As the founder and lead star of Tigerbeat6, one of bedroom electronic music's most prominent independent labels, Miguel Depedro has witnessed the genre's sudden boom and subsequent identity crisis at first hand. In that time, his notoriously bratty alter ego Kid 606 has dabbled in everything from abrasive noisecore (Down With The Scene) and prettified glitch (PS I Love You) to heavily DSP'ed landscapes (Soccer Girl) and pop bootlegs (Action Packed Mentallist Brings You The F**king Jams). Meanwhile, Depedro's friend, labelmate and occasional right-hand man Rjyan Kidwell has kept his musical CV just as varied. As Cex (pronounced with a soft 'c'), Kidwell has leapt from Aphex Twin-inspired knob twiddling (Role Model) and jokey bedsit electronica (Oops I Did It Again) to geeky hip-hop (Tall, Dark & Handcuffed) and earnest acoustic claustrophobia (Being Ridden).
The sheer variety of the pair's output is testament to what can be achieved with a basic recording setup, in Cex's case consisting of little more than a laptop and a few pieces of software.
Born in Venezuela, Miguel Depedro was raised in San Diego, California. By his teenage years, he'd developed a keen interest in recording and sound synthesis, and so he enrolled himself in studio courses at a local community college. "I had an awesome professor who played me stuff like Steve Reich and really influenced me and was a great guy," Depedro recalls. "Studio-wise, it was just an analogue quarter-inch eight-track, a Mackie board and eventually an ADAT, with some MIDI sequencing off to Mac Classics running Digital Performer. I had better stuff at my house, but the whole process of being in a studio and miking stuff and getting strange samples was really cool and influential. I quickly became an intern and would spend the night doing lots of crazy feedback and tape-loop experiments."
Like so many others from his generation, by the time Depedro was 18, he'd seized upon the mouse and keyboard as his primary instruments. "It wasn't till I got a computer that things really started to come together for me musically and I could catalogue and collate ideas and sounds and basically 'design' music like a designer would create something, rather then simply capture and record it," he says. "I learned tons about digital editing within the first couple of years of having a computer, which is what allows me to do things quickly now."
With an impressive back catalogue and a new full-length album (Kill Sound Before Sound Kills You) to promote, it's obvious that Depedro isn't at a loss for material these days. He wasn't always this prolific, though, a failing he puts down to a fascination with equipment for its own sake. "I was a serious f**king gear whore as a kid," he admits. "I lived off of buying and trading gear for years, searching pawn shops, thrift stores, newspaper ads, you name it. And then I'd just play around for the fun of it and never finish much."
Because he was more impatient and far less technically inclined than Depedro, Kidwell never fell into that trap, but he's seen others falter creatively because of gear lust, or — more accurately — because of the fear of failure that gear lust handily conceals. "There wasn't an electronic music scene in Baltimore, but pretty much everyone I knew who made music was stuck in this thing of like 'Aw, next week I'm getting this, and then I'm gonna make these tracks that'll blow your mind!' and the next week you'd see this person again and they'd be like 'Hey, do you wanna buy this thing I bought, cause I gotta get this other thing,' and they'd never make a f**king track," he laughs.
"So immediately, from the outset, once I got into software I said: I am not gonna be one of those techie gear nerd dudes. I write songs. I didn't get into electronic music because I wanted to innovate some new crazy s**t that no-one had ever heard before, but because I wanted to be the whole band myself. I didn't want to deal with some idiot with a bass guitar in his hand going 'Why am I playing this part like this?'"
It's a problem, he contends, that has been exacerbated by the wild proliferation of cracked software floating around on the Internet. Kidwell remembers touring with Depedro for the first time: "We were running into guys all over the place who wanted to talk about crazy software, and the software talk was even worse than the gear. At least the gear dudes had to work a job and physically buy something and physically have room for it. A software addiction, though — you could just get that shit pirated and then you've gotta spend six weeks learning it and then you get something else and you gotta spend six weeks learning that. Those people are in even more of a weird limbo purgatory of never producing anything listenable."
In defiance, Kidwell recorded his first album (2000's Role Model, released on Tigerbeat6) with nothing but the barest essentials. It might not have sounded shiny or new, but it marked a crucial first step, and at least it was out there for people to hear, which was more than his friends could claim. "The first record was done on a Dell computer with the Dell speakers and the Dell sound input," he laughs. "It was all so ghetto. And you can hear it."
Kidwell credits his gradual improvement over the years to simple experience. Practice, he says, is the only thing that can really hone an ear. "Do it a lot," he suggests. "In secret if you can, where you don't expect anyone to hear it. You sort of need to make a couple of records that no-one hears before you make anything that's not 'ahh!' a year or two later. You can learn to hear things yourself, but I don't know if there's any way to have them pointed out to you. I used to have people point out sound issues in my records and it was like they were talking Cantonese to me. I didn't have that in my ear's vocabulary. The only way to do it is to listen to a lot of music and to pay close attention if you can. Eventually, shit starts to fall into place. You learn that a little bit of reverb on a drum beat can go a long way. Or 'Ah, compression — that's what it does!'
"I guess the other thing would be to get really nice monitors. If you're just starting, you're probably not going to hear such a big difference, but it'll give you room to grow. If you're slumming it like I was, you really won't learn that much about sound, because your speakers just won't talk to you. It sounds like such a nerdy thing, to have nice monitors when you're just starting out, but it gives you room to grow right off the bat. I didn't get real speakers until the third record! That was the first time I used speakers that didn't come with the computer."
Kidwell's ears and recording chops have improved exponentially in the four years since, but his desire for no-frills simplicity remains. After recently relocating from his native Baltimore, Maryland to Oakland, California, he liquidated most of his gear. Among the jettisoned items include an Akai S2000 sampler, a Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth, an Alesis Nanopiano module and a Seasound Soloist soundcard — his main interface for years. "I was trying to make a point about not being attached to things," he jokes, before admitting that he put the money towards a much simpler and more portable studio. "I got a 17-inch G4 Powerbook and I bought an RME Hammerfall audio card. I've heard it's the shit, but I haven't gotten a chance to get it out of the box because I'm still on the road. I also bought an [Access Virus] Indigo 2, because it was the most powerful two-octave controller, and something I could fit into a backpack... my priority right now is to be able to travel as much as I want and write songs on the road.
"I have a regular old Boss compression pedal and I used to run beats through that for real quick and dirty compression. I'd run one channel of the drums through that, run the other channel of the drums through an Ibanez pedal and it'd make a regular drum beat into something that was really exciting to listen to. Having two different compressions on two hard-panned channels of a drum beat is one of my favourite things to do in the game.
"The only other thing besides my compressor pedals that I didn't sell was my Yamaha Portasound keyboard. I got it for Christmas when I was 10, and it's in no way a classic retro keyboard of any type. It's a 20-dollar Radio Shack keyboard. Battery-operated, no MIDI, but it does have a quarter-inch keyboard output, which is nice. A lot of the stuff on Being Ridden and Maryland Mansions is a Yamaha Portasound keyboard played live through a combination of guitar pedals. You could get a Korg Triton but the patches sound so nice that even if you're tweaking them out, someone'll still go, 'Aha, Korg Triton!' The thing about this Yamaha is that no one is ever gonna go, 'A-ha, Yamaha Portasound PSS140 run through an Ibanez bass fuzz with an MXR distortion pedal!' To me, that's part of making it transparent. I want you to hear the guy playing on the keyboard, not the keyboard."
As he learns more about recording techniques, Kidwell has become increasingly willing to spend extra time fussing over his mixes, and his relentless pursuit of the perfect hip-hop beat has him crossing over into the territory of the contemplative knob-twiddler. "I'm getting more patient and more interested in making a kick and a snare sound like the best kick and the best snare you've ever heard, and I never used to do that," he marvels. "I used to have no patience for that — 'It's a boom and it's a bap, let's go!' And as a result, you can hear all the issues on my records as far as EQ and distortion and all that bullshit goes. But I don't regret it. I'd definitely much rather be that impatient kid who wants to write a song than be the chin-stroking old man who wants to tweak the frequency on some hi-hat for eight days. If I didn't have ADD, it'd be easy to do that. But for me personally, it's not. And it's definitely not a noble thing — 'I would love to sit here and adjust this phaser, but I'm going to move on for the good of humanity.'"
Getting The Best From Plug-ins
"There was a time in electronic music when you could pick out exactly what plug-ins were being used," says Rjyan Kidwell. "It was like, all right, here comes the Sonic Decimator again! That was the big one. In graphic design, it'd be like using a font that makes everybody who does graphic design groan. So go into a plug-in, and as the first thing you do, make the most wrong, awful noise you can with it and work backwards.
"I use the [Arboretum] Hyperprism Hyperverb on everything — it's super-versatile and I like it. I've used that [Steinberg] Quadrafuzz VST plug-in a lot for distortion too. And another big one would've been that whole Waves Native Power Pack; I made some really f**ked up things by doing wrong settings on the three-voice and six-voice octaver. You can make some awful noises with it, shit that doesn't even sound like a keyboard any more. I hear the Waves Enigma in a lot of people's work, and it's cool, but go into the octaver and you can make some really wild shit."
Meanwhile, over at Depedro's home studio, nothing is simple. Over the years, Kid 606's setup has ballooned, and now centres around a hub of Mac laptops and desktops, an MOTU 2408 interface, a Yamaha 01v mixer, enough synths to fill a small pawn shop district and a bucketload of software, of which Emagic's Logic Audio 6 is his current favourite toy. "The majority of stuff [for new album Kill Sound Before Sound Kills You] was started on one of my laptops by sketching out ideas in Logic, then bringing it to my desktop where I run separate outs of the MOTU 2408 and run individual channels through external filters and delays. This new album is real sample and DSP-based — more so than my other upcoming releases, which have a lot more vocals and instruments and MIDI production.
"I use tons of soft synths for little things but if I'm actually trying to get some serious synth or bass line stuff going, I don't think anything beats hardware or MIDI-CV'ing analogue synths, especially if you can then process them really cleanly inside the computer. Ever since I got Logic 6, I've been obsessed with creatively using plug-in automation to get interesting sounds. I've always wanted to do that a lot: because I do so much knob-twiddling with my hardware, I want to get the similar sound and style from the computer. It was just such a pain in the arse to do before Logic 6 and pre-mapped VST Continuous Controller plug-ins."
Kid 606's prodigious output schedule is that much more impressive when you consider how frequently he changes his working methodology. Some laptop musicians base entire careers on a single major software package; Depedro is lucky to ever make two albums the same way. "The difference between Soccer Girl and Action Packed Mentallist is as drastic as can be," he explains. "Soccer Girl was me going through hours of analogue synth noodlings done in my mum's garage when I had no place to live and no computer. I clocked everything on a TR909 or 808 or 606 drum machine and then grabbed my favourite ones and edited them and added some DSP processing. Action Packed Mentallist was me being completely sick of geeking out on electronic music and processing and just wanting to make the Kid 606 equivalent of a DJ mix CD and just downloading a gazillion MP3s, converting everything into AIFFs, chopping up everything and just having a blast playing the stuff live and eventually just bouncing everything down in Logic and putting it out just so I could stop doing it."
His working methods may change frequently, but Depedro tries not to rely on his gear or his software for ideas. "That's like going to a dead person for advice," he jokes. "If I don't have my own ideas stirring around in my head, I just don't make music, go do something else, save everyone from some noise, and generally make the world a better place by not contributing more music to an already overflooded sonic society! I don't even sit in front of studio monitors or put on headphones to work on something unless I have a specific idea of what I wanna do. Or else I'll just be noodling around or geeking out, which is great, but I haven't had any time to do that these days and only have time to work on the ideas I am 110 percent into finishing and getting out there. That being said, I still have a gazillion sounds from old [Ensoniq] EPS16+ or [Kurzweil] K200 disks and scribbled patch sheets for analogue synths that I occasionally go back to and one day want to truly exploit in new music. I'm really into combining new and old things, which is why I like having tons of time to finish stuff, and why making tracks lasts a long time for me. It almost ends up that I'm remixing myself by the time I sit down to finish something."
Has anything grabbed Depedro's attention on the software front lately? "[Green Oak's soft synth] Crystal is real awesome, [NI] FM7 shreds, and the internal Logic stuff is good," he offers. "Absynth is super-awesome. When it comes to actual synth stuff though, I can't sing the praises of analogue enough. Soft synths are the bomb for sound design and more basic stuff, but most of the actual synth stuff you'll hear from me for the next couple years is analogue, or Virus or FM synths. That said, I'm also really into the simple act of just sampling a note or sound and playing it up the keyboard, adding some glide and envelope."
Not surprisingly, Kidwell is much less likely to indulge in the latest software algorithms, preferring instead to pick his spots. "The problem with a lot of soft synths like Generator and Muon is that they sound exactly like themselves," he complains. "I've gotten a little more use out of the software samplers. I really like Battery. It's super-intuitive; you've got these banks where you can load samples in from your computer, and you've got a ton of different effects you can put on each individual track. It's primarily for percussion, so when you have a drum kit, you can tweak out every single piece on the kit and control it really well. To me, it was so much more convenient to go right into programming with that, rather than having to sit and map all the keys out with the Akai.
"I like Reason, but I'm scared to get too much into it because it'd be something that'd be easy to rely on if I knew it really well. It's kinda like Rebirth on steroids. 606 is really into Reaktor. It's been a year and a half since I tried to mess with it, and I really didn't know what I was doing at all. It didn't seem intuitive, although it probably is — I mean, I'm a blockhead. Maybe if I looked at it now, I'd get it more. I guess I'm one of those dudes who'd rather have a bunch of little things that each do one specific thing instead of one program that's the be-all and end-all."
In keeping with the self-sufficient thread running through both of their careers, both Kid 606 and Cex have always mixed their own records by themselves at home. While Depedro acknowledges that it's not exactly an ideal setup, he's come up with his own workable routine. "I generally mix in Logic and only run stuff externally if I'm gonna process it," he says. "I'd love to mix everything in analogue, but I don't have room for a board capable of doing it correctly, and I don't see the point in doing external mixing on a digital board like an 01v. I'd want something like a [Soundcraft] Ghost or a fancy Allen & Heath, and then I'd need a ton of good audio interfaces to give everything its own channel. The main 'trick' to all my mixing is tons of automation, and if I'm really anal about things, I just take all the individual tracks into a two-track editor like Peak and just draw envelopes or process little bits here and there for it to be exact."
The job of mastering, on the other hand, is always entrusted to a professional. "I was always wary of letting people master stuff because I didn't trust them and because I've had such miserable experiences with bad or lazy mastering, but I truly feel that if you can find someone who you trust and can let do all your stuff you should totally hand it over to someone else and just oversee it. It's something you don't realise how badly you need until after you get it done."
Meanwhile, Kidwell's aspirations for his next record are tellingly modest: "Whenever the next full-length comes out, I hope to write it in my room on the G4 and then take the entire setup into a studio where I can mix and master it there. But really, nobody on Tigerbeat goes into studios. Even Numbers, who are a rock band, record themselves. That's sort of been a Tigerbeat thing — it's been a real do-it-yourself label. But now that the Cex-man is pulling some sales figures, they've realised, 'Hey, we can push this pro if we want to; we can afford to make it sound like it could be on the radio. Instead of just telling people it could be on the radio...'"