For 5 Magazine’s new column focusing on machines and the men and women who love them, we go into the studio with Chicago’s own Johnny Fiasco, who takes up the argument of analog vs. digital gear, DJing with wax, digital files and cassette tapes, the quirks of mastering dance music, the 303 sound and the perils of self-releasing your own music.
ON DIGITAL VS. ANALOG DJING & PRODUCTION:
I still use some analog gear. For the purist, you’re always going to want to have that interaction. If you’re somewhat new to production, I think you’ll eventually gravitate toward incorporating some analog gear into your studio. There will always be some element of it. It just makes everything sound better, even though analog becomes higher maintenance.
Beyond analog and digital, the most important link one needs to have are your speakers and the condition of your room. I love my Tannoy Reveals but also cross-monitor using Urei 809s and Airmotiv 5s. My mixer is a Mackie 32×8.
As a DJ, I started using Serato in about 2004. I loved it. What wasn’t to love? When you’re traveling that much, carrying three crates of records sucks. To have 3,000 tracks under the hood was great. I know you’re going to hear the purist argument that vinyl is better, and people are always going to stick with vinyl. I started mixing on cassette tapes and could probably get the job done that way if I had to. Just because I may use a laptop doesn’t mean I don’t mix real vinyl. Wax will always win!
ON THE 303 SOUND:
The 303 sound on my record “I Want It” (Nordic Trax) was actually software. There are so many emulated 303s and various other keyboards. The synth emulators are getting closer and every year they get better. But I think it comes down to whether or not you mentally and physically “get” that Acid sound – the sound of a progressively evolving modulating synthesizer. I got that sound from a young age. I had the chance to hear Chicago producers work with the Acid sound – people like Armando when I was going to his parties at galleries and studios in the ’80s. He was a class act.
SO MUCH MUSIC IS SELF-RELEASED NOW. HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN A RECORD IS DONE?
I know a track is done when it draws out some emotion – that those six minutes of music have told that story. The shortest it’s taken me to get that feeling and know a track is done is three days, but I’ve worked on tracks that have taken me a year and a half. For over a year and a half you’re polishing, polishing, polishing, adding things… maybe what you did before sounds wrong because you’re feeling different that day.
The toughest thing is when you’re not feeling at your best when you’re in the studio. When that happens to me, I try switching gears – working on sample banks, organizing things. The worst feeling to have as a producer is losing time.
ON MASTERING DANCE MUSIC:
I was tweaking things with promos I was sent as early as 2002, just for myself to play out. I began commercial mastering when people began asking, “Could you polish these up for me?” Eventually I did some of Sneak’s stuff, Potty Mouth, Loveslap, D’Julz and DJ Heather just to name a few. I did Phil Weeks’ last two albums… It’s a total pleasure working with cats you know and respect. Makes it even more enjoyable.
One of my pet peeves when mastering is a lack of spectral psychoacoustic sound. Why would anyone want to mix in near mono? Putting together a whole track in mono just seems pointless to me. Again, I guess it’s garbage in/garbage out, but it sure adds some definition to the experience. Kerri Chandler is really the master at that. Todd Terry, though he’s also about a very raw sound – all about the juice. Louie Vega – these are guys who are old school and know what it’s about. The “headphone” experience should also take you through a journey and make you feel like you’re moving along with the production.
ON SAMPLE PACKS:
I released one that was exclusive on Traxsource on Chicanotrax called Acid Werks. It’s a 303 library of beats and acid baselines. I was pretty surprised how well it was received. I have a few more I’m planning but need to focus on my album right now. [Ed. Note: A new pack just dropped; Johnny’s disgruntled album was unavailable for comment.] It’s not the kind of thing you can put together in a day or two because you’re bored. I don’t get bored!