Ill.Gates is an Ableton expert. His new tour with KJ Sawka involves live camera feeds, VJing, finger drumming, and mixing. From building Bassnectar’s live Ableton rig and patch and preset libraries to guiding String Cheese Incident and Pretty Lights, ill.Gates helps out the top bass and jam producers in the dance music game. But now, you too can profit from his wisdom.
Between discombobulating from Shambhala and preparing for his Burning Man wedding, ill.Gates shares his producing and artistry tips with you.
What’s your workflow like?
It’s different track to track, but there’s two kinds of sessions. If you’re starting with a really clear idea of whatever the personality or the character of the track is from the get-go you can operate from a kind of top-down modality. Like let’s say there’s a really sweet track you want to remix, it’s got a great hook. But if you don’t know what the hook is yet and you’re starting from nothing, then you would work in a more bottom up approach.
1) The Beat
So a typical bottom up approach would be, you would get a really good beat that you like, that makes you excited and you’d make a nice long phrase of that beat. So there’s maybe like 16 bars or 32 bars and it goes through a bunch of different changes and there’s some fills and it feels more lyrical, not just a loop.
2) The Flavor
Then you’d want to get some incidental stuff, splashes, wooshes, some risers. Stuff that isn’t necessarily melody, but it isn’t really beats either. It gives the beat a little more personality, makes it clear where the phrases start and stop and has some rising energy and stuff.
3) The Parent Progression
A lot of the time if you have idea A lead to idea B lead to idea C lead to idea D, then if you put idea D with idea A it won’t make sense without the intermediate steps. So it’s nice to have one parent idea that all the other ideas fit into. So that even when that parent idea isn’t there, all the other ideas still make sense.
So for me and for most songwriters, that’s typically a chord progression. So once you have a chord progression that’s going to show you the rhythm and the rhyme and the emotion that’s going to show you how all the other ideas fit in. That chord progression is kind of the background, core of your song.
4) Three Melodies
Then, I’ll typically try to find three different lead melodies that could each stand on their own as a hook without that chord progression, without anything else, just that melody by itself as a hook. I’ll get them set up so that they’re each by themselves or all together on top of the chord progression. If you can write them so they’re all interlocking and they all fit together and sound good by themselves, then you have all the ingredients.
Then what I’ll typically do is I’ll use the chord progression for the breakdowns or the intro. When the drops happen usually there’s no chord progression and these you can produce one at a time. There’s usually a bridge or breakdown leading you to the conclusion of the track and then in the conclusion of the track that’s where the melodies come in all together. And that’s very satisfying, when they all come together to interact at the end.
This is a really good starting point, but no one wants to hear you follow all the rules, right? And if you follow all the rules it’s going to be boring. Part of what makes music exciting is breaking the rules and throwing them out the window.
Each time you break the rules and think outside the box, you expand the box that you start with for next time.
Can you tell me about the process for ‘Open Your Eyes’?
Well, I wrote that song when my dog passed away. I was on the road in Israel and I knew she was going to go really soon. I checked my email right before a show in the green room and I found out my girlfriend had to put her down. All that night I couldn’t sleep. I got up at like six in the morning and I was like “Ah man, I gotta make a song. I just gotta process this.” I was really upset.
I was going through samples I’d clipped and found the “Just close your eyes, forget your name, forget the world, forget the people” sample. And I was like,
“Hey, that’s kind of an appropriate message as I send her off into the dog afterworld so she can go away and be reincarnated or whatever it is that happens.”
So it started from that sample and I found this really awesome cut up of Ronald Regan and Nancy Regan. Their drug war announcement has been cut up so they’re encouraging drug use! Those samples are public domain right? because every time you sample something on the news, something that’s considered cultural property, every time it’s satire, its considered fair use. So I’ll use that as well.
My collaborator on the track, Captain Hook, he made all the bass sounds. We just kind of jammed out and made all these riffs together. We basically did the whole thing in one long session that was like 20 hours.
I play it at most of my sets. Lorin did an edit of it, he ends a lot of sets with it. I think a lot of people resonate with the message of it, even though its not a really explicit message. It’s all about letting go and at music festivals especially it can be a really cathartic thing. It’s one of my favorite tracks I’ve made and I like to think it helps other people with their own catharsis.
On Learning an Instrument…
“I’d never actually played any musical instruments on stage in my life. I should learn an instrument. So in 2013, my new years resolution was that I’d be able to do some sort of solo instrumental performance onstage by the end of the year. I thought finger drumming was a good idea. I’d be able to use my knowledge as a producer to make an engaging performance and really get intricate with my programming and make these cool performances.
So I’m a big fan of Tim Ferris, who wrote the Four Hour Body and the Four-Hour Chef. Basically, he’s an expert learner. He’s a really good learner. So, The Four-Hour Chef isn’t really a book about cooking, it’s a book about learning. He just chose cooking to teach you about his learning process.
One of the things he suggests doing in that book is interviewing a number of experts about the task you are trying to learn and asking them specific questions. So one of the questions was “If you had two weeks to train me to ___, what would you do?” So I found all these different drummers online, finger drummers and Ableton experts and asked them “If you had two weeks to train me for a battle, how would you have me train?” KJ gave me a bunch of training exercises and stuff and I trained and trained and trained.
On Making your Dreams your Reality…
“There’s one thing I can recommend to anyone who is an aspiring artist of any kind. That is making lists of things and writing it down with a pen.
If you write things down with a pen it does something special to your brain that writing things on a computer does not do.
If you want to live the dream, write things down with a pen and start crossing things off that list.
Can I ask you what’s on your list now?
Mostly Burning Man preparation, getting ready to spend a week in the studio with Mr. Bill and a bunch of gigs. And finally integrating daily meditation into my life.”
For more knowledge, as well as music tools, visit his website ProducerDJ.com.