How To Sound Like: Squarepusher
The Godfather of Glitch
You can never say we shirk away from a challenge here on the Dawsons blog. We’ve ran a couple of these features now, focusing on amazing acts like Deftones and Hudson Mohawke, but for the next entry we wanted to make things difficult for ourselves. That’s because we’re looking this time at electronic music legend Squarepusher.
Tom Jenkinson, as he’s known to his family, has been ploughing his own unique furrow in electronic music since the release of his first recordings as Squarepusher in 1995. He signed to the spiritual home of esoteric electronica, Warp Records, and developed a reputation for producing exceptionally interesting, unique and technologically advanced music.
Over the years his tracks have melded together jazz, breakbeats, ambient and drum & bass to create something all his own. While there are clearly certain technical similarities between Squarepusher and his label-mate Aphex Twin, the former’s music never really aims for the extremity of the latter.
Worth your time
With such a prolific recording career behind him, it’s hard to pick out specific key tracks which condense the Squarepusher experience into bite-size chunks. We could point you towards the minimalist arrangement of something like Port Rhombus; melancholic guitar strums painted over intricately sliced and processed drums to create a 3am classic.
At the other end of the scale, one of his better-known tracks would be Come On My Selector. This track – with its accompanying video from Chris Cunningham – builds in a typically schizo style before culminating in a pretty awesome bass riff towards the end.
Slightly later on his career, he released the Ultravisitor album, which was noticeably darker in its tone. The title track from that features some amazing work at the sub-bass end of the frequency scale.
And it’d be remiss of us not to mention how, not content with being a polymath composer himself, he custom built a robot to play at even faster speeds than humanly possible. Squarepusher x Z-Machines was a concept project featuring a guitar-playing robot with 78 fingers, 22 drums and more advanced tech than you or I would know what to do with.
As someone who is predominantly known for their exploits as a producer, it’s worth pointing our that Squarepusher is a virtuoso bass player too. Often, when you hear bass sounds in his records, it’s a result of him playing an actual bass into all manner of effects and studio wizardry. While he doesn’t seem to have a preferred style or type, instead amassing a collection of weird and wonderful models, he has been seen using a fairly standard Fender Jazz Bass.
Studio-wise, things do become a bit more opaque. His collection, up on Equip Board, is a treasure trove of rare, interesting gear he’s acquired over the years. There are a few things that stand out; the Roland TR-909 drum machine is a particular favourite and doesn’t require tonnes of post-production on it.
Get that sound
Clearly Squarepusher is more than just a collection of equipment though. You could somehow put together, piece by piece, everything he has in his studio. But that alone won’t help you sound like the man himself.
There are certain threads you can pick at though. For starters, there is a very definite Warp Records/Aphex Twin/Squarepusher drum style. That glitchy, chopped up drum sound is no accident, and you’ll struggle to get near it without certain pieces of equipment. First among them is a sampler.
Using something like the Akai MPC Live you’ll be able to find drum loops or samples, and start on the voyage of chopping them up, re-ordering them, re-sampling them, chopping them again etc etc. It’s time consuming, sure, but the results can be amazing when it all clicks into place. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a shortcut, then the amazing (and free for Windows users) Glitch vst by dBlue is well worth a look.
You’ll also need access to a huge range of tweakable sounds, along with something to play them on. A combination of regular keys and pads is essential here, so we’d recommend the Alesis VI25 as being ideal for this kind of work.
A good DAW is also mandatory. We’d plump for Ableton Live on account of its unique grid-based performance/session view, although we’d go a step further and recommend a dedicated controller for that too so you can get stuck into creative automation and clip-manipulation. Ableton’s own Push 2 is the flagship here, but a more cost effective variant would be the Akai APC40.
To put it simply, Squarepusher is a virtuoso musician and producer, with years of experience under his belt. His job, literally, has been to push the envelope in terms of what’s achievable in electronic music. That said, you can use the guy as an inspiration. Once upon a time he will have been tinkering away with a sampler and chopping up drum loops. There’s no reason why you can’t do the same.