Eris Drew on the Making of "Quivering in Time"

Photos provided by the artist. Used with permission.

Having gigged 100 nights a year for the past many years, DJ Eris Drew has learned what works for her and what works for her dancefloors, whether in Chicago clubs or on European festival stages. Deepening and refining her selections of breakbeats, rave classics, house, and more, she brought her ecstatic Motherbeat mixes to the masses.

When the pandemic put a stop to the touring, Eris retreated to her New Hampshire home studio and produced Quivering in Time, an album that blends frenetic breakbeats with her own drum programming, synth playing, and creative sampling. It's her debut album on T4T LUV NRG, the label she runs with her partner Octo Octa, and it brings to life the same magical moments as a peaking set.

As she explains in the interview below, this was very much by design. The move from large soundsystems to a small home studio was jarring, but she wanted to foster that same energy and breathe it into her new tracks.

We talked to her about how she did it, the breaks and synths she used to create her songs, and what lessons from the road she brought to her productions.

Visit Bandcamp to buy Quivering in Time now.

I want to start with the rhythmic foundation of the record. How much of Quivering in Time started with sampled breakbeats?

A lot of it. I would say most of it, although, certainly not all of it. Most of my songs start with a beat collage, which would be a mix of samples of records and drum machines, although sometimes I first start out sitting at a synthesizer or at the piano we have in our living room, and working on some chords. But even if that's how I do it, it doesn't really start becoming the song—like, the rhythm of the playing doesn't really start to manifest until I've got that rhythmic structure down, because that's when I really start jamming and really coming up with the keyboard lines that are going to form the real foundation of the song.

What was your process for selecting breaks for the record?

It goes in a few different directions. There are some of my classic favorite breaks on the record. I was thinking of examples before I talked to you because I thought that was one thing you might be asking about. Maybe start with the first song, "Time to Move Close." That starts with a breakbeat from an old club house record by an artist named Sagat. The name of the track is called "Funk Dat." It's kind of like a cheeky old tune with a hip-house vocal. I always love this song. It actually became a radio hit in the early '90s. So you could flip on our local radio station that played dance music, which in Chicago was B96, and this track would be right there next to Mariah Carey and all that kind of stuff.

Eris posing with some synths in her home studio.
Eris in her home studio. (All home studio photos from Eris Drew, used with permission.)

And it started with this beat, the same beat that my song starts with. I always thought it was this really exciting beat. It was always kind of ironic, because I loved this beat so much—the rest of the song is good but it's not a track I'd play in my sets really. The radio announcer would always be talking over the beat or whatever, and it was my favorite part of the track. There's no radio announcer talking over the beat of my album, which is good. I really took this breakbeat that I've loved for, I guess, 25 years and started my album with that.

When I worked on that track, that was the foundational break. And then I did some more programming stuff around that and then added some additional breakbeats to it. But I picked that because, to me, the break itself has this wonderful melody in the drums. It's almost got a hook to it—it grabs you from the first moment. I haven't really heard anyone else work with that break, so I thought it was a ripe fruit for the picking, so to speak.

There's a notion that I've thought of before, that breakbeats or any samples really are a type of folk music communication. You hear a breakbeat and you've heard it a thousand times in your life, but it doesn't matter which particular song you're hearing it in, or in what context. It reminds you of all those other contexts.

Yeah. It's true. It triggers all that, whatever that history is behind it, if you know it. I think one of the cool things about that is how different the songs can really be. I would say maybe take a listen to "Funk Dat" by Sagat when we get off the phone or something. It's a sassy song. It couldn't be more different than the song I ended up writing, which was about moving in with the people I love. I wrote it in a time when I was feeling pretty emotionally charged about that. It's kind of an ecstatic song. It couldn't be more different than this other track, even though they both use the same break and kind of in the same way, to create excitement in the very beginning of the song.

Was there another break or two that sticks out to you from the record?

I used the "Think" break in "Ride Free." I really only use it in a couple bars of the song. I saw someone else write about it and they said that was the main break in that song. It's not. It's actually, I would say, the least-used break in that song, but it serves a really important purpose. Again, getting back to this idea of this one being really familiar to almost everyone. I mean, the "Think" break kind of came back in a big way in the last few years. It's never gone out of use. It's been used in hip-hop and pop and electronic music for decades.

In my song, it's layered while these horses are whinnying and making a fuss. I wanted the break to sound like it's the sound of them kicking and putting up this fuss. I don't think the "Think" break's ever been used to try to portray this visual image. Honestly, everyone else listening to the song might not hear that in it but that's what I was hearing when I wrote it. And that's why it only appears in that little part of the song with the actual horses.

When it comes to actually sampling, what is your process? Are you sampling from vinyl into a DAW? Are you using a hardware sampler?

Well, I do it a few different ways. The main way I do it—and I think this might be a little unique in terms of modern production. Because what I think a lot of people do is they find a break they like on the record and then they sample it into something, and then they do a pitch adjustment on it. So they'll bring it into the tempo of the song they're writing. They might speed it up or slow it down in the sampler for different effects.

What I usually do, especially at the beginning, when I'm forming this initial collage, is that I'm beat-matching everything to a tempo. I'll listen to the break and [adjust to] where I think it sounds good on the turntable itself. Then I sample it into a DAW, almost always Logic. Then what I do is I set the project tempo to that tempo, rather than the other way around. So my natural tempo I recorded it in at from the turntable, then to tempo the track. Then I start beat-matching other things to that tempo.

At that point, the computer becomes my left deck, so to speak. I'm beat matching and recording on a separate lane of audio, my next sample or my next layer. And even if I'm just doing hits or drops, or just a voice, or tuning a voice, or whatever, I almost always do it that way.

Now I should say though that I do do sampling into [Logic's] Sampler. When it comes time to do some drum programming, or if I really want to do a manipulation with a voice—like where I'm going to play the voice in a way that I don't want to do it just scratching and dropping—then I'll go ahead and use the Sampler. If you were to look at these songs inside of Logic, you would see plenty of Samplers in there. But that's not how it generally starts.

I have these decks and they go to plus/minus 50. So I can do really, really extreme pitch adjustments. I think it's really cool to do that at the analog stage, because you'll get an artifact-free shift. And granted, proportionally, the tempo and the pitch are going to shift together, because it's not been decoupled in the digital realm. But that's really something that characterizes so much of the music I love, whether it's hip-hop or early jungle, or hardcore very, very specifically. Most people didn't have [the ability to adjust time and pitch separately] at that point unless you were in a very fancy studio and had some very nice rack gear. There were ways to do it, with time-stretching and stuff, but it was certainly not artifact-free. People did a lot just adjusting pitch and time together. I really like that.

A lot of the breaks you hear on the record, you hear them at double speeds, at normal speed, and at half speeds. A good example of that would be in "Loving Clav," there's a main break and then I'm sampling it also at being played at half speed, which I can accomplish with the plus/minus 50 and on the PLX-1000 turntables I use, which are Pioneer turntables—and I think a very undervalued turntable by the way, in the market, very underappreciated. They're viewed as kind of like a Technics light, and I think that's actually BS. They have performance characteristics that no Technics have. I think they're really special.

Eris' Pioneer PLX-1000 decks
Eris' Pioneer PLX-1000 decks.

When you're adding to a break and start to make this drum collage, are there specific drum machines or specific samplers that you're bringing into that? What's the rest of your gear setup for building those collages?

I'm super into records like Run DMC's Tougher Than Leather where Davy D., who did the production on most of that record—I really love the mix of classic 808, classic 909 sounds, like very clean drum machine sounds with grungier samples. Once I have a couple of things sampled from my deck, I'm often at that point where I'm like, OK, here, time to bring some 808s, time to bring in a nice really compressed 909 kick. Sometimes I lift those off of a record too, because I just want to. But in other times, I'm using the various drum machines I have.

One of my go-to's is my R-8 MK2. It's a Roland's hardware unit. I really like this RM50, this Yamaha rackmount unit, which has these really wonderfully clean samples. It's a ROMpler unit. That's really neat. I use some software too. I really like the D16 drum machines. Their 808 and 909 sounds are wonderful. I use the 808 and the sampler so I can get those melodic 808 lines that appear throughout the album. So where I really want to play the 808 in a pitch kind of way. I actually use the Native Instrument Kontakt and do a lot of my 808s in there.

On "Baby," that's kind of an 808-y bass sound. Is that what's going on there? Is that in KontaKt or something else like the woosy, fuzzy, gnarly, based tones?

Yeah, the gnarly ones are coming out of Kontakt. And then some of those cleaner sounds are from the drum machine. And then the snares—those are from a record. And the reason they have that funk, where the timing's kind of different, is because I'm just dropping those in real fast on the turntable.

The chunk-da-chunk-da-chunk part. That's what gives it that funky rhythm. If you were to look at that on the grid, they're definitely not totally on, because it's just by hand. But there's a lot a very tight, very thin 808 snare on that, that is absolutely programmed also happening. That's the main snare you hear. The one I'm thinking about is almost like a drum solo that happens a few times on that track.

Eris' Roland R-8 MKII
The Roland R-8 MKII.

When you were talking about the different machines that you have, the first one I think you said was the Roland R-8. Is that one of the ones with the sound cards that you can load in? Do you have the 808 or the 909 sound cards?

That's why I keep saying MKII, because the MKII came with the 808 and 909 cards actually in the memory. They have beautiful, super clean samples, and you can really lovingly adjust their pitch and stuff within the machine itself. And just the attack and decay and do all those kinds of modifications to the sound. It's what I would call a very, very good ROMpler. It's a really neat unit. I got it years ago, cheap. The most expensive thing on it was the power supply, which I had to buy from someone other than who I bought the unit from.

In the same way that we've been talking about the rhythmic foundations, do you have a specific approach to basslines? Would that be the next step of the process or were you after getting the beat together where you were playing the keyboards and stacking other sounds before the basslines?

I should mention, actually, before I move on, that there is a fair amount of hand percussion in this record. I have a box of hand percussion and that often is the very last thing, because I just love to play shakers and do things like that. To have that little bit of live-recorded drums, I think it sounds great, and it's fun to do, and it certainly honors a lot of the music I liked from the early '80s, where that was just very common to use drum machines and then hand percussion together, sort of pre-house kind of stuff.

My next step though is to usually write chords or a very simple melody. I'm usually sitting at the synth with two hands and just working on what I think the songs are going to be. That's almost always where it starts. There have been times in my life where I wrote the bassline first. But I don't think any of the songs on Quivering in Time were like that.

Speaking of the keys then, if we take "Loving Clav" as an example, what kind of clav were you playing there?

That's actually a plugin. I was on the road when I wrote that. That was one of the songs that was written before the lockdown started. I was traveling and I was writing on the computer. I think it might have even been the one that comes with Logic to be honest with you. It was. Yeah. Yeah.

I should say, I do a lot to them [laughs]. That particular clav has been EQ'd a lot, and there's a lot of saturation-style stuff happening to it to really bring out its tonality, its tine-y-ness, to bring out that character. But that's just coming from a plugin in that case. A lot of the synths on that were written in-the-box. Although, there's obviously a ton of samples in that song as well.

Eris' Yamaha PSS-480.
Eris' Yamaha PSS-480.

What are the hardware synths that are in your current setup and that you were using a lot on the record?

I used two other synths a lot: the [Waldorf] Pulse 2, which is a monosynth, a really nice, simple, analog mono synth that's also very noisy in a really nice way, and then I use the [Waldorf] Blofeld, for its polyphonic sound. And then, I used my Fender Chroma Polaris a lot. It's a really neat '80s synth... Why am I leaving things out here? I used my [Yamaha] TX816 on it, which is essentially like eight DX7s in a box. It's a rackmount unit from the 8'0s. It has really wonderfully clean DX7-type sounds.

One of the synths that appears a lot on my album is actually a toy from the '80s. It's called the PSS-480. It's a PortaSound synth that was made by Yamaha. I saved up for it and bought it in a toy store when I was like 12. It's a really cool synth. There's a few things that make it special—even though it was a toy, and it has speakers on it, things like that—it does have a quarter-inch out on the back, so you can plug a proper cord into this thing. And then it's got eight different synthesizer functions.

In some ways it's like the do-it-yourself DX7 of your dreams, because it's only two operators. A DX7 has six operators and once you start applying the different algorithms… it's hard for people that don't understand that kind of synthesis to make very intuitive types of sounds. But when you only have two operators, there's not all these different algorithms that you can apply to them. The combinations reduce greatly. You end up having a much more intuitive instrument. You can basically affect the attack and decay of these two operators, and then you can adjust their frequency, their noisiness, and it's just a really neat synth. I learned how to program synthesizers on this synthesizer. It was my first experience making sounds.

Eris Drew - "A Howling Wind"

I've always had a real soft spot for it. I can just walk up to it and start writing music. The output is so freaking noisy. It's like an RF generator. It picks up all kinds of signal and noise. But honestly, that's really great. Especially when using all these dirty samplers—and when I say dirty, what I mean is using these samples with granularity and texture, and these kinds of tonalities that form part of the sound that aren't just the hits or the main sound—this synthesizer actually matches that quite nicely in character. The song where it really shines is mostly on "A Howling Wind," because all the synth sounds in that song come from it. And I think if you knew this instrument you might find that kind of surprising.

The way I handled it was, I created patches for samplers using this synth in Logic. I would sample very basic tones from the synth that I would synthesize. And then I would load them into a sampler, which would give me nice polyphony and good tight timing inside the box—and also the ability to really start to play with the sounds in ways that I had never gotten to do when I was 12, add tremolos, do things like add some really great reverbs, or, in many cases, to saturate the sounds even more. All the tones, whether it's the pads or all the sounds on that, other than the samples and drum sounds, are coming out of that instrument.

When you're talking about putting it into the sampler and Logic, were you just using the standard EXS24—

It's now called the Quick Sampler or whatever.

Yeah, yeah. They changed it on us.

Yeah, I know. I think that old sampler was really good. It's pretty much the Quick Sampler. I don't think I ever used the other ones.

I adopted to keep my old version of Logic so that I didn't lose the EXS24. It's been with me too long. I can't leave it now.

Oh my god, that's a whole story. I feel funny admitting this because I never should have let it happen, but I let an update happen while I was maybe halfway through recording the album. It was that big update that rendered tons of plugins unusable. I basically had to upgrade my entire suite halfway through the album and figure out how to get the songs working again. It was like—tears were shed. Because I was like, oh my god... Until you get it all working again, you don't know. You're like, maybe I'm not going to be able to repair this or restore it.

That must be the worst feeling in the world, and to have half an album completed. That's terrifying.

Like I said, I do use a fair amount of soft synth. I'm absolutely in love with Mellotron sounds. I think I've had a Mellotron in my DAW for 20 years. The texture on those sounds is just wonderful. It's basically my go-to ensemble machine. When it's time to orchestrate my track, there's often going to be some kind of voice... or, I love the flute in there, so you hear the flutes from the Mellotron, in "Sensation" for example, but it appears throughout the album in different places. I love the cello and the violin. I love the simplicity of it. I think there's something beautiful about that. And it's up to you to kind of think about your sound design and different ways you can affect it musically.

Chroma Polaris
The Chroma Polaris.

Just real quick, you mentioned the Chroma Polaris. Which song can we hear that on?

Well, I was just talking about "Sensation." You can hear it on that song. It's in that song. I'm trying to think about how to describe the moment it gets used on there, because I'm using it through this delay box called an Aqua-Puss. It's this sustained tone behind the main keyboard part that, once I do the release on the main part, then it forms part of the decay. So you don't really hear it until you're hearing the decay of the sound in front of it if that makes any sense.

It's just this little hazy bit. Every time Maya [Octo Octa] hears the song she's like [makes a sound of amazement]. It's actually important, but it's very much in the background.

How often do you use synths with pedals like that?

I really love playing into the delay lines, whether it's the computer or using a synthesizer that's on my desk or in a rack or whatever. I really like to play them through various delay lines and things like that. It's just such a neat way to jam and create melodies and rhythms.

Before making this album, you must have DJ'd hundreds upon hundreds of nights in the years leading up to making this record, right?

Yeah. Each of the preceding years, I would play close to 100 sets in a single year. I can't say that going back 20 years of course. That's only the last couple years. But I actually counted it our each year to get a sense ... both of that in a really positive light but what am I putting myself through here because it's a lot of gigging.

I'm trying to imagine being in your shoes for that and getting that kind of feedback from a crowd night after night, what kind of sounds work, what kind of reactions you're pulling out of people, and emotions, and everything else. Were the new tracks that you were creating inspired by any particular moments, or any particular lessons that you were taking away from these hundreds of gigs?

That's such an interesting question. It's one of these that I could answer in so many different ways because the truth is it cuts both ways. My album's bringing into my sets moments that I don't normally bring into. Like I mentioned the Sagat record. I've never played that record in my sets. There's little bits of old hip-hop tracks that I love that aren't tracks I play in my sets. So part of it is to bring things into an environment where I would maybe play them, where I haven't been able to before. There's also samples from one of my favorite car stereo bass test CDs. There's a lot of samples from that on the album and that, of course, I've never played in a club. It was never even pressed to vinyl.

Another angle of the home studio, showing an MPC Live and other goodies.
Another angle of the home studio, showing an MPC Live and other goodies.

But what you're saying, that also happens. When I play on soundsystems, it really makes me think a lot about certain balances. An example of that would be "Quivering in Time." It's a very pretty song and it's a bit reflective for a club track even, I would say. But the beat is really strong, it's a powerful beat.

There was this one time right before the lockdown, the last truly powerful, powerful set I played was at Panorama Bar. It was a back-to-back with Maya, Octo Octa. And we had been burning it hard with house and some progressive and techno. We were kind of getting into that magic space of the third hour of the set. And I played this DJ Icey record, and it's just a big fat beat right from the beginning. His tracks are so cool because they're basically like boogie-style beats but done with these big drum machines.

Anyway, it had this heaviness and this weight on the system. And I just remember how the entire floor was like swaying to that, and how beautiful it was, and how I could tell how good it was to everyone after this relentless presentation of house music. And so, I remember writing the song a few weeks later and that was still very much in my mind. It wasn't like I was trying to copy that exact song or something like that. But I wanted how that beat felt in that moment to be what the rhythmic structure of "Quivering in Time" was.

And likewise, something like "Loving Clav"—I really love these breakbeat-laden progressive tracks from '93 to '95, and I wanted it to have a similar weight and energy to those kinds of songs. I am kind of thinking about the songs I'm playing—and I am influenced by that when I'm writing music for sure. Especially to write this album—95% of it was written during the lockdown, in the first lockdown—I did want to bring that energy and those ideas I had been playing the last few years, but not having a lot of studio time, to bear on this album.

It's kind of like a weird mix of public and private, with the 95% of it being made during lockdown, imagining these very public moments but doing them in your home studio.

I had to do something with that energy. Pointing out what you pointed out about how much I was playing—it was hard to just stop. I kind of needed it, but also, there was some remorse in that experience. Like, what do I do with all this energy? I'm so used to putting my body through this thing and having this experience with people, and the music feeling extremely alive in my life. And here I am in the middle of the woods, quite far away from friends and from soundsystems. Fortunately, I was with lovely people and I don't want to suggest that this was bad or anything, but it was quite a shift.

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