It may have been J. Cole’s “No Role Modelz” that made the world take notice of hip hop producer Phonix Beats, but Darius Barnes has also worked with artists from Nipsey Hustle and Bryson Tiller to 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and The Game, gradually honing his signature sounds over a decade-plus in the game.
We recently asked the LA native to take MASSIVE X for a spin and create a patch from scratch – the result is Broken Arrow, a grainy lead sound that’s perfect for hip hop hooks. Read our interview below to learn about the patching process and the thinking behind Broken Arrow.
Tell us a bit about yourself and the music you make.
Well, hello. My name is Darius Joseph Barnes, also known as Phonix Beats (J Cole, Nipsey Hustle, Trey Songs, Bryson Tiller). I’m a music producer known for doing a lot of urban, but I do other stuff, too – EDM, R&B, all genres is probably the easiest way to say it. And I’m from Los Angeles, born and raised. Right now I’m based out of Atlanta and New York. I’m between an area called Buckhead and Brooklyn, NYC. I’m out there in those areas to further research the music game and, you know, growing up in LA you can just get trapped in a box and only know one side. It’s been an interesting journey. It’s been fun.
What was your first experience with MASSIVE X?
From the early days of Komplete, like in the beginning, I was so geeked. I barely had a computer that could hold it, but… I just picked Massive, and I just loved all the sounds and it was just like a breath of fresh air for me. I was like, “Oh damn, high quality sounds,” just super-awesome. It didn’t work with the program that I produced in – I use Reason as my DAW – so I needed a lot of workarounds to make it happen. But it was definitely amazing that I came across it.
Reason is still your DAW of choice?
Reason has come a long way, too. Back then, Reason didn’t have Audio Unit or VST support, so using 3rd party plug-ins was really difficult. But now Reason has grown, and I’ve grown with it, and now they have AUs and VSTs, so now I’m using Massive X directly in Reason. So it’s pretty fun now.
Can you talk a little about your first impressions and first experiences with Massive X?
It was slightly intimidating at first, I have to admit. I grew up in the music industry, so I’m used to seeing these elaborate programs, and you’re just like, “Oh my god, this looks like a rocket ship.” But when I saw that, I was just like, “Oh shit, it has so many oscillators. It has all these new options to shape any sound into whatever you can imagine – you can just take a sine wave and make all this amazing stuff happen.” So once I read things online – and I am used to reading manuals, because my dad [legendary producer, John Barnes] is always sticking me about reading the manuals – and saw what it could actually do and how you can interface with it, it just changed everything for me.
How did you approach making this particular patch?
There’s different ways I create sounds normally. Like, sometimes I’ll start from scratch all the way, like no presets. I’ll just start with a stock bass sound. In this case, I like to layer stuff, so I took one sound that was already pre-existing and I worked it and then added some other elements to it. The way Massive X now is just fun to play with, and using it with Komplete Kontrol’s 8 pre-assigned knobs, I just kept tweaking, and tweaking, and tweaking. Kind of similar to how I did the J. Cole record, I just take sounds and I’ll spend a ridiculous amount of time on the sound design which lives inside of it. My favorite part of it was the layering of the notes – there’s like 5th harmonies in there that are kind of offset in the minor and major keys. That kind of gives it a different edge to me, man – you know?
So would you say that sound design is something that you also bring to the table in your production?
Absolutely. That’s what separates me from other people, too. Because it’s time consuming. You know, I have burned my brain out a few times. But once you get used to doing it, it’s really, really fun to me.
So much of production is sound, and that’s sort of how we divide ourselves from others. It’s not just, “Here’s the preset, boom.” You have to kind of tweak until you find the magic.
I just don’t like sounding like anybody. No offense to any other musician, but I’m sure they feel the same way. They don’t wanna sound like me either. Or maybe they do – I don’t know. But when I approach music and I’m creating sounds, I need sounds that not only have I not heard before – but I want to create my own sounds and Massive X really inspires me. It has to give me a certain type of energy that makes me wanna say, “Oh shit, I’m ‘bout to make something with this!”
Did you have an idea of a concept when you made this patch? Or did you just dive in?
I went in freestyle. I had no idea. I was just so juiced that the download went so smooth, and I was just like, “Oh, let’s just go through everything.” So I went through most sounds just to see what everything sounded like, and then I just started dabbling with stuff, and then it just kept growing. As the hours progressed, I’m like… an hour later, I found a new type of oscillator, I found a new type of pulsing LFO, and I was like, “Oh man, I can have all these things in one unit opposed to having to open up an LFO modulator,” and it was fun. You guys did a great job with this new Massive X, man. You know. Still looks like a spaceship, but it’s amazing.
How do presets influence your music-making process in general? Do you start from a foundation of a preset and then tear it apart?
It’s kind-of both. I don’t have one way of doing things. It really is a matter of how I’m feeling. Like, if I’m going through presets and I hear something that sticks, I’m like, “Oh, okay, I can do this and this and that to it.” Or this is a starting sound, and maybe I’ll change it later. Sometimes it has the algorithm for me, and the play that I’m looking for like a bend and stretch, but the sound is too nasty. So then, if I can’t tweak it, then I’m switching it up. Sometimes I’m just like, “I have ideas in my head and it just has to sound like that,” so then I’m starting from scratch, because I’m like “Okay, I know I can rely on these things, then go ahead and throw these effects on it, then print that, then take that back, process it.” I’m just spending time really, being creative.
How do you find the process of using MASSIVE X inside KOMPLETE KONTROL?
Well, what I’ve liked about this – let’s say without Massive – I fell in love with the Pianos in Komplete immediately. And knowing the parameters come pre-mapped to the 8 knobs changed how fast I can tweak sounds. That changed everything for me. Before, I had to go through Reason to MIDI map, which was not fun. So now it just makes it easy and less technical. You don’t have to spend time drawing in automation. When you’re trying to be creative, dealing with fast ideas, you need to get the idea out.
Did you have any idea Massive X could be used for lush, cinematic sounds?
When I went through the pads, for instance, I was shocked that you guys even had that stuff in there. Like you said, typically, every time I’ve used Massive, it’s been like these lightning-bolt sounds. It’s just like, “Woah!” It’s up in your face. The presence is dominant. But to hear the pads I was like, “Where did this come from?!” I found some really inspiring patches in the soundscapes. I went crazy over those. I like environmental stuff, too. It’s not your typical synthesizer that’s just saw tooth and all that, you know? You have some really good range. Like even in the live settings, I found like a digital kalimba in there, and it sounded real, but then I like the merging splitters that were in there – like the after-sounds. I can’t imagine who made that sound, how long that took.
Broken Arrow isn’t a typical hip hop sound – what was the thinking behind that?
Well that’s funny that you say that, because when you were like, “Make that patch,” I was like, “Alright, well…” Whenever I make patches, I like experimenting. So I was like, “I’m a big fan of portamento, I’m a big fan of polyphony.” So I was like, “How can I have something that I can voice, but it sounds chaotic, kind of.” And so, when I started taking the oscillators and tweaking it, it started getting real – almost too – staccato-y gritty, and so I had to figure out how to make it bend. When that happened, I started thinking like, “Shit, I could make a Travis Scott record with this shit right now. Like, fuck.” You know, that’s why I was over here playing, I’m like “Damn, like, what’s that melody I played like two weeks ago? Hold on. Yeah, I might have to make this while I’m here, man!”
That’s where trap is going. Because trap was a genre, and now it’s evolved into a form of music now. To where like, people are integrating EDM with it, or country music with it. There’s so many new flavors of trap now. Even J-Pop, you have Japanese trap! And these guys are selling records. You just have so many dynamics now.