As one of the top electronic music producers/writers/sound designers/DJs in the game, Virtual Riot delivers deafening dubstep, bone-shaking future bass, and high-gloss electronic pop to ecstatic crowds around the world. We caught up with the former church organ player-turned-dance-music-maestro in Los Angeles where he shared his musical inspirations, favorite synthesizers, and his approach to making music with Auto-Tune Unlimited plug-ins.
I’m Valentin, aka Virtual Riot. I’m a DJ, producer, and I live in Los Angeles. I come from Germany. I moved here about six, seven years ago, and I have been making music since I was 14, 15 years old. Now I make dubstep, electronic bass music, German bass, and I produce pop songs for other people sometimes. And I also do sound design a lot and make sample packs.
Tell us how you got into music.
Valentin: I got into music through my family, which is very musical because I have an older brother and older sister who were both learning piano when I was six years old. And I thought “Oh, I really want to learn piano, too.” So, I asked my Mom if I could get piano lessons. And she said, “Yeah, sure. Of course.” I had 10 years of piano lessons until I was 16, and then did three more years of church organ lessons to get a church organ license because that was the only way to earn money in the tiny village I was from. And that was actually really helpful because there was a lot of music theory training that was involved with that. Then at the age of around 11 or 12, I got into music production through a CD I found in a box of cereal. It was a demo of Dance eJay, which was very bare bones music production software. You can arrange some loops and they’re all in the same key and all in the same tempo. And I really loved that. And my brother at the time was nine or ten years older than me. He was already getting into music production, so then he hooked me up with my first copy of Cubase and a mini-keyboard. And then that was it.
Let’s talk about your process. How do you typically approach making music?
Valentin: When I start a song, I either start by just playing on the piano and coming up with a melody and a chord progression. I’ll jam for a couple of hours and then eventually that’ll become an idea, and I will record it into MIDI, and then start from there and start the whole song. Or I’ll make a sound in Serum, Massive or any other synth and just slave away on sound design for a couple of hours, then eventually I’ll think, “Oh! That’s a really cool sound! Maybe in this sort of pattern, it’ll sound good.” I’ll draw a little MIDI clip and make a whole drop, and go from there. Or I’ll have a whole drop done, even do the mix down and then, “Oh, now I have to do the intro. I have to see where this goes”. So, it’s either like this or different approaches. Wherever inspiration strikes, I’ll start there.
Virtual Riot tracks use some really interesting samples. How do you find them?
Valentin: I really like finding unique and weird samples to use in my music. And when I first started, I was mostly using Loopmasters where I was going through all kinds of sample packs. There was BHK Industrial Strength Records who had really cool packs on there with drum and bass loops, and dub-sub loops that I was using back in the day. And that actually really got me into wanting to make my own sample packs, as well. And then with Freaky Loops and Famous Audio, I had a bunch of packs I put on Loopmasters, which didn’t have virtual rights on them at first but I just really enjoyed the process of it. I got most of my samples from there. And then I was trying to find other weird ways of finding all kinds of old school samples, stuff from movies or radio recordings. There’s this website called archive.org where you can find royalty free stuff from the fifties or the forties, like these old commercials or training videos like “How To React When The Atomic Bomb Strikes” with this forties-kind-of-announcer voice. And it’s really cool. And so I would use that kind of stuff or go on freesound.org. And I also carry a little field recorder with me. Wherever I go, I’ll record stuff in the wild or on tour. If I’m in the hotel room, I’ll record kitchen pots and pan, glassware, and then see where that takes me.
Any favorite synthesizers?
Valentin: For synthesis, I obviously use Serum a lot but there are a lot of other synthesis plugins that I like that are a little more outlandish or weird, or people don’t know about them. And then also Pigments, Hive. I still use Nexus a bunch for layering, especially with the new update. There’s more editing functions, so that’s nice. But every once in a while I use hardware stuff as well to get away from the computer for a bit. So, I really like modular synths, but obviously they’re expensive and I only got like a couple of modules. But I just hooked them up and got some semi-modular stuff from Endorphines and Dreadbox. And then sometimes I would just have sessions where I would make sounds for two hours and just record the output, just keep twisting knobs. And at the end I will have a two-hour audio file with really weird noises in there, and then start chopping it up, looking for cool parts. Then I’d use that later on all kinds of samplers, and then resynthesize that or throw it into Serum to make a wave table out of it. It’s a little bit of both, but mostly software stuff, because I’m on the road so much so I’m stuck on my laptop. I have to do most things digitally with plugins.
How do you make a great drop?
Valentin: I use a couple tricks to get my songs really loud or to make the drop punch really hard. Because especially in this musical niche of dubstep and electronic bass music, you want it to get it as loud as possible and really compressed, but it also still needs to be dynamic at the same time, and it’s gotta sound good at festivals. I used these things where, on the master, after the mastering chain or before, I might automate the whole song to become a little quieter during the buildup, or maybe even during the whole intro, and then on the drop, I’ll push it by a couple of decibels again. So, it sounds like someone’s taking the volume knob and just turns it up on the drop a little bit. I saw those things in older songs from Knife Party or Pendulum where the whole waveform would be a little smaller at first and then on the drop suddenly it’s a little wider. So, I said, “I’m gonna try that, too.”
What about vocal chops?
Valentin: Vocal chops or, in general, chopping up samples, I would do sometimes on the timeline, just on an audio track or sometimes inside of a sampler. Whether I pick one or the other, I really don’t know if there’s a certain situation where I might prefer one or the other. It sometimes depends on how lazy I feel. If I really wanna put in a lot of work, I’ll put it on the timeline and be really precise with it. Pitch every sample individually and give every sample individual fades. But other times I would just select lots of tiny clips from a sample, put them into a sampler, pitch them all to the correct key, and then just go on MIDI. Maybe sometimes even draw a random pattern. There’s one track I may call “Paper Planes” that has this really intricate vocal chop in the middle and that’s just lots of tiny little clips from all kinds of acapellas in a sampler. And then just literally going like this (pressing buttons motion) on a different 16th note on every 16th bar and just drawing some interesting looking MIDI pattern and then seeing what it sounds like, and then moving it around and looking for happy accidents.
Tell us about how you work with Antares software.
Valentin: What I like about Auto-Tune Slice is that if I drag in the vocal, it cuts it up perfectly and immediately and adds in all the transients. And something I really like about Auto-Tune Slice—that a lot of other samplers don’t have and that I wish they had—is that I can pitch the slices individually. Burial, for example, where he would cut up a vocal and then every syllable would suddenly have a different pitch and it would move around like its own melody. And sometimes the formant shifts with it. Suddenly, the melody goes up, but the formant goes down. These kinds of cool details. I could usually only do it on an audio track, but in Auto-Tune Slice I can do it in the plug-in right there and that’s really cool. A bunch of Antares plug-ins I really like to use are, obviously, Auto-Tune, not just for tuning vocals, but also for the formant shifting to give the vocal a different character. And to do especially that, I really like using just the Throat plug-in to maybe change a male vocal to sound a little more female, or to get this sort of low, pitched-down, formant-shift character that you hear in a lot of Burial songs. People like Porter Robinson use that a lot as well to give a vocal a whole different character or to make it sound robotic, or like some anime girl, even if you’re just a guy singing it. I think that is really cool.
And then the Choir plug-in I would use sometimes if I’m looking to widen the vocal to get more stereo width on it, especially if I only have one monophonic recording and we haven’t recorded any doubles. Plus, there’s Harmony Engine which we’ve been using in my collaborations with Prism on the vocals of Emma who’s been singing on those songs. And a lot of those are on my side-project called Still Kids. It’s more ‘future bass-y’ with big vocoder-y chord stacks behind the vocal where we would feed MIDI into Harmony Engine to basically make the harmonies instead of singing it because we are really looking for the sound—that half-actual recorded overdub harmonies, but half vocoder-y—and it sounds really tight and nice. And I like that sound.
How do you work with vocalists?
Valentin: When I work with vocalists, I prefer doing it here in the studio, because it’s nicer to immediately get spontaneous ideas or something and be a little more creative with it. But often that’s not possible. I have to work over the internet with a lot of people, and we’ll be sending files back and forth. But sometimes that’s cool too because I’ll get an acapella file sent and then there might be a little melody change that I wanna do. I might not want to ask Emma (the vocalist) because she’s not available and I can’t ask Emma overnight; “Oh please, can you change that little note?” So, I might use Auto-Tune or something and feed MIDI into it to change it. And then that might also even be a cool effect because I might not want the formant to track, and so the vocal suddenly gets a different effect. You hear it in Burial tracks where suddenly the note goes up, but the formant goes down and there’s these cool things that can come out of that. Or sometimes I’ve noticed some pop songs do this. We would record in a different key and then intentionally pitch it up to the actual key of the song, so it has this kind of pitch-up or pitch-down effect.
Tell us little about your influences.
Valentin: A lot of my stuff is influenced by video game soundtracks. There’s a bunch of things I used to play a lot when I was younger. Obviously all the chiptune-y stuff like Pokemon and Super Mario, were the chiptune soundtracks I would really enjoy actually listening to. But there’s also the video game music of Portal and Half-Life. I used to be a big Valve fanboy and play all the Valve games, and that had a lot of influence on me, too. And there was this one game that was actually a German production called AquaNox where it was a futuristic underwater thing that was like cyber-punk-y. Humanity lives underwater and it was like a first-person shooter game but you were in a submarine. It was basically spaceships, because it was the future. But the music in the background was kind of like The Prodigy with distorted 303s and trashy drums. And I really love that soundtrack and that’s had a lot of influence on me, too. I’m heavily influenced by the music I listened to when I was younger. Albums from Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard, Genesis, Gentle Giant; very “concept album” stuff where you have different themes reappearing everywhere, or the tracks blend into each other. That’s something I was trying to do on the new album, but it takes a lot of extra effort to really make it work, especially if there’s different tempos and different keys. But the Save Yourself EP had that a lot more where, for instance, the first five songs or something all go into each other and then have reappearing themes or melodies all over the place. There’s one song on the new album called Red Line where basically everything is based on a dotted eighth note pattern. It starts off with the drums doing it, and then in a drop you suddenly have a completely different soundscape, but now the bass is doing it. So, you need to tease a certain theme or rhythmic pattern first for it to make sense if it appears in the drop. There’s still a lot of influence I take from screamo and emo stuff. I used to listen to Alexisonfire, Atreyu, Under Oath, and then eventually I got into Enter Shikari before I even got into electronic music. And they made this amazing blend of trans-dubstep almost, but hardcore metal at the same time and really melodic and really cool. And that was a big influence for me and still is. Then also BT with his Emotional Technology album, because that was one of the first electronic records I used to listen to. And now there’s this new wave of a lot of young kids who get into music production and make crazy stuff, especially now with the ‘melodic rhythm’ and ‘future rhythm melodic dubstep’ scene. There’s a lot of cool stuff I hear now that still inspires me. And I still go by this method of: I listen to something and if I really like it, I think, “I want to do something like this, too. But if I did it, I would do it this way.” And then you bring in your own creativity and you change it. Or I’ll try to remake the sound of someone else that I’ve heard somewhere because I really like it and I wanna know how it’s made. But I obviously won’t get there 100% because I don’t know exactly what they did. But during this process I will learn my own techniques or find my own little thing. “This is what this does and this, well, I didn’t get there 100%, but actually this is cool too and I like this.” And then I might use that. And eventually this brings me to my signature sound, I guess. So, that’s my method there.
Do you mix your own records?
Valentin: I mix my own records and, in rare cases, sometimes it’ll be mastered by someone else if it comes out on someone else’s release, and they have all their stuff mastered by someone else. Or the releases in the past I did with Monstercat, they would have their in-house mastering guy who would do it. But especially in this genre, the mastering and mixing of your own tracks is like a big part of your signature sound.
Valentin: At the end of last year, I put out my first real album (Simulation) and have been touring with it for the last six months. I just came back from Europe from a couple of shows there, played Rampage and now the tour is about to end, and I’m playing a couple of festivals in the summer, like EDC and Tomorrowland. And then after that, towards the end of the year, I wanna sit back down and basically do another album, but a little more conceptual; even more than the last one. The last one had this ‘log in’ and ‘log out’ thing, and this whole virtual reality theme. But I think I could do a whole concept album that’s all connected, and that’s something I really want to work on. And then with that, a live show that’s a little more special and not just a DJ set; maybe bring a keyboard and play some things live. And that’s what I want to work on and rehearse, and get that perfect, and then maybe tour with that again.