Machine love: KiNKClassic Chicago house by way of Sofia. RA discovers the surprising method behind the sound and style of Bulgarian producer, KiNK. After plying his production trade out of Sofia, Bulgaria for the past ten years, it only took a couple of seconds for KiNK to go stellar. Although the producer, real name Strahil Velchev, had experienced reasonable amounts of success in tandem with UK producer Neville Watson and their releases for Rush Hour subsidiary Hour House Is Your Rush, it was (in my own mind at least) around the midpoint of his 2009-released track “Trevoga” that Velchev truly came into his own. As syncopated Todd Terry-esque snares buckled under strain of an interminable arpeggio line, there was a brief flash of stasis—as there is in all the best dance floor records—in which you didn’t know what the fuck was going to happen next. The track sat alongside a further pair of wonderfully wayward house jams on the Psyche Funk EP for the Undertones label, although much of Velchev’s prior and subsequent work has been an exploration of more traditional tropes.
Although by his own admission Velchev’s output in 2010 has been on the heavy side, few would argue that the impact of his work has waned as a result. His name lit up January DJ charts as he and Neville Watson turned in an intrepid dance floor re-touch of DJ Sprinkles’ “Masturjakor,” while liebe*detail, Freerange, Pets Recordings and Get Physical have all since etched “KiNK” into their remix credits. Given his propensity for all things acid and old school, perhaps the least surprising of Velchev’s numerous label homes was Josh Wink’s Ovum. The Rachel EP was as sweaty and retrospective as anything the label has emitted in its 15-year history. So with all this retroactive noise circulating, you could very reasonably deduce that Velchev’s classic sounds are mirrored in production process. Well, you’d be partially correct. I discovered that the truth was a little more intriguing than simply “hardware and analog” as I called up Velchev’s Sofia studio.
You told me that you had a few issues with your gear when I saw you in Panorama Bar for your live show?
Yeah, unfortunately. I bought two new controllers for my live act, and I haven’t got to test them enough in Sofia. I found out that there is some conflict between the two controllers. On the first track I tried to play, one of the controllers that is more important for the live act just stopped working, and I had to reset the software in order to activate the controller again. Then for the whole live set I was really careful, not doing much, just trying to keep the equipment going on. So I was not really happy, because I couldn’t be as active as I would be if the gear was 100% working… In some parts towards the end I did some stuff that was completely live without any prepared loops, but I was afraid to do it any longer because I was afraid the system would crash.
What do you use for live jamming?
I have a couple of options. For this particular live [set] I had to use Ableton Live with controllers. I do different kinds of gigs: I DJ, I do a live PA for two hours and I have a combination of DJ sets together with a hardware live act. For this live act in Panorama Bar I had to play live for two hours, and the only chance was to use the computer, because I could play my whole tracks—the promoters expect to hear the productions—and the only opportunity to do this is to use the computer where everything is pre-arranged.
The other kind of live I do is with some drum machines like the Vermona DRM. It’s not the new Vermona that’s being produced lately, it’s a very old drum machine with a TR-style sequencer that you can program some beats on in real time. So I usually bring this when I have a DJ set and when I have a chance to do a really short live set for 30 minutes. I also have a very small synthesizer called Nord Micro Modular, it can be assigned with the Vermona. Also I use a very funny Japanese toy called Gakken analog synthesizer.
What sort of sound do you get out of it?
It just has one waveform, which is a sawtooth waveform. I can actually switch it on. [demonstrates]
It sounds very 8-bit.
Yeah. It’s just one oscillator with a sawtooth waveform. It has attached LFO to the pitch of the waveform; it has good resonance, that’s it really. If you use it live together with some other basic setup it’s pretty cool. But you can’t really do a long live set with just with a simple drum machine and very basic synthesizers.
Do you actually enjoy playing live with Ableton?
I’m not really into the Live thing, because first of all I don’t use Ableton for production, and I’m not that familiar with the software. Of course, it’s very basic and very easy software to learn, but I don’t feel that free with Ableton compared to other guys who are using it all the time. Also, my tracks, the way I produce music is different. I run my tracks through tape, and I do some processing on the whole mix. It’s very hard for me to distribute the track on channels or loops. For other guys it’s very easy to render tracks on channels and put them on Ableton, or just use their Ableton project. For me, it’s really hard work to adapt every track for a live act.
I have to take it from my other software which is called Jeskola Buzz. It’s very strange modular software. It doesn’t have an option to render, you have to record. It doesn’t have offline export. So I have to record every channel one by one. Also there is some bug in the software. When you export something, the software adds some air in the beginning of the sample. And every time you export something, the air, this space is different. If you have all the channels, and you just place them on the software, they are not going to be in time, they are not going to be in sync… For me, preparing a full track for Ableton is a nightmare.
Could you explain how Buzz works to people who maybe aren’t familiar with it?
Let’s say it’s a kind of modular software. It’s kind of related to programmes like Reaktor, or Max/MSP. But it’s not as complex as those programmes. It doesn’t emulate a real hardware studio. You don’t have to use a mixer; you don’t have this interface that emulates the real machines. You just have simple blocks. In one of the views of this programme, you just have to imagine that you’re looking at the studio from the roof. You see some blue blocks that in the programme are called generators. Those blue blocks are, let’s say, the machines that are making the sound, synthesizers, samplers. There are other blocks that are pink, they are called effects, and they are effects like reverb, delay, equalization, dynamics effects, everything that you put the signal through.
Beside the modular fashion of the machine routing there is another interesting thing: Buzz is a “multiple pattern sequencer tracker” which means that the interface is very numeric. You add notes through the computer keyboard. You type commands to call effects or to control some kind of parameters using the hexadecimal numeral system. You don’t draw automation with your mouse, all you see in the Pattern/Sequencer views is points and numbers. And you type commands.
How do you find its sound quality?
I’m not sure if the sound quality of Buzz is good. For me it was always a problem to have a solid low end in the tracks… In my productions the sound quality is not the leading thing. The idea and the character, the design is most important for me. If I manage to transfer a great idea into an audio file, and if I manage to make a recording with special sound, I don’t care if the track is too quiet, the bass is too much or the hi-hats are too loud in some parts. I would sacrifice a good mix-down for a special sound.
When did you first start using it?
I started to use it in 1999, just because at that time I was struggling to start making music. I didn’t have money to buy hardware. Also, in Bulgaria, in our music stores we haven’t got those popular samplers or drum machines that are the basics for electronic music. So the only option for me was to start using a computer. In 1999 my first computer was a really basic machine, it was like 133 MHz. It was really slow. 16 MB of RAM. So I needed good software which I would be able to operate in real time, but at the same time I needed light software without big requirements. Buzz was this thing. It was very light, the interface was very ugly. It doesn’t need much RAM memory to calculate. That was the only reason to start with Buzz.
I later realized how powerful a platform it is. In 2002, I tried other programmes like Reason and Cubase. Later I tried Ableton when it wasn’t as advanced as it is now. And I just didn’t feel comfortable with having connections into the mixer that are not in front of my eyes.
Do you feel like having used Buzz for all these years has affected your sound?
I don’t think it affected my production, because the process I learned to make music was just to listen to my favourite music, and try and learn how to make it with Buzz. It definitely gave me freedom compared to the programmes which were available ten years ago when I started to spend more time in music production. So no, I think this software just gave me the freedom to make what was already in my mind.
I’ve seen the video you’ve put online of you and Neville Watson jamming. Is this an approach you often take to your tracks?
No, definitely not. That’s why when I gave you this gear list [pre-interview] I told you that I have an inspirational part of the studio which I use to enjoy when I make some sounds. And the other part of the studio is just my computer with the software.
Let’s say when I want to make a track, I think of the track when I am out with friends, or in bed when I am about to fall asleep. When I sit at the computer I already have some idea what I am going to do. I sit there, and I start to programme. It is a very cold process; it’s not really impulsive and emotional. The emotional process is before, when I walk outside and think about projects, or when I listen to other people’s music and like some sound.
So something like the Vermona drum machine will never feature in your tracks?
No, I’ve never used any hardware on my tracks. I learn what the behaviour of the hardware is. Later, on the computer, I emulate the behaviour. But I don’t go with the hardware and tweak live and record. That’s probably something I would like to do in the future, because the more I travel I have the chance to visit some great shops. For example when I was in Berlin I was in a very great shop called Schneider’s Buero, and I bought a very cool small analog synthesizer called MFB Synth II.
I’ll probably think of a separate project, which will be made totally live with this gear. But it’s for the future. So far for my production it’s thinking before and then sitting at a computer doing it with a clean mind—without being affected by something, without emotion in the moment when I am writing the tracks.
Basically how I make music: if it’s going to be a dance track I make the basic loop with all the elements. I make a loop which I imagine is the stronger part of the track. Then I just copy the loop in the sequencer, and start to remove some elements. So when I have this strong loop I stand up and imagine that I am in the club. I start to tweak the controllers and do this live thing. I dance a little bit, and I try to feel the track—does it work on me? It’s after I have this basic idea, I try to test this track on myself. I try to imagine if the people are going to dance to it.
Let’s talk about your work with Neville Watson. Do you work face to face?
No. It’s a very interesting project. Actually we’ve worked together for two years and we hadn’t met for all this time. It’s very funny. When I released my first record on vinyl in 2005, I noticed he was playing it. I already knew of him as a DJ and a producer. A friend of mine from France booked him, and I saw a picture of him playing my first record. I thought it’s cool to send him an email to say thank you for the support. So we found that we had a passion of the old school sound, we thought it would be cool to make a track together.
So he sent a couple of sounds. I put the sounds into my software, added a bassline and a beat, and developed a track with his sounds. At that time we didn’t use Skype, we just used email to send the loops and discuss the music. We did this first track just as a joke. I put the track on MySpace, I didn’t offer it to any labels. And one day I added Rush Hour label on MySpace even though I hadn’t mailed them. I just added them as a friend. And half an hour later I had an email from them: “this first track on your player: is it available?” That’s how everything started.
“I would sacrifice a good
mix-down for a special sound.”
You’ve talked before about how you and Neville have a shared appreciation of old school house sounds. What do you think it is about these productions that excites you so much?
I’ve listened to house and techno since late ’91. So this specific sound is very deep in my heart. I was 12 years old when I started to listen to that kind of music, and it left a very big mark on me. I guess it’s very different if you start to listen to any kind of music when you are 20, or 18, and when you’re younger. I guess if I’d had the opportunity to make music or DJ at that age, I’d probably get over the old school sound and look for the new thing. But now I have the chance to release music, and I want to incorporate this music that I loved in the past and didn’t have the chance to make and to play in the past.
I wanted to talk a bit about your output over the past two years as you seem to put out a lot of records. Have you been inspired more over the past two years? Do you make a lot of music that isn’t released?
No, I don’t have anything lying on my hard drive. For the past two years, everything I have produced has been released. The thing is, I’ve been listening to electronic music for quite a long time, and I was struggling to start making music. Then I started to make music in 1999 or 2000. It took five years from the moment I had already completed production for release until I released my first record. So I was really struggling to get my music out. When I had some connections with smaller labels, I just had the desire to put out more and more music because I hadn’t had the chance to do it for so many years.
For the first couple of years I was producing, no one wanted to release my music. When I started making some connections, I promised everyone “yes, I am going to make a release for you.” At some point I gave so many promises, I had to catch up with it. I did too many tracks, I was too generous maybe. I wish I would make less, I wish I would spend more time with the production. That’s what I’m going to do from now on. Since I released my first records, it was never like I had ten tracks on the hard drive thinking who to sign the tracks [to]. There were always many labels asking me if I had a track. Since I made my first release I haven’t had a track standing on my hard drive.
I saw on your MySpace you were having some problems with your hearing. How is it at the moment?
Unfortunately it never got better, I have tinnitus. It’s ringing in my right ear. Fortunately, it’s very quiet, and it’s not a problem for my production or DJing. I only hear it in the evening when the computer is switched off, for example when I am in the bathroom and everything is quiet. But it’s a signal that something is very wrong with my ears. I’ve been to 20 doctors; I did some hearing tests that showed that my hearing is quite good for my age. But I have to be very careful from now on. I haven’t DJed for ten months. Now I’m DJing with custom-made earplugs.
How did you sustain the damage do you think?
I used to produce music on headphones. It’s completely wrong. It’s not good for the mixes; it’s not good for the ears. I knew it. But in the beginning when I started to make music, I didn’t have the money to buy normal speakers. I got used to making music on headphones. Later I had some monitors, but I hadn’t got used to making music on speakers. I continued to make music on headphones for ten years. I think that’s the reason.
One night I was finalizing a track, running it through a tape recorder. I wanted to hear the typical tape distortion on the hi-hats, which is the most harmful frequency for your ears. I was listening to those hi-hats for like two hours, just enjoying the great effect of the tape recording. And when I removed the headphones I heard this noise. It was horrible. But there is always something positive. Yes, I have this problem, and it will probably last forever. But from that point I stopped using headphones, I started to DJ with earplugs, and my ears are still in very good condition. The doctor said that I don’t have any hearing loss. So this condition I have will make me more careful, and keep my ears in better condition for longer.