Name: DJ Harrison
Current release: DJ Harrison's Tales from the Old Dominion is available from Stones Throw.
Gear recommendations: Tascam 4 track cassette recorder and Roland SP404.
If you enjoyed this interview with DJ Harrison and would like to stay up to date with his work, visit him on Instagram, Facebook, and Soundcloud.
What was your first studio like?
From what I remember, it was just a Memorex Karaoke machine with a record / playback cassette deck and a microphone. Got it when I was 9 years old.
I would record drums on one cassette, and as that played back, I would record the bass along with the drums on another cassette.
How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I wanted to simplify the process from dubbing tapes over and over. I finally graduated to a Tascam 4 track, then 8 track, then finally a computer DAW. Now I feel that all of those, as well as the SP404, have helped me in establishing my sound on all formats of recording.
The digital studio promises endless possibilities at every step of the process. What is it that you actually need from these potentials and how do go about you selecting it? How do you keep control over the wealth of options at the production stage?
I use different factors to make my decision: how much time I have, sound quality of what DAW I’m using, how user-friendly the gear is (if at an outside studio other than Jellowstone) …
On the new album, Tales From the Old Dominion, there are different methods I used on each track, thus giving the track its own character.
A studio can be as minimal as a laptop with headphones and as expansive as a multi-room recording facility. Which studio situation do you personally prefer – and why?
I love to use every studio situation, so it depends on who I’m working with and working on. I like the laptop because it’s minimal wiring and centralized in one place.
With recording live instruments or working with a band, having the multi room facility definitely helps. I like working with anything in between to see if I can push boundaries using unorthodox methods for new sounds (recording live instruments then sampling them, manipulating older recordings, etc).
From traditional keyboards to microtonal ones, from re-configured instruments (like drums or guitars) to customised devices, what are your preferred controllers and interfaces? What role does the tactile element play in your production process?
I like using the most simple of instruments and gadgets: it gives me a chance to sit with it, learn it, then see how I can put my sound into it.
While I like trying new things, I don’t like taking time away to learn new machines if I could use that time to create. I have mostly outdated gear when it comes to interfaces, machines, and computers, but I still maintain a steady workflow because I’ve taken time to internalize its process.
How would you describe the relationship between technology and creativity for your work? Using a recent piece as an example, how do you work with your production tools to achieve specific artistic results?
They go hand in hand because you want to create the best representation of your creative vision as possible. The technology helps you get to that final level of the vision, and depending on the technology used, it could be the factor that gets in the way of taking that vision as far as it needs to go.
There’s a song on the new record called “Uno Mas” where I tried to make a song from scratch, but ended up using the SP404 to rearrange an older song of mine ("My Frainds") that made it a better fit in the end.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
The best thing about recording to the digital DAW is that you can save with time stamps and specific titles. With physical media, I have to manually write dates and titles on them.
With both formats, I’ll save certain tracks depending on if I feel it goes with a certain project/artist. The fun part with that is when you find older songs from months (even years) ago that could be used as is, or updated to a current sound and feel.
Despite the aforementioned near endless possibilities, many productions seem to follow conventional paths. How do you retain an element of surprise for your own work – are there technologies which are particularly useful in this regard?
The surprise element is very important. Finding new ways of playing, writing, and recording definitely plays a part in raising my curiosity of the unknown. When working with other artists, I feel my curiosity will heighten the artists’ creative thinking as well, resulting in fresh sounds from both sides.
My Cubase DAW and SP404 are perhaps the best at capturing these moments.
Production tools can already suggest compositional ideas on their own. How much of your music is based on concepts and ideas you had before entering the studio, how much of it is triggered by equipment, software and apps?
I’d say it’s a healthy 50/50 balance. The SP404 sampler has effects, bpm adjustments, and chopping capabilities to create new songs (like "Uno Mas").
I also have a Zoom HD8 that I used for the songs "City Lights" and "Cosmos", where I use it to capture the original ideas, but the effects and the aesthetic of the machine enhanced the sound tremendously.
How important is it for you that you personally create or participate in the creation of every element of a piece – from sound synthesis via rhythm programming to mixing?
To me, it’s quite important, especially if you’re the sole creator. Sometimes when you trust other people with your vision, they can enhance it to the next level past where you thought you could take it. On the other hand, sometimes those people can diminish it to not meet your expectations (wrong mix, wrong part, etc). In either case, you’re the source of the vision, so you have to be the one in control of where it’s being taken, whether it’s solely you, or a team helping you.
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Yes. The microphone. There’s so many different types to use in different recording situations, and once you start collecting them, they give your ideas a different seasoning than originally planned. They’re always evolving and can have a variety of uses.
Not only instruments, but sounds of everyday life: The Intro to the new album is a wall clock with various effects and reversed on tape ...
To some, the advent of AI and 'intelligent' composing tools offers potential for machines to contribute to the creative process. Do you feel as though technology can develop a form of creativity itself? Is there possibly a sense of co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I understand that there are different tools to help other musicians / creatives to reach their potential, as there are different levels of musical / production knowledge per individual. However, I use tools that are mostly stock and unformatted, so it heavily depends on what you're putting into the machine to get what you want out of it.
Do you personally see a potential for deeper forms of Artifical Intelligence in your music?
I’m not against it. Any tool that uses music to connect more people together through love, creativity, and passion is fine by me!
What tools/instruments do you feel could have a deeper impact on creativity but need to still be invented or developed?
Hmmm nothing at the moment. Technology itself is always evolving.