Interview: Ciel on Her Mix Philosophy and Simple Production Rig

[Photo by Sofie Stenmark]

Back in early 2017, Ciel—the Toronto-based DJ, producer, and the mind behind the Parallel Minds record label—first set out to learn Ableton Live. By March she'd written a record, and by October it was released.

Ciel. [Photo by Keyi Studio.]

How she was able to pick up the DAW so quickly is a testament to how immersed in music she'd already been—her childhood classical piano training and her years as a DJ and party promoter in Toronto, known for her genre-blending style that pulls from all corners of the electronic and dance music worlds.

Ciel was kind enough to talk to Reverb about her mix philosophy—and how pulling in different music is essential in keeping it interesting and challenging for her—and her simple production rig that nevertheless offers boundless sounds, textures, and rhythms for her to create.

What's your earliest experience making music?

Well I played the piano since I was a toddler, but I wouldn't call that making music, because I'm just playing music other people already wrote. My parents were really strict with me about doing my piano homework and getting up a grade, making sure I do my recitals and competitions, things like that. There was not really a lot of free time to make music on the piano—it wasn't something that they really pushed me to do.

Probably the earliest would be just playing around on the piano, messing around when I didn't want to play my homework, and just freeform playing. I still do that now when I'm making records, when I'm making a track. I'll record myself just freeform playing on the keyboard and usually something will come out of it that I can use. I like music that is tracky for clubs, but I also like music to listen to that is the complete opposite of tracky, where the melody sounds like an improvised long, jazzy kind of thing. I really like music like that for listening. Not necessarily for playing. Sometimes that works too, but I find I'm drawn to that technique of writing melodies rather than sort of entering notes and programming them, which produces different results. I don't know if that answers your question.

I get your point, if it's about being technical and if it's about doing your homework, that's not necessarily creative.

I feel like that's the opposite of creativity. My challenges when I would play the piano as a kid was, I was really stiff and that's bad if you're a piano player, because you're supposed to feel the emotions. When you get a piece of sheet music and it tells you forte and piano and all of these symbols, ways of playing like slowly or intensely and all of that, it's communicating an emotion essentially. What's the emotion of the piece? I was always really bad at that. I was always really worried about messing up. That's my first priority: not playing wrong notes. My mom, quite the disciplinarian, instilled that fear in me.

I think that way of thinking about music is kind of stifling, not making mistakes, but that's sort of the nature of conservatory upbringing. That kind of world of playing music. Some people are really good at not messing up and also playing with emotion, but my teachers always said that I was nervous and stiff and the things that I played didn't sound like they had feeling in them. I think I'm just one of those people where I wear my heart on my sleeve and when I make music, I'm quite open and vulnerable, and I can't get to that same place if I'm playing someone else's music.

Through your DJing, you're known for bringing in and mixing all these different genres—breakbeat, trance, ambient, and more. Why is it important to you to bring together dissimilar genres and musical elements?

I guess because it's hard? To me it's not that interesting or challenging to mix one style or two styles of highly specific genres of music that are super similar to each other. That to me is, that's my personal philosophy. I always really loved lots of different music. It just feels natural to me to do things this way.

I got my start in DJing working in radio. Back then it was open format for me, I played all sorts of genres. They are even more distinct forms than the genres that I'm playing now. To people who don't listen to electronic music, they can't discern the difference between trance and electro and techno. It's all electronic music to them. When I did my radio show I played much more diverse. I would play riot grrrl punk and I would also play jazz and things like that. There was no restriction. As long as it was music that I liked, I played it. So that kind of mentality is still deep in how I mix now.

Even though now I do work with highly specific subgenres of electronic music, sometimes it is challenging to mix them all together. I'm still learning. I'm still hammering out what my technique is. I just remember when I started to play electronic music out more and more in my city, it felt like there was this pressure to find this highly specific sound, because it seems like that's how you become successful as a DJ almost. A lot of DJs are like what's their sound and somebody like Lena Willikens who I really look up to and I respect tremendously, she has a very homed-in sound.

I felt like a DJ needs to have a sound but it's obviously more challenging to find a sound if you're playing lots of different genres, and it took me a really long time to figure out exactly what that is and how to get there and it's still a learning process, but to answer your question, I don't really know any other way of being other than playing the music that I like and I don't want to be restricted. That feels like the opposite of creativity. It's interesting because when I make music, I find the restriction to be really good. DJing, I want to feel like the possibilities are endless and kind of bring them into my world and put my stamp on them. It's way more satisfying to me when I achieve something that is really cohesive.

When Resident Advisor put your Fact [magazine] mix from August as one of its top mixes of 2019, they wrote how your technique "changes the feel of the music itself, which is among the highest compliments you can pay a DJ." Hopefully you agree with that assessment of your own work, but can you tell us a few secrets of your mixing technique?

How I made that mix was, I don't think I did anything different than how I normally make mixes, which is going to my iTunes. I do a search and I find the music that would fit the concept that I'm going for. With the Fact mix, I essentially came up with the concept before I did any of that. I don't always have a concept but I found with this one, having it really helped a lot and it kept me on track. I arrived at the concept because I really resent this movement in dance music where everything is just becoming faster and heavier and more and more banging. It's like the industry rewards people that have no finesse and want to bang you over the head for hours on end. They can only play that one style and it's like, that's fine if somebody can play that one style incredibly well—it's like, some of the trippiest sets that I've ever seen—but it just doesn't speak to me and I also wanted to explore the side of really super fast music that's really light. I don't really like super heavy stuff.

I generally prefer to play stuff that's lighter, but I do love faster BPMs—obviously, I like jungle and trance and a lot of that stuff is 140-plus—that was kind of how I arrived at the concept. I picked the tracks and I just mixed them. I don't know if there was any special technique. I used loops and I was constrained by time. I wanted to make something that was under an hour, honestly, because I was like, Damn all my mixes are 90 minutes long. I can't even sit through to the end of an hour-long mix. I was trying to make something under an hour. I got to an hour and 10 minutes, but I just always end up finding a lot of music that I wanted to put on, but I couldn't put on and it didn't fit, or I didn't have time for. I ended up mixing faster because I didn't have that much time. It just worked out that that suited the sound of the mix. The fast cut and all of the tracks were really fast too. It's kind of all worked together in this ecosystem.

In terms of technique, just lately I've started to play a lot of the a capellas and bring in my own loops that I've made in Ableton, things that I've sequenced myself, and then mix it all in there with other tracks that I'm playing. I can't always DJ that way because—it's not on my rider that I need three CDJs, because if you're playing mostly in North America, asking for promoters to give you three CDJs is a lot of times a bit much, because you have to pay for every single one. If it's there, then I'll do it. Definitely in Europe, I do it way more often. It kind of needs three CDJs—if it's just two then I'll utilize the turntables more.

That kind of gives everything a more hypnotic feeling where, I don't know how to explain it—I tried a set last Sunday at Nowadays. I have this flutapella from a Kings of Tomorrow track. It's really iconic. If you like house music, you'll recognize that flute sound, and I mixed that with this track that I had just made with my friends. My friends came up and were like, "What is this weird edit that you're playing?" It's so cool." I really enjoy that when I'm on the dancefloor and somebody is playing with a capellas and bringing beats that they've made or that comes from elsewhere. It feels more ephemeral and fleeting, of the moment, to do something like that. You're just playing and riffing off of ideas, but they don't exist after the set is over. That's really cool. I really like that. So that's a technique that I've been doing but it's not super special a lot of people do that [laughs].

To jump to more of your production work, I've read about how you started taking Ableton lessons in early 2017 and then Electrical Encounters came out that October. Was that your first time using Ableton?

No, it was probably my fifth time using Ableton. I started taking lessons in the beginning of 2017. I actually wrote that record in March of 2017 and I played with Shanti [Celeste, DJ/producer and owner of the Peach Discs record label] in May of 2017. She asked me to send her music and I sent it to her in May, and she signed it immediately and it came out in October.

How did you take to Ableton so quickly?

Well, I wasn't working full time [laughs]. I left my full time job in 2016 to DJ for parties full time. I wasn't sure if it was the right decision, but it seems to have paid off. My former employers actually really encouraged me to give it a shot, so shout out to my former boss who really encouraged me, even though I was petrified.

I don't know any DJs in Toronto that are doing this full time and not broke-ass poor, and I was broke-ass poor for a couple of years, but I had lots of free time. My friend who taught me is a very good friend of mine who also does the visuals for all of my parties. We have a really long working relationship and a close personal friendship, and he has experience teaching Ableton. I asked him, and he was like, "I would love to teach you."

In the beginning, I didn't take to it right away. I found it very alienating. I love Ableton now, but it was like learning a new language. All of the technical stuff—it doesn't come naturally for me. For example, I bought a Traktor controller in like, 2011 or 2012, when I was playing a lot of hip-hop gigs. My friend taught me how to use the Traktor controller. He was like, "When you set up Tractor, you have to MIDI map things," and I was like, "What is it? I don't know what any of this stuff is." To this day I don't know how to map. I'd have to get him to show me how to do that [laughs]. I'm just a Luddite in that way. He, my friend Sandro, who taught me how to use Ableton, in the beginning it was just really difficult for me, but I forced myself to work on it every day.

It's something that I took from my days of practicing and learning the piano. You can't just take a lesson and then go home and watch TV for eight hours or whatever. You have to go home and do it right away and you have to keep doing it. That's how your mind retains the things that you learn. In the beginning I would go and do a lesson and then not look at it until several days later, and by that time I had forgotten everything that I had learned, and it was a wasted effort. I was just like, I think I can be quite disciplined when I need to be. I'm very lazy but I also have a very nagging inner voice and a strong sense of guilt. So, I was just constantly telling myself you need to work on this.

Once I started getting results, once I started to make things, it was addictive. I'm definitely a compulsive worker where it can be really hard to get into it, but once I get started, I become obsessed. It's all I can think about. Around spring of that year, I was having one of those obsession phases where I was using it every day, making stuff every day and going to class and showing him what I made. Sandro was such a great teacher, very encouraging and giving really good feedback. I still have the first song I ever made. I played it for my friends a few weeks ago and he was like, "You know, if you just mix it down, it's pretty good." Maybe someday I'll throw that up on Soundcloud if people want to hear it.

I find writing the melody very easy. That part was already in me, so I think I took to it right away. All of the melodic bits are not sampled. I wrote all of them. The only things that are sampled are maybe like drum fills. But I really was like, "I'm going to be a musician on this, I don't want to sample." My philosophy on sampling has changed a lot since then but I was really proud that I was able to make that from just myself.

I know you use a Roland JV-1080 and the Electribe ESX-1 sampler. What's the combination? Does your process usually include one at a time or how are these outboard instruments in the mix as well?

My favorite piece of gear that I own is my Korg Electribe ESX-1. I bought that secondhand from someone and started using it, and I just love how drums sound on it. I mostly use it as a drum machine. I program a lot of drums on it and then I just record into Ableton. Most tracks when I first start a song, I just open up my Electribe and I write out the drums and then I record as audio, because for the longest time I couldn't figure out why the latency was so intense on my computer due to MIDI. But a f riend came over a couple of weeks ago and we realized that my soundcards were actually improperly installed and that's why [laughs]. So now I'm able to record via MIDI and actually control everything through Ableton's internal clock. So that's great I'm really excited.

This interview will show you how much I'm able to get out of using very little [laughs]. I record audio from the drums, and then I will add additional drums usually in Ableton. I use kind of the same drum rack every time. I made this 100-sound drum rack of just drum hits sampled from an MPC, because I just love samplers—a really good sampler can just make things sound so good. Then the melodic bit just depends on what I'm in the mood for. I love the JV-1080. The patches are just so good in there. I just did a remix for Seb Wildblood, that came out. That one is really kind of 100 BPM, down-tempo trip-hop. I don't even know how to describe it. It's very melodic and all of the melodic bits on that were written from the JV-1080. I love it.

Are you using any of the expansion cards?

Just the stock sounds. I don't have the expansion cards. I've been looking into them, but I've barely taken a crack from what I already have. So, I'm just kind of taking my time with them. There's no rush. The gear that I have, I envision that I'll have them for decades. Right now, I'm just kind of using presets and then putting effects on them, and then I arrange everything in Ableton.

How does your knowledge of what works when mixing at a party form the arrangements in your productions?

Ciel. [Photo by Keyi Studio.]

Well, I mix in key. I try to always mix in key. I don't know if that's necessarily informed by my production, it's just informed by someone who grew up being trained in music so it really bothers my ear when I'm listening to a DJ mix and either the phrasing is off or someone brings in, there's just clashing melodies that don't work together. It could sound really cacophonous. It's a little pet peeve of mine. I try to always mix in key. It's not always possible but it's mostly, I think about the melodic bits as much as the drum bits when I'm mixing, and the phrasing and whatnot. I don't know if that answers your question.

What I was trying to get at is, if you've got say a five-minute section in a mix, and you've got a breakbeat going on and you've got some kind of airy melody or maybe like an ambient bit going on over top, and pull in or pull out a bassline, is it that kind of granular level of mixing?

That is definitely what I aspire to. I don't think every mix is like that when I'm playing live. When I'm playing live, I'm more focused on reading the room than what kind of complicated mix I can bring in. I feel like, I actually find that mixes don't really do me justice because I think I'm a much better live DJ than on mixes, because I really try to engage and work with the room. Nothing I play is preplanned. If you, where I'm just taking a break from this and a melodic from this and a thing from that, that's great when that happens but I think that also requires more preplanning to do for the entire set and I don't, no disrespect to other people that do that. I think everybody has their own way of DJing, there's no right or wrong way. I've seen some insane sets that are just mind warp, I have no idea what's happening.

I just, I don't want to preplan anything so I have to keep working I think to get to the level where I don't have to preplan, and I can also just do these complicated cuts all of the time. Usually, I do think of mixing as a sandwich, kind of how I think of arrangements as well. You've got the buns, the drums. You've got the meat in between, that's like the melody when you take something away you bring it out. It's definitely how I think of EQing, for sure. I saw a DJ play once and they didn't even EQ, they just used Trim, like the gain, to bring something in and I was just like, that is so wild to me.

I just always thought of mixing, especially through EQing. If you bring something in and you're bringing in the mid EQ and the high EQ, you've got to take a little bit out of the mid EQ and the high EQ of the track that's currently playing. A lot of people don't do that. I think of it as sort of a finite sandwich. You can't just keep adding. You have to take something away if you're going to bring something in. That's something that does apply.

When you're playing to a room, and you're playing someone else's track and it really hits, do you take that back and try to make your own tracks with a similar element or a similar feeling?

No. Because it already—you know, they did it. I find that, when I'm making music, I'm not necessarily trying to duplicate a particular song. First of all, a lot of the music I make, I can't even play in my set. I feel like I have to think different or I do think differently when I'm making music versus when I'm DJing. Part of my process and personal growth is diminishing that distance between how I'm thinking when I'm producing and how I'm thinking when I'm DJing, because I want to make more stuff that I can play in my sets and I am starting to make more that I play in my sets.

To me, originality is not necessarily something that, I don't know if it's going to exist anymore. It's not necessarily something that I'm trying to be. I just want to make music that bangs and is good and makes people feel something. That's my only goal. Still, even knowing that, I think there's something weird about trying to make a song that's exactly like something else.

Ciel. [Photo by Sofie Stenmark.]

A lot of times people will give me advice if I'm stuck on a track. On Twitter, people will be like oh you should listen to this song and see what they're doing, and to me it's like, you want me to copy another song? I don't want to do that. Obviously, it's more complicated than that. They're not saying to copy another song. I do find it sometimes is helpful if you're stuck on arrangements to listen to the arrangement of another song to help boost or propel you in the right direction because being stuck in the arrangement process is truly stressful and it happens to everybody and sometimes you kind of need a little bit of a push but to answer your question no it doesn't really happen.

There are people, friends who are making music that I'm just like, "Oh damn, that track is so good that I want to make something that sick." My friend Desert Sound Colony made a track that sampled, that flipped a vocal from a well-known '90s R&B pop hit, they flipped a vocal part that is not the hook from the song. It's like the most forgettable part of the song that they flipped which is kind of funny to me, but I recognized it immediately and it's like such a big hit from the '90s.

That idea I think is genius and I just vibed with it and so I'm probably going to try to do something similar. I already do that kind of. I made a remix where I sampled from a very very well known song. But I took from it a bit that nobody thinks about. Leaving Easter eggs like that is fun. I might be intrigued by someone's technique. I hear it and say oh that's really cool I want to try that technique, but I don't try to make something that sounds like something else. You know?

What do you have coming up?

So, the next Parallel Minds release is probably going to come out in early February. I'm not on it. It's my labelmates', so I just wanted to clear that up in case people think that's my next release. My next release is going to be with a label in Sheffield's. It's a pretty small label. They released mostly UK producers, but that's been confirmed for a while. I've made a lot of collaborative EPs with people this year and I think a bunch of them will start to come out in 2020 and the first one will be between me and D. Tiffany. We have a record on Planet Euphorique that's probably going to come out in the spring I want to say? Maybe late spring, early summer, and then I have a remix, I have a whole bunch of remixes but probably the first one that's coming out is going to be for Jacques Greene.

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