The cover art for Cloudchord’s latest album, Bloom Bap, features a guitar with a neck that loops around and morphs into a branch, passing by a tree stump that doubles as a turntable. The trippy nighttime gardenscape is a fitting visual representation for Derek VanScoten’s music, in which lush layers of guitar bend and dip around hip-hop beats, jazzy chords, and funky passages.
Given that the title Bloom Bap originated with Derek’s attempt to describe his music, conversation with him is appropriately verdant – small musical ideas are seeds, longer 16-bar loops compose an ecosystem, and creative exercises need sunlight to grow. As an Ableton Certified Trainer, Derek has had ample opportunity to work out colorful ways of describing creative and aesthetic processes. Derek’s YouTube tutorials and template Live Sets and Effects Racks include inspiring setups for working with different instruments and ideas to build small ideas into bigger tracks. Derek has been kind enough to share a Neo Soul Guitar Amp Rack for free download with this interview.
Requires Ableton Live 11 Suite
David Abravanel recently sat down with Derek to discuss his latest album, leaving room for live improvisation, producing the legendary Disco Biscuits, and more.
You’ve shared some great Racks, which work as great building blocks to get some of the tones and colorations that you might get from guitar pedals.
The Racks that I built, they're all in one chain. You can literally go from the instrument to the interface to Live back out to the PA without anything else, ride your volume knob and you're good for the whole night. You're probably going to need clip automation to change your presets, but that's a different story. I wanted to help guitar players get good sounds with as little extra stuff as possible. Everybody's got an interface, everybody's got a laptop, everybody's got headphones. Can I get that person a good guitar tone with everything that is already provided in the instrument, in effects folders? That was my idea.
You often hear about these hard-to-replicate subtleties in hardware, especially with guitar pedals. What do you say to a student who asks why something is “too digital” or “too shiny”?
Usually my first question is, are you compressing before your interface? That goes a really long way. That's something that I discovered early on doing DI guitar playing; if you compress before the interface or your preamp or whatever going into the DAW, that really helps smooth things and really helps shape your sound. I've had a lot of people be like, you know, man, I just went out and got an MXR on Reverb for $50 because you said that and what a difference it made! Because what happens, too, is like the amps with the tubes and the speakers, they naturally compress that thing. And still players have compressors in their pedal board anyways, so it's kind of a double point there and that those guys are compressing before they hit anything else. So why shouldn't we, as DI guitar players?
Interesting. And you say before you enter the interface so not just like putting a compressor at the beginning of an effects chain in Live, but before you even plug into the A/D converter.
Yes, I do both. I'm a big fan of serial compression. Not compressing too crazy at any one point in my chain, but just little bits here and there that gives it the tuck.
How do you start working on new ideas – do you have go-to templates?
I have a very robust user library that is highly organized. So it's pretty quick for me to get to any particular set of sounds that I need to because I'm actually too impatient to surf presets. I'd rather just be playing guitar than surfing presets. All of my amp racks are in one folder, so if I need one, boom, I can do it. But yeah, I'm literally the Zen blank canvas guy. When you open up my Live, it's two blank MIDI tracks and two blank audio tracks with a gigantic user library.
It sounds like you really have spent time organizing what's there so that you're able to grab what you need relatively quickly.
Yes, and a lot of my user library has come from teaching, whether it's a group thing that's an official Ableton event or even just a one-on-one lesson with somebody where we'll make something, and I was like, “Oh, this is a really cool effects rack!” It goes in my Effects folder.
What do you do when you sit down to write music? What do you do to get away from that blank page problem or that kind of repetitive loop trap?
One thing that I have experimented with, is I'll take several different loops, a 16-bar drum break and an eight-bar guitar loop that I made and something else, and maybe harmonize it a little bit, build around it. The foundation of the entire piece is loop-based, but I'll see if I can actually make the entire thing through-composed, which is a classical term meaning there's actually no exact repetition.
For me, that's a fun challenge because it's rare that I actually play guitar and produce at the same time. Often when I just play my guitar, I come up with these seedlings and I save them for later so they're loops. And then when I'm in more of a beat-making mood later on in the day, my guitar will be to the side and I'll take these loops that I made and I'll make an entire beat from them. The question for adaptation of these ideas over the course of two to six minutes is can I, going back to that term, make it through-composed where there's no exact repetition even if it's built from an eight-bar loop? Whether it's chopping things out of the loop, changing the pitch of it, stuttering things, adding things to it – there's all these things that we can do to get from loop-based material to something that is much more lively and exciting and non-repetitive.
At the risk of sounding crass, sometimes the arrangement step of making a track can feel something like a chore, like the less-fun part of the process. How do you approach that?
That is a problem that many live musicians have when they come to the production process. I know many musicians that make their living off of performing that are like, “I'll start something, but don't rely on me to finish it.” Because really what it comes down to is they aren't good at drum [programming] and they just don't know how to finish it.
I try to have really refined tools in my beat-making toolkit so I can make up an entire drum beat for a song in a matter of an hour or two. And it's not something that I labor over for months or weeks. It's its own skill set, a refined skill set to be able to get from this eight bar loop to, oh, wow, this is a sick beat. And to me, that's kind of going back to when I was studying classical and I fell in love with sample-based hip-hop at the same time, maybe because the love happened at the same time, I was equally motivated to get good at both.
Now you have people who are strictly loop makers – they’ll churn out a bunch of short loops quickly and send them to producers who move from there. When you work with your students, how do you get them to think about both sides of that coin?
One of the exercises that we do, I put on a timer and it forces them to make a certain amount of decisions within that time. So, if I'm in a 60-minute lesson with somebody, I'm like, “what is our goal here? At minute 59, we want a really nice eight-bar loop, okay? So let's work backwards, and then we have to sit on timers and we have to make decisions.” I use the Max for Live Pomodoro device, and you can put it up in the corner and you can see it count down. Sometimes it can be nerve-wracking, but it's just a good exercise to do. It sharpens that skill of making decisions and not waxing and waning on one micro-detail for too long.
You’ve described your loops as “seedlings” earlier – so the plants are the finished tracks?
I do often see loops as just these seeds, and they aren't really that much on their own. You have to germinate them and then you have to transfer them into the ground, and then you have to continue to water them and give them sunlight. It can be a little bit daunting in that you have to go through all those processes. But the cool thing is, if you stay in germination mode, you can be like, “I only have to make little ideas for a while.” And that is what making sample packs taught me, is I'm going to stay in germination inception mode, just the tip of the arrow right now, I don't have to build the whole thing, so I don't have to commit to too big things. I'm going to come up with a four-bar loop – okay, great. And then I add a little part on top of it. Okay, this idea is done, onto the next new four-bar loop!
I’ve seen what you’re talking about in your “Lick of the Day” series on TikTok as well. Sometimes you have an eight-bar loop that you can riff on a bit, and it’ll work for a beat tape, but what if you’re trying to make a song? How do you figure out which loop structures go well together?
Many people right now in music are talking about that Rick Rubin book, and he dives into this. He talks about one of these creative seeds may catch electricity. And really the answer is electricity. You have to feel electricity for that idea. And you transfer it into the ground. [Sometimes] you had all this enthusiasm, but then for some reason, it died in the garden and you don't know why. And then other times you're like, “this seed is not going to make it,” and it ends up becoming the biggest plant in your garden. I say “electricity”, and that is this kind of obscure, spiritual, musical thing. But really it's listening for me. It's listening as a fan. It's listening more subconsciously. I walk around the room and, do my soul and my body and my mind, do they all have a positive electrified reaction to it? That is how I decide.
Do you find there needs to be some distance between creating the track and listening to it? To come back and listen to something as a whole instead of a bunch of parts?
Taking breaks, whether it's 27 minutes or 27 days from a piece, that gives you a lot of perspective because a lot of times you stop listening as a fan. One of the things I like to do when I'm working on longer-form releases, is to make private SoundCloud playlists and go mountain biking and I listen as a fan on my AirPods. I just see what my reactions are when I am riding the terrain and the new song comes up compared to the last song. Does it flow? Are there changes that I would have never thought about if I had been staring at a screen?
The very first track [on Bloom Bap], "Junior High Dance", when we made it, it kind of came in much more quickly, and the beat was there by measure five or measure nine. When I went mountain biking, I was like, “Whoa, it's a little too much too soon. Give me a little bit of foreplay here, you know what I mean?” I wanted to give myself a crescendo.
I think the big, gigantic collaboration [with Emancipator] had several incarnations before the one that we started on. There actually is a version of that song that I play live that starts with the beat and not the vocals. And then one day I fell backwards into it after having an idea, and my idea was not to start on drums, but I didn't know how I was going to do it. And I think I muted a couple of things by mistake and it came in as just the vocals and I'm like, “There it is, come in with the hook!”
Please note: The included stems are for educational use only and may not be used for commercial purposes.
When you’re performing live, how do you choose which instruments or elements to focus on playing at a given moment?
At the end of the day, people go to live music because they want to be refreshed and wowed, right? So, for me, that is a lot of the answer. I'm playing a piece and I think to myself, what thread in this has the biggest wow factor in terms of performance, you know? Sometimes I won't play guitar in a song because the Push really has the wow factor on that song. And then other times it's really nice to start with just guitar loops.
A lot of times the way I start my show is I start with just guitar loops and we just start with something very simple and then within a matter of minutes, we're into a full fledged produced song. But it's also about flow, because even if I do amazing, eruptive guitar work, after 27 minutes, people are ready for a change. So I might literally take the guitar off me, put it down and play lap steel and Push for the next four minutes, just to mix it up.
When I was in Iceland two weeks ago, Jon the Barber, who is the guitarist and principal songwriter of The Disco Biscuits, said to me, “I'm surprised you don't play a more futuristic guitar, considering your sound.” And I said, well, my sounds are so futuristic in and of themselves compared to, say, a live band, that I kind of like the throwback of the arch top or hollow body guitars, because I do consider myself a mix of Wes Montgomery and a modern day hip-hop producer.
It’s interesting that you mentioned the Disco Biscuits – they were probably one of the first jam bands I heard who talked up using a computer on an album, and then made a name moving across different genres and techniques.
Yes. And that's how I became their producer, because they initially hired me as an Ableton advisor. They were trying to do new things on stage and they were using Link. Each member had Live at their respective station and there were all these adventurous things they were trying to do to incorporate dance music into their live band sound. Then the pandemic happened, so everything shifted. They weren't touring as much and I was [initially] advising them on touring, but then we all loved working together and one thing led to another and I'm producing the first album that they've done in ten years.
You’ve studied many different kinds of music - how did you first come to music, and end up working with your guitar in electronic settings?
I came to music wanting to be a guitar hero. Those were all my early influences, all the cats from all the generations, from rock and roll up through 70s, all the 80s guys. I loved the grunge stuff because I loved how it was different and disruptive. I love classical music. Béla Fleck is one of my heroes.
I grew up playing rock and roll in bars and then studied production in college, but then branched out and did study classical music after doing all that. And the funny thing about the juxtaposition for me is that when I was studying classical music, that’s actually when I fell in love with sample-based hip-hop. It was a simultaneous thing in my life. I felt like I was moonlighting with sample-based hip-hop on what I was doing by day. But to me, they all ultimately have informed who I am as a stylist. But the sample-based hip-hop that really spoke to me sampled great musicians. It wasn't even really MIDI stuff. It was chops of live musicians – like Guru’s Jazzmatazz was an album that I was like, “wow, as somebody who's studying George Benson or Wes Montgomery, this really speaks to me. This is edgy.” And then through all that, I've always tried to be an improviser.
At the end of the day, that also works into my beat making and that I am improvisational. I'll try things up. I like to disrupt even my own methods.
Text and Interview by David Abravanel