Spesh and I have been running Loöq Records for 12 years (since our distortion-heavy techno-house debut album Tube Drivers in 1998). What started out as a hobby has become an important part of my identity, not to mention an occasional source of significant income. If you’re interested in more background, I’ve written a bit about the history of the label here (Angles of Estrangement post), and the business side of things here (Business Advice for Young Artists post). I’ve also written about why I dropped out of DJ’ing to focus on producing music, running Loöq Records, and other creative pursuits (like writing) here. Today I’m just going to mention what’s going on currently, and give a preview of what we’ve got planned for the rest of this quarter and the first part of 2011.
I’ve been personally mastering most of the releases on Loöq. Upgrading to the JBL LSR4328P powered monitors has made a huge difference in the quality of masters we’re producing. The Loöq studio is far from “flat” so the self-EQ adjustment feature of the JBL’s really helps us out. When I was reading monitor reviews all the old-school pro-audio cats were skeptical of this feature. The younger guys who were actually using the things were loving them and getting great mixes. I took the gamble and it’s paying off — we’re getting great mixes and I didn’t have to build a whole room. Thanks to Kenneth Scott (link goes to his Beatport page) for recommending the JBL’s in the first place.
In terms of software, I was using T-Racks v1 for a long time. I chose that software because of the simple interface — I didn’t have tons of mastering experience at the time and I wanted to limit the number of knobs I could twist. It’s easy to make a mix sound worse in mastering, and when I played with the Ozone demo that’s what was happening. Ozone is probably great software, but it had an overwhelming number of features when I first tried it out.
My mastering training consists of 1) reading books by Bobby Owsinski and 2) sitting behind George Horn at Fantasy studios, watching him master various vinyl release for Loöq. Since the upgrade to the JBL’s we’ve been getting great feedback from artists on the quality of the masters, with only a couple exceptions. The masters that weren’t coming out great all had the same problem — distortion in the highs. This is a T-Racks issue, mostly from the multi-band compressor in v1. This week I’ve been playing with the demo version of T-Racks v3 Deluxe and I’m digging it so far. The new algorithms produce much cleaner highs, and I love all the T-Racks module’s UI’s. I’m going for loudness (without harshness), warmth (with fuzziness), and balance (without losing the character of the original mixdown). I try to clear every single master with the original artist or remixer so that everyone is happy with the final product. I don’t mind if they “send it back” — I’m happy to keep at it until I get it right. Once Spesh and I requested an expensive studio remaster from Bedrock because the kick drum “was too thumpy.” What f*cking prima donnas were were. Diggers was cool about it though, and the second master sounded great (the release was Mysteries of the Giant Squid on Bedrock Black).
Many of our artists master their own work and send us the final for release. Sometimes we’ll accept it — other times we’ll ask for the unmastered version if their master is too harsh, doesn’t have enough dynamic range (an overcompressed track sounds like shit in a club — especially because the club system compresses it more), isn’t loud enough, or doesn’t fit the character of the other tracks in the release.
The other recent studio project has been upgrading our vintage TB-303 to be MIDI compatible (MIDI allows you to send note information from your sequencing/composition software to the keyboard or sound module). The TB-303 is famous for it’s “acid house” sound but is an incredibly versatile machine. It can produce warm, gently modulating basslines as well as intense squelchy leads. I’ve played with dozens of emulators and imitators, but nothing quite captures the warmth and intensity of the original TB-303. I ordered the MIDI chip from an Austrian guy named Ewald, transferring 92 Euros to his personal account. Here’s his site if you want to check out his product line. The upgrade process is not for the inexperienced or faint of heart. I’m not an expert with the soldering iron, but I had previously cut my teeth on the PAiA Fatman kit (the Fatman was a staple of the Jondi & Spesh sound for years). Once the chip arrived from Austria, I opened up the precious 303, struggled through the badly translated directions, and managed to get only five notes of the octave working. I wrote to Ewald pleading technical support and received the follow reply:
to 99% you connect one (ore more) wire(s) wrong ore have a short circuit between solder pads.
also possible, that you destroy a port from the microcontroller by wrong connection (by accident).
OK, fair enough. The box sat in it’s half-broken state, spewing wires, for months, and was actually used in a few tracks (five notes is plenty for most basslines anyway). Yesterday I finally got up the courage and gumption to resolder every single connection, and now it works! Ewald was right — it was a short circuit.
Downsize and Up-profit
For years we ran Loöq at a loss. Even though our vinyl releases sold pretty well, they were enormously expensive to produce and ship (and promote — mailing vinyl to your favorite UK DJ’s is not cheap). It didn’t help that distributors would sometimes go out of business and not pay us. Luckily, we had a profitable weekly event, Qoöl, which supported our SOMA office space, label manager (Jackie von Treskow), and expensive office supply habit. Even after donating a large percentage of the door to The SETI Institute and other non-profits, we still had enough leftover to cover payroll, rent, and vinyl production.
Last year we pulled the plug on the weekly version of Qoöl at 111 Minna. After an excellent 15 year run (perhaps the longest-running weekly dance music event in the world, ever) it was just time. Jackie, our extremely capable label and event manager who had been working for us since college, accepted another position, and eventually moved to LA to go to grad school. Spesh and I decided to downsize and run the label from our respective home offices. Instead of hiring another employee, we relearned how to do everything ourselves. Now, since our operation costs are so lean (no payroll, no rent), and because we’ve had a few high profile licensing deals (we recently licensed another track to CSI), we are actually making some money from the label. Tracks sales are on the low side (that’s true for almost everyone selling electronic/dance music) but production costs are low. I suppose we could take some expenses against sales, but we don’t. What that means for the artist is that they get 50% of gross sales and licensing, unless there are special release-specific promotional expenses. For some artists this arrangement has worked out quite well. Others are getting piddling royalty statements, but you never know what track is going to take off in what way.
Current and Upcoming Releases
Lately we’ve been expanding into the downtempo and ambient genres. Methodrone’s debut release Nonlinear Reality (link goes to iTunes) has done quite well, with several high profile licensing placements. Thee-O has released two quality EP’s on Loöq under his alias Reef Project (iTunes). Spesh and I are also feeling pretty good about our own ambient release Angles of Estrangement (iTunes).
We’re still putting out dance music of course. I can’t wait for the re-release of the classic Momu track The Dive (link goes to the music video directed by Kia Simon), which is currently in promo. An Argentinean remixer team, Cristian Gandini and Mike Griego, sent us a bootleg of The Dive that was already making the rounds among the world’s top DJ’s (including Hernan Cattaneo). It took us about ten seconds to decide to put it out officially.
The biggest project in the works will be release #100 on Loöq Records. We’re going big, with a ginormous remix pack of our biggest track ever, We Are Connected (iTunes). It won’t be out until March, but select mixes are already in promo. We have been blown away by the quality of remixes we are getting on this project. And there are some high profile artist names in the bunch. If you’re a fan of the original track, I think you will be pleased with this release.
That’s all for now … I look forward to writing update #2. Thanks for reading.