It’s been some time since we last organised a masterclass session, in fact it’s been a while since we last wrote anything. Nonetheless, we’re here now with another Insight exclusive masterclass session with Cambridgeshire producer Oscuro.
We take a behind the scenes look at the songwriting process that has made the artist what he is today. Showcasing everything from their studio setup to achieving that signature sound, this masterclass session focuses on the single ‘Let Me Down’, taken from their 2020 album ‘From the Unseen’. Questions written by Liam Welch.
From the Name to the Unseen
Hi, my name is Lewis, I am from rural Cambridgeshire (UK), where I have lived most of my life. I started my musical journey playing guitar, which I got into through skateboarding culture in my teens, but I would say I always had a strong connection with music.
I actually found the name ‘Oscuro’ while flicking through a Spanish dictionary, the first definition I read was ‘obscure’ which suited the more left field electronica I was making at the time, I have since come to understand it means ‘dark’ which suits the music I make now better! But really the name has taken on a more personal meaning and is associated with the experiences I have had during the evolution of this project.
‘From The Unseen’ is a collection of singles that I released during 2019, there were a couple of unreleased tracks and a track designed to improve the transition between two of the existing tracks.
These songs for me have a certain sadness or melancholy about them and I would say they were an outlet for those emotions during the course of their creation. When I came to putting them all together as an album I was thinking a lot about the concept of creativity and where it comes from, I have always felt that ideas just become available to me as though they are put into my head from elsewhere, rather than ‘me’ creating them through effort. Of course once the idea is in your head it is up to you to decide if you want to develop it, which can take a lot of work, but the seed or nucleus of each song is something that exists, in some form, before its realisation as a recorded piece of music.
My ultimate goal with any album or collection of songs is to create an immersive listening experience that is engaging and takes on a new meaning when consumed in its entirety.
“Separate your sense of self from your art and seek to refine your work every day.” – Oscuro
I think one of the things that has always drawn me to your page is the writing of your music. It’s always incredibly coherent and musically sound, do you have teaching in music theory and writing? If so, what’s one of the most critical skills to learn in writing/composing a piece (in your opinion)?
I came to music production quite late after studying the guitar at college and eventually doing a degree centered around guitar playing (with a view to becoming a professional musician) my studies included a lot of music theory and some modules on composition etc so I was pretty comfortable with the rudiments of music before getting into production.
I would say this is something that can be overlooked when getting into production, it is really easy to get into the weeds with gear and VST’s, advanced production techniques and sound design and overlook the basics such as solid harmony (chords), melody and musical arrangement.
Of course you can make awesome dark and twisted alternative tracks which don’t adhere to common conventions, but I think it is important for that to be a choice and I don’t think there can be any downside to improving your understanding of music theory and why things work the way they do. Ultimately you are only learning the language of what you are already doing.
I would highly recommend spending some time on youtube getting to grips with the basics of understanding musical keys, scales and chords and take it from there. Basic piano playing can be an invaluable tool in this pursuit, it may seem like an overwhelming task but again I don’t think it would ever be something you would regret investing your time in.
I also want to specifically talk about the track “Let Me Down.” Your pieces are always full of beautiful instruments and sounds, many acoustic sounds. Particularly here I hear an acoustic guitar or some stringed instrument in the breakdown between choruses. Do you record these instruments analogue or do you mostly work through digital plugins?
Yes! I love to blend acoustic sounds with more digital/synthesised elements. I tend to record acoustic guitars myself, I have a rode k2 microphone that I use for this, I then process and layer them with other acoustic plucked sounds, such as pitched down mandolins etc. I am constantly drawn to the richness that acoustic instruments provide.
The atmosphere is wonderful in this track, with many buried layers of strings and pads. How did you go about designing the foundational atmosphere’s in this piece, and in general, what is your go-to creation process of background ambience?
I tend to make sure I have a solid chord progression first, and then I pick out notes of the chords with pad sounds from something like Native Instruments Absynth, I like to use the freeze function in Ableton’s stock reverb and create long evolving soundscapes by layering instances of these ‘frozen’ pad sounds.
To me, another defining aspect in your music is your percussive work. How did you create the percussion in this same track? Do you splice up samples or do home recordings?
I generally use a combination of my own field recordings and found sounds (sample packs available at payhip.com/looppointaudio) and samples from Splice etc. I am not too precious about where sounds come from I try to focus on bringing the whole song/track together and doing it justice, if this means swapping out a sound I made for a better one made by someone else, I won’t hesitate. I do try to learn from the experience though and work on whatever needed improving in separate sound design sessions.
For the main hits I usually make composite sounds from existing samples, I do this by crossfading the attack of one kick with the tail of another and applying extra compression etc if needed.
“Writing music is all I know how to do, I would be at a loss without it”
I really love the rich, foley layered drum sounds of artists like bonobo and I like to combine that influence with the more precise and choppy foley work from other chillstep/future garage artists such as Phelian, Vesky & Tim Schaufert.
I use a combination of manual audio editing and gating/chopper VST’s, I always bounce to audio and post process until I get the sound I’m looking for, I will usually group all the percussion together and apply some subtle EQ to help all the elements sit together.
It is an ongoing process that I am never completely happy with, but I guess that is the beauty of it.
What is your typical mixing and mastering process? What did you bring the focus on in this piece, and how did you go about doing that?
I mix as I go, setting levels pretty conservatively and I mix with a limiter on the master taking off no more than around 3db. So when my mix is done, that is the master. If I am working with a label and I know they will want to master the track I try to work without the limiter or make sure that when I disable it I have at least 3db of headroom.
For ‘Let Me Down’ I wanted to make sure the vocals and the piano melody were really clear so I paid close attention to the levels of each word in the vocals to ensure a consistent level, manually automating the gain where necessary to achieve this.
Back to general questions, do you work through an inspiration of some kind when making a track? Perhaps a picture, a life experience, a movie, a story, etc.
These days I have to treat music to some extent as work so there are set times that I need to make music, this can be challenging as it adds an element of pressure. As I don’t have time to just wait and see what ideas come to me, I usually start noodling around on the piano, letting my hands pick out little motifs etc. Usually in this process something will jump out as having some potential, from there I tend to connect the idea with whatever is happening in my personal life at that time. There is always a sense of gratitude when I have an idea I am excited to develop as I always have a degree of anxiety about the process and feel each song could be my last!
Wrapping up, what is your goal with the Oscuro project? Do you have something particular, or do you simply love writing music?
Writing music is all I know how to do, I would be at a loss without it, it is so easy in this age of data and analytics to get caught up chasing metrics and I would be lying if I said I didn’t have some goals that centre around a certain number of followers/fans/listeners etc. But ultimately I just want to continue the journey and share my music with as many people that want to hear it as possible.
What would you say your largest inspirations are for creating music? Other artists, your own love for music, an emotional outlet?
Definitely an emotional outlet, but inspiration about how an idea should sound is definitely drawn from other artists and that list is too long to write.. But I get inspired by listening to all the music in the chillstep/future garage/ambient scene, I just find artists everyday who have awesome tracks full of great ideas and I never have to venture far for fresh inspiration.
If you could give a one sentence piece of advice for aspiring Garage/Electronic producers, what would it be?
Separate your sense of self from your art and seek to refine your work every day.
Thank you for the interview, it has been a pleasure, I am so grateful to the Insight community for all the support. Thanks for reading!