Behind the Groove EP10: Amy Dabbs
We are delighted to host Lobster Theremin regular and Berlin based producer Amy Dabbs next in the Behind The Groove series. She breaks down the gorgeous 'Mellowday' from her debut EP 'Girl Like Me'. 'Mellowday' is guided by some seriously deep rhodes, scat-like vocals and sunshine filled bongo patterns. Listen to the track we are going to deconstruct below:
Also a big shout to Romy Green for jumping on the interview for this one.
Hey Amy, thanks so much for chatting with us! Firstly, what's the situation been like in Berlin over the last year and how have you found it?
I've had the most productive year of my entire production life and to take a silver lining, coronavirus has really motivated me because I've been so focused. There's been no temptation to drag me away from the studio. Music really lifts you as well, it's the saviour of my mood a lot of the time.
I actually just lost my job last summer which was the best thing to happen to me as I really cracked on. I've gone into turbo mode but it's also fine to not want to do loads and I think everyone's just found their own comfort zone. It’s [been] hard as well, because it's [been] quite lonely. I live on my own, my dog is my best friend at the moment.
Do you feel like corona has changed the way you're making music?
Yeah, definitely. One thing I'm really amazed by is that I started going more into the 160 BPM vibe production wise. I’ve always loved that kind of music. One day I was wondering if I could make one drum and bass track and then I started watching Youtube tutorials about drum patterns and I was like "oh my god, this is so complicated" (laughing). Four different kind of snares, different types of high hats, and I needed to find out how it worked.
I haven't used sample drum loops like a lot of producers use when they're making jungle or drum and bass, all of my drum racks are from scratch. I was talking to Jimmy who runs Lobster Theremin and he was like “what the fuck are you doing that for?”. I’m a control freak, I need to put everything in its exact place. I’ll be chopping up samples for drums - of course I use samples there's no problem with that at all - but I need that intricacy. Everything is completely manually done. And I think lockdown provided me with the time to spend doing the meticulous moving around of bits and pieces.
At the moment you said your Berlin based, I believe that you used to live in London?
Yeah, so I actually grew up there. I then moved to Singapore in 2015 whilst working in advertising. I was DJing a lot there but it didn't really give me the focus. In Berlin and London, there's loads of people producing and there's a big community of music makers. In Singapore, there isn't really that. So, I was playing out [In Singapore] but I reached a ceiling point where I wanted to learn how to produce. I had released a couple of things years and years before but I’ve now got that bug for production that I never had, probably because I’m surrounded by so many people that are into the same thing.
Why did decide to move over to Berlin? Was there a specific reason?
I was mainly thinking that I need to get into a very creative place with a lot of creative people. It’s a very liberal society versus Singapore which is quite conservative. I loved living there, but it wasn't giving me that kind of push into the creative world that I wanted so much.
So I just decided to move here on almost a whim. I actually called my mate who was visiting Berlin from Singapore and he was just coming out of Berghain. He said “why don’t you just move to Berlin where the music is” and I was like "yeah!" This was after he had been in Berghain for 15 hours. But actually it was the best decision ever. I spent one year doing fuck all here, just messing around dancing, not focusing at all and wondering why I wasn't getting gigs but not really applying myself. Then suddenly lockdown happened and I learned how to use Ableton properly and really got stuck in.
In Singapore, did you find that people weren’t into the same music as you and was that
There's actually a really good scene in Singapore it’s just very, very small. There were two decent clubs that played underground music, one more techno-ey club and Keilo where I was a resident at their all female DJ night. They really brought in some proper quality talent like Heidi and Jennifer Cardini. But it's never going to grow to the size of anything more because it’s such a small place.
So I thought, you can either do this forever or you can push yourself into an uncomfortable place. Getting to Berlin, you're just a nobody in music. There's so many people that DJ. You need to question what makes you interesting, and I wasn’t interesting for ages because I wasn't applying myself to production. I think that's really where this turning point started to happen.
What have taken from this year? And what positives will bring forward?
I got really comfortable being on my own a lot. It's lent itself to being fine being in the studio for hours and hours on end and not needing massive social plans.
Working with Lobster Theremin has been amazing as well. Jimmy who runs it has helped me to understand a bit more about the industry, [including] the kind of labels that I should be approaching and the tone I should be using. He's been really, really helpful in that regard.
He also sent me some challenges to write four tracks in a month and I impressed myself with the speed that I was able to work at. I thought, "no, I can't do that" and he just told me to try. It wasn’t because he wanted to sign them. It was because he wanted to help me to optimise my processes. And he loved the track that I sent and I did them in probably 25% of the time I would normally because it's usually quite laboursome when I make a track. I'm looking at 30 to 40 different channels in Ableton. I've got an EP coming out in a couple of months and the A1 was version 65, so I got told off for that.
Meticulousness is really common amongst some really great artists. So it's definitely quite a good attribute even though you might think like, wow, that's so many versions.
I think it is but I'm sure there's a slightly more middle ground where I could be a little bit less meticulous. One of the tracks which made me feel the happiest I created in two days, which is a collaboration with another jungle artist. I really liked it which seemed impossible because I’d only made it in one day. Sometimes you have these little wins but it's not often.
Yeah, sometimes you have those creative bursts, don’t you? Where you get things done and other times it’s just slow.
Yeah definitely, and I [take inspiration from Paul Woolford] who actually picked up ‘Allure’ which is my drum and bass track which is just about to come out. What happened was, I started to write this track when I was doing my YouTube tutorials. I made half a track and posted it on Instagram stories and loads of people messaged me and said you should finish this.
I then saw that Paul Woolford had posted a Special Request sample pack competition on Instagram so I thought I’d see what the samples were like. There was this really cool spoken word sample at the beginning. It's a little bit ragga sounding. I put that and a couple of other little effects in and sent if off and he printed it to vinyl and sent me one!
But yeah, I was reading an article he'd written and he has this thing called the chair test. If you haven't got out your chair at some point when creating a track and gone "OH" then it’s shit. I've literally got that ingrained in my head. If the track hasn't got me excited I'm generally going to ditch most of it and keep working until I get off my chair. Now I am chasing that feeling every time I’m writing.
Do you have any tips or tricks on how to get out of a creative block?
A thing that is great to do, which comes back to the workshops I do, is randomly grabbing samples and only using them in a track. Even if you don't like it, you can always swap something out at the end but you've made something and it's been inspirational because you've had a very restricted place to operate in.
The challenge that Jimmy Asquith made [setting me deadlines, was also helpful]. At first I found it horrific and nearly had a mental breakdown. I though "I can’t do this, I hate music, I’m never gonna be able to do it". Then to deliver him the tracks, he was like they’re unbelievable and I didn’t think I could [have] done that.
Sample wise, where do you tend to get your samples from?
I've got millions and millions of different samples which I've accumulated from all over the place, which is nice because I'm never working with one pack. The other place I go is Splice if I do need to top up something. I love that you can search by key on there. I’ll work out which key I’m in by putting blue tack on my keyboard, looking it up on google and then I'll go to Splice. There's workarounds even if you've got no music theory.
I feel like samples can be a really good kickoff for a track because you might end up not needing them but they give you that kind of leg up. By the end you might [realise] you don't really need it. It’s a hard decision to throw things out. I really believe you have to be brutal with that.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice as a new and emerging producer, what would it be?
Write fucking music. Honestly, I just dilly dallied for so long. If you're writing music all the time, it comes more easily to you. It really does make the process quicker. I'm hungry for the next one and get really geared up by what I've just made. I just wish I'd got my ass in gear sooner. [Also] just get tracks out, people are much nicer than you think.
Put your mind to being confident and professional, act as if you were already someone that was on their radar as opposed to a little mouse. If you conduct yourself like that people treat you like your further ahead.
You're also capable of way more than you think you are. I thought I was shit. I nearly quit producing because I was so terrible at it. This was December 2019. I sat in the studio and cried. And I was like “I'm never gonna make anything that's good enough”. So I stopped producing and I sat on YouTube and went through every single effect of Ableton [so I could know it inside out]. That's when I wrote ‘No Distractions’ and then the whole EP came after that. But the level of disbelief and disillusion at that point was unreal. I can't believe that I was that person. And it's only through consistency and frequency of being able to work all day. I work until 2am every night finishing tracks every single day now. It's changed my complete perception of producing and now I adore it. I can't wait to finish more tracks. So that's my piece of advice. You're amazing. And you're more amazing than you even know.
Moving on to chat more about the track. What inspired Mellowday? It has that really deep, roots of house music sound which I’m a massive fan of.
The first name of that track was called ‘Summer By The Canal’. I'd actually been out and gone and sat by the canal by my house and was just lying in the sun. I wanted some Ibiza-y, happy music and the first couple of versions were saved as that.
I never really tried to write a sound if that makes sense, but as it started to develop, it was sounding quite summery and nice, like Café Del Mar, sit on the beach vibes. As that idea started to come in, I was like, I need a little bit of a euphoric vocals, the "woooo" (singing). It was an optimistic outlet because it was just coming into summer, lockdown had started to lift and I was just feeling a bit happier. Hopefully that translated into the track.
How many versions of the track do you have and how long did it take to create?
22, so not too bad! It changed to ‘Mellowday’ in 2021. ‘Mellowday’ is actually a tribute to my dog who’s called Melody.
It took a couple of months [to create]. I actually didn’t think this one was very good. I thought this was the one that the label wouldn’t sign. I sent the label nine tracks, and they signed eight of them. But I did get excited. It got past the chair test.
Oh, yeah. It's such good vibes.
I have the old Juno 106, which is probably why my house tracks are sounding like old house because that's a classic synth. It’s so temperamental, some days some of the keys don't work and it's all a bit warpy and hissy, but it makes some really nice little weird sounds and actually there’s a bit of character. It's completely not perfect, which is quite nice.
I quite often leave mistakes in where it slips up a little bit and I never record it through MIDI, I’m always just doing it live. It’s made me take off my 'everything has to be perfectly quantised and everything has to be rightly placed hat' because you literally can't with that thing. It's all over the shop.
What was the hardest part of the track to create?
I think it probably was the bass because how it started wasn’t really akin to how the bass ended up. All of that was written in sampler, chopping and consolidating.
I also didn’t naturally know what kind of bassline the track would need. I was really pleased that I managed to get a sound that I wanted in the track after it being so different [to begin with]. The bass is really nice, warm and loud and initially it was missing that.
The Production of Mellowday
At this point in the interview, Amy kindly walked us through their Ableton project for 'Mellowday'. As per the Behind The Groove style, what follows is organised into sections focusing on different elements of the track. Where possible, we’ve given timestamped YouTube links so you can check the sounds out as you read.
What element did you start 'Mellowday' with and does this follow your normal workflow?
I tend to build the drums first. I get all drums running, go to the groove library and get killer groove on it so you're nodding along and then start layering in stuff.
Drums - 0.01 onwards
The drums are really simple on this track, it’s just a 909. There's nothing particularly exciting about it, there's no layering or anything. When I first started producing, I used to think you had to layer drums and it always had to be stacked. That is also a great technique but sometimes it can just be the one drum. I've added a corpus to add a bit of resonance, which just makes it fatter.
There is compression and two drum buss' on the kick. It’s not really the done thing to put two drum busses on because they're already ridiculously strong but I’ll mess around until I find a sound that I like. The 909 hasn't got a great deal of bass in the kick. Normally I would have put a subbier kick under there, even an 808 sub kick which is fat and then I'll clip the transient off the front of the sub kick and put it underneath. But this is just the 909 kick but it's wellied up to fuck.
I also used a clap, it's more of a stick sound. Again, I was thinking about the style of the track. If it had some kind of ragey, 909 type snare, it would have just been ear piercing. The part which goes ‘Come On’ is also actually a high hat sample, which I found when I was going to 8 million high hats as you do, so I actually chopped the hi hat off it.
Bongos - 0.01 onwards
There’s two bongos. There’s a bongo loop sample but I wanted to inject a little bit more spice to it so added another bongo in MIDI which I did write. I’ve side chained that loop to the [other] bongos so that they pop off each other. I want that swingy, summer sound, like you’ve got a nice cocktail in your hand. I do think there's a lot to be said for side chaining. I think side chaining that loop through the MIDI really made them bind together, so they don't sound completely separate either coming from two different sources.
If I do use loops, they tend to be for highs, there'll be like a Bongo or a hi-hat. With drums and snares I rarely use loops. I might clip a piece out of them and put it into a drum rack but that comes back to my control freak tendencies.
For this one I put the same groove on to the bongos that I wrote so that they sat in the same groove pattern [as the bongo loop]. I’ve also written in the different velocities. It’s got groove in it but it’s even more pop-y because I’ve manually dragged them. And they also duck where the hi-hat comes in. I wanted the shaker and the hi-hat to be feeding off each other and the two bongos to be feeding off each other. The hit hat itself is on the groove that the kick is on but the shaker is on the groove that the bongos are on.
When I'm trying to get all the percussion to sit comfortably together I'll put all the percussion apart from the kick into one giant group and sidechain the whole lot through this Native Instruments amazing solid buss compressor and route it through the kick.
Bass - 1.30 onwards
I tend to put the bass in last. It’s weirdly the hardest part for me to, sometimes I wish I didn't have to write a bassline at all. For this one I sliced and diced [a sample] and then reconsolidated it in the arrangement. So the original sample is really quite different to what [the bass] turned out to be.
I've got two basses. Normally, on almost all of my tracks, there are two layers. I’ll EQ the hell out of the lower end of one and EQ the hell out the higher end of the other. So, I've got a higher end, really amped and then a lower end really amped up. They are layered together which makes it fat. I also put some resonance on there, some saturation and compression. I’ve got EQ here, cutting out all the harmonics at the higher end.
But, it’s good to leave some [high end] in because if you listening on portable speakers or headphones, which sometimes are without the harmonic, higher end, you'd lose it all. This is why I tried to have two layers and I can control how much of each is fed into the main buss.
Rhodes Chords - 2.47 onwards
This one's just a sample actually. Everything sounds better with Rhodes. [The sample] has not been dragged around or even re-programmed too much. Sometimes that's fine. I need to let go of my control freak tendencies.
The thing is, it's easy to get caught in a trap where the the song becomes really loopy because you overplay a repetitive chord. So I tried to bring [the chords] in and out. There’s a bit of EQ and compression on the chords but nothing major.
What I’ll often do is I'll write a big load of Juno clips live, and then I'll fish through them and choose what I keep. I’ll bang ideas down because it’s like creating a sample pack for your own track. And look, this is the state of this piece of machinery. This is recorded live. As you can see, it doesn't work on one side apart from once here. But I've actually made it more all over the place, I added multiband compression, because sometimes it's really screechy in particular places. Also re-pitch on the delay gives you that kind of bendy, when you’re feeling a bit high, feeling.
It has that old fusion, the sounds do sound old because they are a bit scratchy. They’re not high quality but analogue synthesiser’s actually breathe, you can hear it going. That of course gets woven into the music but I like it. It has a warmth to it, it's not polished. It's just real.
Time stretching is something I really love doing as well to get really good sounds from something that didn't sound like that that initially at all. I do that a lot on my recorded Juno samples because you can create some really nice effects.
Progression and Arrangement
I have this concept in my head that you have someone holding your hand as they're taking you through this track. You don’t want to be kicked off a cliff hallway through and think “where the hell did that come from?” No point is going to be abrupt.
I spend a really long time procrastinating and fiddling with getting that hand holding. It's like a baton being passed between sections. That battle needs to be a smooth handover and not a smack on the head. I'll keep working and sometimes end up writing a really big intro to try and compensate for the big middle bit. Normally that's when the synth comes in because you can make more subtle but still warmer sounds and build the tension a little bit before you come in with the main event.
Vocal Snippets - 3.16
The vocal snippets come from my sample pack of a million things. It’s not a great quality sample. That’s why I tend to put the vocals in after I’ve laid in most of the melodies. I put a bit of vocoder just to modulate it a bit and took out some of the low end because you've got the Rhodes, the synths and bass filling up quite a lot of the low end.
I had loads of lessons with a sound engineer who recommended the Slate Digital plugins.
I was like "this fucking engineer telling me I have to buy like all these plugins". And actually, I bought the Slate Digital pack, which can buy for about 100 euros, and it really made a huge difference when mixing. The EQ on there are the compressor on there are really amazing.
A big thanks to Amy for taking the time to deconstruct the wonderful 'Mellowday' with us. You can find the track HERE
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