With two decades of audio experimentation behind them, Pig&Dan have crafted a sound based on instinct, experience and collaboration. Their latest pack for Sounds.com sees their carefully crafted kicks – the “heart and soul” of techno – finally available to us mere mortals. Native Instruments caught up with Dan Duncan to discuss creative struggles, working as a duo and why REAKTOR is the most diverse synth of all time.
How did you guys first start working together?
Dan Duncan: We were introduced by a friend – I’d just come from ten years of drum and bass working with Fabio, LTJ Bukem, playing all over the world as a drum and bass DJ and a live artist. Igor had spent years in the Balearic and house sound, as well as garage. That’s how we started to make our sound, by bringing those two aspects together.
How does it work between you guys – is someone more of an engineer and someone more of a composer?
We’re both composers, but if you look at our backgrounds, I’m the kind of educated one musically. I studied music from four years old quite seriously – piano, drums and theory. I went right up to Grade 8. Igor has no musical background but he has an amazing ear, so in as far as the way we write things, he’s the kind of chaos and I’m the one with theory. So when he presents something that’s ‘wrong’, I like it a lot because it takes me out of that bracket.
In terms of how it works day-to-day, we both work separately in our studios. Then when we’re on airplanes, we swap laptops on the plane and because we have a synergy together after so many years, we kind of know that the other one will think of what you’re doing. For instance, I might think an idea would be ‘Far too cheesy for Igor’, and he might think an idea is ‘Far too out-there for Dan’.
Does living in Majorca affect how you approach music making, given that you’re somewhat tucked away?
The great thing about living somewhere like Majorca is that there are no trends here. It’s not like living in Berlin or London, where everyone goes into minimal or everyone goes into a more trancey sound because that’s what’s happening. We live on a small island where there’s nothing like that, so we’re not influenced by anything but ourselves. We’re lucky we have this synergy because when you’re creating with someone else, it can be counter-productive. With Igor and I, we’re vibing off each other and when one of us have writer’s block, the other will pull something out of the bag for you. It’s a real tag team.
Do you ever miss being involved in a ‘scene’. There’s a comfort to ‘going with the flow’ as there’s less creative risk.
To be honest we love pushing the boat out anyway. We always try and push our personal envelope instead of playing it safe. A lot of artists we know are like you say – happy, comfortable in their scene – we’re just a bit left field of that. We’re devoted to trying to make things a bit weirder or more obscure. That’s definitely our goal. You’ve only got 12 notes and it’s all been done before, so how do you take make something unique? That’s our challenge.
I guess for newer producers, who might not feel as comfortable taking those risks without the years of experience, might end up falling into the trap of following a sound.
I agree but the best piece of advice I can give is for someone to be themselves, because, how are you gonna shine in a world where people can so easily put a track together? We receive demos from people and we’re like ‘Wow, this person is unknown but they have an identity’. Identity is such a key factor at the moment because we live in a scene where everyone can download the same music and play it out, unless you make it yourself and stick out. Whether you think it’s against the grain or not is neither here nor there, you just need to be yourself.
When making a pack like the one for Sounds.com, is there a creative relief to it, in the sense that you’re not sitting down to make a track, but instead to create something to a brief?
A kick drum is the root of all evil when it comes to techno, it’s the heart and soul – the backbone. So for us, it was almost hard to consider giving away what we worked on – some of the kicks would have 15 different layers, subs from a 909, top from another kick, a stereo low-mid kick on top. There’s a lot of work behind it.
When we talked to Native Instruments, a company we’ve worked with for years and whose stuff we use a lot, it only made sense for us to finally go down this road. It’s not like a relief or letting go, it’s more like we’re scared of letting go of our bass drums – I know it sounds ridiculous! But it is part of our identity. But we’re honored to be working with NI because they’re the ones who are providing such incredible tools for techno, especially with Reaktor and things like that. We live on that stuff.
When it comes to making kicks – you mentioned layering and stereo and mono sources – what are your main techniques?
It’s different on every single track but we have some old drum machines that we always bring into the equation for the warmth, but we also use synthesizers. Some synths have amazing percussive element to them. The main backbone of what we do comes from [NI] Maschine. What we do is layer different sampled kicks with an original kick from an old school drum machine, so you’ve got that authentic low end. Sometimes samples lack warmth, there’s something about the analogue signal of a drum machine that just has something.
Did you end up keeping some of the sounds that you were meant to be making for the pack cause you thought, ‘Actually I’ll hold onto that one’?
[Laughs] Well actually we used these kicks in tracks. That’s how we did it. We didn’t create the sounds just to be in the pack, we created them as we were being creative. So there’s a kick drum in there from the track ‘Growler’. There’s other kicks that we didn’t use because often we end up trying three different kicks on a track and it turns out the original kick you started with isn’t the right one. I’m not saying they’re worse or better, it’s just about what fits the track, whether we used it or not. They really are Pig&Dan kicks.
What are your go-to REAKTOR ensembles, not just for kicks but for production generally?
We download so much of the User Library – the really whacky, crazy synths – that we just don’t have time to build ourselves! You have access to so many thousand samplers and synths just because they’re really unique sounding with really interesting visuals. It gives us so much to our creative process.
REAKTOR feels like it continues to exist under the radar despite being such a powerful tool.
It does, it’s never really given the limelight it deserves, but in a way I’m kind of happy about that, because it gives us the chance to have more of a unique sound that not as many others have. But you’re right it should be hailed as the most diverse synthesizer there is. It’s just endless.
How do you guys deal with creative block in the studio? Is that when being a duo helps a lot?
Exactly. Right now I’ve been taking a step back from production as I’ve been focusing on our fabric events. Igor has been really productive in the studio – I think we’re working on 11 tracks at the moment. When you’re creating a track and it’s not working we’re really good at saying ‘Hey, I’m not in the vibe at the moment’ and either I’ll send something to Igor that triggers him off, or vice versa. You might not be feeling a track, or feeling what you’re doing, and the other person just takes one piece of it and makes a whole other track out of it. But that one piece inspires him, which in turn inspires you.
What would be your one piece of advice to new producers, from a practical or creative perspective?
I would say, use reference tracks. I would suggest taking a kick drum that you love from a track you know sounds big in a club and use that as a template for how much sub should be in the record – it’s been mastered and it has all the frequencies you need to work to. I’m not saying steal other people’s kick drums, but it just give you a fantastic reference. And also reference full tracks – I did this with pop, rock, drum and bass – check out where that snare is sitting in someone else’s mix, or whatever it is. I permanently reference things when I’m working on a mixdown. Also – patience! It’s the number-one factor when it comes to making music. Not just in the studio but in your career. People wanna just jump to the top, but it’s not gonna happen – you’ve got a lot to learn.
photo credits: James Chapman