This interview was conducted over Skype. You can listen to it on SoundCloud and/or read my transcription below.
Who are you and what do you do? How long have you been a working musician?
My name is Roberto Rodriguez; I’m a music producer and DJ living here in Helsinki, Finland. I started making music back in 1987, but started releasing music only 13 years ago, since 1999. I’ve only been doing this full-time for the past 2 to 3 years now.
What is your educational background? Are there any schools, courses, or books you recommend?
I’m pretty much self-educated as I really haven’t had any so-called proper musical education. Everything I’ve done has been achieved by trial and error over the years. Maybe I could have reached this level of knowledge much faster if I had just studied a bit — the basics, or stuff like that. On the other hand, some good has come out of it, because the fact that I didn’t educate myself means I constantly thought outside the box because I didn’t know what was inside the box.
TMM: I believe in learning by doing, by trying to figure things out on your own. Sometimes you have a particular idea in mind, so you kinda know what the end result is, but you don’t know how to get there, so you just research and try things out until you find it.
RR: In the beginning it’s hugely frustrating because you can’t get what you hear in your head, but after some time you will get there.
TMM: While you were teaching yourself, have you found any tutorials online that you can recommend?
RR: When I was teaching myself there was no internet, so all I had were the operation manuals of the synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines. So, learning by doing.
What hardware are you using?
At the moment, I’m using a 2008 Mac Pro 8-core with a UAD Apollo Quad audio interface. I have Genelec 8020 monitor speakers and the Genelec 7050B Subwoofer. The Mac is a bit old, but it gets the job done, especially with the UAD Apollo.
TMM: Do you have only one set of monitors?
RR: At the moment, I only have the one setup because I’m a bit restricted with the space. I’m basically a bedroom producer at the moment.
TMM: Do you have any hardware synths?
TMM: Have you played around with the Maschine from Native Instruments?
RR: Not really. I’m more of an MPC guy from the past. This whole year I’ve been waiting for the new MPC Studio to come out so I can combine the MPC world and the computer world.
TMM: For your live performances, is it basically what you have in your home studio, or is it a different setup?
RR: It’s Ableton Live with the Akai APC40. Sometimes I add a 303 and drum machines. Lately, I’ve been using the Alesis iO Dock for iPad, and use drum machines from the iPad. Quite cool. I’ve found it quite nice.
TMM: Have you tried any other music apps for iPad?
TMM: What about for DJ’ing? Do you use any special gear, or just turntables? Or are you a digital DJ?
RR: I’m a mixed DJ. I can use almost any gear that you give me. I still buy vinyl, I play vinyl, but mostly in Helsinki, or in Finland. Lately I haven’t been traveling with vinyl due to the fact that it’s a pain in the ass always been scared of losing your bag.
TMM: And it’s heavy too…
RR: And it’s heavy. It’s not the main concern. The baggage handlers handle the bag, but they can break things, and they can steal things, and they can lose things. So, I prefer digital DJ’ing while I’m traveling. I’m using Traktor for DJ’ing with this Finnish DJ controller called Otus. It’s a little Finnish company called EKS that made this controller and gave it to me just to try it out and I’ve been loving it ever since.
What software are you using?
I use Logic Pro at the moment. I’ve used all of them during the years, from ProTracker, Cubase on Atari, Digital Performer on the early Macs, Ableton, Pro Tools. I’ve used them all very much, but at the moment I’m using Logic because I think it’s the most comfortable to me. I’ve found it to be the perfect DAW for me.
TMM: Do you have any specific plugins that you use a lot?
RR: I mainly use the UAD platform plugins at the moment. Of course I have a few native plugins. For example, the SoundToys plugins are great. From the UAD plaftorm I use the Lexicon 224 for the reverbs, for EQ’s I use Pulteq Pro, and for surgical tuning (getting rid of peaks) I use the apulSoft apQualizr [formerly called apEQ], which is a really colorless, really nice surgical type of EQ.
TMM: For your sounds, do you use mostly soft synths or hardware?
I use both hardware and soft synths. For many years, I didn’t really touch those software synths because I didn’t feel they had the warmth and character that real synths have. But nowadays, they are bringing out some really fantastic software synths as well. I just recently bought this u-he Diva which is quite fantastic. I was really blown away when I heard it for the first time. It really sounds analog but you have all the digital benefits, but it comes with a price since it’s very heavy on your processor and can really bring your computer down.
The Korg M1 plugin I use quite a lot because of the original M1 presets. It doesn’t really matter that it’s a plugin because the original synth is a digital machine, so the presets sound quite the same as in the original.
TMM: A lot of people are going back to that M1 organ sound.
RR: Yeah, but the piano is the thing, it’s the classic Italo-House piano that you need to have.
What would be your dream setup?
That’s a really good question because I haven’t thought about that in many years. A long time ago, I dreamt of a sequencer that could record audio so I could handle it like a MIDI track. Now it’s in every program. At one point I was dreaming about software or mobile setup that I could put on my laptop and work everywhere. Now it’s possible. Nowadays, I think I’m only dreaming about someday building a big proper studio where I have a big control room and a big recording room.
Can you describe your creative process? Is there a particular routine or schedule you stick to?
If I consider the music-making process as a job, then I have certain types of rituals that I do just to get going. Back in the day when I had a day job, I was always forced to do music during the night when I was really tired after work. Now I’m really lucky that I’m in a position that I can make a living out of this, and I can embrace the feeling that I can wake up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and just start making music. Everyday, it’s like I make coffee, start up the gear, and start making music.
If I start from scratch, I usually start with the drums. I build a groove, a beat; I build it to a point where there is still some space for, for example, bass, and some tiny melodies to fill up the groove. When it clicks, then I start to fill it up with layers and layers of music until I feel that it’s almost too full of stuff, or maybe even too full. Then I start stripping it down, building the track. When the arrangement is ready, I go back and do some tiny details and if I still find the track is missing something, then I’ll just add it later. Then I’ll mix it the normal way, but I don’t do my own mastering cause I feel it’s a totally different art form, which I don’t master. It’s better to give it to someone else who has fresh ears to listen to the track.
TMM: Do you find yourself taking a break after you’ve been working on something for a while just so you can yourself come back to it with fresh ears?
RR: Sure, sure. Quite often I do breaks. I’ve learned to analyze my stuff where if I feel that one track is very very good, I let it rest for a few days, and then come back because then I usually find the flaws in the track, and make it much better.
Where do you shop for and discover music?
As a DJ, I do get sent a lot of promos. That’s one way to find and discover new music, but I do still go to record shops, crate digging and buying vinyl. To me, that’s the best way to discover and buy music. Just to go to a record shop and spend some time there, and talk to the shop owner. On top of that, surely I do buy a lot of records online. The internet is a blessing for music discovery but it can be a curse at the same time, because there’s so much stuff there, so you have to dig in deeper to find the good stuff out of the white noise. Discogs is a good place to start.
TMM: Are there any record shops in Helsinki?
RR: There are, but they are getting fewer and fewer. I think there’s only one at the moment for underground music. But even that’s not mainly for Dance music, so we are lacking a small vinyl shop for Techno, Disco, and House at the moment.
Any highlights from your latest musical discoveries?
I recently discovered this Swedish producer called HNNY. I’ve bought a few releases from him in the past, but it wasn’t until now that I realized that he’s a really really good producer. He just made an edit of Steve Reich’s “Nagoya Marimba” which is just fantastic, and he’s also got a 12″ coming out on Local Talk, a Swedish House label, which is one of the best tracks this year.
What’s brewing in your studio?
So so many remixes coming out. I just released my first ever solo album, “Dawn“, last May. That was such a huge project spanning over 3 years. I’m sure I learned quite a bit of music making during that time, but after the album was finished, I focused on making remixes and quite a lot of them are ready now and coming out.
One particular remix that just left my computer is one I did of Monitor 66’s “Triscuits“. It’s kinda like a Nu-Disco track with an 80s, slightly Depeche Mode influence vibe in it. It’s coming out on House of Disco pretty soon.
Any production tips & tricks you’d like to share?
Tips for young producers, or beginners: don’t make everything too loud and trust your ears. Don’t overcompress stuff and don’t boost everything. Leave some room to breathe.
TMM: You mentioned that it took you about 3 years to finish the album and that you learned a lot. Can you share new techniques you learned, or anything that came out of this whole process?
RR: It’s such a long time, so it’s pretty hard to remember every detail or every learning experience. I’m pretty sure that I learned a lot more about vocal production, and vocal mixing, and handling backing vocals, and compressing, and using buses. It’s hard to describe here any particular moment where I learned something, but it’s an overall process.
TMM: Where did you record the vocals? At home or in a professional studio?
RR: I have a friend’s place here in Helsinki where I recorded some of the vocals, and some of the vocals were recorded in NY for some of the tracks, and some of them were recorded in South Africa. I didn’t fly there, but I was remotely in the sessions.