Shades Of Gray
Who are you and what do you do? How long have you been a working musician?
Michal: Hi, we are Shades Of Gray (Michal Schwa and Nick West). We have been in the music business for many years. I have been DJing since early 2000 and working at my dad’s recording studio as a sound engineer. In 2005 I moved to Sydney where I met Nick West, a local producer who had been writing electronic music, film scores and music for TV ads. We started writing music together, and in 2007, we released our first 12″ on Beef records which was a great success. We both are full time in the music biz. I am more focused on DJing, sound engineering and record label management, whereas Nick is now more into writing music for advertising and feature films. When we are together in the same country we play live, DJ, and produce. In the last 18 months we have been working solidly on our debut album “Soul Machine” which is just about to drop.
What is your educational background? Are there any schools, courses, or books you recommend?
Nick: I have a business degree (which is pretty useless in music production, hehe). I also studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (Screen Composing). I have also done an Audio Production course but really mostly I am self taught. Lots of time in the studio is where I learnt most of what I know. So I recommend people just stick with it.
Michal: I have studied PR, IT and Event Management. All music stuff is self taught.
What hardware are you using?
Nick: Analogue gear is a big feature of our sound. We have a large collection of synths and drum machines and prefer the hands-on process of creating our sound using hardware. And it still sounds better to us!
At the moment we can’t get past the JUNO-106, SH-101, Minimoog Voyager, Nord Lead, MS2000 and NI Maschine. They are the classics for us, pretty essential. However we are not exclusively using hardware. Sometimes we write tracks with software only. It’s not about what you use but about how you use it and what ideas you have.
Lately, while mixing our tracks in Prague, Michal has been using a Soundtracks analog mixing board hooked up with Digidesign/Pro Tools. The mix is then run through an SPL Tube Vitaliser, TC Electronic Finalizer, and a Joemeek Compressor. This gives our music a more analog sound and feel. It’s quite lucky that Schwa can use such a well-equipped room to finalize our music. Bouncing everything into stems, importing into Protools and mixing it the old school way is quite time consuming, but it’s worth it.
What software are you using?
Michal: We use a lot of SW plugins like the Native Intruments, Audio Damage, Waves, PSP, Trillian for bass… the list goes on. There is so much cool stuff around these days. It’s pretty much impossible to keep up to date with everything. It’s great that you can get really creative with all these plugins without wasting time on connecting machines, dealing with cables, MIDI routing, latency and stuff like that.
Lately I have been blown away by Transient Shaper by Shaack Audio. I have been using it a lot to shape percussive sounds. For sequencing, looping and arranging, we are using Ableton Live. We try to stay in the clip mode as long as possible and when we have a basic idea of the arrangement we jam it/record it live into the arrangement mode. Once there, the intricate process of arranging and premixing begins.
What would be your dream setup?
Nick: Lately I have been thinking it would be amazing to have some kind of controller that allowed you to shape sounds with thoughts. Imagining a chord or pattern, and to have it translated into sound would be the ultimate in creativity. Right now that seems a bit like science fiction, but there are people out there developing similar technology for other applications so it’s only a matter of time.
Where do you shop for and discover music?
Michal: I get sent a lot of demos and promo tracks… that’s a good source of course. Then music from our label, Beef records. Otherwise I use Traxsource and Beatport for the new stuff. Recently I started buying vinyl which I still love and support. Quite a few good tracks I also find via Facebook when people post them up.
Any highlights from your latest musical discoveries?
Working with real musicians is were you get the gold. You can’t beat recording someone playing an instrument and knowing what you are after.
What’s brewing in your studio?
Nick: As we mentioned earlier we are about to release our debut album “Soul Machine”. It’s a double CD and vinyl as well as digital release. We invested a lot of time in the studio working on the album and discovered many new techniques and developed our sound further in the process.
The album delves deep into the sampling of mainly old recordings from the 60s and 70s. We wanted to reinterpret the vibe and feel of soul, disco and funk with a modern edge and production. For the sampling we found the Ableton Simpler instrument was our go-to sampler. It is so instantaneous and quick to get the idea happening. You can drag and drop the sample and bam away you go. This instrument was the starting point for many of our ideas. Another instrument that was used on almost every track was Trillian. This is just an amazing sounding bass module that covers all the bases. It has a super fat and analogue sound the just sits in the mix. Another set of plugins that we found gave us some real breakthroughs was Traktor’s 12 (powered by Guitar Rig). Experimenting with beatmasher and freezing delays landed us some gems especially on chords to create stutter chord effects.
Any production tips & tricks you’d like to share?
Nick: Our main tip to producers out there is to be persistent. Writing for us is a constant process. We like to write a track a week on average so through the process of constantly producing you find your groove and the quality begins to emerge. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of dedication and a willingness to accept that there may not be the financial rewards at least for a while.
The way we have found to work efficiently is to work with the gear you know gets results. And for us that is Ableton. It is a fantastic DAW that allows us to get to the idea quick and build from there. We have also been working on our own database of samples and loops that we have created or that suit our sound. We often render out parts of tracks we have made into this database and it allows us to quickly grab the right Kick or groove that starts the idea. We also often spend time going through digital archives of rare disco tracks and prepping loops for future tunes.
We often tour with international acts and try to take time to collaborate when our friends visit our shores.
On the business side of music the most important thing we have discovered is to keep our overheads low and multitask as much as possible. Michal runs the day to day operations of the label and also masters the music for release. My wife Nao is a graphic designer and she handles all of the artwork. So it’s a bit of a team/family effort!