‘Limiting yourself to a few things has the best results’: Talking Tech with SKY H1

SKY H1‘s music sits at the intersection between many of her formative influences. Echoes of grime, DnB, techno and dubstep are peppered through the Belgian artist’s synthesized soundscapes on releases for PAN’s sub-label Codes and Berlin-based imprint Creamcake.

These sonic whispers remain on her debut album Azure, released on AD 93 in December. Chock full of emotive pads, dreamy synth lines and subtle rhythmic touches, the LP showcases one of her favourite pieces of equipment, her Access Virus, a synth that’s played a central part in a lot of her work to date. When it comes to her production approach, she finds limiting herself always yields the best results. And her music is proof of that; each piece of gear she serves a purpose and has a role to play.

Following the release, she guides us around the studio space she uses in Brussels, and talks us through her pathway into making music and her production workflow.

What’s your musical education?

I haven’t had a proper music education. My grandfather was a piano teacher at the Royal Conservatory in Brussels, and really pushed me hard to play as well. Unfortunately it had the opposite effect and I didn’t pursue that road, to his regret, and honestly I regret it a little bit as well now. I’m mostly self taught with help from friends and Youtube. And I had an initiation course into Ableton. 

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

My first ever tool was Logic on my best friend’s computer, it was mostly samples and the Massive / Komplete series of Native instruments. He really taught me the basics of producing. Afterwards when I started on my own, I got Ableton on my laptop with a sample library. 

What was the first serious piece of kit you bought?

It was an Octatrack, but I had no idea how to use it, I put it away for a few years before I actually started implementing it in my productions. Also a pair of Adam monitors.

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

I don’t have a lot of gear and mostly rely on my laptop, VSTS, hard drive with samples. In recent years the Access Virus has taken up a big place in my productions, in combination with the H9 pedal. I sometimes use the mic to add some heavily processed vocals. My headphones are really important to me, I do a large part of the production with headphones, so those really need to be good.

I use the Octatrack as a midi controller for the Virus and when I get bored of sitting on the laptop I’ll use the analog rhythm for some beats or the Octatrack to sample. All of that gets recorded in Ableton. In the photos you can see some gear as well that my friend Lawrence Le Doux has left, I really love his Nord drum and the delay pedal he has, I’m actually looking into getting one of those as well. 

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

It’s located in a quiet area in Brussels. I’m not sharing the studio but part of the building is used by my booking agency, so there’s often musicians from the agency stopping by. The room I’m using currently is only temporary because there is work getting done to the building, I’ll eventually move to a better space, but for now I have a really nice view of the garden. 

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?

Not really, since the studio is only temporary I just set it up how it makes most sense in the room, and made sure I was sitting in front of the window for views! 

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?

I got most of the gear from friends, but it’s been really gradual, I like producing on a laptop so it took me a while to start bringing in more gear. I try to also keep it as simple as possible, I feel like the more things you have, the more confusing production becomes. Limiting yourself to a few things has the best result for me. 

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

I don’t buy that much and I feel like less is more. I’ve also already borrowed some things from friends, just to first try and test it out, and see if I actually like it. There’s so many things you can do now on a laptop that buying the actual piece of gear is not always necessary unless I really feel like it enhances my workflow, I feel like some gear is often disappointing, and not worth investing in. I’m really not someone that buys just for the sake of having more gear. When I do buy something I’ll really study it and try to get the most out of it though.

If money were no object what would you add?

Probably a new audio unit because the Motu is really starting to get very old. A bigger monitor, maybe a Prophet – I really love the bass sounds on these, same for the Korg MS20. 

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

Most of the gear is replaceable, I think actually my sample library, VSTS and laptop are most precious. I once lost a hard drive because it was accidentally put in the washing machine! Since then I’m really more careful with my drives :))). It took years to collect all the samples and they were in large part also passed to me by a friend, so those are really precious. I keep a library of my old music projects as well, so I can reuse some of the recordings. 

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

When I first started it was laptop only, but I really didn’t like playing like that, it felt really rigid. I also used a Push to control Ableton live, but it was not really my thing and I couldn’t find a good flow. The last two years I’ve been doing everything with the Octatrack and my FX pedal, and I’m using a CDJ for some extra loops and samples. 

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

It depends from day to day. Disconnecting from social media is really important.

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?

I usually let myself lead by synth sounds or samples. That’s where most of my tracks start, a sound that I find interesting, and then I start to play with it, adjust the sound, create a melody or a repeating pattern. So it’s mostly impulsive. I find it very hard to go into the studio with a very strict concept, I often get disappointed if I can’t do exactly what I had in mind, so I prefer to go by impulses — that approach has worked better for me so far.

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 an instinctive approach and can’t sit too long on a track or they start to annoy me. So usually I finish a track quite quickly, put it to the side for a while and go back to it after a few days/weeks, if it still sounds good, I’ll continue mixing it. 

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

I have struggled with writer’s block in the past. My solution now is to get out of my habits, and learn something new like a tutorial on sound design, listen to interviews of other musicians, or collaborate with someone irl – you can learn so much from seeing someone else make music. Changing up the things you use all the time can help as well. Don’t get stressed out about it 🙂

What inspires you outside the world of music?

Nature, art, books, horror and sci fi films, seeing what friends do….

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

The main piece of gear that was used in every track was the Access Virus TI.

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

I’m doing a few scores for films, and I have some really exciting collaborations going on, but they are still secret for now. 

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