Behind The Groove EP6: AHJU
Updated: Apr 20
Episode number 6 of our production series comes from upcoming DJ and producer AHJU, who is based in unceded Gadigal country of the Eora nation. 2020 saw her release a killer single on London's GODDEZZ label with remixes from 1-800 Girls and Maruwa. 'Cause I' radiates pure joy with sparkling keys, energetic breakbeat and ravey piano stabs. Accordingly we were super excited to find out a bit more about her and how she put it together.
You can dig it to 'Cause I' below:
Hey AHJU, thanks so much for coming on Behind The Groove! As you are based in Australia, how is it being on the other side of corona? Has it made you appreciate music and events more?
I’m based in unceded Gadigal country of the Eora nation. This is the traditional First Nations name of the part of Sydney I’m living in. COVID-19 has been challenging as a musician, and has highlighted the importance of mental health for me. In saying that, I acknowledge the situation has been far more severe in most places around the world.
It’s made me miss being and playing at gigs a lot, and in turn I’ve been able to realise the value of them in a way I don’t think I would’ve thought about if the pandemic hadn’t occurred. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to play gigs, which has been very uplifting and remarkable.
I noticed that you used to be called Microwave, why did you decide to change your name?
I think AHJU is a lot more fitting for me and actually shows my identity through it. I felt that Microwave wasn’t unique and was easily confused for other musicians. Using AHJU as my music name was a way for me to reclaim my Korean middle name. Growing up, I definitely had some internalised racism to the point where I was embarrassed to tell people my middle name in fear of being ostracised in a predominantly white community.
What can we expect from you in the near future?
I’m currently working on a remix for a Naarm (Melbourne) musician called Rita Bass, and I’m making a collaborative track with my friend Stullet that’ll be out on his new label, Kabayan Records. Also, I’m planning to release a single or an EP by the end of this year.
The Production of Cause I
Firstly how did you get involved with the label GODDEZZ?
I came across GODDEZZ through their first release, ON+ON+ON which was a compilation that featured a bunch of artists I really like including X-Coast, Foamek, Maruwa and Coco Bryce, to name a few. I’d emailed them a version of ‘Cause I’ and to my surprise they emailed back and were keen to release it! Kalli and portara0000 run the label and were able to organise the remixes, which I was really grateful and thrilled about.
Why did you choose to name your track Cause I and what inspired the sound of the release?
Most of the tracks in my DAW have working titles which are the date I created them so when I was ready to release this track I thought the easiest option would be to name the track something in the lyrics - I’d already released a track with the word ‘love’ in it (under Microwave) so I went with ‘Cause I’.
This release was inspired by the music I was listening to at the time, which was a bit of a transitional period for me. When I started producing (as Microwave) I was very much into disco and house, whereas at that point I was becoming more interested in breakbeat and other sub-genres of “dance” music. So I feel like ‘Cause I’ became a blend of disco, house and breakbeat.
I’ve been moving away from hardware and have been preferring a more digital setup nowadays as I think it’s more of an efficient workflow, and more cost effective. I’m also a fan of using what you’ve got - even if it’s minimal and basic - as I think having constraints can actually aid creativity.
I feel like a lot of people (myself included in the past) get caught up with having/buying more gear and think it will instantly improve their music, which is not always the case. I think some of the best music was made with a low-budget set-up. I use Ableton, a midi keyboard, an iMac, JBL LSR305 studio monitors, and a Native Instruments Komplete Audio 6 interface for producing. My favourite soft synths are the Korg M1 and Arturia V Collection. I have some other hardware in my studio, but to be honest, they don’t get a lot of use nowadays. However, I must say my Roland TR-8 was great to learn drum sequencing on and for live shows.
Moving onto focus on the production of the track. What was the first element you created in this track? Is this the same element every time you create a track or is it more dependent on how you are feeling that day?
I started building the track from the vocal/synth sample, which is from this really lovely and melodic late ‘80s RnB track. Before, I would (more often than not) firstly find a track I really liked and that would then inspire me to build a song around it. However, lately I’ve been building a sample library and have been working on different techniques to make my sound and process more interesting.
What was the most challenging part of creating the track?
Finishing is always the most difficult part for me during the songwriting process, but I think mixing has also been a challenge as I’m still definitely learning how to achieve the sound I want.
I layered two kick samples. One has a lot of “punch” and is more present in a higher frequency range, which is further accentuated with a saturator. The other kick is more subby. To make the kick sit well with the bass I slightly sidechained the two basses to the kick.
To process the break I EQ’ed it by using a band pass filter and also finely cut out some muddy frequencies. Additionally, I slightly sidechained the break to the kick, compressed it with a 1.7:1 ratio and had sends going to a reverb and delay.
I chose to use eighth notes over quarter notes for the 909 open high hat as it gave the track more energy and filled a space/rhythm that the other parts of the drum kit didn’t. Also, I loved using them for a hot minute because they’re easy and are a bit of an ode to the simplicity of lo-fi house. Most of the other hats are from the drum break.
In the first chorus I used some different drum sounds to the rest of the track as sort of a precursor to when the break drops. I put a shaker panned to the left and two “ride filter swell” samples which sound more like a clapping stick with heavy reverb. They were both tuned and panned differently.
Every so often there’s a lovely little tom roll. The sort of toms that you’d get in an italo house track from maybe a linn drum machine and they sound awesome. Why these over a standard snare roll?
The tom roll is actually embedded in the original song which I sampled. It happens at the end of the 4-bar loop I used, however I accentuate or mask it at differing points of the song.
With the melody, I first took inspiration from the song I sampled, then built melodies around that. I think the trick to fitting them all together and for them not to sound clashing is to be aware of what frequency range they sit in. The melodic/funky bass for example sits in the mid-low frequency range, whereas the e-piano from the sample is in a mid-high range.
I tend to play in melodies using a midi keyboard then fine tune them in the midi note editor.
I have the Arturia V collection, so for the sub I used a Modular V and for the melodic/funky bass I used a Prophet V. Having two alternating basses isn’t something I usually do, but for this track the idea was that I wanted to blend a funky disco element into a breakbeat track. I find that breakbeat songs would usually have just a deep sort of sub bass, so I thought using two different basses would create a contrast that would make my track more interesting.
The synth line is part of the sample - which sounds like an e-piano. It is the intro of an RnB track looped and sped up. I used the re-pitch setting on Ableton so as the sample was sped up the pitch went higher too. During the choruses, I doubled up this melody using an M1 mallet as I felt like the melody got a bit lost over so many instruments.
Sometimes, when the chord progression is too complex for my piano playing abilities I configure the chords to be individual midi clips, and then MIDI or key map it a single button/key. So, I only have to press one button to trigger a chord.
I used a Korg M1 plugin for the piano stabs. For me, I find that it helps to get the rhythm down by playing it on a midi keyboard and afterwards, if there are minor mistakes I fix them using the midi note editor/piano roll.
Vocal Snippets/ Sound effects / Transitions
The vocal samples are from the RnB song I sampled. Same as the e-piano synth sample, the vocal samples are sped up and are on the re-pitch function on Ableton (so they are pitched up as well). The vocals have been finely chopped up from various points of the original song, and rearranged.
There’s a lovely wide delay on a couple of the vocal hits, what’s the delay plugin?
Ableton stock ping pong delay which has been automated. Additionally, the vocal bus has a TAL chorus with stereo widening on it, and a sends to Ableton’s stock simple delay.
Return tracks / Bussing
I used busses via groups on Ableton. I grouped together similar instruments i.e. a vocal bus and drum bus. I think processing on busses makes the sound more cohesive.
Writing and Arrangement
I started slicing up and sampling all the parts of the original song I liked and wanted to incorporate into a new song. From there, I started layering various instruments that complimented the instrumental sample. Then, I started constructing a few phrases and incorporating the vocal samples to it. After that, I experimented with different compositions and instruments until I was somewhat satisfied with it. Then, I started to mix it (although I did add some essential processing along the way (e.g. reverb, delay, and maybe a rough eq and compressor).
Any tips for building tension and moving easy between sections?
Less can be more by leaving space and moments of silence as it makes an interesting contrast between sections of the song. It also allows for changes in energy during the song which in turn makes a song less monotonous. Also, sometimes I like using a short (usually 1 bar) low pass or high pass filter on drums just before a section ends. I like using risers (albeit subtly) in the lead up to a new section such as a reverse cymbal or a chord played by a synth with a long attack.
Do you have a normal workflow that you follow when it comes to arrangement?
To be honest it’s a bit chaotic. Sometimes I get to a point where I’m ready to arrange but then find that a new/different section needs to be written to compliment the song. Only recently, I've been trying new workflows and techniques. When I first started producing, I used to get stuck making loops that weren’t then being arranged into actual songs.
A big thanks to AHJU for chatting to us and deconstructing the wonderful 'Cause I'. You can find it below with stellar remixes from Maruwa and 1-800 Girls.
And finally a big shout to Theo for helping me put together the questions.