We cross‑examine James Wiltshire of the Freemasons to uncover the secrets of their phenomenal success as a production and remix team.
When you see the word Freemasons, do you automatically picture a secret society with arcane rituals and secret handshakes? Or does your mind wander to a string of chart‑topping remixes and original songs from one of the most successful dance production teams in recent years? For most SOS readers, chances are it'll be the latter.
So how do you get to be in a position where artists such as Beyoncé regard your work as a 'must have' on their new releases? That kind of prestige doesn't come easily, and Russell Small and James Wiltshire have earned their position: Russell was one half of Phats & Small, whose iconic 'Turn Around' was one of the anthems of the summer of 1999 and went on to sell over a million copies. Many of the Phats & Small tracks were also co‑produced by a certain Jimmy Gomez — aka James Wiltshire, who was already established as a remixer and producer in his own right, having released a number of remixes for the legendary DMC going back as far as 1994.
The Freemasons are actually named after the Brighton pub close to the studio where they started working together, so there are no shady secrets behind their success — at least, none that they will admit to me! So what happened back in 2004 to kick‑start such a brilliant career?
When Russell and James began working on what would, eventually, become the Freemasons, there was no predefined 'sound' in mind, as James explains. "We were trying all sorts of different things for about a year before we really nailed anything down, and it was quite good, because by the time the first single ['Love On My Mind', released in 2005] started getting radio play, we had done the groundwork and prepared a lot of the technical aspects and techniques that we were going to use. We had also built a library of sounds and had a method of working, and that came at exactly the right time, because we were then ready to continue with that as the remixes started to come in.”
Although it was not their first remix, the track that really launched their ascent to remixing greatness was Faith Evans' 'Mesmerised'. At the time, the dominant influence of their remixes and productions was the infectious, funky, disco sound of the late '70s. And, ultimately, it was their success with their own material that was the catalyst for getting the remixes.
"All of the remixes come direct from the record labels, and because we had stuff that was doing really well in the dance and club charts at the time, that's why they came to us,” says James modestly.
So how long does it take to do a remix? "About two and a half to three weeks generally, but in the case of 'Beautiful Liar', the one we did for Beyoncé and Shakira, that took just over three weeks in total.”
Although the Freemasons are perhaps best known for their high‑profile remixes, James is rightly proud of their original material as well. Having five consecutive UK hit singles and two albums under their belt, it's fair to say that they are no slouches when it comes to writing hits of their own. I asked James what their process is for working on a new song. "I don't really know, to be honest!” he laughs. "They just seem to fall into place once we start throwing ideas around. There is always some kind of 'spark', whether it be a musical idea or a good lick idea. You could ask anyone but nobody really knows, 100 percent, where the initial impetus to make something comes from.
"The most important thing, which we are quite good at doing, is self‑editing, where we work out, very quickly, which ideas are going to work and which aren't, and then we go from there. When you start working on something you have to realise whether the entire idea is good or shit! From then on we will prepare the backing tracks up to the level that we can in preparation for recording vocals on. If it's an instrumental, we obviously just carry on straight through. And then it's just a case of an awful lot of tweaking. We tend to get to a certain point and then bounce everything back down into stems and then maybe work on everything again. But the one thing that is always fluid and always changing is the actual arrangement.”
Given that the more commercial end of dance music these days can see a lot of radio play, does the track start as a shorter radio edit and then get built into a longer club mix, or vice versa?
"It depends what we're doing, really. If it's something for us, it has to be working as a club record first. If you do it the other way round, you normally stuff it right up, to be honest! And I have noticed an awful lot of dance producers doing that at the moment. It's quite a strange little cottage industry, really, because the ultra‑fashionable DJs say that they don't want to do anything successful, and yet when you speak to them, a lot of them are trying to make radio edits and then turn them into club mixes, as opposed to doing what comes naturally, which is to make a great club record first. There are always ways to chop it down. It's always better to have more than less.
"When you're trying to think of something for radio, you haven't got the luxury of thinking 'Well, I'll extend that,' or 'I'll do something really interesting with that over a 16‑bar period,' because you're constantly looking at getting it down to between three minutes and three minutes 15 seconds, and that can be incredibly counter‑productive when you're trying to make a club track. So 99 percent of the time, unless we are a good way through an album and specifically looking for some shorter tracks, we'll make the length 'natural' and then chop it down to what we need afterwards.”
As mentioned earlier, a lot of the earlier Freemasons tracks and remixes had a pronounced disco feel to them, and even the team's more recent productions are distinguished by having a very 'live' feel about them. Do session musicians play a big part in the creation of that particular sound?
"We do as much as we can ourselves, to be honest. I play bass a little bit. I have only learned to play one string, but luckily I found that that string has all the notes on it! And interestingly, you end up sliding up to notes and down to notes, which actually turned out quite well for the sound. But we do use other live parts as much as possible. When we did the live string parts that are on 'Uninvited' [a cover of an Alanis Morrissette track featuring the vocals of Bailey Tzuke] I already knew the arrangers, the players and the engineers for all of that. We had an excellent engineer called Michael Zimmerling, who really is the 'King of the Valve' — king of anything that was made before 1980 basically. But he is also one of the old school engineers who is just brilliantly trained. One time we were recording a brass section with him and we thought it sounded fabulous, but then he came in and said 'No, it sounds amateur.' He went into the live room, moved one microphone and the whole sound just suddenly snapped into focus! I've worked in most of the major studios in London, so I have been lucky enough to bump into all of those people in the past.
"That side of things has been vital to us, because when it comes to recording live instruments, nobody really knows, in electronic music, where to put a microphone these days. So learning some basic engineering skills is really useful. It's something that has kind of got lost — but, at the same time, people are developing other 'skills', like over‑compression and distortion and all of the other joys of digital audio, which certainly have their place. But I do definitely think that some of the older knowledge is getting lost... and that is still vital for certain things.
"There is a real problem that still exists in going between analogue and digital, because the digital systems are trying to emulate, with their faders and their metering systems, an analogue control system, and it gives you a really false sense of security. For example, in Logic, I wish someone would completely redesign the way the meter ballistics work and the actual scale of them. When you come from an analogue background and you start mixing in Logic, you clip the mix instantly, because you are so used to having everything at decent levels, but in the digital domain you need to make sure that you are keeping everything that much lower, even going as far as keeping the faders down at halfway.
"And we hear this so much with dance music, because the bass is so vital there, and when people start to mix 'inside the box' — and we made these mistakes as well — you find that digital EQs do some particularly strange things when you have high Q values on them. They almost leave a trail of bass behind them, like a weird kind of bass 'reverb', and that really muddies things up! People are now starting to get their head round it but there is a really big difference between digital mixing and analogue mixing.
"There's a whole generation of young people coming up that only know how to mix digitally, and so the old techniques are going to be incredibly important for them, because it's not like we are suddenly going to all go back to analogue, and that knowledge needs to be preserved. But like I said, some of the articles I read are based around analogue mixing and that all goes out of the window when you mix digitally. So you have to have the balance.”
The Freemasons' own studio integrates some analogue elements into a mainly digital setup, as James explains. "Our studio is based around KRK VXT6 monitors and the new KRK Ergo room‑correction system, a TL Audio 16‑channel M4 valve console, and a little Mackie submixer for some of the keyboards. Other than that, everything is in the Mac. The Ergo system has made a massive difference to our work since we got it recently. Our room is acoustically treated pretty well, but we still had a standing wave in there which we just couldn't manage to fix. So we bought this system to try it out; at first, we really couldn't hear any difference, but it didn't take that long to realise how much of a difference it was making.
"A lot of dance producers do get bigger, full‑range, systems because dance music is unique in that respect. In most other forms of music that won't be played in a nightclub, you don't necessarily care what is going on below about 40Hz and a lot of mastering engineers start rolling off around that point. But that bottom octave is absolutely vital in any kind of club music. The only way to really monitor it is on a full‑range system. I have had some real surprises occasionally when I have taken tracks to our mastering guy, Massive Mastering, who is next door to us: he has a full‑range Genelec system with the sub as well, and you can finally get to hear what is going on in that bottom octave of your mix. But you do get used to compensating for those things once you are used to your monitors, to some extent.”
It was actually quite surprising to find out that such anthemic and, let's face it, Grammy‑nominated productions come out of a system that is, by traditional standards, at least, quite modest and 'affordable'. But a lot can be done inside a Mac these days, and a quite a lot of money can be spent in doing those things. So I decided to find out what was truly indispensable: the Freemasons' desert island gear...
"Well, Logic obviously, but also [Ableton] Live. Some of the changes that they have made in version 8 have meant that it could well become one of our more creative workhorses from now on. The groove engine on it is phenomenal, I really have never seen anything like it. It beats anything else hands down! And because it is fixed‑point processing as opposed to floating‑point, it seems to have a very different sound as well. It's a little bit thinner but it's just a lot tighter. Logic tends to wobble about a bit when it has a lot of things going on. We have noticed that from bounces when we look back at the stems we have created and everything that we thought was in time has suddenly shifted about 40 samples or so. Other than that, it would be the Abbey Road plug‑ins, in particular the Brilliance Pack and the EQ. Although the EQ is meant for mastering, well, forget just using it on mastering, I put it on everything!
"I wish Apple would hurry up and sort Snow Leopard [the forthcoming OS 10.6] out so that we could have a new version of Logic [this interview was conducted before the news of Logic 9 broke!] and someone once said, in Sound On Sound I think, that making music with Logic is like making music with a very elderly, grumpy relative! In some ways it's true, because there are an awful lot of foibles in there that can be hugely frustrating. I don't understand why they put the contextual menus in there — all of your key commands that you used to use for fine MIDI editing, if you now hit them at the wrong time, you get the contextual menus popping up and there is no option to turn them off. In some ways you can see it as a 'halfway house' between what they started with and what they are going to do with it, but given that they took over from another software developer I think they have done a brilliant job with version 8. I am still actually running OS 10.4.11, so I could do the update to Leopard now, but it's just such a big job that I will probably wait until the next big update, to be honest.
"But our studio actually has a lot more hardware in it now than it had a few years back! I have been collecting keyboards for a while and, while I know it's a bit of a cliché, there really isn't anything quite like turning around and playing something in and twiddling with the sounds while you do it. I have got an original Rhodes, a Moog Voyager, a Nord Lead, a Roland V‑Synth, an Alesis Andromeda and a Nord Modular, and I find it really good to have those working with all the software stuff. Oh, and an Eventide Eclipse, because there's just nothing that can do reverb like a good hardware unit. It was quite an investment but it has already proved its worth. It's quite distinctive but just beautiful on vocals and also brilliant on drum sounds.”
The Freemasons are one of the few production and remix teams that have been able to bridge the gap between club music and pop music. That gap is certainly a lot narrower than it was a few years back, but there is still a big difference between many club producers and many pop producers. Is that gap a technical one, a stylistic one, or simply a question of attitude?
"Before, if you look back 10 years, dance music was always in the charts. Everyone wanted to hear it and everyone wanted a part of it and it was very much a part of the general culture of the country. But now it's not, it has gone back to being 'underground' again, at least to a certain degree. And the middle ground that was taken up by the dance records that used to hit the charts is now taken up by the edgier side of pop music. If you look at people like Rihanna, who have that slightly more aggressive and electronic pop sound, they have actually taken over from where the commercial end of dance music used to be.
"For us, though, we're very vocal‑led and we're not afraid of music. A lot of dance music tends to be more about rhythm and sound but our stuff is a lot more musical than some others — which has led certain 'fashion conscious' people to not be interested in us. But it also means that we have enjoyed a great response from people that are actually affected by music, which is an awful lot more of the population.
"And in terms of remixes, if you are choosing between someone who is going to use one line of the vocal and just put it over a completely different track, and someone who uses the entire vocal and makes something that could also be played on the radio, considering that times are tight, I know what I would go for!”
Russell Small and James Wiltshire have been around long enough to witness some radical changes in the way music is produced and distributed, even within the club scene. "I think that what you can do now is incredible! It really is exciting!” enthuses James. "When the VST standard came out, it crept slowly into people's consciousness, but they were still using MIDI alongside it. Then all of a sudden, over a period of a couple of years, there came a time when everybody started doing everything inside the computer. And the great thing is that you find some great new talent developing because of it. Deadmau5 is one guy to keep an eye on, for example. He just came up from using Ableton and musically he is obviously brilliant, but it is his ability to find new ways of working with stuff that is just phenomenal.
"The other side to that, of course, is that because pretty much everybody has access to that technology because it is so cheap, there is an awful lot of... [he pauses] not very good stuff because of that. And, unfortunately, because of the rise of digital distribution, it is easy for anyone to set up a label and get tracks up on Beatport. There is just too much information out there. And if you take dance music, or any kind of club music as an example, what's missing is the quality control. The one guy that used to filter everything out was the guy who owned the record shop, who would know what you wanted and the kind of stuff you were into, and he would sift through it as all the new releases came in. There just isn't any of that any more. But I am sure there is an awful lot of corporate money being spent on developing systems that can do just that and help people navigate through all the quagmire of stuff.”