We are beyond excited to share with you this fantastic Ableton masterclass session from legendary producer Thinnen.
We take a behind the scenes look at the songwriting process that has made the artist what he is today. Showcasing everything from his studio setup to achieving that signature sound, this masterclass session focuses on the hit single ‘Save Me’, taken from his inspiring 12-track album ‘Others Vol.4’.
Origin and Others
Hi, I’m Thinnen. I’m from a town in the North West of the UK called Macclesfield. I’m an entirely self-taught producer that has been learning for around 17 years now. I say learning because you can never stop with this stuff, and am very prone to making some godawful shite still.
When I’m feeling productive, most of my days are spent creating something. If it’s not full tracks I’ll do little things, whether it be just a make a drum loop, recording improv on a synth etc. Making synth patches / instrument racks and saving them for another day, or recording general day to day sounds.
Although I don’t feel I’m the most prolific producer out there, a lot of my stuff accumulates over time and doesn’t have an overall structure. In these cases I grab together what I feel are my strongest tracks and include them on compilations called ‘Others‘. Originally I created it as an outlet for more hip hop sounding stuff, but later I just included anything. Volumes 3 and 4 features stuff from drum and bass to hiphop, ambient to more synth oriented beat driven tracks. I guess for some people that’s what I’m most known for.
Process and Execution
The thought process behind each track isn’t always the same. A blank template in Ableton Live will include a drum rack, midi / audio channels as well as channels for hardware synths. Sometimes I’ll start with a synth and try and come up with a chord structure of some kind, maybe add some really rudimentary drums. Other times it could be from a sample I’d recorded previously. Maybe it could be playing around with drum sounds, breaks or other outsourced samples.
Once something is coming together, I’ll loop it then move more into adding effects and automation. This could include using a mouse and drawing it in, or using a Novation launch control, mapping all the knobs to various parameters (who doesn’t love a good knob fiddle!). I always mix as I go along, which is sometimes to my detriment, but it’s how I’ve always worked.
“I’m just some guy in a room keeping himself to himself. Anyone hearing my music or even reading this I just really appreciate”
‘Save Me’ was actually originally written for a video for Rocky Mountain Bicycles along with two other tracks I’d made mixed together. The version on ‘Others Vol. 4‘ was the original version that we agreed didn’t fit the video as well and is essentially why it’s split into three parts.
Percussion is a mix of quite a few individual sounds. Drum samples, breaks, and a snippet of an acapella that’s just inhaling between singing. Nothing massively complicated going on. It’s all in the sounds you use really, wherever you may source them. If the sounds you use are already pretty wank then they usually won’t be of much use.
Usually with things like kicks, claps, hi-hats etc. I would add to separate channels and then route to a return channel with some parallel compression and saturation glueing everything together. I did the same with ‘Save Me‘, but not everything was separated as shown below. Not being the most technical of producers and doing things mostly by ear, I do like having control over individual elements, even though it can also have its drawbacks due to unlimited fiddling. Bouncing things out as audio becomes more appealing the older I get as there’s less room for undoing.
I always use Ableton’s drum rack when making drums, drawing the sounds in with a mouse or using a keyboard. Everything isn’t always so uniform and with quantising taken off, I can move stuff about more freely. I like having a nice kind of swing, even though it’s mainly all looped and loosely ‘on the grid’. It’s good to have drums feeling natural when you’re using more natural sounds.
For this track I used Izotope Alloy and U-he Presswerk for compression and some distortion on the return channel for the drums. I never usually have anything on the master channel but on this there is an instance of U-he Satin that turns on in the middle of the track that makes use of the delay mode.
Do you hear a sound similar to a record pulling back/stopping when a track stops? That’s the distance slider in Satin’s delay mode being dragged.
Percussion EQ and Structure
The EQs used were Izotope Ozone EQ, Fab Filter Pro-Q 3 and Ableton’s EQ eight. Layering different sounds together always yields different results and the character comes from the sounds you use. Drum breaks obviously have character in abundance already, I just play around and layer sounds until things fit nicely together to my taste (but it’s all subjective right?! One person’s trash is another’s gold and all that). Mixing conventional and not so conventional sounds together is something I always try to do.
The structure of this track was down to the editor of the video essentially – he drew a rudimentary graph for me to follow to go with the flow of his footage. I’m a big fan of songs changing throughout, so I did that here. It can be quite prevalent in hip hop (ScHoolboy Q – Groovy Tony / Eddie Kane is a fav example) and producers like Clark are great at it. Growing up I listened to a lot of drum and bass and if tracks had a second drop I would always anticipate the switch up somehow.
I used the same drum sounds for the majority of the track while changing the drum patterns a few times, and for the end I added a few more sounds with another drum pattern to switch it up again. They’re all in the same drum rack with the same effects which are an EQ and U-he Satin which I added for a bit of noise on the kick drums.
I love layering synths. Probably too much and am definitely guilty of packing too much shit into what I make! I’m also very guilty of overusing delay and reverb, but It’s not mental here though which is good. For this track there are 2 instances of U-he Diva, Monark for bass, Arturia CS80, a recording of my Minibrute (I just use a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 to record straight to the computer), some granulated vocal snippets and Granulator II with a sound I’d recorded of glasses being hit together (used that a few times, it’s the main sound in my track ‘Mirror Me‘).
I do make my own patches but I’m pretty sure for the CS80 I messed around with a preset, which I don’t usually do but was pressed for time while making this track – I’m obviously here to say there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m no synth snob ha! If it sounds good it sounds good.
Automation is another key part of my music production. I love looped music, but having that bit of movement definitely keeps things interesting. Effects-wise it’s the usual suspects which are reverb (Valhalla), delay (Fabfilter, Waves) and some compression (Ableton, Izotope). I used Ableton’s Gate plug-in for sidechaining with the audio coming in from the kicks. I’ll sometimes place before some reverb so it leaves a little trail of sound over the kick, so as to not completely suck all the sound away. Or sometimes I’ll double bass sounds up and split the frequencies – having a lowpass filter there so you only hear the sub-bass which is then sidechained resulting in no low-end conflict going on with kicks, leaving the mid and top end untouched.
Same with synths in general a lot of the time, like once everything comes in together there will be some automated EQing on pad sounds to take out any low end rumble that might interfere with the main bass sound usually. Then reintroduce the low end from any pads once the main bass has stopped
As for what kind of synths I like to use, I’m a fan of both analog and digital. I can’t save patches on my analog synths, so I enjoy recording them and catching any sort of irregularities they may want to spew out. I didn’t get them for that ‘warm’ sound people say they’re after, it was more for interactivity and less strain on the computer. You can definitely make softsynths sound ‘warm’, I guess it just depends on how you process them. I don’t have much more outboard gear aside from a Korg Microkey 61, and Tascam Porta03 for recording little tape loops. Everything else I do is on the computer.
Mixing and Mastering
Once everything was done, I’d export it and then work on a few more things. I like to play with EQ, add limiting/compression if I feel like it needs it. I suppose some would say that’s the mastering stage, but I’m absolutely no mastering engineer – the likes of Heba Kadry would likely sneer at my feeble attempts! Having a professional with an objective set of ears and a decent system should really be paramount for proper mastering. Not all electronic music needs it I guess, and if your mixdowns sound good, that’s the main thing. I think it absolutely benefits from having that glue to make it sound like one cohesive flowing project. I feel this is something my stuff misses as I do everything on my own (artwork included).
There’s no kind of set rules I follow with this stuff really, I Just kind of go with my feelings. I make whatever without worrying about appealing to certain people or genres, or if what I’m making is ‘cool’. What inspires me the most is other people’s work generally. A random sound or some nice chords will always get my arse into gear. I’m fascinated with sound design, I also love films. So scores, although I’m not completely up on terminology and who’s who, must be embedded into my subconscious at this point.
Inspirations, Achievements and Future Plans
Thinking about it I don’t tend to visualise much when making music. Again, it’s all about feeling for me, at least when it comes to writing harmonies and all that. I can sense I’m on a decent path if I’m in my own world with no distractions. Maybe I’m out of my seat or on occasion begin to feel goosebumps forming. Even if those goosebumps fade over time due to over-listening to something it’s important to remember how those sounds made you feel when you initially made them.
My proudest achievement so far honestly, if you see it as an achievement like I do, is that people take time to check out my music. I’m just some guy in a room keeping himself to himself. Anyone hearing my music or even reading this I just really appreciate.
As for future plans? Well, I’ve put out 4 albums this year and have a collab project with my friend Olga Wojciechowska. We’ll be putting this out soon so it may take some time for me to write new stuff. I’m sure there will always be something in the pipeline even if it takes me a year or two. I definitely want to make more experimental stuff at some point (which I told myself I’d do 3 years ago). Just making mad sounds while keeping some musicality behind it all. We’ll see.
I don’t think I could have a top album list. I’ll scan through my iTunes and see what grabs my eye (probably all contemporary, but I do listen to stuff pre-2010s I swear!)