Claude Young On Using Software to Emulate MPCs, SP12s, and Other Classic Hardware Sounds

Highly regarded as one of the most inventive DJs to emerge from Detroit’s second wave of techno artists, Claude Young has released mix compilations for Sony Music, K7!, and Axis Records, among many others. These critically acclaimed mixes have been lauded as benchmark clinical studies in the art of techno music. Young is also a celebrated producer in his own right, with genre-traversing original work and an extensive catalog of remixes.

But most importantly, for our purposes today, he's a musician that bridged the divide between classic studio production hardware and the newer world of DAWs and software plugins. Getting his start with vintage machines like the SP-1200 and the MPC2000, Young jumped at the chance to start using Logic when he came across an early, PC version of the DAW in the late 1990s.

In the conversation below, Claude Young talks about the pros and cons of classic hardware units and how best to emulate their grit and nuances with software plugins.

What types of hardware did you learn on?

When I first started I was using a lot of different stuff. I had an AKAI S2000 and an MPC2000. I think my first sampler was the E-mu SP-1200. I had a JD-800, a MS2000R from Korg. Just really simple setups like, kind of line-level mixers. Not even anything with faders. It was pretty much just like doing everything, you know, four, eight channels, or six channels. Everything stereo in. But that was the really early days.

What was the best and worst aspects of working with those pieces of gear?

The best part about working with that gear was that it was tactile. Everything was kind of on the front and you could access everything immediately. The worst part was learning the different work flow methods of the different companies. Roland stuff was notoriously hard to figure out and it was different to Korg, or at least I found it that way. I always found Korg stuff a little easier to navigate.

It was going through those little menus, and, okay, this machine works this way... I remember I had an Ensoniq Mirage and it was just almost ridiculous to program. You really had to dive in and geek in to really figure everything out.

What did the progression from hardware to software production look like for you?

Claude Young - "Sacrifices"

For me personally, because I’ve always been a technology fanatic, it was a godsend, when a lot of people were kind of unsure of it. I was living in England at the time and I was hanging out with other producers, and there were a bunch of us who really kind of embraced it. And there were a few of us, a few of my friends who, they weren’t really into it. They were just strictly hardware.

But as soon as I saw Logic the first time—I think it was version 4 or something like that, a really early version of Logic on PC—I went to my local music store in London and I saw it and I was like, yeah, I gotta get that. I really need that. Because I’d had some hardware multi-track recorders like the SA80 and a few other things.

I kind of come from the world of doing mixtapes on 4-track cassettes, and my dad was in radio, so I used to go to the studio all the time. Even when I was on radio here in Detroit, I was familiar with chopping tape and stuff. So I wanted to get into the new thing. I had a friend show me Pro Tools and I was like yeah, this is what’s up, but at the time it was way out of my price range. So I dived right in. I was always for it. It was easy for me.

We’re going to be talking about getting older hardware sounds with newer plugins. What kind of character does that imbue to recordings that maybe is a bit different than if you would just go with stock stuff? What kind of character is this after?

I relate it back to musical times in my life, be they my favorite records or whatever. So for example, I was a big Todd Terry fan, you know, I really like that raw—and he’s the perfect person to kind of talk about this subject—because I spent a lot of time trying to figure out and emulate that whole SP12 sound. I really liked the dirty drum sound.

Claude Young - "Sagittarius B2"

So to me it’s kind like this mood thing. I don’t really like to look too much in the past, but I look at them like moods. Like, I really like the mood on this record and how would you achieve that mood? And I just kind of look at it like that. I’m not a nostalgia buff.

I’m a geek, so I like the technique. To me they’re like little tools that you throw in the tool box. It’s a technique thing for me like, like this is a cool technique that you can use.

What certain textures or aural qualities are appealing to you?

Again, it’s like, I go back to different records. When I think about textural records I really like to listen to Can—these old German rock records—and I like experimental stuff. There’s a guy from England who’s originally from Australia named Paul Schütze, and he’s kind of from the Brian Eno clique of producers. I really love Paul’s stuff because it’s like this weird mixture of found sound and bizarre tuned instruments but it’s still electronic. I really love that stuff. I take a lot of inspiration from that music.

Yeah, kind of Musique Concrète or things like that?

Claude Young - " Hawking Radiation"

Yeah, but even more modern stuff. When I think of sonic picture I think of those guys. I don’t really think of anything contemporary.

If I wanted to talk about something contemporary, for me it’s Radiohead. A lot of Detroit techno guys, we’re all Radiohead fanatics, like, we’re just fanatical about those fucking guys. That’s as modern and elegant as you can get. The records are so deep, and on first listen you don’t really get what’s going on, but if you’re really into production, you listen to what’s happening in the background and how the rhythms work, and it’s just like masterpiece after masterpiece with those guys.

When did you first try to recreate this hardware sound with plugins? And what were some early experiments?

I think it was kind of late ‘90s, early 2000s, after I got my first computer setup, because the first thing I noticed was everything was really clean. Like, it was too clean. I’m pretty much self taught, so it was a thing where I was like, why can't I get this shit to sound like my SP? Why can't I get it to sound like the [Akai] S01? It’s kind of missing something on the bottom and it’s not really crunchy.

Claude Young - "Change of Pace"

So I had to read a lot of articles—I used to subscribe to a lot of magazines—and just go through stuff and maybe I can try this, try that. It would have been late ‘90s, early 2000s. I know I was screwing around with distortion a lot and bit reduction.

But I was kind of finding my feet, because everything I worked on up to that point was all in these hardware boxes, which I had become extremely familiar with. So I was kind of like a fish out of water. I was just turning dials and trying to figure everything out.

How did this process of sonic textural modeling develop over time?

It was just study, you know, it was just continuing to study. I mean that’s how I spend a lot of my time—I’m not very social—so I spend a lot of my time learning. It was just like talking to other friends who are producers, going to different studios, reading articles, and just playing around with things, and things started to finally make sense.

Specifically what kind of things did you start playing around with?

It was really kind of studying chains, studying how these sounds were being made. And not even on a deep—like, I have some friends who get into it on the circuit level. But for me it was like, I’ll get the manual for the MPC and then I’ll look at the back and I’ll check to see like, what the sample rates are...

Claude Young - "Mind Dance Themo"

The E-mu is a better example because of what it does when you pitch the samples. On the SP12, if you sample it and you play it back at its normal pitch you get a regular playback with not much degradation. And as you start to pitch it, you start to—what I found was, and anybody who’s used them found was—it starts to lose bit depth as you go down or up.

Like artifacts and stuff?

Basically—literally—bit reduction. Like, in Ableton, you can take the bit reducer and you can minimap it. You can put a sample in one of the samplers, you put a bit reduction on it and there’s a thing in [Ableton] Live where you can actually map the control across the key range.

So, say I have an octave and I have a sample in the octave. Well, I would take the bit reducer and hold, say, the C3 and go up to the B3 as I map that bit reduction, so when you play the notes it actually changes bits per key. So that’s kind of like what happens when you degrade a sample with something like the SP-1200. You know, it was really like kind of studying how that works.

What are some of the plugins and signal chains that you like to use to get these results?

I like to keep the processes simple. I don’t want these super long chains. So a lot of times it’s EQ first and your flavor depends on what you’re after in the source material. I do like the MeldaProduction stuff a lot. So I use their suite. And I also like the u-he stuff because it’s very simple and it sounds really good.

I’ll take a u-he EQ, which is from their Uhbik suite, their simple suite of plugins that sounds fucking amazing. So I’ll usually take the u-he EQ, put that on the first channel, get the sound the way I want it, and then you always have to roll with some kind of saturation. I don’t do a lot of compression. It’s one of those things where, yeah I’ll do it sometimes, but I think people over compress shit all the time. So I’ll normally run with saturation.

What kind of saturation stuff are you using?

There’s a thing from Audio Assault called Head Crusher, or again, I’ll go with the MeldaProduction saturator from the free bundle—MSaturator or MWaveFolder, MWaveShaper, [Dada Life] Sausage Fattener, Klanghelm SDRR—something like that, or Audio Damage FuzzPlus 3, which is a free one. I’ve been using that a lot because that gives you kind of a wacky desk overdriven sound. I’ll roll with that, and then I’ll put bit reduction at the end, and then I may EQ it again after the bit reduction if I feel that it needs it. It depends on which bit reducer that I use.

What are some bit reducers that you like?

The Ableton stock one is cool. Tonebooster’s Timemachine is actually one that I reach for a lot. As a matter of fact, that’s the one I use most of the time.

When it comes to the EQ stuff, I know you mentioned Melda. Which particular Melda plugins for EQ or other EQ plugins do you like?

Claude Young - "Distant Signal"

I definitely went out and got their—they have a free bundle—and I upgraded just to, you know, when you get it you get a banner and you can't save the preset. So I paid the 40 bucks or whatever to support that, and I use that suite a lot. I really like Melda’s plugins. Between the Melda and the u-he stuff, you know, it’s quick, it’s simple.

With the Melda stuff you can do mid/side processing, which for me is awesome. It’s like you can go right to it—every [Melda] plugin has that. And you often have modulation capabilities built into the plugins with spectrograms. So I usually just reach for that really quick. Just the MEQ, the standard MEQ, I’ll run with that.

Are there any other go-to tricks that you use daily to help achieve hardware sounds with plugins?

That’s the foundation of the chain. I like to keep it simple. So it’s normally sweeten and clean up whatever sound you’re going to work on first. If you’re going to compress, maybe compress. For me, I like saturation as long as you don’t overdo it, or I’ll do it in stages. And then re-apply EQ to anything afterwards and then I’ll bounce that. To get the sound the way I want it, I’ll bounce it, and then I’ll go from there.

I would like to add, it’s not necessarily a plugin but I really like the TAL-Sampler. Togu Audio Line. This thing—it literally is that sound. So sometimes I’ll just throw samples in there, because that and Native Instruments Battery, they both have emulations of the MPC and the E-mu chips.

Claude Young

So sometimes I’ll just throw stuff in there and re-sample it, because it sounds so close to the original to me that I’m like, wow. It’s basically got like a DAC emulation. So it’s got the MPC60—well they call them different things—E-mu, sample-and-hold linear, S1000-style. I used to use Battery and I know Battery has those emulations as well. So if I really wanted to get it super quick I’ll do it that way. But the chain works just as good for me with a little bit of programming.

What other creative processes do you engage this technique with? Or how do you see yourself employing it in the future?

For me it’s mostly for like drum sounds, because I’m just in love with that old school New York house, like rough New York house, like Todd Terry shit. To me it’s just like, when this came up the first thing I thought of is like Todd Terry. And it’s just like, that’s the only thing that pops into my head. ‘Cause I was a fanatic for Todd Terry records.

I use it all, mostly on drums, but when I do use it on my ambient material, it’s to kind of flavor atmospheres and stuff like that, kind of sparingly bring that stuff kind of in and out. But it’s a technique that I use all the time. A lot of time it’s sitting in the back or whatever, or you can hear it on the drums. But it’s something you can hear all the time especially in the box, just to give everything some contrast.

Claude Young Presents Golem Craft - Untitled B1 (Fracture, 1997)
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