Ben The Glorious Bastard talks modular synths, eurorack, working with Kanye, Dipset and more
His latest work can be found on Spotify.
Q: So before you moved to New York from Paris in the late 2000s, you sold all your gear and went minimal with your stack. What did you end up with? I think you said you were almost all Native Maschine and a single small synth?
[Ben The Glorious Bastard] Yes, I tremendously downsized to end up with just Maschine and a Vermona Mono Lancet, a small analog mono synth. Maschine is pretty powerful though, I was able to run all types of synth and effects inside of it so it was not that minimal in terms of possibilities, but very minimal in terms of hardware. It's also very convenient to be able to carry your whole studio in a backpack and do beats wherever you need to. At that time I'd do beats everywhere, always with lots of people in the room. It was a perfect match for the lifestyle.
What year did you start getting heavy into Eurorack? Tell me more about why it's such an interesting piece of kit in 2020.
I started being really into modular synths a bit more than 2 years ago but after being into sound design and synthesizers for more than 20 years so a lot of the knowledge translated. What I love the most about modular is that you can really create your dream synthesizer. You hand pick each module, each component of what makes the sound. There are literally thousands of modules out there, you can really find what perfectly suits you if you know what you're looking for.
One thing in our conversation that really stuck out for me was you saying that any time the people around you seem to move more toward the money that you try to recenter yourself strictly next to the music and creativity. You've worked near some very notable powerhouses like Dipset, Damon Dash and Kanye. Shit, you said you practically lived with Damon Dash working on projects. But even as you got closer and closer to the commercial mechanics of music production (or maybe say the negative lifestyles of music culture itself), how do you know where to point yourself? Is it a feeling? Is it just a faith in the truth of the music itself?
It's not that I move away from money, I'm actually not the type of person who hates money. I think money is great for what it allows you to do. But at the end of the day, that's not the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing. Good music, cool stuff and having fun will always be the primary objective, otherwise I'd have done real estate or something. The vision always prevails as long as the bills are paid. I got a deep and true dedication to doing good records that took me everywhere I've been. I think that's how it clicked with people like Jim Jones, Dame Dash, Cam'ron, Kanye's team, Smoke DZA, Murda Mook and others, I don't fuck around when it comes to doing good music.
As long as you do what you think you're supposed to do on this planet and can keep up the daily operation going, I'd say not much else matters. Some people are accountants, some are business men and some are artists. My bottom line is I'm a musician, a producer, an engineer. That's what I do and I consistently push myself to to be the best I can be at it. If I'm on a project and the music is wack, I'm out the next second. That's my only compass: good music, not money.
Yeah I shared a mansion in LA with Dame. We had a swimming pool in the living room, private chef and all, pretty cool. I can't do long-distance artistic work, we have to be in the same room to make it happen properly. Every artist I worked with, I've spent a lot of time with them and done the beats when they're around, that's how I catch the vibe. I spent thousands of hours with all these dudes. If I can’t hang out with you, I can’t work with you.
At the end of the day, it's always the conjunction of people, time and space that creates the magic. Things happen a certain way at a certain time in a certain place but nothing lasts forever. You have to always be ready to move on to the next thing. Doing what I do is all about the journey.
I love the way you explain your outlook on working with folks. Keeping that authenticity is tough when money gets involved. I suspect a lot of designers and creators subconsciously destroy projects because their clients are just wack fools with bad taste. I think what you're saying about cutting it early because the creative relationship is dusty — that's priceless.
I would imagine that working around the orbit of the Dipset folks and Kanye's team would be pretty different experiences. You mentioned that Kanye has a pretty unique working style. Are there any parts of that you can share? Obviously he's a pretty enigmatic dude, but clearly he's focused on quality and his own truth that he's interpreted as it relates to different things. What is it about his process that is unique and which concepts really stuck with you?
Kanye does things to the fullest. Like for example the song Fade, I assisted long-time Kanye collaborator and absolute beast of a producer/engineer Ken Lewis to record a full choir of kids in a church in the Bronx. Kanye wanted to see how the Ty Dolla $ign lines would feel with a choir backing them up.
What was funny is that to keep the process airtight from leaks, he sent a woman with a USB key with the session files of the segment he wanted the choir on and she had the lyrics on her phone. I had to write down the lyrics on big signs and hold them and point to the words karaoke-style so the choir could sing them properly. No time for rehearsal, nothing. He wants it now. He's obviously smart and experienced so he would send the lyrics written phonetically to make sure they're pronounced correctly. Randomly the woman would say things like "Kanye wants it more like that," meaning at some point she discreetly held her phone up for Kanye to hear and he gave her his instructions.
Obviously you know there's no choir on this song, Kanye paid for the whole thing just to hear how it would sound. In an era where people cheap out on the parts that make the cut, it says a lot about the man.
Another time, back when they were doing MBTDF (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), Mike Dean hits me up and he's like "we kinda ask random people what they think, would you mind comparing 2 mixes and tell me which one you prefer?". That was for the song Power.
What made me real proud though was when I did the original score for the movie Honor Up for Dame Dash. Dame showed Kanye the first cut and I had this part where I went full orchestral with the strings and all that, no samples. Kanye asked Dame in a surprised tone "your man did that?". He was apparently pretty impressed. That was my little Ennio Morricone moment I guess haha!
Yes, working with very high-level people is humbling and inspiring right?! As much because it immediately makes us realize that thinking a certain way (with a level of creativity, scope or scale) is actually possible, or even we get to see some learned efficiency that we just couldn't find from our own work.
How has working with some of these legends and peers influenced your work on a smaller scale? How do you weave it into modular?
It tremendously influenced my work ethic. You then feel like most boundaries are actually in your head. You realize how much you can accomplish if you commit 100% to it. Also you realize that even the best don't do it all by themselves, so you open up, ask for help, collab, hire people. You either can make it happen through your own work or find the right person but in any situation you can make a lot, whatever your level is. Not that this is my goal or anything but just as an example, I can't make a movie like Star Wars happen but if I'd put all my energy and resources on it, I could make a decent sci-fi movie, I guess.
Another key aspect is realizing that sometimes, being the #1 in the world for whatever you do is not that important. Of course you have to be great at what you do but I believe for each skill, there are without a doubt tens or hundreds or thousands, even millions of people as good as you. The number depending on how niche your skill is and how excellent you are. Evidently you have to work like you wanna be that #1 but many other things come into play. Consistently doing your best, showing up on time and being nice is more than half the battle.
Think about it, when you get a gig for Kanye or Cam'ron or Wiz Khalifa or any other A-level artist, you don't go to an audition where they gauge you against 10 of your peers. You happen to be somewhere at the right time, or you left a certain impression to a certain person. Then you get called one day and you provide a good or great result and experience and that's it.
But if you're late and difficult, no one cares about your skills. Except if you're like one-in-a-billion level of good. But for audio engineers in 2020, it's not that critical to have that level of excellence 99.99% of the time. If you're a pain to work with, you'll get replaced, fast. People will bear with a Kanye, a Dr Dre, an Eminem but that's it. And that's as long as they bring in the millions in revenue for the people involved. The minute you're irrelevant to the mainstream, they send you to the garbage disposal. Look at how many artists went from worshiped to mocked. People like to erect idols only to destroy them when they stop providing. Individuals are mostly nice but the crowd is cruel.
Also, you realize these A-level people didn't get where they are by doing what they're told, none of them. You have to break some type of barrier, bring something unique. These people believe more in their vision than most people believe in anything. The strength of your will defines the level of your accomplishment.
Modular is my favorite thing cause I feel like it's my own personal Voltron. All my skills assemble to create something strong. And most importantly it makes me feel good, I love it. I feel like all my previous experiences and all my skills come together as one. Also I feel like I'm doing me, doing what I'm supposed to do on this planet. I'm not mimicking anybody, this is me to the fullest. You have to constantly strive to be the best version of yourself. You need a channel for that, an outlet, a medium. Modular is that for me, it's my best connection to human culture and society as well as my best way to contribute.
So with this new explosion of modular synthesizers and smaller components, where are we headed? I know you mentioned that you've been moving away from just making beats into soundtrack scoring. You're releasing new synth-based tracks on Spotify. What is the near future for you? Are you just cruising and letting things evolve, or are you locked on a specific target?
Right now it's a transitional era for the world. Things move really fast. Near future for me is releasing more tracks and doing more shows. More beat-based modular/synth music like The Big Combo and more abstract minimal music but still connected to the Hip-Hop/Funk culture. I do soundtracks for a very talented director named Stephen Small-Warner, we did a few mini-movies together. Now I perform pretty much monthly in NYC with the MPC and the modular, thanks to the New York Modular Society, then release the set online. I transitioned from being a mostly studio guy to doing live shows and being more performance oriented, it is very very exciting.
Yes it looks like you guys (New York Modular Society) are building a lot of momentum and hosting a lot of events. Where does the modular synth movement fit into rap music production today? Which producers should we be looking out for — where are the bright spots? Just out of curiosity, is anyone flipping it crazy and taking that Boom Bap into the future on another synth-based sound wave?
Synth-wise, most producers still use software or classic gear like Moog, Novation and such, as far as I can see. The only producer I know that really does beats and modular is my brother Ski Beatz. I heard Timbaland does modular too but I haven't seen nor heard anything in person. I've had people like Psycho Les from the Beatnuts hit me up about the modular, it's getting traction. My dude Mike Dean rocks the big modular Moog but he's a major synth head, not exactly representative of your classic beatmaker. You can check online all the people affiliated with the Mod Bap movement, it's pretty cool. I'd say right now it's breaking mainstream. Look at Andrew Huang. Most movements are still grassroots though, major labels and their big bucks haven't caught up yet. It's 2020, you have to make big bucks on your own for investors to be interested and right now modular music is not generating big bucks, yet.
I hope and think the modular scene will revive real live electronic music performances which kinda died a while back. I never got the appeal of watching a guy going through a playlist or pressing keys on a laptop. I like to see people play instruments, a modular synth is an instrument. But don't get me wrong, real DJing is amazing to see live too and a turntable can be an instrument but there ain't much of that out there.
Talk to me about the production pipeline for some of your recent modular tracks. They have that performance feeling to them. Are you doing the modular tracking as single takes, or are you taking moments where you find that vibe, or maybe let's say that aural serendipity, and taking those moments and chopping them into sequencing and editing?
It's all live and single takes. There's something about doing music as a human being as opposed to a mechanized process. No quantize, only live takes, no MIDI recording, minimal editing; it all makes a big difference. That's how all my favorite records were made, with lots of real human action. I bang patches after patches, riffs after riffs, patterns after patterns, until something organically sounds good. I don't believe much in polishing. If it's hot, it's hot. If it's not, it's not. I believe in moments, when the vibe is right you have to create and record as much as possible, you got to milk the time and space. It may never come back the exact same way.
So rad! There is something so great about imperfections. The same can be said for design and art. The small imperfections keep your perception guessing I think, they almost keep your senses on alert for serendipitous surprises or quirks. Maybe that's why people like Mark Rothko paintings so much, there is an entire galaxy of imperfection inside of something that looks perfectly balanced from a distance. It's a weird trip. I think music that is too perfect can lack that same kind of depth and surprise.
What was your hardware and software rig for these recent tracks?
It's pretty straight forward. All the synth sounds come from the modular and the DSI Pro 2. All sampling is done by the Ensoniq ASR10 and the sequencing by the MPC 2500. Once I got the track going right, I record all the audio in Ableton Live then mix and master. No piano roll editing, none of that. It's like a constant jam and I keep the best moments.
What are five electronic albums you think people should explore?
Ministry - Psalm 69: The Way to Succeed and the Way to Suck Eggs
DJ Shadow - Endtroducing.....
Squarepusher - Hard Normal Daddy
Frank N Dank - 48hrs
Portishead - Dummy
And last, since you are a wise creative dude from the romantic and cultured country of France, widely known for its arts, wines and fine cheeses, what's the best bit of life advice you can give?
If you’re good at what you do, you tell people about it. If you’re great at what you do, people tell you about it.