Over the past 10 years, Travis Stewart aka Machinedrum has honed and refined his sound - a (mostly) instrumental fusion of hip-hop, juke, jungle and house - earning a reputation along the way as an adventurous producer who also understands how to fine-tune his intricate compositions for the dancefloor. In 2011, he received much deserved praise for hisRoom(s) album on Planet Mu. Since then he’s relocated to Berlin, kept up a dizzying touring schedule – both solo as Machinedrum and as one half of Sepalcure – and released a number of singles, EPs, and mixes that further explore various bass-heavy musical dimensions. In this interview, among other things, Travis talks about inspiration, frustration, and self-imposed limitations. In addition, he shares a track from Room(s) and then discusses his production techniques and approaches.
What got you started making music?
I started playing piano and guitar pretty early on, maybe around 5 or 6 years old. I never took lessons or anything. I was more or less ear-trained. I would often listen to my favorite bands and try to learn how to play it just from listening. My family was quite musical as well. My mother played piano so I grew up with a baby grand piano in the house, my grandfather played pedal steel in a country band (and still does!), my cousin was a singer songwriter who played guitar and my dad was always collecting different instruments. I guess they rubbed off on me.
What kind of equipment did you start out on? And what are you using these days?
When I started making electronic music I was mainly using software like Cakewalk, Impulse Tracker, Rebirth as well as any additional freeware I could find. The first hardware I bought was the Yamaha CS1x and Boss Dr. Sample 202 plus some random FX pedals. My family wasn't exactly rich so I had to work within my limitations. I think this had a lot to do with how I approach making music to this day. Now I still have a quite simple set-up using a Macbook Pro running Ableton Live and some MIDI Controllers. I don't really use many plug-ins apart from a few go-to's like Michael Norris' SoundMagic Spectral plugins and Native Instruments Reaktor + Massive. For the most part I've found that the built-in Ableton plugins are sufficient.
How much does music technology inspire and/or frustrate you?
I think we live in a very blessed time right now due to music technology. Some would beg to differ but I really believe its an incredible opportunity for us to be able to write and record music with such ease. It's really kind of mind-blowing to think about the incredible amount of musical geniuses that nobody will ever know about due to the simple fact that they couldn't record the music they were making. It was near impossible for anyone that was ear-trained – without the knowledge of music theory who had an avant-garde or abstract approach to songwriting – to ever have their music passed on to newer generations let alone even their own generation.
The only problem or "frustration" I can see coming from music technology would be the seemingly endless amount of options when it comes to software, plug-ins, synths, etc. I feel like a lot of people can become lost trying to get the best gear instead of really honing in on their craft and developing their own sound. I think it’s really important to set limitations for yourself in order to find your own creative space and workflow. Otherwise you just end up sounding generic without your own sound. I used to talk shit on people who use the same synth on every song but now I realize how wrong I was! How else can people instantly tell who they're listening to if you're constantly changing your setup?
In order to illustrate just how the Machinedrum sound is constructed, we asked Travis for a peek behind his production curtains. He’s been kind enough to share the song Sacred Frequency from his latest album Room(s).