Optimum is a London-based DJ/Producer and label boss that we’ve had a close eye on ever since his debut 12″, on the ever-impeccable Night Slugs label, dropped a couple of years ago. This release, a split with Montreal’s Jaques Greene titled ‘Broken Embrace’, set the tone for this young producer to dive into the scene with his hypnotic blend of techno, house and electro.
With releases on taste-making labels like Planet Mu and of course his own Hum + Buzz imprint that he co-runs with tunestress Ikonika, and with a sound that he clearly his own, we were delighted to welcome him along to the Point Blank to give us an insight into his work in the studio.
He provided us with an exclusive behind the scenes look at his track ‘Max Power’ which was released on Planet Mu a couple of years ago and that he put together using Logic Pro. ‘Max Power’ is out to buy right now and you can stream the track below.
In the studio session Optimum chats to us about how he started making music, the early days of the London dubstep scene and his overall approach to production. We get a look into his drum programming, how he uses automation, the arrangement, working within the Logic box, his mix and loads more…
Check it out below:
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Luke: Welcome along to Point Blank Music School here in London where today we’re joined by DJ, producer and label boss, Optimum. So yeah, with releases on the likes of Planet Mu, Night Slugs, and of course, his own Hummer Buzz Imprint, which he currently runs with Iconica, we’re very privileged to welcome along Optimum for a studio session here.
So we’re here to get a bit of an insight into his track “Max Power,” which was released on Planet Moon and to get a bit of an insight into how he works in the studio and some of the techniques that he uses.
Yeah, so first of all welcome down.
Optimum: Thanks a lot.
Luke: No problem at all. Before we get into the track itself, I just wanted to ask whether you could give us a bit of background on yourself and how you originally got into making music in the first place.
Optimum: I think I started when I was really young. I had piano lessons when I was about 8 or 9. I did that for a few years and then I kind of started getting into more rock music, that kind of thing. So I started to learn guitar from about 12 or 13 up until I was 18, and I got really into kind of hip hop, dance music, that kind of thing. So I got decks. I ditched the guitar.
Optimum: I got decks when I was, like, 18, and then just progressed from there. I just started buying records, started getting interested in actually making my own music, and then I started off with an MPC and then progressed onto kind of computers and different programs and then just took it from there basically.
Luke: And what were you making? What kind of stuff were you making back then?
Optimum: I started off making kind of hip hop instrumentals, that kind of thing, and then once I got kind of more into Fruity Loops for PC I got more into kind of making more UK underground dance kind of music I guess.
Optimum: So that was around, I started quite late, so it was about 2006, 2005.
Optimum: So that was when kind of, like, dub-step, when I started getting into that kind of stuff, grind and dub-step, and it just carried on from there basically.
Luke: Yeah. And those sounds clearly have a fair bit of influence in your work.
Optimum: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. That’s when it was around 2005, 2006, started going to [Forward] and then DMZ and that kind of thing, so I was really into the music coming out of South London primarily and that kind of opened my ears to that kind of music, and then obviously I got into more different types of dance music and then it all just comes together from that really.
Luke: Yeah. And how about Hum Buzz, to talk about the label for a sec, how did that come about? How did you hook up with Iconica?
Optimum: I met Ikonica around the same time really, around 2005, yeah, 2005 we met, and we both started, we both kind of really getting into that kind of music, and then we really wanted to start it back in 2007, 2008, because around that time everyone was kind of doing their own thing. They were even putting on nights or starting labels, putting out tunes, even just recording radio shows and uploading them. It was such a kind of do it yourself . . .
Luke: Get in the scene, sort of. Yeah.
Optimum: In the scene, yeah. Just for the good of the scene.
Optimum: Just helping out the scene. It was rather than for your own personal gain because back then it was really small and nobody knew how big it was going to get.
So anyway, we talked about it and we both kind of had started to make tracks and then Ikonica’s track “Please” got signed to Hyper Dub, and we were always going to start with one of our tracks anyway, but she got signed to Hyper Dub, and we kind of put it on the back burner for a while. And then I got, luckily I was able to release some other labels as well, so we kind of just didn’t think about it for the moment. And then a couple of years ago we decided, we had some tracks that would fit our own label, so we just went for it basically.
Luke: And it does, it definitely has a certain aesthetic to it. I mean, you can hear that in the releases. Is it something that has been there from the beginning or is it something that kind of fell into place?
Optimum: Yeah, it’s something that kind of fell into place. We didn’t have kind of a grand plan for a particular kind of sound or aesthetic or whatever, but when you, after you’ve released a few or you’ve got kind of some coming up, you kind of look back and you start to see that there are themes running through them or at the start we didn’t have any idea where it was going to go, but now we’ve had six, five, six releases. Looking through all of them or you listen to them all together you can kind of see there’s similar themes running through.
Luke: Yeah. And I guess you can kind of look to the future as well.
Optimum: Yeah, yeah. Definitely, yeah. I mean, really, the A&R process is just “We really like the tune and we feel that you can do well and we want other people to hear it” and that’s it really. It’s pretty basic
Luke: Yeah. Keep it simple.
Optimum: Keep it simple, yep.
Luke: So, to talk about, to kind of step back to production and to bring it up to today, do you have a set approach in the studio? Is there any kind of way that you sit down and work on a track and did you have a set approach on “Max Power”? How did you approach that?
Optimum: “Max Power” is a little bit different. Usually I start with, like, melodies or chords. I usually start with just an empty project and I’ve got my keyboard and I just play chords or play melodies or a riff, that kind of thing, but with “Max Power” I had an idea to do a real, it was more of a kind of, going to be about the rhythm rather than melodies or chord progressions or anything like that. So I started off with drums.
Optimum: But usually it’s the other way around. And then I did everything after that
Luke: So let’s take a look.
Optimum: Yeah, I think when I started the track it was just a loop and I think it was something like this. [music] It was a pretty simple loop. I wanted to do it a little bit slower than 140, so it was 135 and that allowed me to do a, well, I kind of started just as a 4/4 kick and the snare on the half time, and so it just started off from this, and then I expanded and made that into a 32 bar intro. [music]
Luke: And how do you tend to program your drums?
Optimum: It depends. Sometimes I just draw them in. Sometimes I’ll play them with the midi keyboard.
Luke: Do you use the EXS or . . .
Optimum: I primarily use EXS. This one is just the standard 808 kick. Obviously, sometimes I’ll play with [inaudible 08:28], like this one’s tuned down.
Luke: Okay. And the rim shot as well is too.
Luke: A lot of movement.
Optimum: I mean, I usually take time to make sure everything’s tuned into the same key, just so it sounds correct. [music] And then this is just a simple rise. You can see the automation here, and then that’s the drop.
I mean, it’s not really that complex. I’ve always got some reverse cymbals here. Whoops. Which is just the cymbal bounced and then reversed.
And then it kind of drops and then once the drop comes in there’s some claps come in and they’re panned both left and right.
Optimum: So I’ve got one all the way to the left using direction mix as well, and then one all the way to the right and those are just to give the track a bit more movement rather than just being a half step kind of tune. [music]
And with the bass I’ve got just one quite low sub. That’s ESX 24 again which is just the one without no instruments . . .
Optimum: . . . where it just gives you sound waves and everything’s kind of rolled up around 150 and there’s a little boost here.
Luke: And do you tend to kind of EQ stuff as you go?
Optimum: I mix as I go just because I find it’s the best way of doing it, and also, there’s a side chain on here, which is, it’s just wanting to get audio 1, and this is just a 4-4 side chain.
Luke: To the kick.
Optimum: So that’s just a 4-4 kicked bounced, and then route it to, no, it’s not rooted anywhere. It’s just that. But I’ve also got a second site chain which is faster. So that one’s there. [music]
Optimum: And that one is for the mid bass which is here, and you can hear the difference obviously. That’s kind of, you can see it here. This one’s a lot faster than the sub. So, for the mid bass it’s just one note.
Optimum: You know? As I was saying, it’s not really a melodic kind of thing.
Luke: But you’re getting that movement.
Optimum: Yeah, I’m getting a movement. It’s also automated so the picture’s going down so it’s going . . .
Luke: Oh, okay.
Optimum: with every…
Luke: And what’s the, that’s on the ES2, that kind of mid range?
Optimum: This space is the ES2, yeah. It was originally a pre-set called “Everlasting,” but I changed some things around to get this sound, and with this one I’ve rolled [off] around here to make sure it doesn’t class with the sub. [music] So this is effectively the low end, which is kick, mid bass and sub, and then everything else–if you look at all these EQs, everything else is kind of rolled off to make sure nothing else is coming in in that frequency.
Luke: I mean the bass is, I think, for your stuff it always plays a major part.
Optimum: Yeah, definitely. Yeah, I think it’s important too. I mean, I’ve done some tracks where there’s no sub at all, but it’s always kind of, you know, there’s always a frequency there. So even if it’s a one-note sub on the kick or something, I feel, just to give it, you have to give it some weight. It just uses that full frequency spectrum. And I’ve also got a lead which is similar to the mid. I think it’s just the same note, but it’s just played higher up the scale. [music]
Optimum: But that’s doing the same thing, and that is side chained as well. So you can see the side chain there, and there’s a tremolo as well, which is, you take it off, you can see it’s just [inaudible 13:21]. The tremolo’s making it, kind of giving it a bit more loop. Then the drums just come in after that basically. [music] It feels like the rhythms running in the high hats.
Then with this track, kind of every 16 bars something usually changes, and I’ve kind of, when I usually work I [do loads of] color coding so that . . .
Luke: Yeah. I was going to say it’s quite a unique project.
Optimum: I mean, I tidied up a little bit before coming here.
Optimum: Sometimes there’s those empty channel things, but I think this just helps you keep a bit more focused I find. [music] So I’ve got a lead, I’ve got a second lead coming in here [which is just . . . ]
And then there’s different claps and then just kind of little, simple changes every 16 bars just to keep it interesting, but not too overboard because primarily it’s a dance floor type track. [music]
Optimum: Like the claps change here.
Luke: How about, is that the ESP that goes like that, the little [squelchy] kind of noises?
Optimum: These ones, yeah. This is the ESP. Yeah, this is just a default setting, and then I programmed my own sounds into it.
Optimum: And this is just, just some reverb on it, which is the norm, which is on [inaudible 15:18] and it’s just a normal Apple audio unit reverb, and there’s just compression and EQ. And that’s that sound. [music]
Then there’s just a little breakdown where it’s just the bass and drums. [music] Yeah, there’s always automation here. There’s either automation on the actual counter roll or the actual track, not that much on the [issue] track. [music]
Yeah, then it kind of goes down to another little break and it goes back and then this lead comes back in, but there’s a slightly different pattern to the one that came before.
Optimum: That’s that, and then you can see that’s the pitch. So it’s kind of pitch-bent, up, down and then up again quickly to give that weird sound. [music]
I mean, with this track, the changes, a lot of the changes are quite subtle.
Optimum: You can only really see them if you’re looking at the project. You probably wouldn’t really notice it that much on the track unless you’re really listening.
Luke: You keep it moving though. You can definitely feel it.
Optimum: Yeah definitely, but when you’re actually mixing you kind of hear it more . . .
Optimum: . . . and you’re like “Oh, there’s more claps in this bit” and so on. Yeah, just continues like that basically.
Luke: And how about your, when you do the mixing process?
Luke: You say you do it as you go. Do you then, once you think, “This is finished. I’ve got my arrangement down,” what’s your next step from there?
Optimum: Arranging, when the, I mean, I would be obviously mixing as I go along, but when the arrangement’s done and everything and everything’s written, then I’ll have another kind of second remix down I guess.
Optimum: And I’ll make sure everything is sounding correct, all the levels are right, and all the panning is there, and, yeah, go from there basically.
Optimum: Make sure everything’s sounding good. And on this project, all the plug-ins and stuff are all Logic plug-ins. I’ve got some extra ones now, but for this one I used just primarily Logic compression, the channel EQs, which are great.
Luke: So do you tend to kind of stick within the box in Logic?
Optimum: Yeah. I used mostly, like, ESX24 for drums, UltraBeat occasionally. I also use audio samples where you drop it straight into the track.
Optimum: Or I get my own samples and put them into the sampler and make drum kits in that way. But primarily I use that, but then for melodies and stuff like that I use ES2 and ESP and whatever else just kind of comes in handy that’s good for the track.
I do use some hardware, but very rarely.
Luke: And you don’t tend to go to the kind of third party software synths or anything like that?
Optimum: I’ve got some, but I don’t use them that much to be honest.
Optimum: Yeah, I’ve got kind of, because when I started with Logic I bought my Logic and my Macbook together, and it was quite expensive.
Optimum: And I didn’t really want it, and I really wanted to make use of everything that was there because everyone was always saying “Oh, you need to get this, that and the other” and I always thought “Well, I’ve already spent all this money and I’ve got compression limiters and everything in here.”
Optimum: So I at least to try to kind of use them.
Luke: If you can’t master those you shouldn’t really need to go elsewhere.
Optimum: I know. So I just didn’t really want to spend all this money on all these other plug-ins. So the first couple years I used just Logic stuff.
Luke: I mean, that’s a pretty good motivation to learn your tools really.
Optimum: Exactly, yeah. Now I have got loads of other plug-ins now.
Optimum: And they do come in handy, and I think the main advantage is some of them may be a bit more user friendly. You can get them and you can get a great sound straightaway.
Optimum: Whereas with Logic you may have to work at it a little bit, but I’m used to it now so I don’t see any reason to change really.
Luke: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So yeah, “Max Power” as well, it does have, I think we can say it does have that kind of Optimum sound. Is that something that’s taken you a while to kind of get tuned into? I mean, it’s definitely something that at the school here lots of people do, are searching for their own sound, their own identity.
Optimum: Yeah, I think just kind of, just trying out different sounds and when you’re happy with your palate of sounds that you really like and think they represent you then I just went from that basically. Like, I still, I mostly use the same kind of drum sounds I guess, but with synths and stuff I’m always looking for different sounds just because it gets boring using the same stuff all the time.
Optimum: And you always find different ways of working and different sounds that you like, so I’m always looking at different synths and seeing if I can come up with other sounds.
But yeah, I always just kind of, I mean, even if you’re using different sounds wherever you’d like always seems to come about in the end with the finished product, so even if you’re consciously trying to be different usually it sounds like you.
Luke: Like you. Yeah, exactly.
Optimum: As long as you, I mean, maybe when you first start out, obviously you’re trying to copy this, that and another, but after a while it just naturally happens I think.
Luke: Yeah, yeah. And how about, do you kind of, mastering stuff, do you have a mastering channel that you kind of stick to or anything like that?
Optimum: I have. On “Max Power,” obviously, this is the pre-mastered, so I turned everything off here, but when I had just the bounce to D4 just kind of playing out, I had just EQ, Logic Fat EQ I think it’s called, and this just boosts around here and here for dance music. I think I changed a few things, but it’s kind of just a preset really.
Optimum: And then there was a compression, which is, like, a mix enhancer, and adaptive limiter was the last one. Oops.
Luke: And is that your kind of . . .
Optimum: And that’s just . . .
Optimum: That’s my, yeah, kind of . . .
Luke: Go to sound.
Optimum: Kind of chain, yeah. I mean, I’ve got some other things here, like level meter, just checks levels, and the multi-presser, which is kind of, like, it compresses each kind of frequency range in one plug-in. So that’s pretty good to use. For this case, it’s bypassed, but I’ll use that as well.
These days I’ve got some slightly different third party ones that I usually use.
Optimum: But for this track I used, yeah, just Logic.
Luke: Yeah, and when you did mention kind of road-testing stuff, playing it out, before you might be happy with it, how do you test it out in the club? Do you take it when you DJ?
Optimum: Yeah. I mean, obviously, you test it out on monitors and on headphones as well, laptop speakers, whatever you’ve got around basically, the car’s a good one for testing things, and if you can get to a club where you sometimes have to sound check or something like that, that’s always a good time because you can just stand in the middle and work out what needs tweaking if anything. So yeah, it’s good. Just on as many different systems as possible really.
Luke: Cool. I think we’ll kind of leave it there for “Max Power.”
Luke: Have you got anything kind of coming up in the future that we should know about?
Optimum: Just more label stuff really, Hummer Buzz, and just concentrating on that. So I’m writing stuff for the label and doing some remixes.
Optimum: Yeah. There should be one coming out on–I’ve got a remix of Wildlife coming out.
Luke: Okay. Cool.
Optimum: So that’s the next one.
Luke: Wicked. Well, many thanks for coming down.
Optimum: Thanks a lot for having me.
Luke: No problem at all. So yeah, that’s it here from us at Point Blank with Optimum. Make sure you keep locked in to the YouTube channel, to the Facebook, for all of the more studio sessions we’ve got coming up, also the live master classes as well, and if you do want to check out a bit more about music production and learn a bit more then head over to pointblankonline.net and have a look at some of the courses on offer.
So that’s it here from us. Thanks for watching and we’ll see you very soon. Thanks a lot. Bye-bye.