Steve Duda Ponders Programming and Production

June 14, 2012

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 Kurzweil K2500.

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 [2001] 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 was born.

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 AudioUnit design.

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 use myself.

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 industry?

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 through Xfer.

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 electronic music.

Steve Duda’s Top 10 Tips for Producers

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.

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