2016 is off to a great start for the genre-expanding electronic music producer Stuart Millar, aka Heliotype, who recently released his grooving ‘Balearic Bass’ style track “Catching Fire” on the Anjunadeep Explorations 01 album back in January.
Hailing from the UK, Heliotype utilizes his years of DJing experience to bring a fresh wave of unique, emotional melodies and atmospheres to his tracks, which we can expect plenty more of in the future. In the meantime, we asked the rising Anjunadeep artist to impart some professional wisdom for all the aspiring producers out there.
Tell us about yourself, how did you come up with the name “Heliotype?”
Heliotype comes from “Helio” which is related to the sun in Greek mythology, and “type” I guess means of no set type, a license to produce what I want! I play house, garage, techno, breaks, ambient – across the board really. ‘Balearic Bass’ is how it has been described. I love radio too and have been on air and piloted for BBC Radio 1 in the UK in the past.
Can you take us through a regular day for you?
I try to be as organized as I can, so I have a diary / planner that I work from. Old-school. Everything is written down. Music-wise the to-do-list can be absolutely anything from working on a certain track, researching latest plugins, spending time listening to old records to sample, downloading radio shows, listening to other genres for inspiration…and more.
What was the inception of your music career?
I’ve been doing this for a good few years. It started getting turntables and some vinyl about a year after I finished school, then took off from there. From going clubbing I just got really inspired and excited by the way the music was making me feel, plus the energy in a room when everything was going right and everyone was having a good time. So I said to myself, “Right, I’m going to have a damn good go at this…”
Producer or DJ, which came first?
I was DJing for years and years before I started producing. Originally the production side of things was not really a way to break through for most DJs, it was putting in effort to gig a lot (maybe 2 or 3 gigs in a single weekend night), having turntable skills, promoting, getting hold of the hot records, or hosting a national radio show.
When did you first start producing?
I’ve been producing for over 10 years, so 2006. I was DJing from 2000.
How long did it take you until you realized you were really going to pursue music?
It took me a while to discover each possibility in music and what doors I could open. A lot of years in fact. I didn’t have any interest in making music, not seriously at least, for a long time. Though I’ve always been interested in composition, having keyboards and a guitar when I was a kid. Then I got into production and starting getting some small recognition along the way from specialist dance DJs and radio stations. I realized I had a passion for sharing, for broadcasting too – i.e. radio, and that I loved actually talking about music. So I developed my skills in that area and started making demo radio shows, producing my own podcasts and so on.
Who were your biggest inspirations when you first started?
The only exposure I had really was to specialist radio. In the UK, that was, and still is to an extent, BBC Radio 1. When I first started it was the only national station that really pushed dance music. So, since I was only DJing to begin with, I looked up to their DJs like Pete Tong, Danny Rampling, Judge Jules, plus listened to The Essential Mix all the time. Production-wise when I first started I always used to listen to Anjunabeats and Above & Beyond productions. Originally I produced faster music, that was the style back then with higher bpms. And the Anjuna releases were pretty much always on point for me as they were super-melodic and musical. There was another classically trained producer called Darren Tate I was a big fan of. Plus Way Out West, Slacker, Sasha, Faithless, Chicane; I could go on for days. That wave of Balearic sounding dance music had me hooked.
What kind of tools did you start out on?
When I first started, I used FruityLoops. I can’t even remember which version it was so basic. I made three or four tracks and then let a friend-of-a-friend hear them, and then I got the chance to go to their studio and learn. Eventually it came full circle and I was able to fly solo. When I was using Fruityloops I had a real basic PC, no special speakers, no MIDI keyboard and a set of headphones so I didn’t annoy my parents. Everything was just drawn on the on-screen keyboard with the mouse; really rough and ready.
What DAW do you use, and what are your favorite plugins now?
I use Cubase 5 at the minute. It’s brilliant and for the way I work I wouldn’t change it. I have tried Logic and Ableton but I just don’t get the same vibe, it’s hard to explain. I try not to go over the top with regard plug-ins, the question sounds like maybe I’d have different favorite plugins in 6 months, which I won’t. I love the Arturia Minimoog, I use it a lot. The Korg M1 is amazing… I also really like Rob Papen’s Blue, it is cool for pads and also to flesh out a track with rhythmic effects. The u-he Diva is pretty powerful, in terms of what it can do but also on the CPU! Then other favorites are RBass to beef up bottom end, CamelPhat filters, and Ohm Force for delays. Melodyne is brilliant for vocals. I’m not too concerned about using plugins that are bang-up-to-date, I’d rather know my way around what I need to get my ideas out of my head and heart onto the screen.
Did you have any prior music experience?
No, I’m not trained in music, I’ve never studied the theory. I’ve just taught myself. I’m still learning and consider myself a novice. There are producers way more technical than me, or can play the piano in their sleep, or know all the theory about scales etc. I know a little of that but, for me, if it sounds good, then it’s good. If it sounds crap, it’s crap.
Encompassing everything from 5 red bulls a day to strictly being alone in the studio, what factors make you most comfortable while you produce? Do you have to be in the studio or are you comfortable producing anywhere?
Interesting question. I’m most comfortable when I’m alone and when I have nothing major on my mind, or in a good mood, and then the ideas just come. In saying that, if I’m feeling really down, sometimes I can come up with solid ideas and have that sadness in them. However it is not “comfortable” to write that music, as it were, as it triggers memories and emotions I’d maybe rather not think about. Overall that is good though, as then you have a range of music you produce where people can listen and work out which tracks are happy, sad, thoughtful, looking back, looking forward, etc. I try really hard to do that. When I’m producing the music has to be about something. I do have to be in the studio really. I can hum melodies into my phone or whatever, but in the studio I can get stuff down quickly. I can’t work when I’m tired though, so I mostly write during the day and evenings.
Take us through your production process. Do you begin a track with a specific idea in mind? What do you usually start with?
It doesn’t always start with an idea, in fact the more I think about it the more it doesn’t. It starts with a feeling usually, happy, sad, tired, angry, deep, spiritual – it’s hard to explain. I go straight for the strings in most cases. So I’ll set up a 16 bar loop with a plain kick, an off beat hi-hat and maybe write a garage or bumping sort of loop just to bounce along. Then I’ll pull a few kicks out so it isn’t totally boring, since this loop will be playing for a long time! I’ll set the loop going, then dial-up my strings. I have a very specific set of strings and pads I use. If you listen to my last release on Anjunadeep called ‘Catching Fire’, or even my first release called ‘Saying Nothing’, you can hear these strings very clearly. With the loop rolling then, I’ll just start jamming on the keyboard trying different chord progressions. They need to be smooth so it isn’t a frantic session, I’ll hold the first chord, then maybe change just one or two notes and see if starts to sound how I feel. Perhaps I’ll just write two chords, alternating every bar in the loop. Then I’ll have them playing and write over the top of them, another chord or just one or two extra notes and see how they sound. Once I’ve got a nice string progression sometimes I just mute the drums and crank up the volume to write notes further down the scale to thicken the strings up. Almost like writing the breakdown in a track first I guess. You can tell when you get that ‘moment’, a few goosebumps or watery eyes and I know I’m feeling it! I’ll drop the basic drums back in, get it all going in the same loop, then play around with the bassline. Once I’ve the beginnings of a bassline, well, that’s a lot of the track done really in my opinion! The idea is down, I know I’m into it, then I go off and build the track up around that.
You recently released your track Catching Fire as a part of Anjunadeep’s Explorations 01 Album, what advice would you give for mixing and mastering your own tracks?
I’m a fan of mixing using a proper mixing desk. A Mackie DXB200 to be exact. Mixing in the box doesn’t seem to get the same results for me, though as I’ve stated already I’m not a technical expert so there may be ways and tricks to get results just using your computer. When I’m mixing, I usually mix backwards. So I’ll balance the biggest musical elements, then the secondary musical elements, then the kick and bassline, then the rest of the drums, and the FX last. When I’m making adjustments, it’s just 1db increases or decreases at a time. A couple of db across several tracks can make a whole lot of difference. EQing is pretty important, I usually roll off a lot of low-end, the mids and high-end seem to take care of themselves. I take out a couple of db at 250Hz with quite a high Q in nearly every track, it seems to get rid of mud and my mixes just sound better.
If you could sit across from yourself when you first started, what advice would you give about producing music and getting into the industry?
Make sure your music has meaning, be as original as you can, and be prepared for it taking a long time to even make a small impact. By a long time, I mean 5-10 years. Don’t expect to get rich from it either. The music industry isn’t always fair, and you’ll be told “no” a thousand times before you get a “yes.” So do it for the right reasons.
What are some production questions you wish you had known earlier to ask?
It took me a long time initially to realize chords could be more than just two or three notes. I was always puzzled by how I couldn’t get strings to sound full in the early days. I didn’t know a great deal about basslines early on either, I just used one sound before discovering a lot of tracks will have a sub bass, plus a couple of mid basslines, simply playing the same notes an octave higher, for example. I always got puzzled by how “wide” or how “stereo” a track should be, before realizing it doesn’t really matter so much – it depends on the tune and what you are making it for. If it’s for the club and you make this lovely wide stereo mix, including the bottom-end, it’ll be very different on a sound system than if it was a more narrow mix with more of the lower frequency spectrum in mono. If you’re making a big instrumental soundscape, you want it to sound big and wide in nice headphones.
What tracks have you been digging lately?
I’ve been listening to all sorts to be honest, old and new. Burial’s album ‘Untrue’ is so atmospheric. Kerri Chandler is putting out ‘Track 1’ again with Troy Denari on vocals. Paul Woolford is still doing great stuff under his own name and Special Request. I love old US and UK garage too. The new Anjunadeep tracks are all amazing, from the new Journeyman EP to the Way Out West single. Have to shout out Theo Kottis, Wild Dark and Aiiso too.
Do you have any advice on promoting music?
Be professional when you are sending demos out, and be aware it may take you to send a label four or five amazing tunes before they will even consider signing your sixth. If you can go to clubs and music conferences to meet A&Rs in person, do it. Tee up the meetings in advance. You can make far more of an impression in person. Try and stay on top of your socials (Facebook/Twitter/SoundCloud/YouTube) but remember if you don’t have a product i.e. good music, then you’ve nothing to really shout about.
Lastly, if you had to become a new producer in 2016, what would you do to get to where you are now?
That is a really hard question, I would say make a lot of music, as practice makes perfect. If you want to get signed to a certain label, develop a serious, long-term relationship with them. And write it all down. Have a plan! Be genuine with people, ask for advice. Remember it may take 5-10 years before you begin to get anywhere. Keep perspective too – sometimes it will work out, sometimes it won’t, so realize when you need to change your approach or focus your energy on other things. Good luck everyone!