Down the Production Hole with Dan Berkson & James What

Words by: Lisa Loco
Posted: 27/7/11 13:40

Down the Production Hole with Berkson and WhatDan Berkson and James What are an inspiring and relatively new duo whose deep 'n' sensuous grooves have licked their way across labels like Crosstown Rebels, Dessous and Poker Flat. Already successful individually as musicians/producers, they hooked up back in 2006, in London.

Keyboard connoisseur Dan was a professional musician from Chicago who studied at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, while James studied music and sound engineering in the UK capital. Together they debuted in 2006 with a live show at Sonar and they have been making waves ever since...

Yes, Dan and James present an interesting duality. They love their analogue gear and have even collaborated a couple of times with Sir Robert of Owens. Simultaneously, they are evidently as mindful of today's electronic evolution as they are of house music's great heritage. And both are firmly fixed on forging their own future, independent of trends.

So read on if you want to learn more, because these guys have read the rulebooks and apply only the bits that matter most, and we dig them as they emphasise energy, soul and spirit. Which is kinda why we reckon they've made such a great contribution here to our Down the Production Hole series. Enjoy!

First can you tell us something about your frames of reference/what you think makes for a high quality electronic sound recording?
Dan: I think we both have a really varied frame of reference. We love music that sounds really well mixed and pro as much as we love really raw and basic productions. 9 out of 10 times when the musical ideas are strong and clear and the track has great energy and soul, you tend to be less critical of the technical things because the track is working so well.

 And on the flip side, no matter how skilled you are on a mixing desk, how many great plug-ins you have, and how many great pieces of boutique hardware you have, you can still make terrible music.  Electronic music is about taking chances and trying to create something different, and it has its own rules. I think a big challenge technically is to make things that sound great in the club environment as well as in a more focused listening situation. Sometimes this is just not possible. I can't tell you how many times I've been out in a club and heard a track that I thought was amazing, and then when I listened to it in the studio I wondered if someone had put something funny in my drink the night before...

Dan Berkson and James What - Deep Electronic HouseWhat's your current music production set-up like?
James: We each have quite a different studio set-up. Dan has a proper studio space with tons of vintage synths and gear, while I have all my equipment in storage at the moment as I have been traveling with a mobile mini set-up.

I always love to incorporate analogue gear and vintage FX in my productions, but I think I'm past my obsession with trying to get lots of new hardware and have really learnt to make the most of just a few machines and digital software.

Within that set-up what is/are your most essential tool/s of the trade?
James: I guess essential tools are a collection of vintage drum machine sounds, or some actual machines like Roland 808/909, Jomox 999; one good analogue monosynth like a Minimoog and Studio Electronics SE-1; and a good analogue polysynth: we both have a Roland MKS-80 and MPG-80 and have used it on many tunes, it's killer.

We're also in love with the sound of the Roland Space Echo - we've got three of them between us. I also think it's lovely to complement the sounds of the analogue synths with some FM type sounds from synths like the DX7 or FM7.

Can you reveal a secret about your production technique/s?
James: We both work quite differently; Dan uses Logic, while I am better at using Cubase. Most of our work together was recorded in Cubase. We have been using Ableton Live for a long time to perform live and recently I have had a tendency to start working on ideas in Ableton Live as it's such a fun tool to mess around with samples, loops and ideas, but even in those cases I always mix down and put the finishing touches in Cubase, old habits die hard.

Dan: I spend a lot of time improvising in the studio and recording what I've done which often yields great results.  It's so important to keep the 'tape' running, as most of the time the best ideas you have are the first ones that most people fail to record... It never fails to be true!

Berkson and WhatDo you have a general top tip for budding producers?
James: I think the best way to learn is to struggle a little and endure the frustration of trying to solve problems, because once you solve it, you're pretty sure you'll be remembering that for good. Most of the tips and tricks I've read or have been taught were forgotten fast.

Other than that I would say it can be good to limit yourself to just a few bits of gear, rather than always think you need more and more. And don't worry about what sequencer other people use, they pretty much all do the same thing when it comes to making electronic music, except for Ableton Live which definitely has an advantage as far as live performance and triggering loops. These are all just tools, how you get from A to B really doesn't matter as long as you have good ideas.

Dan: I think a lot of producers get a bit bogged down with the technical aspects of mixing and forget about the spirit of electronic music.  It's really about doing something different and breaking the rules, not about copying what other people have done. Take chances and try to find your own sound and a way to express yourself in your music. The rest will follow! 

Finally, what's your take on the future of electronic music production?
James:  It wouldn't be exciting if anyone could clearly point out what's coming next, but I'm sure there's lots of amazing music in store for us. One thing I do hope though is that house and techno can find more new innovative offshoots, in a similar way to what's happening with the dubstep/bass scene at the moment. It's important to look in the past, but only if you bring it into the future.

Berkson & What

Latest Release

James What - "It Feels Wrong" (coming soon) - Poker Flat
Dan Berkson & James What - Deep Electronic House (2011) - Loopmasters Artist Series 71
James What - "Going Back" (2011) - Murmur - STATE02
Dan Berkson - "Anything For You" (2011) - Crosstown Rebels - CRM074
James What - "About Love" (2011) - Crosstown Rebels - CRM071

Berkson & James Online
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