‘I just continue to make tracks, even if they’re bad’: Talking Tech with Nikki Nair

Nikki Nair‘s home turf may be thousands of miles away in Atlanta, but his productions feel much closer to home. Drawing inspiration from the UK in sound and style, his output captures the essence of what’s exciting about the underground from leftfield and broken techno to breaks `and bass.

These inventions have been coming thick and fast too. It was only 2018 when Nikki released his first EP into the world and since then he’s added over 10 more to his healthy catalogue, striking up a longstanding relationship with Dirtybird along the way. On UK soil though, it was Ian DPM and Wager’s Scuffed Recordings that picked up on Nikki’s talents early on, becoming a regular collaborator as well as being the catalyst for more UK labels to take note: Banoffee Pies, Gobstopper and Lobster Theremin — add to that a couple of track contributions to our STW compilations.

Just as he touches back down in the US following a mini tour around the UK, alongside the Scuffed crew and Farsight, we spoke to him about his home studio and approach to production.

Shufflin’ is out now on Lobster Theremin.

What’s your musical education?

I learned to play drums, and took drum lessons as a kid. I played in the school band as well as local bands. That was my main instrument for most of my life, maybe until the computer took over.

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

I think when I started making recorded music, I was maybe 11 and I was using two cassette recorders, a guitar I had borrowed and a drum kit. I’d multitrack by first playing the drums onto one tape, then playing the tape and guitar track into the microphone of the other tape recorder. Then a couple of years later I got introduced to cool edit and fruity loops.

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

I’m not sure what qualifies as serious.. Maybe this would be my first set of studio monitors, which were M-Audio DSM-1 that I got at a used record shop. I didn’t get this until like 2012. I guess buying them signified that I wanted actually make music for other people to hear instead of just for myself.

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

The main components are Dynaudio BM6a speakers, a UAD Apollo interface, Emagic Unitor-8 midi interface, Sony MXP-290 Mixer, Eela Audio S-191 Mixer, Ensoniq DP/4 fx box, Ibanez UE-305 compressor/delay/chorus pedal, E-MU E4xt, Shure SM57, Percussion/Drums, Blackbox HG-2, Moog Minitaur, E-MU Planet Earth, Roland VP-9000, Nord Drum. Maybe there are more. I like having two mixers because each one has a different preamp sound, but I mainly use the Sony one.

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

The studio is in my house in Atlanta. I don’t share it with anyone since it’s a bedroom of the house. I guess I share it when I have people over to collaborate.. this has only happen once so far though. Hopefully it will happen again!

Was there any method to the way you’ve laid it out and have you made any special non-musical touches to make it feel like a productive workspace?

Most of my music is sequenced from Ableton, so the computer is the center. The floor rack unit thing has the audio interface and a couple of patch bays. Almost all of my equipment is connected to the patch bay so that I don’t have to go behind the desk to change routings. If you have a bunch of gear, patch bays are extremely useful and a key to having a productive workspace.

I also have some decorations (mostly animal figurines) that make me happy.

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?

It’s been a gradual accumulation. I tend to try pieces of gear out and then sell them if I don’t like them. I also tend to look for older and cheaper gear that’s maybe overlooked or special in some way. I did do some planning when I set up the patch bays but then they also got out of control. For the most part I’m just thinking of making the next track or plugging some fx or synth unit in and adding, subtracting, or moving stuff to make that happen.

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

I love to experiment, often with stuff I already have, but also often with stuff I find. A lot of the cheaper/older rack units I have (e.g. a vestax delay unit, or e-mu pro-cussion) were basically impulse purchases. I also like finding new signal routings or feedback loops with fx sends and the different mixers.

If money were no object what would you add?

I would add time. Can I pay for time? If I can’t add time, I’d get maybe an API or MCI mixer.

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

I’m assuming this doesn’t like count the audio interface, computer and speakers… I guess not counting those or like my mixers, maybe it would be my Ensoniq DP/4. It seems to make it onto all of my tracks. I don’t even do anything special on it, but it sounds so great.

How do you condense your studio set-up for your live sets? 

I mix the tracks down to stereo aiffs and load them into USB sticks using Rekordbox and then play them on CDJs, usually mixed (using a DJ mixer) with other tracks I’ve made and tracks from other artists. (I’m sorry, real answer below)

I think if I did a live set I’d like to find other ways to reproduce the music. It would be great to do a live set with a band. I don’t think I’d enjoy playing sequencers on stage.

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

Not really… most of my life is spent wishing I could go into the studio, so usually when I get the chance I get right into it. I think if I’m really feeling like I can’t make music, it usually means something else is wrong and I need to go fix that.

What’s your creative approach when you’re in the studio? Do you go in with a concept in mind or is it usually an impulsive exercise?

It’s almost always impulsive, but sometimes I do go in with an experiment in mind (like some type of routing or technique I haven’t used before). I almost never have a concept though unless it’s for a remix or edit.

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?

I definitely prefer not to dwell too much. I never have more than like 2 or 3 versions of a mix down. The best tracks I’ve made are usually complete after the first mixdown and took a couple of days or less (usually less) to finish. For me, I think being able to finish the track while the vibe is still right is infinitely more important than anything technical.

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

I think I just continue to make tracks, even if they’re bad. I’ll also work on edits or like joke tracks during these times. Ideally I keep finishing tracks regardless even if they all go in the trash later.

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Most things I think. Math and physics are inspiring to me, but also things in life, and whatever kinds of cartoons I’m watching or experiences I’m having.

What would you say was the most important piece of kit in the making of your new EP, and why?

I really want to give you a trite and awful answer like, “my brain was the most important piece of kit.” In fact, I will. Everything else is for fun.

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

I am excited about a lot of things right now. I’ve got a few more EPs in the pipe (well in 2022). I’m also working on collaborations with a few different friends and I hope those will come out soon too.

Shufflin’ is out now on Lobster Theremin.

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