Behind The Groove EP1: Wordcolour
Welcome to the first ever episode of our series 'Behind The Groove'. A blog based (for the time being), in-depth look at the production techniques behind the songs of our favourite tastemakers. This week we start with London based curator Wordcolour, aka Nicholas Worrall. Wordcolour has fast become one of my favourite producers, with two dexterous and highly emotive EP's released in 2020 on Lapsus Records and Fabric's Houndstooth. Alongside, this he was featured in the Guardian's 30 new artists for 2021 and you can catch his latest Self-Titled mix, "People Can You Here Me", here.
Our focus this week lies on the production behind Wordcolour's "Juno", a track which refuses to be defined as one specific genre, as it merges beautiful uplifting melodic lines with clean broken percussive elements and distorted, elongated vocal snippets. A truly cinematic and complex piece which we were delighted to find out more about. You can listen to 'Juno', along with the rest of his 'Juno Way' EP here:
Happy new year! In previous interviews you have said your new years resolution was to be more specific with your goals. Is that going to be the same for 2021?
“Ha! My New Year's resolution feels very lockdown tailored, in that I’ve just decided to watch new films. Rewatch fewer films that I know I like and actually take a punt on stuff that I don’t already know is going to be good.”
Is there any Wordcolour projects in the works for 2021?
“I’m working on some new music, maybe a single or something for this year with the possibility of a longer release later on. I'm also going to be working again with my friend Es Morgan who’s a performance artist. I worked with them on their theatre show a couple of years ago and they just got funding to make a small film so I'm going to be scoring that.”
Is the theatre and film side of music something that you see yourself being more heavily involved in?
“Maybe! If some interesting things come along. Weirdly, Es’ project was one of the first ventures where I called myself Wordcolour. I’d written production music for TV before, but this was the first thing where I could explore the sonic world I’m really interested in, plus me and Es have a great working relationship.”
When listening to your music I really struggle to fit it into a genre, do you have the same trouble?
“That’s a question I struggle to find an answer with myself quite a lot. In terms of the artists/labels that I like in dance music, I think it’s not a million miles away from the lineage of leftfield UK stuff such as the other stuff on Houndstooth or stuff on AD93/Timedance. I guess ‘post - Hessle Audio’ is a good description for this kind of thing, but I draw on a lot of other influences too.”
The Production of Juno
Naming songs is something most producers struggle with, how did you come up with Juno?
“When I started making Juno, it quickly turned into something quite slow and Jazzy. My last night out before lockdown was at a cafe turned club called Juno Cafe which sadly was one of the first clubs to go when lockdown hit. Joe was DJing an all night set, and when I turned up he was quite deep in this kind of tempo and so it reminded me of this night. Plus the middle section is reminiscent of some of Joe’s stuff.”
How long did it take to write?
“Around 2-3 months.”
What daw do you use?
What's your current studio setup?
“There’s no hardware or synths involved in any of my tracks. My usual set up is the laptop, external keyboard, audio interface with a pair of speakers and a subwoofer. So I’m working all with soft synths and samples.”
At this point in the interview, me and Nick decided to dive into the production of each element of Juno. To make things easier for you lot, we've organised what was said into sections focusing on each element of Juno, starting with the drums...
"Great place to start - I start most of my tunes, including Juno, by creating a couple of drum loops. I get most of my drum sounds from Native Instruments Battery or drum breaks. I always start with the low end (kick or bass) or sometimes the snare as these are the things that I struggle with the most. The best piece of advice I’ve probably had as a producer was really think about the sounds you are selecting. If you’re spending ages tearing your hair out trying to EQ a kick or snare, then it doesn’t belong there. You should be spending longer choosing the sound than processing it.”
“The kick here is compressed lightly for punch and EQ’d fairly extremely with big boosts to the low and high-end / a cut in the middle. I find myself doing more and more high-end-boosting and mid cutting, as it helps stuff sound less muffled and muddy.”
“I use the FabFilter Pro bundle for this (Pro-Q 3 and Pro-C 2). There’s also a shortened 808-ish kick that alternates in groove with the main kick. This has less punch and the highs and lows are rolled off a little.”
“It’s always a wrestling match getting the kick, snare and bass to work together. Again, it’s really all about sample selection. A kick that really punches at or just below 100hz sits great with a sub. If it has too long a tail or is too low it’ll be muffled. The kick here has a slightly lower boost than that but it still cuts through well.”
“The snare is from the Think break. What’s great is at this tempo the snare has a lovely sucking sound at the end from the tambourine and that really leads perfectly into the next kick. This and the kicks are really the bones of the track.”
“The main hat is just a 707, they’re quavers with every other one having slightly less velocity. Then there’s a medley of hat samples from various drum breaks interjected too, which gives the hats their live feel. These either start a bar off or lead into the next one. Occasionally there’s a shaker, which is softer in attack and wider in the stereo field to contrast the sharp hats. Later on I also use a tambourine loop that came with Studio One. I think that loop features in pretty much all of my tracks!”
“The drums lacked a bit of punch in the mid range, so there’s a little offbeat 808 bongo type sound in there too. When I’m choosing percussion I think a lot of the envelope of a sound as this is really important to groove. For instance, the ride that comes in at the second drop has a gap of about a sixteenth note before the next one hits.”
“I like to have control of the bass so we have two channels; a sub and a fizzier, higher bass. The sub is done using Razor from Reaktor and the fizzier higher one is done using Massive with the low end filtered out. That way I can take the upper element in and out of the arrangement.
“There’s some pitch bending going on too. It’s important that the automation and pitch bend range is exactly the same on both the sub and the top end, otherwise it’ll end up sounding clashy.”
“I tend to use factory presets and tweak them a bit, again spending more time on choosing sounds. If I can’t find one that will fit, then I’ll start a sound from scratch but I’m certainly not a sound designer.”
“Most Wordcolour tracks always have what I call a ‘bed’ - a warm soft pad for the rest of the track to lie on, in this case doubled up across two octaves. This one in particular is Junatik, from the Reaktor factory library.”
“I’ve got another pad-like synth, deliberately higher and fizzier such as not to cross frequencies with the warm pad, again from the Reaktor factory library. There’s also a melodic synth from FM8 that comes in just before the breakdown.”
“Most of the sounds you hear in the breakdown are synthetic sample instruments which I got when I was writing music for TV (e.g. the sax, woodwinds and piano). On their own they don’t sound super-realistic, but when combined with everything else and some reverb they sound great.
"When we get to the 2nd drop after this there’s this kind of pluck sound from Razor. Here I’ve automated a ‘frequency shift’ type parameter so it moves in and out of being atonal.”
“For the main groove section there’s nothing crazy going on. I’ll do the usual stuff like roll off the low end. I normally find myself making cuts to the mid end and boosting the high end of sounds that I want to stand out. If I feel the synth needs it I’ll add some reverb or delay. Valhalla Room Reverb and Replika are my choices for reverb and delay. All of the processing for the kind of pulsing synth at the end of the breakdown is done within Razor as it sounded pretty good already, with the exception of adding a tremolo to make it pulse.”
“When I'm watching a movie or something I do habitually just sample stuff using a chrome extension called chrome audio capture. It’s just one click so you can impulsively sample things, whereas with something like Soundflower or the windows equivalent it takes more setting up. In Juno there’s a couple of spoken word bits, where I thought there was an interesting tone to the voice. I like the older sample sources, i.e. the scratchy quality of films from the 80s and 90s. In the breakdown I've also cut up and processed some vowel sounds - with just some delay and pitch shifting.”
“As well as speech I sample quite a lot of foley or real world ambience from films, which often have really high quality sounds. This gets into most tracks as a layer of ambience, side chained to the kick etc at a low level. In Juno I’ve sampled matches striking from an ASMR video and put it through a granular delay to make a fizzy thin ambience.”
Automation & bussing
“The main bulk of automation is in the breakdown. This was one of the most challenging and time consuming aspects of the track. I wanted it to feel like it was pulsing which meant taking a lot of elements in and out. That involved a lot of shifting volume levels and bleeding high cuts in and out.”
“I don’t tend to bus much. I’ll send the longer sounds such as pads and ambience into a bus side-chained to the kick. I also send nearly everything to a “cut bus”, which means I can make sharp volume cuts for fills etc really easily.”
Writing & arrangement
“My day job is a piano teacher, and I’ve been playing for a long time and used to play in bands etc. When writing dance music, I’ll come up with the melodic ideas at the keyboard and either play or draw into Studio One. I suppose that’s why my music is really melodic.”
“Arrangement is something I struggle with, but I’m getting better at it. The way I tend to work is I’ll come up with a bit of a groove first and make a loop. I’ll throw loads of ideas and textures at it and then when I feel I have enough stuff I’ll try to stretch it out into a track. For Juno, I made two loops - the groove, plus the initial workings of the minimalism-style breakdown, however for other songs it has been different. I’m increasingly feeling that I like the challenge of blending two ideas that contrast each other and I do this in quite a few of my tracks. ”
Most challenging aspect of Juno
“With Juno, balancing the mid section was difficult from an EQ point of view. Trying to make all the individual sounds jump out enough without getting the mix getting too muddy was hard. There was a lot of cutting in the mid range and boosting certain elements in the top. With grooves it’s easier as they are naturally more percussive sounds that sit within gaps but longer flowing textures don’t have that.”
That's it for episode 1 of Behind The Groove! A huge thanks to Nick for letting me pick his brains for an hour and being our first ever guest. Once again, you can catch his latest Self-Titled mix, "People Can You Here Me", here and you can grab yourself a copy of Juno Way just there ->