Ableton’s Loop 2018 event played host to a wide variety of musicians, producers, engineers, mixers, and industry professionals, spanning three days at five Hollywood venues. Among the long list of speakers and performers was producer, engineer, DJ, founder of Xfer, and creator of the Serum plug-in Steve Duda.
Duda began his career as a studio engineer, programming modules and sounds for Nine Inch Nails, and moving on to work for many other musicians such as Tommy Lee and Rob Zombie. In 2005, he and a young Deadmau5 formed the group BSOD, and Steve went on to tour alongside Deadmau5, Skrillex, and other producers as a DJ. In 2013, Steve launched his revolutionary synth plugin Serum, and it quickly became the staple plug-in for creating dubstep and many other forms of electronic music.
He hosted a talk on Sunday at Loop, a moderated Q&A that focused on Duda’s workflow, history of building VSTs, and studio engineering. What follows is a compilation of Steve’s comments from the conference as well as a private interview, starting with Steve’s wry intro:
“I have no idea what I’m doing.”
[INSERT STEVE DOG MEME]
“While I was working on records for other people I started having a lot of ideas for plugins and solutions that I wanted just for myself. And so I farmed those out to developers. One of them was BFD, a plugin for multi-channel drums that you could trigger and mix like real drums. And that was something that I wanted working with a lot of rock musicians and stuff. That software did quite well, actually, a lot better than I really expected because I thought it was mostly gonna be the sort of thing for guys doing finger drums like me, but actually, a lot of drummers got it because they like the sounds way better than the plastic samples in the programs. So I was like, I want to know how they made this, and I was talking to the programmer who made BFD and I like, ‘Isn’t this cool?’ I was very excited by its success because you hear it on car commercials, Super Bowl ads and stuff like that and he said, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, that’s Metamusic.’”
Metamusic is the tools with which other artists use to create their own body of work. It’s the epitome of Ableton, Pro Tools, Roland, Steinway, Shure, and many other companies and programs.
“Once I found out what that was, I was hooked. I still get chills thinking about it. I felt like, ‘Yes, this is definitely my calling now.’ It convinced more than ever. And I was like, where do I start? And he’s like, ‘Oh, the rock engineer wants to make plugins? Well, go to Steinberg and get the SDK sign-up for that and that’s free and then you can go to Microsoft and get visual studio, that’s your IDE compiler, that’s free, and just try to get the example gain plugin to compile.’ I was like, okay, I will. And it was stubborn, that’s why I say I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s like six hours of just like error, error, error, copy the error into Google, paste, search, and just trying to figure it all out. And I wasn’t even looking at the code yet.”
From there sparked the interest, and bought the time, for Steve to make his own software. Receiving royalties from BFD allowed a 30-year-old Steve to think about his next step and place in the industry, and soon he began coding.
“I was always fascinated by bit reduction. I was like, ‘How do I do bit reduction?’ And it was actually a different programmer, Andrew Simper, very, very smart guy. He’s been an important mentor to me and Andrew has done all the filters for Cytomic, which is the company that made all the filters that come with Ableton, actually. So Andrew said, ‘Well, it’s actually very simple. It’s three lines of code. So I did those three lines of code. He told me to hit compile, it worked. I saw the code, I heard it. It was doing bit reduction. And I was just bitten by the bug. I was like, I can’t believe it’s this easy, in a sense.”
Shortly after graduating from UCSC with a degree in music composition, Steve got a job with Avid, the company that distributes Pro Tools, and later moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to further pursue his career in music production.
“I got to Los Angeles with a little over one thousand dollars in my pocket and two phone numbers. Lucky for me, those phone numbers happened to be really good and I was able to get work from there. I ended up hanging out with Tommy Lee, it was sort of like ‘Welcome to LA, here’s your celebrity.’ And so, I mainly just worked in studios for years. I worked on a Nine Inch Nails record for two years for instance, and Trent gave me free rein to spend the next month with Reaktor and do nothing but make some weird, fucked up modules. I’m like, okay, awesome. And who gets to do that in real life? Like, sitting down with a program for 18 hours a day? I sit there with Reaktor for a month and I learned it really well. And so I was able to use reactor for prototyping and I’m able to look to Reaktor modules if I’m looking for a solution for a certain type of DSP or something like that. So by 1998 I could kind of see the writing on the wall with audio processing, and things were moving further and further away from hardware and started moving more towards VSTs and other music software, so I wanted to sort of tackle this new frontier.”
With the advent of the 21st century, Duda had found his calling in the world of software. Digging into the depths of coding and making an easy-to-use plugin that also looked good was proving to be a challenge. His journey as a software developer moved alongside the growth of Ableton, and by 2010, both were on the verge of creating a musical phenomenon that would end up having huge impacts on the world of music. Duda reflects on Ableton’s history, and his inspiration to create Serum.
“I had Ableton 1.5, and back then I thought it was a Flash program. I thought of it like, ‘Oh, it’s this cute little music editing program,’ but obviously it started to grow into something bigger. I think a big advantage that Ableton had at the beginning was elastic audio, which most other programs didn’t really have at the time. Something else that I really liked about it was that it was very simple, very minimal. The menu items are very contextual, it’s very musician-friendly, fast to load, you can just open it and start working. Which actually follows one of my big mantras, which is ‘Simplicity with Power,’ and I use that as a basis for a lot of the work that I do. You don’t want to overwhelm people with what they see on a screen, but you also don’t want to give them training wheels and not allow them to go deep if they want to go deep. I think Ableton Live is a great example of that. Juggling simplicity and power with all the context menus. When you need something that’s kind of close and you’re not overwhelmed with menu diving and stuff. I’ve really been inspired by that and I’ve tried to use that as sort of my mantra. Don’t try to achieve both. Keep it simple.
As for Serum, I did a tour with Skrillex in 2011 and that allowed me to be exposed to what he was doing, the fellow artists on his label and that whole scene. And then I was watching him on the bus, 12th Planet and Dillon Francis and all these guys were making music on laptops, on the bus, of course. And that was exciting to watch the tools that they were using. And so I really wished I had a synth to say, ‘Oh hey, try mine, here’s something that will give you a new flavor or a new something,’ but I didn’t have one. So as soon as that tour was over, I was like, okay, that’s it. After that tour in 2011, I more or less hung up my DJ stuff on the wall, you could say. And I just started coding because I had realized that was sort of my next step was to make a synthesizer. But I felt a little bit out of touch ever since then. ”
Duda’s Serum has influenced a countless amount of producers to make music, and was a huge leap forward for electronic music production. The powerful plugin comes packed with an enormous amount of options and is always being updated with new features and more innovative options. The struggle of updating software to be more useful while keeping the essence of the program is a challenge, and one fraught with a constant back-and-forth between new and old. This is exemplified in Ableton’s newest Live 10, and Serum’s intuitive design. Part of what makes Serum so popular and such a staple in the electronic scene of music-makers is its sleek, easy-to-use interface. You can see the growth of Serum’s design here. Duda speaks on the look of Serum and the graphic designer that built it:
“Deadmau5 has done graphic design for my plugins like Nerve and LFO Tool, the early Cthulhu. Before he was an international DJ, he was actually a graphic designer. The person who actually ended up designing serum was Lance Thackeray, who won a design-your-own Deadmau5 head contest, I talked with him backstage after seeing his portfolio and he said that actually what he really wanted to do was design VSTs, so from there we worked together on creating Serum, Skyping back and forth with screenshots.”
In 2016, Duda’s company Xfer partnered with Splice to adopt a rent-to-own payment method that many programs have been using in the 2010s, a platform that has afforded more and more music-makers to create with a previously expensive product. In conjunction with Splice’s sample packs and the many other VSTs that are uploaded daily, the site has become a haven for producers to find the tools to create music, myself included. Duda spoke on his influences, dream sample pack, and earliest desires to dig deep under the hood.
“I was a huge Prince fan, I was in a Prince cover band actually, and I copied those synth sounds into my synths so that they would match. That was a process, but from doing that I learned so much about how to make those synth sounds match the ones on record. In regards to a sample pack… I think a Quincy Jones sample pack would be cool. He’s got a large, large body of really high-quality work, plus he made ‘Thriller,’ which is such a huge record for me and for everyone.”
In a world of Max for Live and hundreds of developing music software, the lines between programmer and musician can sometimes get blurred. In Steve’s talk, he addressed the creation of software versus the creation of music, and the relationship between the two:
“If music is your main motivation, and that’s your calling and you’re thinking of maybe going into software development, I would advise against it. One of the questions I had when I was starting out, which was ‘How come these software developers aren’t making the most insane music there is?’ and I quickly found the answer was because you can’t focus on both things at once. I spend so much time tweaking things about my program that it takes up my music time.”
Steve’s long rap sheet as a behind-the-scenes tinkerer includes time as mixer, producer, recording engineer, and just general studio cat, so I had to ask him his favorite VSTs and his thoughts on mixing:
“The tools aren’t as important as people think. When I was teaching mixing at Icon Collective, I’d say here’s some stems you guys could use. Use any plugins you have, and I’ll use nothing. Not even stock plugins. I’ll just use gain and pan and I’ll get a better mix than you because you’re going to be distracted and you’re gonna be doing all these things and I’m just going to be focused on what matters, which is the level balance. Mixing is 90 to 95 percent about level balance.
I can’t think of like a specific plugin or something like that that led to the inspiration for Serum. The more that I developed as a program and the more I got inspired by things you might not even notice as a non-programmer. Like, ‘Oh, they’re doing this interesting thing.’ Things that don’t come easy in programming, you know? You can start to appreciate certain subtleties like physics on knobs and stuff like that. I think one of my advantages as an outsider is that I developed much more musically and as a user of the tools rather than most people who develop music software. Most people develop music software more or less straight of college and they haven’t really had years of doing nothing but diving and making music.”
Lastly, Steve leaves off on his future projects and his thoughts on where the music scene is today:
“I got very inspired lately from dub techno. Even though I’ve heard it for years, it’s not new. It’s not a new genre. It’s not a popular one, also. I got really inspired by it because there’s this sort of an art for art’s sake kind of thing. Like, no one’s trying to make a hit, no one’s expecting to like blow up on the scene and headline. I love the fact that it’s got this sort of art for art’s sake thing going for it. There’s a homogeneity to it all. It’s a very different style of listening than what I’m used to because I have a music degree, so I studied chords and all that. Generally, melody and harmony are where I will think of music. If there’s stuff that’s harmonically interesting, enriching, I can’t work with it because I start just dissecting all of it, because I’ve just been so much of music degree person and all that analysis is just sort of natural to me in depth. Technically, there’s much less to analyze. Generally, just so there’s not a lot to harmonically listen to and it just opens you up to listening to the sounds and the space of the music. It’s a lot of space. It’s using a different part of my brain.
In regard to electronic music, making music with computers has taken this exciting shift right when I was in high school. I’m 45, and when I was in high school, the guitar player in a band was kind of the dream of all the kids and I was the only kid in school with a computer and video interface and some sound modules and all of that MIDI control stuff. Nobody else in my whole high school. Now I talk to kids that are like 15, 16 who say, like, ‘I sell Serum presets in the hallway to my friends.’”