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LAYERS: Deconstructing The Beat Of "El Salvador" With Spills

Each week we pick a beat apart into its various components. First up: producer Spills takes apart his song “El Salvador” off his new album Feel Free.

Every beat producer has a unique style, but what binds them is that they all work in layers. In order to better understand the process of beat creation, each week we pick apart a song and present it to you in its separate layers, along with notes from the producer on how they created their sounds.

Spills is a beast in the most flattering sense of the word. His command of beat production software seems supernatural until you realize that his powers are simply the product of musical aptitude coupled with immense amounts of time spent with the gear. Moving from Reason to Logic and finally to Ableton Live, Spills was dropping advanced production within days of linking his Akai MPK to Live, controlling multiple effects with a single knob and processing found sounds into noisy oblivion.

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Another factor in Spills’ production style, and quite possibly the sentiment after which he named his new album, Feel Free, is that he was essentially homeless during the creation of this record. Crashing on his friends’ couches, Spills was at the mercy of their New York City schedules, often finding himself stuck on front steps, in coffee shops, and on Chinatown buses. That’s when his mobile production center went from his backpack to his lap, and in those moments of inspiration via desperation, Spills breathed life into scraps of sound.

“I went from having a nice job and a nice apartment and a nice fiance and a nice dog and a nice Macbook Pro and a nice pair of DT770 Pro headphones to none of those things,” says Spills. “And as a result of that, the actual quality of life increased tenfold, as well as the quality of my music. The whole realization of how dope it is to be a truly free human being has really changed a lot for me.”

Talk about a glass half full attitude. Below we have the track “El Salvador” off Feel Free picked into ### parts, and the full track all the way at the bottom.

Clarinet
I started out with this clarinet sample, which I chopped up. Originally I played in 3/4 time, and then I chopped it up again after I laid the drums down and played it to fit. There are definitely some clicks, which means I was sloppy with the cuts, but sometimes sloppy works. At 1:24, I start looping the last two beats of the last bar for the outro section. I wanted the main clarinet to go a little crazy. Retriggering, gating, bitcrushing, pichbending, etc.

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Drums
Then I played out some drums. Nothing really special. The kick I made on the Ableton Operator instrument. It’s just a sine wave with a hard FM attack and a pitch envelope, underneath another kick/synth with a high-pass filter. Recently I love putting a huge pre-delay for the reverb on my snares. That’s how you get that epic, “pshhh SHAW” sound. Velocity variation is key, especially with the hi hats.

Low Samples
Lots of different stuff going on in this layer. Technically, I should have each individual sound in a different layer, but I put all these different sounds in one. There’s a boomy kick in there that I love using all over the place because of how cinematic it sounds. There are also some really distorted machine samples. Did some pitch bending here and there on some of these samples. Filter sweeping. Other stuff.

Bottlecaps+Scissors
I have a ten minute sample of me playing with some bottle caps, and used about two seconds of it for this track. I chopped it up and then played it with a subtle reverb and delay. I resampled this take, and then reversed it. Then I played it again (this time with each slice in reverse) and I recorded that, added slight reverb and delay, then resampled and reversed back. So it’s got that wet kind of sound, but it’s not too spacy, it’s right in your face, which I like. Also present here is the sound of me cutting a cardboard cup with scissors. I love sampling me cutting things.

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Bass
Man when you listen to just the bass it sounds so boring. But there’s so much going on in the low end that I think it works to have it really simple like this. The main purpose of the bass is just to add to the groove when it drops. And sound mean and cool.

Guitar Feedback
I have a ten minute file of all kinds of weird feedback and guitar tapping noises on my harddrive. Again, I only used a couple seconds, and chopped it up. Didn’t do too much effects processing on this particular layer.

Synths

There are five layers here working together.

1 Nothing fancy, just a synth made on Operator. Got some LFO action on it. Like the bass, meant primarily to add to the groove, add a little high-end.

2 Probably the simplest synth of the bunch. Operator again. Love the energy added with pitch bending. Left it messy.

3 Pad-like synth on operator. Wanted to add more texture as well as support what synth two was doing. Lots of delay and reverb, huge release, phase.

4 This is just some organ preset in Ableton. I didn’t even want this synth to be audible, just wanted it to give the feel of the new changes in this section while synth number five did its thing.

5 Arpeggiated, distorted, beautiful. I love the 8-bit sound. I automated the rate.

6 There’s a bit of the synth5 that I wanted to keep going after the rate went up.

All of the above parts comprise this, “El Salvador” by Spills. Get the whole album for free here.