Will Sumsuch debuts a new feature for 5 Mag, taking a deep dive into music production. Up first: deep house producer Milton Jackson talks shop, plugins, sample packs, and why you never want to see a livestream of him at work.
For the inaugural edition of The Mixdown, a brand new 5 Mag section in which I aim to take a deeper dive into music-making with some of my favorite producers, I’m delighted to welcome Scottish deep house hero Milton Jackson. Getting his start at the turn of the century on Tronicsole, Jackson delivered his impressive debut album Bionic Boy on Glasgow Underground back in 2002, before joining Freerange in 2006, where his productions would begin to influence the label’s sound over the next decade or so. Jackson then took a break from producing for a few years, and when he began releasing again a couple of years ago he’d not missed a step.
His latest offering on Freerange is Closure, a perfectly formed, warm and timeless sounding three track deep house EP, made in collaboration with the wonderful Ski Oakenfull, released in October. I wanted to explore Jackson’s musical philosophy as well as his nuts-and-bolts music-making approach, and I discovered a someone who really spends time considering how work is arranged and structured, a Bach super-fan, and a man who jokingly (I hope) describes his process as “hours and hours of pain.” So, without further ado, let’s take a quick studio tour with an interesting, humble and refreshingly honest beatmaker; perhaps you’ll even take away some tips and ideas to apply to your own work. Enjoy!
I am not someone that rocks up ideas every 5 minutes. I have hundreds of folders of terrible ideas. My workflow is very much ‘do things endlessly and eventually something comes along which I actually like.’ If I were to livestream it, people would fall asleep.
How did you first get into music production? I’d love to know how your journey started.
I was in various bands when I was younger, then as I got older I developed a taste for electronic production. I started off with a little 4 track Fostex and Cool Edit 96 on PC, then started getting into rackmount sound modules, then I got an MPC2000 for my 18th birthday and from then I was hooked on beats.
Do you play any instruments?
Yes I play classical guitar and have done since I was around 8 or 9 and electric guitar as well. Keys — rudimentary!
What was your first setup like, vs your current setup?
To be honest it wasn’t so different! I had the MPC2000 and I just used to jam on that constantly. I used to take the analogue outs of that into a real time CD recorder to burn my tracks! Then I got into Cubase and a Yamaha digital mixer. Emu Vintage Keys. Then Pro Tools, then Reason, then Logic, which is what I use now.
Do you use mostly outboard or in-the-box, or a combination?
At the moment I have some outboard gear, I love my Emu sampler. It’s my favorite. I do loads of tracks on that, most of the Freerange EPs and Closer To Truth release [The Countdown EP] was mostly on the Emu. I love grouping the sounds together and it has killer filters. I have a summing mixer and some Alesis 3630s. It’s nothing particularly earth shattering but it does the job.
How do you deal with the paralysis of choice — too much gear, too many plugins, unlimited sound choices?
Ha well I’ve never had too much gear unfortunately, I’ve never had enough money for that! I’ve always kept a fairly pared down setting, I always see people with these mega studios and feel a bit inadequate! I’d love a few extra bits of course. I’ve bought and sold a lot of things. I genuinely don’t really have a lot of anything — around 10 UAD plugins and Kontakt or Emu 6400 would describe 90% of any track I do.
What do you do (if anything) to intentionally limit your choices and make decisions?
I think rather than limit choices I would limit any access to phones or internet, the perennial distractions of social media, turn all that crap off when you want to get in the zone
How does DJing inform your production and arrangement?
You become much more aware of what “works” on a dancefloor, there’s certain tracks that will work well, tightly produced beats or certain chords or singing parts. It’s important to make music you want to make rather than it be too geared towards dancefloor requirements. There’s always a balance to be had.
Do you think regular DJing and exposure to dancefloors makes you a better producer and arranger when it comes to dance music?
It probably does I would say, yes. Even things as simple as intro beats, or whatever, anything to make your life easier when playing out.
Composing / Arranging / Mixing: do you separate these steps, or do you mix and arrange as you compose? What would a typical Milton Jackson workflow look like?
Hours and hours of pain! I am not someone that just rocks up ideas every 5 minutes. I have hundreds of folders of terrible ideas. My workflow is very much “do things endlessly and eventually something comes along which I actually like.” If I were to livestream it, people would fall asleep…
Other times I’ll go through quite good months where three or four things come together in quick succession. But generally it will be an eight bar loop and if it’s sounds like it might be decent I’ll start extending that out into a rough arrangement.
How do you approach remixing? Is it very different to your approach to originals? How much time do you spend checking out the original, or do you dive into the parts?
It’s been so long since I did a remix to be honest I can’t even remember! Generally if there’s a nice vocal then I would work around that or killer part. Get some chords going around it and go from there.
For you, what defines a great remix? Do you enjoy hearing remixes of your tracks?
Yes I always enjoy hearing what people come up with, a different viewpoint is always interesting. Classic remixes are ones which I guess eclipse the original so much that everyone forgets the original and the remix defines the track.
Can you tell us a couple of personal favorite of remixes you’ve done, and remixes of your own tracks by other people, and why you like them?
I really like a remix I did of Dominic Martin called “Touch of Soul.” It was out on Lost My Dog years ago. My favorite remix of mine would probably be the Jimpster remix of “Rogue Element” which came out on Freerange in 2006!
Sample packs: how do you feel about their proliferation? Useful tools or shortcuts for the lazy?
I think they are great. I have all the “From Mars” sample packs and some others of vintage synths etc. I can’t afford a Jupiter 8 so I’m quite happy to use sample packs which provide people access to synths which are otherwise out of financial reach for most people due to market conditions. Is it as good as using the real thing? Not really but it’s better than using Logic ES1 or something like that. If people want to buy a sample pack and mess about with loops or something I don’t have a problem with that at all.
Is there a particular piece of studio gear that finds its way into all your productions or defines your sound?
I would say the MPC in the early days. The way I do it now is similar and I use all the MPC swing % MIDI files, OK so it’s not perfect but it’s fairly accurate and it saves me messing about with loads of Zip disks. Recently the EMU 6400 but that’s more a sound thing rather than a workflow or rhythm thing.
If you could be a fly on the wall in any studio session in history, what would it be?
Maybe not a studio session but I’d like to go back to Bach’s era and sit on the church pew observing the congregation’s reactions to his mind-bending, crazy harmonies.
So, if you don’t mind me asking, why the recent 4 year break in releases?
Basically the arrival of two small babies. I took some time out when they were born and through to when they started school when I started to get a bit more time back!
Were you producing still during that time?
Not really no, I was listening a lot to new music and playing a little on the classical guitar, but I didn’t come up with too much during that time. It was a nice reset. I’ve been putting stuff out since 2000 so there’s only so long you can do 3/4 releases every year without a break. Breaks are good!
And what prompted you to return?
Really my time opened up a bit more and I got the house bug again! During lockdown there were some great Twitch streams which I watched (Jimpster’s Sofa Sessions, Funk D’Void etc.) that I really enjoyed as well, and they pushed me back in that direction also.
Tell me about the new Closure EP with Ski Oakenfull. How did the process work between you?
I came up with the germ of the idea for “Need Your Love” but I knew it would need some nice keys to make it come together. So I sent Ski an email and he came back with loads of amazing parts which I then re-integrated and mixed back into the original. Sometimes parts get cut which I don’t like doing but you have to keep it pared down.
I’ve known Ski since 2007, I remixed one of his tracks he remixed one of mine. Obviously he’s a fantastic musician with incredible pedigree and great guy. We work remotely, just swapping parts between us, I generally mix it down at my end though and just keep bouncing things back and forth.
He’s more of a keys guy, so did that help to define your roles in the collaboration?
Yes absolutely, when I get all his parts back I get really inspired to finish off the track. It just freshens things up so much!
All these things add up and that’s why I enjoy collaborating with people as there’s always a different energy or process depending on who you’re working with. Keeps things fresh and interesting.
You’ve ended up with a real “classic” deep house sound, especially on the title track. Was this something you set out to do, or was it just what happened when you two got together?
I really wanted to keep a ternary vibe on all the tracks, so A section, then a B section, then back to A. How do you do that with it all working, without sounding disjointed, rather than an eight bar loop?! BUT there’s a vocal loop over the top which works on both the A and B section. The other track on the EP called “Day In Day Out” does the same thing, same top end melody but flip the chords so they change in the B section. So that was definitely an aim. Disclosure are really good at that, so I was trying to go for that and I think on those two tracks it works nicely.
What’s next for Milton Jackson? Gigs, productions, remixes? A fragrance line?
I’m finishing off some tracks which we started a while ago with Brian Kage on one project and Tiptoes aka Dominic Martin on another. Also more vibes with Ski. Also working away on a mega sample pack which might see the light of day or might not! And another project in the background I’m doing is an edit EP of Trevor Bastow tracks.
Finally, what’s a piece of advice you would give a new producer just starting out, that you wish someone had told you back in the day?
Just enjoy it, don’t stress and don’t spend too much time on tracks. Finish every idea you ever do and never sell any gear. Essentially the polar opposite of what I do at the moment.
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