Name: Tim Liken
Occupation: Music Producer
Bands/Projects: Tim Deluxe
Labels: Strictly Rhythm / Underwater / Ice Cream Records
Musical Recommendations: Kamasi Washington and Brame and Hamo really stood out for me personally
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I first started producing music in 1995. I was working at a record store in London called Time Is Right Records. This was there I met Andy Lysandrou and Omar Adimora, with whom I later set up Ice Cream Records. Also I met Chris Simmonds from Cross Section Records there too. It was a real meeting hub for DJs, producers and people in the scene.
Andy and Chris were my first connection into making music. Andy had a studio in north London and Chris had a place over in north-west London. I would head into the studio after work or on my days off, trying to learn how to produce and put together some ideas. Andy had an engineer whom he worked with who helped Omar and I make our first EP for release on Ice Cream. Chris was very skilled in the studio and helped me learn a lot. He could put things together quickly and I was able to learn from these early sessions how you went about making a track. This was basically the spring/summer of 1995.
My biggest influences at that particular time were mainly all the New York/New Jersey House producers of that era. MAW, Todd Terry, Kerri Chandler, Mood II Swing, MK, Roger S, Blaze, Smack Productions, Murk(Miami), Danny Tenaglia et al. Labels like Strictly Rhythm, Nervous, Emotive, Tribal, Smack, Shelter, Easy Street, Bottom Line Records.
I have a wide range in taste musically and Time Is Right Records helped me explore that. They had a second hand section where I found lots of Jazz, Disco, Funk, Rare Groove, Old Soul/Motown albums and artists. It was a real musical education working there. Better than any college.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Yes for sure I agree. When we're taught music, it’s always to learn how to play the ‘standards’, whether they be Jazz, Classical, Pop etc. If you don’t study and learn to play yourself, then it’s kind of the same process: you sit down and work out the chords and melodies of your favourite tunes. I think for me, it was more from a producer’s point of view in those early days. So, how do you get that sound? How do you get those drum sounds? Trying to identify chords and parts that I liked or was drawn to. It was also very much about equipment in those days. Hardware was ‘the thing’. Each piece had its own sound, so the SP1200 sounded very different to the AkaiS950 and to the MPC60. The Lexicon reverbs sounded very different to the AMS Reverb unit or the Yamaha SPX stuff. The Proteus sound modules sounded very different to the Roland stuff etc.
I sampled a lot in those days, as I didn’t know how to create those sounds or have all the equipment available to me. A lot of the producers I mentioned above were working in professional recording studios with amazing engineers getting a really great sound, so it was always going to be hard to emulate that fully. I think the transition started to begin around 1997, after a couple of years Omar and I had found our feet with the R.I.P Productions sound and also with Chris Simmonds my solo stuff was beginning to bed in. I was experimenting more and felt more comfortable in the studio. However, it’s only really since I started to study the piano that I can really say that my compositions and ideas are moving forward to a place where I have my own sound or can express how I’m feeling or what I’m looking for, and even then it’s still forming. I’m definitely an aspiring musician.
There is a famous Miles Davis quote where he said “you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” I feel this is very, very true to form. It’s a constant practice that has to happen on a daily basis, almost like a ritual, for it to bear fruit.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Just trying to get the record to sound good and stand up alongside other records, sonically and musically. I remember in those early days, mixing felt so hard and I struggled with it. Even now, I think most of my records don’t quite sound as good as I would like them from a sonic perspective. However, I can hear they sound better than my early records, which is a small relief. Compositionally, it’s only since I started piano lessons that my compositions are heading down a road that I’m happy with and really feel like they represent me better.
I’m now able to create the emotion that I’m trying to convey. It feels like the beginning all over again in some ways. There really is so much to learn and it’s exciting to keep pushing forward on that front. Music has so many facets, you can never truly master it in this lifetime. It would be like saying, ‘I can speak every language in the world fluently and understand it’s culture and heritage fully’.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My studio has gone through many evolutions. At the moment I’m just re-working it, so it's a pile of wires. I have a Midas 320 Venice analogue desk which is the centre of the mix-side of things. I am moving over to a laptop setup now, running Ableton live and Cubase 8 as my DAW’s and for getting ideas down. Ableton is great for getting sketches down very quickly, I then like to shift everything over to Cubase to mix down and make final arrangement changes or edits etc. I’m reorganising so everything is racked up, ready to touch and play, as it’s quite a small space.
It’s important to have my kit ready to go to capture an idea, because they can appear very quickly, like some ‘other worldly communication’. Ergonomics are also important, especially when space is limited - like my current room. You have to be a bit clever and utilise the space in a way that keeps it from being a mess and yet allows the creativity to flow.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?
Humans, in a word. My music of late has moved away from electronics and synthesised sounds. I’m more intrigued by how can I make the worlds of live music and musicians meet with my music. Part of it may be a sub-conscious reaction to the amount of technology out there and how it's applied to music.
I feel a lot of modern mainstream music sounds the same and sterile. I can’t hear the human in there a lot of the time. It sounds like another search for perfection that, ironically, has ended up sounding imperfect and devoid of the human spirit. Auto-tuned to perfection, quantised to perfection, mixed within an inch of its life - that’s how a lot of modern music, especially on a mainstream level, sounds to me. That's why I don’t have any electronics on my record at all. I wanted to try and step away from that, or at least have it feel human in spirit.
Now, I usually start at the piano, it was never like that in the beginning. I would always turn on the drum machine and start making beats.
Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?
I think it’s interesting and somewhat scary, what some of the new software tools can do. Like most things, it’s essentially how and with what knowledge you approach them, which makes the outcome interesting or not. At this present time there seems to be a real drive from the software companies to make things easier and quicker for every aspect of putting a production together. On one hand, that's fine and helpful, but also it takes away from a deeper understanding of the process or the fundamentals of what it is you are doing or trying to achieve.
The biggest danger, for me, is becoming a slave to the technology. In some ways it can force me down a path that is not necessarily that creative. From my own perspective I’m happiest and most creative when I have the ability to tweak and touch things very quickly without having to go through menus or multi pages to access a parameter.
I feel that's why ‘dub’ music is so interesting, they use the mixing desk as an instrument and the fluidity of that comes across in a huge way.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
Let’s take ‘Tryin’ Find A Way’. That began by working and learning pieces in the Dorian mode which I really love. I found a chord that I really like which then created a basis to lay the bass organ part on. I stacked that with what you would call the ‘the hook’ which then formed the basis of the track.
I had done some piano improv on the demo to try out ideas and see how it would sound and what struck me at that time was, this is a great vibe, but it’s just another nice piece of music, there is no message in it.
That was when I set about finding a suitable vocal for it. My intention with the album was to have, what I would consider to be ‘conscious lyrics’. By this, I mean something that had a spiritual, introspective or political sentiment connected to it.
I came across a vocal by Charles L Russell, which was a 12 minute interview with him from the 60’s I believe. I sat and listened closely to what he was saying and felt the message was perfect, not just for the track, but also eerily close to the current social/political climate across much of western society. I then sat and chopped up all of the phrases that I wanted to use. Some of it is re-contextualised and made to create new phrases and statements, a kind of collage approach. This was how I found the vocal hook ‘Tryin’ Find a Way’.
Jay Phelps (trumpet) played on the track with John Donaldson (piano) expanding on the parts that I had in the demo and adding his own flavours with comping along to Jay. Rod Youngs played drums on top of my programmed/sequenced drums.
I sifted through all of the files and comped together the bits that I wanted to use. This took a bit of time; patience is the name of the game at this stage. After this I mixed it down, and would do some live passes on the desk with effects and delays and record those back in to give some final small textures and details.
At each stage, going with what I felt was right, was the order of the day essentially. Learning to trust your instincts is very important. There is a kind of magical naivety that happens. When you over-think it, you lose the vibe.