Singer/songwriter/producer Steve Spacek (a.k.a. Steve White) has been innovating during every step of his musical journey. Since the mid-’90s he’s been focused on designing a futuristic, post-everything dance floor sound informed by broken beat, R&B, trip-hop, hip-hop, African highlife and soul. During this time he’s led electronic band Spacek, issued an array of solo releases, collaborated with J.Dilla, Common and Raphael Saadiq, helmed Africa Hitech with Mark Pritchard and issued his Black Pocket project for his brother dBridge’s Exit Records.
On his first solo album in nearly a decade, Modern Streets, released under his Beat Spacek moniker, Spacek realized the soul-drenched, synth-dominated long-player not by working in a home or project studio but by producing songs here and there utilizing apps operating on his mobile devices.
Instead of Instagramming photos of his dinner or tweeting obligatory thank-yous to last night’s crowd for being so awesome, Spacek put his iPad or iPhone to creative use, laying down everything from 8-bit grooves, his whispered and falsetto vocals and sampling his kids and popping what they said onto tracks when situations presented themselves. Modern Streets is an album that finally fulfills technology’s egalitarian promise to make the recording process cheaper, easier and more efficient for artists.
“A lot of my music I hear is in my head — whether a bassline, vocal line or in a lot of cases the whole track,” says Spacek. “So the idea of being able to put those ideas down whilst out and about, in an airport or plane, where them vibes take me was always going to be a no-brainer!”
We talked to Spacek about what prompted him to take the mobile path on Modern Streets, and how the freedom he found will impact his future work.
Beat Spacek’s Modern Streets is out now on Ninja Tune.
Over the years you’ve recorded albums in “proper” studios and have worked with notable producers including J.Dilla and Mark Pritchard. But for Modern Streets you realized the album largely through utilizing mobile apps. Why did you decide to go this creative route? Was there a specific a-ha moment that led you down this path?
Steve Spacek: I’ve been messing with apps since about 2010. My earliest memories of iOS beat-making was around at my friend Josh’s place in Bondi (Josh helped out on this record and is one of the players for the live show). We were online checking out some gadgets and tech — as you do! Anyway, Mark Pritchard was there too and he had one of the early iPods. Can’t remember how but we came across an article about possible future music-making apps on iOS platform and from then onwards I was hooked and intrigued as to the possibilities! I’ve always been into the miniaturization of certain things — mainly for traveling purposes. A lot of my music I hear is in my head — whether a bassline, vocal line or in a lot of cases the whole track. So the idea of being able to put those ideas down whilst out and about, in an airport or plane, where them vibe takes me was always going to be a no-brainer!
What was the process like when it came time to producing songs? Did you first research and try out apps before you getting started? Did you get recommendations and tips from any of your producer friends or was this completely uncharted territory? Overall, did it force you to think about music in a new way?
Making the album using the apps was just a natural progression for me. As soon as I have some that I can bang out a few notes with, I’m already producing with a view to said piece being released via a possible future project. Although initially I do try not to get caught up in any of that, as I think it makes you work in a certain way. As in maybe a bit too self-conscious, and I’m not into that. I like to be free and open in my mind when I’m making music so that I can easily except the channeling! Everything is geared toward printing the initial idea flowing from my mind. That’s why I love the apps. They allow me to not get caught up to much in the setting up of technology. If I have to faf around with connecting shit up and setting up this n’ that then I’ve either lost the idea, or it’s turned into something else. Sometimes a good thing but usually a bad thing! With the apps I just touch the button and within seconds I’m making my music. Love the immediacy! Mind you, most of the above applies to the creative and writing stage. Once I get into arranging and mixing, then I don’t mind having to mess with the intricacies of making things work for the greater good!
“It feels way more natural when I pick up my phone, iPad or computer to want to make music than to do anything else. All I know is that whenever I make the effort to go and check say my Facebook inbox, a couple of hours would have flown by and I probably wouldn’t have achieved what I set out to do in the first place. In those couple of hours I could have easily knocked out a couple of riddims. Straight up!”
Which apps did you find the most useful and why?
I found Figure really useful seeing as the moment you click on it you are creating without any setup other than say the tap tempo to get you in the groove. Most of the apps I like have an almost toy like vibe to the way you can interact with them but give you very professional and usable results.
I got into GarageBand on iPad quite late on during the writing process but soon learned very quickly that even though it’s quite limited for sounds/instruments. It’s really easy and intuitive to lay your ideas down, especially during that creative channeling part that I’m always referring to. I really like the way you can play and record stringed instruments utilising the built-in virtual bass, guitar, string multi-touch interface. Also easy to drag-n-drop parts during song arranging.
IMaschine‘s cool too! Was on tour in the U.S. with Mark Pritchard doing Africa Hitech ting. In the lift with him and Bryant [Rutledge] from Lazer Sword on our way to do a show Brian pulls out his phone and starts banging out a beat on these little orange (onscreen) pads — right there and then in the lift! Me being me, I was in like Flynn! Soon as I had a moment, that shit was downloaded propa! You can save your sesh into a little file that you can download via ‘ichune’ to be opened later in full-blown Maschine for further furtherences! Plus, I notice there’s a nice punch and sheen to the sound straight out the box.
I used iMPC for a bit when it first landed. It’s def a wicked app! Unfortunately for me, I started to have some issues with it, so I knocked it on the head. I manage to get “Inflight Wave” and gotta “Get Some Music” out of it and onto the album though. So all good!
Can’t not mention iSyn. One of the first apps I ever bought. Three tracks of the most gnarly, analogue sounding synth/step sequencer that you could hope to come across on iOS! As Dilla said, “ruff, rugged n’ raw!” Plus, the 3D tilt is one of the first and best use of iPad gyro that I’ve come across. You just assign whatever function/parameter to whatever X/Y point you choose and just tilt and move the device to create some amazing randomness! A no-brainer at no more than a couple dollars! Not much to look at, but once you get past that it’s pure flames!
Your voice sounds terrific throughout the album. How did you go about cutting vocals?
Thank you! Most of the vocals were recorded either straight into the iPad/iPhone via the built-in mic or this cool little Shure USB mic given to me by Shure Australia. If I need something a bit more on the clean side, the USB mic was/is perfect. Once again plug-n-play straight in biz!
As for the built-in devices mic, I’ve always liked the rugged, way less than perfect sound you get from this approach to vocal recording. All the album recordings were done with no pop shield just cave styles, in my hand, unclose and raw! My setup (Jacques Minglis Labs) was in the loft of my good friend Bill Minglis’ house, one street back from Bondi Beach — love it round there. So sublime! With the sun poring through the roof window, you could usually hear all type of tropical birds singing away whilst I’d be recording vocals! If you tune in you can hear birds singing in the background all over the album. Anyways, the low-ish quality of the built-in idevice mics really seem to suit my vocal. Sometimes I feel way more excited about these types of vocal recordings than when I’m in a fat setup with fancy mics — all [sound] nice ‘n’ clean. I do appreciate the width and fidelity you get with a good mic/mic pre combo. I’m just not into this purest cack: what you put in is what you get out. Music as a creative medium is way to expansive and infinite for that kind of attitude. We all know that some great records were recorded on some jing-bang setups. Believe me, a jing-bang setup can never hold back a good vibe. I reckon nine out of ten times it usually adds to it.
I heard you utilized iPhone and iPad apps. At any point did you give any Android devices and apps a go?
No Android devices. There’s so much for me to get my head around in Mac world, there’s just no room. I did have a little step sequencing program on my old SPV smartphone way before iPhone was on the scene, but that was more of novelty. Too slow and clunky to be of any real use. Great little hint at things to come though!
There’s a raw, lo-fi feel to many of the tracks (“Modern Streets,” “I Want You”), but that doesn’t prevent these songs from shining.
Ah man, you’re too kind! Once again thank you. I think my mastering guy might have had a hand in that. John Dent at Loud Mastering down there in the West Country. If there’s the budget, I will always default to his outfit. He knows what’s up. You don’t do Bob Marley and Grace Jones for Island Records without knowing the score. Anyone reading this would have def heard and loved his work without realizing. Plus, I think I was def going through a learning curve with this record — suppose like all the others.
I had to go around in circles quite a bit on this album. Basically, with most of the tracks being built using apps, when time for mixing came I would go in and bounce the tracks separately only to find the groove is different. Subtly so but different all the same. So I’d end up using either original two-track or I’d go in and try and get a better bounce of said two-track. So, that presented problems of its own in that even though the two-track is grooving in the right way, there’s sometimes a lack of depth and width. That’s where a bit of embellishment comes in but more importantly some panning automation and some high pass filtering to create movement with frequency and stereo space. I do use quite a bit of automation. In the right way it helps the track/song to breath.
Tell me a bit about the beat on “Gotta Get Some Music.” Is that your daughter on the track?
That track was also done on iMPC. Even though I had some trouble with it, I did manage to rinse out a few gems. It’s got that MPC feel to it too. That track I programmed all the parts live over I think it was a 20-bar loop. I like working over an indeterminate amount of bars so that it’s easier to get lost within the groove. Almost like a circular or cyclical vibe where you are not aware of the start and end of a sequence but you are def aware of the groove. I got my little girl to just vibe out on some vocals and ended up using her little shout in the sequence. It just jumps out at what seems like random point and gives the track an out there kinda vibe. The intro was both my girl and boy with myself in the car jamming into iPhone audio record.
“Compact N Sleep” is one of my favorite songs on the album. What’s it about?
That track is def a favorite of quite a few who have heard the record. It’s basically about how, no matter what, love can still conquer in dark situations! It’s got that double time groove over the half-time vibe.
How did you get the bass on “Alone In Da Sun” to sound so damn fat?!
To be honest, I think the bass just came out fat because it was in the right or I suppose optimum register for the song. But more importantly, that register happens to be in the meat of where you can hear enough of the harmonics in the sound to hear what it’s doing tonally, combined with just enough sub sonics to rough up the dance floor. It’s a real important thing to consider when writing a track with sounds that are way down in the lower frequencies — if you can get the whole key of the song to fit right where the bass can sing then you’re laughing all the way to the mix!
How much do you reckon it cost to produce Modern Streets and how does it compare to what you would have spent in a traditional recording studio? How long did it take to produce the LP from start to finish?
Well, I think last time I checked there was a few hundred dollars worth of music-making apps. But to be honest it’s quite hard to tie down a figure. But in relation to traditional recording cost it would definitely by way less expensive. I’m talking kids easily being able to produce and mix pro quality records for release using pocket-money! Some of the tracks like “Alone in Da Sun” and “If You are My Chalice” were quite a few years old. They just happen to fit in with the vibe and theme of the record. But I suppose from the Ninja [Tune] signing to the record being mastered and delivered would probably be around a year.
Now that the album is out, what would you say was your biggest learning about producing Modern Streets? What advice would you give to other artists looking to record albums via mobile apps?
My biggest lesson, and one that I’m constantly learning from new tips and tricks as a means of maximizing my mastering potential, would have to be taking care of gain structure. Probably more so within the digital realm as opposed to analogue. It’s so easy to get carried away with high and clipping levels when you’re in your creative flow, that even though your track may be clipping in parts, you get used to that squashed sound — especially if the track is pumping in a certain way as a result of it being squashed. Then all of a sudden when time comes to mix and you’re pulling back the faders to try and create some nice headroom for your dynamics to be able to breathe and bounce, you find that the track feels different because it’s now flowing different as a result of its new-found dynamism. Ideally you want to be brings your levels under control from the off — more or less mixing on the fly so that you can maintain the same feel along with consistent dynamics, right up to the mixing stage, if that makes sense?!
“Who knows what next for the mobile thing? All I know is it will definitely remain as a major part of my production process. Really looking forward to exploring the fusion of using both iOS and analogue gear, recording more live setups and jams via the analogue into the apps and back out into analogue. I can hear the purists crying heathen! All good though because I’ll still be doing my ting said way!”
You’re not very active on social media, which is one of the areas of empowerment most people use their smart phones for. Do you think it’s a bit ironic that you’re using devices for work compared to most people who use them for socializing?
That’s always been my thing! It feels way more natural when I pick up my phone, iPad or computer to want to make music than to do anything else. All I know is that whenever I make the effort to go and check say my Facebook inbox, a couple of hours would have flown by and I probably wouldn’t have achieved what I set out to do in the first place. In those couple of hours I could have easily knocked out a couple of riddims. Straight up! Social media definitely has its pluses but not when it’s eating into my music-making time. Nah, can’t run!
What’s next for you? Are you planning to use mobile technology in other new and exciting ways, like, maybe directing video?
Ah, who knows what next for the mobile thing? All I know is it will definitely remain as a major part of my production process. Really looking forward to exploring the fusion of using both iOS and analogue gear, recording more live setups and jams via the analogue into the apps and back out into analogue. I can hear the purists crying heathen! All good though because I’ll still be doing my ting said way!
Any final thoughts or projects we should know about?
Well, next up will prob be the next Space Invadas record featuring myself and talented Sydney producer Katalyst. That’s quite a fair bit along now too. We haven’t lined up any deals for it yet — be a good idea to finish it first! So that, plus another couple of Beat Spacek albums for Ninja, of which I prob already have way more than an album already for that. Who knows, at some point will probably do another Africa Hitech album with Pritchard? He’s in the midst of wrapping up his new record now. I’ve heard I bunch of tracks off it already and it’s safe to say that it’s shaping up to becoming a masterpiece. No joke! The production is pure flames, of course, plus he’s got some mega weight guests up in there! I might even make an appearance if we can get it together?!
Also, I’ve been rehearsing with my new band. A four-piece all up. On drums is Ian Mussington. Originally from the UK too but been out here in Oz a few years longer than myself. Absolutely eats complicated rhythms for breakfast with the sickest feel thrown in. Josh Wermut of XO Sound in Surryhills, Sydney. He helped with additional mixing and production on Modern Streets and is an all-round talented multi instrumentalist. He’ll be on bass keys and onstage mixing and FX. Last off is a young cat named Marcello Maio on keys. Amazing musician in his own right too. And a mother on accordion! So suppose all I can say with regards to that is to stay tuned for a Beat Spacek live show at a venue near you in hopefully the not too distant future!
Images by Mclean Stephenson