I’m electronic music producer Mentat and this is how I work

A music studio with keyboards and synthesizers

I always find the Lifehacker feature ‘How I work‘ a fascinating insight into how different people approach their work, particularly when they feature creatives. Exploring other people’s processes can be really inspiring, as can reflecting on your own, so I’ve had a go at answering their questions. I’d be interested in hearing from other music producers using this format.

While you are reading about my approaches, take a listen to my latest release, a melodic techno track for the summer.

Location: London, UK
One word that best describes how you work: Creatively
Current setup: Hackintosh with a 3.79 GHz i7, an SSD, lots of external storage and an RME Fireface 400 for audio. I’ve also got a MOTU 828 MkII linked up via ADAT for more analog inputs. I run Ableton Live 9 and Native Instruments Maschine with the Maschine MkII. Synth wise I use an Access Virus Indigo 2 (with the excellent Virus|HC plugin for integration with Live), and a 208hp Eurorack synth with lots of random sequencing & some analogue sound modules. I’ve got an iPad hooked up with StudioMux, which I mostly use for AniMoog. Too many plugins to mention, but Uhe’s Diva gets a lot of use, as does SoundToys 5. I’ve also got an Amiga 500 with an audio interface for mangling sounds, and a Commodore 64 with a Mssiah cartridge (and an audio output I hacked into it) to use the built in SID synthesizer via MIDI.

First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.

I started making music as a teenager, inspired by my uncles who are both music producers and my growing interest in electronic music through artists such as Underworld and Orbital. I built up a hardware setup and started producing all sorts of genres of synth based music. At University I got a computer and produced more club focused breaks and house music. I got more into DJing then and had my own show on the student radio station and DJ’d at clubs and events in Sheffield.  I got more into sample based music when I started using computers, and started the band ‘Mysterons‘ with a friend of mine producing quirky, sample based tracks. We had some success with our tracks and remixes, got a mix featured in DJ magazine and supported Foals, Pendulum and Example as DJs. I had some time out of making music for a few years focusing on other work, but got back into it about three years ago after being really inspired at the South West 4 festival in London.

Take us through a recent workday.

I fit music around other work, and so have two types of days. I often get up super early to get a couple of hours of music in before my day. On these days it’s best to have a really clear focus, a particular thing I want to achieve. I plan out beforehand what I want to achieve in a week, including specific sessions working on sound design, new ideas, or arranging an idea into a track.

When I have a whole day I try to start by going for a run with some music to get energised and inspired. I also usually have a plan for what I want to achieve, but usually get going on an idea and then let it take whatever direction it takes. Its important to go with the flow at the right time, but focus on specifics when I need to get something finished.

What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?

Everything I do comes through Ableton Live 9. I’ve been using it since version 4 and just find it has a great balance between speed and power for getting ideas down and shaping them into something finished. I like to work fast with early ideas and painstakingly with mixes, and it facilitates both approaches.

In terms of smaller tools, Virus HC by Mystery Islands is a fantastic tool. Mystery Islands plugins allow you to closely integrate hardware synths into your DAW, giving a plugin interface to the front panel and audio input. They save all the sounds and presets with your DAW project, and when you get it set up right the hardware becomes as convenient to use and automate as a plugin. It’s turned my Virus Indigo into effectively a Virus TI.

What’s your workspace setup like?

I’ve got two desks in an L shape. It’s in the corner of a room which is not ideal for sound, but I have to work with that space at the moment. I arrange it with the most used equipment in front of me (the computer, Virus Indigo, Maschine), and other things off to the side. My eurorack modular synth has a space off to the left so I can turn and focus on it – working in a different way away from the computer was a big reason I got into the modular equipment.

What’s your best shortcut or life hack?

I use Google Calendar extensively, and map out time in my calendar when I am going to do specific tasks. So for my morning music sessions I’ll map out a week and put an event in the calendar for each thing I want to achieve. This includes regular things I want to spend time on such as exploring sound design, learning new things about music theory and piano playing, and sourcing new music for inspiration and my DJ mixes. It’s easy to go ages without doing some of those things unless I schedule time for them.

Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place.

I find I can get very different results working with audio to instruments. I like to run synths and other sounds into effects and then re sample the results. This gets really interesting if you feed audio from the DAW to VCV rack and create chains of modulating effects. I like running VCV rack alongside Ableton Live and using it as an effects processor. It would be great if it could run as a plugin, although the need to sample audio from it can lead to some surprises if you then play with short loops or clip envelopes in live to shift the volume rhythmically up and down or gate it to emphasis the parts you like.

How do you keep track of what you have to do?

I tend to work around the calendar system described above. I have a set of regular activities I know I want to spend time on. Once I get to a certain stage with a track then I’ll know I need to have some sessions doing certain things like arranging it, mixing, finishing off, so I will add some events at times when I have the time needed to achieve those tasks. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the small things needed to finish a track, so I listen through and make notes or lists of what needs doing. I think it’s quite useful to listen through a work in progress all the way through and make notes, then work on the things I’ve noted down. If you make changes as you go you can lose track of the whole, and end up just listening over and over to figure out what to do next.

What’s your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?

My least favourite part of the process by far is having a blank slate and getting to an initial idea. When I know I want to make a new track but I have nothing and have to find something to get started that doesn’t suck. I know some people love this stage, but I hate it! I try to circumvent it by starting with a session doing some sound design or just playing the piano. Treat it as a little experiment rather than the pressure of ‘starting a new track’ which can make me too judgemental of early ideas. I think everyone creates a lot of rubbish ideas, but developing them and not throwing them away because they don’t fit your preconceptions of what you should be creating at that time is important.

How do you recharge or take a break from work?

Music production largely involves sitting in a chair for long periods, so I like to get out for a run and find this usually gives me energy and a change of perspective. I used to make the mistake of listening to a lot of my own works in progress and trying to figure out what to work on next, but I find holding off on this and listening to something else is usually better to refresh my mind.

What are you currently reading, or what’s something you’d recommend?

I finished reading the first part of Moby’s autobiography ‘Porcelain’ recently. It was a fascinating insight into the realities of his life and career. I’d have liked it to have a bit more detail on his music production though and how he came up with the music as well as the life events that inspired it. I’m looking forward to reading the second part ominously titled ‘Then it fell apart‘…

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’m not sure who said it, but someone once told me the most important part of writing and producing music is listening. Developing this as a skill is really important. When I listen back to very old music this rings true, I hear now so many things I would change or do differently, and the main reason I didn’t wasn’t that I didn’t have the skills to achieve them, it was that I didn’t even hear them how I do now. Focused listening to other music is really important to make time for.

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