Student Spotlight: Stephan Bugaj aka BlackIce

Periodically, I have the supreme satisfaction of watching a student of mine knock it out of the park.  And by that I mean succeed at their own stated ambitions.  Today’s win goes to Stephan Bugaj who submitted the following track to my MixLab course.

Killer, right?  Rather than nit-pick through a series of extremely minor, and arguably opinion-based adjustments, I decided instead to walk the class through everything I thought Stephan was doing right, which are many.  And in that same spirit, I thought it would be just as educational to interview him here in order reveal a bit more about the person behind the mix, and illuminate even more of what he is doing “right”.

Jake: How long have you been making music, and making music with computers?  How did it start?

Stephan Bugaj: I’ve been making (unusual) music since I found my mom’s acoustic guitar when I was a kid.  I started making what is now called doom/drone music (back then it was just called “why don’t you play that guitar properly or put it away?”) by playing long sustained acoustic guitar notes, and using the wood body as a drum, because I’ve always been fascinated by timbre and rhythm most of all.  My discovery of the wonders of tape recorder experiments came not long after.  Since we were poor, that acoustic guitar, pots and pans, and a one-track tape deck were my only instruments for years.

I started making music with computers when my love of video games inspired me to spend all my summer job and Christmas money on a Commodore 64.  I started programming games, graphics and sounds in BASIC, and then got into early trackers like Soundmonitor.  My love of rhythm and timbre got me into Postpunk, Industrial and early underground dance music, and thus into sampling (via tape deck initially), junk percussion, and a Korg MS-10 I bought for a hundred fifty bucks (my cousin eventually gave me her DW-6000, also).  I moved from the C64 to an Amiga (and Macs at school), which ultimately led me to sequencers like Dr. T’s KCS and then full-blown DAWs like Pro Tools and Logic (and more advanced offboard synths).  When I started working as a programmer, I was able to buy myself some real gear and put together my first proper home studio around Logic and Mackie gear.

Composing with looping clips was a natural fit with my way of thinking about music, and I was immediately hooked.

Jake: When did you discover Ableton Live?

SB: I first heard of Ableton Live not long after it was released, but believed it was only useful for DJing and live performances and stuck with Logic for years — until enough friends touted the virtues of Live that I decided to give Live 8 a try.  Composing with looping clips was a natural fit with my way of thinking about music, and I was immediately hooked.  Changing-up my DAW and my approach also broke me out of a rut.  I’ve composed more since switching to Live than in the decade prior.

Jake: What is some of your “go to” gear / plugs at the moment?

SB: In terms of sources, of course I love the usual EDM/electronica suspects like Sylenth 1, Massive, and FM8 — but Steve Duda’s new Serum synth jumped to the head of the list as soon as I started Beta testing it for him.  It’s super clean, and a lot more powerful and flexible than it may seem at first glance.  Omnisphere, Rayblaster, Nemesis, the Arturia V-Collection, Cyclop, Spire, Diva, Zebra and Synthmaster also often make appearances on my tracks. And when I want to short-circuit the sound design process, I find ReFx Nexus usually delivers.  For orchestral sounds I use EastWest, though I do hate their flaky playback and licensing engines.

The surest way to fail is to give up.

SB: When it comes to processing, I used to be a big Waves user, but I’ve drifted away from them in recent years.  Now I often find myself reaching for Sausage Fattener, Ohmicide, Etch and WOW, as well favorites from my UAD collection such as the Fairchild compressor, 1176 limiters, UAD 610 pre, SSL E-series strip, EMT 140 & 250 verbs, Ampex ATR-102, Roland Dimension D, Thermionic Culture Vulture and Shadow Hills mastering compressor.  I haven’t used all of that rare hardware, so I don’t know how faithful the emulations are, but I know the UAD plugs sound good.  And while I have a zillion EQs, I find myself nearly always using Live’s EQ8 because it’s rather transparent and quite flexible (for character EQ I’ll use the UAD Manley or Pultec, usually).  Altiverb 7 almost always ends up on a send and used to create an overall unifying room verb.  I also very frequently use iZotope Alloy and Ozone, and have a certain fondness for cheap or free compressors with character like Rocket and Molot.

So my track channels generally look something like this:  synth, channel strip, saturation/distortion, filters, doubling/flanging, compression, EQ, tape emulation (roughly emulating a hardware setup), and then an Ableton limiter used for gainstaging.

Jake: Do you use any outboard hardware?

SB: For many years I used outboard hardware almost exclusively, and I have a lot of it I’ve collected over the decades.  Now I find working “in the box” so amazingly convenient, and the sound of modern plugins so oustanding, that I find myself reaching for outboard gear much less than I used to.  And I’m moving to a smaller place, so that’ll be even more so the case for a while.

But gear like my Oberheim OBMx and Matrix 12, Memorymoog, and Alesis Andromeda haven’t been emulated yet — and even if they were I would never give up any of those synths.  (And while there is a SCI Pro One VST, it’s rubbish.)  My Eurorack modular, Dave Smith Evolver and Moog Sub Phatty are newer boxes I especially like.  I also still route some signals through my Drawmer 1969 tube compressor, Eventide H949, or Sherman Filterbank. I have a lot of other gear that I use on special occasions.  All that off board gear sounds great, but it requires a lot more patience than working with plugins (and repair costs are killer when — not if — things fail).

But outboard versus “in the box” goes in phases for me.  Ask me again in a year or two, and perhaps I’ll be back to mostly using hardware.

Jake: How would you describe your “style”?

SB: Eclectic.  My current material is highly influenced by contemporary EDM styles like Dubstep, Trap, Complextro and Electro House, but my Industrial, EBM, Electro, DnB, Synthpop, Hip Hop, Breaks, Fidget, Glitch, IDM, Techno, Trance and even Metal and Postpunk roots still “leak” into my tracks all the time.

Jake: What inspires you / motivates you in the studio?

SB: Other people’s music.  There’s so much great music in the world, of all kinds, that I draw my inspiration from listening to music.  I also draw a lot of inspiration form movies — especially movie sound design and scores — which makes sense since I’m also a filmmaker.

I also draw a lot of inspiration from my daughter.  She likes to dance, so I like to make tracks she can dance to. Fortunately for me, given my eclecticism, she’s still young enough that she’ll dance to essentially anything.

Collaborations are also very inspiring to me. I know what I am not good at, and working with people who are better than I am at those things is both inspiring and motivating.  I have some collabs in the works I’m very excited about, and hope come to fruition.

But the biggest motivational factor of all is trying to reach an audience.  I am continually motivated by the idea that something I create will one day resonate with an audience and move them in a similar way to how it moved me in the studio.

Jake: Where do you begin?

SB: If I have some idea in my head of what I want I’ll usually fire up a favorite synth, load a sound that is something like what I’m thinking of (or create one if I don’t already have it), and then play (or mouse) a phrase into a session view clip.  Then I’ll loop that and start adding to it until I like the “scene” (as it’s called in Ableton).

I often let my initial scenes loop for an hour or so while I do something else — if I’m not totally sick of them by then, then I figure there’s something good in there and will proceed with working the track.

I often let my initial scenes loop for an hour or so while I do something else — if I’m not totally sick of them by then, then I figure there’s something good in there and will proceed with working the track.  I’ll then duplicate that and build it up into sets of scenes that form a progression, and then build new scene sets in roughly the same way until I have enough to go into arrangement view and start laying them out into tracks.

If I have no clear track idea in my head, I’ll either grab samples and loops and mess around until an idea presents itself (or I create a total mess and abandon it), or I’ll sit at the keyboard and plow through my library of synth patches until I find a sound that inspires me to start writing phrases with it.  Those have roughly equal chances of success with me, so which one I go with depends mainly on mood.

Jake: What’s your favorite part of the process?

SB: To paraphrase the filmmaker Hiyao Miyazaki: I like the joy of starting projects, and the relief of being finished — everything in-between is torture.

But of all the torturous parts of the process, I most enjoy writing those looping phrases. I also love sound design, but I do that as part of my iterative phrase writing process, so that’s everything I love the most all lumped together.

Jake: Do you play your original tunes live?  Can you describe that setup / process / ideology?

SB: I haven’t played live in quite a while — but when I do play live my ideology has always been to give the audience something more than they could get from being at home listening to a recording.  A live performance should involve some actions on the part of the performer that makes the live version of the track different than the recorded one.

And since my live style developed under the influence of acts like Kraftwerk, Front 242, Skinny Puppy, EBN, etc. (whose performance styles in turn influenced acts like Daft Punk and Justice, who in turn influenced the current wave of EDM acts), visuals were always a part of it, along with some kind of physical performance.

One reason I haven’t played live in so long is that I hate playing live solo, so I’m hoping one of my collabs might evolve into something that could go live as a duo or team, which would actually be enjoyable.

Jake: When did you decide you wanted to take some online course, and when did you discover and  Which courses have you taken?  Which ones are you thinking about taking?

SB: I decided to take online courses when I realized I wanted to make EDM influenced material, but my production and songwriting skills were stuck in about 1998.  All the EDM guys I made friends with were too busy being successful to help me out, so I went the classes route.  I’ve taken Drew/Vespers’ Audio Weapons, Andrew/Myagi’s Art of Synthesis, and Jake/Spire’s Mixing and Mastering Class and Mixlab.

I wouldn’t be where I am today with my music making if it wasn’t for the Vespers and Warp Academy classes I’ve taken.  In the future I’ll probably keep going with MixLab, Accelerate Coaching and Pimp My Track type courses.

Jake: Where can people hear more of your work?  Website?  Soundcloud?

SB: Everything I do ends up connected to my website one way or another.  My main Soundcloud is:  Most of that is older material.  I’m working on a lot of newer stuff that’s not up on Soundcloud, so keeping an eye on the website and my Twitter (@stephanbugaj) will keep interested folks informed about new tracks (and upcoming new projects / collabs) as they are released.

Jake: Anything else you’d like to share?

SB: The surest way to fail is to give up.  If someone reading this isn’t yet getting what they want from their music, do something to change that: collaborate, take classes, change your habits or workspace or software — do something to change things up and take a fresh approach.  Most people won’t ever be rock stars, but if you find your way to making music that makes you happy, that’s what matters.

Jake: Thank you Stephan!  Keep up the incredible work!