Producer Spotlight: Carl Craig
Producer Spotlight: Carl CraigOctober 29, 2021
The legendary Detroit techno producer discusses studio gear, production techniques and tips on surviving in the music industry.
Although he’s known as techno royalty, Carl Craig’s early memories of music involve him pestering his parents to get the money for an instrument more closely associated with rock and roll – a Fender Stratocaster.
“My parents got it for me after I badgered them for weeks! It’s so special to me because it was my first-ever pro instrument. I’ll never say that I’m an expert guitar player though!”
Expert or not, Carl’s love of the guitar growing up in Detroit in the ‘70s and ‘80s started him off on an epic musical journey that still continues to this day. After discovering the sound of synthesizers and electronic music, Craig released his first track in 1989 on a Virgin UK compilation album, and two years later launched his record label, Planet E, with the seminal EP, 4 Jazz Funk Classics, under the alias, 69. What followed next was an avalanche of musical output under a range of musical pseudonyms: 69, BFC, C2, Innerzone Orchestra, No Boundaries, Psyche, Paperclip People, and Tres Demented. Carl’s work propelled electronic music to new heights, and his Innerzone Orchestra track, “Bug in the Bassbin,” is often credited as the spark that inspired the evolution of drum & bass.
Carl Craig is also a serial remixer, with over 100 cuts for the likes of LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip, Friendly Fires, Caribou, and many more. He was nominated for a Grammy in 2008 for his mix of Junior Boys’ “Like a Child.” Today, he remains fiercely committed to the music and the city that he has devoted his life to, supporting local musicians with his Planet E family of labels and setting up the hugely popular Detroit Electronic Music Festival, now in its 21st year.
To coincide with the release of Carl’s new Loopmasters sample pack, ‘Planet E Breaks’, we caught up with him at his incredible studio.
What goes into making the signature Carl Craig sound?
Defining your sound isn’t necessarily about always using the same gear, it’s about finding your voice in what the gear can do. When I started learning how to program synthesizers, all I had was a Minimoog, an Ensoniq Mirage, and an Ensoniq ESQ-1. The Mirage opened up the world of sampling to me, which is what I loved about the eighties, whether it was Duran Duran, Stevie Wonder, or Peter Gabriel. Those guys were all using gear that cost a fortune though — Fairlight samplers that I was just never going to be able to afford. The closest thing I could get to that was the Mirage, and later on a Roland S-10, which really helped me discover what you could do with sampling.
With samplers at the time, you had the option of using one sample at full resolution, two samples at half resolution, or four samples at a quarter resolution. So when I made BFC tracks like “Evolution,” or the first Planet-E release, 4 Jazz Funk Classics, I jam-packed the S-10 with four samples at the worst resolution, but it made me push really hard to get something great out of it.
I had all my gear – the S-10, the Alesis MMT-8, the Alesis HR-16, and the Roland SH-101 – going into a little four track, or an Electro-Voice stage mixer. That was it, that was my sound! I would also add in some of the great pieces of gear that I picked up in pawn shops, and as I began to make money from music I could afford some upgrades. Going from the S-10 to the AKAI S1100 was a huge jump for me, because now I had this blown out, multi output sampler that could do so much more. I was actually in Sarm studios one time, and I saw that Trevor Horn had a room that was floor to ceiling S100s, and that’s what made me want to get one – except I got the better version!
Was sampling always an integral part of your creative process?
It’s easy to forget, but a lot of people dissed sampling for a long time, in the same way they would diss DJs for not playing their own music. In reality though, sampling is more creative than most production techniques, more creative than any type of synthesis. It takes a good ear to find sounds that are interesting, and on top of that it requires a strong vision to be able to manipulate those samples and turn them into something completely different.
There are some samples that just have an energy to them. It could be a sample of a drum break, but I might filter out the majority of the drums and just use the hi hats for their feel, and that one thing could take a track I’m working on to the next level. Samples can be used as the root for writing a track, or they can be used as the fairy dust to sprinkle over the track. Nowadays I look for samples that are going to add fairy dust to my productions, but in the past I would sit there flipping through records finding sounds that would just start whole tracks.
I’m a remixer, and I always feel like I’m collaborating with the artist that I’m remixing, not just turning it into a Carl Craig track. So whenever I took pieces from the multitrack of a song for a remix back then, it was like me sampling from the other artist’s record. I would go deeper though, and take a couple of bars, or even just two beats. Then I could have all the parts from that section and separate them out. What people do on Melodyne these days, that’s what I was doing with multitracks when I started mixing.
What’s the one piece of studio gear that you can’t live without?
It would have to be the Lexicon PCM 41 digital delay – I use it on almost everything that I’ve ever done. For a lot of studio rats that might be considered a consumer piece of gear, because it doesn’t have balanced inputs and outputs. But there’s a sound that you get with this thing that I just love. You can improvise with the delay time, and hear it moving around the track. It’s amazing for improvising with, and I never leave it static, I’m always playing around with it in the same way that I’d play with the parameters on a synthesizer. The voice on “Planet Rock” by Afrika Bambaataa and the Soul Sonic Force is a PCM 41 set at a really tight delay, it almost sounds like it’s a vocoder but it’s actually not!
Is there one production technique that you wished you’d known at the beginning of your career?
I wish I’d known how to use parallel compression from the start! It’s still difficult for me to handle today because I’m not used to it. It really helps to put a track out front, and it was getting used in tracks long before I was making records, with Bob Clearmountain using New York compression on Chic records, for instance. For a long time I didn’t even understand what a compressor did, because I was all about just turning things up to a thousand, and not being subtle. If I’d known how to use parallel compression back in the day I think the sound of my records would have been way more consistent and a lot more powerful.
I generally prefer older traditions when it comes to mixing. Dialling in something like a modern software distressor with a mix control is great, but I think for a lot of old school pros, that doesn’t feel the same as mixing multiple tracks together to send to a bus for processing. New York compression was all about mixing drums and bass going to an SSL bus compressor that would then glue everything together. Putting an SSL compressor on each one of your drum tracks is too complex for me, and takes it outside the realms of the sound I’m trying to get. You can put parallel compression on every sound that you have, but if you need to take the processing back to the analog world you won’t be able to because there’s no way you could have that much gear in the studio!
What would be one tip you’d give to the younger producer’s generation?
If someone’s getting into the music industry nowadays I would recommend that they build a great team around them that includes a lawyer and an accountant! I tell my kids that regardless of what they end up doing, they should aim to be their own boss. Whether you’re a scientist or a librarian, there’s going to be some point in your life that you’re going to want to be your own boss, and I think that’s why it’s important to have some sort of business nous. That might mean taking some business classes at university, so that as an artist you understand what the people around you are doing, and the business that you’re going into.
Watch Carl Craig discuss the making of his ‘Planet E Breaks’ sample pack below.