It’s one thing to be an influencer of a sound, it’s another to become a part of an entire movement’s DNA. Chances are you’ve either heard or used a preset from Germany’s Valentin Brunn, better known as Virtual Riot. His ability to flawlessly emulate some of the most technical synthesis in the game while also contributing plenty of his own new techniques stems from a pure love of the craft. His eyes light up when he’s talking about learning a new sound or digging into the backend of a synth.
He’s an integral part of what defines the new wave of dubstep, and his ability to jump between a clever pop release on Moving Castle (“Flutter”), some next level bass house on Disciple (“Warmups VIP”), and brain melting wubs on OWSLA (“Without A Trace” Remix with Kill the Noise), shows he’s capable of doing everything, and he’s going to be around for a while.
Check our interview with Virtual Riot along with his NEST HQ MiniMix below:
NHQ: What was the first DAW you started experimenting with?
VR: You know Fruit Loops right? Back in the day they had like CD’s with extras in them (games or whatever) for a short time they had EJAY Dance4, which was like the worst arranger with pre-built loops that sounded like Eurodance and Trance haha. But that was my first experience with music software. I spent hours and hours on that. My older brother had started producing in University and he gave me Cubase and a midi keyboard. I still have the CD for Dance4 actually. I showed it in a video interview; all the cringe loops… it was really cool.
How did you turn the love of working with that old program into a career?
I don’t know! I think I was just always interested in the program, the engineering behind it, how the instruments work. Of course I had help from my older brother who gave me Cubase which I used all the way until a year ago when I switched to Ableton. I spent every other day on it trying to figure out everything. I never read a manual or did any tutorials, literally just learned by doing. It was a very slow process. I started with Cubase around the age of 11 and I didn’t get anything upload worthy out of it until 5 years later. There’s stuff on the internet of mine that is really old and really shitty haha. But from there I started putting out actual music. When I started I was listening to a lot of metal, so in Cubase I was trying to recreate that. I would use really distorted electric pianos as guitars etc. The music I was listening to shifted into more electronic stuff, then dubstep and drum and bass, and finally the whole music production thing went along with that. I’ve always been into the whole engineering/programming fancy side of it all.
Were there any artists in particular that made you want to get more involved in the design of it? You could see there was this like bar that you wanted to reach?
At the beginning I had no idea about other producers or their sounds. I was just dabbling around. I think when I found out about about dubstep and dnb, I realized electronic music was more than techno and trance which I thought were too easy to make. I come from a small village where the only electronic music they played was the dumbest trance and hardstyle during a town square fair or something. They either played that or Polka. That was my only experience with it all. As I learned more and heard from people like Excision and Datsik that kind of totally made me want to make stuff like that.
Now you’re one of those producers that people want to learn how emulate!
Which is so cool! I love teaching that, and giving away my secrets sounds a bit weird but I love the educational aspect of it.
How does it feel to make these very important presets that are being used through out a lot of different productions now a days? How does it feel to hear something like that in a big tune?
I personally really like it. When it happened for the first time I called it out on FaceBook like, “Oh cool, somebody really used something of mine!” It was Zomboy using like a sample or something and I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool!” At the time it was huge producers that I was really looking up to, but now I’m not calling it out because I don’t think it’s a bad thing, and because I’ve grown more used to it. On the other hand I really like making presets and sample packs. The general organization of it all pleases my OCD a bit (haha). Now I’m at the point where I still do it but I keep them for myself. At the time when I made all of those presets I made them because I needed the money to move here. It really helped me out. I know I got a lot of shit for the presets… people were upset that all dubstep would be sounding the same now. For example Dave from Dubloadz was a bit upset with me for that. He was like, “No don’t do another one,” but at the same time it really made him step up his own sound design. A lot of other artists had to do something to sound different. His latest EP is a huge example of how he’s worked so hard to be different and it totally worked out.
I don’t see why it would be a bad thing to release that sound. I think that if they’re used well, who cares? Obviously you will rise to a higher level if you make your own but, I think that even if it is easier to emulate a certain sound, you’re not providing careers for people. Just an entry point.
I think it’s different than the whole thing Cymatics is doing by creating song templates. It’s a little questionable.
Who do you think is pushing the sound right now, especially given these templates and everything?
I think SpaceLaces is a good example, even though he’s not putting out a lot. His arrangements and sound design are really good. Snails as well, he has such a unique sound. Also Dubloadz, I can totally hear when he makes a tune it sounds like him. I really like Koan Sound and Noisia. How could I forget Noisia? Insane engineering, insane patterns.
They seem to be everyone’s favorite producer’s favorite producers. What’s your favorite record off of that album?
It’s a tie between “Get Deaded” and “Tentacles”. There are so many good ones.
Everyone I’ve talked to has a different favorite from that album. Have you ever done drum and bass?
A few times… They were horrible though. I had like mix downs for dubstep drums but then had drum and bass patterns which actually sounded terrible. There’s a liquid drum and bass one that was pretty cool actually. Other than that not really… I’d like to though! For a future album maybe.
There’s sometimes a negative stigma around dubstep — other genres looking at it can have a kind of dismissive feelings towards it. Ideologies like, “it’s just noise” etc. But I feel like there are so many technical aspects that people just don’t understand or consider.
I think it totally depends what kind of dubstep you play, you can play a whole set of just grimey shit, but there is also very trance-y and cinematic dubstep like Kill the Noise with his huge intros. Anyone educated in dance music has to admit that. I guess like robot sounds are just a matter of taste. I think that, especially with dubstep, the sound design alone is worth some respect. What I find is that dubstep is one of those genres where the fans are some of the nerdiest fans out of any EDM subgenres. That makes every producer strive even more for their own kind of signature sound.
There seems to be a lot of attention to detail.
Yeah, it’s a lot of engineering. There’s engineering, and there’s also composition, so you’ll see people who don’t play any instruments but are really good at engineering and they’ll still make really good tracks. Then there are people who know engineering but don’t really have a feel for composition and arrangement, and then there are people who are really good at composition but aren’t really that good at engineering. Finally there are people who can really do both like Haywyre, for example. Another one on my list of huge inspiration by the way. He’s got the skills, the musicality, and also great sound design and mix downs. He writes songs, he’s not programming beats.
What impresses you when you hear something new?
Interesting patterns, cool polyrhythms, pieces that are more in the composition side rather than engineering side — most of the time. I really like really crazy sound design. SpaceLaces is a great example of that, he’s really good at impressing everything with new stuff. I try to then find a way to come up with something similar to that.
What would you say are some of the most influential dance music releases over the years for you?
A lot of the Koan Sound stuff, definitely. They kind of set my ear for how I want to mix down things. Their mixdowns are always really pleasing. You can turn it up really loud before it gets piercing. For years I’ve been using a Koan Sound track for the matching EQ on my mixdowns. That just always made it sound so good. They really know what they’re doing.
I think I used “Funk Blaster” because that one worked the best, even though that might not be their best mixed down tune. Also definitely Zomboy, in terms of how clean and punchy it is while still being so loud. The transients are so precise, I’ve been trying to get that down. It’s usually a bit of everything, anything you listen to really influences you in a way. I’ll load a song into Ableton and look at the frequency spectrum and try and see what they did, how it’s different. You can learn all these things from other people’s tunes and then you can use them in your productions.
This generation is really stumbling into new forms of mixing and mastering, kind of teaching themselves as they go. How much are you guys going off the books for this?
Totally depends. Everyone has sessions where you’ll just be like “throw this on here, I’ve never done that before,” and just see how it sounds.
Nobody else is writing the specific book on how it needs to be done.
That’s the standard thing you’ll hear at Icon Collective or other EDM school places, if it sounds good it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. If it sounds sick it’s okay.
How is it working with someone else on a collaboration track? What does that look like?
It’s a little different with everyone. With Brillz he would set a timer on his phone for 10 minutes and we would just go back and forth which was really cool. You work next to someone and you don’t interfere because everyone has their turn. When it’s your turn you’re super efficient. Sometimes it’s super back and forth, or one person works on the project while the other exports stuff. The latest collaboration I did was online. I was in Australia and they were here, so we just sent a project file back and forth. I started it, they finished it, I mastered it, and then it was done. Sometimes it’s way more back and forth but that one was easy. You have to find compromises, but if it’s someone you know well like a friend then you can be like more upfront about what you want. Maybe there’s people that are harder to work with, but usually it’s pretty easy to compromise.
What do you find is the most efficient way to work?
I have a template — a project file that has an empty drum rack, another empty drum rack for hats and symbols, a group for basses with maybe like an empty Serum or an empty massive. That starting template helps me a lot. Most of the time, if I don’t have something to do then I’ll be messing around with sound design and simple chord stuff. It’s different every time. Sometimes it’s just me going through sample packs and looking for cool sounds. What’s easiest though is having a vocal to start with. You can start making chords around the vocals etc.
I’m really impressed by people that can write instrumental stuff and make them catchy.
Sometimes I don’t even work on songs, I’ll just work on sounds and save them. I can go back to those sounds later on in productions. Otherwise you can get caught in sound design/engineering stuff while writing and you’ll lose sight of the project. You can set a self-timer as well and be like okay I’m only spending 10 minutes on the drums, and when the timer is up you can move onto something else.
Do you have anything in the works coming up?
Yeah, I’ve been making a lot more future bass stuff.
Yeah, the Moving Castle release was really good!
Thanks! There’s going to be a lot more like that, there’s going to be another spirited. Compilation. I’m also working on an EP that is going to be very heavy dubstep from all the old stuff still sitting on my hard drive. It’s all going to be complextro chiptune stuff. I still really like that but there hasn’t been a scene for it lately.
Does the audience dictate a lot of what you make?
Not as much the audience as it is the split between club music and what you listen to at home. Some people are in the golden middle path where it’s so well composed but also playable in a club. It’s a split between that which forces me to make music that works in a club but is also what I love. When I do an album it’ll be stuff that I want to do, not necessarily that which is playable at a club.
I guess it depends on where you’re playing but you can get away with playing some crazy shit.
Definitely here, in Germany it’s so different. Like Haywyre for example, it’s so cool that here, music like that draws such a big audience and on top of the they go as hard as if it were a Zomboy show. In Germany there’s no scene for that at all. Even dubstep has gone back a lot in Germany. There’s a scene for underground stuff but yeah, I’m happy about how much appreciation experimental stuff gets out here. Mr. Bill couldn’t get any shows in Europe at all, but he’s getting shows here. He deserves it, his music is amazing. That’s why I moved out here.
Yeah I feel like all of SoundCloud lives out here.
Yeah even if you look at the statistics, almost 90% of my listeners are from the US. I was sitting in Germany like, “Ehhh… what am I doing here,” (hahaha).
Any advice for kids on the rise right now?
Don’t rely too much on tutorials, learn by doing. The experience is so much more valuable. Stay true to yourself, make the music that you want to listen to. That’s the mindset you should have. While trying to sound like somebody else, which you won’t ever actually sound exactly like someone else, you will learn to find your own sound.
Check Virtual Riot’s NEST HQ MiniMix below and be on the lookout for his upcoming EP and album projects.
NEST HQ MiniMix: Virtual Riot Tracklist
01. Virtual Riot & Funtcase – Borg (Downlink Remix)
02. Spag Heddy – Oh My
03. Zomboy – Lights Out
04. Barely Alive – Windpipe ft. Ragga Twins
05. Dodge & Fuski vs. Virtual Riot – Alien
06. Zomboy – Like A Bitch
07. Virtual Riot – Machinery
08. Virtual Riot – Warm Ups
09. Barely Alive – Over It (QUEST Remix)
10. Herobust – Pipette Up
11. Barely Alive – Poison Dart (Herobust Remix)
12. Excision – Codename X (Virtual Riot Remix)
13. Skrillex ft. Damian Marley – Make It Bun Dem (Virtual Riot Bootleg)
14. Virtual Riot – Preset Junkies
15. Soltan & Datsik – No Mind
16. Drake – Hotline Bling (Virtual Riot Bootleg)
17. Phiso – Jotaro (Virtual Riot Bootleg)
18. Virtual Riot – Dragons
19. Getter – Rip n Dip (Kill The Noise Remix)
20. iSquare – Hey Sexy Lady (Skrillex Remix) (Panda Eyes Bootleg)
21. Kill The Noise – FUCK UR MGMT
22. Virtual Riot – ID (part 1)
23. MUST DIE! – Onii-Chan
24. Virtual Riot – ID (part 2)
25. Herobust – Smother Shit
26. Kill The Noise – Without A Trace ft. Stalking Gia (Virtual Riot & Kill The Noise Remix)
27. The Chainsmokers – Don’t Let Me Down (Spag Heddy Remix)
28. Feed Me – Strange Behaviour ft. Tasha Baxter
29. MUST DIE! – Sorry
30. OmegaMode – The Elite ft. Panda Eyes
31. Haywire – Endlessly
32. Virtual Riot – Paper Planes
33. Delta Heavy – Ghost (Zomboy Remix)
34. Emalkay – Bring It Down
35. Virtual Riot – We’re Not Alone / (VIP Edit)