IN ELECTRONIC MUSIC, THERE ARE TONS OF DJS AND PRODUCERS, BUT VERY
few true wizards. Steve Duda is a wizard’s wizard. The kids know him as
Deadmau5’s BFF and half of their electro-tech side project, BSOD. Old-schoolers
know him as part of Trent Reznor’s Nothing Collective, where he contributed
sound design to Nine Inch Nails’ album The Fragile. Tech geeks know him as the
inventor of FXpansion’s BFD virtual drum instrument—not to mention his own
envelope-pushing music software, like Nerve. Here, he shares his insights on programming,
production, and the future of musical collaboration.
How did you get your start as a musician?
My father is a classical music aficionado and I
was thrown into violin lessons around age five. I
had some cheap, portable Casio and Yamaha keyboards
as a kid, and that made me interested in
synths. In high school, I worked at a music store
and spent all the paychecks on gear. I discovered
I had perfect pitch working there, though I think
everyone can if they focus on it. After tuning a
hundred guitars I realized I had the sound of the
open strings memorized, and I use these notes
as my “pitch memory” to this day. At university, I
majored in composition with a focus in electronic
music. Th is is when I started playing keyboards
in bands. My first real sound design was all of the
keyboard parts for a Prince cover band, using my
modest arsenal of a Roland D-70 and JD-990,
and a Sequential Prophet-600.
What was your studio rig like back in the day?
My high school bedroom studio was a Mac SE with
Opcode Vision; Roland Alpha Juno-2, S-330,
and MT-32; Fender Rhodes; Boss SE-30; Yamaha
FX-500; and a TASCAM DA-30 DAT recorder.
What’s it like now?
Like many people, I’ve transitioned mostly into
the virtual domain. I make tracks on Windows
and have a MacBook Pro for performing—my
favorite hardware is my computers, followed
by my Genelec 8250A monitors, then my vintage
ARP 2600. I have a bunch of gear sitting
around that doesn’t get much use but that I
can’t bring myself to part with, including a
Moog Slim Phatty, Elektron SIDstation, Doepfer
Dark Energy, Clavia Nord Modular, and
What was your trigger for making the leap
into software design?
Working as an engineer in L.A. on rock records,
which was once just a dream, became a boring
reality. My mind began to wander on drum
takes and I realized there weren’t any drum
libraries that sounded convincingly real. I
started recording my own for personal use,
but at the time  the computer couldn’t
keep up with all of the multi-mic disk streaming.
So I approached FXpansion about managing
and streaming all these samples, and BFD
The success of that product inspired me to
learn about programming. I always thought that
creating software should be left to wizards who
must wave magic wands when nobody’s looking,
so with virtually no experience, and at the
tender age of 30, I dove into C++ and VST and
What was your first coding project?
I asked a programmer friend where to begin,
and he said, “Download Microsoft Visual Studio
Express for compiling and get the Steinberg
SDK—they’re both free. Your first task is to
get the example VST plug-ins to compile.” Four
hours later, I had a working gain plug-in. At that
moment, I was hooked.
Which leads us to your software. Nerve is
one of the most revolutionary groove tools
on the market, and LFO Tool takes modulation
to new levels. What’s your inspiration
for these products?
Before I started making software, I’d approach other
developers, either to improve their existing
product or with new ideas. Similarly, I listen
to other producers’ needs, and if I don’t know
of—or can’t find—what they want, I start going
about it myself. As far as Nerve and LFO
Tool go, I owe some of both to Deadmau5.
With Nerve, we’d made a sample CD together
called XFRSCD01, and were talking about
making a second one. We decided that to include
a plug-in as a bonus would be cool, so
he sketched out a wireframe type of GUI. The
idea was to make something cute and simple,
but I wound up making something I’d want to
With LFO Tool, Deadmau5 wanted a plug-in
to control modular synths via analog CV [control
voltage]. I decided it would be a lot more
saleable as an effect than as a CV generator, so
I changed it and added some features like filters
and MIDI CC output. A lot of people use it
to sculpt sidechain compression, which usually
is a pain to set up, whereas with LFO Tool you
get a result instantly.
What do you think about the future of our
One vision I have is that online music collaboration
will become part of global culture. Some
company will finally get it right, merging
the interactive technology from multiplayer
video games with digital audio workstations,
creating a production environment that’s
actually a fun virtual space. We’ve also witnessed
a huge shift in the business of selling
music, from the major labels being a necessity
to them struggling to stay relevant. Although
music sales have been trending downward,
digital sales are growing as a sector. I started
Xfer Records as an outlet for selling my music
without a middleman, but I also sell my software
What should we expect from you in 2012?
I’m growing the music side of Xfer and am going
to feature some great emerging artists.
I’m further developing my live setup, which
includes a lot of custom software to help me
improvise. I’m trying to blur the lines between
a DJ set and a live performance, where I can
take things between pre-arranged and fully improvised
at will. I’ll be touring more in North
America this year, and a couple of new releases
under my own name on Xfer are ready to go, as
is a new BSOD single I think fans will be happy
to see. I’m also collaborating on a full-length
album with Dillon Francis. I’m excited—the
sound is fresh to my ears, which is difficult in
Steve Duda’s Top 10 Tips
1. Trust your ears. The most successful electronica artists
aren’t necessarily the most technically knowledgeable.
They are the most comfortable making quick decisions.
2. Less is more. It’s so easy to layer tons of loops and
sounds, but so much of it is clutter. When I hear sounds
on every sixteenth-note of someone’s demo, I ask
myself, “How many of these notes are even important?”
The answer becomes, “None of ’em!”
3. Melody and harmony. As a Keyboard reader, you
know more about this than most aspiring DJs. Let
melody be the focus, and let the harmony be interesting.
4. Spin and remix songs you like. You’ll learn a lot more
about the song in the process, and gain valuable skills.
5. There’s no right way. I’ve watched different people
approach every facet of music production and engineering
entirely differently. Don’t assume there’s
specific knowledge you are lacking—all you may be
missing is discovering your own solutions!
6. Don’t miss the forest for the trees. It’s easy to start
fiddling with knobs on a sound, expecting that eventually,
you’ll strike gold. While this can happen, it’s not
an effective way to get actual music made.
7. Know when to call it done. I once read about Zen
watercolor artists who paint a picture in minutes, tear
off the page, and start another. The most succesful electronic
producers I know are able to make something and
then seemingly forget about it and start another.
8. Find your own sound. Most of us want to do this, but
have no idea how. My suggestion: Aim for the music you
want to hear but can’t find anywhere.
9. Always be a student. The best producers I know are
curious by nature, even if they have huge success behind
them. I can’t count how many times someone has
asked me, “What synth did Trent Reznor or Deadmau5
use for _____ ?” The answer is almost always, “Whatever
he didn’t use the last time.”
10. Be positive. Nothing is worse than being approached by
someone who comes off as jaded or desperate. Even if you
are desperate to have a song listened to, spun, or signed,
exude that you’re happy about what you do. It’s contagious.