sound with minimal effort as a lot of the plugs are modelled very well on old school gear. Some of my faves are the Voice of god (VOG) insane bass EQ, which does some mad filtering to get rid of all of the muddiness in the low end. The Moog filter, which can be used to turn some weak sounding pad into something real thick with the drive function. The EMT140 plate reverb always seems to do the trick on whatever it’s put on and the Eventide H910 Harmoniser, which can be used to add a little character to the mix or fuck with the fabric of time as David Bowie was once told.
2. You are veteran in the education game, lecturing Music and Audio Technology at Confetti Studios in Nottingham for the last 10 years. For an undergraduate student looking enrol, what would the course structure look like? and what career paths would a course like this lead to?
I teach further education, so the course is based over 2 years. Within those two years students will look at audio and midi production learning techniques such as remixing, sampling, synthesis, sound and music for media and aspects of the business side of things such as contracts, royalties and even paying your taxes and promoting yourself within the industry (I feel like I’ve just pitched to perspective students and parents at an open day!). There’s also a full term on DJing, which most of the learners really seem to enjoy. In terms of career paths it can be really varied we’ve had students go onto run successful YouTube channels, events, working for manufactures such as Avid & Prism sound, writing sound and music for film in L.A and a fair few have become artists and DJS with names like Jake Bug, Darkzy & Phillip George all having fairly prominent careers.
I think you get out of it what you put in, like most things. You can usually tell the students that will do well once they leave as they are very focused but there have been some surprises. One of my worst ever students (he won’t mind me saying this as I generally give him grief asking him what happened to make him such a sound and on-point geezer now) is now the head engineer of a good recording studio in Nottingham recording and engineering the likes of Rodney P and Roy Ayers band.
3. You have been releasing music on strong labels for +8 years with signatures on the likes of Josh Wink’s Ovum Recordings, KINA Music and Made of Concrete. With you being a label owner yourself, what advice would give to producers wanting to pitch demos to a label?
Some of this is fairly obvious stuff but still we’ve had some demos of late that are nowhere near what we release in terms of musical style. Making sure that your sound fits the label or somewhere near is key. You’re just wasting peoples time if you can’t be bothered to check the labels you’re sending your music to and it’s doubtful they will entertain you a second time if your music is closer to what they release. Check the demo submission policy, some good places to check are on Soundcloud and RA they will stipulate things such as track count and if they accept demos at all.
The email itself doesn’t have to be that formal as most label owners are fairly down to earth. I think just introduce yourself with a few sentences on what you’re about, previous releases if any then some streaming links to the tracks. It’s not a good shout to send tracks that need to be downloaded to be listened to as most wont bother. Streaming links are best, something like Soundcloud works well as you can track who has checked the tracks and also make them downloadable in playlists. For me it’s important to be a fan of the label that the music is being sent to, if someone comments on a certain previous release on Leftback it’s an indicator that they’ve an interest in the music and that most likely it will be somewhere close to what we release musically. Private links work well if you have a Pro Soundcloud account there’s unlimited upload space and it’s worth uploading a separate set of tracks for each label, some A&R folk like to have tracks to check exclusively. If they have 200 plays on your first track it’s usually not the best sign that the tunes are bangers, but you want to give yourself the best chance possible even though it should be about the music first and foremost. Peoples attentions spans are short and getting someone from a reputable label to check your music can be difficult enough, so why not stack all the odds in your favour even if it’s a little extra graft.
Ideally you would need to send 3 to 5 tracks maximum so there’s something to choose from for a full EP, not 30 tracks as believe it or not people get bored quick. There’s not a lot a label can do with one track either unless they have a VA lined up but then again to build your profile in my opinion you’re better of releasing strong EP'S than a load of VA’s and possibly getting overshadowed by the other artist on the release. Always send finished tracks mixed to the best of your ability, they don’t always have to be mastered, some label owners request unmastered tracks but this is down to the individual and it usually stipulates this on their demo policy. I would look to get the tracks mastered or if you’re not so clued up in that process something like Izotope Ozone is a good place to start, it has loads of pre-sets CD master 2 is a lot of people fave!
Here's an idea of what the mail could look like:
Hi (Name of the label owner if you can find one/don’t make one up!) my name is xxxx I hope you’re well. I am sending you 3 finished tracks for consideration for your label. I’m a fan of the label and play xxxx release in a lot of my sets. Please see private steaming and downloadable links below:
If you would like the demo in any other format please let me know. (Write a little bit about yourself/music related) I have been making music for 5 years and have released on labels xxx & xxx and have remixed xxx. I play regular sets in xxx and am an avid record collector. (Don’t worry if you haven’t any previous releases you could always list some of your influences)
It’s worth keeping this part short just to give the label a little bit of background info on you. It’s worth putting some links to your social media at the bottom RA, Facebook page etc.
Some do nots:
Don’t demand a release (not cool!)
Don’t send unfinished tracks
Don’t send more than really 5 tracks (Choose your best ones if the label wants more they will usually ask you but might be worth mentioning you have loads more tracks)
Don’t send broken links (Check the links load and play before you send)
Don’t use lots of different styles of text to catch the persons attention including bold, italics and different colours for headings is fine but needs to be kept at a minimum (This hurts peoples eyes and is an instant trigger for me to hit the delete key)
Don’t constantly email the label to see if they’ve received your tracks. A follow up email is fine but give it a little time maybe a few weeks.
Don’t send tracks for feedback (Send to your mates and other producers for feedback to get the tracks finished to send as a demos)
If you can’t get to the label by email or some other digital means there’s always the ambush and hostage techniques (just daft names not real terms).
(Ambush) Maybe think outside the box a little bit a USB with some fancy key chain on so they won’t just put the USB in their pocket. You could get the tracks pressed to vinyl and take it to where the label boss or a well connected artist from the label is playing and give them it as an exclusive. People for the most part are well sound and really appreciative of you taking the time and effort to get your music to them.
(Hostage) This is the pinnacle of a demo submissions, but it’s something people have utilised to get signed to labels in the past. If you’re playing at a night or going to a night where the DJ might be coming back to an after party always bring your music. The oh, what’s this track trick has worked many times. The same goes if you can offer your services as an artist liaison ferrying artists around in a car from the airport to the hotel etc. There are always people posting for help online with this sort of thing. Why not stick your demos on or put them in a mix for the ride there (which is a little less narcissistic than saying have you heard this track it’s me 5 times in a row). The artist’s not going to jump out of the car at 90mph up the M1 unless you haven’t check the demo policy before hand.
There’s some useful advice for beginners and also some tit bits for the more advanced peeps in a free PDF download called “A guide for emerging DJS and producers underground” - https://theundergroundbook.com/ worth a read.
4. You also run Play Mixing & Mastering services out of Attica Studios doing engineering work for some big artists like Maya Jane Cole’s, Pig&Dan and DJ W!ld to name a few. For producers looking for stem mastering, what steps would you advise someone to follow to make sure you get the best product to work with?
If I’m honest I very rarely do stem mastering, this is usually an option if the mix is nearly there but it can’t be quiet fixed with what’s been sent, or the client is struggling to get a full enough sound. I’m always happy to provide feedback on pre masters to get the mix sounding as good as possible, as it makes my job much easier in the mastering process if the mix is reasonably well balanced and it ends up with a better end product. If someone wanted stem mastering, stems would usually be split up into 5 individual tracks or more if needed. This is usually done in instrument groupings made up for example of drums, bass, effects, synths and vocal. Ideally these would need to have a fairly good balance of the parts in each stem and the imaging completed as the mix. As long as these points are kept to the results will be good for the finished master.
5. I can imagine for a lot of producers, they wonder what goes on when they submit their pre-master to a mastering engineer. Could you talk me through the process you follow to master a track?
L2 limiter and it’s done (kidding)! It can really depend on the track, the genre, and the final format it’s intended for. It sounds basic but listening through the track and spotting If it’s lacking anything in terms of frequency content or there is an uneven balance between the parts overall or in certain parts of the track. I would usually start by seeing if there is any super low frequencies that will cause issues with the various compression stages in the signal chain as compression works on Decibels and the bass adds a lot of juice to the meters. This can cause over compression if the compressors are driven to hard at the input unless the device has a form of filter control, which offsets the compression based on an input frequency. Then from there it’s really down to the track what’s been sent there is a usual signal chain that’s used as part of a template but some of the devices could be removed or some added in depending on what’s needed. Here are some of the main processes that are used depending on what’s needed.
The Pultec EQ1-A works really well sitting over the track without boosting or cutting anything, if you get a good emulation it adds another dimension to the track it’s very subtle but if bypassed you will be able to hear the thickness it adds. This can sometimes overcook things in terms of bass so it’s that A-B thing to ensure that it’s not being overdone.
I sometimes use some form of light compression again this all depends on the track and then into a Bax Dangerous mastering EQ using Mid-side techniques to push the stereo image and also add some low end if needed.
The track is then run through a Apex ATR102 (UAD not the real thing, I wish) and the EQ is adjusted on this if needed and also the IPS setting.
On occasion this can make the mid frequencies sound a little dull as the bass has been made fuller so using something like a Millennia NSEQ-2 to bring some of the mids range if needed.
Limiting is used and again depends on the track but I tend to use either the fab filter or the UAD precision, or a combination of both. For me it’s better to split the workload over two processes than try and make one do all the work you’ll get much better results. Dither is then applied if there’s any reduction in bit dept needed, whilst checking the correlation of the output to ensure that there are no phase issues. This does change from track to track and there are certain points that need looking out for when mastering for vinyl so it really can be different every time.
6. One production that has always stood out for me is your original track ‘Rolo’ that was released last February on KINA Music. It’s those Rominimal vibes that I can imagine sitting nicely in the record bags of Rhadoo and Ricardo Villalobos. Talk me through the process you followed to create that track? What tips and tricks have you got to achieve that sound?
This track was made a while ago before the arrival of the midi clock so it was mainly made up of bits of hardware and programming samples in Ableton. It was started on the kitchen table with my laptop and the Korg Electribe, I like stripping things back sometimes and ended up spending an hour jamming and getting a pallet of sounds down to work with.
The track is fairly simple drums, bass, pads and bits of percussion made from the Electribe with some stabs/percussion from Reaktor. The open and closed hats were recorded from the MFB Tanzbar this is utilised much more in my recent productions and it’s worth while recording in a 32 or 64 bar sequence with some slight changes in the hats to get that real change. It’s real easy to do with hardware but always but always seems like a lot of effort if the hats have been programmed in midi. You can then chop out the parts of the audio that work well and delete the ones that aren’t so great. So in effect the drums end up being a bit of a miss mash of different recorded parts, but this seems to give them character and groove.
The rest of the drums were programmed in via midi using the drum racks. I really rate these as there’s loads of flexibility within each slot for a sample and can be used not only for drums but for things like vocal stabs and bass hits. The velocity’s been changed to give the kick a little roll. There has been extra hats added in at points to give the drums more of an organic feel.
If there’s still not enough swing to the drums it’s worth sometimes using a loop or a few loops layered onto of each other. Ableton’s envelope sections is great for quick editing and it makes for some interesting grooves when multiple loops are layered onto of each other. This combined with the transient loop mode, which allows you to quickly gate the sound using the off function and pulling back the envelopes value you can really get things swinging and some interesting grooves you may never think to program.
The bass has been made up of a mixture of programmed midi from the simpler and hits from bass drum 2 of the Tanzbar, by extending the decay you can get some wicked results from. The percussion elements of the track are mostly made up from Reaktor using various ensembles such as the Rythmaker, Limelite and Limelife, which is a modded version of the Limelite and the Newschool mashed together in one. The Limelite inside Reaktor is great for getting interesting grooves from but it’s being way overused at the moment as you can hear it in loads of records from really prominent people, with some of the pre sets hardly even being changed. It has a wicked sequencer and allows you to change the way that the velocity affects the section of the player. You can get some really interesting results by setting the velocity to wave, which cycles through the samples held within that section of on the player. It’s got a very distinctive effects section “XFX”, which morphs the effect on an X-Y pad over time allowing you to choose the different parameters it effects such as freeze, resonance etc.
The pads are from Reaktor also from a instrument called “carbon” there’s nothing to crazy about these, fairly simple processing with some side chain on being triggered slightly by the kick. The Moog filter has been set with the drive increased and the cut off reduced using a low pass filter. The LFO is set to open and close at a rate of 0.10 with the waveform set to sine triggering the cut off to be opened and closed smoothly adding in slight change and movement through the track.
The last few parts that complete the track are a combination of different noises recorded in various places on my phone, I think one’s from a train and some background noise from a cafe or something similar. These are left fairly low in the mix and add some depth to the track, you can really notice them if they’re muted and always tend to use some form of noise manipulated in most of my tracks. As the noise is really low level there’s not so much of an issue recording on your phone in poor quality. The last element is the vocal, which I think was obtained from www.freesound.org and just chopped up and then bounced back to audio to make it easier to chop up and edit further. The tracks sequenced out in a way that allows it to have a long intro for mixing, which is always nice and a few small drops to change the dynamic in the track but nothing to big as I’m not a fan of big breakdowns, only on occasion when they’re called for.
7. When it comes to studio day, ready to start a new project, what would be your structure for making a track?
Coffee would be the first call and maybe listening to some music to get in the right frame of mind for the day, for me my favourite sessions usually start early morning even though i’m not much of a morning person, which is weird. Sometimes there’s an initial idea that I’m trying to lay down but usually it’s more the case of messing about with some bits of gear and seeing where it leads. I just try and keep in mind the end goal, is it a track for warning up, mid set or for the afters, which is a little weird and twisted. The end goal should be that the track is something I’d play in a set, if it’s not then it gets changed into something that can be or goes in the trash.
A clean project will have a track set up for the midi clock so there’s no faffing around with that and some processing already on saved as a template. This will have a Pultec EQ, ATR102 tape machine and a limiter on the master output, which is a similar chain I would use to master with. I prefer to mix into a limiter as for me I can hear what it’s going to sound like when it’s close to being finished. I always used to have issues with the bass being too loud in the mastering process when not mixing into a limiter, plus I feel that it helps with the vibe of the track with the processing on the master out.
I always tend to start with the drums and then focus on getting the drums and bass working well together. This can take some time to get the groove in the drums and it working with the bass well but spending that bit of time using track delays and adding random parts in helps with motivation when it comes to layering the lead parts. If the track sounds dead in my head I just think it’s no good and it doesn’t inspire me to progress with it. My goal at this point is to get a loop of around 16 to 32 bars of kick and bass that I could listen to for hours or days and not get bored of and you can’t help but tap your feet and nod your head. I think also doing a quick mix to get it something near helps, just event if it’s a few processes to get the low end rolling. The way I previously made music was to get a basic track down and then think well i’ll sort the kick later, the claps not right but it’s close and in the right place. By the time you end up going back and changing elements it becomes something completely different to what you started with and what was in your head, so it’s better for me to get it as close as possible from the off.
I use samples from time to time but most of these are samples from old records, there’s a wicked shop within 30 minutes drive to me in some small village that’s a goldmine for old records to sample. So a day in there every six months to a year grabbing some fresh material keeps me going for a bit. The sample either gets chopped up or I use the simpler within Ableton, which is wicked as it says it’s just a simple sampler. If a samples not being used I’ll use something like Reaktor or the Nord Lead to create a lead or some weird mid sound to push the track along. This is usually recorded in with some of the parameters being changed over 32 bars so that the sound has some movement.
All of drum recordings and programming of samples or synths are done in the session view, I try and build a full track in this view and copy all of the clips round to the arrangement view. The clips are then duplicated from start to finish, usually around 8 to 9 minutes depending on the track. I find that building an arrangement by deleting parts works a lot easier and faster than building up a track say in 16 bar sections. You can just go through and delete certain parts out and listen through to see if it works. Once there is a rough structure down I can start adding in all of the intricate parts like automation, rolls & skips in the drums and bass.
Even though I’ve mixed the track as it’s been created I will adjust the mix or completely start again depending on if the original mix has some vibe to it. If it’s got a vibe then it will be just small adjustments like pan and reverb as there’s nothing worse than if a track has some character and a sound about it when mixed down it looses this. Parallel compression is used if there is a parts that needs to be more prominent and thicker, instruments are grouped and everything is organised, stereo imaging is applied using different plugins and techniques depending on what’s called for. Then it’s time to leave it for a while and export a mix to check away from the studio, also to send to that one trusted ear for feedback.
Its really boring but I’m a big fan of writing lists, not for shopping or anything like that just for working on tracks. I find that listening to the track in headphones away from the studio, I can write down all of the points that need adjusting. This way issues can be corrected quickly when it’s time to finish the track and points can be crossed off to give myself little wins this really helps me see when the track is close to being finished as I hate doing all the minute parts, but they need to be done. Once I’m happy-ish I’ll export a pre master and drop it into Logic and master it so it can be played out and sent around to a few people I know who will give it a road test. Sometimes things need adjusting or you get bored of a track but getting some feedback from others of how it went down is always good.
8. Learning and understand the mixing side of music production is something that comes with the more time you invest. For a new producer looking to pick up the best practices from the get go, what are the must do’s & don’ts when comes to EQ and compression?
Yes I agree you have to put the time in to get some good results especially on the engineering side of things. I think first of all knowing what you are mixing on is key even if you haven’t got the best monitors or you’re mixing on headphones. Get to know how your music sounds sonically compared to other tracks, a good way to do this is use reference material. It’s worth building up a collection of tracks you’ve played, or feel sound wicked to A-B between your finished mix and the reference. Or if you have access to CDJS, a controller or some DJ software try mixing between the two and see if there is anything lacking, imperfections always really stand out this way. There is the issue that your tracks may not be mastered against the reference material but a lot of this is level based in dance music so turning down the reference mix can give you some idea. It also helps if you have someone you can trust to give you feedback on your mix and be critical and constructive at the same time, this is something hard to find but when you do it’s always worth checking with that person.
EQ is a minefield for a lot of new producers and I tend to see a lot of boosting, sometimes the whole frequency range, which is crazy. It’s way better to cut with EQ than boost as effectively all you’re doing is turning up a band of frequencies unless you are using something like an SSL channel or TG12345 EQ to get some colouration in the sound. The bypass button if your best pal when using EQ, try bypassing then putting it back in the mix with the track in solo and also with the rest of the instrumentation. It’s worth also doing this when cutting frequencies. I used to cut off all unwanted frequencies on parts of the track and start chopping into the mix, which is not ideal as it can leave the mix empty. For example if you were using EQ on a hi hat, its all hi frequency content right? Sometimes that noise low or mid range especially in dance music adds that extra vibe to the mix. OK if you’re mixing pop music you would be much more clinical but noise isn’t always bad as John Peel quoted! Good practices for EQ that seem to work most of the time are:
Pultec EQ1-A UAD has one of these, in Waves it’s called the Puigtec and there is also one in Logic, the latest update under classic EQ I think. Hit the the kick setting the low frequency on 60hz and boost it till the kick bust the speakers or you feel that there is enough punch and boom to carry the track. This coupled with a transient designer works wonders, something like SPL transient designer is one of the best shapers on the market. The Pultec also works well on the high end and doesn’t cause any crunchiness like some Equalisers do due to the units lack of processing power.
The SSL channel EQ (Emulation) using the high mid frequency to push the mids in pads and leads. This really brings the mids out as you can imagine but it’s done in a very musical way and makes the part pretty well pronounced and thick in a club, allowing leads, keys and pads to cut through and fill up the mix more.
It’s similar with compression if it doesn’t need a compressor why use one? For me there’s two main reasons why you’d use compression. Reason 1 (corrective) to control the dynamic range of source material. This could be applied for example on a vocal, which can be achieved through alternative methods such as automation, having a good vocalist or using something like Waves Vocal rider. Some engineers are totally anti compression and feel that if you’ve record the source material correctly there should be no need for its use. The issue is that most dance music is built around samples that have been pre reordered, compression can be used as something to level parts in the mix or you could use another sample, which brings things back around to getting it right at the source.
Compression can be used used to thicken parts out reason 2 (creative) with parallel or buss compression. Most compressors have an input gain so setting this so the compressor’s not being slammed on the input is the first point of call. Again bypassing and putting the compression back into the mix to ensure that you haven’t overcooked things is something that I would say is key.
There are the obvious compressors that do certain jobs like the 1176 FET is great for adding vibe to a mix, for bass or for parallel compression in the smack all mode on the ratio section where all the ratio buttons pressed in.
The API 2500 is a great all rounder, which can work in old or new mode to change it’s character.
LA2A for pads I tend to use a lot as it has a slow attack but driving the input gain as on the 1176 can get some interesting results.
I think experimenting with tape compression is also interesting and you can get some wicked results from this. The more you drive into the tape machine as the compressors the more it drives the unit and the IPS (Inches per second) when set on a lower speed for example 7.5IPS gives the drums real glue when used on a drum buss.
For some good tips on compression or if you need to gain a better understanding of it’s parameters this guy is fairly on point: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oOmX3JHwtE
9. For a producer with a £200 budget, what would be some good hardware & software to check out?
A lot of manufactures are making using hardware more accessible these days with the introduction of ranges such as the boutique series from Roland and the Volka units from Korg amongst others. Some of these units are wicked and around the £200-£300 mark but my money would go on a second hand Electribe. A second hand Electribe ER-1 will set you back around £100 / £150 but has a fair bit of flexibility, you’ll be able to get a range of sounds from it including drums insanely deep bass, percussion and some lead sounds. If you can spare an extra £100 It’s worth looking at the Electribe ESX-1, this is a sampler but you’re able to load in your own sounds and from what I hear these are great to get a quick groove down. It’s next on my list when one comes up that looks like it’s not been kicked around a football pitch and has a reasonable price tag. For software you’re only really looking at Logic 10X as Ableton is a fairly bit more expensive, the Introduction version of Ableton is under £100 but it’s limited and even though I’m not the biggest fan of Logic it’s still great value for money at £200. It comes with a load of instruments and sounds, they’ve started to include modelled hardware in the new updates such as the Pultec and the Neve EQ the compressors not bad either as you can switch between different models based on 1176, LA2A and the SSL bus compressor, which is really handy.
10. Could you name a few artists that are set to break through in 2019 ?
There’s a few good artists around at the moment in terms of producers I think that Miffy & Miller are ones to watch, their output is insanely good and with only a few releases they’ve a lot more to come with their productions and their Real Gang label. My buddy TIJN is also making a lot of good music even though he’s had a few months off to sort his garden out! He seems to be back on it now though.. In terms of DJ's I think the duo Jada and Harry McCanna are playing some really good music and think they’l do well in the next few years.
11. Whats next on the release front for Dudley Strangeways?
I’ve just signed my second EP on Pleasure Zone, which will be out by the end of the year, an EP on James Dexter’s Inermu wax imprint and my first solo outing on Leftback without splitting the EP with Michael McLardy or another artist from the label.
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