Name: James Davidson
Occupation: Engineer, producer
Current release: In 2019, James Davidson and Clifford Price (more commonly known as Goldie) stunned even their most open minded fans with the release of Music For Inanimate Objects, a full-length album collaboration.
In itself, the fact that Davidson and Goldie should work together hardly came as a surprise. Ever since Ulterior Motive, Davidson's duo with Greg Hepworth, released their Fourth Wall LP on Goldie's Metalheadz imprint, the two had been in touch. A somewhat overlooked late drum n bass masterpiece, The Fourth Wall may not have expanded into the epic territory of “Inner City Life” or “Mother”. But clocking in at well over an hour and exploring just about every corner of the drum n bass universe, it is easy to understand why Goldie, forever the master of eclectic connections, would fall in love with not just these tunes, but the journey they described as well. Eventually, the mutual interest in each other's work led to the piece “I Adore You”, one of the undeniable highlights of Goldie's Journeyman album, in 2017. By that time, the ground for a deeper creative partnership had certainly been laid.
And yet, Music For Inanimate Objects sounded nothing like “I Adore You”. It didn't even sound like anything on Journeyman, in itself an adventurous record which toyed with house, fusion jazz and more contemporary forms of the UK's bass music continuum. Rather, it created a sound uniquely their own, somewhere between electronica, instrumental hip hop, electronic jazz, as well as field recordings and ambient (on the gorgeous, laid-back and mysterious centerpiece “Silent Running”, which takes on a similar silent centerpiece role as Radiohead's infamous “Treefingers” on Kid A).
What sounds like it could have resulted in a hodgepodge of ideas, styles and directions made for a remarkably coherent whole and one of the most fascinating releases of that year. The key to its success seemed to be that the duo had not approached the project from a conceptual angle but purely from their love for a wide range of sounds. The point was not to bend things into their direction, but to simply allow everything to flow and see the other as a partner, not a competitor. Or, as James puts it in this interview: "One thing you need to let go of to achieve great music is the ego in thinking you can do it all best."
Another two years on, Subjective are back with a couple new singles and the promise of a new album, The Start of No Regret, slated for release in March of 2022. Intriguingly, the new material seems to tend into a more clearly discernible drum n bass direction this time, which, at this point, almost seems remarkable. Then again, that first impression may turn out to be an illusion, as Goldie points out in his description of the music: “I really love the way that this album time travels through so many poignant aspects of mine and James’ life through rave culture, jungle, drum & bass and indie influences over the last 20 years. I’m super happy with it and I hope that you will be too.”
If you enjoyed this interview with James Davidson, visit the Ulterior Motive facebook page.
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
I think for me the impulse can come from anywhere, the important thing is to recognize that impulse and capture it as fast as I can. Whether that’s on the computer or a voice memo on my phone. I've learnt that a quick audio description can help remind me of the original idea so I don't have to decipher the meaningless out of context badly sung voice note if I come back to it a day or so later.
The longer I’ve been producing the better I’ve got at channelling personal relationship energy into my music. Identify how I’m feeling in that moment and getting that down as quickly as I can before the moment passes and the inspiration fades. Rather like a dream you can remember when you wake up, as the day goes on its harder to remember the details of the dream. I find that’s the same with the inspiration for a track – if I don't get it down there and then, it fades and is lost forever.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Not always but it helps, I can create the vision as I go. Start with a drum break for example, feel a groove and swing and see what that inspires.
A more important point is when you have a vision, try as hard as you can to stick to it and be faithful to it. You may discover a great synth patch or melody that you love but doesn't fit with the vision of the track. That can really send me down the wrong road and lead to a dead end, and its very tempting to go down the route of an exciting new sound. Not always, but that’s often the case.
These days I’m aware of that trap and try to save the cool new sounds or melodies in a separate project to be reviewed later.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
My production roots are firmly in drum & bass. Bar a few exceptions to the rule, drum & bass producers will do the production, mixing and engineering so the line is very blurred.
As I’m producing a track I like to work as fast as I can, however I don't like to leave a complete mess to clean up later so I’ll make sure my sample choice and arrangement is as strong and clean as possible. I’ll also do some quick engineering as I go to keep the quality up.
There is certainly value in handing over your produced track to an engineer who you trust and respect to mix as they will see/hear it from a clean and fresh perspective. With a dialogue between you this can achieve better results than slogging away at a mix on a track you've heard 1000 times and can't quite hear correctly anymore. This can happen if you over listen to your demo too, then try to mix it later.
As for mastering I personally like to hand this over and not do it myself. I have a great relationship with Lewis Hopkin at Star Delta mastering in Devon. We will always talk about the record and get it in just the state it needs to be before he works his magic in that amazing room with the £100,000s worth of gear and more importantly his ears and experience. One thing you need to let go of to achieve great music is the ego in thinking you can do it all best.
What was your first studio like?
My first studio was in 1997. The word studio is a reach though, as it was an 486 old PC running Cakewalk 5. I was so excited to get cakewalk after a year of copying and pasting audio clips and tracks together in Soundforge. That definitely shouldn’t trigger thoughts of how Burial works, no, this was an absolute mess and more an exercise getting to grips with the program, and what it was missing, what I could and couldn’t do and what I needed, a sequencer.
From there my first bits of gear were a Yamaha CS1X digital synth, a Waldorf Pulse analogue synth and an EMU E5000 Ultra sampler as I had read that’s what Matt Opical used (well, he used the 6400 but that was out of my price range) – all of which I still have to this day. The monitors which I lost many moons ago were the Spirit Absolute 2.
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?
Set ups tend to evolve naturally. Not just because of the fact most producers and engineers get addicted to buying new equipment, at least at some point in their career! But as you learn more you realise what your setup is lacking. That also depends on your speciality. A producer / engineer might want an amazing vocal chain while a mix engineer might want an amazingly treated room and monitors.
For me the biggest and most important upgrades have been my room acoustics and monitors. Recently followed by my deep dive into modular and DIY building Eurorack modules. Using the modular provides me with a really fun and satisfying experience, best used in short but frequent inspiration sessions that I’m always recording to chop back into later. There are so many sweet spots when using the modular its rare not to get something usable.
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?
Each setup has its own strengths and limitations. For me, limitations are key to a fast workflow so I’m not constantly searching for where to go or what to use next.
For example if I have a laptop and am traveling, I’ll rarely try to write a full track. Instead, I’ll try to create say, 15 serum bass patches that I’ll bounce to audio for later use. Then when in a studio session I can quickly draw for pre-made and processed sounds, or at lease a patch. I do this a lot with drums too creating kicks and snares or full breaks.
What tools/instruments do you feel could have a deeper impact on creativity but need to still be invented or developed?
I really think machine learning and AI will have a big impact in the coming years. There are already companies such as Izotope using machine learning / AI for products like Neutron which is a mixing tool, but the actual composing side could see a huge shift I believe in the near future. Imagine you want a 10 piece string arrangement in your track using a spitfire library. I can really see you feeding the AI a few reference tracks to learn from then maybe some key words and off it goes spitting out the midi for all 10 separate instruments that you can load in or tell it to slightly adjust the result.
It's unclear whether this will be a good thing in the long run as a lot of the creativity and skill has been removed from the process but it's still our choice what is used in the composition so you could say its still our music perhaps? A very interesting development I’m sure isn’t too far away.
Please recommend two pieces of gear or software to our readers that they should know about.
The UDO super 6 analog synth is a very special instrument. Beautifully made and the sound is just unreal. It's not even the fact its analogue for me as I love digital synths, too. But this has a magic I cant put my finger on. It can go from a beautiful pad sound to a terrifying lead or post apocalyptic drone in 2 seconds.
Software wise I’m really into Cableguys shaper box 2 at the moment. For some very quick inspiration to take a track in a new direction or to sculpt a very precise filter sweep, volume envelope or distortion curve this tool is so inspirational and happy accidents are all over the place. Just like I mentioned with using modular gear there are so many sweet spots to uncover.