Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Thomas Sage, I’m a 30 year old producer from Sydney Australia. I’ve been producing music since 2007. In 2014, received my bachelor’s degree in audio engineering from JMC Academy, where I went to school to learn how to make beats but ended up learning nothing. In hindsight, I think it made me more professional.
I have ghost produced for many artists, some of which have won competitions with my music and others are like Korean ballad singers with half a million views. I’ve produced various types of music starting with hardstyle, hardcore, and trance, but then I shifted over to softer styles like house, hip-hop, and pop.
I currently have 2 brand new projects: ZENSEI and ARPSOUL. One is industrial rap and the other is EDM fusion combining soul & dance. It’s taken about 10 years to refine my craft and finally come out with a style that I can call my own. I’ve been under the radar for a long time because I think, like a lot of other artists, I just wasn’t completely and fully satisfied with my craft. Now, I’m much more confident in my sound which is why I moved forward on ARPSOUL and ZENSEI. I just released my first single under ARPSOUL on March 16th.
I gave it a listen and I thought it was a very diverse track. I really loved your use of triplets in it.
Thanks! I needed to differentiate it from everything else. Deadmau5 showed me the beauty of triplet in EDM.
Let's go back to the beginning: what sort of musical background do you have? I have never played a musical instrument in my life. I never learned any formal music theory like I don’t understand A from D. Everything I’ve learned is from just listening and conditioning myself to music. When I first started, I didn’t even know what time signatures were; I just knew 4/4 and triplets sounded different. At the time I just made a mental note of the different feeling rhythms. In time I figured it out, though, as you can see in my latest single.
Moving on, in high school I was a big raver. I went through a time of serious existential questioning asking questions like, “What’s life about? Why am I here? Why should I bother with school?” I ended up finding some other people who were going through the same thing and the introduced me to raves when I was 15.
That day my changed my life. I found my new home in dark, dank warehouses listening to strange music blasting out of busted speakers. This new music was raw, full of dissonant rhythms and melodies; completely the opposite of the major chords and the cheesy lyrics from the radio. I finally found music I could relate to and I learned that life isn’t just about the Top 40 mindset and that sometimes life is bleak.
But from there I got addicted to dance music. I first fell in love with the hardest type at first: Hardcore Gabber, but that evolved into hardstyle which I would listen to for 12 hours a day, literally. One day I thought that these tracks are getting boring and I started thinking about how I would have made it differently if I had produced it. Finally I thought, “Man, I just have to change this.” So I downloaded FL Studio and started to learn how to make my own music.
Listening to hardstyle for 12 hours straight? That’s quite something! How did you consume that much music?
I used to go on a site called livesetsonline.nl and download 10-15 livesets from my fav DJs. I would just put them on loop all day so I was literally exposed to 100-200 different melodies a day. I didn’t know any better way to get that much music back in the day. No way I would have the patience to do that now. You gotta understand I was a lonely kid back then. Now I have a family and a kid so time is much more valuable to me.
After 10 years, I’ve heard a lot of shit and now I just assume that 99% of EDM is shit. We have a bunch of shitheads with no originality regurgitating shit all day hoping that the formulas that worked before will still work. News flash: they won’t. That’s why EDM is dying. It’s going to burn to ash until the new wave of talent comes out. Then we will have another bubble and the cycle continues. Some of this talent will be sadly overlooked until one of them goes mainstream and then we’ll all flourish again.
So what do you think is a genre that has been around for too long?
Dubstep. Please die already Progressive house, please no more 2012-2017 produced enough prog house for 50 years Mumble trap needs to die and is dying. Good.
What would you like to hear more of/create instead?
Future everything! Like more interesting combos: Future Gospel, Future Neo Soul, or Future Jazz. Future Soul is also great, I would classify myself as that or Future - XXX depending on what I’m feeling in the moment. People need to start combining more interesting elements then we will see a more colourful musical landscape
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Back to your journey in producing, why did you choose FL over the others?
FL Studio just looked more appealing. Plus, one of my friends in high school was using it way back when it was Fruity Loops 3 so I knew a little bit about it already. To be honest I wasn’t even aware of any other DAWs at the time.
I downloaded the FL Bible off BitTorrent and started to learn. In the beginning I started and stopped about six times in the first six months; it was just so hard to figure shit out and I was impatient. Every time I heard a shitty track, I would get determined to get back in there to try and make something better. Seriously though, the whole process of learning was grueling.
How did you go about learning?
Just trial and error, reading the Fruity Loops Bible, and watching YouTube tutorials. Back then YouTube was scarce with content so there wasn’t much. I would also crawl through Hardstyle forums in the producer section. Forums were a big part of my early development for sure. If you want to see all of my development and progression on my old (Soundcloud) page.
What is your process for making a song? What comes first?
It’s actually pretty ironic, I’m not musically trained but I’m essentially a melody guy. I almost always start by opening a VST, finding a familiar synth like a piano or Rhodes and just sift through melodies.
I’ll write like 10 chord progressions, like 10 of them, and then I won’t stop until I find one that sounds unique. I usually gravitate towards darker or more soulful, jazzy progressions because they’re more unique and give tracks more flavour.
I almost never touch major chord progressions because they make me physically sick when I hear them to the point where I will have to stop listening
Same! I don’t know why but major keys just grind my gears.
Yep, something about them just screams boring and conformist. I think it reflects a modern sheep society which is my worst nightmare. I just stay away from the sound altogether.
Hahaha can I quote that?
What percentage of tracks do you finish?
It used to be about 2%. Like in the beginning I was an idea whore. I think it just goes with the territory of experimenting. Once you spend a decade making and throwing away ideas, you learn more about what you like and you become more efficient because you don’t want to waste any time on shitty tracks. Nowadays I finish about 60% of my tracks because I just don’t spend the time to try and finish projects I’m not fully invested in. When you produce long enough, you recognize shit more quickly, like you’re more likely to drop projects in 10-15 minutes if nothing is happening,
By the way, finishing tracks is a skill. It must be learned and forced. I could have been a loop ninja forever but as I got older I was like this is getting ridiculous so I had to learn to endure pain, buckle down, and finish.
How long did it take to finish tracks 5 years ago versus now? For instance how long did it take to finish your first single under ARPSOUL?
To be honest, another misconception is that good tracks take more time and effort to finish. This may be the case sometimes, but I’ve found that throughout my career, my best tracks were the tracks I finished the quickest. I would say it takes about 3-4 hours to finish my nicest tracks whereas I would spend 2 to 3 months finishing a track that I ended up not caring about.
The idea for “Time Slips Away” was created in 30 minutes as a FL studio producer group challenge. What happened was I was on the Facebook group and I challenged people to create a track in half an hour. I got a bunch of great submissions and my own 30 minute challenge became my first single. It took another 10 hours to finish and refine the track but the main idea was down in half an hour.
Does that 3-4 hours you mentioned include mixing and mastering?
Sometimes. Sometimes not. But for a fully polished piece, I think maybe 10 hours is more realistic for full mixing and mastering. 3-4 hours is usually the point where all arrangement, instrumentation, layering, and structure is finished. Sometimes it can be 10 hours straight, but most times it’s over a few sessions. For me, it’s important to really push the juices when the idea is flourishing and flowing, otherwise I lose momentum and the project dies. Usually in that first session I push hard to finish the whole track, not worrying about sonic quality or polish.
What are some of your recommended plug-ins?
My favourite plugins are as follows:
Synths: Sylenth1 only. This makes 99% of my synth sounds.
Mixing plugins: I have all of them, but my favs are:Fab filter bundle, Waves Diamond Bundle, FL Stock plug-ins, Melodyne, and Effectrix.
It’s also very important to have a massive library of sample packs. I have about 500GB in all genres. It helps to be versatile.
Do you have any tricks to layering?
Different genres require different kinds of layering. Progressive House is all about layering the leads. Some may have up to 10 layers, then the chords will have 3 layers, and the baseline will have 3 as well. House and Electro are another example where the leads are layered at least 2-3 times and the bass lines consist of 3 layers which are the sub-bass, mid, and crunch high frequencies. If you are wondering why my tracks just don’t sound as phat at first, it was all because I wasn’t layering properly. I think I’ve gotten it down better now, for sure.
There are 2 types of layering in my experience:
1. Layering to make 1 element. Which is layering 7 leads to make one massive lead sound.
2. The other is element layering which is having a dense mix of many elements together to create a complex sounding mix.
Layering is important in the genres that rely on individual elements being larger than life. For example, if you are making a hip-hop/trap track and you want the drums to kick your head off, you’ll need to layer a few kicks together to make that earth-shaking kick sound.
What about mastering?
The number one key to understand is that, if your mix sucks then your mastering will suck more. You can never rely on a master to fix things because it will always amplify the shit. Mastering is the easy part in my opinion; it’s everything that comes before it that’s hard. You’ve got to have the perfect instruments and samples before you can make the perfect arrangement and structure, and then you’ve got to use all that to make the perfect mix. So really for the master to be good, it has to start with all of those other pieces and processes. If everything up to the mix is done correctly, then the master is sometime as simple as a master bus compression, a little EQing, some stereo widening, and you’re done.
Thoughts on compression?
I don’t use too much because I don’t like the sound. It’s a hot topic because everybody uses too much since they’re all trying to get that thumping sound. The reason why music is so boring these days is because there aren’t enough dynamics. If you want compression to be a part of your sound, then by all means use it to create the sound you’re seeking. Otherwise, only use it sparingly and only as a problem-solving tool like me because you get a more dynamic sound that way. I only use compression to trim the transient, tighten a kick, or on the input of a microphone to tame peaks.
Good sound choices and smart engineering is a more important for me and my sound than compression. I’ve listed some other tools and methods below that might be helpful for producers to look into if they’re trying to improve their sound or style.
using the in and out knob on your sampler
These are the tools you can use besides compression to really change your sound and take it to the next level.
Big thank you to ARPSOUL/ZENSEI for opening up about his past and imparting some of the knowledge he has picked up over his 10 years of production experience. Be sure to follow his latest projects on social media!
ARPSOUL/ZENSEI Official Website
ARPSOUL on Twitter
ARPSOUL on Youtube
ARPSOUL on Instagram
ARPSOUL on Facebook
ARPSOUL on Soundcloud
ARPSOUL on Spotify
ZENSEI on Facebook
Listen to his first single under ARPSOUL below! His second single, "No Games," will be dropping Friday, March 23rd!
Chris W. Lao
DJ, writer, and student.
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