ON MAKING TIMELESS MUSIC AND THE TRAKTOR KONTROL S4 MK2
FROM MUSSORGSKY AND RIMSKY-KORSAKOV TO SCRIABIN AND STRAVINSKY, THE RUSSIAN CLASSICAL TRADITION IS A LONG AND DISTINGUISHED ONE. SO, WHEN A 25-YEAR-OLD CLASSICALLY TRAINED RUSSIAN/GERMAN MUSICIAN QUICKLY VAULTS TO THE TOP OF THE DANCE CHARTS, AND AS A TRIPLE-THREAT PRODUCER, COMPOSER AND PERFORMER, IT’S PROBABLY WORTH PAYING ATTENTION.
Like many of us, Anton Zaslavski [better known by his stage name, Zedd] began music lessons as a child, at the urging of his parents. “I think the start,” he says, “the very beginning, was my parents wanting me to do it. So I didn’t really know if I wanted to [make music] or not. I just did what they told me to do.”
The approach he took was not the average one. If his parents were going to push him toward music, he was going to make sure they saw the evidence. “I felt the need to show them what I can do,” says Zedd, “and kind of show them what they taught me. They used to go to work and over the course of the day my brother and I would record music, which was a keyboard with 16 tracks and floppy discs. We would just make a song a day. That kind of became a habit.”
At the advanced age of 12, Zedd started playing drums in a band he’s referred to in the past as “rock metal”—something he says, “was probably the opposite of what my parents wanted.” Things took a turn at 18 when he began to dabble in electronic music, partially as a joke. “It started as a mix of trying to find out how to do something I didn’t know how to do yet, and a joke,” he says, “because I didn’t really like electronic music back then. My friends did, and they kind of told me that what I did was really good, and that kept me going. I always did a little bit of electronic stuff on the side, like, just little elements. And then I heard the Justice album, Cross. Those sounds were amazing, and still are some of the best sounds, in my opinion. I did want to know how to make a snare like that, or how to make a bass sound like that. So I just started experimenting, but didn’t really want to do it as a serious thing. I didn’t think I would ever become a producer or a DJ.”
His first attempt was, he says, “ … kind of a rip-off of an existing electronic song. That was the start. That was just a joke where I wanted to prove how easy it is to make electronic music, just for my friends.” It didn’t take long for the realization to sink in that not only was there more to the style than he’d originally thought, but that he had a talent for writing and producing it.
As a writer and producer, Zedd’s challenge was a common one for musicians. “I think even when I was in a band before, we always asked bands that had success, ‘What do you do? How do you get your music out there?’ There’s no answer, really. There is nothing you can do, but just find the right time. The timing has to be right. Your music has to be special. It has to connect emotionally with people. That’s what will make them want to share it with their friends, because they will want to share that emotion.”
Zedd worked smart, taking advantage of the unique opportunities offered by social media. “I got really lucky and got heard by Skrillex,” he says. “I sent him a simple Myspace message with a song that I’d been working on I thought sounded like what [he had] been working on. I thought I was ahead of time with it, then I realized that he’s already done that, so I just sent it to him. [I] didn’t really expect a replay, and he was, like, ‘Dude, that’s amazing. You’ve got to send me the full song. I want to play it tonight.’ That was my platform—that was the first time I got heard. And then we became friends, and I learned a lot from him—not just performing live, but also producing, and you kind of exchange information.”
Both producer and performer, Zedd is focused on making sure that he gives his fans a unique experience, providing songs with lyrical depth and emotional resonance and a show experience that transports them to another world, beginning with songs that he intends to be timeless. “In the electronic music world,” he says, “there [are] a million trends. They change faster and faster, every time there is a trend. There will be a trend for a year, and the next trend will be half a year, the next trend will be a month. You don’t want to be chasing those trends and just doing whatever’s in right now—making a song deep house, because there’s a deep house that’s big right now, or whatever. To me, you make timeless music when you strip your song down, no matter what kind of genre it is, to the main elements of music—the melody, the chords and the lyrics. If that song sounds just as good or even better, then you have a timeless song. Songs played on a piano have been attractive for people for a very long time, and I think they still will be attractive for people in a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years. As long as you strip your song down to the main elements and it still sounds good, you have a timeless piece of music.”
As with most artists, there’s a balance between pleasing the audience and pleasing yourself. “I want to hear my idea[s],” he says. “Obviously, you can just start playing, jamming and recording and at some point, you will figure something out. But I think there is a certain need to feel an emotion that’s in your head, and have that vision. The only way to hear it is either to do it yourself or someone else steals your idea and they do it—then you can hear it, too.”
When those songs hit the stage, Zedd wants to immerse his audience in the experience of hearing them presented in a way they’ll never forget. “I want people to feel like they’re watching a movie,” he says, “which has ups and downs and isn’t always the same. It’s not always red lights or blue lights, or whatever. It has all faces, all different types of emotions.
It’s also really important for people to live in this world that they go to and not be woken up. A lot of people like to use their music videos when they play the song. I don’t [do] that, because I feel like you wake [the audience] up. You’ve known that music video, and then you’re suddenly, ‘Oh, yeah. This is real life.’ I want you to feel like you’re in this dream world, and I want you to be there for as long as the show’s going on and then wake up afterwards. So I try to keep everything in the same mood and when it comes to the special moments of a set—like the first time you see pyro, the first time you see confetti—I think it’s really important to space those moments out so it becomes a real experience, just like a movie where you don’t have all the exciting parts right in the beginning and then 90 minutes of really boring moments.”
As one of relatively few DJs to exclusively use an all-in-one controller, Zedd relies on a Native Instruments TRAKTOR KONTROL S4 Mk2 to keep the show flowing smoothly. He feeds the TRAKTOR through a Pioneer DJM-900 Nexus to the main sound system. “I kind of like that,” he explains, “because I only have one channel, currently, and the DJM-900 which allows me to put effects on the entire track or, if I play two songs at the same time, I can apply a filter on both of them together. Within the TRAKTOR S4, I can apply effects to each track, individually. I find that convenient, because I can do both—and a microphone to talk to people.”
The intuitive functions of the S4 are part of why he has made it the center of his live setup. “For me, the S4 gives me all that I need. What I really like about it is, first of all, you can see everything very well—you can see exactly where [you’re at] on the song. I really like the way it displays colors, so, by just looking at it, I can look at the song without hearing it, and see if it has too much low end or not. I gives me, also, information when I produce music. I load it into TRAKTOR and I see the color of it, and I will be able to tell if it’s a little weak on the low end, or a little too much. I think the most important function for me, personally, is the ability to jump around the song. I have one knob that is the size of a loop, or the amount I want to jump, anywhere between, let’s say, 2 beats or 32 beats. If I have a really long intro, let’s say, 1 minute intro, but I only have a 30 second [outro], I can see that immediately, and I just need two clicks and I’m right where I’m supposed to be. It’s on the grid. Nobody will ever hear it. It just allows me to either jump around or if, for whatever reason, I pick the song and [at] the last second I decide that I want to play another song instead, I can always just jump back 32 bars and people won’t notice it because it’s very smooth.”
Although he used to do production on a laptop while touring—a practice that has become increasingly common— as his production style has evolved, Zedd finds that a dedicated studio with a higher-powered computer system suits his music better. “I used to produce on a laptop,” he says, “even if I was in the studio. But I [use] UAD and a bunch of samples to the point where they don’t fit on a laptop. So I have an additional sample drive and UAD. You need a lot of power for all that. I also use Cubase, so I need a Cubase key, and an iLok and all that stuff. So I need an extra hub that has to be powered. It used to be easy to just take a laptop and start producing. But now I have all these things that I can’t really use in a plane anymore. So I went back to trying to produce when I’m in the studio, and use the time on the road to be more inspired, but not necessarily produce too much. I will make an edit or two on the road, but currently, I try to produce in the studio, where I’m comfortable and I know the sound very well.”
With a new album about to drop, and tour and festival season coming up quickly, Zedd will have a busy 2015, but will continue to seek out those timeless moments and give us all, even just for an evening, something to dream about.