Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.

Machinedrum: “That’s what’s exciting about making music: learning, evolving and experimenting”

Travis Stewart dives deep on the production process for his album, 3FOR82, and explains his nostalgic approach to creating futuristic sounds.

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

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A cursory web search of ‘demoscene’ will lead you down one of cyberspace’s most esoteric rabbit holes. You’ll find website designs straight out of 1998, archives of trippy electronic music from 1999, and bizarre CGI music videos from competitions held in 2000. This all transpired from a late-90s/early-00s online movement, the demoscene, which saw creatives exploring the early internet. They’d pirate software, share music files, build video games, and socialise in IRC chatrooms, forming a unique subculture.

Running in parallel to the demoscene was an even more niche movement: the tracker scene. Here, music producers used software-based trackers — Aphex Twin, Calvin Harris and Venetian Snares are notable users of these early DAWs — to create electronic music on their home computers, complete with CRT screens. Producers would then head to the web to share their music, samples and video game scores with other tracker producers and demoscene fans.

In this online community, in an IRC channel dedicated to tracker music (#trax), a young Travis Stewart in North Carolina found his calling as an electronic music producer. After producing 11 albums as Machinedrum in the past 20 years, he’s revisiting his tracker and demoscene roots to find out “what it would be like to collaborate with my younger self,” Travis says. “Me in the 90s to early 2000s, when I was really excited and bewildered by this world of electronic music…this amazing community of tracker musicians.”

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

You’re not exactly being thrown back 30 years when listening to Machinedrum’s new album, 3FOR82, released on Ninja Tune. The LP features on-point vocal performances from luminary artists including Mick Jenkins, Duckwrth, Kučka, Jesse Boykins III and Tinashe, and — true to Machinedrum fashion — mashes together hip-hop, d‘n’b and IDM. It feels more innovative than retrospective. But the nostalgia lies in Travis’ production techniques, and not just in the gear and software he used.

“After my past two albums and collaborating with vocalists, I wanted to be more intentional this time about the narrative of 3FOR82,” Travis tells us over a video call from L.A.

To build a concept, he conducted interviews with each vocalist just before they’d head into the studio, also recording these conversations with the same model VHS recorder his family owned in the 90s, no less. Travis asked each collaborator one crucial question: “If you were in the room with your younger self, what would you say to them?”

“Some people seemed to be very inspired by the question and their answer would turn into, like, a 10-minute response,” Travis says. “But I wouldn’t then say, ‘Okay, let’s write a song about that.’ I would just hope that it would affect their subconscious in a way that would influence what they wrote; whether it was more literal, like a love letter to their younger self, or if there was just some certain aspect of the inspiration behind the song, or if they tapped into vocal style from when they were younger. Basically, having that be somewhere in their inspiration was important to me.”

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

Travis was careful about how he enlisted the vocalists. Usually, he’d hit up friends and singers he’d already worked with, either as Machinedrum or as a producer on their projects, so that rapport was already established. This includes longtime friend Jesse Boykins III, who is credited as the album’s co-executive producer and lent his vocals on the tracks WEARY and GODOWN. For this album, though, Travis wanted to connect with new artists — and Jesse was invaluable in making that feel natural.

“[Jesse] kept giving me different vocalist ideas for songs, often people he was directly connected with, and they were so spot on,” Travis says.

“He’s a great songwriter and is really good at putting vocalists outside of their comfort zone. He’ll challenge certain things or, if he knows that the vocalist is on a roll, he’ll just stay completely uninvolved if he needs to.”

The diverse vocal performances beautifully complement Travis’ experimental production. From Aja Monet’s introspective dialogue in ORACLE and Jesse’s emotive performance in GODOWN to Mick Jenkins’ defiant bars in WEARY and Topaz Jones’ aggressive verses on RESPEK, the album gives each vocalist space to shine. As many producers know, getting vocalists to perform their best in a session is really a skill in itself.

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

“A lot of times,” Travis explains, “you get into the studio with the new vocalist and the first hour or two, you’re trying to find some sort of rapport or playing them a bunch of beats and hoping something grabs their attention. Having Jesse there made the environment more friendly and open, which definitely helped in how the songs came together so quickly.”

Travis’ idea for the 12-track album came during a trip to Joshua Tree, California, on his 41st birthday. He then started building up a library of sounds – “thousands and thousands of sounds; I only scratched the surface with this album” — and gave himself a time limit to pull new ideas together quickly.

“I’d have an hourglass on my studio desk and turn it over when I started working on an idea. When the hourglass ran out, I’d walk out of the studio for five or 10 minutes, come back and take a listen to the track, and if I felt like it was really worth continuing to flesh out whatever the idea was, then I would.

“And if I just really didn’t like it, that was another reason for me to move on and also not try to rescue the idea. The point was to just keep moving forward.”

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

With his thousands-strong sample library, Travis had a DOS emulator running Impulse Tracker, which was released as freeware in 1995. He’d load his old tracker projects and samples into the software until he heard something that caught his ear — a loop, kick sound, a synth, anything with an “old retro kind of 90s tracker aesthetic” — and recorded those moments into Ableton Live, which ran in the background. Sometimes, he’d turn those sounds into virtual instruments within Ableton to play chromatically.

After a month, Travis had around 45 tracks; not bad for a few weeks of hourglass rotations. The final 12 tracks on the album, which he whittled down based on his mood (“those 12 tracks were 12 different tracks each month”) traverse hip-hop with samples from Tracklib, liquid drum ‘n’ bass with mellow synth parts, and experimental backdrops for the likes of Jesse Boykins III and Tanerélle’s vocals.

For Travis, producing across a variety of genres comes fairly naturally. He explains that it comes from his earliest days in music production “when I was very focused on experimenting with anything I wanted to. When I was a teenager and in my early 20s, I was just constantly emulating what I was hearing and trying to recreate other people’s music, which was really exciting to me. I’d find my own sound within that inspiration. I think that’s inside of my DNA — I’m always exploring different sounds based on whatever my tastes are at the time because that’s what I find exciting about making music: learning, evolving and trying new things.”

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

So what remains appealing about Impulse Tracker? Why not try new gear or a newer, more traditional DAW? Is it all just for the nostalgia?

“In the 90s, there were a lot of producers, especially bedroom producers, using trackers because they wielded a lot of power despite being essentially free software,” Travis says. “When I was younger, I would read different music technology publications that would feature my favourite producer’s studios, and they were just filled with massive amounts of gear and it seemed so unattainable for me…[Making electronic music] is so much more possible now and there’s this amazing support within the tracker community.”

Another bonus for Travis was that the small size of tracker files meant they were easy to share online with fellow tracker producers and demoscene fans. Small file sizes can seem trivial now — we’ve got virtual instruments that take up hundreds of gigabytes — but it was a game-changing factor during a time of dial-up and cable modem internet. Impulse Tracker’s file compression also resulted in a distinct sonic characteristic that Travis likens to vintage samplers, like an Akai MPC 60 or E-Mu SP-1200 .

“The way that Impulse Tracker, and a lot of trackers, processes the samples gives it this very…it’s hard to describe the sound, but it’s somewhere between lo-fi and hi-fi.

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

“Your capabilities of decimating a sound and making something really grimy and saturated were just that. There were so many possibilities for downgrading samples to the point where they would become unrecognisable. And then eventually you’d get DAWs like Ableton and FL Studio, with the goal of making things sound as professional and clear and hi-fi as possible. So going back to those old versions of Impulse Tracker and turning off any hi-fi settings gave it this really endearing, unique sonic quality. And, yeah, there’s a nostalgia there, but there’s also an interesting rawness to the sound that I really like.”

Travis was making his tunes on Impulse Tracker until around 2005, at which point he gradually switched to Ableton Live. He says that if you listen back to his earlier releases, you can actually hear a change in the sonics and in the song structures, the latter being a consequence of the change from a vertical sequencer to a linear DAW.

He’s pretty much been hooked on software his whole life, rather than getting too caught up in which hardware synth or drum machine to buy next. He keeps his studio in LA pretty minimal, sometimes capturing specific synth sounds when he goes to a friend’s studio. Or, he’ll buy a piece of gear, collect some sounds from it and then let it go.

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

With a musical career so focused on software and computers, it’s no surprise that Travis tried tinkering with AI to create music. He’s previously said that new AI developments are “super interesting and equally terrifying” – rightly so — but his experience with ChatGPT was less than fruitful. And not just in his attempts to make it produce an Aphex Twin track…

“I was getting ChatGPT to give me Csound code to create experimental sound design. And it was cool to get back into Csound and see what was possible there, but chat GPT wasn’t really yielding the best results, as it’s known to do.”

So he ditched the idea of AI being able to make the music he wanted. Instead, he used ChatGPT to stylise his social media captions with underscores, cryptic symbols and abbreviations that are reminiscent of demoscene. These messages also appear in 3FOR82’s accompanying zine and vinyl package, which is a printed homage to demoscene, tracker culture and the retrofuturism of the early 2000s. There’s also a nod to Californian cyberpunk magazine Mondo 2000, which was published in the 80s and 90s.

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

Travis and I opine that much of what we now see as futuristic has already been imagined and referenced by the likes of Mondo 2000 and other forward-thinking figures and brands. One example is Discord, a community platform that’s reportedly seeing 29 million daily users communicate and collaborate with like-minded people (producers, gamers, even workplaces) in dedicated servers and channels. It sounds novel but it’s essentially a modernised version of IRC — and Travis has been using it as such.

“A lot of those same people that I would talk to on IRC are all on their respective Discord servers now,” Travis says.

“I grew up in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina, and I didn’t have that real, in-person, collaborative aspect to what I was doing. And so my only opportunity to learn from other producers was to literally download their tracker files and look at how they made a song, and, you know, use the same samples that they used, because a lot of those samples are being passed around within the community.”

Travis can look back at the “huge growth periods” in his career and attribute them to times when he was collaborating. Whether in IRC channels or in person, he’d discover new concepts, processes and techniques to implement into the Machinedrum project. In the tracker community, he’d find inspiration from the breaks, loops and sounds that were circulated around the scene. He’s now reviving that same movement within his own fanbase, with hopes that the producers in his community can grow, too.

His Discord-based COMPO battles see fans and fellow producers take a Machinedrum-supplied sample pack and create something new.

Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Travis Stewart AKA Machinedrum.
Image: Ben Bentley for MusicTech

“I’ve always tried to find some way of incorporating a community aspect to what I do,” Travis says. “Because I recognise the importance of how that can help other artists grow, but even myself grow, you know…Just doing all these beat battles and learning about how other people take the rules that I apply to each competition and really run with it.”

Travis and his community maintain the same ethos of those early demoscene and tracker scene channels; the idea of creating for creation’s sake, not to release or sell music. “There’s a certain aspect of it that you want to impress everyone, but at the same time, you know the stakes aren’t so high.”

“We all listen to the music together and celebrate these moments in time through the beat battles.”

As Machinedrum, Travis has embraced key concepts from demoscene culture — collaboration, curiosity and creativity — and kept them alive as we collectively grapple with early versions of new technology. He’s finding ways to engage an online community and explore new technologies, all while keeping letting the past inform the present.

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