Raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sarah Debnam (aka Sarah, the !llstrumentalist) was an only child energized by the soulful tones of Motown. Taught to play keyboards by her uncle, Debnam joined a jazz band in sixth grade and learned guitar, bass and drums before attending college in New York to gain music industry experience. This led to internships at marketing and recording studios, and later, stints at music TV networks MTV and VH-1.
Upon completing college and returning home, she stumbled upon instrumentalist Kaytranada and became inspired by his beat making approach. Adopting MASCHINE as her principal beat making tool, Debnam swiftly began producing and uploading videos to YouTube to document her music-making experience. The channel, Sarah2ill, has amassed over 23,000 subscribers and is now partnered by her newly launched No Quantize website, which further encourages beat makers to think outside of the box.
Have you always been a vinyl junkie?
I love vinyl and think that’s probably one of the things that got me into beat making. I thought I was going to make dance music like EDM, but found I was really good at sampling using my Audio Technica turntable. When I go to a different city, I try to find vinyl because a certain sound lives in a certain city. Even if it only costs three or four bucks, I’ll treat it as a souvenir from that town because I know somebody spent time with it when they were growing up.
For me, it’s much cooler to own something that’s tangible and I prefer to bring vinyl home and get surprised by it, good or bad, to just going online and finding something on YouTube.
As a crate digger yourself, do you feel vinyl has a strong future?
I can see vinyl sales going up because of the popularity of the boom bap community, but I also see record stores just staying the way they are. Some crate diggers really know about certain artists and producers, whereas I go based on what I feel because that’s the fun part of it. My goal is to go to Brazil and Japan, or France to find some ‘70s French jazz.
What tools did you use when you first started making beats?
At first, I purchased an Akai MPK25 keyboard controller that had some pads on it. I was actually expecting the pads to feel like the Akai MPC, but it felt really cheap so I went to Guitar Center and saw the MASCHINE on demo.
It sold me because it was reasonably priced and none of the other beat machines were like that. I was never that good at playing any of the instruments I learned, so I told myself that if I was going to invest in this machine then I’d have to become the best machinist ever.
Is that when Sarah, The !llstrumentalist was born?
I forced myself to learn the ins-and-outs of that beat machine and remember, giving myself a 30-day beat challenge. That’s when everything started. Since then, I got into a habit of making beats every day and started creating movies, videos and designs. Now it’s led to this creative monster.
Using MASCHINE was a little challenging at first, but it has everything you need as a producer. Once you learn how to use it, you don’t need anything else. Other people use other DAWs with MASCHINE, but I find that’s not really necessary. It comes with everything, so you can focus on the software and the hardware together.
You also have MASCHINE MIKRO?
It’s great for when you’re travelling, especially for beginners that have never made any beats. If I load up expansion packs and instruments, I can make a beat in five minutes, but I prefer the MK3 because of all the extra features it has.
I’m a sample-based musician, so I can splice all my samples on it and never have to look at a computer screen. It’s like my umbilical cord [laughs]. Recently, I’ve been playing bass guitar on songs. Sometimes I’ll sample notes and just play them into MASCHINE.
You’ve actually acquired quite a lot of gear, albeit using MASCHINE as a focal point for your productions?
I have a bedroom studio and there’s quite a lot of equipment now. I use the MASCHINE. on a daily basis and other hardware like my Roland SP-404SX sampler, a Moog Sub Phatty and something called an Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1, which is a MIDI guitar with a keyboard. I also have a Critter & Guitar Organelle, which is a really cool synthesizer with a whole bunch of sounds you can preload into it.
I have two MIDI keyboards by M-Audio – one has 61 keys and the other 32, and the KOMPLETE KONTROL A25. For recording, I use a MacBook Pro with a Scarlett Focusrite audio interface.
Do you mix tracks on MASCHINE or export to a DAW?
I do everything in MASCHINE. It leaves an extra five or ten seconds to the end of a song so I’ll export my songs into Logic Pro just to shorten them.
I try to keep it simple. I compose music for a company called Epidemic Sound and make beats the way I think they should sound. They tell me what frequencies to listen out for when it comes to mixing. When I use EQ, I don’t use it the same way that other people do. They’ll tend to use it visually, whereas I’ll literally use the six or eight knobs on MASCHINE and just listen to it, so I’m trying to mix in MASCHINE without having to use other things.
Like I said earlier, I told myself I’m going to use MASCHINE and be the best MASCHINE user. From that point, everything else became a blur and now I’m stubborn about it. It’s my workflow and that’s what works for me. I love the sample packs that MASCHINE has and I’ll use Epidemic Sound libraries, sample myself or re-sample to the SP-404 and put it all back into MASCHINE.
I understand you sell your own sample pack called Lo-Fi Spaceship Sounds Volume One?
I just created a bunch of random sounds using the Artiphon INSTRUMENT 1. When I pull up an instrument or VST on MASCHINE, I can plug the Artiphon in, make all these really pretty chords, chop them up and put them in a sound pack.
Sometimes I’ll record bass lines from my Moog Sub Phatty and my co-workers and friends have really funny punch lines that I’ll sample. Other times I’ll make homemade sounds, like shaking coins in a bag or using forks and spoons.
I only charge three bucks for my sound pack because, as a musician, I don’t like that sound packs can cost up to 30 bucks. It’s fun that people are enjoying Lo-Fi Spaceship Sounds. I’m creating a new sample pack right now.
Your YouTube channel has grown very quickly. What’s its primary purpose?
My channel was set up to document my journey. At first, I just had MASCHINE and literally documented my experience from there. When I bought my Roland SP-404, I told people why I bought it and the next day made a video on it. Less than a month ago I discovered Goodhertz plug-ins and they’re changing my workflow, so I’m going to show you how I actually use them. I guess the channel is showing you what I’m discovering at this moment.
And you’ve been able to grow the channel through brand sponsorships?
A co-worker of mine quit her job to do YouTube full-time, although I didn’t even know until she told me. She was doing these tech reviews and shared how she reached out to other brands through sponsorships and affiliate programs. That’s when I realized I could start to collaborate with companies and reach out to others, and they actually want to help.
I’m also going to be buying more gear because when musicians do run into money, rather than spending it on clothes and cars I think that you should invest in yourself and the equipment that will help you to make more music.
What’s the meaning behind your branding for the website No Quantize?
My YouTube channel started around September 2016 and I launched the No Quantize website around my birthday last March with the release of my first beat tape ‘Conversations’. I was listening to a Beat Tape while washing dishes and thinking how much I liked how the beats were not quantized. Then I thought, oh, wait, that’s a great brand name [laughs].
Through my YouTube reputation as a beat maker, I felt my niche audience would know what No Quantize means, and now it’s part of my branding overall.
What does the future hold?
Actually, next week I’m going to be moving to California. I hope to become a digital nomad, so I can live where I work, work where I live and be able to make beats in really cool locations collaborating with other YouTubers, not just musicians.
I also hope to be able to open a compound for creatives to come and stay for long periods of time so they can focus on what they’re really passionate about and leave educated and empowered. I wanna be the Team 10 of my generation!
photo credits: Shanita Dixon