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JNTHN STEIN: Beatmaker at work
We got to know JNTHN STEIN while producing a video documentary about the young producer crew Team Supreme. As with all Team Supreme members, we were very impressed with his beatmaking skills. The eloquence and refined working methods of the 24-year-old musician were reasons enough for us to put him in front of the camera with Push and to document how he developed beats from scratch.
During this session three tracks were created that can now be heard as an EP. In the video below you can see how JNTHN STEIN develops one of these tracks - from the completely empty grid to the finished composition "Berlin III" - and explains the how and why in every phase of the composition.
In the following interview you will find out more about JNTHN STEIN's way of working in production - he talks about how he programs rhythmic patterns, develops arrangements and lets himself be inspired by musical and philosophical ideas when making music.
Rhythms: positive and negative spaces
In the rhythm pattern of “Berlin I”, the kick drum and snare drum have interesting positions. Is leaving out certain elements as important to you as adding them when developing rhythmic patterns?
For me, rhythm is the complete grid - downbeats and upbeats, sounds like silence. Beats with more downbeats pull your feet down, while beats with more upbeats pull up - you want to lift your heels and jump. The degree of rhythmic density (sounding notes versus silence) creates the beat texture: many notes make beats more consistent and flowing, they then feel smoother and more pleasant.
But if the rhythmic density is too high, the beats appear overloaded, hectic and psychotic. On the other hand, the more reduced the beat, the more tension can be created in those moments of silence when you have no idea what is coming next. Then breaks and nervousness arise like in stop-motion animations or horror films - the moment before the monster appears. If you mix the parameters of the beat density (notes and pauses) and the beat polarity (downbeats and upbeats on any grid), you can achieve any mood you want through rhythms alone - from creepy, terrifying and violent to gentle and pleasant to towards light and flaky.
When I make beats based on this idea, I start with the basic structure of the pulse - usually with the backbeats on 2 and 4 or a consistent hi-hat with quarter notes. It's about something that gives the listener (and me, the composer) a stable structure for the syncopated chaos, which is then superimposed on it. Next, I'll develop the basic bass drum pattern. For me it has to have a certain melodic quality because the bass drum is the most distinctive drum sound and plays the most important role in the entire beat. This then becomes the rhythmic theme of the song - it should be as simple as possible, but at the same time captivating and unexpected. I create the pattern in one measure first, then duplicate that and subtly vary the theme in the second measure. I repeat this process several times until I get something that looks like a sentence or a melody and has a length of 8 to 16 bars. As soon as the bass drum works in the middle of the constant backbeat / hi-hats / percussion, I fill in the remaining spaces with additional sounds and rhythms. These are either fast and sporadic - or on a slower grid, syncopated and bouncy. The trick is to make sure the bass drum and backbeat combo sounds good. Then all elements above can form variations and lead to further track parts.
The reverse way of working works well too. For complex hi-hat patterns, I sometimes choose a fast grid for Push 2, say thirty-second notes or triplets, then develop a constant sequence of notes in ratchet trap style, delete a few notes here and there and manipulate the velocity to create waves and troughs. Basically, I prefer to start from scratch because that forces me to be mindful of every additional element and to use more silence - I think that's super important and effective. Don't be afraid of the delete key: it is your best and most sincere friend.
A few bars from the piece “Berlin 1”, which illustrate JNTHN's handling of beat programming.
Workflow: arrange sounds, choose scales and fill the spectrum
How do rhythms, melodies and chords relate to your workflow - is there one element that you most like to get started with?
I pretty much always start with the drums. The rhythm is the most important and most direct musical element - a song / beat should sound good even if it only consists of drums. Just focusing on the drums at first is a great way to start tracks. Once the drums capture all of the energy and emotion it needs, it's much easier to add the rest of the elements - the drums do most of the work on the track. As I select drum sounds, I scroll through the list, paying attention to their envelopes and timbres. For harsh, aggressive beats I choose lighter drum sounds with sharp transients, for softer or bouncy beats I prefer darker drum sounds with more sustain and a softer attack.
The next phase is more flexible, depending on the objective. Usually the bass is the next step, the second most important element after the bass drum. The bass has become the new lead melody in electronic music, which makes me very happy. Its sound character sets the direction for the rest of the track - a puristic sine wave, a square wave or a sawtooth-like wave that sounds much brighter and fatter. A bass with noise or chaotic-harsh elements, maybe also an electric bass that is raw and organic, and so on.
In “Berlin II” and “Berlin III” the next thing was the harmonic / melodic elements. For this I sat down at keyboard instruments - Rhodes and piano. I do that a lot, as a keyboardist I have a personal connection to these two instruments. You can use it to develop melodies and harmonies at the same time, with the melody as the main voice of the chords. The harmonies are the musical element that can address moods and feelings the most - since time immemorial it has played an important role in cultural history and immediately brings back memories. If you start composing with the harmonies, however, there is a risk that you will commit yourself too early to certain notes and pitches. You may then have to delete and reduce some things in order to create variations - or to create variations as arbitrarily as I did in “Berlin II”.
"The bass has become the new lead melody voice in electronic music, which makes me very happy."
In my opinion, it's best to start purely melodically - with a bass that sets the tone, or with a soulful melody that works even without harmonic context. This allows me to try almost unlimited harmonic variations as I develop the track. The melodies should be simple, I develop them the same way I develop my drum / bass patterns. They should be catchy, easy to sing, as diatonic as possible and not too long - a length of 8-16 bars is recommended. But you can also do without notes and scales completely and use sounds from everyday life. In this case the focus is more on the expression and the contour of the melody.
For “Berlin I” I had a surreal mood in mind - a little creepy, trippy and intense. That's why my first melodic element was this resonant "plop" sound - created with Collision - which can be heard at the beginning. On the one hand, this sound has an acoustic-percussive character, but it also has a pitch and melodic potential. The diatonic scale carries a lot of human emotion, while the chromatic scale has something animal-like about it. This melody is obviously a descending chromatic scale. No matter what the first melodic idea of my tracks looks like - I like to get involved with it and try to find out whether I can only use it to develop the entire track. Whether as an ostinato with different opposing material for A and B parts, or deconstructed into smaller parts from which I gain new material - in the same way that everything can be developed from audio samples.
The frequency spectrum also plays an important role in my goal setting. As a fan of the pink noise curve, I always try to align my tracks with it so that they sound natural and come as close as possible to what we hear in everyday life. There's still plenty of room for tension and relaxation within that curve - whether it's a beat section that's darker and cooler because it's just drums and bass. Or an area with hi-hats, bright synth sounds and melodies, or sound material above 1 kHz, which stimulates the ears and provides intensity in other parts of the track. My goal is to fill in the entire spectral curve while exploring as many reductions and breakdowns as possible.
To summarize briefly: There is a hierarchy of musical elements. Rhythm is the most important and most obvious element, followed by melodies that create individuality, personal relationship and reflection, and harmonies that create the emotional and nostalgic context. Above all, however, is the frequency spectrum: Electronic music deals with sounds of the future that do not yet exist - with sounds that mainly consist of low and high frequencies and everything in between.
Arrangements: contrasts are crucial
The traditional way to develop arrangements is to develop variations of a theme, put them together and then put the variations into a sequence. Is this how you go about it, or do you have other strategies for your arrangements?
To underline my previous answers - I always start with a single idea that leads to an A part and all of its variations, which are arranged in the beat to create different arcs of intensity. With the same main melodic idea, I then try to develop a B part that creates a drastic contrast - the melodic idea is the only connecting element. That doesn't always work optimally, without a doubt. But I like the idea that opposites can be combined - for me that means mixing the chaotic absurdity of culture and turning it upside down.
In “Berlin III” [the song that STEIN is developing in the video shown above] there is a lot more material that overlaps and creates a smooth flow. The A and B parts have more or less the same drums and melody. To create a contrast to the dense chord progression of the A section, I replaced it in the B section with a hard rock riff consisting of one chord - this was about the contrast between R&B opulence and rock earthiness.
"No matter what the first melodic idea of my tracks looks like - I like to get involved with it and try to find out whether I can only use it to develop the entire track."
I generally find contrasts very important - they create tension and lead to unexpected results. A good way to produce material that surprises even me as a composer is to blatantly mix the A and B parts together - I let them collide and watch what happens. When they have a common component, that mix can work and be effective - surprising and unthinkable at the same time. It's always fun.
To sum up my ideas - contrasts are the key to works of art that fill the entire spectrum and show the full range: from happy to sad, from sexy to creepy, from beautiful to ugly. You have to show everything to create something that feels real and is reminiscent of real life. At the same time, it shows life in a new way. The contrast comes from a single idea (A) that can always be refuted from a new perspective (B). A and B wrestle with each other, but in the end they can coexist and become one again - a full spectrum idea (AB) that I brought into the world, but it has evolved by itself and has grown without my knowledge. It contains a truth that transcends my ideas, thoughts, preconceptions, and ego. The final result does not show me, but my development.
Stay up to date with JNTHN STEIN via Soundcloud, Facebook and Twitter.
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