‘I prefer being creative at night, when there are no distractions’: Talking Tech with Pinch

2020 has marked something of a milestone for Bristol producer Rob Ellis. Better known as Pinch, one of dubstep’s early tastemakers, Ellis announced in May he’d be releasing his first solo album in 13 years. Not only that, this year also marks the 15 year anniversary of his reputed label Tectonic, and the home of his new LP Reality Tunnels.

Taking its name from a concept coined by author Robert Anthony Wilson in 1983 book “Prometheus Rising”, a reality tunnel relates to the idea of how we create our own perspectives; the subjective filter we use to look at the world around us. Each track on the album acts as its own reality tunnel as such, showcasing the different characteristics and traits of Ellis’ production skills, be that in the mood, tempo or texture.

Following the release of the album he took us through the set up of his small sound treated home studio and breaks down his production processes.

Reality Tunnels is out now – grab your copy via Tectonic Records.

First off, what’s your musical education?

Barely any in a formal sense. I think I had about a dozen piano lessons when I was about 8 or 9 and hated it. Self-taught guitar from 12-16 (learning a bit from some older kids at school too). I can’t read music and I don’t know much in terms of theory but I can name the keys/notes on a piano and make up a basic chord – and at one point I could work out basic guitar tracks by listening and trial and error and writing them out in ‘tab’. I haven’t touched a guitar in over 20 years though.

What was your first ever set-up, when you started making music?

Basic PC, copy of Fruity Loops 3.0 and some crap hifi speakers.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

I did everything on a PC with Fruity Loops until I bought a Mac/Logic 8 in 2009. I also bought The Bug’s old mixing desk off him, a Ghost LE 24 – which I still have today, so I suppose that’s probably the first bit of serious hardware I bought. The most expensive thing I’ve bought is an Empirical Labs Distressor compressor which was just a bit more than my monitors.

Thanks for taking some photos around your studio. Could you give us a little walk through the main components?

It’s all smoke and mirrors. 95% of what I do is just Logic 9 and a few old plugins like Albino 3, NI Komplete 8, Omnisphere, Camelphat, Alchemy and a couple of the newer ones like Serum and the Fab Filter EQs. I used to use Ableton for live shows, mainly with Adrian Sherwood, but I am also using it for DJ mixes in lockdown. Trying to set up a sort of live dubbing set mix stems from my tunes with other tracks and loops – somewhere between a DJ and live set I guess. There’s a load of that set up at the moment in the studio which I deliberately left out for the photo op.

Where is it located and do you share with anyone else?

It’s all mine! At home, upstairs, just far enough away from the bedroom to not keep my wife awake at night.

What’s been your method for creating this studio? Has it been a gradual accumulation or a bulk purchase? Any key inspirations in pulling it together?

As I said it’s all pretty much just done in the computer if we’re being honest here, so my studio was created with the first computer/software I got and slowly updated since. Where time and money has really been spent is on the room itself. I’ve had my home and studio for 13 years and getting it to sound flat(ish) has been a real challenge, it’s been through some different incarnations. I had to get a boiler tank removed (and fit a new combi-boiler in the kitchen) to get a better shape to the room, I had a bespoke desk made to house the Ghost LE24 and I got acoustic panels made and suspended by bungee chords from the walls and ceiling. Then a couple years ago I ripped out the entire room out and rebuilt it from scratch – the walls, the ceiling, the floor – everything. The walls are now acoustic plasterboard with a 1 inch air gap, covered in batons and then acoustic insulation, then cloth and hessian sack to finish. The floor is now packed up with insulation, covered in Acoustilay floor panels and then the same absorption panels and traps I had before were refitted. The whole room is like one big bass trap now and the sound is pretty dead and mostly flat now, at least as much as possible in a small room like mine.

Are you always seeking to experiment and develop your studio, by changing or adding equipment? If so, what warrants a change?

I rarely buy anything much for the studio and when I do it’s usually a new VST or small guitar fx pedal. I’m a creature of habit and I don’t really care so much about having the latest toys. I’d recommend any producer who wants to take things seriously to spend as much time/attention/money as they can afford to, getting their listening environment flat and clear first and foremost. Everything else is cherries for the cake. That new synth you just heard about and think you can’t live without – well, you probably can. It’s important to know what you are doing sounds right – otherwise you’ll just confuse your ears/brain in the process of acclimatising to your room modes and forever wonder why your latest mix bangs at home but not when you play it out…

You must have a most treasured bit of equipment. If you had to keep just one piece, what would it be?

Good luck writing an album with just your favourite delay unit. Again – my computer!

Before you head to the studio, is there anything you do to prepare or get in the right headspace?

I tend to wait until I’m in the right headspace and then go in the studio. You can irreversibly ruin tracks if you’re not in the right mood and I have done in the past. I generally prefer being creative at night time, when there are no distractions, and I tend to do the arrangement/mix side of things more so in the day time.

Are you someone to labour over a track until every crease is ironed out, or do you prefer a raw, instinctive approach without dwelling too much on something?

Both. In my experience, the dance floor tends to reward simple and effective ideas that you get down quickly – it’s about capturing the energy in the studio. For LPs, or headphone/home experiences – it’s long, long, long. I suppose I do tend to labour more often than not.. Tracks are never truly finished until I got the test pressing vinyl and there’s no going back on it.

Where do you go or what do you do when you have writers block? Anything to reset the mental hardware?

I just remind myself that all that really matters is putting together a rhythm that I’m feeling in some way, then putting some sounds on top of it that I think are cool and that can work together. That’s all it is.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Interesting people mainly. Good mezcal. I find some stuff on quantum theory fascinating, despite a total lack of interest for the math side. I’ve a vague interest in anthropology and early civilisations. Stand up comedy. Cooking and eating well. I used to like going to the pub when they were still open.

Congrats on your forthcoming album. Could you pick a track and dissect its formation, in terms of the creative process and what you used.

‘All Man Got’ Feat Trim.

I find it hard to describe the creative process as it’s more of an instinctive thing for me: stuff sounds good and the parts are working together or they’re not and something needs changing. I wanted to do something dubstep-ish to record a vocal from Trim over, all made in Logic 9. I started by picking out some drum sounds and loading them into Battery, playing about with them until I had a rough sonic fit, then programming out the beat, splitting out the drums and then EQ/comp each part (kick, clap/snare, hi hats, kit etc). Play around with Serum for a bit, make some growly noises. Open Albino 3 and make some more growly noises. Open Omnisphere and get some pads. Set up some send channels with reverbs and delays. Once I’ve got a rough 16 bar section it’s time to arrange it by bringing in parts slowly to set up a drop at 16 bars, then keep the energy moving, variations, build up, drop back etc. Once I’ve got the arrangement down, it was time to hand over to Trim. Record him, make up a comp of the best takes then go back in to the arrangement. This process took a couple of recording sessions, replacing some bars with better takes/lines and meanwhile me going in to tidy up drum edits and so on. Then I revisited everything for a final mix and to take a couple drum hits out here, move a couple there, do a few little tricks to create more movement in the track and that’s pretty much it.

What else is on the horizon this year that’s getting you excited?

New batch of Mezky is nearly ready and it’s tasting absolutely amazing. Deserves to win awards imo! Mezky is a project I’m working on with Addison Groove, that involves ageing a blend of mezcal in Islay malt whisky casks. First batch went down a storm, but this new batch is absolutely incredible.

Reality Tunnels is out now – grab your copy via Tectonic Records.

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