cm Producer Masterclass SOLARDO
Computer Music|December 2020
Solardo’s blend of big bass and house might be riding the crest of a wave, but for one half of the duo, it’s been a long and sometimes difficult journey. Ahead of dissecting his latest CR2 Records release, we talk tech with Mark Foster, discover how Aphex Twin brought dubstep to the world, and learn why setting trends rather than following them is key. And then he reveals something incredibly spooky…

Mark Foster is certainly in a reflective mood, but with over two decades of music production in a wide variety of styles – perhaps too wide as we eventually discover – he’s got a lot to reflect on. After discovering music production by way of cheap looping software, he fell in step with Reason, became something of a dubstep and grime pioneer in the 2000s before a brush with celebrity and taking his eye off the ball left him with ‘one more shot’ at making it in music production. In Solardo and new music partner James Barlow just that shot presented itself… and he’s taken it with gusto.

The duo have certainly made waves with their cutting-edge blend of bass house that initially saw them borrow from the very roots of Manchester music – with acid house motifs and beats – to produce an updated Manchester house sound that’s won them fans from many genres, and collaborations/remixes with everyone from Calvin Harris to Duke Dumont and Gorgon City.

With sold-out shows across the globe, appearances lined up across Europe and releases with Harris’s Love Regenerator outfit lined up for later this year, Solardo are at the top of their game. A new sample collection with CR2 Records is out as we speak and it’s time for Mark to dissect one of the tracks he lays bare for that collection in this special Producer Masterclass. Before we get to that, though, there’s a lot of water under the Foster bridge to discuss. Lots of highs and lows and much of it intrinsically linked to music software – different versions, different titles, cracked and not cracked. Foster now believes in the power of attraction and positivity – and with a story that will blow your mind (just you wait). With everything Solardo now coming up smelling of success, let’s look back at his history, it’s easy to see why…

Student to dubstepper

“I started Djing when I was 18, putting on a drum & bass night at Stockport University when I was 18,” Mark begins. “My room-mate was into drum & bass too and we DJ-d as MI6 and decided to start making tunes. We used something like [PC loop-based software] Music 200, just putting blocks together on screen. Obviously the sound quality was horrendous but we got some decent tunes out of it.

“We were sampling records and sent out tracks to everyone and signed a couple to Kenny Ken, the jungle DJ. It was around 1999 so I can’t remember too many of the details! We had a couple of releases on small labels but then Reason came out and we heard it had everything from a studio in one box, so we sacked off going to lessons and just got into that. We had a couple of releases then but it wasn’t really getting too far.”

Mark eventually moved to Sheffield and met the DJ, Oris Jay, one of the pioneers of the then unnamed genre that would become dubstep. Indeed it was Jay who introduced Foster to this burgeoning form of music. “He said ‘I‘ve started making this kind of dark garage, similar to drum & bass but slow in tempo, you should try it’,” Mark recalls.

“So then I started making these kinds of tunes and would ask him how to make them sound better. I did a tune called Move Like They Do as Mark 1 which started getting a bit of momentum and it did quite well so I thought ‘right I’m going to get on with making this sort of music’. I ended up getting into the dubstep movement even though at this point it didn’t have a name. I started making tunes with Oris and as the genre evolved and started playing more and more events and releasing thing on labels like Ammunition.”

Mark’s break came when a certain Richard James, aka Aphex Twin, got in touch with Ammunition and asked to make an album with three of its prominent artists.

“Ammunition put forward me, Plastician and a group of lads called Slaughter Mob,” says Mark. “We put this album out in 2001 with four tracks from each of us on it and Aphex Twin wanted to call it Grime with an explanation on the cover about where grime came from in terms of the musical underground.

“When Aphex Twin got involved he took it on and it just blew up. At the time grime and dubstep still didn’t exist as we know them now, but it was amazing because it put this music on a bigger pedestal and opened it all up for the dubstep movement, rather than it just being an underground movement bubbling up in London. He was pivotal in taking it out of the microclimate that it was in. He was massive and Rephlex was a cult label with diehard fans so instantly we had a bigger fanbase. People tell different stories but this is the exact story of what happened.”

“He then took us to tour the album in America and we were thinking it was amazing. We went with Bogdan Raczynski and Soundmurderer. Bogdan Raczynski makes 180-220bpm breakcore. He was extremely reclusive, had production on another level and hid behind the desk when he played. Soundmurderer was doing really well-produced stuff too. We went around the States for three weeks and after that Mike Paradinas signed me for a Mark One album that we did called One Way on Planet Mu Records in 2004, and at this point I was still using Reason, version 3 I think.”

Reason might have had everything Mark needed up to this point, but it wouldn’t be long before his head was turned – thanks to some gentle ribbing – by another up and coming act.

“At this point I also knew Chase & Status; they were students at Manchester Uni, and making dubstep too. They were releasing stuff on another label owned by Ammunition and we hung around quite a bit in Manchester. They spent all their student loans on studio gear so they had an actual real studio in a proper space. Future Cut had a studio there too, doing drum & bass at the time and went on to make lots of pop tunes with Lily Allen and people like that. So I went along to see Chase & Status and they took the piss out of me for using Reason as they were using Cubase. They showed me the basics of it – the simplest side of it with VSTs and so on. At the time I thought it was only Reason that allowed instruments like that. Soon you could ReWire Reason into Cubase which I did as it was much easier making beats in Reason and I couldn’t afford paying 200 quid for VSTs.”

“Using Cubase came quite easily and I was able to work it out quite quickly. I then spent ages perfecting it, as at the start it was easy to get tunes down but hard to make them actually sound good. Once I started getting that right I changed to Cubase full-time for my second album on Planet Mu, Copyright Laws, as MRK1.”

Mark’s top 5 plugins

Fabfilter Pro-Q 3 EQ £134

“I’d use the EQ on Cubase for years, thinking it was OK. It might have been Chase & Status who said ‘what are you using that for?’. Then the difference between using that and the Fabfilter one – the sound quality was unreal. I didn’t realise so much went into an EQ; I thought it was just ‘take off the top, or take off the bottom end!’” fabfilter.com

u-he Diva $79

“I use it because it sound analogue, with big warm sounds. It’s quality.” u-he.com

Tone 2 Saurus $119

“Again it’s because it sounds analogue-y, so I use it on basslines, synths and arps.” tone2.com

Waves L1 Limiter £42

“The L1 is amazing; all you have to do is bring down the threshold which is to the left and do everything else by ear.” waves.com

Nicky Romero Kickstart $10

“A sidechain compressor which is about £7 online. It’s amazing and dead simple to use. You just stick it on whatever, like the bassline, and just change the Mix control. You can choose the waveform, from 16 different types and I use it on everything.” kickstart-plugin.com

Dubstep to trap

Mark’s gigs were getting bigger as dubstep grew in popularity and he soon found himself travelling the world as the word spread. At the Winter Conference in Miami one year he ended up being the target of Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee who wanted to dive further into the dubstep sound. “He asked me to come to New York to his studio and invited loads of hiphop producers and started playing me loads of tunes. We became mates and produced quite a bit of music, from dubstep evolving into trap. Dubstep went from being more dub-influenced when it first started to more American after Skrillex and people like that got involved – it got more noisy.

“Then trap came in which was similar to dubstep but with more of a hip-hop influence, so me and Hank started making more of that stuff together. He’d show me how to produce the big 808 kicks and how they’d sit in the tracks. We worked on film scores, a TV show called The Young And The Restless, computer games, iPhone music, all sorts. I got to learn how to do lots of different stuff.”

The Solardo studio up close

Mark has a great range of bespoke hardware and software to offer him the best mix of sounds for his tunes. Here we guide you through the best bits of each…

Selected kit list

HARDWARE

Apple MacBook Pro

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