Published Oct 13, 2013Vanese Smith, known for her genre-blending bass music as Pursuit Grooves, has been busy over the past couple of years. The Red Bull Music Academy graduate has released several EPs, a full-length album and a remix for Sweden's arch weirdoes the Knife. She has also found time to teach a production class for women at Toronto's Off Centre DJ School.
Growing up outside Washington, DC, Smith often felt like an anomaly, being the only woman amongst her producer friends. "When you tell people you make music," says Smith, "the first question is gonna be 'Oh, you're a vocalist?' As a female they never assume you're a producer." Although Smith asserts that she was never overly concerned about being a woman in a male-dominated field, she suspects that others might feel intimidated and wanted to offer a chance to budding female producers to learn in a testosterone-free space.
One thing that's immediately apparent about the class is that it's not MacBook Pros loaded up with Ableton Live taking centre stage, but the BOSS SP-505, a vintage sampler later bought up by Roland. "At first, I was hesitant doing this class predominately using equipment that's not today's popular program or tool." says Smith. "As a producer we tend to make that one of our first questions. Everyone wants to know what you're using and I wanted to take the focus off of that. There's also so much about the 505 that contributed to the reasons why I got into music production. When I started making music it was because it's an art form in which to express myself and that sampler was a tool that would easily allow me to get that out."
Despite some obvious downsides to using older gear — the storage media for the sampler has been discontinued — Smith feels that the inherent limitations with hardware can often be liberating. "This entire course is about the journey of creation. It's not really about samplers. I'm teaching different ways to capture and manipulate sound and how to get your ideas and thoughts across in a creative way and not so much focussed on the technical aspects of it."
To a musician new to production, the open-ended nature of a lot of music software can paradoxically become a hindrance, whereas having strict technological limitations can often push you to be creative. "It makes you pay a lot more attention to what you're doing," says Smith "Sometimes when you have too many options you never really get to master them." As well as the software being complicated, slower to learn and potentially daunting, you also risk getting lost in the plethora of settings and filters. "If you look at the hip-hop producers back in the day, like Pete Rock or DJ Premier, who were hardcore into sampling, they were working with samplers that had 12 seconds of sampling time. That pushes you to really be creative."
Despite an abundance of online tutorials, Smith believes that mentorship and in-person classes are still important and that, even as barriers to entry are lowered with the introduction of new technology, the need for basic production skills doesn't diminish. "Technology's changing so quickly," says Smith, "and it's very easy to lose a lot of information in that gap. These classes are multi-purpose: for building a community, building a safe space and as a way for me to see who else is here in Toronto."
Talking to Smith, it becomes obvious that the commonality of her approach in the disciplines of production and teaching is an emphasis on the creative process. "What I'm really trying to push is trusting your ears and trusting in your gut. The approach to music isn't mechanical, it's more about a feeling. So if the swing feels good, if that bass feels good, that clap or loop or whatever it is feels good, then go with it. Not so much 'Let me set this at 124 BPM, let me put the kick here and the snare here.' Not that there's anything wrong with that approach."
Even the most hardware-led production spends its final days in the computer and upon asking Smith which software she prefers to edit in, she coyly pauses for thought and then laughs "GarageBand! Just for laying things out. If you can mix it decently then it's gonna go and get mastered and get bumped up anyway. The important thing is having a really good musical sense. If you have a bad song you can't make it better with software."
Check out an sampling instructional video from Pursuit Grooves here.