Interview: Calvin Harris on software, hardware and hit-making
20th Feb 2012 | 12:46
The hugely successful pop producer explains how it took a little luck and a lot of dedication
Ask chart-topping, multiplatinum producer Calvin Harris for the secret behind all of his recent success and he'll answer you with remarkable honesty. "Luck! Pure and simple," he says with a grin. "I'd been sending out demos and CDs for years. I knew my stuff was good enough, but I was getting nowhere. Then, three people – my future manager and two publishers – happened to send one of my tracks to EMI publishing in the same week. All of a sudden, they were interested!
"Had those three people not sent the track at the same time, I'd probably still be Nobby No-Mates, pissing around in my bedroom. That was my one bit of luck and it allowed me to get my foot in the door."
The 27-year-old has certainly made the most of his limited luck. Currently one of the UK's biggest pop names, he conquered both the album and singles charts, and even managed to reintroduce cheesy '80s synth sounds and euphoric trance hooks into the mainstream with tunes like Acceptable In The '80s and I'm Not Alone.
So, were Future Music Magazine close to cracking the secret of your sound?
[Laughing] "Not really. I had a go at setting it up… following the instructions in the mag. Yeah, I suppose it sort of sounded like it, but the approach was far more scientific than I could ever attempt. I'll readily admit that I'm not a full-blown tech-head. I love my gear and I love being in the studio, but I tend to work in a far more ad hoc kind of way.
"From what I remember, they started with a sine wave, but I usually start with a preset. I know some people get really snooty if you talk about preset sounds, but, personally, I can't see anything wrong with using them as a starting point."
"I can honestly say that I didn't set out to make a trance tune."
Seeing as we're on the subject, can we go into a bit more synth sound detail?
"Not a problem at all. As you'll see, they are quite difficult to replicate, so if someone really does want to have a go, good luck to 'em!
"OK, let's take the I'm Not Alone main hook. It was actually made up of two different synth sounds and… well, first of all, I should tell you that I don't always play a sound from its original source. I'll often sample a synth sound through the mixer and turn it into a new instrument in Logic's EXS24, because that gives me a lot more control over it.
"I started off with the new Roland Juno-G and found a lovely preset called something like 'Trance Keys'. I started playing around with it and thought,
'This is a bit of all right'. As usual, I decided to sample a few notes around middle C into the EXS. Immediately, that will change the feel of a sound, because you're not sampling right across the whole keyboard. As soon as you move away from middle C, the new sound starts to take on an interesting character. Like I said, there seems to be loads of control over it in the EXS and I'm very used to working in that environment. When it's all coming from that particular sampler, I seem to understand the sound a lot more.
"At first the new sound was a bit pad-y… a bit too washy. So, I adjusted the attack time to give it some more punch. But it was still lacking something. It sounded too much like a background noise instead of a lead line. It needed a bit more bollocks. That came from… oh God, what was it? It was a distorted electric piano from one of the other keyboards. No, it might have been from the Juno-G, as well.
"I remember that the distortion made it quite messy. You couldn't play chords with it, but the single notes were OK. When I sampled it into the EXS, I also took the distortion effect off. It seemed to define the sound a bit too much and didn't leave me with much room for manoeuvre.
"When I combined those two sounds, it really started to work! I think I had to tweak the release time, because it was a bit too nher-nher-nher. A bit too on-and-off. I added some release, just to bring in some floaty-ness. That was it really: "Instant Trance euphoria!"
You're not afraid of using the 'T' word, then?
"Trance? Well, that's something that other people came up with. I can honestly say that I didn't set out to make a trance tune. At the time, trance was really out in the cold. Yeah, you'd got your hardcore trance guys who'd been there since day one, but, in terms of the mainstream, trance was old hat. No one was interested.
"I was actually quite worried that people weren't going to get it. It was dance, but it was pop, as well.It had this big trance riff, but then it had guitars. It was quite upbeat, but there was a bit of darkness in there, too. People didn't really know what to make of it. When it first went to the radio stations, they all said, 'What the hell is he playing at? He's made a trance record!'"
Must have put a big smile on your face when it went to number one.
[Laughs] "Yeah, it did make me very happy. The main reason it made me happy was because I'd taken a risk with that tune. If I'd have actually sat down and thought about it logically, I probably would have said, 'Hang on, this is trance. No one will take it seriously'. But I just heard it as a song… a good song. I knew it worked, so I went with it. Sometimes, it's better to stop thinking and trust your instincts. That's what I used to do when I first started making music, but, as time goes on, you can sometimes over-intellectualise things."
What were you working on in the early days?
"Right at the start, when I was about 13 or 14, I only had an Amiga 500 Plus running a bit of tracker software called OctaMED. My brother was big into his computers and, when he moved up to a proper PC, I took charge of the Amiga. With the right interface, you could sample things off CD, so I used to nick loads of loops from Fatboy Slim albums and make my own tunes.
"In a sense, I suppose you could say that I immediately went on-board. I was working inside the computer. That computer just happened to be an 8-bit Amiga! I know we get all nostalgic about 8-bit samples, but, rest assured, the Amiga didn't sound lo-fi and gritty. It just sounded… a bit rubbish. It probably didn't help that the only monitors were the TV speakers from the secondhand TV in my bedroom."
"My music landed in the hands of the right people at the right time… purely by chance. I was THIS CLOSE to giving up!"
How long did that set-up last?
"Not long. I moved up to an Amiga 1200 and, at Christmas, persuaded my parents to get me my first keyboard… a Korg M5. That was the great thing about being a kid. You could ask for bits of kit forb Christmas and birthdays. I also managed to get a Zoom 1201 – an amazing little effects box for 99 quid! – and an Electrix Filter Queen.
"Without a doubt, that was the best present anyone has ever bought me! Sadly, it broke after about two weeks, but they were the greatest two weeks of my life. A real filter! A filter! I stuck everything through it. Twiddling and tweaking. To my young ears, it made everything sound fucking brilliant! I have to mention the M5, too. I've still got it and I still consider it one of the best all-round keyboards you can get. I sometimes dig it out, just for old time's sake. The piano sounds on it areN amazing. Bizarrely, my early studio setup also included a lot of stuff from school. I had a very understanding music teacher who let me take home things like mics, mic stands, a mixer and an eight-trackN Minidisc recorder. That eight-track was a revelation. That's how I learned to mix."
Did the school get a credit on the first album?
"No, but I really ought to have thanked them! That gear kept me going for years. As soon as I left school, I had to give it all back and my studio suddenly looked very empty. I suppose that's when I decided that I wasn't going to university. If I went to uni, I'd have no money and that meant I couldn't buy more gear.
So, I got a job. Just to earn money to buy more equipment. The music thing had really got me… I suppose it's fair to say that I was obsessed. I didn't go out. I didn't really have many mates. I didn't watch telly or go to clubs. I just listened to music and made my own tunes. It was probably all a bit unhealthy, but locking myself away like that meant I could really concentrate on the music.
"I remember going totally over the top with the Akai S950 – I managed to get it off this bloke in Carlisle for 200 quid. I knew every button and every switch. Knew how to get the best out of it. I was mad about trying to get the drums to sound punchy. Chopping and tightening as much as I could. Eventually, I realised I needed some sort of compression too, so I put in loads of overtime at work and bought eight Alesis 3630 compressors!
Not one… eight of the buggers! And I stuck one on every output of the S950. "I listen back to some of the tunes I made at the time and they just sound weird. Compressed all over the place, pumping and ducking and sounding terrible. What the fuck was I thinking?"
Had you started to send stuff out at this point? Or was it bedroom only?
"As soon as I finished my first demo, I started sending stuff to record companies. From the age of 14 to about 20, I bombarded record companies and DJs with my demos. I was desperate to get it out there. Most of the time, I got nothing back. Not even a letter telling me to sod off!
"I think the most I ever got was a pack of vinyl from some label and a note saying it wasn't bad for a school kid. That was it… nothing else. I was more or less on the verge of giving up. By the time I was 21 or 22, I was getting pretty jaded. No one seemed to be that interested in what I was doing.
"That was when I joined MySpace. Obviously, no one uses MySpace anymore, but back then it was a Godsend. It was a way of getting my tunes out there. Adding loads of DJs and record labels to my list of 'friends'. That was round about the time the incident happened with EMI.
"My music landed in the hands of the right people at the right time… purely by chance. I was THIS CLOSE to giving up!"
Is it a question you get asked a lot… how do I get my music signed?
"It's the question that was always going through my head and I'm sure it goes through the head of every person making music in their bedrooms up and down the country. There is no magic formula. It's just about getting the music heard, but also being objective. I was really hard on myself before I got signed… and I still am. I try to look at every track from the outside. It's too easy to get swept along when you're banging stuff out in the bedroom. You have to stand back and say, 'Is this good enough?'
"Thinking back, I was quite wary of that jump to Logic-World. Wary of suddenly having money and endless toys to spend it on."
"And I suppose Twitter has taken the place of MySpace to an extent. It's a good way of getting in touch with other people… DJs, people from record companies. Then there's the Laidback Luke Forum. Afrojack came up through there. He does actually listen to stuff."
What was the first album recorded on?
"All of that first album [2007's I Created Disco] was recorded on the Amiga setup. It was all done in my bedroom in Dumfries, before I got any interest from the music business. "All I had was the Amiga 1200, the Korg M5 provided loads of sounds for the first album, a huge, 32-channel Soundcraft mixer, my 950 – at some point, that was upgraded to an S3000 – the Alesis compressors, the Zoom, a Line 6 echo-thingy, a Focusrite VoiceMaster Pro and a couple of AKG C1000 mics. That was it!
"The Focusrite was brilliant, because I could really crunch the vocals up and distort them to hell. That was my mixing technique. Distort everything to hell, then you don't have to worry about things like EQ and balance. Distortion allowed me to work with my limited setup."
I Created Disco – a Top Ten album in 2007 – wasall made on the Amiga?
"Why not? The Amiga did a great job! Even after things started to take off, I did my best to carry on working with it. We were a team! Sadly, I realised it was probably time to give the studio a bit of a spruce-up. The Amiga – God bless it! – was put on the shelf, replaced by Logic with all the bells and whistles, and a Mac. I'm sure you've heard this loads of times, but that first jump to Logic is pretty spectacular. There I am, in my bedroom, with my trusty Amiga. All of a sudden, you've got a studio setup that's as big as your budget and your imagination will allow.
"Thinking back, I was quite wary of that jump to Logic-World. Wary of suddenly having money and endless toys to spend it on. I've heard stories of bands that spend all their advance on gear, then the album tanks and they're left with loads of gear and no cash. I was careful. I only bought the things that I really needed, but I didn't go crazy. I didn't need to. I was having enough trouble getting my head around Logic and trying to start work on the second album."
You've spent most of last year working on album three and the singles so far, like Bounce and Feel So Close have been huge. Is it all finished?
"Not yet. We're looking at a release date soon. It's been a pretty busy year – touring, producing for other people, remixing – so I've not been able to spend as much time in the studio as I'd have liked.
"I think the main thing I've tried to do with this album is not cover the same old ground. It's still sounding quite epic, but that whole I'm Not Alone thing has been done to death. Loads of people have jumped on that sound. I want to do something different. I want to challenge myself and feel in danger of messing up. Sometimes, you need to do that to get the best out of yourself.
"I'm lucky enough to have a really nice studio in London now. It's all been acoustically treated. Y'know… the works. Logic is still the main tool, of course, and most of the work gets done inside the Mac or on the laptop.
"But I have been pulling a few vintage bits of kit off of the shelves too. Things like an old [Roland] Juno-106 and a Korg MS20. All you need is one sound and you're off on your journey. Who knows where you'll end up."