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Charlie May - The Making of Sasha's Invol2ver

We recently had a chance to speak with producer Charlie May about his latest work on the hugely anticipated Sasha release, Invol2er, which is set for release September 8th. Charlie has been a long-time Sasha collaborator (Xpander, Airdrawndagger, Involver, Emfire Collection), is one half of the legendary UK duo Spooky (with Duncan Forbes), and has released and remixed for some of the most respected labels in the business (Bedrock, Global Underground, V2, Ministry of Sound, Renaissance, among many others).

All of us at Access are very happy to welcome Charlie to Access Spotlight.

Can you give our readers a bit of history on how your relationship with Sasha began?

Charlie: I first met Sasha around '98. My lawyer called and said he had this DJ client of his who was looking for someone to collaborate with on an album. I thought it would take 3 months...

What was the first project you worked on together?

I played him this riff I’d had sitting on a DAT for 5 years. We chucked it in the sampler, Sasha started programming furiously on his MPC and we ended up with Xpander.

When you were working on the first Involver record, did you have an idea at the time of how groundbreaking the record would be in terms of what people think of a remix or mix album? This was really uncharted territory at the time wasn’t it?

In a way it was the natural evolution of running two careers side by side: artist, record production and DJ'ing. Artist albums had a hard time competing with countless mix CD's. We always felt the two aspects should join forces, that way our focus would encompass everything; production, remixing, performing. The arrival of Ableton in our lives was the catalyst because suddenly we were using the same kit in the studio as in the club. It turned everything on its head in a really exciting way.

Going into the production of Invol2er, was there a vibe you all sort of agreed on, or an idea for how this record would be sonically or aesthetically different from Involver?

We didn't have a clue where to start to be honest, so we took a few different avenues to test the water. You can hear that progression in the emFire singles. They pretty much map out us stumbling in the dark looking for that right angle. We threw a lot of mud at the wall so to speak and there are countless varied versions of most of the tracks that are on the finished album. About 2 years of noodling off and on until we found a way to make this sort of record.

Can you tell us a bit about the process of the song selection for Invol2er? Did the direction of the remixes influence the songs that would ultimately end up in the final mix?

It can be a bit chicken and egg choosing the right tracks to remix. Sometimes you love the original but can't get the remix to work or it doesn't fit with another bunch of tunes you did 6 months earlier. Sometimes we'd get excited and do a great mix but then not be granted a license by the original artist. A couple of the tracks were chosen at the last minute because we needed something specific to fit in the running order. We’d also end up mixing together two or more remixes to make a third hybrid mix. A legal minefield is very easy to create if you're not careful. It’s a lot more complicated than just doing one off club remixes.

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The making of Sasha's Invol2ver

Did you all work out of the studio in New York for the Invol2er sessions?

Yes. It actually belongs to Garth Brooks with the Bon Jovi offices upstairs. We must have been from a different galaxy in their eyes, but a big enough space to accommodate all of us comfortably. The bonus CD was done at my studio in London with Bazz (Barry Jamieson) in New York on iChat and the studio server. I like to work like that. No one can see your bad habits, plus the time difference worked in my favour since I knew Bazz wouldn't be in the studio in New York until about 2pm my time, which is open to all kinds of abuse.

How was the collaboration between everyone working on the record (Sasha, Duncan Forbes, Barry Jamieson, Leo Leite and yourself) managed in terms of ideas and direction? Did you have individual stations to work from, or was there more of centralized area to work and bounce ideas off each other, or a bit of both?

Both really. We had one main mixing/control room that we were all using at different times sometimes individually sometimes together. Also Leo, Duncan and myself had our own mini setups in other rooms. Some tracks took ages and would be moving from place to place as different people worked on it. Others were written and mixed on a single iMac very quickly. I think as people get used to each other's work patterns and inclinations it becomes easier to work remotely just sending files back and forth. It’s great to have both options of being in a group or working alone.

Can you walk us through your equipment setup for Invol2er - Barry has told us you guys had some really fun toys around the studio for these sessions!

There was a constant stream of equipment coming through the door. During the recording everything changed; monitors, acoustics, synths (Bazz's Jupiter 6 died half way through r.i.p.), new software and half of eBay would arrive daily. I get defensive when there's too much gear and retreat to the back of the room with an iMac and headphones!
We used just about everything. We borrowed a lot from a music store in Manhattan to try out, plus people kept sending yet more gear. By the end we had Eventides, circuit bent drum machines, heaps of guitar pedals and racks of SSL and Universal Audio lovelies. We were constantly trying to improve the mixing end of things and so ended up re-doing the acoustics in the main room too. In a way it took us the entire making of the album to get organized. I stuck mainly with Ableton, an Eventide H3 or DSP, Jupiter 6 and Virus TI.

In the four years between Involver and Invol2er, were there shifts in the technology behind creating these records or the overall approach to the construction of the remixes?

The computers we use get more and more powerful but apart from that, and the odd new bit of gear, the basic set up doesn't really change. The real difference is in our approach to making the record; certain techniques become outdated and you learn new tricks and want to hear new sounds. For me it's all a massive never-ending learning curve. I realized that having fun and learning/evolving the use of the studio are very much the same thing.

Sasha has really pushed the envelop in terms of a DJ interacting/remixing a song in a live setting though his use of Ableton Live and his Maven controller – has this changed the way he approaches the studio and production aspect of his work? Watching him use this controller live – it has really become an instrument hasn’t it?

Yeah I think using the same equipment live and in the studio has massive benefits. One of the main discrepancies between gigs and studio work is it's very hard to judge how a track worked on in the studio will sound in the club and vice versa. Getting the mix and overall shape of a track right is much easier with this set up. Just like real musicians we can and have developed tunes at gigs, actually written parts while DJ'ing that have then been used on the final recording. All I can say about the Maven is that you wouldn't want to drop it on your foot. So yes, it is like a real instrument in that it weighs several tons.

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The making of Sasha's Invol2ver

The record has a really cool old-school quality to it – did playing with these older machines inspire this sort of back-to-basics element of the mixes?

Duncan and myself have always been into our old clobber, more so than the rest of the team so we would be constantly bringing that element into play. I don't want to be static in front of a computer forever so I think much of the attraction of vintage gear is in the physical interaction. Tweeking 10 effects pedals and a synth at the same time is much more fun than automating a plug in. the real beauty of the computer is in editing the analogue mess you've made. You hear it objectively and make ruthless decisions easily, often picking out a single sound to keep in hours of takes. But it's a sound no one would ever have thought of, and impossible to make inside the computer.

When was your first encounter with the Access Virus?

I’m very fortunate to have one of the earliest Access boxes... a programmer for the Oberheim Matrix 1000 (if only they'd made one for the DX-7).
I knew of people that had the first Virus, I never took much notice until I played the Virus Indigo. Here was the synth with the response of an old analogue box in terms of how the sound responded to my turning of the knobs. It feels like I’m moving something physical rather than "flying by wire". I used to be a total JD-800 freak and had been looking for something to replace it that was capable of similar extremes of sound and tweekability.

Can you point to a few places on the record where the Virus is really identifiable?

  • Apparat “Arcadia”: all the tube-like sustained sounds in the background as well as the main big chords at the end.
  • Thom Yorke “The Eraser”: I think almost all of the keyboard sounds on this are virus or at least started out that way.
  • The Engineers “Sometimes I Realise”: all the intro noises and big sustained pads at the end.
  • Sasha “Coma”: is the track that has virus all over it. The main riff and arpeggios especially.

So much re-processing of sounds goes on that it's hard to say where a sound originates from sometimes, but the virus is always a good source of raw material.

For Invol2er, what types of sounds did you find yourself using the Virus for – types of sounds you think it really excels at?

I tend to go for the more lo-fi stuff on the Virus. Quite a lot of dirty atmospheric sounds and sound fx. More recently I've been running it in mono through valve compression and maybe a couple of fx pedals. Sounds lovely. It's very rare that I use any sound straight out of the box and onto tape as it were. So many of my patches sound very extreme/weird at first until you realise that I probably played one note off it very high up the keyboard where the distortion starts to sound different. Other than that I have to say it's the distortion effects that I really like and the way that saturation can be used at different points in the chain.

Is there an area of the Virus you find to be particularly useful or powerful when designing your sounds?

One of the best aspects of the Virus is it's performability. It has such a vast sonic palette that I like to just spew nonsense down a track, moving quickly through patches, tweaking like crazy. To the point where you can just disappear in the sound, which is usually when some little nugget of goodness pops out. Then, we'll maybe work on that sound tailoring it more specifically to our needs. I still prefer old synths that have no memory, as much of a unique individual performance cannot be recalled anyway. However I think the Virus is one of the few synths that can compete with old analogue for hands on insanity and that is why I think the modulation and matrix section of the virus is particularly good. It's very similar to building a patch on a modular synth. The inputs are also really useful as I use the Virus to process other external sounds quite a lot.

Now that Invol2er is set for release, what is up next for you? Projects in the pipeline we can look forward to?

Am still mastering the album. Mastering is sadly overlooked these days. So if you put the effort in you can make a record that sonically really stands out and does justice to all the sweat blood and tears that went into making the thing. I had some cuts done recently that have been horrendous so I'm totally paranoid about it now. Other than that there's new Spooky tunes being recorded and I have been doing mixes for Mr. Digweed and Bedrock as well as getting out to play a few clubs with Duncan. More sounds, more tunes, more gigs… the usual.

Charlie, thanks for taking to time to speak with us!