Wehbba: “I’ve shifted from using samples to making every sound from scratch”
Brazilian DJ and producer Wehbba’s latest album showcases not just his brand of layered and hypnotic music but also incorporates a range of field recordings captured at locations around the world. We ask him about the results.
Wehbba’s Barcelona-based studio is a museum of music technology – and a perfect place to spend a productive lockdown
With a career spanning more than 10 years, the Sao Paolo-born multi-talented electronic producer and DJ Rodolfo Wehba seems hellbent on setting himself new creative challenges, varying his approach to music-making and continually honing his skills.
Releasing music under the name Wehbba, his first few diverse studio albums, Full Circle and Square Two, established him as a melodically focused composer with an ear for texture and as a funk-influenced crowd-baiting DJ, respectively. With his third offering Straight Lines and Sharp Corners, Wehbba has sought to craft a concept album like no other, further blurring the ever-thinning boundaries between DJ and producer, and crafting new and absorbing sonic textures from found sounds and classic hardware.
In making this record, Wehbba has put together a mouth-watering assortment of equipment, building an impressive live rig that’s both portable and packed with incredible tech. Though the recent lockdown saw him postpone his touring plans for 2020, when we spoke to Wehbba in his Barcelona-based studio, we found that his ambition and enthusiasm were unshaken.
MT: How did you get interested in music-making? How did that lead to your career?
Wehbba: I’ve always been into music on a direct level. When I was a young kid, I’d see my father playing guitar, which always fascinated me. So, the first chance I got to pick up that guitar, I took it. When I reached my teens, I started writing my own music. It’s funny, I’ve just helped my parents move house and I found a notebook that contains some old lyrics that I wrote when I was about 12. It was a reminder of just how long I’ve been doing this.
My career developed organically. I never actually planned on turning music into a career. I studied to be a dentist. I graduated and started working as a dentist and it looked like that was going to be my profession. Music was always a parallel thing. But when it got to the point that I was successful enough to start touring internationally, I decided to give up dentistry and completely focus on music. I also started working as both an engineer-producer and an artist at around the same time.
MT: What processes did you go through to craft your new record Straight Lines and Sharp Corners?
W: I’m a lot more experienced than I was when I made my first record Full Circle. That record and its follow-up Square Two saw me showing what I could do and who I was. I was looking to impress people. But this record was more focused on rediscovering the truth in myself and the truth in my life as an artist, and what really touches me. I was just basically trying to impress myself. Technically speaking, I have a lot more access to equipment now than I did back then. I’ve shifted from using samples and pre-recorded material to making every single sound from scratch, and making everything with my own instruments and field recordings, as opposed to trotting out the pre-made stuff.
That said, there are a few drum sounds that I took from classic drum machines. But it’s a minimal amount compared to the stuff I made from scratch. I have a few drum machines and modular systems that can create some interesting and unique sounds that are more directly connected to whatever I’m feeling. For me, it’s easier to use those.
MT: Why do you value field recordings? How do you capture these sounds and what does sense of place mean to your music?
W: To capture sounds when I’m wandering around or if I go specifically on field-recording trips, for example, I use my Zoom H6 recorder. It comes with two sets of microphones suitable for different locations. I use mainly the X/Y mic because it captures more low end. I then take these recordings back to the studio and use a lot of those lower frequencies in my mixes. It’s not super-expensive equipment but, again, I’m not interested in capturing these field sounds in high fidelity. It’s just about capturing the natural ambience and using that on top of other things. It’s predominantly about adding a vibe to things. The H6 is portable and fast too. If I’m out and about and I hear something special, I’ll quickly switch it on and grab that sound. Then I can apply effects to make them work in the context of a mix.
I’m always trying to capture the natural feeling of the place, because places make you feel certain emotions. Sometimes you’re just walking around and don’t notice but if I’m somewhere and suddenly I’m really aware of a feeling then I’ll try my best to capture it. If I don’t have the recorder with me, I’ll use my phone. It can give me ideas, even if I don’t use those sounds, they still inspire me. I can build a track based on the feel of the recordings, even if I don’t incorporate them directly.
MT: How much time do you spend in your studio per day?
W: My studio is at home in Barcelona and I spend most of my days here. Especially right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown – though, in all honesty, perhaps that hasn’t changed for me. If I’m in Barcelona, I’m usually here. Being in the studio is both my work and my hobby.
I have a mix of hardware and software here. I have about 20 synthesizers and a range of hardware effects, as well as many in-the-box effects. I like to mix and match. Hardware is generally always my starting point though – melodies and chord sequences come from playing synths, which I’ll then take into software and edit.
MT: How do you typically begin building tracks? Do ideas come from playing or do you already have a concept in your head?
W: It depends. It’s not a fixed process. Often, I’ll get an idea for a hook. Sometimes, for example, it’ll be an effect that I’ve imagined and I’ll try to replicate it in my modular system. Once I record it in, I’ll develop it or just sit and explore the sound a bit further. Sometimes a small snippet of a sound can give me an idea to take somewhere else. Sometimes I’ll not create any actual music at all and instead just experiment with sounds in my synths or dabble with something like Reaktor. I don’t like to fix my approach.
MT: What’s your mixing process like?
W: Mixing usually occurs in-the-box – 98 per cent of the time anyway. I normally export all the stems from the project I’ve recorded and load it up in a new Logic session. I don’t start completely from scratch though – I copy the plug-ins I had in the mix bus on the track I was working on over to the mix session so I have a starting point, and rework everything from there. For the album, I did some analogue summing for some of the tracks. I used my old Boss BX-80 mixer to capture a 1990s aesthetic.
The track Brainflex: Interlude, for example, was largely based on 1990s inspirations and that mixer gave me that feeling instantly. I used it for that and for the track No Sleep. I also used the PlayDifferently Model One to sum the stems on Basic Pleasure, Dove Rush and a few others. That was new to me too. This is the first time I’ve got hands-on with analogue summing. I had the means to do it this time and it helped me achieve stuff that I don’t think I could’ve done in-the-box, though that’s perhaps more to do with inspiration than anything technical. If you’re exposed to a different direction, it can make you go down paths you wouldn’t otherwise venture.
MT: How does your live rig vary from your studio equipment?
W: The live rig is based around things that I’m comfortable with. It’s all very second-nature. I can jam live for hours without being stuck trying to figure out how to get things to sound the way I want. It’s all automatic. That’s why I’m using the Roland Boutique SH-101. This is the synth I’ve used the most in my life as a producer. The Behringer TD-3 is essentially a 303, which I’m really familiar with. It’s applicable to a lot of techno music and I can get results from it instantly. I add and switch a few of these as I go. I had a brief one-hour performance of my new live rig before the lockdown, so I’m keen to get out there again as soon as possible and perform with it.
The Roland TR-8S is my most-used drum machine in the studio and now live. I have the Pioneer Toraiz Squid as my sequencer for both the 303 and the 101. I’ve been using both the Eventide H9 and the Empress Zoia in my DJ sets for a while and I’m very used to them. They’re flexible and customisable, that’s why I chose them. I can make them sound very different and they can synchronise with projects coming from the Elektron Octatrack – if I change a pattern, it will instantly change a preset on the pedal, which helps me shape the starting effect for each of the tracks.
It’s like having little helpers. The Elektron Octatrack MKII is the brains of the operation. It’s so versatile. It’s quirky but, once you get your head around it, it’s amazing, because you can make it do pretty much anything you need it to do. It’s been there for so long and is still very usable. You can’t say that for a lot of things.
Live rig box
The complete live setup consists of the following:
- PlayDifferently Model One
- Elektron Octatrack MKII
- Roland TR-8S
- Roland SH-01A
- MAM MB33
- Pioneer DJ Toraiz Squid
- TC Electronic M100
- Korg Kaoss Pad Mini 2S
- Eventide H9
- Empress Zoia
- Teenage Engineering PO35
MT: What advice would you give to live performers who use tech in the same way you do?
W: Planning is key. My live set is 80 per cent planning ahead to translate what you’re doing in the studio to the live arena. It’s complicated. It requires a lot of energy and thought. Once you start to practise, you learn that some things don’t work in a performative context. I have a lot of papers around my house covered in ideas that I’ve jotted down. Doing that has saved me a lot of time.
MT: How does DJ’ing differ from producing your own material?
W: The lines are blurred. I don’t think one can exist without the other. I mean, obviously you can make music and not be a DJ but my producer brain helps to keep my vision solidified. Having the internal feedback from my DJ perspective and knowing how things might translate to a live environment is beneficial when it comes to the final works. I started doing both at the same time; I was already making music when I started to DJ. They’ve worked in tandem from the beginning. I rely on being a DJ to make the music that I do.
MT: What advice would you give to those looking to embark on a career as a DJ or producer?
W: Do it for the love. That’s key. You’ve got to enjoy being creative. The other thing is to develop a vision. That’s what I struggled with the most and that’s what took me the longest, tuning myself in to the sorts of sounds that I wanted to make and the ideas that I wanted to present. It’s what makes artists stand out. Some people get that straight away, while others struggle with it for a few years. I think people can relate to that. Just work on cementing your own vision.
We’re in an interesting time right now, with everything going on in the world and with the restriction of live performances, many artists are spending more time in the studio and making new music. We can make this a great moment. It’s a good time to reflect on yourself. I’ve just finished my album but I don’t feel like doing nothing right now, so I’m trying to get more ideas going. I’m sharing inspirations when I can and doing live Q&As with my audience. I want to share more knowledge and get in touch with the audience via the internet. Making music is always on my mind.