As an artist Royalston is never content to sit still. In addition to teaching our Mixing, Mastering and Sound Design modules at Liveschool, he finds time to release his own brand of hard hitting, melodic Drum n Bass. His newest release, The Midnight Zone draws from equal parts modern hi-fi drum n bass, lo-fi hardware sounds and 70’s era synth soundscapes. With big melodic leads, dark bass and breakneck drums, The Midnight Zone is an atmospheric DnB record rendered with Royalston’s signature depth and mixing clarity.
The Midnight Zone is Royalston’s 4th full-length album, a big achievement for any artist working the constantly shifting world of electronic music and places Dylan amongst the rare group of electronic artists with careers that stretch beyond the current digital streaming era.
“The LP (long-player) format is a special listening experience and streaming often misses it, so I also added a Continuous Mix version of the album that compiles all the songs into one long DJ-style blend:
We caught up with Royalston to chat about how he made his new record, collaborating with Liveschool students and his perspective on making music after 20 years in the game.
The Midnight Zone is your 4th full-length record – a bit of an anomaly these days in the world of digital singles and EPs. How do you see the importance of LPs in electronic music?
My first 3 albums were sort of ‘Pre-streaming’ so I could happily release them in the traditional way but this one has been a bit different. I’ve had to release it song by song – which is kind of annoying in some ways – but it’s the only way you can give each track some time of it’s own on streaming platforms. I still think the whole album thing is a valid concept. Streaming seems to encourage only ‘big singles’ (at least in drum and bass). But I also like writing weirder/ smaller/ quieter tunes, so an album format works well for me as it allows me to do both. The LP format is a special listening experience and streaming often misses it, so I also added a Continuous Mix version that compiles album songs into one long DJ-style blend.
You’re known for having a fairly formidable modular rig – Was there one particular workflow or technique or module that you used more than others for the LP tracks?
I have a real love/ hate relationship with my modular. There was a long period when writing this album where I just generated music on the modular. 1 ‘song’ or patch per day and I saved them as multi-tracked audio files. I’d go back after a month or so and see if there were any that had the possibility of going further. Most are horrible! But a few were good. ‘Shoulder to shoulder’ was made like this. Modulars seem to encourage a certain sound – they are great for ambient, lo-fi stuff and techno (and posing on Instagram). They are terrible if you want to go back and change something!
Luckily Ableton and all the tools we have, make pretty much any bad mix recoverable. And sometimes that produces cool results of its own. The tempo of Dnb doesn’t really lend itself to using modular as the timing and latency of some modules can make the whole thing feel too loose to properly groove. Added to this, modern DnB is so loud and hyper processed that using analogue & modular is a bit of a disadvantage to achieving the sound people expect. But – the happy accidents are the best things that happen on modulars – ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’s bassline was made because the modular sequencer I was using put the bass groove 1/16th off the start of the bar. I couldn’t work out how to reset it and then I realised it actually worked well.
There are some really lovely textures on the record, can you take us through how you approach texture in a tune?
I think the process of generating the track in hardware produces a lot of noise & texture straight away. I will work with that and try to enhance it in the mix. It can be a really useful element to add contrast to a song say, by alternating between two different textures between verse and chorus. I will also add extra texture in the mix phase if I think it will enhance the track.
There seems to be a 70’s edge to some of the synth work, for instance the melodic lead on Eris, the vocoder parts on Shoulder to Shoulder, the texture and feeling of the intro melody on Won’t Go – are there any specific synth influences that you were feeling while working on these tracks?
Like with my last album ‘Popular Mechanics’, I have been semi-unconsciously channeling a bit of Vangelis in lots of the songs. For a lot people making electronic music before the year 2000, I think Vangelis’ original Bladerunner score is a massive influence. Early jungle and Drum and bass is littered with samples from that movie. I own one of the synths he’s famous for using in that score and I’ll use it any chance I get. In ‘Eris’ the synth lead is written by my regular collaborator Drew Crawford and I know he was very deliberately drawing influence from Bladerunner – everything he does musically is deliberate – he sent me a midi part and I re-played it with the analog synth (the Moog Matriarch in this case). I use a lot of old synths and I think they just sound like the 70’s no matter what you do, so there is that influence too.
Won’t Go features vocals from Liveschool student Jaynee, who was one of your mixing students – how did this collab come about?
I taught Aimee Green (aka Jaynee) mixing and mastering at Liveschool and she kept bringing in these amazing tracks to class. It turns out she has a lot of lyrics so I asked her if she would sing on a track. I’d had the instrumental for ‘Won’t Go’ sitting on my hard drive for years, waiting for the final element it needed. I love sending off a track to vocalist and then getting back something so unexpected it makes you hear your own track in a new way. I’m really happy how that one turned out – Aimee and I have more music coming out next year.
The track Mercury is 20 years old – how did you uncover it and why do you think it has held up well enough to make the cut? Do you remember anything about its production?
I had ‘Mercury’ bounced out as a wav (I highly recommend doing this to all your half finished music btw) and I came across it last year by accident. I hadn’t heard it in almost 20 years and I realised it still worked. It needed a few small mix/mastering tweaks but nothing big.
Is there any big difference between how you worked back then and how you’re working now?
I guess the difference between the way I work now compared to then is that I have more knowledge of what I’m doing, musically & technically which means I can solve problems when I come across them. ‘Mercury’ was a nice reminder – hearing a tune I made with one synth and some samples, that that’s all you need.
What other equipment did you use on the record apart from your modular setup?
Lots of hardware synths – Moog Model D, Matriarch, old string machines, drum machines, guitar pedals. There are soft synths as well though. Also Ableton was used on everything – from the writing to the mastering! It’s the best tool I have. I use a LOT of stock Ableton plugins – they are excellent – don’t let anyone on the internet convince you otherwise!
You’ve heard the Continuous Mix version, here’s the full album: