Hugo Massien has travelled an unlikely path; from being immersed in folk music during his childhood to becoming the accomplished electronic music producer and innovative audio software developer he is today. Now signed to XL Recordings, the British independent record label that represents the likes of Adele, Frank Ocean and Radiohead, Hugo’s music lives in the liminal space between his homeland of the UK and his current home in Berlin.
Hugo’s creativity extends far beyond being a producer; he’s also a core member of Future Audio Workshop, developing innovative music software and virtual instruments. With their flagship synthesizer, Circle² now NKS ready, Native Instruments spoke to Hugo to learn more about his approach to creating software that stands the test of time and how he balances his life as an audio software developer and a music producer.
Can you tell us about the music you make and your journey so far?
I come from a musical family, so music was a huge part of my life from day one. Fast forward to my teenage years and the explorative early days of dubstep began to unfold. It was the first scene I truly felt a part of. I was inspired to share the music that I was deeply connecting with, so I learned to DJ and started playing shows around my hometown, Reading.
After a move to Bristol, it was very natural for me to start producing my own material for the clubs, and I first gained widespread recognition in the cult house scene that scene grew out of the remnants of garage, jungle, UK funky and grime. I’ve always bucked trends and followed my heart with my music, so when I signed to XL Recordings in 2016, I had this deep sense of gratification that following my heart was the right thing to do.
Since moving to Berlin, I’ve been exploring the grey area between the hardcore continuum in London and the house/techno scene here in Berlin. The club scenes are quite different, but I’m aiming to cross-pollinate in a new and unique way. My most recent releases have been with Tectonic, E-Beamz, and 17 Steps.
Somewhere along the way, you went from DJing and producing to building synths. How did that come about?
As a producer, you naturally start to build a bond and a relationship with the tools you use every day. It’s crucial in electronic music to develop a unique and personal sound, so as I was crafting my own sound and really getting to know these tools, I started to have ideas. I wanted to get involved; bring my thoughts and perspective as a producer to the table.
At that point, I decided to enrol in uni, learn how to code, and build instruments myself. One of the courses was taught by a guy from JUCE, the cross-platform C++ application framework that’s used to create plugins and interfaces, so I had an excellent foundation to get straight into audio software.
So, you played a key role in developing Circle², which is now NKS ready. What is Circle² and what does it do?
I’m the product manager for Future Audio Workshop’s Circle² synthesizer, which I helped develop from the ground up. If you haven’t come across it before, Circle² is a wavetable synth that we built around the premise of making synthesis simple. Sound wise, it’s in the same vein as Massive and Serum. Where we diverge most is in the interface, which we meticulously designed to be intuitive and streamlined, with the specific aim of inviting producers of any level, to experiment and spark ideas. It’s a tricky balance between making sure we offer the complexity and detailed control over the sound that experienced sound designers require, without intimidating beginner or intermediate musicians from getting deep into patch design and making their own unique Circle² sounds.
It was a no-brainer for us to add NKS support to Circle², as it completely fits with our ethos of making synthesis simple. Previously, though making a MIDI assignment in Circle² is easy, mapping many physical controls was time consuming and laborious. NKS solves all that! Now you can step away from the the computer screen to use Maschine or Komplete Kontrol in a more traditional performance style, while still having control over the most important synth parameters. As we were adding NKS compatibility, Circle² started to feel like a whole new instrument due to the hardware interaction – it’s definitely something that we’re excited to create new instruments for.
Outside of the interface design, we also introduced an entirely new form of synthesis with Circle². Vector Phaseshaping Synthesis (VPS) was originally proposed by a postgrad research team working between Finland and Ireland. We worked alongside a couple of the original researchers to create the first real world implementation of VPS which is now one of our oscillators in Circle². It was a rewarding process and something we will certainly repeat; taking new academic research and turning it into musical instruments. It’s amazing to think that a new maths equation can start life in a university research paper and end up as that unforgettable bass sound you hear in a club.
Since we released Circle², it’s been used on tracks by of some of the top electronic artists, like Hudson Mohawke, Flume, Arca, Richard Devine, Mark Pritchard – and we’ve heard it on a Billboard no.1. It’s incredible to be involved in every step of this process and we’re delighted to see that people are really connecting with our vision, and using the instrument in such diverse ways all over the world. I know the synthesizer like the back of my hand, so it’s in almost every track I make as well.
What is Future Audio Workshop? What’s coming up next?
We’re an indie music software development company with bases in Berlin, LA, and Portland. Our aim is to create innovative virtual instruments that enhance the creative process and stand the test of time.
We’re always working on updates for Circle², adding new sounds and making improvements. We’re also working on some exciting new products behind the scenes, including a new synthesizer. We can’t say much more yet, but you’ll certainly be hearing more very soon.
And how do your instrument development and music production careers influence each other?
On the whole, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Being immersed in the audio software landscape as a producer helps me to see our instruments from a user perspective. While I work with them creatively I’m constantly testing, refining and thinking of new features. As a developer, building software instruments continually sharpens my understanding of the inner workings of synthesis techniques. This is indispensable knowledge for a producer, which I constantly put to use while making tracks and designing sounds.
Both careers are also complimentary from a networking perspective; much of the personal network I build up through my production career is very relevant to my software career, and vice versa.
Unfortunately, it’s not all beneficial though. The drawback I find is that after a long day of developing music software, sometimes I’m not motivated to look at more music software, from a creative perspective, after work. Instead, I’ll feel more like doing something completely unrelated. This is where giving your mind a break becomes essential.
What’s your advice for getting the most out of your studio time?
When I’m in the studio, I have to make that time count. Learn to trust your gut to avoid indecision; you’ll stop going in circles, and you’ll make progress much faster. Set deadlines and absolutely stick to them. At the same time, you can’t force the creativity; it’s counterproductive. So if you’re not feeling inspired, and are struggling to come up with ideas, get up and spend some time away from the studio rather than getting frustrated.
Don’t get caught in the hardware trap. Lots of people think that expensive analog equipment results in good music, but it’s just not true. Software usually sounds just as good, and because there’s less that can go wrong, it saves a LOT of time. But don’t get caught in the new software trap either! Having more software does not mean you’ll make better music. It’s best to learn a handful of tools back to front and really master them. Then you’ll work faster and more precisely.
To use your time most efficiently, learn your DAW shortcuts; this will actually save you a lot of time in the long run and allow you to translate your creative ideas faster. If you don’t like the stock shortcuts in your DAW, it’s worth going into the settings and changing them to suit your specific needs.
How do you strike a balance with having a job, living life and achieving your creative goals at the same time?
Even though it sounds cliched, it’s crucial to have a balanced life. What you do outside of the studio has a significant impact on your creativity and your mindset while in the studio. I practice yoga and meditation regularly, and I take a weekend every once in a while to go cycling and camping. Finding some activity that helps clear your mind can be a big benefit when the time comes to hit the studio. It also helps to avoid burnout when a lot is going on with work and life. It was a challenging but important lesson to learn that the amount of time spent in the studio does not equate to the quality of the results.
I’m also a lot more selective about collaborating now. It might seem like you’ll halve the work when you collaborate with someone, but it often takes a lot longer to get the track done as it involves more complex decisions. Sometimes you find a dynamic with someone that just works very well collaboratively. I’ve got several forthcoming collaborations with DJ Haus, and our dynamic works well because we have very specific tasks; he’s on the modular and I’m on the computer. Our next collaboration is out on Unknown To The Unknown on a triple vinyl compilation in in late 2018, then I’ll be joining him on tour.