Creating Planet’s Mad, Baauer’s frantic in-the-box brainchild
Harrison Bauer Rodrigues untangles the intricacy of his latest album and defines a creative process that is the epitome of laptop production.
Image: Kylie Hoffman
You know Baauer. His double-platinum 2012 single saw millions of people record and upload videos of themselves dancing erratically following the drop of a deep 808 kick and a pitched-down voice that commanded them to “do the Harlem Shake”. Even if you didn’t do the Harlem Shake yourself, you probably know someone who did.
“To think that that was eight years ago is crazy,” says Harrison Rodrigues, AKA Baauer. “It makes me think, ‘Is there anyone from eight years ago that’s still listening?’” The evidence suggests so. He’s attracting almost two million listeners a month on Spotify, has been featured alongside galactic industry figures such as Flying Lotus, Bonobo and Rick Rubin on a Star Wars remix compilation, and his latest LP, Planet’s Mad has been met with glowing positivity from fans and critics alike.
You can’t pigeon-hole Planet’s Mad. Released on outlandish UK label LuckyMe, Baauer showcases his deep attention to detail throughout the album, fusing sounds from moombahton, techno, hip-hop, jungle and everything in between, with inspiration drawn from a youth spent in London and the US. “Being in London was huge because I was there from age seven to 13,” says Baauer, “so I was hearing music around me and listening to it on the way to school. It was just seeping into my brain. Then I moved back to the US for a while and started to actively find out what kind of music I like. I went back to London at 18 and, during that time, I was like, ‘Okay, now I can go to clubs and see these DJs I like’.”
Previous collaborations with AJ Tracey, Novelist, Rustie and MIA clearly exhibit the impact that the UK capital has had on Baauer’s sound. Planet’s Mad, however, features just one other artist, Manchester’s Bipolar Sunshine, on the track Home. Why so few helping hands this time around? Planet’s Mad isn’t designed to be a sing-a-long record. “I wanted it to be as much of an experience listening to it as possible,” says Baauer. “I really wanted to show off the weird, textural sounds I like to use. So it’s kind of a place where I thought I could show that off as much as I could.”
The album comes accompanied by a 40-minute rollercoaster of an animated movie that’s as visually arresting as it is mind-boggling. “I wanted to make it all fun. That was the most important thing. Nothing pretentious or whatever. Just pure fun”, says Baauer.
“If I had my way, I’d just make every song 30 seconds long.”
Like most of us, Baauer’s tracks begin in his DAW, Ableton Live. Built atop short loops packed with potential, he bases his tracks on rhythmic elements scavenged from records and sample packs that he chops up and turns into something new. The biggest addition to his arsenal recently has been Splice, which integrates into the DAW, offering swift and flexible browsing of millions of sounds. “I sample some records but it’s 95 per cent sample packs and stuff from Splice”, he says. “It’s just browsing through Splice and going through sounds I already have. There are some packs I’ve had for years. I’m trying to amass as many as I can. Splice is amazing. I like to search ‘percussion’, spin the wheel and pull things out at random.” More recently, Baauer has begun using the Radio plug-in from Plugin Boutique, which lets him tune into random radio stations and sample material directly into the DAW.
Baauer has become a master at meticulously manipulating audio clips using Live’s editing features. “I stuck with Ableton because of how easy it is to take audio clips and fuck with them,” he says. “I like to work just with audio clips, and the way Ableton does it is so easy and flexible.”
As all producers know, getting out of the loop is no easy task. Baauer knows it too. His hard drive is stacked with project files replete with 30-second bangers. “Making the 30-second loop is so fast,” he says. “That’s my favourite part, because everything is fresh and you’re just throwing anything you can at it. It takes 10 minutes. But then turning that loop into a full song is brutal to me. I can’t do it. If I had my way, I would just make every song 30 seconds long. I give them to people and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is sick. You should finish it’, and in my mind, I’m like, ‘This is finished. What are you talking about?’
The ideas Baauer creates aren’t premeditated by any means. The heavy four-to-the-floor kick of HOT 44, for example, screams techno but the producer doesn’t go in with the intention of creating genre-specific tunes. “It’s definitely a paint-at-the-wall situation,” he says. “But afterwards I’ll think, ‘Maybe this could be really cool’. Then I’ll plan it out a bit. Once I have the demos in a collection, I start to develop them.”
Once Baauer breaks out of these 16-bar constraints, the rewards are sweet. But the complex nature of Planet’s Mad means that the details are paramount, which can mean that his channels pile up to an almost unmanageable degree. “If I’m doing an album track, I’ll add a lot of stuff to try to make it nice and detailed,” he says. “So they probably end up being more than 100 tracks. But I try to make stuff as simple as I can.” Baauer doesn’t try to tackle the mixing of this many elements on his own. For Planet’s Mad and his previous album, Aa, he turned to collaborator and mix engineer Ryan Schwabe. “I exported every track and Ryan put them into Pro Tools and I did the final mixdown with him. It made a big difference”.
It’s clear throughout his oeuvre that Baauer is a fan of distortion but perhaps the most unlikely distortion unit that features on his tracks is Live itself. Producers have long debated whether different DAW audio engines have their own algorithmic sonic signatures. But when he and Schwabe loaded his Live-bounced stems into Pro Tools, they noticed a difference in the music’s character. “I was almost clipping it to get a certain sound,” says Baauer. “I only noticed that once I’d bounced everything out and Ryan had put it into Pro Tools. It was missing a certain something. I didn’t realise that Ableton had its own kind of clipping sound.”
Baaur’s sounds aren’t processed heavily inside the DAW, and he avoids stocking up on plug-ins wherever possible. For the most part, the effects he uses are Live’s factory plug-ins. “I’ve gone through so many plug-ins,” he says. “I’d use one for a bit but then drop it eventually. I don’t know if it’s true but I’ve seen over time that using Ableton’s effects is a better way to go. Maybe it’s more efficient or whatever, I don’t know. I just got into that habit.”
As far as soft-synths go, Baauer’s recent favourites include virtual instruments by Spitfire Audio, including the Bernard Herrmann Composer Toolkit – even if he sees them as too lofty for his particular brand of club-bound low-end leviathan beats. “They’re too good for what I’m doing,” he says.
Look around Baauer’s flora-filled home studio and you’ll see desirable hardware too, including a Mellotron, a ROLI SeaBoard, and a Soma Laboratory Lyra-8. But the MacBook that runs Live is the centrepiece of his studio. “You go to big studios and there’s this pressure to make something professional but, when you’re at home, it just feels like you’re messing around.” Would the esteemed producer ever invest in a dedicated studio space? “That might have as many downsides as upsides,” he says. “I like that instead of going to the studio and being like, ‘Now I’m at the office, time to work’, I can lay down on the couch and say, ‘Oh, wait, I thought of something’. I could do it right away, you know? I’m in the kitchen eating but I’m also creating. That’s how I like to do it.”
There’s a pair of Yamaha HS8s perched atop his desk but Baauer often turns to the speakers in his MacBook to monitor his productions. Using consumer playback systems for referencing is best practice to ensure that music sounds lively across all types of devices. “If I can hear the bass on the shitty speaker,” he says, “then I can definitely hear it.” His other trusted referencing tool is a pair of Sennheiser HD25 headphones, which he has become so accustomed to that he says he could never use another pair of headphones again.
2020: A Bass Odyssey
When watching the Planet’s Mad movie, you’ll likely react in one of two ways: you’ll be transfixed as you watch an alien planet collide with a whacked-out version of Earth or you’ll be so overwhelmed by the intensity of the lighting effects and trippy animation that you’ll tune out right away. Baauer wanted the movie to be an experience. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice the cameo from actor and comedian Eric Wareheim, best known for equally whacked-out sketch show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, who turns up to offer guidance to the world in embracing the new planet. There’s also a follow-up titled A Rave on Planet’s Mad, which is soundtracked by an expanded version of the album and sees hundreds of otherworldly creatures raving in a nightclub filled with giant mushrooms.
Baauer always wanted a visual accompaniment to the album, citing Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 and the fan-made Porter Robinson film Worlds, as his key influences. Planet’s Mad came to life thanks to LuckyMe founder Dom Flannigan. “Dom’s got a good eye and, because of him, it could become more than just 12 songs,” says Baauer. “It could be a cool visual thing. Dom knows all kinds of cool people. The reason the movie exists is because of these guys Dom knows at the animation studio Actual Objects.”
The video’s storyline arrived later, written after the tracklist had been decided. All Baauer knew was that it was going to be a sci-fi trip. “The first idea was to make it a planet,” he says. “That was it. The story just developed over time.”
Now armed with an incredible visual show for his live performances, Baauer’s DJ sets are likely to become more vivid and memorable affairs in future. Whether he sticks to DJ’ing, though, is another question. “When I was DJ’ing before, I was playing a lot of other people’s stuff, and I started to get to a place I wasn’t happy with, because I thought my music didn’t bang as hard as theirs. I want to go the other way and do a set with all my music, where everything fits nice with the visuals and it’s a whole experience.”
Like many other artists in lockdown, Baauer has taken to Twitch to entertain his audience, producing new tracks while livestreaming. His fans send him samples, and offer their ideas and feedback on the work in progress. Here, Baauer has created a mass online collaborative platform with people he’s never met and probably never will. “Where I would normally stop on a project, now I have to keep going”, he says. ”It’s weird because if I was in a room making a song with a stranger sitting next to me, I would clam up and be self-conscious and wouldn’t be able to make anything. When I have hundreds of random people I don’t know, I feel more open and ready to make stuff.”
With such a positive response, there’s no reason for Baauer to put a stop to the Twitch streams in a post-COVID world either. “It’s opened up this new lane that I wish I’d had sooner. It’s so much fun to interact with people and make music. It’s made me make 10 times more stuff than I normally would.”
Baauer on Twitch production: “It’s made me make 10 times more stuff than I normally would”
Baauer is no stranger to collaboration, though, having teamed up with everyone from A-Trak to virtual Instagram influencer and singer Miquela. Making music with animated characters isn’t something that Baauer – or anyone else, for that matter – does every day. “It was crazy,” he says. “Basically it’s a whole team of people making one person, so instead of working with one person, I was working with a whole squad. It brought up all kinds of challenges and unexpected things. It was the same with the Star Wars thing. It’s this experiment that I thought was the future.” When working with other artists and singers, the bass-loving producer takes a verse or phrase and treats it as if it was a sample he’d found in a pack.
Shaking off Harlem
For Baauer, being known as ‘the guy behind Harlem Shake’ must have got tedious, especially given his diverse and genre-bending discography. It’s curious to observe the many ways in which this label can influence potential listeners. “It’s interesting,” he says. “In a way, it’s like it’ll never go away. It’s something I’ve done and I’m cool with that. I accept it. I look back and think, ‘There’s a funny, goofy thing I did’. I own it.”
Does he think it’s made listeners tune in more acutely? “I’m not sure,” he says. “I hope so. If that means that all these people are new fans, that’s awesome. People will potentially dismiss it and be like, ‘Oh, no, that’s stupid’. But, even now, through releasing this album, people will say things and it’ll get to me sometimes. It’ll hit me. At the same time, most people know it’s not something that takes away from any of my other music.”
Baauer’s latest album is a clear indication that the artist has been moving in new directions since he made the whole world shake in 2013. Planet’s Mad raises the question of whether it’s worth forking out for expensive gear and mastering relentless learning curves when it’s possible to craft broad-scope cinematic blockbusters using little more than a MacBook. Sure, we’ve seen the same from other high-profile producers but this is one more reason to make sure you know your DAW inside out before splashing out on the industry’s hot new synth. Given the astronomical production values of his world-trembling new album, it won’t be long until he has the dancefloor shaking once more.