Masterclass: James Holden

4 July, 2018

BIMM Brighton’s newly appointed head of Music Production, Matt Hodson, recently played host to sonic whizz kid and electronic production guru James Holden during an incredibly inspiring masterclass.

Matt was delighted to welcome music producer, remixer, label owner and techno sorcerer, James Holden for an exciting and highly in-depth look into his world. In a very telling and special appearance, James provided a never before seen in-depth overview of his new live performance system which combines bespoke computer software with modular synthesis.

James discussed his shift in focus from DJing in the ’90s and ’00s to his full live band performances, which he currently undertakes using a bespoke modular synthesiser and software that he coded himself. He then took time to give students an in-depth look into the bespoke software, which allows full integration of his amazing modular synth with the computer and the rest of his live band.

“I started getting into modular purely to design poly-synths by cross-wiring different things.” Explained James.

“Then I just built up a library of sounds from there. There’s stuff that hardware is good at, but it’s not necessarily as good as a computer. So, this bespoke set-up is the division of labour between the two. The modular contains what I thought was essential for creating a beefy, fat, rich and texturally interesting sound on-stage. And then I delegated as many jobs as possible to the computer, because it can remember all the different settings.”

Having shifted from flying solo to performing with his full live band, The Animal Spirits, James then went on to explain how his methods have had to evolve in order to incorporate a more human aspect to his performances, as well as the logistical challenges they face.

“We’ve gotten pretty close as a band, and we feel quite connected when we play together. So, I wanna do another record with them and tour it. But the reality is, it depends how Brexit goes. For example, if you’re taking gear like ours outside of Europe, the cost involved is about the same as one musician. So, it might mean that one of the band members gets the chop! It also takes a lot of effort to get seven people on flights from different locations to arrive in time for a soundcheck abroad.”

He elaborated on the new ‘humanised’ sound he creates with the band.

“Because I’ve got the whole band around me, I’m not always doing everything the audience can hear. The percussion’s really important. I’ve two different percussionists that play with me and they bring different surprises every time. They add that layer of sonic richness, that keeps it interesting and is ultimately what gives that cosmic, magical atmosphere I was looking create with this current record.”

The ability to respond to the rest of his band as they speed up, slow down and naturally change the feel is something not usually seen within a computer environment, but with bespoke software, James’ laptop ‘listens’ to deviations to how the music is played by the rest of his band and can change in response to this.

“Good musicians are listening the whole time when they play together. For example, if the sax player accents the last note of a phrase, then the trumpet player is going to react to that. These patterns I’ve programmed are not intuitive to play for a live drummer. So originally, it was better to just let him do his own thing over the top. But with this latest record, the live drums are much more embedded, because they were involved in the genesis of it.” 

Prior to his current ensemble work, James made a name for himself as a master progressive remixer. He’s remixed the likes of Radiohead, Madonna and Britney Spears, offering his own flavour and approach to their tracks. He explains how he occasionally found the process frustrating.

“By the end of the 90/00’s, labels were throwing thousands of pounds around for remixes. So it was a great way to make a bit of extra money. But I started to get tired of that job, because it’s quite limiting – you’re not that free creatively. So, by the time Madonna and Britney were asking for remixes, I was at a point where what I was doing was not ‘on spec’. If I think my remix is good, it’s done. I’ll submit it. But you’re not gonna send it back to me for tweaks, otherwise what’s the point? Madonna respected that and ultimately liked what I’d done with her song. The Britney one, I only used one second of her vocal, but you can still tell it’s her, which I find really interesting.”

James went on to take questions from various students in attendance and elaborated on themes such as running a record label, when the public can expect his software to become available for download, and much more besides.

We’d like to thank James Holden once again for taking the time to pay us a visit and for giving us a glimpse into his world. Needless to say, everybody left feeling inspired and in awe of his ridiculously high level of talent.


If you’re interested in studying a degree in Music Production at BIMM, click here and discover more about the course or why not attend an Open Day to check out our facilities? Alternatively, contact our Admissions Team directly on 01273 626 666 or [email protected]

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