Show Off Your Studio: Nicky Romero on his Monocule alias, Instigate Studios, and lessons from Avicii
The prolific producer reveals his darker side in his new music and explains how his homely studio cultivates inspirational ideas
Nicky Romero needs little introduction. Ever since his 2011 track Toulouse skyrocketed to the top of dance charts and became the stuff of EDM legend, the Dutch producer has been in high demand as one of the biggest DJs and producers on the scene. From his chart-topping collabs with Avicii, Krewella and Nervo to launching his Protocol label and appearing in Zac Efron’s We Are Your Friends, the Rhianna and Britney Spears producer is ceaselessly prolific.
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Having cemented his status in big room EDM, he’s now revealing his more melodic, melancholy side in his Monocule project. He invites us into his homely Instigate Studio complex to show us the gear he uses as Monocule and talk us through the development of his latest track, Awakening, as well as fondly remember the impact Avicii had on his creative flow.
Hey Nicky! Can you tell us a little bit about Monocule and what inspired you to start a new direction in music production?
I spent much more time in the studio during the lockdowns. This inspired me to make deeper tunes that I couldn’t release under the Nicky Romero brand. I’ve always loved the more melodic, progressive side of music, so this new alias gives me the creative freedom to put this material out.
Your recent track, Awakening, features vocalist Sarah De Warren. What got you excited about Sarah and how was the collaborative process with her?
Sarah has been a Protocol family member for many years now, and we always wanted to do something together. I had the production idea of Awakening ready and asked Sarah if she could do some cool spoken word over the top of it. After two days, she sent it back and it was perfect! It was a very nice and smooth process.
Tell us a bit about your studio.
My studio is located in Veenendaal, Netherlands, and the studio complex goes by the name Instigate Studios. There are multiple studios, including a radio studio, an SSL Mixing & recording room and, of course, a chill room to play some FIFA!
How do you use your studio?
I usually work on a track for a few days and lay down the concept. If I feel the track needs some live instruments, we can record it directly in my room or in the live room where we have a beautiful Hoffmann piano. Once I finish the track, I render out the stems and import them into the SSL console. We get the track to the next level with some more analogue gear and get it ready for the clubs or streaming platforms.
How does the studio environment help you with your creativity?
We built the studio with the vision that it should feel warm and homely. It helps me relax and focus on being creative. After sessions, we can play some games on the PlayStation in the living room or play table soccer.
Which DAW do you use?
I started with FL Studio back in the day, but it didn’t suit my workflow, so I tried some other DAWs and eventually started using Logic Pro. Logic works great for me, and I have been using it for about 10 years now.
What is your favourite piece of gear?
That’s a hard question! I think my favourite piece of gear would be the UAD Satellite Quad Core. There are so many good plug-ins you can run on that device, and it really helps me get the quality I strive for in my productions.
What synth or effect can be heard the most on Awakening?
There’s a bunch of things going on. There are some organic sounds such as rain and thunder, but also chorus and flanger effects to give the synths more movement. I try to do this on all synths, giving it a more dynamic and warmer character.
Are you using gear differently in your creation of Monocule music compared to your Nicky Romero music?
Definitely. I try to use more organic sounds and hardware synths in the Monocule productions. For example, in Awakening, you can hear the thunderstorms in the breaks, and I used the Nord lead for the strings and pads to make it feel more natural.
You have some great outboard gear, such as the Dangerous Bax EQ and Crane Song Ibis. Are you using these a lot?
I try to use more outboard gear, as the power and quality are amazing. But it’s also more time-consuming to get it sounding right. In the COVID-period, I spent a lot of time in the studio and had time to focus on learning my gear inside out. I still use a lot of plug-ins as there are so many good developers – UAD, FabFilter, Waves, for example. They sound amazing, they’re easy to use, and in the last few years, they have been closing in the gap with hardware, in my opinion.
What’s been the biggest investment in your studio? Was it worth it?
The biggest investment was the acoustic treatment and my speaker setup – the PMC MB2-XBD speakers. It was 100 per cent worth it.
Producing music and mixing is always about making decisions, and the acoustics and speakers helped me gain more confidence in that. In my older studio, I was going back and forth tweaking the mix, testing it in the car or at clubs, and finding out it just wasn’t there yet. Then I’d go back to the studio to try and fix it, which would cost me a few days, even weeks. Now with the new acoustics and speakers, I just know that once it sounds good in my studio, it will sound good everywhere on any sound system.
What is next on your shopping list studio-wise?
I’m not sure [laughs]; I am pretty satisfied with my studio as it is. But if I have to pick one thing, then it would be the Crane Song Hedd. It’s a converter with triode, pentode and tape sound emulation knobs which give just that extra spiciness to a track!
What is your dream piece of gear?
Analogue Tube AT-101. It’s a recreation of the Fairchild 670 stereo limiter. I tried it once, and it sounds amazing. It gives signals more punch without losing any dynamics at all – it’s just a great piece of equipment. The only downside is that it’s very expensive. It’s around £20K [laughs].
If we left you on a desert island, what one item would you take with you to make music with forever?
My studio friends. Making music alone can be a bit boring – or is that not allowed? No, I think I would take my PMC MB2-XBD speakers! I just can’t live without them anymore; they sound so good!
What is your top piece of production advice?
Compare! Compare your productions to your favourite artist’s. I don’t mean you should copy anyone, but learn from them and analyse the songs: what makes their song stand out? Why does that arrangement work so good? Their mix-down is sounding fresh – compared to theirs, does my production have more or less low end? Where do they place vocals or hi-hats in the mix? Do they have less or more reverb on that synth sound?
By listening and comparing your productions, you can get a clear view of what your production is missing.
The world recently remembered your friend and collaborator Avicii on his 32nd birthday. Do you remember any lessons you learned from him that you wouldn’t mind sharing?
He is one of the most talented artists I have ever worked with. The thing that stuck with me the most is that he didn’t worry about the mixdown or any rules about producing music. He would just create melodies and harmonies, let his creativity flow, and worry about how it sounds later on.
What is the one piece of advice you would give someone starting out building a studio?
Hire the right people. Acoustic treatment is especially important. A set of speakers can be easily replaced, but you only have one chance to get the acoustics right. Also, think about wiring some extra cable’s behind the walls as you might want to add some stuff in the future. Wiring after the acoustics are done is going to be a pain in the ass.