Producer Spotlight: Roni Size
Producer Spotlight: Roni SizeNovember 17, 2021
“You’ve still got to sound original, that’s the most important thing.” Bristol’s finest talks old school samplers, drum breaks and his debut sample pack.
As a Mercury Prize winning producer and DJ with over 25 years of music production under his belt Roni Size doesn’t really experience many music industry firsts these days. But putting together a sample pack was an exception.
“Because it’s the first pack that I’ve ever worked on, it was a really time consuming process,” he explains. “With Loopcloud, there’s so much there. It’s so accessible, and to now be a part of that and have my little face come up as a Loopcloud icon is really cool. I’m looking forward to dropping it — hopefully it’ll do damage!”
Growing up in Bristol in the ‘80s, Roni discovered samplers and drum machines in the basement of a local youth centre, and immersed himself in the fundamentals of hip-hop, dub, and DJing in the city’s house parties and underground clubs. After experimenting with house and reggae production, his early releases showed off a blend of all the above, as well as a heavy influence from jazz and funk. This was the beginnings of the famous Bristol sound, a genre inclusive, raucous drum & bass vibe that would propel Roni from the underground to the mainstream.
Roni set up the Full Cycle label in 1993 as an outlet for the experimental music he and his fellow collaborators were making. Under the label Size produced early jungle classics like “Music Box,” followed by more experimental tracks like “It’s a Jazz Thing.” In 1996, Roni formed the Reprazent collective from the core members of the Full Cycle label, transforming electronic music into something that could be played by a live band on the biggest stages. They released their debut album New Forms in 1997, which beat Radiohead’s OK Computer to take home the Mercury Prize in a sensational victory that put Roni and drum & bass firmly on the map. Since then, Roni’s solo and collective releases have been met by huge success, Brit awards, and collaborations with some of the biggest names in hip hop. Roni Size and Reprazent have continued playing to the biggest dancefloors in the world including Coachella, Glastonbury, Creamfields, and many more.
His debut sample pack, ‘Confessions of an Audio Addict,’ is a high-intensity dance floor toolkit that sounds every bit as fresh and vital as the glory days of drum & bass. We caught up with Roni in his Bristol studio to chat about how it all came to be.
What can you tell us about the new sample pack?
I come from a tradition of using old school hardware samplers, which not many people use today. I’ve got quite a bit of hardware lying around and I thought it was about time to start clearing it away into the loft. While I was doing that I came across these old SCSI hard drives that basically had my whole sample library on them, and I just knew that once they went into the loft these sounds would never see the light of day again. There are some amazing sounds on there with that vintage rawness — that authentic Roland S-760 sound — so I decided to sit down, take them off the hard drives and then put them into Pro Tools. That was really the idea behind the sample pack — to share my sounds rather than just stick them in the loft. Sharing is caring!
Are the sounds taken from a specific period in your career?
My friends and I always had a set of go to sounds – breaks, basses, filter settings, and so on – that we would use every time we started making music. We had this palette of sounds going back to around 1990, so we were using floppy discs to store all this stuff until about 1994. Then from ‘96 onwards we started to use hard drives and save to CDs, and nowadays we save to solid state hard drives. Before you’d have six or seven hard drives humming away in the background, making all this noise! They were great though, we used to use them on stage as well so they really were the source of all the sounds.
Do you still use these sounds in your productions, and if so, did you find it difficult to give them away?
Giving away the sounds on those hard drives was kind of like a double edged sword to be honest. I love all those sounds and I’ve used them over and over again in my tracks, and sure, I could keep reinventing them and changing them with today’s production technology. At the same time though, I’m conscious of making a sample pack that represents the Roni Size sound, so there’s no point in me giving away stuff that doesn’t sound like me! So although I was prepared to give the sounds away, they’re still a core part of what I’m doing, a core part of me. I can’t wait to hear what someone else does with them — it’s exciting!
What would you say makes a sample sound like Roni Size?
I think a lot of it comes down to the technology I used during the ‘90s. We were using certain machines, like the Planet Phatts and Orbits from E-mu, that were tailor-made for our sound. I think the way I EQ or pitch a sound is probably different to the way everyone else does it. Most people try to do that kind of thing really precisely, where they look at an analyser and line things up so they’re “musically correct,” whereas I’m all about the ears. I’ll put stuff into a track that might not necessarily work on the spectrum, but it definitely works on the dancefloor.
My sound has been duplicated in many forms, and I love that, because that’s the Bristol sound that put us on the map. So I definitely take it as a compliment when people do that. I think now though, rather than having to rip it from a record, you can just go directly to my sample pack and those sounds are right there for you! It’s all stuff that moves at 174 BPM, a lot of nice minor chord sounds with a jazz and funk vibe. Once you start putting all the pieces together, you’ll be able to hear the makings of a Roni Size tune, but it’s then down to you to make it sound like yourself.
Are there any new technologies that have really changed the way that you make music throughout your career?
I’m a breakbeat guy, and I love finding new plugins that change the ways that breaks work, and toying with the dynamics in them, or taking a break or drum pattern which sounds like a computer drum pattern and making it sound like it’s just come off a record. I’m working with Waves at the moment on this little plugin that makes drums sound like they’ve just come straight off the tape. It makes a drum track sound crusty and more organic than a programmed drum beat. It doesn’t sound separate, it sounds unified, which I really love.
I’m lucky also in that I’ve had quite a few people approach me with projects over the years. I was involved with making a synth with these guys called Krotos, which was quite interesting because you can actually import all your sounds into a module and then use all their filters and everything else.
Producers nowadays have access to so many amazing resources. How do you think that has affected the craft of production?
Back in the day it used to take two hours just to save one record! We used to make a tune in the morning and then save it onto fifteen floppy discs. That would take hours, and then you’d have to get on the motorway to London, go to Music House and cut it on Dubplate that day, then go to the gig and drop the track that night to see if it sounds good. If you wanted to tweak it or change anything you’d have to then come back to Bristol, reload it and go again! That was the process. Sometimes we were so broke we couldn’t afford the floppy discs, or we were late trying to get to London so there was no time to do it. You’d come home and everything would have crashed, so you’d only end up with one version. Sometimes having that one version was the best way forward though, rather than having 15 different versions.
I don’t really look at music production as being too easy these days. It’s not a case of just drag and drop, or just pressing buttons – far from it. As a producer, over the last 30 years, I feel like I’ve built up a pedigree of being able to go in and create my sounds from the ground up. Maybe people don’t have to go to those extremes now with sample packs being available, but you’ve still got to sound original, that’s the most important thing. People will know if you’ve just taken a whole loop or a whole riff and pawned it off as your own. As long as you’re contributing though, it’s alright. We used to sample records from everyone, and we didn’t give a shit, so I guess it’s just modern day sampling!
Watch Roni Size demonstrate how to make a classic Bristol drum & bass beat below.