Finishing a project is probably the toughest and most common issue music producers face. For Liam McDonagh, his final project was an ambitious album that would take him out of his comfort zone, but in the wake of COVID-19 his whole process had to change.
We joined Liam to talk about the creation of his new album, 'Dystopian Minds', discuss how he overcame the challenges posed by lockdown, and the importance of deadlines.
Like many of us, Liam's introduction to music came from his dad. Whilst living in France for his early life, this fascination with music continued to grow, and when Liam and his family returned to the UK in 2011, he was ready to take the next step.
A chance discovery of a youth production course in Year 9 introduced Liam to mechanics of DJing and production, which saw him studying music technology for the remainder of school. While preparing for his GCSEs, Liam did his work experience at dBs Music Bristol FE, and it was in this week that he had decided where he was going to go.
For the following two years, Liam built up his knowledge on our BTEC DJ & Electronic Music Production course and it was during this time that he started broadening his sonic horizons working as a sound engineer with Creative Youth Network and Temple Records, which prompted a change of lanes for Liam.
"I was doing a lot of recordings, which played a part in my decision to pursue the Music Production & Sound Engineering degree. It was very similar to a lot of producers where I started with DnB or Dubstep and then I started to venture into other styles and I also wanted to increase the scope of opportunities both in what I’d be creating and where I could go professionally."
Three years on from that decision, and now in his final year at dBs Music HE, Liam found himself presented with a blank canvas in the shape of his final major project.
“I had this thing in the back of my mind where I just wanted to make an album. Like every other producer I have so much unfinished stuff, but when I have a deadline I just do it. So I wanted to create something to compare against where I was in college and see the progression."
“I planned to mix the album on the SSL Duality as well as other desks in dBs and do something that pushed me out of my comfort zone, rather than in-the-box, which is what I would usually do. The same applied to the mastering. I wanted to commit to each choice I made and not have the ability to go back and change something.”
Equal parts ambient and future garage, 'Dystopian Minds' took its inspiration from the likes of Blade Runner, Stranger Things, Burial and Sorrow. "The idea of using outboard equipment and hardware synthesisers was one of the objectives for the project, which Blade Runner obviously shared. That ambient and atmospheric sound was something that really resonated with me, too."
Even up to January the effects of COVID-19 were still not being felt here in the UK, and for Liam, the beginning of the year was the perfect time to begin assembling the building blocks for the album.
"I did a lot of preparation at the start of the year, and used January as the creative process period, where I was booking out studios and the synthesisers like the Prophet '08 and Korg MS-20.
“I made a sample pack to aid the creative process to make the album. Because I knew what kind of vibe I wanted to go with for the overall sound, I could just go through the sounds I’d recorded and drag and drop them into a new sketch to help get me thinking more creatively. Alongside this I’d also done a lot of field recording before Christmas, mostly waves and water and that features heavily across all tracks to unite them sonically. "
With the component parts now assembled, Liam set a schedule to ensure that he was staying on top of the album's creation.
“I was aiming for 7 tracks in total, but also trying to include collaboration. So it wasn’t until the start of February that I was aiming to do one track a week for 7 weeks. That was a challenge, because every week I wanted to go back to the previous one to change stuff, but for the most part I did create a track a week."
Every producer's creative process is different, but we were really fascinated by Liam's sketch approach so we asked him to elaborate on the process.
“Sometimes it would vary, but I would make a sound or synth and would create different chord progressions. One of my weaknesses is that I don’t know much music theory so I wanted to dive into different chords and scales. It was actually Mike Whittaker who I collaborated with who helped me out with this. So I’d use that to build a vibe then think what kind of drum pattern would suit. At the same time I was listening to people like Burial and Sorrow, and while I was trying to replicate those tracks the influence seeped in over time.
“With ‘Replicant’, I was really inspired by this artist Vacant who makes future garage, and his drums really inspired me. I would do something as random as take a field recording from my sample pack and then turned that into a percussive layer within the drums.”
“Creating the sample pack was so beneficial for my creativity. All the field recordings helped it come together and spark something. When that inspiration comes in those sketches, I'm instantly motivated to finish it and see where it goes."
Just a month after writing began, the UK went into lockdown and with it, Liam's plans to utilise the facilities at dBs Music were scuppered.
“That was annoying, but it was just one of those things," says Liam on the closure of the centre. "I’m really happy with how it turned out and it definitely still became what I intended it to be. But in terms of the process I had to change that completely.
"I had to do a weekly journal from the start of January to the end of May, updating my process. I noted in there that I needed to change and go to in the box mixing and mastering. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I’d just hoped to explore out of the box mixing and mastering.”
This marked the first time that Liam had ever considered something like journaling whilst working on a project, and it turned out to be a real boon for his concentration.
"It was definitely good and I did it on Tumblr. Whilst there probably wasn’t anyone checking it week on week, it definitely helped with organising my thoughts for the following week’s tasks. So I was making a plan and keeping to a timeline, which really helped drive me to finish it. I’d never really done that many songs in such a short amount of time so it definitely helped there."
In spite of the restrictions, 'Dystopian Minds' was released on May 22nd, 2020 and the project as a whole was awarded a first by Liam's tutors. Though the conditions will hopefully be very different for his next big release, we asked Liam if he'd be returning to the concept album approach.
"I’ve learned that having a theme and knowing that the tracks need to work together really helped me refine my ideas when I was creating those sketches. If I was just writing a regular track, I could easily start experimenting and write myself into a corner and get stuck constantly reworking a loop.
“That said, even though I knew what I wanted the album to sound like, I didn’t want everything to sound too similar. They had to go nicely together, but you don’t want the theme to be a restriction as well. Having a theme can be really creatively liberating, but you don’t want to impose rules on yourself and restrict yourself from blurring into other styles or making everything sound too similar.
“I know that some artists set a release date before they’ve even made any of the tracks, and I think having a concept is a good driver to ensure a project is finished. As to whether I'll return to creating this way, we'll have to wait and see.
“One of the other things that I’m going to try and stick with is exporting to audio because that was one of the objectives of this album, to commit to my creative choices and also not slow my computer down. If I made a sound and I was happy with it, it was important to bounce it there and then, rather than keep it as MIDI and keep going back. I think that itch to constantly tweak your stuff is something we all struggle with and this was a great way of stopping that.”